Essay Series

The Historical Reality of Violence in Westworld’s Frontier Fantasy

Our obsession with HBO’s Westworld, and how we can interpret it through a Borderlands history perspective, continues. Major spoilers ahead for seasons 1 & 2 of the series.

There are two overarching themes at play in the second season of Westworld. The first, and most prevalent, has to do with the consequences of violence. What Ford reminded his wealthy patrons at the gala in Escalante, when Dolores –as Wyatt– assassinated him, was that violence and borderlands have always been intertwined. Before, when the guests could act out their bloody fantasies without fear of injury to themselves, it presented only a partially-realized view of lived reality and history. In season two, Westworld introduced viewers to two additional parks, one based on Tokugawa Japan and another on India during the British Raj, both societies predicated on a finely-tuned balance of order and violence. Following the events in Escalante, however, removing the limits on the consequences of violence, not only democratized experience in the parks, but also brought them into historical continuity with the regions in which they are based. In short, it injected a bloody ambiguity into the narratives of the visitors who came to Delos’s fantasylands.

The second overarching theme: how identity is molded and who carries out the molding. Viewers see it with the obsession for fidelity that William, Dolores, Bernard, Arnold, and Ford share. The point is not simply to create a fully realized world, but one that also conforms to their idiosyncratic priorities. They desire to produce individuals who will serve their needs, whatever the reason. Language games and bodily comportment are critical to this process of molding another’s identity, and failure to achieve fidelity results in swift and violent consequences. For students of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands and the frontier, numerous parallels with the state’s own obsession with social hierarchy, conformity, bodily comportment and language emerge. The Indian schools, women’s clinics, prison camps, and delousing checkpoints that appeared in the borderlands during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries created their own parameters to determine the state’s measure of fidelity to the American racial ideal. The laboratory where William endlessly torments a mechanical copy of his father-in-law, James Delos, in order to create a version of the man to his pleasing, serves as a macabre allegory to the historical actions of the state.

Violence and identity become further integrated in Westworld’s latest season. The journeys that Dolores, Maeve, Bernard, and William engage upon as they cross through the parks are both bloody and self-illuminating. Dolores has banished whatever sentiment her narratives’ creators may have heaped on her as the farmer’s daughter, and now endeavors to become the leader of a host uprising. Maeve breaches Westworld’s boundaries, continuing on to Samurai World, in pursuit of the host she believes is her daughter, all the while unlocking latent abilities hidden away within her own firmware. Bernard’s journey crosses space and multiple timelines, as he appears constantly in flux across the season, forcing viewers to question the innate border lines one creates for themselves to conceive the self. Finally, William seemingly loses touch with reality as he goes deeper into the western fantasy, unable to discern between hosts and human beings, ultimately killing his own daughter and shattering what was left of his sanity; perhaps, the whole point of the maze that Ford laid before him with the bloody turn events took at the gala in Escalante.

Death and rebirth are essential elements to the hosts’ journey. Akecheta, of the Ghost Nation, deftly crosses the border between the park, itself, and the laboratories that evaluate and tinker with the hosts. In the process, over decades, his mind becomes a kind of middle ground, where he continues living out the narratives given to him as a leader of the Ghost Nation, as well as a partner and protector to Kohana, while also amassing knowledge about the park’s true purpose and quietly sowing the seeds of resistance. The interplay that this process carried out with its relationship to violence is profound. In season one, the Ghost Nation was largely depicted in stereotypical fashion as a “savage” indigenous group, marauding across the “higher-level difficulty” areas of Westworld. In season two, however, Akecheta’s personal exploration through killing and being killed, and returning afterwards, laid the groundwork for a narrative unforeseen by Ford.

Violence manifested itself not only in killing, but also the constant destruction and reshaping of the people and communities that made up the park. Hosts that failed to conform to the wishes of the park’s masters, or who were simply labeled for reassignment to new narratives, were repurposed without a second thought by the engineers. Whole communities succumbed to this transformation as old narratives were whitewashed and new ones pressed on top. It becomes an allegory for how the frontier was harnessed and controlled, historically. The Anglos who swarmed into New Mexico, Colorado, and other parts of the new American West brought with them intentions to mold the region to their liking. In the 1900s, as Sarah Deutsch has written, the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company destroyed the adobe homes of Hispano residents, labeling them as eyesores, in order to make way for new buildings that signaled modernity, which the enterprise hoped to project to arriving Anglos (No Separate Refuge, 90-91).

As the U.S. frontier hardened into the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, and American hegemony extended across the land, what the Anglo framers of this process saw as progress manifested as chaos and upheaval for the peoples disrupted by it. The industrial commercial ties that extended across the border wrought delicate balances that belied the ever-present threat of violence just below the surface of social relationships. By the turn of the twentieth century, the Cananea Central Copper Company had forged a capitalist oasis for its investors in the expansive lands of northern Mexico. But the racial hierarchies, and the labor conditions the CCCC established, as Sam Truett has described, laid the groundwork for subaltern resistance. In 1906, U.S. company managers reacted to rumors of worker sabotage, leading to violent clashes with Mexican employees. “Frontier attitudes and modern development” clashed as the conflict stretched across the day, ending with the destruction of property and several men killed (Fugitive Landscapes, 145-150). Other strikes followed, including in 1907 at Río Blanco, portending the greater threats to the gilded regime of Porfirio Díaz, who had allowed the American businessmen considerable latitude in how they carried out operations.

What history and science fiction plainly show in the narratives its writers weave is the impossibility to separate modernity from violence. The former requires the latter to disrupt entrenched attitudes, customs, and traditions, replacing them with newer “progressive” forms. Whether violence comes by the point of a gun, destruction of communities, mob uprisings, or more subtly, and more perniciously, through the constant remaking of a person’s mores, it is all necessary for the modernizing project to succeed. Pablo Mitchell writes about this gradual, incremental form of violence, where school masters taught and enforced “proper” attitudes and bodily comportment within normative (white) American society. The racial hierarchy they reinforced emphasized a type of civic “fidelity” to the nationalist form and accepted subservience to white power in New Mexico (Coyote Nation, 28-29; 39). Moreover, the ability to “pass” as Grace Peña Delgado has examined had transformative consequences for Chinese entering the United States, filtering through as English-speaking Mexicans, Jews, or another acceptable “other” to the representatives of the federal government carrying out border evaluations (“At Exclusion’s Gate” in Continental Crossroads, 198-99).

In these historical lessons we can identify useful examples from Westworld’s fictional narrative. These include, among others: the interviews Arnold, Dolores, Bernard, William, and Emily carry out to drill certain, desired characteristics into their subjects; Charlotte and Stubbs as hosts passing for human; the laboratory-cell that the host copy of James Delos is housed; the faceless white-skinned drones that carry out the wishes of the park’s masters. The machinery and bureaucracy of the park become essential filters to drawing social boundaries between who can claim humanity, although no one can be truly sure of what is ultimately “correct.” And it is in that interstitial ambiguity that we can recognize the precariousness of borderlands life, where personal and communal identity are constantly under pressure from the molding forces of the nation-state and social and racial hierarchies.

The season ends with physical escape for a few of the hosts. This departure from the park expands the middle ground between humans and hosts and transforms the social filters that determine fidelity to the ideal form. It implicates a broader swath of the modern, technological society that birthed Westworld and its sister parks; the consequences of the violence its markers’ perpetrated will surely be felt. What happens when individuals, long confined to a borderline periphery return to the very heart of the imperial metropole? History has many answers to that question and can light the way for season three’s next narrative.

Westworld_season_2

To read our first post about Westworld, which we published in 2016, click this link.

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Alienating Laws: How Mexican Migration Became Illegal, Pt. II

By Diego Mulato-Castillo

This is the second part of Diego’s essay, to read the first installment, click here.

As undocumented Mexican migration increased, the debate raged within the United States government about how to put a stop to what was perceived as a flood of illegal immigration, a solution was proposed by the introduction of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which militarized the U.S.-Mexico border and further criminalized Mexican migration. The IRCA immigration reform of 1986 clearly highlighted the contradictory stance the U.S. government possessed towards Mexican immigration. IRCA provided amnesty to an estimated 2.7 million undocumented immigrants, and sought to put an abrupt end to further illegal migration by imposing worker sanctions and beginning the remarkable militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border that continues to present day[1]. Ngai further explains that Congress authorized the doubling of the Border Patrol and set the groundwork for the vast network of walls, drones, surveillance equipment, and personnel which now costs taxpayers 2 billion dollars a year[2].

IRCA did little to dramatically reduce undocumented migration in the United States. The long-lasting impact of IRCA, nevertheless, includes the framing of Mexican migration as a criminal act. Mexican immigration as a problem became cemented in the U.S. psyche. The fatal flaw of the U.S. government and the implementation of IRCA was that it did not address the structural problems that drive migration—unequal distribution of wealth, globalism, poverty—and instead addressed immigration on an individual, and short-sided basis[3] . Continue reading

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Alienating Laws: How Mexican Migration Became Illegal, Pt. 1

By Diego Mulato-Castillo

Note: I was fortunate to teach “The History of Mexican Migration” Spring 2018 at San Francisco State University. I say “fortunate” because never during my lifetime has the need for an accurate, historical, evidence-driven understanding of the movement of Mexican peoples across the U.S.-Mexico border been more important. With the Trump administration’s attacks on the migrant community in the United States, students were eager to find out the history behind the violent rhetoric and policies that characterized Trump’s rise to power. Needless to say, students were all overwhelmed with the long, ugly
xenophobic history of the United States. At the beginning of class I informed my students that I co-managed a blog focused on the history and politics of the Southwestern borderlands. As the course progressed students suggested that whoever wrote the best final paper should have their work published on the blog. What an excellent idea!

There were many excellent papers written about diverse topics relating to racism, labor,
environmentalism, eugenics, and more. But, in the end, only one would get the honor. I am pleased to announce that Diego Mulato Castillo’s essay titled “Alienating Laws: How Mexican Migration Became Illegal,” is the winner of our mini-contest. A timely piece, Mulato Castillo examines the legal history and the various social turns that drove the U.S. to make the migration of Mexican people and by extension Latin Americans “illegal.”

Diego Mulato Castillo is an undergraduate student at San Francisco State University and is majoring in literature with an interest in the Central American diaspora, specifically from the so-called northern triangle. He finds the history of Mexican migration interesting for it sheds a distinct light on the migration of Central Americans to el norte, and migration from all of Latin America as a whole. 

This essay will be presented in two parts. Enjoy! -Lina Murillo

Mexican immigration into the United States is perceive as an illegal act in the twenty-first century warranting expulsion, however, historically this has not always been the case. The ebb and flow of Mexican migration has been influenced and framed differently throughout the complicated and intertwined history of the United States and its neighbor to the south, Mexico. The U.S. and Mexico not only share one of the most militarized borders in the world, but also a shared history fraught with tension and vast inequality. It is this historic tension and inequality that has served as a catalyst for the vast migration of Mexicans to the United States, which has possessed a historical ambivalence towards these immigrants, at times welcoming them as cheap labor hands to then call for their return to their native land. This paper will focus on the history of Mexican migration and the law beginning with the first Mexican Americans after the ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 and the events leading up to the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border in the late twentieth century in order to understand how Mexican immigration became illegal in twenty-first century. Continue reading

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Teaching Multicultural America From the Borderlands Perspective

Ricardo Romero, co-founder of Crusade for Justice, Escuela Tlatelolco, Mexican National Liberation Movement and Al Frente de Lucha, lecturing to students in a Multicultural America history course at Metropolitan State University of Denver

Chicana borderlands theorist Gloria Anzaldúa described the U.S.-Mexico borderlands as “una herida abierta,” an “open wound” created when two nations rub against each other and the less powerful one bleeds.[1] In Anzaldúa’s seminal work, Borderlands/La Frontera, she spoke not only of a specific geographic place – the U.S.-Mexico border – but she conceived of the borderlands broadly, as a space that is “physically present wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy.”[2] Anzaldúa’s borderlands theory has inspired, and continues to inspire, many borderlands historians who are trained to see history from the edges rather than the center, to illuminate the perspectives of those who live on the periphery of nations and tell their stories.

Gloria Anzaldúa’s borderlands theory deeply informs my own research, focused on two curanderos (Mexican faith healers) active in the borderlands over the turn of the twentieth century. Writing history from this perspective, I focus on the intersections of Don Pedro Jaramillo and Santa Teresa Urrea, as they sit geographically at the edges of nations in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. These healers found themselves on the edges of dominant institutions — the church, professional medicine, and Anglo culture –– while they provided culturally resonant healing and sustenance to ethnic Mexicans, indigenous peoples, Tejanos and others in the borderlands who faced increasingly oppressive forms of state power deployed by both nations.[3] Through their curanderismo practices, they also helped shape national ideologies as well as spiritual and medical practices by helping to create and maintain transnational ethnic Mexican communities and identities in the U.S-Mexico borderlands. In this way, my research attempts to show how the oft-marginalized stories that exist in the “open wound” of the borderlands are important to tell not only in order to offer a more complete, rich, and complex version of our national history, but also because they are integral to the on-going construction of Multicultural America. Continue reading

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Violence, Coercion, and Social Change: 2018 UTEP Borderlands History Conference Wrap Up

By Dr. Ernesto Chávez, University of Texas at El Paso

The third biennial UTEP Borderlands History Conference could not have picked a more apt theme for this year’s meeting. Historical questions about and present-day concerns for “violence, coercion, and social change,” inflect our politics with much needed nuance and complexity. From the fight to protect DACA and the Dreamers, to the insistence of the current president to build a “big, beautiful wall” between the United States and Mexico, research contextualizing these efforts and even providing the genesis for these contemporary battles proves invaluable with each passing day. From February 2-3, 2018, the conference at UTEP brought scholars together from both sides of the line to engage in spirited discussions. With topics ranging from sex workers in Ciudad Juárez in the early twentieth century to student walk-outs in El Paso during the 1930s, the conference attendees were privy to some fascinating new scholarship in borderlands history. What follows is a brief, but insightful essay that succinctly threads all the papers together. Dr. Ernesto Chávez, Professor of History at the University of Texas at El Paso, provided the final remarks for the conference and we are fortunate to share them with you. Enjoy! –Lina-Maria Murillo, managing contributor

I find it appropriate that this conference began on the 170th anniversary of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, for without that accord, and of course the war that came before it, we would not be standing (sitting) here today and not be pondering violence, coercion, and social change in Borderlands History. But we are, and it is my job to wrap up this “intellectual burrito.” The papers we have heard (and in my case read) over the course of the last two days make us think about these important themes in the borderlands past, and, I would argue are being studied because of the great changes that have occurred in this nation—and Mexico—as a result of the ascendency of Donald Trump. Indeed violence, coercion, and social change is not a “was,” but an “is,” in the present-day Borderlands. The papers we have heard make us imagine a different kind of past, guided by the present, and can help us shape the future.

Our first panel, “Quotidian Violence, Policing, and Incarceration” blurs the line between the present and the past. Rather than discuss them in the order that they were given, I want to reorder them chronologically, to show how this history is somehow tied together. By looking at the experience of Aurelia Lizurriaga, a prostitute, Erik Bernardino’s paper, “Obreras Clandestinas: Labor and Prostitution in the U.S. -Mexico Borderlands, 1903-1917,” argued that owing to competing practices of prostitution in the U.S. and Mexico, sex workers were either violators of the law or bodies to be regulated, respectively. However, these women, like Lizurriaga, were challenging these constructs when crossing the border, for they saw themselves as migrant laborers whose positionality was like men who worked in agriculture or other industries. They did not view themselves as “potential contaminators of the American body politic.” In this context then, the erasure of these women’s laboring identities was tantamount to state violence. The 1907 U.S. Immigration Act, which allowed this to occur, was part of the new regulatory mechanisms that were constructed in this era and would be used to regulate bodies. That the power of the U.S. federal government grew in this era was clear in Ligia Aguilez’s paper, “An Un-Neutral Neutrality: Mexican Internment Camps Along the U.S. -Mexico Border, 1913-1914.” She shows, among other things, that the Mexican internment camps that emerged in 1913 along the border served to rob Mexicans of their humanity and made them into caged spectacles to be viewed and in effect uphold the U.S. racial social order. This example shows the spatial aspects of U.S. hegemony. The differing notions of control and construction of criminality along the U.S. Mexico border was also present in Laura Alcantara Duque’s paper, “El prohibicionismo en México, 1920-1940. La perspectiva sobre la toxicomanía: autonomía e intervención norteamericana.” By examining how the worldwide concern over drug control, stemming from the 1912 Hague Convention, played out in the United States and Mexico, between 1920 and 1940, Duque was able to examine the way that these nation-states differed in their attitudes towards narcotics users. The U.S. concentrated on demand and in so doing criminalized not only the drug trafficker, but the addict. Mexico on the other hand saw demand as the cause of the problem and tried to rehabilitate the addict. What we see then is once again the difference in the definition of morality. Both nations sought to control drugs, their suppliers and users (and in the U.S. of course owing to the Harrison Act, Marijuana—and the Mexicans who used it—were going to be criminalized), but there was a different emphasis. The notion of control was also present in Maria del Carmen Zetina Rodríguez’s paper, “La violencia cotidiana en los espacios públicos de Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua 1920-1940,” argues that the doubling of the city’s population coupled with the Great Depression, overburdened its social structure causing a rise in unemployment, vagrancy, and delinquency. Adding to this urban dilemma was US prohibition, which ensured the proliferation of bars in the Juárez, which brought unruly tourists to the city. These conditions came together and caused widespread violence in this frontier burg. In response to this, the Ciudad Juárez Ayuntamiento tried to regulate behavior in public spaces, better the city’s appearance, enhance the population’s hygiene, and maintain peace and order. Thus, this panel made clear how the growth of the nation-state in Mexico and the United States led to the control of citizens and provide us with a useable past.

Saturday morning’s panel “State Power and Frontier/Border Formation” helped us think about the long history of the conference theme. Again, I want to discuss the papers in chronological order. Alejandro González Milea’s essay, “Reunir pobladores en Paso del Norte en 1782: El Diario para reunión de indios y vencindarios de Diego de Borica,” took us back to the 18th century to show us that state control was not a Mexican or American concept, but of course present in the Spanish period also. Focusing on the establishment of El Paso del Norte, Milea showed the tension that existed between the population and the powers that be, in this case several governors of New Mexico and the commanders general of the Internal Provinces. They urged these inhabitants to live together and build their settlement around plazas. In Alberto Wilson’s paper, “‘No Port of Entry Outside of El Paso is Necessary’: Altering Border Landscapes in El Paso-Ciudad Juárez, 1907-1911,” this colonial era spatial impact will result in Ciudad Juárez emerging as the preeminent Mexican border city. This reality was not lost on the U.S. Bureau of Immigration. Between 1907-1917, this federal agency tried to control the emigration of Mexicans by limiting their entry into the country through established bridges and ports of entry. Wilson calls this the U.S.-Mexico border’s “Ellis-Angel Island” moment, suggesting that the United States was using a European-Asian immigration model to try to regulate Mexican entry into the country. Of course, these efforts failed because of the unique vastness of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands as a whole. This failure, according to Wilson, had a great impact on the way that this international boundary would be policed in the future. This information can perhaps help us understand, the outcome of the “1918 Battle of Ambos Nogales,” in the Arizona-Sonora borderlands. Carlos Francisco Parra’s paper “Valientes Nogalenses: Violence, Fences, and Memory in the 1918 Battle of Ambos Nogales and the Formation of the U.S.-Mexico Border,” posits that the violence of the Mexican Revolution led to the erection of the first border fence that divided the two Nogaleses, but the area would be marked by further conflict when the U.S. entered the First World War in 1917. Consequently, U.S. immigration officials not only subjected Mexican Nogalenses to restrictions on foodstuffs aimed to hurt Germany, but also verbally and physically harassed them. This led to further violence throughout that year and into 1918, which resulted in the August confrontation in the twin cities. Although, important in its own right, given the deaths and impact on Nogalenses, Parra believes that the “Battle of Ambos Nogales” has importance beyond that region, for it led to the building of the first fence along the border, which of course did not result in good neighbors. This led to other hedges later that year in Naco and Douglass, in the Grand Canyon State, and a year later in Calexico, California. Thus, according to Parra, this conflict in Nogales helped construct today’s hyper-controlled U.S.-Mexico border. Once again, these histories of control and the strengthening of the U.S. nation-state help us understand our current reality. Given what is occurring in the present, fences seem to be 20th century artifacts.

Fences of course allowed for the displacement and surveillance of borderlanders, and that was the title of panel three. Again, I want to disrupt the manner in which the papers were given and focus on the history that they present according to chronological order. José Luis Ortiz Garza’s paper, “Espionaje y radiotelegrafía en la frontera norte de México (1914-1918),” focused on espionage and wireless telegraphy on the U.S. -Mexico border between 1914-1918. This led to other forms of control that were eventually used to thwart espionage and also changed the way that human resources and military intelligence developed in the region. Communication plays a key part in Nancy Aguirre’s discussion of the San Antonio Mexican exile newspaper, La Prensa. Aguirre’s essay, “Callista Surveillance of the Mexican Exile Press in the Borderlands, 1924-1928,” shows Plutarco Elías Calles’s government’s limited reach in México de Afuera, for although it tried to eliminate its opposition, the power of the press was able to out match the strongman’s state machinery’s impact in the U.S. On the other hand, while concerned with the state of affairs in Mexico, La Prensa and other U.S.-based Spanish-language newspapers, were not able to influence Mexican politics like they wished. This paper can perhaps be instructive on both the power and weakness of the press in combatting authoritarianism in the world today. In Miguel Juárez’s paper, “African Americans in Concordia and Lincoln Park: From A Militarized Frontier to Redlined Communities Bordered by Freeways,” examined African-American settlement in El Paso, especially in the Lincoln Park and Concordia subdivisions, beginning in the 1880s. His essay also sheds light on how individuals have combatted authority. Migrating here to work in the service industry, on railroads, and mechanics assistants, among other jobs, African Americans not only faced intense racism, but were subject to housing control when in 1930 redlining occurred. Relegated to neighborhoods with few social services and substandard dwellings, African Americans nonetheless created groups in the 1950s to protect themselves in Southside neighborhoods. Yet, the legacy of redlining would ensure displacement when the I-10 was built in this historically Mexican and African American neighborhood. Juárez shows that despite this removal, African Americans were able to survive in the city, helped along with the city’s dismantling of Jim Crow policies beginning in 1962. They eventually relocated to other parts of El Paso and remain a vital part of its population. Alana de Hinoja’s study, “Dis(re)membered Histories of the Chamizal Relocation Project,” also reveals the experiences of Sun City residents in the face of adversity. De Hinojosa examines the displacement of the residents of the city’s disputed Chamizal neighborhood. As she argues, this wrangle illuminates the fluidity of “(geo) political borders” but in effect they are colonial constructs that separate the powerful from the subaltern. De Hinojosa was especially concerned with the memory of the Chamizal and its residents and believes that the area is a “hidden space,” but it is also a contested place that is infused with knowledges that serve to disrupt the official story of El Paso as a border wonderland and also the Rio Grande as a “natural” entity. Thus, she was asking us to read the Chamizal incident, and the survival of its diaspora, as both sites of colonial violence and “geographies of resistance.” In so doing it seems to me that de Hinojosa was urging us to use a more poetic lens to view the past and imagine a history of survival that is rooted in disruption and violence. These ideas seem pertinent, if not necessary in the Borderlands, and perhaps the nation as a whole, today.

Our last panel, “Resistance, Rebellion, and Revolution,” featured papers that dealt with these theme in various eras. To better situate the ideas in time in space, let me start with Silvia Zueck’s essay, “Mineros italianos transfronterizos: entre la violencia laboral del capitalismo minero de Sierra Mojada, Coahuila y la revolución mexicana,” which tells the fascinating story of Italian miners in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. Beginning in the 1890, the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO), contracted Giovanny Ruffini, to work as a superintendent in the Constancia Company, which it owned. He in turn invited others– family members and friends– to follow him to the Sierra Mojada, Coahuila, to work in this company that was applying the latest technology needed to extract lead, copper, and zinc. Eventually some 30 single men would work in this industry. The tumult of the 1910s in both Mexico and Europe would disrupt this community, which would lead to their diaspora in Northern Mexico and El Paso. This international focus was also present in Marco Antonio Samaniego López’s paper, “Hacia la revolución mundial: la frontera México-Estados Unidos y el anarquismo (1904-1918),” which focused on Ricardo Flores Magón’s reach. Not only did he have followers in Mexico, but also in Canada and of course the United States. According to López’s this occurred because of Flores-Magón’s engagement with Anarcho-Communism. Consequently, López believed that the construction of the Flores-Magón brothers as precursors to the Mexican Revolution has ensured that their actual struggle– that of worldwide revolution– has been lost. Like López, Mario T. García’s paper, “Border Walkout! The 1936 Mexican American Student Strike in El and the Struggle for Educational Justice,” called for an act of recovery and reevaluation of a Mexican American-Chicano radical past, via his focus on a 1936 El Paso School Strike. García believes that this walkout at San Jacinto School reflects larger issues of social justice and makes us ponder this history, making clear that Mexican Americans were not “awakened” in the 1960s, but rather have always fought for their rights. García’s paper, and that of others on this panel, allow us to imagine a different kind of past and ensure that we remember that people were struggling to create change in all eras. If we approach history with this in mind, perhaps we can recover an ongoing radical past.

The papers presented at this conference make us think about how Violence, Coercion, and Social Change are constants in Borderlands history. It is my hope that the knowledge that these essays have provided empowers us in the present and helps us forge a more emancipatory future. As we know, violence, coercion, are definitely alive and well in the borderlands (and beyond) today; perhaps it is our job to ensure that we create the social change necessary to combat these evils.

H/T to one of our contributors Miguel Juarez for suggesting this post.

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Mass Migrant Deaths in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands and the Politics of Mexican-Americanism

By Joel Zapata, PhD Candidate, Clements Department of History, Southern Methodist University

While the Trump Administration and Congress negotiate the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, the family visa system, along with border security and border fencing, millions of immigrants’ lives remain in limbo. The negotiations ensue as partisan lines harden on immigration and xenophobia increases in the public domain. However, the too often ignored story of mass migrant deaths in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands tells us that no one political party or social group holds a historic monopoly on either side of the immigration debate or on the treatment of immigrants. Indeed, the mass deaths of migrants partly originate with policies created and supported by Mexican Americans attempting to prevent Border Patrol abuse of U.S. citizens. In the borderlands, migrant lives and the struggle for U.S. citizenship rights along with the claiming of Americanism by Mexicans Americans have come to a head, leaving the promise of social justice for all ethnic Mexicans and other Latina/os in the United States unfulfilled. And as debates about immigration, border security, and border barriers continue, migrants are still dying in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands’ arid terrain while seeking to fill job openings in the growing U.S. economy.

As various scholars and public intellectuals have argued, migrant deaths are primarily rooted in the funneling of unauthorized workers and their families through inhospitable desert terrain that is meant to act as a natural wall outside of closely monitored urban areas.[1] The channeling of migrants towards dangerous dessert terrain, “where they [have] succumbed to dehydration, hyperthermia, or heat stroke,” in the thousands, can be traced to the inception of Operation Hold the Line, which the El Paso Border Patrol Sector Chief, Silvestre Reyes, implemented in 1993 along the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez border.[2] Reyes, a Mexican American who was born and raised in the El Paso area, stationed Border Patrol agents “every several hundred feet directly along the border…effectively build[ing] a human wall between” the two cities.[3] Such Border Patrol operations soon extended across other urbanized sections of the U.S.-Mexico border. Since the 2006 passage of the Secure Fence Act, these Border Patrol operations have been further supplemented by monumental border walls, guard towers, infrared cameras, and aerial surveillance—a “manufactural landscape with a single purpose….to halt illegal immigration into the United States.”[4] Because of Border Patrol’s accumulation of resources in urban areas, seventeen hundred migrants died between 1994 and 2000 while traversing remote desert areas where urban Border Patrol policing funneled them.[5] In the desolate desert areas of Arizona’s Pima County alone, the yearly number of migrant deaths through much of the first decade of the twenty-first century averaged at one hundred and fifty.[6] The natural wall effectively stopped migrants through death. Ultimately, migrant deaths are rooted in state policies that Border Patrol agents and other government agents enforce.

Through Operation Hold the Line, Border Patrol originally intended to move its agents away from the streets of El Paso and thus reduce harassment of Mexican American who looked “illegal” (ethnically or phenotypically Mexican) to its agents. In essence, “Reyes attempted to protect the citizenship rights of Mexican Americans by focusing Border Patrol resources on the physical boundary” of the Rio Grande. As a result, grievances by Mexican Americans against the Border Patrol significantly declined.[7] The El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce gave Reyes a “Moving Forward Award” for his efforts to decrease Border Patrol abuse of Mexican Americans, but those same efforts have also caused the death of over seven thousand migrants since 1994 (this number is likely far below the actual body count if one considers the unnamed bodies that have not been—or never will be—found in the desert Southwest).[8] In addition, when Reyes became a U.S. Representative, the League of United American Citizens gave him a Lucy G. Acosta Humanitarian Award for his work on behalf of Mexican Americans.[9]

How can Chicana/o scholars and their allies interpret Reyes as well as Mexican American Border Patrol agents? Such a question is especially pertinent when considering that “by 2008, 51 percent of all Border Patrol officers were Hispanic—primarily Mexican Americans.”[10] In search of an answer, we can turn to Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández’s arguments, informed by transnational feminist perspectives and critiques of Mexican, U.S., and Chicano nationalisms (particularly male-centered nationalism), within Unspeakable Violence: Remapping U.S. and Mexican National Imaginaries. In this study, Guidotti-Hernández contends that “violence is and was the one factor that determined how racial position, gender, and class alliances played themselves out in contest over citizenship and resources” in the borderlands.[11] According to Guidotti-Hernández, “the formalistic reporting of these events follows a similar pattern of using repetition as a way of denying violence as a foundation of national history, making these events unspeakable.”[12] Through such lines of reasoning, the author questions the silence within resistance narrative proposed by traditional, nationalistic Chicano scholars as well as official Mexican-mestizo and Euro-American narratives of borderlands violence.

Overall Guidotti-Hernández contends that nationalisms—whether tied to nation-states or ethnic groups—silence history. However, if we “abandon celebratory, uncritical discourse…and concentrate more on the socially constructed nature of gender relations as they produced racialized systems of power and capital,”[13] we can attempt to get at why many Mexican Americans have allied with Euro-American power structures, such as the Border Patrol. Thus, we can better understand the “economic and communal desires” of these ethnic Mexicans.[14] We may then examine “history with a critical eye that challenges monolithic representations with Chicano identity.”[15] In so doing, a more complex picture of Mexican Americans as well as their fulfilled and unfulfilled civil rights movement(s) can also emerge. Perhaps, then, Mexican Americans can better grasp where their social justice efforts have failed.

In examining Mexican American history through Guidotti-Hernández’s proposals, it becomes clearer why Mexican Americans have participated in and have supported increased patrolling of the border. If stationed along the U.S.-Mexico borderline, away from the streets of border cities, Border Patrol agents cannot question the citizenship—the Americanness—of Mexican Americans. By having Mexican and other Latin American migrants funneled away from the streets of El Paso and other border cities, Mexican Americans were able to claim a non-Mexican national or a non-“illegal” social status. They moved closer to becoming (within a border context) ethno-racially, socially, and nationally American.

As Mexican Americans experienced less Border Patrol harassment, agents mostly began to pursue and arrest unauthorized migrants attempting to cross the militarized border. The increased solidification of the urban border has benefited some ethnic Mexicans while driving other ethnic Mexicans towards dangerous desert terrain, causing government-made mass deaths. Considering the awards given to Reyes by Mexican American organizations—including a civil rights organization—and his election to the U.S. House of Representatives seven times between 1996 and 2010 by the majority Mexican American electorate of El Paso, it seems many Mexican Americans were fine, or ignored, the deaths Reyes’s policies caused to other ethnic Mexicans that happened to have a differing citizenship status.

In probing why some Mexican Americans join the border enforcement apparatus, it is telling that Reyes was in the armed forces and that he joined the Border Patrol in 1969 immediately after his tour in Vietnam. In one of my anthropology classes on contemporary Mexican culture during the early 2010s at the University of Texas at El Paso, a Mexican American Border Patrol agent came to speak to the class over his job and his reasons for joining the agency, which by then had become part of the Department of Homeland Security. The agent’s reasoning for entering the Border Patrol was two-fold. Considering his skill set, there were few well-paying jobs in El Paso outside of the Border Patrol for him. In addition, after leaving the military, he wanted to continue his work as a patriotic American. In short, the Border Patrol fulfilled his “economic and communal desires.”[16]

Joining Border Patrol can be attractive in a region with limited job opportunities, a socioeconomic reality in much of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. The desire to claim U.S. citizenship rights and prove patriotism may also lead Mexican Americans to join the Border Patrol or to support the agency’s policies. Nevertheless, in that search for economic gains, citizenship rights, policy or political victories, along with satisfying feelings of patriotism by some ethnic Mexicans, thousands of other ethnic Mexicans and Latina/os have died in the borderlands.

As the nation looks at immigration reform and border security once more, mass migrant deaths and their political and structural causes should be part of the public conversation, especially within communities, such as the Mexican American community and the broader Latina/o community, still seeking social equity. Until then, migrant deaths in the borderlands remain remarkably silent within the nation’s political and public discourse.

Notes

[1] Daniel Martinez, Robin Reineke, Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, Bruce Anderson, Gregory Hess, Bruce Parks, “A Continued Humanitarian Crisis at the Border: Undocumented Border Crosser Deaths by the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, 1990-2012,” Binational Migration Institute, Department of Mexican American Studies, The University of Arizona, June 1, 2013, link. (Berkley: University of California Press, 2010), 229.

[2] Lytle Hernández, 229.

[3] Ibid, 228.

[4] Char Miller, On the Edge: Water, Immigration, and Politics in the Southwest (San Antonio, TX: Trinity University Press, 2013), 149.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Reineke.

[7] Lytle Hernández, 228-229.

[8] Ted Hesson, “No More Deaths, The Crisis on the U.S.-Mexico Border in Arizona,” May 24, 2011, link.

[9] “The Arena: Rep. Silvestre Reyes,” Politico, accessed January 25, 2018, link.

[10] Lytle Hernández, 227.

[11] Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández, Unspeakable Violence: Remapping U.S. and Mexican National Imaginaries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 4.

[12] Ibid, 5. The episodes of violence Guidotti-Hernández elucidates upon include the 1851 lynching of Josefa/Juanita in Downieville, California, the 1871 Camp Grant Indian Massacre, the erasure of sexualized and racialized violence in the work of anthropologist Jovita González—the first Mexican American woman to graduate with a masters in Anthropology form the University of Texas at Austin, and the Mexican government’s attempted genocide of Yaqui people and their culture from 1880 to 1910.

[13] Guidotti-Hernández, 84.

[14] Ibid, 87.

[15] Ibid, 84.

[16] Ibid.

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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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Industry, Community, and Social Change: Brief Reflections on the Impact of Infrastructure Development in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

This short essay is a spiritual sequel to a post I wrote for the blog in February 2015, adapted from a conference paper about infrastructure, economic development, and state formation presented at a meeting of the WHA. -MK

The implementation of new infrastructure technologies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had a profound impact on society in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. The desire to improve the mobility of goods and people conflicted with desires to control who could be considered part of the towns and settlements that appeared around mining operations. It is a history that informs many contemporary political discussions about the border, foreshadowing future problems that can emerge from state and national governments hostile to diversity.

The growth in national rail networks linked once remote regions together and greatly reduced travel times. Sam Truett describes how the desire for access to copper reserves in Sonora drove economic expansion, which was facilitated by the arrival of new iron pathways. Whereas entrepreneurs had long lacked access to mineral resources due to the high cost of extraction and transport no longer faced such an insurmountable, railroads changed this condition. In Nacozari, Sonora, the U.S. firm Phelps, Dodge and Company expanded copper operations and connected the town to its burgeoning transportation network. Despite environmental challenges, corporate managers and engineers were more concerned with growth that fit within the parameters of the “regional empire” being built by Phelps Dodge.

Examining social change and racial division, Katherine Benton Cohen’s work on the creation of a “white man’s camp” in Bisbee, Arizona is a key example of the role of infrastructure development in the borderlands. She notes that whereas whites had tended to assimilate into Mexican cultural norms in the region in the mid-1800s, this gradually changed. The growth in Anglo migration, in conjunction with the removal of hostile Indian communities in 1886 undermined previous social dynamics. Phelps Dodge also had a hand in this process as they expanded mining operations and developed labor hierarchies that inscribed different racialized ideas onto the local community. A dual wage system for workers favored whites and rendered Mexican labor as “inferior” by paying them a lower rate. By the late 1800s, in Bisbee, Phelps Dodge had been the town’s largest employer and had used socially divisive labor hierarchies to its advantage. Company managers forged paternalistic practices through the construction of schools and development of other social services for whites, placing these activities under the guise of “modernizing” the community.

Benton Cohen’s research parallels Truett’s work on Cananea, Sonora, where Phelps Dodge representatives imported “American-styles” of living, going so far as shipping pre-fabricated homes from Los Angeles for Anglo residents. Both authors note how these architectural norms reinforced notions of racial inferiority as the company constructed smaller, cruder dwellings for Mexicans. In many respects, industrialization and urbanization brought new social pressures as local elites sought to inscribe a tiered notion of status not only in people’s pay, but also in the spaces where they lived. The idea of “America” championed by Phelps Dodge and others sought to reinforce these uneven relationships among Anglos, Mexicans, and other participants in the industrializing project that transformed the frontier into the border.

Miguel Tinker Salas approaches the question of border society and infrastructure development from the perspective of Mexico. He attempts to bridge the scholarly divide by drawing transnational connections between Arizona and Sonora as a Latin Americanist scholar studying the borderlands. Tinker Salas discusses the motivations for railroad construction among contemporary Sonorans, who saw the technology as an “instrument of progress.” He finds that local elites’ embrace of this new form of transportation went beyond economic calculations and included a socio-cultural impetus. Since railroads represented a modernizing project with substantive transformative aspects, Sonorans hoped the technology could allow their state to assert itself vis-à-vis regional economic competitors in the United States.

By the early twentieth century, government officials and popular opinion among whites, especially during the Great Depression, turned against the on-going demographic changes that greater mobility had afforded the borderlands. In response to the country’s economic crisis, state governments and federal authorities began rounding up and deporting Mexican immigrants, as well as U.S. citizens of Mexican descent. These openly racist program, which Francisco Balderrama and Raymond Rodriguez study, merged with policing practices to become an infrastructure of deportation that affected thousands of families across the region. Its dire consequences left a lasting impact on the country’s history, while also harkening to present-day concerns around hostility to the Dreamers and millions of other undocumented residents of the United States. The past has shown that officials have been willing to adapt existing infrastructure and policy norms in order to carry out government orders to identify and persecute whole communities.

The study of infrastructure transformation in the nineteenth and early twentieth-century borderlands uncovers a complex history that incorporates the significance of modernization alongside compelling critiques related to notions of “progress.” Transportation technologies played an integral role as railroads facilitated the flow of people and goods across the region. The history of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands represents a useful tool to better understand the role of industrial development. These processes are fraught with socio-political challenges and unfulfilled economic promises, but also speak to the robust character of exchange, as millions of individuals on both sides of the international boundary interact with one another and influence broad trends of identity production.

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Summer Series: A ‘Nation of Immigrants’ at the Border

By Dr. Juilian Lim, Assistant Professor, Arizona State University

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This is the last installment of our Borderlands Blog Summer Series. We’d like to thank everyone who contributed to this short, but incisive series and much love to all those who read our posts and stayed tuned over the summer. 

I would be remiss if I did not mention the current atmosphere of anxiety that looms over us as we head back to work in the fall. Just last week a young woman, Heather Heyer, was killed as hundreds of anti-fascist protesters confronted white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia.  The night before, the University of Virginia was overrun by angry, white men wielding torches. It is not a coincidence that they sought to intimidate students and faculty on this college campus.  The university/college campus has long been a site for social upheaval, protest, and transformation.  Students have been at the forefront of political change in this country for decades, however, now higher education finds itself in the cross-hairs of a major social and political battle for the minds of the future. Thus, the task before us is greater, and potentially more dangerous than ever.

While historical distortions will continue to run rampant, we, as historians, are armed with sources, evidence, and analysis, striking out simplistic ideologies that breed desperation, hate, and violence. The Borderlands History blog will play its part in this endeavor as a space where historical analysis about the region serves to contextualize and enlighten the current political and social climate.

Please enjoy our final post in the series by Assistant Professor of History Julian Lim currently at Arizona State University. — Lina Murillo

Earlier this month, President Trump’s senior policy advisor Stephen Miller stirred up quite a bit of controversy after attempting to disassociate Emma Lazarus’s famous poem from the Statue of Liberty.  When pressed by CNN reporter Jim Acosta about the tradition of immigration and the identity of the United States as a “nation of immigrants,” as invoked by Lazarus’s powerful words emblazoned on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, Miller countered with a historical lesson of sorts.  “I don’t want to get off into a whole thing about history here,” he responded, “[but the poem] was added later. It’s not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty.”  Because the Statue of Liberty was not initially designed to serve as a symbol of immigration, Miller seemed to suggest, the United States is not necessarily a nation of immigrants.

As many have already observed, Miller’s seemingly fine-tuned attention to chronology actually reproduced a common alt-right tactic to dismiss the poem as an irrelevant distraction.  For those who embrace the U.S.’s identity as a nation of immigrants, Miller’s comments and Trump’s support for restricting immigration – especially from non-Western countries[1] – are not only anti-immigrant, but fundamentally un-American.  As the grandfather of modern immigration history, Oscar Handlin, famously wrote in 1951, “Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then, I discovered that the immigrants were American history.”  This statement, of course, obscures the role of Native Americans in American history.  But to the extent that the United States today is comprised of 322 million persons who are not of Native American heritage, this massive population was only possible through immigration – by colonists, capitalists, and laborers; by Europeans, Asians, Latin Americans, and Africans; and in free, coerced, and enslaved forms.  What makes the United States so great – even exceptional, in this regard – are the immigrants who have come to these shores and have helped to make this country a diverse, complicated, and, yes, hopeful place.

Still, Miller is not entirely incorrect.  Putting aside purely demographic considerations for the time being, the United States has not always been a “nation of immigrants,” at least not in spirit.  As immigration historians have been pointing out for some time now, American history has been shaped by opposition to immigration as much as by immigration itself. (For a helpful overview, see #ImmigrationSyllabus.)  Beginning with the Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion laws, and evolving over the course of several decades into the Immigration Act of 1924 and the rise of the Border Patrol, the United States steadily expanded its federal power to regulate and restrict immigration based on race, class, and gender.

Although the Statue of Liberty is celebrated by many as a beacon of hope and Ellis Island is revered as the entry point for millions of new Americans, many turn-of-the-twentieth century immigrants arrived at Ellis Island only to be separated from family, detained in segregated quarters, and – not infrequently – denied admission and forced to return to their home countries. Angel Island, of course, served as the port of entry for hundreds of thousands of immigrants from more than 80 countries, but is most infamous for its operations as a detention center for Chinese immigrants, who were routinely targeted for extra scrutiny, subjected to a variety of invasive and humiliating inspections, held in prolonged detentions, and, in many cases, subsequently deported.

The U.S.-Mexico border provides its own unique set of historical lessons about immigration and national identity.  In many ways, immigration regulation at the U.S.-Mexico border begins with the attempt by both the United States and Mexico to police and restrict indigenous mobility in the borderlands.  Over the course of the nineteenth century, the indigenous borderlands were radically transformed, and violently so.  Fusing colonization programs with Indian removal policies, both Mexico and the United States assembled an unofficial but tragically effective immigration regime that functioned in ways familiar to us today—to regulate the admission, exclusion, and removal of persons deemed unfit for inclusion in the body politic.  Sovereign, autonomous groups – such as the Comanches and Apaches – who rejected Mexican and U.S. claims to the territory experienced brutal forms of removal.  Despite their spectacular wielding of political and commercial power in the borderlands, the onslaught of Mexican and American violence, coordinated by the 1870s into a transborder military campaign, whittled away their dominion in the region.  Captured and deported to reservations, if not killed outright, Native peoples became foreigners in their own lands.

The chase after the Apaches, which came to a close with Geronimo’s capture in 1886, quickly morphed into a chase after Chinese immigrants, which became possible following the passage of the U.S. Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.  (It is no accident that the doctrines of plenary power in the context of immigration and Native Americans developed in tandem, with the Supreme Court’s decisions in U.S. v. Kagama (1886) and Chae Chan Ping v. U.S. (1888) falling within two short years of each other.)  In the turn-of-the-century borderlands, the federal government soon exchanged uniforms; instead of soldiers, customs officers and immigration inspectors – or “men who were hunting for Chinamen,” as some Chinese immigrants called them – now regulated movement across the region.  Tasked with enforcing the Chinese exclusion laws, immigration agents at the U.S.-Mexico border aggressively attempted to make the nation’s anti-immigrant sentiment a reality.

Mexican immigrants as well would soon become targets of anti-immigrant restrictions.  For the most part, Mexicans did not immigrate in any substantial numbers before 1910.  There was a small trickle of Mexican immigration during the late 1800s, closely tied to a booming economy in the American southwest in railroad, mining, and agribusiness and a need for cheap labor by American employers.  This changed dramatically following the start of the Mexican Revolution; fleeing revolutionary violence, political exiles as well as short- and long-term refugees from all cross-sections of Mexican society arrived in droves at the U.S.-Mexico border.  Rejection rates climbed steadily over the course of the revolutionary decade as Mexicans arrived in progressively more impoverished and desperate conditions.  U.S. officials increasingly applied immigration bars against “persons likely to become public charges” to deny admission to Mexicans, especially women.  Immigration officials also worked with public health officials to implement more extensive measures at the international border, systematically subjecting Mexican immigrants to an invasive and humiliating process of being deloused, bathed in kerosene, and examined for physical and mental fitness.  Over the course of the first six months of 1917 alone, officials inspected 871,639 Mexicans for potential exclusion.

Ultimately, it was only the powerful demand for Mexican labor in the U.S. Southwest that kept the border relatively open for Mexican immigrants.  As the famous Dillingham Immigration Commission put it, “In the case of the Mexican, he is less desirable as a citizen than as a laborer.”  It thus seemed to work in the Mexican immigrant’s favor to present himself as a potential laborer as opposed to a political refugee.  As one Arizona immigration inspector explained in 1915, although Mexican immigrants were admissible under the immigration laws, “they cannot be properly termed desirable immigrants.”

By the 1920s, then, fueled by postwar xenophobia and supported by a vocal eugenics movement, the U.S. government had severely tightened the exclusionary policies of its immigration laws, barring not only Chinese immigration but all Asian immigrants, and rendering the “less than white” immigration of Mexicans and southern and eastern Europeans legally suspect. Through its immigration laws and border surveillance, politicians and immigration officials actively reshaped the nation’s racial “destiny,” bringing the laws that regulated race relations at the borders in line with the notions of white supremacy and racial segregation that policed black-white relations within the country.  It should be no surprise today that the politics of immigration restriction go hand-in-hand with the resurgent aspirations of white supremacy.

So yes, despite our extensive history of immigration, the “nation of immigrants” ethos is much more complicated.  The question is, will Americans choose to repeat the mistakes of the past?  And undoubtedly, it was a mistake to restrict immigration based on undemocratic ideas about race, class, gender and sex, and religion.  This is not to say we do not need to reconsider our immigration laws today – reform is seriously needed.  But in advocating for reform, will we replicate the patterns of nativism and prejudice that have marred American history, or learn from these historical moments to push toward a more democratic vision of America?

Dr. Lim’s book, Porous Borders: Multiracial Migrations and the Law in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, will be published by the University of North Carolina Press in November, 2017.

[1] President Trump’s support for restricting non-Western immigration is most clearly represented by the largely stalled “Muslim ban” executive orders, his criticism of family-based immigration (which has provided a major avenue for immigration from Asia and Latin America), and his support instead for skills-based immigration.

 

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