Monthly Archives: December 2017

Technologies over the Body: A Brief History of Discipline and Control in the US-Mexico Borderlands

During the mid-to-late nineteenth century, in the U.S. southwest, the new Anglo elite that arrived in the region, used an array of technologies to try and remake local populations. Transportation infrastructure, like the railroad, alongside medicine and sanitary regimes imposed a hierarchy of mobility that restricted peoples’ movement, fostered dislocation, and choreographed behavior. Michel Foucault’s work is instructive to consider how technology, broadly defined to include industrialization, medicalization, and governmentality, have affected and recast interpersonal relationships and how we think about the body.

The clinic and the school, in Foucault’s view, are ideal spaces to monitor and discipline the body. Social norms and the limits of acceptable behavior are clearly delineated in these institutional settings. They order the activities of the group and discipline persons who fall outside the bounds of approved conduct. A consideration of the border in Alexandra Stern’s work on El Paso reveals how a preoccupation with population and immigration flows caused a reinforcement of territorial boundaries. The medical technologies used to monitor new entries served as one of these “apparatuses of security” as described by Foucault. Likewise, Pablo Mitchell’s study of Indian children’s bodily comportment in New Mexican schools speaks to this notion of security. Administrators sought to “Americanize” these populations in order to reinforce the privileged position enjoyed by whites as well as to “secure” the idea of the United States as a modern, Eurocentric, and Anglo-Saxon society. Finally, these power structures are reinforced in the private sector as businesses consolidate and regiment the behavior of laborers; issues that Neil Foley has considered in the case of south Texas. Although Foucault does not explicitly discuss race, these scholars bring his work in to consider how power shapes racial hierarchies across the borderlands.

In The History of Sexuality, Foucault explores how the state enhances surveillance of individuals to protect the “safety” of the general population. Power is an essential component of the author’s discussion and one that helps to influence subsequent scholarship on sexuality and gender. It is important to remember Foucault’s observation that “sexuality must not be thought of as a natural given” but rather engaged as a social construct formed by state institutions and society.[1] He shows how a new generation of medical professionals in the nineteenth century drew upon clinical technologies that sought to “correct” perceived notions of the abnormal. Foucault argues that the therapist served as a modern representation of the cleric; the ideas of confession and disclosure are central to the relationship both specialists maintain with their “flawed” subjects.

Moreover, in Discipline and Punish, Foucault examines the role of the body as a site where power is exercised through physical control and the punishment of an individual. The sovereign applies violence to regiment and organize the populace. The level of pain associated with a given punishment was a chief concern within the process of state retribution. Foucault notes that this framework shifted away from a focus on pain to one increasingly concerned with “an economy of suspended rights” which sought to regulate the body. No longer was the criminal seen as a direct enemy of the sovereign, but rather became a subject of the law to be controlled and reformed by “a whole army of technicians who took over from the executioner… [including] chaplains, psychiatrists, psychologists, [and] educationalists.”[2] Modern public institutions, such as schools, hospitals, barracks, and prisons operated as controlled spaces that “trained” individuals to accept social norms through regulation of bodily comportment.

Concerns about public health and safety have seen government officials eagerly implemented reforms that furthered the state project of control and domination. During the early 1900s, in El Paso, and other border crossing zones, the U.S. Public Health Service imposed a set of rituals that spoke the language of science. The government, in the name of protecting society, adjudicated the acceptability of foreigners entering the country. The project sought, as Stern has observed in her work, to “ensure the putative purity of the ‘American’ family-nation” against outsiders it saw as a threat.[3] Federal agents imposed a social and racial hierarchy at the border, couched in scientific vocabulary, reducing Mexican and Chinese bodies to carries of disease that reiterated deeply held notions of white superiority.

Education has also served as a powerful center of state power and social control in the borderlands. Mitchell writes about school administrators in New Mexico during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They were deeply preoccupied with the bodily comportment of Native Americans and Hispanos, forcing them to conform to activities and ways of racialized behavior deemed acceptable by white elites as part of “normative” American society. In terms of social training, Foucault has observed that the school serves as a different site of surveillance and examination where the body and conduct are reviewed by “experts” to reinforce notions of “acceptable” behavior and dress. The relationship of knowledge between teacher and pupil reinforces notions of hierarchy, while the examination itself serves as a process that is “woven into… a constantly repeated ritual of power.”[4]

Alongside government priorities, corporations imposed other social hierarchies on borderlands communities. Scientific management presumed to control the bodies of laborers in the name of greater efficiency. In south Texas, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, corporations began consolidating the agricultural sector and deployed management techniques that transformed farmers into workers within large, industrialized operations. Foley shows managers controlled the types of seed each farm used and approved planting methods. They also segmented the work force along racial lines, dividing the Mexican, African American, and poor white laborers.[5] In doing so, companies transformed the farm into another site of modern surveillance, discipline, and control. Alluding to Foucault’s work, we can identify the institutionalization of “approved” activities that came with the centralization and consolidation of the farming sector in Texas. They created company towns and stratified labor relations along racial lines under a progressive system of management that produced a controllable, obedient workforce. Those who did not follow the rules could be simply expulsed and replaced.

These studies show how the process of “othering” operated through specialized language and rituals. Foucault and other scholars have demonstrated the role that institutional spaces served to draw distinctions between human beings, render certain physical and cultural attributes as undesirable, and promote a framework that “educated” target individuals through the disciplining of their bodies. Schools, clinics, and industrial farms served as spaces to regulate behavior and favor certain forms of activity over others. Government officials and corporate managers were acutely focused on controlling how individuals acted in society as a means to reinforce power relations that favored Anglo Americans. Throughout this historical process in the borderlands, U.S. officials “integrated” Hispanos, Native Americans, Mexicans, and African American into a national racial hierarchy that labeled them as inferior. This paradigm drew extensively from bodily comportment as a means to differentiate “American” cultural practices vis-à-vis “non-white” forms of expression.

[1] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1.

[2] Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.

[3] Alexandra Stern, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America.

[4] Pablo Mitchell, Coyote Nation: Sexuality, Race, and Conquest in Modernizing New Mexico, 1880-1920.

[5] Neil Foley, The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture.

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Conference Notes: WHA 2017

The Western History Association conference is one of my favorite conferences of the year. Reuniting with old friends and colleagues living far away and, of course, discussing what is new in Borderlands and Western history. This year, however, something was off. Many spoke about the tense energy suspended like a low cloud over conference attendees making it difficult to fully engage in panels and discussions. Maybe we were feeling weathered. The one-year anniversary of the 2016 Election was just days away. It has been a very rough year.

Despite the melancholy, there were several moments of brightness, energy, and riveting conversations. I attended numerous borderland panels, sometimes walking in and out due to my own meetings. We also started a new short interview format called “Conference Capsules: Historians in a Flash” where we spoke to Katrina Jagodinsky about a new volume she co-edited with Pablo Mitchell about law in the borderlands. It was an information-filled conference to be sure and I started it off with a 5:00am flight from San Jose’s Mineta International into San Diego’s Lindbergh Field arriving to the conference hotel minutes before my first, must-hear panel of the conference.

After grabbing my third piping hot cup of coffee that morning, I quickly headed to the first panel on my list: “Reproductive West” with Professor Elena Gutiérrez at the helm. This panel is indicative of the more recent interest in the history of reproduction and decentering narratives starring Margaret Sanger in the Northeast. Moreover, all of the panelists on the roundtable were discussing aspects of their forthcoming manuscripts, which signals further interest among publishers for cutting edge work on reproduction during a time when women’s health is under attack by conservative forces in the country. Natalie Lira began by discussing her ongoing research on the history of sterilization in twentieth-century California. Using disability studies theory along with racial formation analysis, Lira was concerned with understanding the potential for resistance among wards of the state demeaned “feebleminded” and thus candidates for involuntary sterilizations. Brianna Theobald presented her work on the history of reproductive policies and practices among Native American women on the Crow Reservation in Southern Montana. She described the centrality of oral histories to her research and how using a reproductive justice framework allowed her to contextualize the experiences of women of color beyond current discussions in reproductive history.

Next, Alicia Gutiérrez-Romine’s research examined the borderland abortion networks that flourished in the years before Roe v. Wade. She described the countless women—at one point a group of women rented a bus— who crossed the border into Tijuana to obtain illegal abortions sparking the claim of so-called butchers across the southern line. Continuing with discussions of the U.S.-Mexico border, Heather Sinclair discussed questions of reproduction within what she called a “settler-colonial relationship” between Anglos and Mexican-origin people in El Paso, Texas. While Mexican labor, particularly of women as domestic workers, was prized, Mexican women’s reproduction was considered a threat for the racial makeup in the city. Finally, Jennifer Holland tied many of these themes together as she discussed the centrality of abortion politics in redrawing the political map of the Rocky Mountain West. It was a lively discussion, and given my own research on the history of Planned Parenthood, contraception and abortion in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, I was all too eager to join in. Elena Gutiérrez, author of Fertile Matters: The Politics of Mexican-Origin Women’s Reproduction, guided the discussion and asked the panelists about the significance of population control rhetoric and policy during the twentieth century and how this might inform a deeper analysis of immigration, incarceration, and women’s access to reproductive care and overall concerns for reproductive justice.

Reproductive West

This roundtable could have gone on for another hour, but at this point folks were hungry and eager to get back out into the halls of the lovely Mission Bay Hilton to continue meeting and greeting colleagues from across the country. Unfortunately, this was one of the only complete panels I was able to attend during the conference. Meetings and conversations over coffee filled my time during the conference, so I either missed large parts of panels or had to leave in the middle of them. What follows are snippets of some of the partial sessions I was able to attend.

I made it to most of the plenary celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of Patricia Nelson Limerick’s groundbreaking Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. As a newly minted PhD I was struck by the legacy of the Legacy of Conquest and of its reception at the Western History Association conference nearly 30 years prior. Steve Aron (UCLA) moderated the panel and began by saying how Limerick’s book had up ended traditional histories of the West and made many of the old, white men in the organization uncomfortable to say the least. We enjoyed commentary from Paul Hutton (UNM), Katrina Jagodinsky (UNL), Amy Lonetree (UCSC), Noam Maggor (Cornell), Mary Mendoza (U of V), David Wrobel (U of O), and Thomas Andrews (UCB). Hutton also noted that Limerick’s book had unleashed a “crap storm” in an organization that was dominated by men with a membership of just 15 women at the time of the book’s publication. He reflected that Limerick had brought life back into the profession and no one since Frederick Jackson Turner had managed such a feat!

Mary Mendoza regaled the audience with 30 year-old reviews of Limerick’s book that just about called Limerick’s analysis heretical. She noted Limerick’s revolutionary influence on the field: “What was once understood as New Western History, is now just known as Western History.” As each panelist stood to describe the impact Legacy of Conquest had on their research and careers, I was fortunate enough to be sitting directly behind Patty (as many affectionately call her) in the audience. She chuckled, grumbled, and talked with her neighbors as speakers recalled all the chaos surrounding the book back in 1987. Limerick’s overall mood suggested she was truly moved by how her work had inspired so many to view the American West, Southwest and Borderlands fields with a more critical lens and how it continues to influence new generations of scholars three decades later.

Jenn Lina Celeste

The following day, between my own panel (where I presented with Sandra Enriquez [UMKC], Jennifer Macias [U of U], and chaired by Marisela Chavez [CSU-DH] to discuss the significance of oral history in recuperating Chicanx/Latinx history), I also managed to interview Katrina Jagodinsky, Associate Professor of History at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. We talked about her new co-edited volume she put together with Pablo Mitchell tentatively titled Laying Down the Law: Critical Legal Histories of the North American West. At the crossroads of Critical Legal History and New Western History (or just Western History), the volume’s contributors analyzed the various ways the lines between law and society are blurred in this region. Ten scholars from across various historical fields included chapters: Sarah Deer, Brian Frehner, Andrea Geiger, Kelly Lytle Hernandez, Katrina Jagodinsky, Pablo Mitchell, Danielle Olden, Allison Powers Useche, Tom Romero, Alicia Gutierrez-Romine, Jeff Shepherd, and Dana Weiner.

You can listen to our 15-minute conversation here.

Also celebrating a thirtieth anniversary was Gloria Anzaldúa’s path breaking book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza and panelists David Gutiérrez (UCSD), Natalia Molina (UCSD), Elliot Young (Lewis &Clark College), and Ana Elizabeth Rosas (UCI) discussed significance of her work for historians of the American West. Sadly, this was one of the panels that I was not able to fully enjoy as I arrived late, after my interview with Jagodinsky, and then had to leave early due to another meeting. Fortunately, I had just enough time to hear comments by Gutiérrez and Molina who both praised Borderlands/La Frontera for its profound rendering of the U.S.-Mexico border as a queer, Chican@, and multilingual borderlands. As Molina pointed out, most Chicanx/Latinx scholars have been moved by Anzaldúa’s analysis for decades, in fact her work has inspired much of our own, but rarely is she cited for her theoretical analysis. Gutiérrez explained that he was most affected by Anzaldúa’s queer, feminist rhetoric at a time when machismo ruled. Her work against misogyny, Gutiérrez declared, broke new ground for building solidarity and her “study of and commitment to ambiguity” had unlocked doors to greater historical questions within Chicana/o studies. Anzaldúa’s articulation of nepantla, the Nahuatl word that signifies the interstices, the in-between spaces, has been fundamental to my own work.

Historians WHA17

The following morning, I was only able to go to one session, titled “Reel History: Useful Videos for Teaching Race in the American West.” This was organized by the Committee on Race in the American West (CRAW) and panelists included: Kathleen Brosnan, University of Oklahoma, Cathleen Cahill, Pennsylvania State University, Ernesto Chávez, University of Texas, El Paso, Sara Gregg, University of Kansas, Mary E. Mendoza, University of Vermont, Kathryn Morse, Middlebury College, Marisela Ramos, Phillips Academy, Douglas Sackman, University of Puget Sound, and Traci Brynne Voyles, Loyola Marymount University. Now this was a fantastic panel for those interesting in using film/cartoons/commercials/ documentaries or other types of film in their classes that can visual assist in the conversation about race and racism in the American West and borderlands. Cahill showed an excellent short-cartoon from Disney describing American concerns for WWII. Slogans like “Spend for the Axis or Save for Taxes” were juxtaposed against the images of two different versions of Donald Duck. One, a slick talking zoot suit wearing criminal type, luring people to spend their hard-earned money; the other Donald was a spend-thrift Scotsman help bent on doing his civic duty.

Reel History

Another interesting example was Ernesto Chávez’s use a laundry commercial from the 1970s that feminized and racialized the labor of Chinese workers. Before I had to leave, I was able to see Mary Mendoza’s Warner Bros’ clip from a Speedy Gonzalez and Sylvester the Cat cartoon. Running across the U.S.-Mexico border where a fence is already in place, Speedy easily fools and out-runs Sylvester who is protecting a giant cheese factory on the U.S. side. Using film to unpack the ubiquitous racial stereotypes of the twentieth century can help students understand how engrained these ideas and images are in our collective imaginations and, unfortunately, how they so often rely on tropes of the Wild West and borderlands to survive.

After this panel, I grabbed a quick lunch, headed off to the airport and flew back to San Jose. Despite the fascinating panels and excellent conversations with friends, there was still something not quite right about the WHA this year. Perhaps its location on the Mission Bay, while beautiful, seemed isolating from the rest of San Diego and had some of us feeling a bit trapped. Or maybe this sensation was caused by the one year anniversary of this dystopian nightmare we call Trump’s first year in office. Conversations about the job market, working, writing, and even attending conferences were marred by the continued assaults against the academy, freedom of speech, access to healthcare, student loan debt, sexual assault, and so much more. Yet, we presented our findings, discussed our conclusions, and engaged in the human and necessary exchange of ideas. I cannot think of a better way to continue to #Resist.

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