Essay Series

“Why is There No Ida B. Wells of the Borderlands?”

Notes from “Linking U.S. and Mexican Histories of Violence: Extralegal Justice on Both Sides of the Border,” a panel presented at the 131st Annual American Historical Association Meeting in Denver, Colorado.

Since the publication in 2013 of William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb’s The Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence Against Mexicans in the United States, 1848-1928, the question of extralegal violence against Mexicans has gained significant attention in borderlands studies.[1] In the introduction to The Forgotten Dead, authors Carrigan and Webb ask a simple but profound question: why were the lynching deaths of Mexicans forgotten? The answer to this question is not that the lynching of Mexicans was few and far between. In fact, the opposite is true, as Carrigan and Webb point out:

“From the California Gold Rush to the last recorded instance of a Mexican lynched in public in 1928, vigilantes hanged, burned, and shot thousands of persons of Mexican descent in the United States. The scale of mob violence against Mexicans is staggering, far exceeding the violence exacted on any other immigrant group and comparable, at least on a per capita basis, to the mob violence suffered by African Americans. Yet despite its importance and pervasiveness, mob violence against Mexicans has never been fully studied.”[2]

This panel, chaired by Michael J. Pfeifer from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York and featuring comments by William Carrigan, presents new research on the topic of mob violence against Mexicans that contributes to filling this lacuna in borderlands historiography as well as the history of violence more broadly.

Michael Pfeifer opened the panel by posing a series of questions:

  • How can we think in comparative terms about violence in Mexico and the U.S.?
  • How did the history of conflict in the borderlands, including racism against Mexicans, shape extralegal violence in the border?
  • How do these histories of violence influence the larger history of the U.S.-Mexico border and the larger histories of these two nations?

The first paper, (Bi)national Border Rebellions, Linchamientos, and the (Bi)centennials of the Mexican Revolution by José Angel Hernández from the University of Houston, addressed Pfeifer’s questions through an examination of linchamientos (lynching) of Mexicans at the border.

Hernández asked how the use of the Spanish term linchameinto, an importation of the American word lynching, complicates understandings of extralegal violence in the borderlands. He explained that in Mexico linchameinto does not exclusively refer to a public hanging, but could be used to describe a public burning, beating, or killing. Linchameinto could also refer to a revolt or other kinds of extra-legal violence. To demonstrate the elasticity and instability of this term, Hernández described instances of extra-legal violence that took place in the connected borderlands communities of La Mesilla, New Mexico and La Ascención, Chihuahua. He described two different and distinct instances of extra-legal violence – a fight between Republicans and Democrats that took place in the 1870s in La Mesilla where nine people died and 100 subsequently fled to Chihuahua, and an instance of narco violence in 2010 that occurred in the same region – both labeled linchameintos.

Next, Hernández posed two very interesting questions:

  1. What makes a lynching a hate crime?
  2. Why is there no Ida B. Wells of the borderlands?

In response to these questions, William Carrigan offered some ways to clarify terminology. Carrigan argues that the following three things must be present in order to call an event a lynching:

  • Community support for the event
  • Premeditation (this distinguishes between rioting and lynching)
  • How the violent act is justified: is it done “for the greater good”?

Hernández added to this list, suggesting that another important characteristic of lynching is the ritualized nature of the violence committed. Further, he stated that because the meaning of lynching has changed over time, a researcher must look for patterns of ritualized violence specific to time and place to understand what lynching looked like and what it meant in specific historical contexts.

Continuing with this discussion of terminology, Carrigan spoke about how Republicans did not want the word lynching used to refer to anti-black violence in the South during the post-Reconstruction era because at that time its meaning was not strong enough to describe the violence that African Americans were being subjected to. Carrigan explained that during the nineteenth century, lynching was associated with the Gold Rush in somewhat of a positive way– it was men taking care of law and order when there was none. Republicans wanted a stronger term to describe the awful things happening to blacks in the South. However, it was the crusading journalist Ida B. Wells who took the word lynching to describe the “Southern Horrors” committed against African Americans in the South. Wells gave the word lynching the meaning it still has today.[3]

The second paper, Out of the Ashes: How the Burning of Antonio Rodriguez Led to an Increase in Anti-Mexican Mob Violence during the 1910s by Nicholas Villanueva Jr. from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, examined how the Mexican Revolution influenced cross-border violence, particularly in Texas.[4]

Villanueva described two cases of extra-legal violence against ethnic Mexicans that occurred in Texas during the Mexican Revolution. Villanueva began with the story of the lynching of Antonio Rodriguez. Rodriguez was a 20-year-old Mexican looking for work as a farmhand in Texas. While in Texas, he was accused of murder. A mob broke into the jail cell where he was being held, forcibly removed him, tied him to a tree, and burned him alive. Rodriquez had no trial, and no one in the mob who brutally killed him was charged with a crime. This enraged Mexicans. Throughout Mexico there ensued a series of anti-U.S. boycotts, riots, and the use of rhetoric such as “Death to Yankees” and “Death to Americans.” Consequently, these rhetorical “attacks on Americans” caused anti-Mexican feeling in the U.S.

Villanueva then described the lynching of 14-yr-old Antonio Gomez. Gomez was harassed and beaten by the owner of a saloon because he was lingering outside the business. While the saloon owner was beating him, Gomez took his knife out and stabbed him. A mob formed around Gomez and lynched him. The mob was not punished. Villanueva made the point that violence against ethnic Mexicans during the Mexican Revolution escalated yet was not punished. Villanueva also compared this to events today, when hate crimes against Mexicans – especially those crossing the border or deemed here ‘illegally’ – often go unpunished. However, Villanueva argues that the lynchings of Rodriguez and Gomez were not products of the Mexican Revolution, but rather, signs of the increased racist sentiments and accompanying violence against Mexicans in Texas. To demonstrate how the State, in the form of the Texas Rangers, also took part in this violence against Mexicans, Villanueva invoked the work of South Texas attorney J.T. Canales, who wrote about the corruption of the Texas Rangers and their techniques of “Mexican Evaporation,” how they “disappeared” Mexican men who were on the Ranger’s “black list.” (To answer José Angel Hernández’s question, maybe J.T. Canales was the Ida B. Wells of the Borderlands?)

The third paper, Savage Yanquis and Enraged Mexicans: Extralegal Justice and Its Representations in Mexico and the U.S., by Gema Karina Santamaría Balmaceda from the Instituto Technológico Autónomo de Mexico, connects the history of lynching to nineteenth and early-twentieth century discourse about savagery and civilization. Through an examination of this discourse in Mexican and U.S. newspapers, this paper demonstrates how lynching served as a measure of civilization in each country. In particular, Santamaría Balmaceda shows how this discourse was deployed as justification for state violence.

Santamaría Balmaceda’s paper (she was not able to be there in person, so her paper was read by a colleague) describes how in many newspapers, the Mexican Revolution represented lawlessness, and a regression from civilization into savagery. For example, the Mexican newspaper El Universal published articles about how post-revolutionary Mexico, absent the “law and order” of Porfirio Díaz, had devolved into a place of savagery. However, in the pages of Regeneracion, a Mexican anarchist paper published in the United States, editor Ricardo Flores-Magón criticized Americans with the same language the U.S. press often used to describe Mexicans and Indians. Responding to the lynching of Antonio Rodriguez, for example, Flores-Magón chastised Americans for their “backwardness,” “ignorance,” and called them “barbarians of the U.S.” because of the lynchings that took place there. He also called these Americans religious fanatics and savages – words often used by the Mexican press to describe Indians and Mexicans in rural communities believed to be under the influence of the church.

The major point that Santamaría Balmaceda’s paper makes is that representations of lynching were used by different groups on both sides of the border to make points about “savagery and civilization” in order to defend various positions. Like the other presenters, Santamaría Balmaceda argues that the conception of lynching as only American is problematic, that there needs to be a comparative dimension in lynching historiography.

There were many excellent questions for the panelists, including questions about lower levels of mob violence, or even the threat of mob violence and how that fits into the history of racialized violence at the border. One audience member asked about the chronology of lynching: when does it begin? In 1848, as Carrigan and Webb’s book has it, or might it be placed earlier than that? These questions provoked deeper discussion of the importance and difficulty of defining terms when discussing lynching and extralegal violence.

As a borderlands historian and an instructor of U.S. History, I found this panel immensely interesting. I teach Ida B. Well’s Southern Horrors in my “Multicultural America” course, where many of my students are of Mexican descent. The challenge of teaching “Multicultural America” is to shed light upon those people and events that have for too long been on the margins of history. What I learned from this panel will, I hope, help me do that with my students when I ask them, “Why is there no Ida B. Wells of the Borderlands?”

[1] William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb, The Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence Against Mexicans in the United States, 1848-1928 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). See also the public history project: Refusing to Forget https://refusingtoforget.org

[2] Carrigan and Webb, 1.

[3] Jacqueline Jones Royster, ed., Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900 (Boston and New York: Bedford Books, 1997).

[4] Nicholas Villanueva Jr., The Lynching of Mexicans in the Texas Borderlands (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2017).

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Utopian Visions: A Panel on Exiles and Identity at the AHA

We’re back from the American Historical Association and had a wonderful time! This essay is the first installment in a series covering panels we wanted to share with you, our dear readers. -ed

After my first day at the AHA, I met up with Brandon Morgan, one of our colleagues at the blog, who was presenting on a panel with the intriguing title, “Utopian Visionaries, Exiles, and Other Stateless Peoples in the Americas.” Over dinner at the Sheraton with a group of friends, I talked with Brandon and two of the other panelists, Travis E. Ross and Julian Dodson, about their work. I decided to attend their panel the next day.

Following an introduction of the panelists by Colin Snider (University of Texas at Tyler), Travis Ross, who recently defended his dissertation at the University of Utah, discussed his work on the identity of the nation-state in the context of historical memory, studying nineteenth-century interviews of residents of Alta California. One of the points that struck me most was that although ethnic Mexicans and Anglos disagreed on many things about society and politics in the state, they shared common ground with the regional identity of Alta California.

Travis´s research uncovered how people who had lived in Alta California before its transfer to the United States worked hard to maintain their community identity as revolutions and other political unrest threatened this reality. Irrespective of which government was in charge, locals wanted to protect the distinct identity of Alta California. Nevertheless, as new waves of gold rushers and other Anglos flooded into this space, this fight was unsuccessful as most of the Californios, Spanish-language residents who had lived in Alta California under Spanish and Mexican rule, lost everything after California gained U.S. statehood.

Brandon Morgan, who works at Central New Mexico Community College, continued the panel discussing his work on Mormon exiles in Mexico during the late nineteenth century. He described the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 and its aggressive prosecution of Mormons in the nineteenth century over polygamy. Mormons believed the legal proceedings to be a miscarriage of justice and felt that the government not only wanted to punish polygamy, but also eliminate their religion.

In response, some coreligionists decided to relocate to Mexico, establishing settler communities they called “colonies” to continue to practice their religious beliefs without interference from the U.S. government. Brandon argues that by crossing the border Mormons gained the status and economic power that had eluded them in the United States. In doing so, they also reasserted their claim to whiteness, and largely remained separate from the local community even as they benefited from policies of the national government under Porfirio Díaz, which permitted them not to pay certain duties.

Finally, Julian Dodson (Washington State University) studies the social networks that Mexican exiles formed across the U.S. southwest in the early twentieth century. He finds that in exile the political enmities that divided these groups against one another in Mexico largely evaporated once they relocated north of the border. Julian identified the exiles as the “revolution’s losers,” highlighting how they were reviled in Mexico as members of a defeated elite that had benefited from Díaz’s long rule (1876-1911). Across the border, the exile community was sustained on a healthy diet of rumors and conspiracies about the new revolutionary government as it asserted its power. Moreover, the exile community took on a diverse characteristics as members of different failed rebellions and counter-revolutions also headed north to escape their enemies.

Julian described the formation of these exile groups, noting that militant Catholic activists played an important role. They cultivated contacts with military figures who supported the exiles during times of political unrest. Members of the Catholic contingent also operated as intelligence brokers between Mexican officials and the exile community. Later, as the revolution transitioned into its state-building period after 1920, opposition to the political strongman and president, Plutarco Elías Calles, who was a committed anti-Catholic leader, helped to unify aspects of the exile community.

Afterwards, Colin read the observations written by José Angel Hernández (University of Houston) who served as commenter, but was unable to attend. José Angel provided excellent constructive critiques of the work presented, urging the panelists to more clearly identify how the subjects were stateless or to consider using a different concept to identify them. In the audience discussion, someone asked whether location reflected exiles’ loyalties. Julian responded affirmatively, explaining that Catholic exiles tended to go to San Antonio and El Paso, whereas Callistas went to San Diego and Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Huertistsas went to Tucson and also had ties with Los Angeles.

As the discussion continued, Travis posed a question for his other panelists. He acknowledged the difficulty in defining the people in their work as stateless, and wondered about other ways to conceptualize these subjects. Julian said that, perhaps, the idea of “statefulness exiles” rather than stateless exiles was more applicable, emphasizing that the networks these groups formed attempted to take advantage of state ties at different times and in different contexts. Moreover, a point that Brandon and Julian agreed on was that while these exiles lived in states freely, they were to a certain extent out of reach, defying law enforcement in their home countries.

Brandon concluded, saying that Mormon colonies in the late nineteenth century were trying to use policies in Mexico to their benefit, while maintaining ties with the United States. This strategy gave them some choice about identity. For instance, Mormons who naturalized has Mexicans had begun to take up the role of jefe politico in their locality. Many Mormons viewed their time in Mexico as sojourners, ready to return to the United States once the problems had been resolved politically.

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A Year in Review: BHB in 2016

The past twelve months will likely be remembered as one of the most frustrating years of our time. From civil strife and violence on American streets to brewing economic and political crises in Mexico to war in other parts of the world. At the blog, we have tried to make sense of these complex events from the perspective of our historical training. We have looked to the past to reflect on the present and think about our future. Over this past year, thanks to your support, our blog has also continued to grow. What follows is a list of some of our favorite and most popular contributions in 2016.

This year, our most popular essay was Lori Flores´s From Dissertation to Book: Writing a Book Proposal. We strive for practical contributions to be an important part of our work at the blog as a service to readers. In this piece, Lori writes: If you’ve just finished your dissertation, congratulations! Now set it aside for a good while. Trying to tackle dissertation-to-book revisions too soon will prevent you from seeing your graduate school-inspired language, and from knowing what needs to be tweaked, cut, or added in terms of content. Many times, you need a more distant perspective on your work in order to articulate to editors how you plan to produce a book, which is an entirely different beast in terms of framing, style, and structure. Feel free to circulate your work to valued colleagues for their input while you’re gaining that distance, and tackle other passion projects or interesting new readings in your field for some inspiration.

The blog has featured a number of excellent conversations with scholars. Lina Murillo’s Borderlands History Interview Project (BHIP) has continued to grow, adding two new episodes this year. She returned in March, interviewing Pablo Mitchell on his work: Mitchell pointed to one of the underlying tensions he feels has driven his work in Borderlands history. He explains that while some historians continue with a Boltonian sense of the borderlands, his allegiance lies more with Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa’s theories that have provided the theoretical framework for his research. Anzaldúa’s work helped Mitchell to think about sexuality, race, gender, and borderlands and to ask different questions of archival materials and read against the grain. Continue reading

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Latinx Undergraduates and the Future of the History Profession

During the past few months, the AHA released several reports detailing a nationwide decline in History majors across campuses. In this month’s Perspectives on History, Yovanna Pineda problematizes that claim, and illuminates in her own two-year case study how one academic constituency – Latinxs – is increasing in history major enrollments. An associate professor of Latin American history at the University of Central Florida, Pineda sampled and interviewed first-generation Latinx students and their experiences within history departments as well as those applying to history graduate programs.

She finds that while many first generation Latinx college students share a passion for history, several top research and elite private institutions fail to successfully recruit such students. Pineda reports, for example, that some graduate programs even questioned a student’s English competency and requested that they take the TOEFL to ensure language ability. Her analysis confirms the need for an institutional apparatus that will continue to effectively recruit and retain first generation students of color in the history profession.

Read her article here.

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Demolishing the Barrio

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Lorenza Martinez, Susana Morales, and her sister Martha.

There are so many political issues “trending” right now it has been hard to keep up with the pace.  Between President-elect Trump’s jaw-dropping cabinet picks and the devastating war in Syria; between Fidel Castro’s death and the future of Cuba and the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline, sometimes local concerns and issues seem to take a backseat to these national and international crisis.

This is not so on the U.S.-Mexico border.  Currently, there is a local group of activists, academics, politicians and residents attempting to resist urban renewal plans that will devastate a major historical area on El Paso’s Southside.  Their efforts are forcing the city government to contend with an informed community bent on protecting historical sites and homes still inhabited by residents in this traditionally ethnic Mexican barrio.  As developers salivate over this potentially lucrative opportunity, developing $180 million multi-purpose indoor arena, residents and activists alike are coming together to fight the destruction of one of El Paso’s oldest neighborhoods and the potential displacement of dozens of families and businesses.

Since my own research on reproductive rights is concerned with the area south of the train tracks, I was excited when a walking tour was announced to show city residents the breadth of the proposed development project and the effects the demolition of these city blocks would have on El Paso’s residents and to the city’s legacy.  My mother-in-law, Susana Morales (Martinez is her maiden name) had planned a trip downtown to purchase some trinkets for her grandchildren (my daughters) and I asked if she would join me on the walk later that afternoon.  “Sure mija!” she exclaimed, “You know I grew-up on South Leon near Overland.”  Her family has long ties to the border region and throughout her life has lived in some of the most historic areas of the city, but this was the first time she mentioned Duranguito. Continue reading

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Westworld and the Frontier Imaginary

Lina and Mike have been obsessed with Westworld over the last two months, and in this essay, they share their reflections on the first season of the series as it came to an end last Sunday. There are mild spoilers ahead, but the two authors keep the discussion focused on the major themes of the TV show as understood through a Borderlands history perspective. We hope you enjoy it. -ed

Westworld, set in the American West in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, tells the story of a futuristic amusement park where many of the “cast members” (to borrow a term of Disneyworld parlance) are not human, but rather humanoid robots.  In the narrative, there are frontier towns, Mexican outposts, renegade Confederate soldiers, violent indigenous tribes, and endless lines of gunslingers and prostitutes. They serve the wealthy clients who pay large sums to visit the park and indulge in the bacchanalia and bloodshed on offer. Undergirding this scifi-western fantasy, dozens of levels beneath the surface, is the infrastructure of the park, built by its director, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), and run with the help of his chief deputies, Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) and Theresa Cullen (Sidsi Babbet Knudsen), whose departments also vie for power, while references are made to impatient, faraway investors.

Some of us on the Borderlands History blog have been quite taken by this sci-fi thriller and believe we can learn something about the contemporary understanding and continued obsession with the frontier through HBO’s newest hit.  Moreover, we see that the show not only uses the borderlands region as a material space where sexual and violent fantasies are played out by park visitors and workers alike, but a metaphor for other historical and modern borderlands.

Like Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous address before the American Historical Association, Westworld is also deeply concerned with the frontier. Whereas Turner’s frontier was geographic, this drama’s is scientific. Both use some concept of the frontier to understand how culture and society are shaped. Violence becomes the catalyst for westward expansion in Turner’s imagination, and helps push major turning points for the narratives constructed in the park for its patrons. Continue reading

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Peyote and the Racialized War on Drugs

In an article  published in the Christian Century blog (here), Lisa Barnett, Ordained Minister (Christian Church, Disciples of Christ) and PhD candidate in U.S. history at Texas Christian University, discusses some of her dissertation research which looks at the ritual use of peyote by the Native American Church. Of special interest to borderlands scholars, Barnett’s research addresses how in the late nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth centuries, a commercialized peyote trade developed along the U.S.-Mexican border connecting merchants in the borderlands region of the Rio Grande to a variety of Indian tribes residing in Oklahoma and Indian Territories. In this article she examines how peyote became criminalized because of its perceived threat to Christianizing Native Americans.

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                                     New York Times, 1923

Barnett writes:

“The mild hallucinogen, derived from the top of a cactus growing in the Rio Grande area, became the basis of a new American Indian religion in the late 19th century. As the peyote religion quickly spread throughout Oklahoma Territory to other tribes in the western half of the U.S., white missionaries and government officials became alarmed. In their zero-sum mindset, they viewed Peyotism as a threat to their efforts to Christianize the Native American peoples.”

Read this fascinating article at the Christian Century blog, linked here.

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Pedagogy Notes: Teaching North American Borderlands History Online

This is the third and final installment in our summer pedagogy series. We invite you to join the discussion in our comments section at the bottom of the post.

This past summer, I taught an upper-division/graduate readings course on North American Borderlands History online for Western New Mexico University. Teaching history online presents unique opportunities and challenges. On the one hand, digital tools as simple as LMS assignment submission systems and email provide direct lines of communication with students that don’t always exist as readily in face-to-face settings where assignment feedback can often be somewhat one sided. The challenge is that although I have more direct and interactive means of discussing assignments and course concepts with students in the online classroom, they often fail to engage those opportunities.

In order to make online teaching feel less like a correspondence course, I assign Twitter, blogging, and an online timeline platform at tiki-toki.com to engage students in unique assignments that require them to use their skills of critically analyzing and discussing the monographs, articles, and primary sources that we are working on as a class. Continue reading

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Essay Series: New & Upcoming Topics in Borderlands History

Dear readers, we’re launching a new series to spotlight the work of early-career faculty and PhD students in Borderlands History. We’d like to introduce our first participant, Jonathan Cortez, who studies at Brown University. He’ll also be joining us as a regular contributor to the blog! -Mike

Hi Everyone!

My name is Jonathan Cortez and I am currently a doctoral student in American Studies at Brown University. I am also completing requirements towards a Master’s in Public Humanities from the John Nicolas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage. I received my B.A. in Latina/o Studies and Sociology from The University of Texas at Austin. My hometown of Robstown, Texas and its community continuously serve as sources of inspiration for me as I move through academia. Specifically the absence of local and ethnic histories from my K-12 public schooling resulted in retroactive self-seeking that has led me to write histories of Robstown, South Texas, and the larger U.S. Southwest areas.

My research trajectory began with recovery of personal histories. I learned about the Chicana/o Movement’s importance in Robstown after conducting oral histories with family members. Under the guidance of Dr. Emilio Zamora, I conducted research and wrote “Occupying La Lomita: Claiming Chicana/o Space and Identity in Robstown, Texas” as my Latina/o honors thesis. “Occupying La Lomita” was awarded the NACCS Frederick A. Cervantes Undergraduate Student Premio in 2015 in San Francisco, California.

My current research focuses on twentieth century transnational rural social movements along the U.S. Southwest. Specifically I have taken interested in the history of labor camps from the 1930s – late 1960s. My most recent academic papers examine multiracial labor streams of Mexican, Black, Native, Asian, and White laborers in Farm Security Administration (FSA) migratory labor camps. I use archival newspapers, photos, and oral histories to recount processes of racialization between different racialized groups in the same labor camps. I also write about the cultural representation and memorialization of labor camps and laborers in current discussions of race, class, gender, and immigration status.

I also consider myself a public historian and continuously work with my own community to foster pride in local history. I am working with the Robstown Area Historical Museum to develop an event, to which I am the project director, called “Community History Day” that allows community members to add their own histories and photos to the museum archival collection. Out of this work I hope to develop theories around local histories and rural/suburban museums in Latina/o communities.
To read more about my work please visit my personal website at: historiancortez.wordpress.com

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Film Notes: The Problematic Beauty of Sicario

I had intended to see Sicario (2015) when it arrived in theaters. Classes, grading, paper revisions, and committee meetings got in the way, and by the time the semester had ended it was gone from cinemas. Recently, the film appeared on Netflix in Mexico, where I live. Sicario is visually striking. The camera pans across mountains that shape the landscape around El Paso and Juárez as a brooding score adds a sense of dread. Viewers familiar with the areas depicted in the film will notice many landmarks; UTEP along I-10 peeks out in the distance; there’s a beautiful view of the Parque Público Federal El Chamizal; the Santa Fe and Córdoba bridges feature prominently as set pieces, early on in the narrative.

Some have likened Sicario to an earlier drug war movie, Traffic (2000). The parallel is not entirely correct. Although this film sees Benicio del Toro reprise the role of a disillusioned Mexican law enforcement officer willing to blur the lines of what is right and wrong, the similarities end there. At other times, Sicario felt like a spiritual sequel to Zero Dark Thirty (2012). The cinematography is stylistic, plodding, and punctuated by bursts of intense violence. Actors depicting members of Delta Force figure prominently as they join a nihilistic and shadowy operator played by Josh Brolin, who carries out a mission in Juárez escorted by Mexican Federal Police. Like Zero Dark Thirty, it also justifies torturing informants. The narrative vehicle for the audience is embodied by Emily Blunt who plays a FBI hostage rescue specialist, channelling a sense of confusion and frustration at the events she sees once she agrees to join Brolin’s team in the aftermath of a difficult police raid in Arizona.

Once Sicario is in the thick of its narrative, it transforms into a kind of macabre Alice in Wonderland. The audience is brought down into the tunnels that cross beneath the U.S.-Mexican border. The camera switches to disorienting night-vision and thermal-vision tones of green, grey, black, and white. It is a looking glass onto a violent, otherworldly landscape. And there’s this growing sense of realization that, perhaps, Blunt’s character isn’t the focus of the film after all, and it has another story to tell us.

From an historical perspective, there is a deeper problem with this film. It is an ahistorical mash. A comic book story about cartels and killers that mixes time periods and provides little context to the viewer of the origins and reasons for the drug war. Soon after the film’s start, U.S. agencies, perhaps channeling General John J. Pershing, launch a coordinated punitive raid with Mexican federal counterparts against the Sonora cartel in response to an IED-style attack near Phoenix. Where did these guerrilla tactics come from? Where, and how, did the cartels accrue such power? Sicario is deafeningly silent about the American role in the drug war. Brolin’s character longs for the status quo ante of the 1980s, but this nightmare-cum-dream, too, is a red herring meant to confuse audiences. The film’s narrative is an ouroboros of violence and revenge.

Ultimately, the feeling coming out of Sicario is empty. Yes, it is expertly filmed and acted. Along the way, audiences are treated to solid performances, including by supporting actors, Daniel Kaluuya, Maximiliano Hernández, Jeffrey Donovan, and Jon Bernthal. Director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins capture the beauty and desolation of the natural landscape that stands in sharp contrast to the bustling cities and towns along the border.

The craftsmanship, however, does not negate the sense that the journey audiences follow through these arid scenes may simply lead to a dead end. The film does little to challenge stereotypes about this region; in fact, it steeps itself in violence, not as means to educate viewers, but rather to set the scene for the next bloody action sequence. Given the politics of perception around the U.S.-Mexico border, Sicario is counterproductive. The film does not adequately address the question it implicitly poses to the audience: how, if ever, can a resolution be reached to the social problems that affect the border when only violence begets violence?

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Sicario (2015) is distributed by Lionsgate and Black Label Media. Rated R.            Available on Blu-Ray and as a digital download.

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