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.