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Reviewed by:
  • Standing on Common Ground: The Making of a Sunbelt Borderland by Geraldo L. Cadava
  • Stephen Aron
Standing on Common Ground: The Making of a Sunbelt Borderland. By Geraldo L. Cadava. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013. Pp. 320. Bibliography. Index. $39.95 cloth.

In the twenty-first century, the border between Arizona and Mexico has emerged as ground zero in fights about immigration. To judge from newspaper headlines and political debates, “the vast deserts” connecting Arizona and Sonora have become “one of the most violent, narco-trafficked, and deadliest” points of contact between the United States and Mexico (p. 1). If many on the Arizona side have their way, the border will become an impregnable wall. Already, the United States is extending a fence to cordon its southwestern boundary, and the U.S. Border Patrol, with added manpower and technology, has stepped up its surveillance. Meanwhile, armed vigilantes, decrying the failure of federal authorities to secure the border, have instituted their own patrols and their own harassment of suspected illegals. And the state of Arizona has launched its own attempts to close the border to undocumented crossers, though, like vigilantes, the state’s law enforcement has sometimes indiscriminately expanded its targets to include all persons with brown skin.

The headlines and debates serve as a backdrop to Geraldo Cadava’s timely book Standing on Common Ground. Standing against conventional readings of this border’s recent history, Cadava’s study accents how from the Second World War through the Cold War the history of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands “defied simple claims about the opening or closing of borders” (p. 245). Instead, the book reconstructs a space spanning southern Arizona and northern Sonora that has been shaped by a “dense web of connections” (p. 9) that went far beyond the movement of undocumented workers. Within this transnational borderland, military officials coordinated defense efforts, civic organizations fashioned regional festivals, entrepreneurs built businesses that catered to Mexican and American shoppers and tourists, students at the University of Arizona and la Universidad de Sonora participated in exchange programs at each other’s campuses, Tohono O’odham Indians traversed an international boundary that had been drawn through their lands, and Mexicans migrated north to the border and across it in search of employment. In Cadava’s view, this interlocked history of Arizona and Sonora made Tucson the “center of several overlapping geographies” (p. 10), encouraging residents of the city and the wider transnational region to see their world not as one starkly partitioned by the international line that bisected it. And that perspective, Cadava suggests, is one that historians of this (and other) borderlands need as well to adopt.

Yet, Cadava, like other historians of borderlands, must also grapple with the ways in which the border has, in fact, divided Arizona and Sonora. Even as businessmen and government officials continued to promote cross-border projects, sweeping economic, political, and demographic changes altered conditions and inspired counter-movements designed to curtail immigration and curb transnational networks. Anti-immigrant [End Page 361] sentiments and legislation have now gained ascendance in Arizona. Still, Cadava’s book provides a powerful reminder that things were “not always this way” (p. 250).

Indeed, until recently, they were not primarily this way, and attempts to re-imagine the role of the border have remained a subject of intense contestation. Standing on Common Ground is especially valuable for its interpretation of these contests, particularly as they played out in the cultural politics of the Arizona-Sonora borderlands. For wealthy conservatives, efforts to construct regional identity often involved conducting pageants and erecting statues that venerated the heroic legacies of Spanish missionaries and Anglo-American pioneers. But, as Cadava details, such whitewashed cultural symbols met resistance from poorer Mexican and Indian inhabitants. Even as humbler residents joined in elite-sponsored activities, they opened them to alternative histories and alternative possibilities.

For its recovery of forgotten histories and its insistence on transnational connections, Standing on Common Ground commands the attention of scholars of the Arizona-Sonora region and of all who study borderlands.

Stephen Aron
University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California


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pp. 361-362
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