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Border Conflict, Border Fences, and the “Tortilla Curtain” Incident of 1978–1979 Oscar J. Martinez The current debate in the United States over proposals to build an impenetrable barrier along the U.S.–Mexico border for security reasons and to stop undocumented immigration is the latest chapter in a long history of many initiatives to erect border fences. Some of these initiatives actually led to the building of real fences while others never got off the drawing board. This article focuses the notorious “Tortilla Curtain” episode of 1978–1979 that resulted in the erection of new fences in El Paso, Texas, opposite Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, and in San Ysidro, California, opposite Tijuana, Baja California. Heated controversy broke out when the public learned of the design of the fences, which included barbed wire with sharp razors that would have the potential to maim climbers. The dispute over the proposed new barriers, which lasted several months, assumed international proportions when the Mexican government expressed outrage at the physical harm that would befall immigrants attempting to enter the United States. Part 1 of this paper provides a historical sketch of boundary making and border conflict. The description and analysis provide context for understanding the tensions generated by the Tortilla Curtain. Part 2 chronicles fence building on the border before the late 1970s to the extent that extant fragmentary data have permitted. In part 3, I relate the story of the Tortilla Curtain from my own perspective as an observer of events as they unfolded in El Paso and as a professor and researcher at the time at the University of Texas at El Paso. Legacy of Border Conflict Safeguarding the border from unauthorized human intrusion and smuggling of goods has been an ongoing concern for both the United Oscar J. Martinez is Regents’ Professor in the Department of History at the University of Arizona. Journal of the Southwest 50, 3 (Autumn 2008) : 263–278 264  ✜  Journal of the Southwest States and Mexico since the early nineteenth century, when the formal relationship between the two countries began.1 When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, Mexicans and European Americans had no choice but to contend with problems arising from a shared boundary line. From the early 1820s to the early 1850s, the biggest issue had to do with the actual location of the boundary. The United States wanted to acquire land that Mexico refused to sell. Determined to significantly increase its national domain, the U.S. government aggressively and successfully pursued an expansionist agenda against its weaker neighbor, eventually forcing the movement of the border south to the Rio Grande and west to the Pacific Ocean. As a result Mexico lost half of its national territory. The process of forced border change began in the 1820s with the legal and illegal entry of tens of thousands of European Americans into Texas, a Mexican frontier province whose boundary with Louisiana and its coastline along the Gulf of Mexico could not be adequately secured by the Mexican government for lack of resources, including insufficient military forces. Dissatisfaction with Mexican rule and ethnic tensions drove the newly arrived European Americans to launch an insurgency that culminated in the creation in 1836 of the Republic of Texas. During the rebellion, volunteers and arms from the United States poured illegally into Texas, assuring the success of the movement . Mexico, however, refused to recognize Texas’ independence. In 1845, the United States annexed Texas, an action that greatly alarmed the Mexican government. For Mexico, annexation constituted an act of war because Texas was still considered part of its national domain. Yet Mexico did not declare war on the United States over the Texas question. Mexico’s refusal to accept the loss of Texas to the United States would play a central role in the U.S. declaration of war against Mexico in 1846. The United States claimed the Nueces River–Rio Grande land strip as a part of Texas, and ordered troops to that location, precipitating the skirmish with Mexican troops that started the war. President James Polk justified the declaration of war on the grounds that “American blood had been shed on American soil.” In reality, the...


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