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Sustaining the Borderlands in the Age of NAFTA

Development, Politics, and Participation on the US-Mexico Border

Suzanne Simon

Publication Year: 2014

Sustaining the Borderlands in the Age of NAFTA provides the only book-length study of the impact on residents of the US-Mexico border of NAFTA's Environmental and Labor Side Accords, which required each state to enforce labor and environmental regulations. Through field research in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, anthropologist Suzanne Simon tests the premise that the side accords would encourage Mexican grassroots democratization. The effectiveness of the side accords was tied to transparency and accountability, and practically bound to opportunities for Mexican border populations to participate in the side accord petitioning and civil society input mechanisms. Simon conducted sixteen months of fieldwork with both a group of environmental activists and a group of those fighting for labor justice in Mexico. Both of these groups became enmeshed in the types of cross-border advocacy networks and coalition building efforts that are typical of the NAFTA era.

Although the key to the side accords' anticipated success lay in their ostensibly generous participatory, civil society inclusion and sustainable development opportunities, Sustaining the Borderlands reveals that the Mexican border populations for which they were largely created are effectively excluded from participating. This is due to the ongoing online, territorial, class, and cultural barriers that shape the borderlands. Rather than experiencing the side accords and their companion institutions as transparent and accessible, residents experienced them as opaque and indecipherable. Simon concludes that the side accords have failed to deliver on their promise of bringing democracy to Mexico because practical mechanisms that would ensure their effective implementation were never put in place.

NAFTA took effect at a time when Mexico was undergoing a democratic transition. The treaty was supposed to encourage this transition and improve environmental and labor conditions on the US-Mexico border. This book demonstrates that, twenty years later, the promises of NAFTA have not come to pass.

Published by: Vanderbilt University Press


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Title Page, copyright Page, Dedication

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pp. ix-xv

It seems a bit cliché to say, “There are too many people to thank” for their support and advice in the writing of this book, but there is a reason for clichés. There are too many people and institutions to thank. I apologize in advance if I have overlooked any names, institutional or...

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pp. 1-14

It was a warm spring morning and I stood on the banks of the Dren Cinco de Marzo with Rosalia (former leader of a local workers’ justice organization and current president of an environmental justice organization called Las Caracaras1) and Marisa, a representative of the Sierra...

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1. Democratizing Discourses

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pp. 15-39

The NAFTA side accords came into being largely as a function of three global and interrelated discourses. Arguably, the most important of these was dual transition theory as applied to transition governments generally, and to Mexico in particular. “Dual transition” theory suggests that...

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2. Space and Place in the Borderlands

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pp. 40-59

The border between Mexico and the United States has often been referred to as the longest boundary in the world to separate the so-called first and third worlds (cf. Alvarez 1995, 451). Gloria Anzaldúa’s famous description of the border as an “open wound” where the “Third...

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3. Investigating Waste

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pp. 60-92

Ciudad Juarez has recently gained notoriety as the so-called murder capital of the world due to its drug-related violence. The city has had a reputation for extraordinary gender violence dating back at least two decades, however. Since 1993, hundreds of young women have been murdered...

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4. Environmental Justice as Place-Making

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pp. 93-124

I first learned about Las Caracaras while visiting one night with Rosalia in her kitchen. Throughout the time that we had spent together, she had made passing references to the range of environmental threats in the community and an organization with which she was associated...

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5. Environmental Organizing and Citizenship on the Border

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pp. 125-149

The previous chapter traced the footprints of migrants as they made their ways from southern and central Mexico to the border city of Matamoros. This chapter examines efforts to craft an ecological footprint or “eco-region” consciousness that transcends borders and nation-states...

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6. Transnational Networks and Grassroots Splintering

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pp. 150-184

This chapter discusses the effects that non-local environmental and labor organizations from the United States had on the Matamoros-based Spektra workers’ organizing efforts and Las Caracaras. In particular, it describes the ways in which these emergent movements became painfully...

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pp. 185-192

This book has argued that the passage of NAFTA relied on the creation of the North American labor and environmental side accords. It has argued, additionally, that the side accords were inextricably tied to Mexico’s ongoing political democratization and economic transition efforts to reconcile...


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pp. 193-202


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pp. 203-216


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pp. 217-222

E-ISBN-13: 9780826519610
E-ISBN-10: 082651961X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826519597
Print-ISBN-10: 0826519598

Page Count: 248
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 881627714
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Sustaining the Borderlands in the Age of NAFTA

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Mexican-American Border Region -- Environmental conditions.
  • Mexican-American Border Region -- Economic conditions.
  • Mexican-American Border Region -- Commercial policy -- Environmental aspects.
  • Industries -- Environmental aspects -- Mexican-American Border Region.
  • Sustainable development -- Environmental aspects -- Mexican-American Border Region.
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