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  • Porous Borders: Multiracial Migrations and the Law in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands by Julian Lim
  • Yolanda Chávez Leyva (bio)
Porous Borders: Multiracial Migrations and the Law in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. By Julian Lim. ( Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017. Pp. 320. $32.50 cloth; $24.99 e-book)

Julian Lim's Porous Borders is a welcomed contribution to the study of the transnational and multiracial history of the US-Mexico borderlands. Focusing largely on El Paso, Texas, the most significant port of entry from Mexico to the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Lim argues that after the coming of the railroads in the 1880s, the borderlands became a "messy" place of "multi-racial alliances." It ultimately transformed into an increasingly segregated space where people of color were excluded from the [End Page 414] national identity and became, in effect, "peoples without a nation" (p. 6). Federal legislation as well as policies enacted on the local level created a progressively wider dividing line between Anglo-Saxons who embodied the nation and those considered outsiders, including African Americans, as well as Chinese and Mexican people.

Porous Borders does an exemplary job at describing the borderlands as both a gateway to freedom for people of color as well as a place where the state responded by implementing laws and policies to control the "racial disorder" of the border (p. 93). Lim also provides an important intervention to the erasure of the "multiracial past [that] has become so hidden, erased from the geographical and historical landscape of the borderlands and the nation itself" (p. 5). Her contribution to the historiography of the borderlands is significant. Although New Western history began to explore the multicultural West in the 1990s, borderlands historians' study of African Americans and the Chinese in the borderlands is more recent, having focused mostly on the Anglo-Mexican binary in previous decades.

Lim's monograph shows that the borderlands held different meanings for different groups. For blacks, it represented an area just beyond the confines of Jim Crow. African Americans could cross the border to Juárez and enjoy themselves in an atmosphere of acceptance or they could travel up the road to New Mexico where they could receive a college education. They found both a sense of freedom as well as more economic opportunity. Hundreds of Chinese migrants who had reached El Paso while working on the railroads decided to stay, creating the largest Chinese community in Texas and opening businesses such as laundries. Mexicans, of course, had lived in the region before it became the United States, but economic development and later the Mexican Revolution spurred the growing migration of Mexicans to the region.

As mounting numbers of Anglos arrived, they contrasted their "modern" vision for the city with what they described as the primitive and backwards culture of Mexicans. Despite official efforts to separate the groups, on the streets of El Paso, blacks, Chinese, Mexicans, and [End Page 415] working-class whites worked together, rode the trolleys together, and formed relationships, creating a strong challenge to the increasingly white supremacist vision of politicians and reformers. While El Paso became a multiracial and multinational city after the coming of the railroads, it was not "a tabula rasa of progressive race and ethnic relations," Lim warns. We should not romanticize this period.

Uncovering the multiracial history of the borderlands is a daunting task, particularly if one hopes to amplify the voices of the people whose very presence challenged the racial hierarchy. Lim cautions that historical sources such as newspapers often presented information for the "entertainment of other white Americans," racializing "others" in the process. Primary sources also obscure the experiences of those "whose traces are obscured by intermarriage or an Anglo husband's name, or who were simply overlooked by confused census takers." Lastly, archives are not organized "to capture mixed practices of the past," focusing instead on individual racial/ethnic groups (p. 7). Despite these obstacles, Lim employs a variety of sources in addition to newspapers, including case law, city directories, and memoirs to try to piece together the multiracial practices of the borderlands.

In the epilogue, Lim...


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