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By Michael Dear
This article was originally published in Boom Magazine.
The United States-Mexico borderlands are among the most misunderstood places on Earth. The communities along the line are far distant from the centers of political power in the nations' capitals. They are staunchly independent and composed of many cultures with hybrid loyalties. Historically, since the borderline was drawn between the two countries, Texas border counties have been among the poorest regions in both countries. Those in New Mexico and Arizona were sparsely populated agricultural and mining districts; and in the more affluent west, Baja California was always more closely connected to California than to Mexico. Nowadays, border states are among the fastest-growing regions in both countries. They are places of economic dynamism, teeming contradiction, and vibrant political and cultural change.
Mutual interdependence has always been the hallmark of cross-border lives. After the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo settled the Mexican-American War, a series of binational "twin towns" sprang up along the line, developing identities that are sufficiently distinct as to warrant the collective title of a "third nation," snugly slotted in the space between the two host countries. At the western-most edge of this third nation is the place I call "Bajalta California." 1
The international boundary does not divide the third nation but instead acts as a connective membrane uniting it. This way of seeing the borderlands runs counter to received wisdom, which regards the border as the last line of national defense against unfettered immigration, rapacious drug cartels, and runaway global terrorism. It is a viewpoint that substitutes continuity and coexistence in place of sovereignty and difference.
In 2002, I began traveling the entire length of the US-Mexico border, on both sides, from Tijuana/San Diego on the Pacific Ocean, to Matamoros/Brownsville on the Gulf of Mexico, a total of 4,000 miles. I voyaged in the footsteps of giants. Sixteenth-century Spanish explorers Cabeza de Vaca and Francisco Vásquez de Coronado came this way. Generals Santa Anna and Zachary Taylor fought important battles for these lands during the Mexican-American War.
What began as an impulsive journey of discovery was rapidly overtaken by events. I had the good (and bad) fortune to begin before the United States undertook the fortification of its southern boundary, and so I became an unintentional witness to the border's closure, an experience that altered my understanding of the two countries. My experiences of the in-between third nation provide a powerful rejoinder to those who would relegate the borderlands to the status of surrogate battlefield against migrants, narcotraficantes, and terrorists.
In his 1787 biography of Fray Junípero Serra, Francisco Palóu included a map of the first administrative division of Baja and Alta California, indicating the Spanish allocation of mission territories between Franciscans to the north and the Dominicans to the south. That border was recognized on 2 February 1848, when a "Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits, and Settlement" was signed at Guadalupe Hidalgo, thereby terminating the Mexican-American War, which had begun in 1846 and was regarded by many (including Ulysses S. Grant) as a dishonorable action on the part of the United States. Article V of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (as it came to be called) required the designation of a "boundary line with due precision, upon authoritative maps, and to establish upon the ground landmarks which shall show the limits of both republics." The line would extend from the mouth of the deepest channel of the Rio Grande (known in Mexico as the Río Bravo del Norte); up river to "the town called Paso" (present-day El Paso/Ciudad Juárez); from thence overland to the Gila River, and down the channel of the Colorado River; after which it would follow the administrative division between Upper (Alta) California and Lower (Baja) California to the Pacific Ocean. 2
In a multivolume history of the American West, historian Carl Wheat refers disparagingly to the post-war boundary survey as the stuff that "dime novels" are made of. To justify this characterization, he invokes yarns about political intrigue, deaths from starvation and yellow fever, struggles for survival in the desert, and the constant threat of violent attacks by Indians and filibusters. He also complained that the US field surveys seem to have been plagued by acrimony and personal vendetta: "if ever a mapping enterprise in the American West was cursed by politics, interdepartmental rivalries, and personal jealousies, it was the Mexican Boundary Survey." 3
It's true that the letters, diaries, and official memoranda by individuals on the US team portray just about every American participant as a scoundrel or self-promoter. Yet to me the boundary survey is a story of heroism, skill, and endurance of epic proportions. It might lack the glamour of war, or the grandeur of Lewis and Clark's opening of the lands west of the Mississippi in the early 1800s, but the survey is one of the greatest episodes in US and Mexican geopolitical history. It remains deeply etched in the everyday lives of both nations. Dime novel it most certainly is not; it is more a narrative of nation-building centered in American President James K. Polk's vision of territorial hegemony extending as far as the Pacific Ocean, with all its momentous consequences.
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1 The toponym is my amalgam of the territorial names adopted by the Spanish colonialists for Baja (Lower) and Alta (Upper) California. Parts of this essay are adapted from Michael Dear, "Why Walls Won't Work: Repairing the US-Mexico Divide" (Oxford University Press, 2013), where more complete citations may be found.
2 Richard Griswold del Castillo, "The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: A Legacy of Conflict" (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990), 187-188.
3 Carl I. Wheat, "Mapping the Transmississippi West, 1540-1861. vol. 3, From the Mexican War to the Boundary Surveys, 1846-1854" (San Francisco: Institute of Historical Cartography, 1959), 208-209.
Watch our mini-doc on photographer Paul Turounet attempts to document first-hand the undocumented immigrant experience at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Top Image: The ''caged fence'' outside Mexicali/Calexico is built on US soil to ensure ease of access and maintenance, but prevents access by the general public. | ©2008 bY Michael Dear