Postcards from the Rio Bravo Border by Daniel D. Arreola (review)
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Postcards from the Rio Bravo Border, Daniel D. Arreola. Austin: University of Texas Press. 2013. Xix and 258 pp., maps, photos, notes, appendix, bibliography and index. $40.00 cloth (ISBN 978-0-292-75280-1).

This book is a labor of love from one of the hemisphere’s leading U.S.-Mexico border scholars, Arizona State University geographer Daniel Arreola. In the Preface, Arreola recounts his twenty-plus year passion for collecting Mexican postcards, and subsequent transcontinental pilgrimages to postcard shows and dealers around the continent, from small towns to major cities. [End Page 175] Along the way, he amassed some 7000 postcards of Mexican border towns, 1800 from the Texas-Mexico border alone. The latter became the visual data set central to the book.

Arreola writes, in the Introduction, that his goal was to produce “a visual narrative about Rio Bravo border towns between the 1900’s and the 1950’s” (p.1). He believes photographic images are part of our “visual culture,” bringing together past places, landscapes and the photographs that connect them. Since Mexico’s border towns were one of many tourist destinations being portrayed in “view cards” during the first half of the twentieth century, these postcards, he argues, represent a form of popular imagery that defined Americans’ engagement with place. Understanding these places, as captured in thousands of postcard images, would, in essence, offer an important representation of the changing landscapes of Mexican border towns at a critical time in their formation.

Arreola builds his case using a 1957 essay by well-known cultural landscape writer J.B. Jackson, describing a fictitious journey for visitors entering a decaying U.S. inner city in the late 1950s, at a time when prosperity was moving toward the suburbs, leaving behind seedy-looking downtowns. Jackson termed it “the stranger’s path.” Arreola employs this as a guiding construct for thinking about Americans crossing the border into Mexico in the early twentieth century, taking another kind of “stranger’s path” into an equally unfamiliar place. What, asks the author, might that path look like in Mexican border towns, given their “peculiar anatomy?” The answer lies vividly catalogued in thousands of postcard images taken by dozens of professional photographers working along the border between 1900 and 1960.

The book is organized around “stranger’s path” elements choreographing the movement of American tourists across the Rio Bravo from the Texas side, and into Mexican frontier towns. Part I, Places and Postcards, includes an introductory chapter on the border towns studied (Chapter 1, “Rio Bravo Border Towns”) and a short essay about postcards as forms of visual culture (Chapter 2, “Postcards”). The heart of the book is Part II, “Postcard Views,” which surveys specific border town “stranger’s path” elements that include: Gateways (Chapter 3), Streets (Chapter 4), Plazas (Chapter 5), Attractions (Chapter 6), Business & Landmarks (Chapter 7) and Everyday Life (Chapter 8). Finally, in Part III, Sight into Site, chapter 9, “View of the Place, Place of the View,” the author offers a few concluding comments. An appendix outlines critical sources, research and publications on postcards.

This book will be of interest to Latin American geographers, especially those concerned with cultural and historic landscapes; it will also attract the growing legions of “border scholars.” The level of detail is impressive. More importantly, the book is a refreshing departure from the cacophony of “digital, electronic fast life” that is gradually creeping into mainstream western culture, from the world of social media, texting, smart phones and the Internet, to the everyday, instantaneous nature of our lives, even in academia. Postcards from the Rio Bravo Border, by contrast, is an exercise in what I would term “the culture of slowness”, that is, not only slowing down to actually read this fine work, but decelerating to appreciate the visual details and their meanings. Arreola invites the reader in, and to truly appreciate this work, you should have a magnifying glass at hand, to literally get a closer look at the postcard images. The very act of contemplating the details of these historic postcard images serves to slow the [End Page 176] reader down, briefly transporting you to landscapes and streetscapes...