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  • Toward a Border Gnosis of the Borderlands: Joaquín Murrieta and Nineteenth-Century U.S.-Mexico Border Culture
  • Robert McKee Irwin (bio)

Chicano Studies Meets Border Studies

In this essay I would like to inflect contemporary currents in border studies, particularly those surrounding U.S.-Mexican border history, with a view from South. Despite the recent accolades of border studies scholars for Chicano studies’ effectively addressing nepantla (the in-between spaces produced by colonization and most particularly by U.S. expansionism in North America), there remains a hollow space in U.S.-Mexico border studies, especially in my own field of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century literary and cultural studies, that warrants addressing.

To think about how U.S.-Mexico border culture ought best to be understood, I refer to Walter Mignolo’s recent book Local Histories/Global Designs (2000) and his concept of “border gnosis.” Mignolo strives to “open up the notion of ‘knowledge’ beyond cultures of scholarships” (9) of modern Western epistemology to “Post-Occidental reason” (91).1 Border gnosis, then, is knowledge that takes form at the margins of the modern Western world. The decolonizing enterprise of border gnoseology (discourse about border gnosis) elicits “transformations of the rigidity of epistemic and territorial frontiers established and controlled by the coloniality of power in the process of building the modern/colonial world system … [by] absorbing and displacing hegemonic forms of knowledge into the perspective [End Page 509] of the subaltern” (12). Put another way, border gnosis refers to “the subaltern reason striving to bring to the foreground the force and creativity of knowledges subalternized during a long process of colonization of the planet, which was at the same time the process in which modernity and the modern Reason were constructed” (13).

I will take Mignolo’s scheme of knowledges to dictate not either/or (hegemonic/subaltern) classifications, but a series of relative positions of different knowledges in a hegemonic matrix in which, for example, knowledge produced in world-renowned institutions in France or the United States in French or English tends to be valued over that produced in Latin America in Spanish or Portuguese, but that the latter is valued over knowledge produced in indigenous cultures and indigenous languages of the Americas that are marginal to national cultures. Likewise, local customs of prejudice (e.g., racism, sexism) may also result in relative hegemonic or subaltern positionings of knowledge reflective of the identity of the knowledge producer, the subject matter in question, and so on. The relative power of a body of knowledge may vary from place to place, and may shift over time, but Mignolo shows that many of the forces at work in determining these relative positionings are historic and derive directly from how the modern world was constructed from an “Occidental” point of view in the colonial era.

The field of U.S.-Mexico border studies would benefit from such an approach. Incorporating Mexican perspectives into discussions of the border and intercultural relations between the United States and Mexico challenges implicit hierarchies that go beyond those of economics, technology, and military might, entering the realms of academics and publishing, the production of knowledges. It is certainly more common, for example, for Mexican scholars of Mexican culture to be informed and conscious of what has been published on Mexican culture in English by scholars at U.S. universities than for U.S.-based scholars of American culture to know or care about what Mexicans working at Mexican universities and publishing in Spanish may contribute to the field.2 The field of border studies to which Mignolo’s book makes a significant contribution has occasionally been an exception; bilingual volumes such as Luis Leal’s collected essays, Aztlán y México: Perfiles literarios e históricos (1985), or collections such as La línea: Ensayos sobre literatura fronteriza México-norteamericana/The Line: Essays on Mexican/American Border Literature (edited by Harry Polkinhorn, Gabriel Trujillo Muñoz, and Rogelio Reyes, 1987) and Encuentro internacional de [End Page 510] la literatura de la frontera, Borderlands Literature: Towards an Integrated Perspective (edited by Harry Polkinhorn and José Manuel Di Bella, 1990) have recognized the importance of bilingual multinational dialogue...


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pp. 509-537
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