Fifteen essays and books explore the borderlands field with passion and intelligence, daring their readers to leave behind their old worlds and follow them into new ones. A review essay by Fernando Ortiz Jr.
Works reviewed in this essay
Adelman, Jeremy, and Stephen Aron. “From Borderlands to Borders: Empires, Nation-States, and the Peoples in Between in North American History.” American Historical Review 104, no. 3 (June 1999): 814-841.
Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987.
Barr, Juliana. Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
Brown, Wendy. Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. New York: Zone Books, 2010.
Chang, Kornel. Pacific Connections: The Making of the U.S.-Canada Borderlands. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012.
Hämäläinen, Pekka. The Comanche Empire. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.
—. and Samuel Truett. “On Borderlands.” The Journal of American History 98, no. 2 (2011): 338-361.
Hoffnung-Garskof, Jesse. A Tale of Two Cities: Santo Domingo and New York after 1950. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010.
Johnson, Benjamin H., and Andre R. Graybill, eds. Bridging National Borders in North America: Transnational and Comparative Histories. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.
Lytle-Hernandez, Kelly. Migra!: A History of the U.S. Border Patrol. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2010.
McManus, Sheila. The Line Which Separates: Race, Gender, and the Making of the Alberta-Montana Borderlands. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.
Mora, Anthony P. Border Dilemmas: Racial and National Uncertainties in New Mexico, 1848-1912. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2011.
Shah, Nayan. Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality and the Law in the North American West. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011.
St. John, Rachel. Line in the Sand: A History of the Western U.S.-Mexico Border. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. 2011.
Weber, David. Bárbaros: Spaniards and their Savages in the Age of Enlightenment. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.
The borderlands mark divisions of land on maps. They mark divisions of races, communities, economies, and families. But borderlands are also more than dividers. Borderlands are where culture and history collide, dance, and coalesce. They are where nation’s futures are conceived, where risks are taken, and where ideas are born. Borderlands cradle both conflict and peace, friction and abrasion, the past and future. Borderlands are gateways through which to view national, cultural, racial, and imperial histories with fresh and sharper eyes. Fifteen essays and books explore the borderlands field with passion and intelligence, daring their readers to leave behind their old worlds and follow them into new ones.
For the uninitiated, borderlands are dark landscapes. But lighting the way are Jeremy Adelman, Stephen Anon, Benjamin Johnson, Andrew Graybill, Samuel Truett, and the wonderfully-named Pekka Hamalanien. By combining three essays from 1999, 2010, and 2011, their analyses form a grand introduction to the field.
Graybill and Johnson ask why historians take the borders for granted. They worry that that the lines on maps imply inevitability. They fret that the borders do not evoke or inspire historical curiosity into the regions they cut through. They hold up borderlands studies as the antidote to that narrow vision and lack of curiosity.
Adelman and Anon explain that the borderlands approach was meant to challenge Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis, which looked east to west, by turning the axis north to south. Rather than considering unilateral European conquest, the field considered how indigenous and European civilizations met and mixed, bilaterally conquering each other. It implied that nation-building did not end once the necessary territory was declared conquered. The borderlands approach, which inherently challenged historians’ traditional reliance on a nation-state perspective on the world, also embraced border zones once imperial lands became modern nation-states.
In 2011, Hamalanien and Truett critically noted that Adelman and Anon ignored other processes that affect borderlands — cultural shifts, warfare, malleable concepts of nation (like indigenous territories), and natural pressures on societies, like landscape changes and epidemics. They pointed out that borderlands inherently challenge master historical narratives anchored to centers of political and cultural power. Ascribing importance to borderlands questioned the supreme importance of those centers, and of nation-states as a whole. Borderlands historians were willing to consider that perhaps non-state actors made equally significant contributions to the overall political or social entity.
Perhaps historians, borderlands proponents argued, needed to listen with equal care to voices from both the centers and the margins. Power and national identity when viewed through that prism becomes ambiguous and historically revitalized. Borderlands become the alternative centers of nation and empire. The borderlands approach also acts as a spotlight to capture movements between political entities, societies, and cultures that were previously unknown or understudied. It spotlights the violence of that friction and abrasion that takes place between competing peoples desperate for food, water, legitimacy, or shelter. This array of introductory essays urged historians to challenge themselves to find these perspectives.
II. Imperial borderlands
Borderlands are born when two or more powers encounter each other. The Spanish New World burned with borderland dynamics. David J. Weber’s Barbaros explores the Indian-Spanish contact zones, details how Spain attempted to administer them, and concludes that even when the Bourbons reformed Spanish America, the region was never completely conquered. Reforms to the military and church networks were not fully implemented, control and structure never consolidated. Consequently, the borderlands region remained violent, dynamic, and, most importantly, influential to the entire bureaucracy. Indian action dictated imperial reaction.
Beyond the warmth of steady and strong Spanish control, colonists lived difficult lives. Dominant Indian powers manipulated colonial communities, turning them into supply depots or shelters, or forced them to pay tribute, while others simply ravaged poorly protected colonies. Reformers wanted the frontier turned into a borderlands region, where commerce, Christianity, and peace reigned, all on Bourbon Spanish terms, which were never achieved except on paper.
But Bourbons focused on building relationships with Indians, reforming them from barbarians into Christian men, thereby building cultural and economic bridges into stronger indigenous networks. As the Spanish elements grew stronger, enlightened attitudes reverted to racism, rejecting the gradual incorporation of Indians.
Pekka Hamalainen’s The Comanche Empire argues that the Comanches were “an indigenous empire.” They were an association of tribes, he claims, that gradually built themselves into a force that dominated what today is the Southwestern United States and northern Mexico, a force so powerful that it effectively obstructed the expansion of French, Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. power for almost two centuries.
The Comanche Empire, he explains, did not simply exist in an Adelman/Anon borderland of negated imperial power and enhanced indigenous influence — they created a new space where the indigenous Comanches dominated, embraced, and transformed the isolated colonialists.
Key to their steady growth and dominance was the willingness to open their culture to new ideas, languages, and religions, which provided them with new domestic strategies, intelligence on distant neighbors, and conduits into useful economic networks.
Acknowledging Comanche power and its crippling influence on Spanish and Mexican control, he asserts, explains how the young U.S. consumed half of Mexico in the late 1840s. The tragic irony is that the U.S. quickly turned its guns on the Comanches to consume their land and cleanse the landscape of non-whites and non-Christians. Comanche greatness required extreme measures to defeat it.
Juliana Barr examines in Peace Came in the Form of a Woman the gender and kinship expectations Europeans and indigenous faced when interacting with each other in colonial Texas dominated by Indian standards.
Women played central roles in virtually every equation. Spaniards scratching out communities in Indian-controlled territory initially refused to marry Indian women, losing out on the economic advantages Indians placed on kinship connections. Without kinship connections, Indians viewed Spaniards as outsiders. Only by marrying women from competitor French families did they finally tap into those economic networks. Spaniards captured Apache women when Apaches attacked them. When Apaches and Spaniards allied against common enemies, Apache women became the connections between both groups. Women from all indigenous groups symbolized peace offerings, peace emblems, and peace envoys.
Spaniards and Indians also communicated with displays of gender. Martial displays signaled masculinity. They shared masculine codes of honor. A military assembly signaled trouble, but when masculinity was paired with femininity, the assembly signaled peace.
III. Northern perspective
The Line Which Separates and Pacific Connections, respectively authored by Sheila McManus and Kornel Chang, highlight how the Canadian and U.S. power centers struggled to control their borderlands and underestimated the effect the borderlands had on those power centers. Both warn that in the historical search for the source of national character, the borderlands and the methods used to control those borderlands cannot be ignored.
Many excellent books in the historical borderlands field typically focus with a racial lens on the U.S. borders with Latin America. McManus and Chang make invaluable contributions to the U.S. borderlands field simply by focusing instead on the U.S-Canada border and the unique contests for its future. They construct their histories from opposite directions — McManus looking west from U.S. and Canadian capitals and Chang looking east from the Pacific region.
McManus argues that Canada and the U.S. post-structurally reimagined their respective western societies as proving grounds where potential national values were conceived, tested, and sharpened against unwelcome cultures and races, and held up for all citizens to adopt. Their border along the 49th parallel was key to those “nation-making efforts” because it politically delineated where one nation-state ended and the other began. It symbolized their capacity to control who crossed that border, who lived in those critical regions, and what values governed their lives.
Chang argues that the regions along the 49th parallel should not be seen as border zones but as transnational and transpacific crossroads. Chang expands the north south/east-axis of the McManus book to include multiple continents, empires, and commodity chains. Instead of Ottawa and Washington, D.C., or Alberta and Montana, Chang examines Seattle and Vancouver, recasting the Pacific Northwest and the Pacific coast as buzzing economic and imperial hubs. The nation-states’ challenge was to control that chaos to their advantage by employing institutions governing immigration, monitoring borders, and manipulating migration.
One of many rivers of migrants into Canada and the U.S. streamed from South Asia. An examination of cultural influences they brought with them would be fascinating enough. But Nayan Shah takes several steps beyond that in Stranger Intimacy to examine erotic, social, and economic relationships between the immigrants and a variety of other groups throughout Western communities of workers.
His South Asians brought with them into western U.S. and Canadian regions borderlands sensitivities as colonized members of the British Empire, as English speakers amid Mexican and Chinese workers, and as men who moved across racial boundaries put in place by the societies their labor was meant to expand. Using legal and police records produced by the clash of immigrant actions and their societies’ reactions — arrests for sexual activities, questions over immigration status, concerns over white public safety — Shah produces a network of racial and legal borderlands the immigrants overcame or failed to overcome.
Domestic racial attitudes against South Asians’ supposed demoralizing effects on white families tolerated white violence. That violence, coupled with legal surveillance and oppression drove immigrants’ contacts with each other into secret places, turning their stranger interactions into stranger intimacies with glances, movements, and other secret signals. The homosocial regions the legal system identified became border zones of state surveillance, racial oppression, and assumption of criminal activity between legitimate and illegitimate societies. The intensity of sexual oppression bolstered normative white identities and further emphasized the deviancy of foreign entities.
IV. Special cases
Euro-American control over the sections of former Mexico is a vital topic in borderlands studies. In Border Dilemmas, Anthony Mora focused on how Euro-Americans used literature and letters to steadily undermine their cultural, political, and economic control of New Mexico.
They portrayed New Mexican women as sensual beasts, businesswomen as prostitutes, and men as savages who could not control their society. Euro-American colonists, Mora explains, saw themselves as the ones to bring civilized order to this chaos. By sensualizing and dehumanizing the men and women, Euro-Americans justified their invasions of Mexican territory, their racist attitudes toward the Mexican inhabitants, and their attempts to dominate and transform the societies upon which they would build a virtuous American Eden.
By labeling Mexican businesswomen as prostitutes and ignoring the economic agency they enjoyed in Mexican society, Euro-Americans could strip from them any semblance of economic legitimacy or social value, permanently damage their community standing, and generally enhance the threatened patriarchy. By characterizing Mexican men as weak or corrupt, Euro-Americans could portray themselves as saviors of Mexican womanhood, now recast as victims of male Mexican vices. Charitable and heroic white men would save these women with marriage, absorb their Mexican blood (descended from quality European blood, surely) into their white bloodlines and families, thereby improving the overall New Mexican community while conveniently ignoring the insecurities in the white U.S. South over racial mixing with black slaves. Mora captures with subtle humor the ridiculous ironies and hypocrisies at work.
Euro-American attempts to enforce “gendered divisions of space,” Mora explains, were key to their control. Women belonged in the privacy and purity of the home. Mexican women also belonged in the home, but in the homes of white women, where they would learn under white tutelage how to become proper American housewives.
They would share the gendered space and occupy appropriate racial roles within domestic walls. Mora connects this racism to U.S. devotion to domestic power and, by extension, to civilizing power. As white women domesticated the home, they also domesticated (tamed) the white men taming the borderlands. They symbolized the white race reaching into the frontiers of their new empire, bringing domestic stability and the values of a proper white home to savages.
The values of white patriarchy only intensified the existing Mexican patriarchy. Mexican elites saw self-serving opportunities to play the Euro-American game over the New Mexican chessboard. New Mexican women were marginalized socially, sexually, and economically, with little or no role in society except as emblems and tools of the patriarchal nation-building enterprise their men purported to lead. Even the oppressed did their own heinous oppressing.
Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera sees the borderlands marking divisions in the hearts and minds of the people who populate them. The men and women who exist on the fringes of nation, religion, and race live with divisions within themselves. Anzaldua urges these borderland citizens to be proud: The Chicano borderlands are where national and racial futures are born. They are special places for homosexual men and women, Indians, the socially and intellectually liberated. It’s a place of many tongues, religions, and talents. Any minority will find a home there because they are borderlands themselves — they exist in multiple worlds simultaneously, always adjusting their gradients to blend in with the larger, more dominant colors. They are the future race of a better nation and society, without constructs, limitations, discriminations, or oppression.
Anzaldua holds herself as the example. She is a gay mestiza who speaks not just English and Spanish but variations of both. She refuses to adhere to expectations of how a mestiza should behave, think, or live. She erases the borderlands within her by embracing what they are expected to keep separate.
Perhaps securing political legitimacy for the borderlands citizens begins there. Borderlands citizens must connect themselves somehow with the political cores of their societies, through moderate allies, social upheavals, or war. Only then can they change their nation from within. Society eventually changes to accept gay men and women, and to view men and women and all races equally. Those who refuse to change are the ones marginalized, dismissed, and rejected. An equitable and just society – perhaps that is the ultimate goal for all borderlands citizens. Buried in the ashes of their anguish are the elements of eventual social greatness.
Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof’s A Tale of Two Cities follows Dominican people as they moved from the countryside to capital city Santo Domingo to the New York neighborhood of Washington Heights and back to Santo Domingo. Within these transnational currents he finds Dominicans navigating the fault-lines of culture, race, and economics in both the United States and the Dominican Republic. Dominicans in both cities were elements of the same transnational entity, confronting different manifestations of the same imperialist power, racially differentiating themselves from other minorities, and struggling to live up to their ideals of progress and culture.
Working-class Dominicans struggled to find and then improve their place in the Dominican Republic or the U.S. The book’s bottom-up approach is structured along two ideals: progress (certain actions would improve one’s life, social standing, and national well-being) and culture (perceived values and the standard that decided who belonged and who did not).
The author gives tremendous agency to Dominicans but also points out the irony in their outlooks. When modernization projects stripped economic opportunities from sugar plantations and ranches, rural people flooded Dominican cities to find new economic opportunities. They embraced the progreso/cultura ideals and demanded paved roads and sanitation in their barrios. Men condemned gangs and women condemned prostitution, but gangs were also seen as a potential defensive force against U.S. incursions and women asked prostitutes for sex advice.
In the U.S., Dominicans combined progreso/cultura virtues — improving their economic lives while also protecting their Dominican national values — by extending their sense of home northward to encompass New York. Dominicans saw little need to assimilate because in their minds they had never left the Dominican Republic. Dark-skinned Dominicans faced racial/ethnic discrimination from Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and Anglos as they made their own distinctions between themselves and Haitians. Dominicans embraced the U.S. consumerism as they blamed the U.S. for the materialism and delinquency they saw in Dominican society.
V. The meaning of borders
Borderlands don’t exist without borders. Rachel St. John’s Line in the Sand offers a multifaceted biography of the western U.S.-Mexico border, from El Paso to the Pacific Ocean. The line is a consequence of military conquest, local warfare, political and economic ambitions, and state-sanctioned policing, much more than the natural divider of the Rio Grande.
The line changed in significance over time. For criminals it was the doorway to freedom. For lovers of vice, it was the gateway to illegality. For U.S. politicians, it was a triumph of a superior society over its inferior neighbor. Indian raids necessitated borderland security forces. Borderland commerce and railroads created twin cities. Nation-state efforts to define and enforce it symbolized the inherent weakness of centered-power perspectives ignoring the significance of borderland entities.
As for the force deployed to regulate who moves across that line and who doesn’t, in Migra! Kelly Lytle Hernandez considers the U.S. Border Patrol as part of state-sanctioned violence against Mexican communities naturally flowing through the artificially imposed borderlands between the U.S. and Mexico. Bi-national economic and political demands coupled with the individual demands of its personnel guided the evolution of the Border Patrol as a predatory borderlands entity. Examining this aspect of borderlands existence further illuminates how borderlands and their inhabitants are perceived and rejected or accepted by their nation-states, and the role of violence in attempting to assert the nation-state’s sovereignty over its territory and society. It also highlights Mexico’s postwar partnership with a foreign security force in an effort to control their northward flow of its own people.
The Border Patrol historically worked with borderlands businesses to ensure a steady supply of cheap Mexican labor while enforcing white standards of behavior among races and genders. Officers shaped official U.S. immigration policies to suit local situations and their own interests, interweaving border control objectives with community and economic life. The focus on Mexican rather than Canadian criminality has more to do with the communities dark-skinned people entered than with the actual act of undocumented crossing.
Wendy Brown examines physical borders and the borderlands they mean to enforce in Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. Wall-building projects throughout the globalized, Internet-dominated world, she argues, is a symptom of a larger insecurity over the loss of nation-state control over territory, people, resources, and security. The concept of sovereignty — of control — and its separation from what it means to be a nation-state is what drives pathetic construction work on the U.S.-Mexico border, and throughout the U.S.
What is to be contained is held up as pure, and then the potential foreign threats are identified, and then the wall is promoted as the solution. Even within the beacon of Western democracy, the rich seal themselves off from the poor, businesses wrap themselves in porous digital security blankets, and religious sects build compounds — retreats — in which to properly indoctrinate their flocks. The psychological comfort of walls, borders, lines, and zones infers a stable order is in place. Control is recovered.
Hamalanien and Truett encourage borderlands historians to embrace the inherent chaos in borderlands. That instability had unintended consequences and created unexpected opportunities. Indigenous groups play roles in creating empires or use their own to control their regions. Marginal groups influence the core. Ignored voices participate in the national discussion. New historical roots are discovered. These fifteen works demonstrate the value borderlands studies bring to the historical field. What may appear to be chaos to outdated historical views is beautiful intellectual symphonies to the cutting-edge borderlands lovers.
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