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  • Border Land, Border Water: A History of Construction on the U.S.–Mexico Divide by C. J. Alvarez
  • Stephen Aron (bio)
Border Land, Border Water: A History of Construction on the U.S.–Mexico Divide. By C. J. Alvarez. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2019. Pp. 301. $45.00 cloth; $42.75 ebook)

The name Donald Trump does not appear in the index to Border Land, Border Water. Nor does his proposed wall make an appearance in the book. Yet the clarion call to build a wall along the border between the United States and Mexico will likely loom large in the minds of many readers of C. J. Alvarez’s deeply researched and very timely new book. In many ways, the idea of building a barrier from the mouth of the Rio Grande to the coast of California follows logically from the history that unfolds on the pages of Border Land, Border Water. As Alvarez explains, “the long history of fence and barrier construction along the border includes dozens of different styles, configurations, and materials meant to impede the movement of humans, vehicles, and animals” (p. 3). So, if the goal is to intercede the flow of migrants and drugs even more effectively, why not extend the existing barriers with a big, beautiful wall from sea to shining sea?

But Alvarez’s book is not one in which ever Trumpers will take comfort. For while builders along the border displayed “greater and greater faith in the capacity to control the movement of people, goods, and water using physical structures,” the power of humans and nature again and again defied such containment efforts (p. 4). Rather than concede the limits of their power, public authorities and private enterprisers typically doubled down. Compensatory constructions “designed to mitigate the unsustainable results of previous building projects” have, however, done less to resolve old problems than to create new ones. Spanning the period from the Mexican-American War almost to the present, Alvarez’s narrative should be read as a cautionary tale for would-be wall builders, beginning as it does “amid the breathless ignorance of exploration” and ending “in the willful ignorance of the overbuilt border of today” (p. 4). [End Page 190]

By taking the long view, Alvarez captures the full life cycle of border works. That allows him to illuminate connections and unintended consequences that more near-sighted builders, policymakers, and social scientists rarely perceived. Chief among the linkages that Alvarez traces across the decades are those between waterworks and policing. The latter obviously has dominated accounts of border building. The former has received much less scrutiny. Indeed, as Alvarez details, in the wake of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo when surveyors first ventured to mark (and build markers on) the newly established boundary between Mexico and the United States, what shaped their vision of the border land was its lack of water. That view stuck and continued to shape (and misshape) the development of the built environment on the U.S.–Mexico divide.

Despite the early and enduring perception of the boundary between the United States and Mexico being situated in an inhospitable desert, a glance at a map reveals the line itself ran through water as well as across land (hence the book’s title). In fact, in terms of expenditures, most of the construction that occurred in the twentieth century was directed to the watery portion of the divide. That many of the early hydraulic engineering projects along the Rio Grande (and, to a lesser extent, the Colorado River) failed to meet expectations did not stop the construction of more grandiose damming and diversion works—or the production of grander failures, at least from the standpoint of sustainable, local environments. Like many environmental histories, Border Land, Border Water charts a downward cycle in which efforts to “improve” the natural environment spurred changes to the built environment, which damaged the natural one, leading to additional building and greater damages.

A similar trajectory characterized the surveillance infrastructure. “Nearly all police construction was designed to manage the negative effects of incoherent, self-contradictory, and failed policies regarding immigration and banned psychoactive substances,” writes Alvarez (p. 189). When these also...


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pp. 190-192
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