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Expanding the Borderlands: Recent Studies on the U.S.-Mexico Border

From: Latin American Research Review
Volume 44, Number 1, 2009
pp. 266-277 | 10.1353/lar.0.0069

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Borderlands histories can do much to illuminate current political debates about immigration to the United States. While most Americans, perhaps with the exception of those in the Southwest, conceptualize the United States as completely separate from Mexico, borderlands histories and studies illuminate the complex integration of the peoples and territories of the United States and Mexico through time. In my experience, Mexicans have a much deeper knowledge of this long-term integration and continue to view the Southwest, and often other parts of the United States, as a part of greater Mexico, at least symbolically. The more than 20.5 million people of Mexican origin who live in the United States have long-term experience living the integration of the United States and Mexico, and of the barriers and obstacles to this integration.1 Recent U.S. scholarship in the field of immigration studies has embraced the idea of foregrounding the large Mexican population in many parts of the United States as a part of greater Mexico, thereby extending the borderlands concept to include geographic parts of the United States far from the southern border, such as Chicago and New York.2 Research on transborder and transnational communities and families,3 which operate simultaneously in multiple locations in the U.S. and Mexico, has also pushed the expansion of the borderlands concept.4 Although some may want to exert caution in following this approach, because it can feed the fires of anti-immigrant activists, this framework is in fact increasingly embraced—albeit indirectly—by people involved in international trade and in underwriting U.S. economic policy.5 In this essay, my underlying thesis is that we need to take the concept of borderlands studies, which has traditionally focused on the geographic borderlands of the United States and Mexico, and extend it both geographically and metaphorically to include all of the United States and Mexico.6 By beginning with a historical understanding of U.S.-Mexico integration through time and tracing out its implications for a host of contemporary issues, we can arrive at a reasonable set of proposals for comprehensive immigration reform to overhaul our horribly broken immigration system. Within this larger project of extending the borderlands concept, the optic of gender is a particularly productive strategy for documenting how U.S. Mexico integration works in daily life through kinship, work, parenting, sexuality, risk, and violence, and through cultural representations.

One wishes that the broader American public could have the opportunity to read this set of books about U.S.-Mexico borderlands. As a group, they outline the critical importance of interrelated local, regional, national, and global histories, and of political economies bubbling beneath current political discourses on the immigration problem, homeland security, the drug war, English only, immigrant women's fertility and use of social services, and other issues that are read onto the brown bodies of mexicanos in the United States. The studies reviewed here address the results of border law enforcement (Cornelius and Lewis), shifts in U.S. security and drug policy (Payan), the binational ways in which structural, physical, and symbolic violence is perpetrated against Mexican women, and the role of women's flexible labor in U.S. and Mexican economies (Segura and Zavella). All draw on the importance of regional historical studies, which outline how the border was originally created and maintained and now is re-created as a national security boundary.

The long-view regional histories provided by Acuña and Truett enable us to understand how legal, physical, cultural, racial, and political borders were created in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries as the United States usurped and developed more than 40 percent of independent Mexico's territory. The parallel, integrated development of the U.S. and Mexican mining and ranching industries in this region (which some scholars have stretched to include the broader territories of the United States and Mexico) has, along with transportation corridors based on railroad lines, also served as a corridor for political, cultural, economic, and family transborder relationships that endure to this day. Putting the borderlands at the center gives us a crucial optic for understanding the long-term integration and transnational history of the nations now called...