Configurations and Narratives
Edited By Gabriele Pisarz-Ramirez and Hannes Warnecke-Berger
Where do the Americas begin, and where do they end? What is the relationship between the spatial constructions of «area» and «continent»? How were the Americas imagined by different actors in different historical periods, and how were these imaginations – as continent, nation, region – guided by changing agendas and priorities? This interdisciplinary volume addresses competing and conflicting configurations and narratives of spatialization in the context of globalization processes from the 19th century to the present.
Contestation, Hybridization, Criminalization: US-Mexican Borderland Vistas
Abstract: Ever since the end of the United States’ war against Mexico in 1848, the territories along the border between the two nations have been a vibrant, but also a turbulent intercultural space. This chapter examines some discursive and medial constructions of spaces north of the US-Mexican border over the last century and a half. It identifies contestation, hybridization, and criminalization as the three main approaches. Oppositional discourses dominate Mexican American conceptualizations of this space from the folk corridos of the 19th century to present-day claims that “We did not cross the border. The border crossed us.” In this respect the chapter addresses various literary texts of the 19th and 20th century as well as Rodolfo F. Acuña’s revisionist Occupied America: A History of Chicanos (8th ed., 2014). As to hybridization discourses, I focus on the border image created in John Sayles’ 1996 film Lone Star. A third approach designates this border region a lawless space in need of state intervention. This spatialization started with 1850s reports on the perils of the Santa Fe Trail and it has been propagated since 2015 by the current US president. Social and political practice as well as discourses in literature, media, academia, and political rhetoric have unsettled this border space with their competing characterizations and agendas.
Ever since the end of the United States’ war against Mexico in 1848, the territories along the border between the two nations have been a vibrant, but also a turbulent intercultural and transnational space—spanning from the Texas coast of the Gulf of Mexico to the San Diego/Tijuana border region on the Pacific coast. Politics, social interaction, and cultural imaginaries have characterized this almost 2,000 mile-long stretch as a virtually borderless contact zone but also as an increasingly militarized space in which US immigration authorities as well as self-appointed vigilante groups try to prevent undocumented border crossings. With approximately 350 million legal crossings1 annually, the US-Mexican border gets crossed more frequently than any other in the world. In recent decades, territories north and south of the border have seen an economic boom fostered by NAFTA but also the rise of violence and crime, drug ←125 | 126→trafficking, and deaths of undocumented border crossers who fall victim to the desert or to criminals. Gloria Anzaldúa’s famous characterization of this border space as “an open wound” speaks to the wide-ranging disenfranchisement of the population of Mexican descent after 1848 and to continuing dynamics of racism and classism (3).
As a transcultural and transnational space, the US-Mexican borderlands remain contested territory. Their spatialization, by which I mean their partition and interpretation, reflects power dynamics and competing interests. Different ethnic groups and political interests, conflicting ideologies and opposing desires for dominance all lay claim to the borderlands. Beyond physical geography, this competition makes the borderlands a relational space with a contested societal and symbolic order.2 Christian Wille and Markus Hesse have rightly noted that “spaces are more or less manifestly shaped by power relationships …. These are revealed by examining differentiations, attributions of meaning, hierarchizations and other techniques of the exercise of power that are inherent in spatial constructions” (31). Space is divided and attributed depending on which individual, group, nation, or ideology is in charge or is trying to gain control. On the one hand, spatialization involves the division of physical territory into spheres of domination, on the other, it focuses on the people in a shared space, highlighting the primacy and rights of some and the deficiency or illegality of others. As Doreen Massey points out—based on Henri Lefebvre’s notion of space as socially produced—“space presents us with the social in the widest sense: the challenge of our constitutive interrelatedness” (195). Space reflects the interests and maneuvers of those interacting in it as well as the ideologies of those trying to shape it from the outside, becoming the site and object of multiple discourses, narratives, and actions aiming at domination. Massey treats space as “the dimension of multiple trajectories, a simultaneity of stories-so-far” (24). She highlights the interrelatedness of space and time, reminding us that more so than ←126 | 127→physical geography it is spatialization that is changeable. Depending on who is in a position of power at a certain historical moment, the same territory will be spatialized differently over time. Space is thus also an asset which individuals, organizations, and governments seek to appropriate or control, striving for the authority to define and shape it.
Control of Texas, for example, has shifted repeatedly over the centuries. Native American tribes, especially the Comanche, were displaced by Spanish colonizers. The rule of the Spanish crown was challenged when the Mexican colonies declared their independence from Spain in 1810. After the end of the Mexican War of Independence in 1821 “Coahuila y Tejas” became a constituent state of the United Mexican States under the country’s 1824 constitution. Except for some remaining indigenous tribes the population of Texas was almost 100 percent Spanish-Mexican for the first quarter of the nineteenth century. But over the following decade immigration from the United States and Europe was encouraged and huge land grants were given to so-called empresarios. As a result, by 1834 only about 20 percent of Texas’ population was of Mexican descent. The new non-Mexican majority declared the independence of Texas from Mexico and proclaimed the Republic of Texas in 1836. Meanwhile the United States had been expanding westward and when James Knox Polk became president in 1845, his administration tried unsuccessfully to buy California from Mexico. In December of that year the United States annexed the Republic of Texas, and Polk was looking for ways to enlarge the annexed territory. While the Mexican government claimed that the southern border of Texas was the Nueces River, Polk and Anglo-Texans maintained that the annexed territory extended all the way to the Rio Grande, 150 miles south of the Nueces River (Gonzales 76). Rather than submitting the issue to international arbitration as proposed by Mexico, Polk stationed US troops in the contested territory and waited for Mexico to declare war, which it did in April 1846 (76). The war, disastrous for Mexico, established a new spatial order. As Manuel G. Gonzales summarizes,
Mexico not only had to surrender the vast lands of California and New Mexico, but it was forced to recognize the humiliating loss of Texas. Altogether, it lost 947,570 square miles of land, almost half of its national territory, though less than 1 percent of its population. … Mexicans in the conquered territory were given the alternative of packing up and moving south into Mexican territory—an option that only about 2,000 of the 100,000 eligible candidates chose—or remaining in what had become the American Southwest. …
The armed conflict occurred for many reasons, but mostly because Americans wanted war, or rather what war would provide. The naked truth remains that Mexico had what its northern neighbor craved—land. (79–81)←127 | 128→
That land, which is now the Southwest of the United States and the US-Mexican borderlands, was spatialized in a new manner as an outcome of the US war with Mexico: New power elites took control, new ideologies (above all that of “Manifest Destiny”) rationalized a new spatial and legal order, and Mexicans were dispossessed, cheated, lynched, and disenfranchised.
The spatialization of the US-Mexican borderlands changed over the centuries because of historical developments but also because of new ways of ordering the globe. Walter D. Mignolo reminds us that “America” and the “Western Hemisphere” are “inventions” (“Decolonial” 60). As such, they are subject to different ideologically founded interpretations and spatializations.3 The idea of a Global South, which gained prominence in the 1970s, complicates the spatialization of the Americas and creates overlaid borderlines. As Mignolo writes,
there is, on the one hand, South and Central America, and, on the other, North America. In the middle there is the Caribbean, which is also counted as Global South. But that is not all, because there is also the South of the North (e.g., the South of the U.S. …). The superposition of the Global South over Hemispheric America flags the power differentials in the very same Hemisphere—power differentials that can be accounted for by the history of coloniality from 1500 to the present. (“Decolonial” 61)
The US-Mexican borderlands are also the geographical limits of the Global South and thus a zone of simultaneity, where languages, economic systems, cultural traditions, and diverging effects of coloniality intersect. The result of this intersection can be spatialized as segmentation or as a challenge to borderlines. The latter view is held by the Mexican performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña, who writes:
for me, the border is no longer located at any fixed geopolitical site. I carry the border with me, and I find new borders wherever I go.
I travel across a different America. My America is a continent (not a country) that is not described by the outlines on any of the standard maps. … My America includes different peoples, cities, borders, and nations. …←128 | 129→
When I am on the East Coast of the United States, I am also in Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. There, I like to visit Nuyo Rico, Cuba York, and other micro-republics. When I return to the U.S. Southwest, I am suddenly back in Mexamerica, a vast conceptual nation that also includes the northern states of Mexico, and overlaps with various Indian nations. When I visit Los Angeles or San Francisco, I am at the same time in Latin America and Asia. Los Angeles, like Mexico City, Tijuana, Miami, Chicago, and New York, is practically a hybrid nation/city in itself. (5–6)
To be sure, this is the view of the privileged artist-traveler with proper travel documents, not that of the individual struggling with physical and metaphorical borderlines.
As these views of historian Manuel G. Gonzales, cultural critic Walter D. Mignolo, and performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña illustrate, spatialization remains to a large degree in the eyes of the beholder. Depending on an individual’s or a group’s own position, the same physical space will be interpreted differently in reflection of their ideologies and interests. This essay will focus on the discursive and medial construction of spaces north of the US-Mexican border over the last 170 years. The main approaches can be characterized as contestation, hybridization, and criminalization. These three different mechanics of spatialization should not be seen as a sequence but as three ongoing and parallel borderland vistas. Applying Henri Lefebvre’s notion of space as socially constructed, we can consider the 1848 US takeover of Mexican lands from Texas to California under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the resistance of the Mexican population that remained in those areas as the historical basis of a contested border space. Oppositional discourses dominate Mexican American conceptualizations of this space from the folk corridos of the 19th century to present-day claims that “We did not cross the border. The border crossed us.” In this respect I will address various texts of the 19th and 20th century, leading up to Rodolfo F. Acuña’s revisionist Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, which was first published as a textbook in the context of the Chicano movement in 1972 and which is now in its eighth edition (2014). As to hybridization discourses of the US-Mexico border space, I will focus on the border image created in John Sayles’ 1996 film Lone Star, which exemplifies the permanence of transborder interconnections and the artificiality of attempts at trying to keep different cultural traditions and different ethnic groups apart. A third approach designates this border region a lawless space in need of state intervention. This spatialization started with the perils associated with the Santa Fe Trail and the Old Spanish Trail as well as justifications of the Texas Rangers’ actions against the Mexican population from 1848 onward, and it has been propagated since 2015 by the current US president. These three rivaling ←129 | 130→discourses of spatialization illustrate the competition for discursive authority and the range of border space imaginaries.
The dominance of Anglo elites which the US victory had brought to power in 1848 was challenged in numerous oppositional discourses by the Mexican newspapers in the newly annexed US Southwest, in local political election campaigns, and in literature. María Amparo Ruiz, born in Baja California, and married at age 16 to Anglo officer Henry S. Burton of the winning US Army in 1848, is considered the first Mexican American author to publish in English. In 1853 the couple bought a ranch near San Diego, California, on which they lived only part-time because of Burton’s deployment to the East Coast and his service in the American Civil War. After the death of her husband in 1869, María Amparo Ruiz de Burton returned to the Southern California ranch to find much of it occupied by squatters who claimed the land as their own. This process had been made possible by the California Land Act of 1851, which set up a commission appointed by the US president in order to “ascertain and settle the private land claims in the State of California.” Section 8 of that act stipulates that “each and every person claiming lands in California by virtue of any right or title derived from the Spanish or Mexican government shall present the same to the said commissioners [who will] decide upon the validity of the said claim” (United States, Congress 632), adding that the commission’s decision can be challenged in court. While litigation was ongoing, property rights were not respected and Mexican land grants were considered public domain and available for resettlement. So Ruiz de Burton spent the last 26 years of her life—until her death in 1895—in court proceedings trying to have the land title to her ranch validated. In her novel The Squatter and the Don (1885), she used her autobiographical experiences as the background for a plot of a land-owning Californio family struggling with Anglo squatters and land speculators contesting their land titles and claiming part of their ranch. In the novel, the US district courts and the California Land Act make the dispossession of the rightful Mexican owners legal. As Ruiz de Burton writes,
All would be done “according to law” and in this easy way more land was taken from its legitimate owner.
This certainly was a more simple way of appropriating the property of “the conquered” than in the days of Alaric or Hannibal.
There would have been bloodshed then. Now tears only flowed; silent tears of helpless discouragement; of a presentiment of impending desolation. (73–74; emphasis in the original)
This historical romance illustrates its author’s view that greed, corruption, and a lack of humanist values are aided by the lawmakers and courts in destroying the old order and disregarding property rights. The “legitimate owner[s]” are dispossessed ←130 | 131→in a newly spatialized Southern California reigned by railroad magnates and land speculators and infested by profiteering squatters. To Ruiz de Burton, who had been born into a wealthy family in Baja California and who had married into Anglo prestige (being close friends, for example, with Mary Todd Lincoln), it was an insult that in her court struggles her Mexican heritage outweighed her class prestige. José F. Aranda therefore commented that the life and work of Ruiz de Burton reveal “an individual willing to wage a rhetorical war on her conquerors but also anxious to reassume the privileges of a colonialist” (554).
But it was not only the privileged classes that suffered great losses as a consequence of the US takeover of the northern half of Mexico in 1848 and that contested Anglo domination. Some dispossessed and disenfranchised Mexicans resorted to banditry and other forms of resistance, for which they were pursued by the military rule under which the newly acquired territories had been put and by self-appointed so-called “vigilance committees.” Between 1850 and 1870, mobs carried out approximately 35 lynchings of Mexicans in Los Angeles alone. Bandits and resistance fighters were celebrated in corridos, i.e., folk ballads, from California to Texas. The classic “Corrido de Gregorio Cortez,” thoroughly researched by Américo Paredes, tells of a border space dominated by an unjust Anglo power wielded against a heroic Mexican. As Paredes points out, “the first Border Mexican to ‘fight for his right with his pistol in his hand’ ” was Juan Nepomuceno Cortina, who started a revolt in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in 1859 (134). He and other resistance fighters in the US-Mexican borderlands became the subjects of corridos between the 1830s and the 1930s. According to Paredes, “[t]he corrido of border conflict assumes its most characteristic form when its subject deals with the conflict between Border Mexican and Anglo-Texan, with the Mexican—outnumbered and pistol in hand—defending his ‘right’ against the rinches. … [B]order conflict dominated Border balladry for almost a century” (147–48). It is important to note that the hero is not a robber or smuggler but “the peaceful man who defends his right” (Paredes 150).
Based on an incident that occurred in 1901, “El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez” contests Mexico-Texan disenfranchisement, Anglo domination, and the alleged superiority of the Texas Rangers, presenting them as fearful, unskilled, and cowardly. As the lyrics in “Variant X” state in Paredes’ English translation, after the killing of a sheriff in Karnes County, Gregorio Cortez is identified as the perpetrator:
Now they have outlawed Cortez,
Throughout the whole state;
Let him be taken, dead or alive;
Then said Gregorio Cortez,
With his pistol in his hand,
“I don’t regret that I killed him;
I regret my brother’s death.”
Then said Gregorio Cortez,
And his soul was all aflame,
“I don’t regret that I killed him;
A man must defend himself.” (154–55)
It is only because other Mexicans are killed by the Texas Rangers who pursue him that Gregorio Cortez surrenders—heroically and on his own terms. By challenging the instrument of Anglo domination (presenting the Texas Rangers as scared, weak, and unjust) this corrido also contests the appropriation of the border space by Anglo settlers and speculators aided by courts and law enforcement agencies. It opposes to the prevailing alter-image of the subaltern “greaser” or “peón” that of the accomplished, noble Mexican outlaw whom not even 300 Texas Rangers can catch but who ultimately turns himself in so that others will not be punished for his deed. Although this contestation is based on a specific historical incident, it expresses the long-lasting feeling of Mexican American dispossession and unjust treatment under Anglo rule and it opposes the prevailing spatialization of the US-Mexican borderlands.
Out of this feeling of having been robbed of their homeland came the nationalist tendencies of the Chicano movement, which claimed the Southwest of the United States as “Aztlán,” the space that should rightfully belong to a Chicano nation, the descendants of Aztecs and Spanish colonizers. The 1969 “Plan Espiritual de Aztlán” contests the present order, demanding Chicano “social, economic, cultural and political independence” in the territory acquired by the United States after its war against Mexico in 1848. The document states:
In the spirit of a new people that is conscious not only of its proud historical heritage but also of the brutal “gringo” invasion of our territories, we, the Chicano inhabitants and civilizers of the northern land of Aztlán from whence came our forefathers, reclaiming the land of their birth and consecrating the determination of our people of the sun, declare that the call of our blood is our power, our responsibility, and our inevitable destiny.
We are free and sovereign to determine those tasks which are justly called for by our house, our land, the sweat of our brows, and by our hearts. Aztlán belongs to those who plant the seeds, water the fields, and gather the crops and not to the foreign Europeans. We do not recognize capricious frontiers on the bronze continents. (1)
The “bronze continents” which this manifesto proclaims are a transborder space that extends from the US Southwest into Mexico and beyond. Their conception ←132 | 133→relies on ethnic essentialism, they become the territory of “La Raza de Bronze,” which European Americans appropriated. The formulation “reclaiming the land” reveals the activists’ spatialization: the territories claimed by the United States in 1848 and controlled by Anglo power elites since then are to be recast as Aztlán and are to become the homeland of “a new people” that resists “the brutal ‘gringo’ invasion of our territories.” This “invasion” is seen as having geographical, economic, cultural, and political ramifications: “Our struggle then must be for the control of our barrios, campos, pueblos, lands, our economy, our culture, and our political life” (2). The Southwest of the United States is claimed as the territory of a mythical Aztlán and of a future Chicano self-rule.
The question of what is to be considered “our territory” is also behind one of the best-known murals connected to the Chicano movement: “We Are Not a Minority,” painted on the back of a home in a housing project on Olympic Boulevard in East Los Angeles in 1978 by a group of artists who called themselves El Congreso de Artistas Cósmicos de las Américas de San Diego (Fig. 5).
Using the calligraphy of the US Constitution in “We are,” the mural presents itself as a foundational document. The “NOT” in capital letters and in red announces resistance to the dominant political discourse, as does the image of Che Guevara. The mural insists on the primacy of Aztec culture—symbolized through the pyramid shape of the “A”—over Anglo America. Urgency is conveyed through the two exclamation marks, the eyes of the Che Guevara figure on the onlooker, and the pointing finger (reminiscent of the US Army recruitment poster “I Want You.”). These attributes defy the narrative of the power elites, according to which Latinas/os in the United States are an inferior minority in an Anglo-dominated space.
Out of this same oppositional attitude comes also Rodolfo F. Acuña’s revisionist history textbook Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, first published in 1972, and now a classic text in Chicana/o Studies. In the book’s first edition Acuña wrote:
Incomplete or biased analyses by historians have perpetuated factual errors and created myths. The Anglo-American public has believed and encouraged the historian’s and the social commentator’s portrayal of Mexicans as ‘the enemy.’ The tragedy is that the myths have degraded the Mexican people—not only in the eyes of those who feel superior, but also in their own eyes. (xv)
Acuña uses the leitmotif of Mexican Americans living in an “internal colony” in the United States and he contests earlier racialized and racist accounts, which he calls “the errors of Euro-American historians” (xv, xvi). Space plays a central role in this endeavor, as evidenced by the use of “occupied” in the book’s ←133 | 134→title. Having originally intended to “explain historical events leading up to the 1970 Chicano Moratorium and the murder of Rubén Salazar, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and news director for the Spanish language television station KMEX in Los Angeles,” Acuña gradually expanded the book to include chapters ranging from preconquest indigenous civilizations in Mesoamerica to “Mexican Americans and 9/11” and events up to the reelection of Barack Obama in 2012 (xv). The book’s pervasive theme is the struggle of Chicanas/os and their ancestors in an occupied space.
Acuña first presents a proud heritage going back to “The Corn People” in the “Valley of Mexico” and other indigenous civilizations that fell prey to Spanish colonizers and then shifts to the “legacy of hate” (ch. 3) responsible for the US war against Mexico, a war of “unwarranted aggression” (46) that ended with a peace treaty which Acuña calls a “deception” (52). As Anglos assumed power and appropriated land, writes Acuña, racism and segregation were common, the testimony of Mexicans was not recognized in courts. Subsequently, when the ←134 | 135→industrialization of Los Angeles took off in the late 19th century, “[d]iscrimination toward Mexicans in the wage-labor market increased; a dual-wage system persisted, with Mexicans and Chinese paid less compared to Euro-Americans” (149). The history of abuse, as Acuña tells it, continues into the twentieth century, for example with Mexican American homeowners in Chávez Ravine north of downtown Los Angeles being evicted in 1957 so that the land could be used to build Dodger Stadium (288).
For the 21st century, Acuña sees progress in California, but a dire situation in Arizona, where in 2012 Arizona Senate Bill (SB) 1070 introduced anti-immigration measures and Arizona House Bill (HB) 2281 “made the teaching of ethnic studies and Mexican [American] studies in particular unlawful. The rationale was the securing of the border and the allegation that Mexican American Studies divided races and was subversive” (410). Acuña contests this domination of the state of Arizona by white nativists, speaking of the “corporate predators” behind the racist actions and labeling the state and its Latina/o population as being “under siege”:
For the past five years Arizona has been a nightmare, taken over by corporate predators such as the Koch brothers and ALEC—the American Legislative Exchange Council—that have moved into Arizona. The latter controls over 50 state legislators and has written legislation such as SB 1070. It is in league with the prison industry that has spearheaded the privatization of prisons and reaped a bonanza from incarcerating undocumented and other Latinos. The infamous Koch brothers have funded the Tea Party and agitated racial hatred within the state. In the process these predators seized control of the Republican Party, and silenced Democrats who are prominent in the ranks of the Blue Dogs. In this environment Mexicans were under siege, especially Arizona’s highly touted Mexican American Studies Program, which the predators labeled subversive, unpatriotic and racially divisive based on no proof other than state Superintendent of Schools John Huppenthal and state Attorney General Tom Horne saying it was. Very expensive studies conducted by the state and federal government proved otherwise. (411)
The triple use of “predators” in one and the same paragraph contests the state’s official narrative of doing away with divisiveness in education and exposes the profitability of promoting ethnic divides and a fear of the population of Mexican descent as well as of legal and illegal Latina/o immigration. While “the prison industry” and conservative lawmakers interpret the state as being threatened by its Latino residents, Acuña presents the counter-narrative of Arizona “under siege” by powers that “agitated racial hatred.”
The spatialization discourse uniting the above sources is marked by the misappropriation of land by the United States and by Anglos, a legal and spatial ousting of Mexicans and Mexican Americans, and a contestation of these processes in ←135 | 136→fiction, song, political activism, visual art, and scholarship. Assuming a stark opposition between Mexicans and non-Mexicans, the approach to space is ethnically determined: the underlying assumption, that there are Mexican spaces which have come under non-Mexican control through the conquest and especially since 1848 and which Mexican American voices now reclaim, protests white hegemony.
A different conceptualization of the borderlands space north of the US-Mexican frontier is almost as old as the contestation approach, though. It is an approach that highlights interculturalism and cultural hybridity. In María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s The Squatter and the Don, for example, there is—apart from the indictment of lawless squatters and Anglo courts—a plea for the righteous among the Mexicans as well as among the Anglos to form an alliance, as exemplified by the prospective union of the son of an Anglo squatter turned settler with the daughter of the Mexican don who is in danger of losing his estate to profiteers. An intra-ethnic mediation between the cultural traditions of Catholicism vs. curanderismo, ranching vs. farming, crime vs. righteousness, and life in the llano vs. life outside of it appears in Rudolfo A. Anaya’s novel Bless Me, Ultima (1972), set in a New Mexico border space of competing and conflicting interests and cultural practices. A much larger cast of diverse characters—most of them Mexican American, some Mexican, some Anglo—appears in Rolando Hinojosa’s novel The Valley (1983).4 In a little over a hundred pages we meet almost as many characters, all with their distinctive experiences and all occupying distinct positions in a predominantly Latino community on the north side of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. They appear as members of a hybrid transborder community marked by contradictory impulses but still getting along by and large. Anaya’s New Mexico and Hinojosa’s Texas are spatialized as hybrid sites for multiple traditions, ideologies, and cultural practices; individuals and groups experience lifeworlds marked by intercultural contact, exchange, and competition.
While Anaya and Hinojosa attach the “inter” of interculturalism to the interaction of different individuals and groups, each representing one predominant feature or tradition, Gloria Anzaldúa’s classic Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987) takes a more radical approach. This multi-genre book locates the “inter” inside one and the same individual, whom the subtitle calls “the new ←136 | 137→mestiza.” This individual, to Anzaldúa, is a crossroads or a bridge, a meeting place of different identity markers; she is in a constant dialogue with aspects of herself and with others. The “new mestiza” consciousness involves an openness toward “racial, ideological, cultural and biological cross-pollinization” and the ability to live in more than one culture, i.e. to manage and thrive in an intercultural space like the US-Mexican borderlands (77). As Anzaldúa writes,
The new mestiza copes by developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity. She learns to be an Indian in Mexican culture, to be Mexican from an Anglo point of view. She learns to juggle cultures. She has a plural personality. … Not only does she sustain contradictions, she turns the ambivalence into something else. (79)
The “new mestiza” recognizes the hybridity of her heritage and identity and she lives this hybridity with pride. Her “plural personality” then puts her in a position to mediate between cultures.
As Anzaldúa puts it in the poem “To live in the Borderlands means you,” one of the final texts in her book:
To live in the Borderlands means to
put chile in the borscht,
eat whole wheat tortillas,
speak Tex-Mex with a Brooklyn accent;
be stopped by la migra at the border checkpoints.
To survive in the borderlands
you must live sin fronteras
be a crossroads. (194–95, emphasis in the original)
Anzaldúa’s inspired multi-genre work militates against (neo-)colonial discourse, which Homi Bhabha defines as “a form of discourse crucial to the binding of a range of differences and discriminations that inform the discursive and political practices of racial and cultural hierarchization” (67). While hierarchies and divisions make the borderlands in Anzaldúa’s view “an open wound” (3), she believes that an openness to contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity, and the willingness to be a crossroads will move the borderlands beyond dichotomies and recognize them as a hybrid space.
Close to a decade after the publication of Anzaldúa’s book, in 1996, the film Lone Star, written and directed by Anglo filmmaker John Sayles, explored ethnic diversity in the fictional Texas border town of Frontera. Flashbacks integrate the conflicts and allegiances of the past into those of the present, illustrating the timelessness of attempts to keep different ethnic groups separate as well as the futility and fictitiousness of that endeavor. A white male ←137 | 138→soldier proposes to a black female soldier, a young man explores his Seminole heritage, combining Native American and black ancestry, an Anglo sheriff discovers that his dead father had had a long-term love affair with a Mexican woman, breaking up the son’s romance with the woman’s daughter because the two are half-siblings. The film illustrates the violence and abuse that have emanated over decades from attempts at spatializing Texas as a compartmentalized territory rather than a place in which social interaction has long produced a hybrid space. Those who benefited from this spatialization are afraid of a future without it, as for example an Anglo-Texan bartender, who tells the protagonist, Sheriff Sam Deeds:
We are in a state of crisis. The lines of demarcation are getting fuzzy. To run a successful civilization you have got to have your lines of demarcation between right and wrong, between this one and that one. Your daddy understood that. He was a …, what do you call it, a referee in this damn menudo we got down here. He understood how most folks don’t want their salt and sugar in the same jar. … You’re the last white sheriff this town’s gonna see. Hollis retires next year, Jorge Guera’s gonna take over [as mayor]. This is it, right here, Sam. This bar is the last stand. Se habla American, God damn it.
His views are steeped in a past of segregation and they reflect the fears (among the hitherto privileged) of a future of hybridization.
Similarly an Anglo history teacher at high school accuses her Mexican American colleague Pilar (Sam’s girlfriend of two decades earlier and also his current love interest) of teaching Texas history with “everything switched around.”5 Another Anglo colleague adds that their own version is “history,” whereas other versions that are more critical of the role of Anglos in the history of Texas are “propaganda.” He quips: “Now I’m certain they got their own account of the Alamo on the other side, but we’re not on the other side,” i.e., in Mexico. Pilar, on the other hand, explains: “I’ve only been trying to get across part of the complexity of our situation down here: cultures coming together in both negative and positive ways.” Underlining the film’s plea for inter-ethnic cooperation, her ←138 | 139→position is seconded by an Anglo teacher who defends the goal “to present a more complete picture.” This is the picture of a hybrid space of cross-cultural interaction, which extends into Mexico and in which past events explain many spatializations of the present.
The past forces itself upon the present through a skeleton found in the desert, which brings up the question whether this might be the remains of the shady Sheriff Charlie Wade, who had disappeared in 1957. In his attempts to find out more about Wade, his father (Buddy Deeds, who succeeded Wade as sheriff), and Pilar’s alleged father (Eladio Cruz), Sheriff Sam Deeds, crosses the international border into Mexico. He takes off his sheriff’s badge and uses his private car, which signifies that in Mexico he does not have the sheriff privileges he enjoys in the United States and that his quest is also a matter of private interest. Sam goes to see a man who lived and worked in the United States for about fifteen years and who now owns several tire businesses in Mexico. He inquires about Eladio Cruz, a Texas-Mexican killed by Charlie Wade some forty years earlier, as he was illegally transporting a group of men from Mexico to Texas, undermining Wade’s own control of illegal border crossings.
The entry into Mexico is easy for Sam Deeds: there is just one bridge to cross. Once Sam has driven across that bridge, the film’s visual and auditory elements convey exuberance and squalor. The exuberance is expressed through the upbeat ad that we hear for a tire business as well as through the colorful street that is presented in a moving shot, as the camera glides along with Sam’s car. But the fenced, trash-strewn lot and the maze of power lines create an image of backwardness and messiness that is in contrast to the clean town of Frontera north of the border that Sam has just left. Despite these visual and auditory markers that spatialize Mexico and the United States differently, the conversation between Sam and the Mexican garage owner he has come to question illustrates the artificiality of borders.
As the two men talk, “el rey de las llantas,” the king of tires, draws a line in the dirt with a coke bottle (Fig. 6) and asks Sam to step across it, illustrating in this manner that Sam’s privileges as a sheriff do not extend across the international borderline. But then the garage owner explains how man-made borderlines are unnatural and how they facilitate abuse. He tells Sam:
A bird flying south, do you think he sees this line? Rattlesnake, … whatever you got, do you think half way across that line they start thinking different? Why should a man? … My government can go fuck itself and so can yours. I’m talking about people here, men. Mi amigo, Eladio Cruz is giving some friends of his a lift one day in the back of his camión, but because they are on one side of this invisible line and not the other they got to hide in the back como criminales.←139 | 140→
The international border is an “invisible line” when it comes to interactions and cultural practices, but it is a demarcation line when it comes to authority. Sam has no authority in Mexico and Eladio has no authority when Charlie Wade stops and kills him on the US side of the border. Governments, from their dominant position, decide which borders they wish to enforce; they make it possible for power elites (like the corrupt Sheriff Charlie Wade) and criminals to use their control of the border space as a business model, demanding bribes and securing their position through violence. The scene implies, however, that for the common people the border is an unnatural obstacle that exposes them to abuse and exploitation. That the film switches in this scene without any cuts but just through a move of the camera from the present to the past and back to the present and from the Mexican side of the border to the US side conveys the entanglement that characterizes the borderlands space: the past determines the present, and events and conversations on one side of the border influence and reflect what occurs on the other. There are no clear dividing lines, and it is impossible to keep the two sides of the border isolated from one another. While the demarcation line serves governments and profiteers by conferring authority, it oppresses the common people.
Ultimately though, the oppressive forces of separation are overcome in Lone Star. In the film’s final scene Sam and Pilar, the daughter of an Americanized Mexican woman who owns a café in town and the person whose romance with Sam was ended by Sam’s father at that site 23 years earlier, meet at an abandoned drive-in movie theater. Sam informs Pilar that Eladio Cruz cannot have been her father because he died a year and a half before she was born. He shows her ←140 | 141→a photo of his father with Pilar’s mother as lovers, and they figure out that they have the same father. While “Remember the Alamo” had been the battle cry and justification for those who want separate spheres for different ethnic groups and people from different nations, Sam and his half-sister agree to “forget the Alamo,” the last words spoken in the film.6 Since the Alamo is the symbol of division and conflict, the film conceives of an intercultural South Texas that “start[s] from scratch,” as Pilar suggests to Sam. The hope is that the divisiveness of the past will give way to an acknowledgment and appreciation of hybridization. The “Lone Star” state is to be re-spatialized as overcoming old wounds and as accepting the new realities of changed demographics and of Latinas/os in positions of authority. Texas is to become Tex-Mex rather than remaining “lone.” Throughout Lone Star, John Sayles tears down clear and easy distinctions.7 Borderlines between different ethnic backgrounds and divisions between nations are shown to be artificial and harmful constructs rather than manifestations of a basic difference. The film challenges the validity of borders and stages many instances of border crossings and of movements beyond borders. In this way it re-spatializes Texas as a border state not of “demarcation” but of “cultures coming together in both negative and positive ways.”
The hybrid spatialization that Lone Star proposes comes vividly to life, for example in Sandra Cisneros’s coming-of-age novel Caramelo (2002) and in Salvador Plascencia’s experimental novel The People of Paper (2005). Cisneros presents a transnational tale of family trips between Chicago and Mexico City, with the cultural environments of both locations contributing to the formation ←141 | 142→of the girl protagonist, who eventually settles in the hybrid transborder space of San Antonio, Texas. Plascencia’s novel, in the mode of magical realism and postmodern metafiction, conceives of an imaginary borderless space of the Americas, comprising especially Baja and Alta California, a space of various traditions and ambitions that are superimposed.
Thinking in dichotomies and contrasts implies hierarchies, which these texts seek to overcome by imagining flows and interlacing rather than separateness and supremacy. Walter D. Mignolo believes that
[d]ouble consciousness, double critique, an other tongue, an other thinking, new mestiza consciousness, Creolization, transculturation, and culture of transience become the needed categories to undo the subalternization of knowledge and to look for ways of thinking beyond the categories of Western thought from metaphysics to philosophy to science. (Local 326)
Rather than thinking in terms of either/or, border thinking and hybrid spatializations are aware of the dichotomies but are not limited by them.
Apart from the borderlands imaginaries of a contested space and of a hybrid space, the third approach that has been prominent for over a century and a half is that of criminalizing this space. In the 19th century, accounts of settlers and traders taking the Santa Fe Trail (from Missouri to New Mexico) and the Old Spanish Trail (from New Mexico to Southern California) are replete with stories of lawlessness and the rule of the gun. Los Angeles, the end point of the Old Spanish Trail, was infamous for its murder rate in the mid-nineteenth century. As John Mack Faragher reports:
Angelenos were agitated and fearful, and for good reason. The pueblo was one of the most violent towns in America. “Los Angeles is a terrible place for murders,” declared the Daily Alta California of San Francisco. “Scarcely a steamer arrives that does not bring an account of one or two.” In the five years following California statehood in 1850, Los Angeles County, with some six thousand residents, suffered more than a hundred felonious homicides, twenty-seven of them in 1854 alone. That amounted to a murder rate fifty times greater than New York City …. For every violent death in frontier Los Angeles there were scores of assaults, batterings, rapes, and other acts of brutality. … In the absence of state-sanctioned justice, vigilance committees and lynch mobs hanged at least a dozen suspected offenders. Most violent crime went unpunished. (4)
Faragher quotes John A. Lewis, founding editor of the Star, who was struck in 1853 by the contrast between an edenic landscape and climate and the city’s violence:
There is no country where nature is more lavish of her exuberant fullness; and yet, with all our natural beauties and advantages, there is no country where human life is of so ←142 | 143→little account. Men hack one another to pieces with pistols and other cutlery as if God’s image were of no more worth than the life of one of the two or three thousand ownerless dogs that prowl about our streets and make night hideous. (9)
This imaginary was taken up by countless westerns with gunslingers, vigilantes, and greasy, unshaven, and unwashed Mexican bandidos terrorizing the American Southwest. It was continued, for example with Orson Welles’s film noir Touch of Evil (1958), with the Speedy Gonzalez comics, with Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy, consisting of All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994), and Cities of the Plain (1998) and with Ana Castillo’s account of gang life, people smuggling, and drug-related murder in The Guardians (2007). Like Castillo’s novel, the TV series Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008–13) locates its imaginary of the borderlands as the site of crime in New Mexico. In Breaking Bad cross-border drug trafficking and violence occur under the veneer of middle-class respectability as the Anglo chemistry teacher Walter White turns to the production of crystallized methamphetamine in the desert north of the border.
Increasingly, Mexico and Latin America play a more central role in the criminalization of the US-Mexican borderlands. In 2004, Samuel P. Huntington criticized Mexican government policies that encouraged emigration to the United States and remittances to Mexico.8 Huntington accused the Mexican government of an attitude, according to which “Mexico … should not try to solve its problems; it should export them” (317). He called the result “an illegal demographic invasion” of the United States, criminalizing migrants (318).
Media reports of drug wars and gang wars spilling over from Mexico into the US Southwest further contributed to spatializing the borderlands as crime-infested. Toward the end of Barack Obama’s first presidency, Lusk, Staudt, and Moya wrote in their assessment of the US-Mexico border region:
The current conception of the US-Mexico border is greatly affected by the explosion of drug-related violence in Mexico, including homicide, kidnapping, and gang warfare. And, even though America’s power has been overextended by a war on two fronts, Mexico has increasingly been seen not just as a neighbor with an emigration problem but also as a potentially “failed state.” With foreign and defense policy vastly overstretched to extend a decade-long war in Afghanistan and Iraq, America’s attention has been turned to Mexico.
In addition to illegal immigration, they continue, drug wars have become the main “social construction or ‘story’ that typifies public perception about the border” (17). Therefore the US-Mexican borderlands have been considered since 9/11 largely as an issue of US national security. In the public imagination, write Lusk, Stadt, and Moya, “[a] vibrant trade zone that is situated in a uniquely interactive binational and bicultural setting has … been turned into a region scourged by narco-wars, rampant crime, and instability” (19).
While such discourses criminalize the space of the borderlands, recent rhetoric by Donald Trump criminalizes specifically Mexicans and other Latinas/os in that space. When he announced on June 16, 2015 that he would run for the presidency, Trump said: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us [sic!]. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people” (Lee). After much criticism, Trump defended himself on July 5, saying in reference to the US-Mexican border that “tremendous crime is coming across. Everybody knows that’s true. And it’s happening all the time” (Lee). While Rodolfo Acuña had characterized the borderlands as being illegally “occupied” by Anglo America, Trump conceives of them as being under siege by transborder crime committed by “Mexicans.”
On January 25, 2017, once he had been installed as US President, Donald Trump accordingly issued Executive Order 13767, which is called “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements.” The document allegedly seeks “to ensure the safety and territorial integrity of the United States as well as to ensure that the Nation’s immigration laws are faithfully executed” (United States, Executive Office 8793). It thus assumes that the US-Mexican borderlands are a territory in which safety and lawfulness are endangered by undocumented migrants crossing the border into the United States. Although The Washington Post’s fact check contradicts that assumption (Lee), section 1 of the order maintains what we could call in the Trump administration’s parlance the “alternative fact” that “[a]liens who illegally enter the United States without inspection or admission present a significant threat to national security and public safety.” It goes on to criminalize the borderlands as a space that is in the hands of drug cartels and people smugglers: “Transnational criminal organizations operate sophisticated drug- and human-trafficking networks and smuggling operations on both sides of the southern border, contributing to a significant increase in violent crime and United States deaths from dangerous drugs.” There is a sense here that the borderlands that had been captured in 1848 now need to be recaptured and reintegrated into the United States. Toward this end, the main provision of the order is therefore “the immediate construction of ←144 | 145→a physical wall on the southern border, monitored and supported by adequate personnel so as to prevent illegal immigration, drug and human trafficking, and acts of terrorism.” Linking the borderlands not only to crime but also to terrorism ups the ante. According to the executive order, the border wall will make it possible for state authorities to “achieve complete operational control of the southern border.” This formulation implies that the borderlands are currently out of control, a space apart. People crossing from or through Mexico into the United States are criminalized and blamed for an alleged state of emergency.
At the signing of the executive order at the Department of Homeland Security, Trump explained in his typical simplifying and repetitive manner: “We are going to get the bad ones out—the criminals and the drug dealers and gangs and gang members. The day is over when they can stay in our country and wreak havoc. We are going to get them out, and we are going to get them out fast” (Davis). He implies a need for a sort of ‘cleanup’ that would restore respect for the nation’s laws and borders and convert a crime-infested space back into a place where law and order rule. On different occasions he used the same approach and action plan when referring to inner cities in the United States. In the Trump imagination a border wall would close the Southwest off from transborder crime and would make it easier to rid this space of evil-doers. This logic is only possible on the assumption that the borderlands are plagued by crime that originates outside the United States.
The three discursive approaches to the US-Mexican borderlands presented here—contestation, hybridization, and criminalization—all originate in the subjective estimation of the beholder. As Walter D. Mignolo remarks, borders are both real and imagined; they reveal less about the space in which they are located than about the spatialization undertaken by stakeholders:
Inside and outside, center and periphery are double metaphors that are more telling about the loci of enunciation than to the ontology of the world. There are and there aren’t inside and outside, center and periphery. What really is is the saying of agents affirming or denying these oppositions within the coloniality of power, the subalternization of knowledge, and the colonial difference. (Local 338)
Old hierarchies and conflicts live on in spatializations and re-spatializations, which reflect the interests of those trying to control a space or to shape the discourse referring to that space.
While the contestation approach in borderlands discourse lays claim to a misappropriated space and while the hybridization approach pleads for or exemplifies interculturalism, the criminalization approach others the borderlands as a territory in crisis that needs to be purged. The three vistas of the US-Mexican ←145 | 146→borderlands in narratives, images, and discourses addressed here reflect the agendas of their proponents: the dispossessed, the open-minded/realists, and the right-wing populists. Social and political practices as well as discourses in literature, media, academia, and political rhetoric have unsettled this space with their competing approaches and agendas. They have made it into the “open wound” of which Gloria Anzaldúa speaks as well as into the vibrant and varied space as which Rolando Hinojosa-Smith characterizes the Lower Rio Grande Valley. That portion of South Texas, which serves as Hinojosa’s Yoknapatawpha, can be seen as a pars pro toto for the US-Mexican borderlands in general, for their complex dynamics and diversity: “the Valley, that jurisdictional barrier, is alive and well with love and betrayal, with undying friendships and undying enmities, with racial and class discrimination, with new American citizens and old ones, and with all the tensions that make life worth living” (30).
Acuña, Roldolfo F. Occupied America: A History of Chicanos. 1972. 8th ed., Pearson, 2015.
Anaya, Rudolfo. Bless Me, Ultima. 1972. Warner Books, 1994.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Aunt Lute Books, 1987.
Aranda, José F., Jr. “Contradictory Impulses: María Amparo Ruiz de Burton, Resistance Theory, and the Politics of Chicano/a Studies.” American Literature, vol. 70, no. 3, 1998, pp. 551–79.
Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. Routledge, 1994.
Davis, Julie H. “Trump Orders Mexican Border Wall to Be Built and Plans to Block Syrian Refugees.” The New York Times, 25 Jan. 2017, nytimes.com/2017/01/25/us/politics/refugees-immigrants-wall-trump.html/.
“El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán.” Aztlán: Essays on the Chicano Homeland, edited by Rudolfo A. Anaya and Franciso Lomelí. 1989. U of New Mexico P, 1991, pp. 1–5.
Faragher, John M. Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles. W.W. Norton, 2016.
Gómez-Peña, Guillermo. The New World Border: Prophecies, Poems & Loqueras for the End of the Century. City Lights Books, 1996.
Gonzales, Manuel G. Mexicanos: A History of Mexicans in the United States. Indiana UP, 1999.
Hinojosa-Smith, Rolando. “Living on the River.” Hybrid Americas: Contacts, Contrasts, and Confluences in New World Literatures and Cultures, edited by Josef Raab and Martin Butler. Bilingual P and Lit-Verlag, 2008, pp. 21–31.
Huntington, Samuel P. Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity. Simon & Schuster, 2004.
Lee, Michelle Ye Hee. “Donald Trump’s False Comments Connecting Mexican Immigrants and Crime.” The Washington Post, 8 July 2015, washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/07/08/donald-trumps-false-comments-connecting-mexican-immigrants-and-crime/?utm_term=.9a7c3d2c85df/.
Lone Star. Directed and written by John Sayles. Columbia Pictures, Castle Rock Entertainment, 1996. 130 min.
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Wille, Christian, and Markus Hesse. “Spaces: Approaches and Perspectives of Investigation.” Spaces and Identities in Border Regions: Politics—Media—Subjects, edited by Christian Wille, et al., transcript, 2016, pp. 25–35.
1This is the figure given by Wikipedia for the year 2010 (“Mexico–United States border,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mexico%E2%80%93United_States_border).
2As Christian Wille and Markus Hesse point out, space has been approached variously (a) as a material substance in physical geography, (b) as “a product of relational systems instead of a quasi natural result of terrestrial conditions” (27), a structure for ordering and juxtaposing, and (c) as socially produced, “a manifestation of societal structures” (27). They conclude that the “relational-descriptive” and the “symbolic-interpretative” approaches to space “are often discussed together in space-sensitive studies and, in the context of the border, are usually considered against the foil of a territorial nation-state order. This foil is then frequently employed to serve as an ‘underlay’ for the social, forming a mosaic of container spaces, which however need to be regarded in relational and symbolic terms” (28).
3Mignolo points out that “both ‘America’ and ‘Western Hemisphere’ are not entities but geopolitical ideas to organize the planet; or, if you wish, these are entities configured by an idea constituted by a name and a cartographic image” (“Decolonial” 60). Within the Western Hemisphere, national borderlines were created on the basis of spheres of influence and military strength. These spatialized the continent. But as the acquisition by the United States of almost the northern half of the United Mexican States in 1848 illustrates, the spatialization and its interpretation (ranging from considering borders as contact zones to treating them as demarcation lines) are temporary and subject to who is in power.
4Hinojosa published Estampas del valle y otras obras in 1973. Ten years later The Valley came out. The latter is less a translation than a new rendering of the community of fictional Belken County in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Compared to Estampas, some scenes and characters are added or changed in the English version of this hybrid narrative told in vignettes.
5Her attitude of feeling called upon to defend institutionalized practices reemerges eight years later in Samuel P. Huntington’s Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity (2004). In view of the growing use of Spanish in US politics Huntington warned his readers that “If this trend continues, the cultural division between Hispanics and Anglos will replace the racial division between blacks and whites as the most serious cleavage in American society. A bifurcated America with two languages and two cultures will be fundamentally different from the America with one language and one core Anglo-Protestant culture that has existed for over three centuries” (324).
6Walter D. Mignolo would call the decision to forget the divisive context of the Alamo a “disruption of dichotomies” (Local 85). He labels this approach “border thinking,” which he characterizes as “thinking from dichotomous concepts rather than ordering the world in dichotomies” (85, emphasis in the original). Mignolo further explains that “border thinking structures itself on a double consciousness, a double critique operating on the imaginary of the modern/colonial world system, of modernity/coloniality” (87).
7By contrast, in 2004 Samuel P. Huntington warned his readers of what he considered trends that challenged US national identity. Among them he named “the slow blurring of racial distinctions and the fading salience of racial identities” as well as “the growing numbers and influence of the Hispanic community and the trend toward a bilingual, bicultural America.” He cautioned that “[u]nder some circumstances, these trends could provoke a nativist reaction, sharp polarization, and traumatic cleavages among Americans” (295). While Lone Star presents this “nativist reaction” as fading, toward the end of Barack Obama’s presidency the populist and divisive approach of Donald Trump made Huntington’s vision come true.
8As Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo said in the 1990s, “the Mexican nation extends beyond the territory enclosed by its borders” (qtd. in Huntington 279).←147 | 148→←148 | 149→