Border Histories During Cycles of Globalization

Mexamérica / dossier / Mayo de 2018

Cynthia Radding

Traducción de: Lacey Pipkin


The configuration of international and interethnic borders in the Americas is a reflection of similar processes that take place on the African, European and Asian continents, with levels of violence that grow more critical with each passing day. As a historian dedicated to the borderlands of both the United States/Mexico and Bolivia/Brazil in their formative stages as nation states, my perspective on the long-term processes takes moving borders into account. It would be imprecise to speak of borders drawn on maps and designated by degrees of longitude and latitude, because human groups’ seasonal migrations and migrations of longer duration create bridges and networks of relationships among different spaces that are physically separated but culturally and historically linked. These human networks create fluid spaces that transcend binational boundaries; they are strengthened by familial and working relationships, as well as by the ethnic and linguistic identities that are, in many cases, created or transformed during migration itself. Mexican and Central American communities that live in the U.S. eloquently illustrate these migratory networks and fluid spaces, because their settlements extend past the flanks of the border and have history as deep as three or more generations. Beyond the well-documented stories of Latino communities in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami and New York, the migratory phenomenon has reached high levels of visibility in the urban and rural environments of states such as Georgia, Alabama, Ohio and the Carolinas. In North Carolina, where I live and work, the Latino population represents 14 countries —among its members from Mexico and Central America—and includes speakers of the Purépecha, Otomí and Mayan languages, in addition to other languages and cultures. To cite just one example, Yesenia Pedro Vicente, born in Morganton, North Carolina, to Guatemalan parents who speak Q’anjob’al, identifies as a participant in three different cultures at the same time that she navigates her civil, social and economic situation in the framework of the U.S.1 Her personal and family history is one thread among thousands that make up the historical fabric of the emergence of the borderlands of the Americas. Yesenia’s experience and her mixed cultural identities are reflected in the challenge that Sandra M. Gonzales describes in her essay titled “Colonial Borders, Native Fences,” directed at the familial, regional and binational scales. Referring to Mexican migrants known as “Chicanos/as”, Gonzales argues that when Chicanos and other indigenous peoples of the Americas adopted the borders imposed by colonial powers as their own, they also accepted the separation of their histories and the bifurcation of their structures of knowledge.2 The feelings of loss and transfer implicit in her argument have a historic background that expresses itself both spatially and temporally. The specific content of historic migratory trajectories differ for distinct regions, but it is necessary to consider them to establish the spatial and temporal contexts of the human and cultural experience of living on the border. Taking into consideration the panorama we currently face, I am convinced that migration is a human right. The widespread images of the North American border wall put before our eyes the undeniable violence of barriers such as this one, erected upon the millenary landscapes of the deserts of Chihuahua and Sonora. Constructed over three decades and four administrations of U.S. presidents, portions of metallic fence and virtual walls of cameras and sensors cover a third of the line that stretches more than 3,000 kilometers between both countries. These barriers and the wall, so thunderously announced by President Trump, separate communities and families, breaking the social networks whose survival depends on the border economy. At the same time, we recognize that the violence of the border itself and the harrowing routes to reach the North, represented by la Bestia and the ambivalent roles of the coyotes, is inseparable from the systemic poverty, the ecological crises and the violent environment at the places of origin such as Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, as well as other horizons such as Africa and the Middle East. The migratory phenomenon that currently presents itself so acutely is the dramatic human face of a new cycle of globalization. The suffering of those who leave and those who stay is eloquently reflected in art, literature, film and theater—from the writing of Juan Rulfo to the Teatro Campesino—and further augmented by the gender perspectives put forth by authors such as Sandra M. Gonzales, Gloria Anzaldúa and Sandra Cisneros.3

Chicano Park Mural, San Diego

The migratory phenomenon and the challenges it brings are not new, and we come to see that we are facing a labor border with a long history spanning many generations. The stories of cross-border migrations are intertwined with those of the extractive and manufacturing industries, as well as the expansion of commercial agriculture in the desert zones of Northwestern Mexico and the Southwestern U.S. Its dramatic moments run parallel with the struggles to unionize workers in both countries, which are inseparable from the regional character attributed to Northern Mexico and the Revolution of 1910.4 With this historic backdrop, we know that threats from Trump and his followers are not empty, because we have the distressing memory of the displacement and deportation of immigrants in periods of economic recession, rising xenophobia and racism.5 Nevertheless, the history of shifting borders goes much deeper than the contemporary crisis. In the 19th century the binational border presented another kind of conjuncture and conflict. “Illegal” migrations often ran from north to south. The archives of the Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores are full of complaints and reports of raids carried out by cowboys from the U.S. who entered Mexican territory to steal cattle. In parallel, the border regions served as a refuge for captives and slaves seeking freedom by moving between both countries. Throughout the century cross-border movements created spaces that were not controlled by any national or colonial power. The autonomous groups and confederations of indigenous peoples, such as the Comanche, the Apache, the Utes and the Navajos, mounted true expeditions that invaded Mexico to take cattle, provisions and captives. Their dominance of the plains and mountains of the region had political and strategic consequences for the U.S. invasion of Mexico (1846-1848), as well as for Mexico’s Reform War, the French invasion of that country (1857-1867) and the rupture in the U.S. between the Union and the Confederacy (1861-1865).6 The historic legacy of the inter- and intranational wars and inter-ethnic struggles had its roots in the 19th century cycle of globalization marked by a capitalism of uneven regimens of property, technological advances and territorialization of the border. The privatization of arable valleys and mountains, a process initiated under the colonial regime, as well as the concentration of land and water into large, modern estates with the arrival of the train and Anglo-Saxon capital, changed the landscapes of the plains and mountain ranges and gave new shades of meaning to the word border in this vast region.7 The violence of this globalizing era, with the policies of exile and ethnocide that characterized the Porfiriato in Mexico and the capitalist expansion of the U.S. toward the Pacific, left among its consequences the survival of transnational indigenous groups such as the Yoeme (Yaquis), Tohono o’odham (Papagos) and the Kickapoo. Their cultural and ethnic identities have lasted into the present day, though they have been molded by their binational movements in the fluvial and ritual spaces that define their worlds.8 In the 19th century the military and economic might of nation states began to penetrate the border regions that diverse indigenous nations had controlled through mixed economies of hunting, gathering, agriculture and trade, strengthened by their wealth in cattle and human captives and their military arts. Before a border of labor emerged, the region hosted a complex network of corridors that connected the shores of the Gulf of California with the Sierra Madre Mountains. Its spatial dimensions included a great variety of geographic environments and resources, from estuaries and marshes to mountain ranges with irrigated valleys and the plains and peaks of the vast North. Over three centuries the Spanish colonists transformed these landscapes with an industrial complex of extractive mining and beneficiation haciendas, cattle herds and the cultivation of European crops. The viceregal administration of New Spain initiated the drawn-out process of defining the limits of the colonial territory against the autonomous nations using military details (presidios), missions and the slow-but-steady advance of civilian settlements. The official roads and their branches followed the migratory and trade routes traced by indigenous peoples, but they also opened new paths across the unpopulated deserts and the mountains.9 On this border of corridors, indigenous groups maintained their demographic ascendence until the end of the 18th century. Their patterns of settling in small towns and ranches and their seasonal, cyclical displacements moved within and beyond the territories that the Spanish officials and neighbors claimed as the King’s —and their own— domain. The colonial presence had undeniable impact on the ecology, the economy and the tribal configuration of the region, but it continued to be precarious along the open border, always subject to negotiations with the caciques and the tribal bands that inhabited it. The border of corridors took root in pre-Columbian centuries. A complex history of movements and exchanges that linked Mesoamerica with the spaces of the North, in different stages, testifies to the importance of migrations in the cultural formation of the landscapes and the societies of the border regions extending beyond the great Chichimeca. The advance of certain Mesoamerican groups toward the North, as they mixed with the autonomous populations, enriched their horticultural adaptations to produce different varieties of corn and other crops and to experiment with managing agaves, cacti and other semi-wild plants. The long-distance exchanges included ritual and sumptuary goods—turquoise, conch shells and feathers—as well as stone and edible goods and tanned bison and deer hides. People, products and ideas moved along networks of roads and pathways that connected cities such as La Quemada, Chalchihuites and Casas Grandes with the mountain villages and the ranches of the Great Plains. The incursions of Mesoamericans into the North during the first millennium of our era did not happen without conflict. While the corridors opened a wide panorama of knowledge and new spaces, its historic aftermath involved a series of wars and territorial rivalries in a slow, complex process of creating borders.10 This history of Mesoamerican advances and retreats conditioned the first forays of the Spanish into the territory in the 16th century, when these expeditions crossed this border of corridors guided by legions of Mesoamericans who served as interpreters and liaisons among different peoples and territories.11 To conclude this brief examination of the long-term historical processes that gave form and life to a border region, I emphasize the concepts of fluid space and post-global processes. To speak of fluid spaces affirms the idea of space as a produce of multiple historic processes, which are dynamic and change based on human actions.12 In contrast, to express the historic quality of the production of border spaces, I think it is more appropriate to speak about globalization cycles than of “postglobal” processes. The border configurations in the great North of Mesoamerica, New Spain and Mexico carry distinct dimensions of reciprocity between what is local and what is global. Globalization cycles draw short and long-distance links between the deserts and the mountain ranges, crossing the plains all the way to the Mississippi. Its historic strength transcends the rhetoric of the moment and defies attempts to erect barriers against millennia of flux along the corridors and among the people who make up the border.

Cover Image: Eric Almanza, We Dream of Ways to Break These Iron Bars, 2016.

  1. Interview with Yesenia Pedro Vicente by Joel Hage, April 11, 2013, R-0679. Southern Oral History Program Collection #4007, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

  2. Sandra M. Gonzales, “Colonial Borders, Native Fences: Building Bridges between Indigenous Communities through the Decolonization of the American Landscape,” Comparative Indigeneities of the Americas. Toward a Hemispheric Approach, M. Bianet Castellanos, Lourdes Gutiérrez Nájera, Arturo J. Aldama, (eds). University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 2009, p. 309. 

  3. Fortaleza de la mujer Maya, Teatro FOMMA, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas; Juan Rulfo, El Llano en llamas y otros cuentos, Fondo de Cultura Económica, México, 1953; Sandra M. Gonzales, “Colonial Borders, Native Fences”; Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street, Salem Press, Pasadena, 2011; Nepantla: liminalidad y transición: escritura chicana de mujeres, UNAM, México, 2015; Gloria Anzaldúa, Light in the Dark/Luz en lo oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Espirituality, Reality, Duke University Press, Durham, 2015. 

  4. Eric V. Meeks, Border Citizens: the Making of Indians, Mexicans, and Anglos in Arizona, University of Texas Press, Austin, 2007; Thomas G. Andrews, Killing for Coal. America’s Deadliest Labor War, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2008; Friedrich Katz, La guerra secreta en México: Europa, los Estados Unidos y la Revolución Mexicana, Ediciones Era, México, 1998. 

  5. Francisco E. Balderrama, Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2006. 

  6. Brian DeLay, War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the U.S.-Mexican War, Harvard University Press, Harvard, 2008; Matthew Babcock, Apache Adaptation to Hispanic Rule, Cambridge University Press, NY, 2016; Cuauhtémoc Velasco Ávila, La frontera étnica en el noreste mexicano. Los comanches entre 1800-1841. Historias de desencuentros y destierros, CIESAS, CND/INAH, México, 2012. 

  7. Thomas E. Sheridan, Landscapes of Fraud: Mission Tumacácori, the Baca Float, and the Betrayal of the O’odham, University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 2006. 

  8. Patricia Medina, “‘Estar en el lomo de la tierra’. Configuración del espacio social yoreme mayo a través de sus enramadas. Sinaloa, México”, in Las vías del noroeste II: Propuesta para una perspectiva sistémica e interdisciplinaria, Carlo Bonfiglioli, Arturo Gutiérrez, Marie-Areti Hers, María Eugenia Olavarría (eds.), UNAM, México, 2008, pp. 319-346; Enriqueta Lerma Rodríguez, El nido heredado. Estudio etnográfico sobre cosmovisión, espacio y ciclo ritual de la tribu yaqui, doctoral thesis, UNAM, México, 2011; María Eugenia Olavarría, Cruces, flores y serpientes. Simbolismo y vida ritual yaquis UAM, Plaza y Valdés, México, 2003. 

  9. Chantal Cramaussel, Rutas de la Nueva España, El Colegio de Michoacán, Zamora, 2006. 

  10. Carlo Bonfiglioli et al (eds.), Las vías del noroeste I, II, III, UNAM, México, 2006-2011, Fernando Berrojalbiz, Paisajes y fronteras del Durango prehispánico, UNAM, México, 2012; Cecilia Sheridan Prieto, Fronterización del espacio hacia el norte de la Nueva España, CIESAS, México 2015; Marie-Areti Hers, et al, (eds.), Nómadas y sedentarios en el Norte de México, UNAM, México, 2000. 

  11. Danna Levin Rojo, Return to Aztlán, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2014; Carroll Riley, Becoming Aztlán, University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, 2005. 

  12. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, Blackwell, Oxford, 1991.