Essay Series

What is a “Crisis” at the Border Anyway?

By Quintin Porter

What do we mean when we say that there is a crisis at the border? For whom or to whom is this crisis occurring? The image of an immigration crisis, a public emergency of epic proportions, has been invoked in the United States many times throughout the nation’s history. However, not all crises are the same across time. This post will conduct a brief historical analysis of various immigration crises in the United States to challenge the contemporary usage of the phrase “crisis at the border.” Review of this rhetoric in history will highlight the subjective nature of the phrase and build a framework through which to criticize the weaponization of population movement in today’s politics. In other words, my post seeks to reframe U.S. immigration emergencies within a larger context to understand that the usage of “crisis at the border” is often more a reflection of the current state of American politics than any concern about the migrants involved.

To begin with, we must examine the most current “crisis” occurring at the border today. The situation is, indeed, quite serious. Not long after Democrat Joe Biden’s ascension to the American presidency in January 2021, conservatives began increasing discourse about a “crisis at the border” with Mexico. The main issue at play is that the Southern border is facing a huge influx of unaccompanied children and the Department of Homeland Security does not have the space and/or suitable facilities to humanely hold so many children. In March 2021, “Immigration authorities encountered nearly 18,900 unaccompanied minors at or near the U.S.-Mexico border,” an unprecedented record.[1] It is certainly a humanitarian crisis, however, that is not how it is being portrayed to the American public by conservatives. For example, Lindsey Graham, a senator from South Carolina, introduced a piece of legislation titled the “Secure and Protect Act of 2021” in response to the current situation in which he argues that migrant minors are committing “asylum abuse” and that the U.S. government needs to “reclaim control” of the Southern border.[2] A Fox News program refers to the children as “illegals,” insinuates that these children will infect “towns and villages near you” with COVID-19, and frames the crisis as a “national security issue.”[3] Their focus is not on the children, rather it is posed as a threat to Americans, as if the country is being invaded. The conditions that migrant children are facing in the U.S. are deplorable, however that “crisis” is being largely overlooked to make a political statement against Biden’s presidency and immigration policies. This is a pattern that has been repeated many times throughout American history. An examination of these past events can help us to better frame our understanding of crises at the border and to challenge insidious political maneuvers at the border.

Racialized immigration policy is a long practice in America. While recent focus in the past few decades has emphasized Mexican and Central American migrants, that was not always the case. The practice of targeting specific racial groups dates to the 19th century with the introduction of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. During the Gold Rush in California, white resentment built against Chinese laborers whom they believed to be taking their jobs. So, Chinese immigrants became “the first to be blamed for taking American jobs” in response to economic strife.[4] This is one of the earliest examples of white American citizens’ anxiety over the “right” kind of immigrant. Non-white, and often specifically non-Western-European, immigrants were perceived as being fundamentally different from white American citizens. Thus, they were seen as perpetual foreigners, taking American jobs, and changing American culture. White Americans’ anxiety often followed a particular pattern. It is expressed by invoking a public emergency, one in which the immigrants pose a dire threat to American society. Those that were opposed to Chinese immigration and naturalization claimed that the Chinese were a highly sexualized, “aberrant population that needed to be controlled,” otherwise they would far outnumber white American citizens.[5] Therefore it became a moral issue. The painting of Chinese people as sexually deviant, no matter its falsehoods, allowed those in opposition to gloss over one of their main motivations: preventing an “electoral Asian sleeping giant” from exercising political power.[6] Once opponents grasped the potential gains naturalization could afford to Asian Americans, they moved to prevent that and cast Chinese immigration as a threat to American citizens and their morality. The portrayal of Chinese immigrants as a danger to American society was colored by political intrigue and xenophobia. This pattern continues to be repeated throughout U.S. history.

The U.S. war with Mexico and the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo created an opportunity to cast immigrants as dangerous to the American people in order to suit political purposes. In the buildup to the war and as the U.S. became increasingly interested in Texas’ annexation, American politicians framed Mexicans as a danger to Texan settlers. They spoke of them as the “savage, degenerate, half-civilized, and barbarous Mexicans” who were “committing massacres and atrocities” against white Texas settlers.[7] This rhetoric, using imagery of crisis and violence, served to provoke white indignation to achieve the larger political goal of annexing Texas. Even once that was achieved, such rhetoric about the border and Mexicans did not cease. The treaty between the two nations stipulated that “U.S. citizenship was automatic for Mexicans” however, “they could not choose to retain any previous citizenship status” and were recognized as a “conquered people.”[8] Thus, Mexicans caught on the Northern side of the new border became immigrants without ever having moved. In response to the treaty, U.S. politicians engaged in a project of violent racialization that portrayed Mexicans as amoral and a danger to the American public. Hence, they were not worthy of citizenship. Mexicans were depicted as “enemy soldiers, bandits, or revolutionaries” by white Americans to justify their violence at the border.[9]

Again, migrants were painted as a crisis to U.S. society for ulterior means. Later in the 20th century, the perception of Mexicans as a menace to society would be utilized in a different, yet very similar fashion.Mexican repatriation and forced deportations during the Great Depression highlights how anti-immigrant rhetoric is often rooted in racist ideals more than anything else. In times of strife, Americans often look to the border as an explanation and solution to their economic woes. Such was the case when the Great Depression hit. As millions of Americans lost their jobs in the grip of the recession, Mexican immigrants who had migrated North to work during the Roaring 20s became a target. In response to the economic recession of the 1930s, politicians enacted a “deportation policy was applied to many places in the United States and to all foreign groups to reduce unemployment and prioritize U.S. citizens” in the labor market.[10] Local and federal officials engaged in an intense project of repatriation, depicting migrants as contributing to a national crisis. Using extralegal means, white Americans’ “threats of physical violence induced many Mexicans to abandon jobs and long-established” homes and communities.[11] The premise of protecting Americans from a crisis, this time economic, served to justify the use of violence against Mexicans. The combined pressure by governmental officials and violent actions by white Americans resulted in mass departures of not only Mexican migrants, but Mexican American citizens as well. So then, why were they forced to leave if the focus was to supposedly protect American citizens’ jobs? Targeting vulnerable groups such as Mexicans created a convenient scapegoat for the American public to exercise xenophobic violence against immigrants. While there certainly was a crisis this time around, its invocation at the border served to reinforce the pattern of targeting migrants for political gain.            

A claim that there is a “crisis” at the border or any emergency regarding immigration is often an attempt to disguise a larger desire for political influence as well as to exercise dreams of violent racism. A review of the history of immigration in the United States reveals a long history of anti-immigration sentiment wrapped up as pro-American populism. The Chinese Exclusion Act, tension during the U.S. war with Mexico in the mid-nineteenth century, and the period of Mexican Repatriation all highlight this premise. Due to this history, we should be critical when the media starts discussing a crisis at the border, as is occurring now. We must remember to consider the political context at play. Who is making that claim? What group is being targeted? Only with this critical analysis may we begin to challenge dominant narratives about migrants in America.

[1] Amelia Cheatham, “U.S. Detention of Child Migrants,” Council on Foreign Relations, May 4, 2021,

[2] Lindsey Graham, “Press Releases: Graham Introduces Legislation to Stop Asylum Abuse and Reclaim Control of our Southern Border,” U.S. Senator South Carolina Lindsey Graham, March 24, 2021,

[3] Jeanine Pirro, “Judge Jeanine: Biden’s Border Crisis,” Fox News, April 3, 2021,

[4] Sang Hea Kil, “Fearing Yellow, Imagining White: Media Analysis of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882,” Social Identities 18, no. 6 (2012): 665.

[5] Natalia Molina, How Race is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), 81.

[6] Molina, How Race is Made in America, 81.

[7] Cristina Beltrán, Cruelty as Citizenship: How Migrant Suffering Sustains White Democracy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020), 76.

[8] Ernesto Chávez, The U.S. War with Mexico: A Brief History with Documents, 1st ed. (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007), 26.

[9] Beltrán, Cruelty as Citizenship, 81.

[10] Mark Overmyer-Velázquez, Beyond la Frontera: The History of Mexico-U.S. Migration (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 56.

[11]  Francisco Balderrama and Raymond Rodriguez, Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006), 121.

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Texas Rangers and Institutional Violence: How Foundations of Racism Have Continued to Threaten the Preservation of Latinx Immigration, Culture, and Bodies After All This Time, cont.

By Jordan Geriane

In my first post, particular historical ideas and events, such as Herrenvolk Democracy, westward expansion, and manifest destiny, all come together to mold into the nightmare of white supremacy. Today, we see much of that in ways we live through society. We see it in the unjustified murders of Black and brown bodies, the mass deportation and mistreatment of people at the US-Mexican border, and we see it in institutions that are meant to protect us.

One of the biggest examples of institutional violence can be found in racist paramilitary groups such as ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and the police force. These two forces are legalized manifestations of Herrenvolk Democracy. As Beltrán explains in the second chapter of her Cruelty as Citizenship, after the U.S. war with Mexico, there was indeed a “desire for land, but not people.” During this post-war period, we see the emergence of the Texas Rangers, the precursors to ICE and the border patrol. The history of this Texas Rangers and how their tyranny became such a force under the guise of white supremacy and racism, laid the foundation for our country’s future men and women in blue, as well as ICE agents at the US-Mexican border.

Because of Herrenvolk democracy and its radical themes, Anglo-settlers believed that it was their God-given right to colonize and settle on any land they set foot on. They believed they were the first and rightful owners of Southwestern/Western land. Due to this grossly believed god-complex they attained, white settlers defined any nonwhite inhabitants as inferior and a danger to their ways of life. They disallowed them citizenship, they drove them out of their homes, or they captured them and exploited labor. These sentiments increased violence against Mexicans across the west, leading to massive violence against Mexican-origin people.  

With these discriminatory sentiments in mind, Texas Rangers, according to Beltrán, provided cover for Anglo-settlers to “treat Mexicans with impunity” under the guise of enforcing the law. It was a source of white power and vigilantism that ignored any distinctions between those who were citizens and those who were not by imposing racial terror and ignoring state laws against violence. While creating the Rangers as a group to protect their property and their people, these white settlers became Rangers not to enforce or protect, but to oppress and terrorize nonwhite people. It makes sense when historians attest that Texas Rangers, over time, transformed into police officers and Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.

It should be known that most Texas Ranger positions were held on a volunteer basis. Beyond such a chivalrous act, white citizens who stepped forward to volunteer revisit practices of white superiority and racialized hierarchies, so their intentions to “serve and protect” their people were rooted in whiteness and racism.

According to Ryan Reft in The Legacy of Texas Rangers, it is unsurprising that local legal and law enforcement traditions have shaped what we see at the US-Mexican Border. The ICE agents’ technique on or off the US-Mexican border mimic Texas Rangers. Just like our modern-day police, Texas rangers can be compared to the modern-day police, perhaps with leniency. Texas Rangers took the laws into their hands, upholding the logics of white supremacy and Herrenvolk democracy throughout the land.

As scholars Dévora González and Azadeh Shahshahani explain, in Constructive Engagement of Conflict for the United World Colleges movement, early ICE agents were members of the Ku Klux Klan, Texas Rangers, or from border town police departments. The group was created in response to migration in the United States by controlling bodies through a quota system that discriminated against any migrant not of Western European descent and committed violence in the name of “border protection” has been the “modus operandi for Border Patrol.” Essentially, their methods and habits of working is violence for the sake of “border protection.” Such violence toward Latinx and Native American people living near the US-Mexican border is blatant racism.

Since 2010, hundreds of people have died at the hands of this racist paramilitary group. Hundreds of children have yet to be reunited with their parents, and thousands of people have disappeared. No Border Patrol agent has ever been held accountable for their negligence or recklessness. It is a method for border agents to practice inhumanity: Water is unavailable, food is scarce and makes them sick, they are thrown into cold and overcrowded cages, medical care is unattainable and insufficient to the point where children die in their custody. . .it’s a game of survival to live a good life in the US, and it is so racist and unfair. Their systems of operations thrive entirely on their cruel culture against Latinx people at the border. They neglect the benefits of Latinx migrants, culture, and bodies by keeping them detained at high levels of impunity.

In conclusion, the history of these paramilitary groups has been built upon a solid foundation of white supremacy and racism and this is clear when examining our history through the concepts of Herrenvolk Democracy,  westward expansion, and manifest destiny.

Herrenvolk Democracy → Manifest Destiny → Westward Expansion → Xenophobia/Racism/White Power → Texas Rangers → Police Officers → ICE → Border Patrol → Impunity → Biased Education System → Erasure of Latinx Experiences

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Teaching through a Pandemic and the Trump Presidency: Cruelty and the History of Immigration

It’s difficult to go back there in my mind—the days and weeks before spring semester 2021. Amid teaching, writing, increasing Covid-19 deaths, and political uncertainty, I attempted to prepare for my History of Latina/o/x Immigration course. It all seems a blur now. As a historian of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, the pandemic, coupled with the Trump presidency, had produced a nearly unending barrage of calamities in the region. How was I supposed to put this into perspective for University of Iowa students eager to learn the significance of this moment? How would I help them gather the historical analysis needed to contextualize these situations, to truly understand the magnitude of what was unraveling before their eyes? 

During this time, I came across Cristina Beltrán’s recent book, Cruelty as Citizenship: How Migrant Suffering Sustains White Democracy (University of Minnesota Press, 2020). Etched across its pages were the themes that would unite my course in the spring—a focus on cruelty as an expression of liberatory and participatory citizenship, a white (Herrenvolk) democracy as a more precise description of the U.S. experiment, and the centrality of the immigration system and migrants to this protracted narrative. Beltrán’s incisive monograph examined the genealogy of “violence against migrants [and how] it creates a kind of Herrenvolk loophole for nativists—offering them a legally sanctioned opportunity to impose tyranny over a nonwhite population while still claiming constitutional protections for themselves.”[1]

As 2020 turned into 2021, and I prepared to celebrate my fortieth birthday on 6 January, America’s Herrenvolk led a siege on the U.S. Capitol. My family and I were driving. They were taking me to Minneapolis so that I might get some quiet time alone to write during my birthday-week celebration. We sat in silence listening to NPR’s reporters describe the macabre scene unfolding in Washington D.C. Joy and excitement quickly turned to fear and an uncomfortable resignation. Democracy dies in darkness, I thought. Or perhaps, it dies in the daylight by a thousand cuts, some big others small, but unrelenting and cruel, nonetheless.

In the wake of the insurrection and in the shadow of the Trump administration’s release of the 1776 Commission’s findings—that a more “patriotic” version of history should be taught in U.S. schools, one that ignores the ramifications of settler colonialism and Indigenous genocide, racialist immigration policies, the lengthy legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, and more—students and teachers across the country began spring semester with the weight of generational pain on our shoulders. I spoke with my dear friend and Borderlands History Blog co-editor, Michael K. Bess, about bringing the blog back to life for my class. I wanted students to have the option of writing about what they were learning—and what they were feeling—for a wider audience.

As we started class accompanied by Beltrán’s book and dozens of other wonderful scholars’ work, including Natalia Molina’s How Race is Made in America, Mai Ngai’s Impossible Subjects, Mark-Overmyer-Velazquez’s edited volume Beyond La Frontera: The History of Mexico-U.S. Migration, Ana Raquel Minian’s Undocumented Lives, Mireya Loza’s Defiant Braceros, Ernesto Chávez’s The U.S. War with Mexico, Laura Gómez’s Manifest Destinies, Julian Lim’s Porous Borders, Kelly Lytle-Hernandez’s Migra, and Omar Valerio-Jimenez’s edited volume The Latina/o Midwest Reader, among countless articles and documentary films, students quickly began to piece together the history of American democracy with the history of the U.S. immigration system and its distinct focus on Latina/o/x descent people.

There were several students who wrote blog posts examining various aspects of the themes mentioned above and others including U.S. foreign policy, the census, eugenics, disease, and white supremacy. Students also wrote about their own connections to immigration and migration through their family’s past. This is a cross-listed course, so not all my students are history majors (or minors). Still, most of them used history as a powerful weapon against the constant gaslighting and erasure perpetrated at the highest levels of our government and media. Inspired by the scholars mentioned above and our conversations in class, via Zoom and under cloister, here are my students’ ruminations, writing in the midst of a pandemic and the Trump presidency, on the history of Latina/o/x immigration, white democracy, and violence.

[1] Cristina Beltrán, Cruelty as Citizenship: How Migrant Suffering Sustains White Democracy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2020), 111.

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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.

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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.


[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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