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date: 30 January 2023

The United States–Mexico Borderfree

The United States–Mexico Borderfree

  • C. J. AlvarezC. J. AlvarezDepartment of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies, University of Texas at Austin


The region that today constitutes the United States–Mexico borderland has evolved through various systems of occupation over thousands of years. Beginning in time immemorial, the land was used and inhabited by ancient peoples whose cultures we can only understand through the archeological record and the beliefs of their living descendants. Spain, then Mexico and the United States after it, attempted to control the borderlands but failed when confronted with indigenous power, at least until the late 19th century when American capital and police established firm dominance. Since then, borderland residents have often fiercely contested this supremacy at the local level, but the borderland has also, due to the primacy of business, expressed deep harmonies and cooperation between the U.S. and Mexican federal governments. It is a majority minority zone in the United States, populated largely by Mexican Americans. The border is both a porous membrane across which tremendous wealth passes and a territory of interdiction in which noncitizens and smugglers are subject to unusually concentrated police attention. All of this exists within a particularly harsh ecosystem characterized by extreme heat and scarce water.


  • Foreign Relations and Foreign Policy
  • Political History
  • Latino History


The “U.S.-Mexico border” is relatively new. The line was first mapped between 1849 and 1855. The boundary survey team of both Americans and Mexicans was assembled after the U.S.-Mexican war; they set out to make new maps that enshrined Mexico’s military defeat and its territorial loss. But the advances of armies outpaced the advances of science. The survey engineers had not yet learned how to calculate longitude accurately, so they footed some of their border markers in the wrong places. By 1896 these mapping errors were corrected, so the border we know today is a little more one hundred years old.

Figure 1. Members of the 1890s border mapping expedition adjust one of the obelisks that marked the international divide. The wheel ruts in the soft sand presage the massive transportation infrastructure that would eventually be built in the borderland. International Boundary & Water Commission, United States & Mexico.

(Report of the Boundary Commission upon the survey and re-marking of the boundary between the United States and Mexico west of the Rio Grande, 1891–1896, album. Washington, DC: UNT Digital Library.)

Yet the spaces of the borderland have been continuously occupied for more than 10,000 years. Many of the languages once spoken there are now lost and irretrievable, though in the border states on the U.S. side alone, people still speak more than fifty languages, not including Spanish and English. Many of the indigenous languages of California have only a handful of speakers, though well over 100,000 Navajos continue to speak their ancestral tongue.

Over the course of centuries, the original Native inhabitants of the borderlands have been incorporated into various spheres of influence with diverse centers. Traders in the upper Rio Grande valley integrated themselves into a commercial network that centered on the newly consolidated Aztec capital of Teotihuacán in the early 15th century. The Spanish superimposed their own empire atop the Aztec empire, and the newly incorporated far northern provinces—what would become today’s borderland—answered politically to Spanish kings in far off Europe. As the Spanish American empire waned in the late 18th century and Mexico won its independence in 1821, a contest for power raged in the borderland between the new national capital of Mexico City and the enormous power and wealth of Comanches, Apaches, and other equestrian Indians. By the end of the 19th century, American military strength had wrested territorial control from both Mexico and Native peoples. The United States claimed the borderland as an American dominated space, one administered from Washington, DC. It is no coincidence that this definitive claim coincided with the final mapping of the borderline from 1891 to 1896, the line that still delineates the border today.

What we think of as the “border,” then, is the result of an expansionist war that was only one in a long line of geographical reorganizations of power. After a long and contentious debate in the United States about how much Mexican territory to take, the international divide was codified in Article V of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. It was still a cartographic abstraction then, an aspiration to national greatness and wealth that had not yet been realized.

Three features of the post-U.S.-Mexican War evolution of the border warrant special attention: (1) capitalist speculation, investment, and circulation, (2) a heavy police presence, and (3) the infrastructural development that served the interests of both capitalists and police. All three were mutually reinforcing, and together they evolved into the features of the border we know today: the nexus of a roughly $500 billion annual trade relationship, a laboratory for extreme forms of policing, and the locus of a complex and elaborate built environment of roads, barriers, and ports of entry.

Early Modernity

Some places in what is now the U.S.-Mexico borderland have been continuously occupied for thousands of years. The occupation of the borderland by Americans, Mexicans, and Spanish before them is but a blip in the long history of human presence in the region. For most of borderland history, the most important boundary lines were not defined by nation states or even empires but rather by indigenous trading routes, hunting grounds, and living spaces. The ancestors of the Puebloan Indians of today, for example, concentrated mainly in northern New Mexico and northeastern Arizona, had been building monumental architecture for over half a millennium before any Europeans stumbled into the high and low deserts of what is today the American Southwest. Even after a handful of errant Spanish explorers opened the door to Hispanic settlement in the 17th century, these Spanish speakers were still drastically outnumbered in all directions by Native peoples who spoke dozens of distinct languages, forged alliances and warred with one another, and were generally uninterested in the systems of religion and governance practiced by the outsiders.

This demographic imbalance persisted well into the 19th century. Even after the United States and Mexico rebelled, shed their status as colonies, and became independent nations, neither country could muster the resources to dominate certain groups of Indians. Comanches and Apaches in particular controlled the most territory in the borderlands until the 1870s and 1880s, a fact that reveals a great deal about the contested and unstable evolution of power over the course of the 19th century.

From Mexican independence in 1821, through Texas’s claim to independence in 1835, and up to the U.S. declaration of war against Mexico in 1846, military control over the borderlands was not a legitimate competition. Americans and Mexicans nearly always suffered grossly disproportionate losses to indigenous raids, attacks, and captive taking. Indians’ monopoly on violence helped create a distinct borderland society in what was then far northern Mexico. Northern Mexicans found themselves unfunded and unconnected to Mexico City after Mexican independence, despite the fact that many of these northerners were the descendants of a long line of military colonists and had first been sent to the far north by Spain generations earlier. They were people who were intimately familiar with violence and loss. They likely felt that their common history eking out an existence in the dislocated, far northern borderland was a more durable source of identity than was their nascent Mexican citizenship.1

In the 1820s, Mexico passed a series of “colonization” laws meant to augment this thin Mexican population in the borderland, still greatly outnumbered by Native people. The first big demographic shift happened in Texas, when thousands of predominantly Anglo-American settlers took advantage of Mexico’s invitation. They quickly outnumbered and overpowered the Mexican population, and in 1835 Texas declared independence from Mexico. It operated as an independent republic for ten years, which disgraced the nationalists in Mexico and emboldened expansionists in the United States.

A border dispute was the premise upon which the United States declared war on Mexico in 1846. The two countries did not agree on which river constituted the international boundary, the Rio Grande or the Nueces. When Mexican troops entered the “Nueces strip” in South Texas—which they claimed for Mexico—President James K. Polk claimed it was an invasion. He sent troops overland to the border and the Mexican northeast and by water through the Gulf of Mexico where they landed in Veracruz and marched to take the capital. The conflict was quick, brutal, and thoroughly successful, at least as measured by the terms of James K. Polk and the war’s other architects. It was also fiercely criticized. The self-taught, self-emancipated slave, Frederick Douglass, called it a “a war against freedom, against the Negro, and against the interests of workingmen,” and the Harvard-educated transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau went so far as to say that when a “whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.”2

The anti-war protestors (who were also often abolitionists) could not stop the fighting, nor could they prevent the sale—at gunpoint—of a vast swath of Mexico’s territory. The United States absorbed half of Mexico and with the stroke of a pen gained an “American West.” The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that formally ended hostilities in 1848 also codified the first modern delineation of the United States–Mexico border we know today. But what did this new, official border mean? The bloody competition for sovereignty and rights of residency still raged, no longer between the United States and Mexico, but between both countries together and various indigenous peoples who retained their radical stance against political incorporation into either polity.

For nearly thirty more years, Native people fought both the U.S. and Mexican governments. Eventually, they lost to demographic pressure at their borders, decimation of the bison, and new military technology. By the 1870s, the United States emerged having greatly improved its strategies and weapons during both the U.S.-Mexican War and the Civil War, as the undisputed military power in the borderland. It had won a nearly 300-year-old contest for the hot lands between the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico and quickly moved to consolidate the power through political incorporation. Texas became a state first, in 1845, and the Texans who owned slaves were allowed to keep them. Next, California became a state in 1850, just in time for the Gold Rush and the streak of anti-“foreign” violence that accompanied it. Arizona and New Mexico lingered as federal territories until 1912, owing in part to their disproportionately high Mexican populations, a source of great anxiety for many U.S. federal lawmakers.3

Mexicans were granted the privileges and immunities of citizenship in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, though de facto segregation—as well as hundreds of summary executions, extrajudicial killings, and outright lynchings—suggest that many Mexican Americans did not enjoy the same constitutional protections as did the dominant population.4 Native peoples, many of whose lives had been spent in constant motion, moving and living across the flatlands, the staked plains, and the mountains ranges from Arizona to northeastern Mexico, were immobilized as wards of the state on reservations without formal citizenship. Perhaps the most radical shift in the borderlands, then, from the prehispanic period to the Gilded Age, was the extremely rapid demographic transformation of the borderlands in only two or three generations in the middle of the 19th century. In those years the region shifted from a zone overwhelmingly dominated by indigenous groups, though formally claimed by Mexico, to a region in which a newly arrived population of non-Spanish Europeans dictated the terms of incorporation, mobility, and commerce.


The true measure of American dominance of the borderlands was perhaps not the war with Mexico, or even the final military defeats of the Comanches in the 1870s and the Apaches in the 1880s, but the full conversion of the once-contested borderlands into a highly regulated resource frontier. The upper classes of the United States and Mexico both believed that natural resources should be scientifically managed and developed for profit. They also believed that transportation and communication infrastructure should facilitate the circulation of capital. This instrumentalist view of the American West, and the Mexican North, and of the natural environment itself eventually produced a new kind of social order in the borderlands in which the control of resources ensured control of people.

During most of the 19th century, the borderland had its own economic logic owing to the near-complete absence of roads of any kind and a special free trade zone, the “zona libre,” that only applied to the border region. In 1821 the Santa Fe Trail opened. It connected newly independent Mexico’s most far-flung and dislocated city—Santa Fe—to St. Louis, an emerging economic powerhouse of the United States. This linkage, in conjunction with other trade routes between the Mississippi River valley and Nacogdoches in East Texas, as well as New Orleans to the Texas gulf coast, generated a curious phenomenon in the northern borderlands of Mexico. Mexico’s national economy shrank between 1800 and 1860, plummeting 10.5 percent, while the U.S. economy increased by 1,270.4 percent over the same period. Yet despite this mammoth imbalance, northern Mexico diverged from the rest of the nation. Its economy actually grew, owing not to Mexican economic policy or development, but rather to its much stronger ties to the meteoric rise of the United States.5

By the 1880s the borderland had been retrofitted with railroad trunk lines that connected the Mexican interior to the greater United States. By 1896, U.S. capitalists had funded the construction of 7,146 miles of track in Mexico.6 Not only was the American investment in Mexican transportation infrastructure immense, but exploratory commissions had identified a rich array of subsoil resources from Sonora to Veracruz, California, to Colorado, including gold, copper, and oil. This helped transform the borderland from an insular fringe zone into a membrane that facilitated the long distance transfer of commodities from the Mexican interior throughout the United States.

This transformation would not have been possible without the patronage of Mexican President Porfirio Díaz, who controlled Mexico’s political and economic system from 1876 to 1911, a period that has come to be known as the Porfiriato. He courted international investment not only from the United States, but Germany and Britain as well. At the expense of social equality he grew Mexico’s economy, which actually outpaced that of the United States between 1893 and 1907.7 These policies also transformed the border. New ports of entry—along with customs houses to extract tariff revenues—sprang up all along the international divide. Each new port represented a bilateral building project that further joined the transportation infrastructures and markets of the United States and Mexico. This would ultimately lead to the sprawling border town complexes that arose the late 20th century.

Díaz harnessed a range of government institutions to consolidate both his power and Mexico’s newfound wealth, but he was a man of his age. He believed in the same principles that guided capital accumulation in the United States and helped stratify American society in the last decades of the 19th century. This harmony manifested itself in the borderland as a similar set of processes unfolded on both sides of the line and well past Díaz’s overthrow. Large landholders in Chihuahua amassed huge tracts of land despite violent uprisings and a slew of lawsuits. Anglo-American investors bought of hundreds of small Mexican American ranches in Texas and converted them into massive cotton farms. The Laguna region in north-central Mexico expanded its own cotton production with the help of the new railroads which undercut traditional cotton growing in Veracruz. The arid central valley of California was made to bloom through newly channeled waterways.8 Soon thereafter, the Roosevelt Dam, begun in 1905, and the Hoover Dam, begun in 1931, transformed water use in Arizona. Everywhere in the borderland new hydraulic engineering technologies and the scientific management of natural resources led to new configurations of power in which those who controlled land, water, and mines also controlled borderland populations.

Though they had once controlled the passage of material goods across the Great Plains on the old roads, the Comanches and other Native Americans were largely expelled from this new system of extraction and agribusiness. Their wealth had been horse wealth. The new wealth was monetized. They were confined to distant reservations and had lost many of their people to sickness and war. Mexicans and Mexican Americans, on the other hand, were incorporated by the hundreds of thousands to work as a highly mobile agricultural proletariat throughout the borderland.

The Mexican Revolution that spanned the decade of the 1910s did not upset this system, despite the ejection of Porfirio Díaz from Mexico and the promise of land reform in the new Mexican constitution of 1917. Despite the U.S. deployment of over 100,000 soldiers to the border, the Mexican oil and henequen industries, for instance, remained hugely profitable even during the worst of the fighting.9 The U.S. stock market crash in 1929 triggered massive economic depressions in both countries, however. This was felt in the borderland through a huge outmigration of Mexicans and Mexican descent people in the Southwest. During the 1930s somewhere between 400,000 and half a million people moved from the United States to Mexico, some of their own free will. Others were forced to go through “repatriation” drives administered by both governments.

The tumult of the ’30s was replaced by a new economic order in the 1940s and beyond. In 1942 the United States and Mexico entered into a major guest worker program that would last until 1964. This labor arrangement, known as the Bracero Program, generated 4.6 million contracts over its life span and laid the irrevocable foundation that shaped subsequent generations of Mexicans Americans, who, following the demise of the program, surged toward becoming the majority minority population in the United States.

It also undergirded the economic relationship between the two countries, both of which enjoyed sustained economic growth after World War II. During the 1950s, presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Adolfo López Mateos began to build and expand the federal highway systems of both countries. For the next three decades, workers built what amounted to a continent-wide transportation system megaproject, the heir to the transcontinental railroads a century earlier, and the infrastructural foundation of the unprecedented economic integration of the 1990s.

The two governments shut down the agricultural guest worker program in 1964 and replaced it in 1965 with the Border Industrialization Program (BIP). The former helped Mexicanize agricultural work in the American Southwest and West, and the latter helped urbanize the Mexican North as it drew workers from the interior of Mexico to the manufacturing jobs the BIP created. In both cases, broader binational processes linked the borderland to federal policies rooted in Washington and Mexico City while simultaneously generating local and regional transformations in the zone around the international divide.

By the late 1980s the stage was set for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that liberalized commerce between Canada, the United States, and Mexico, which went into effect in 1994. The agreement took its momentum, on the one hand, from the financial disasters in Mexico during the ’80s, including the hyperinflation of the peso and foreign debt defaults, and on the other, from an increasingly dominant ideology in the United States that privileged deregulation and privatization.10 As usual, the borderland was the membrane across which the majority of this commerce flowed, though more than ever before, the effects of NAFTA on labor, agribusiness, and manufacturing reverberated widely throughout U.S. and Mexican territory, influencing agricultural growing patterns, dietary customs, and wages.

Figure 2. Imports plus exports, not adjusted for inflation.

(Data for 1900–1985 from David Lorey, ed., United States-Mexico Border Statistics Since 1900 (Los Angeles: UCLA Latin American Center Publications, 1990), Table 1701; data for 1985–2010 from U.S. Census Bureau, Foreign Trade.)

All capitalist systems predictably and inevitably generate black markets that accompany, and in some ways, complement them. Both legitimate trade and contraband markets share the same transportation infrastructure and communications technology, and both tend to accumulate profits at the top of a corporate structure, whether multinational corporations like Wal-Mart or Coca-Cola or criminal syndicates that produce and distribute illicit psychoactive substances, such as Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s organization. The acceleration of trade between the United States and Mexico helped create greater demand for casual labor, partially supplied by undocumented non-citizens who typically work in “formal” industries like service and construction even as free trade helped to camouflage smuggled goods.

Since the 1990s the borderland has come to be implicated in a much larger system that includes more diverse sectors of international markets. This, in turn, has led to rapid urban growth, especially in the Mexican border towns, and has dispersed Mexican-descent populations over a much wider area in the United States, well beyond the traditional settling zones in the border states. It has also contributed to increasing migration from other parts of Latin America, in particular the Central American countries. As the Great Plains, the Midwest, the South, and the Northeast have become more popular destinations for Mexican laborers, thereby lending “borderland” characteristics of ethnicity and labor to the United States at large, the border states have taken on what has become their most idiosyncratic feature: the grossly disproportionate presence and activity of federal police.


Beginning in the early 1990s, the borderland became the quintessential police zone of the United States, home to the largest and most expensive federal policing apparatus in American history. A corollary spike in police numbers and operations can be observed in Mexico during the same period. Especially after the most recent drug war in Mexico during the Felipe Calderón administration (2006–2012), the borderland slid into an infamy that perhaps even exceeded its tawdry reputation for vice tourism during Prohibition. Policing became one of the most distinctive features of the border.

Figure 3. Since the spike in personnel beginning in the 1980s, the vast majority of agents have been posted along the U.S.-Mexico border.

(Data compiled from Joseph Nevins, Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the “Illegal Alien” and the Making of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary (New York: Routledge, 2002), Appendix F, and U.S. Border Patrol Fiscal Year Staffing Statistics.)

Yet despite the unprecedented exaggeration of border policing in recent years, a period described by many as a “neoliberal” era (or a stage of advanced or late capitalism), a long series of precedents preceded the hulking border policing apparatus of today. Though different border policing operations over the years have often been couched in the language of national defense and security, the common feature that runs through them all is that they have served to protect capital circulation or investment.

In 1874, as Reconstruction was crumbling and as railroad and mining speculation in the borderland was running wild, the Texas state government put together two new combat branches of the Texas Rangers to fight Mexican American and Indian rebels. At the same time, newly elected Porfirio Díaz was expanding the Rural Corps, or “Rurales,” as he courted American, British, and German investments in infrastructure, extraction, and commercial agriculture. Though neither of these organizations patrolled the border itself as their primary duty, they both embodied the dominant rationale of the borderland. The Rangers helped enforce eminent domain claims and other government takings. They also fought radical groups of Mexican Americans and Indians who refused to acknowledge or submit to new private property regimes.11 The Rurales managed sugar cane cutters, goaded factory workers, and in general operated nearby major roads and railroads to protect both foreign and domestic capital.12

These decades also saw a rise in both the official and extrajudicial policing of economic crimes. The existing historical record, threadbare as it is, shows correlations between the lynching of Mexican Americans accused of theft, especially in California and Texas, during periods of land and resource reconsolidation into European American hands.13 The “embezzlement epidemic” of the 1880s, brought about by new banking and corporate structures, also sparked a rapid proliferation of extradition treaties between the United States and other nations as middling white-collar thieves took refuge across international borders. This phenomenon was accompanied by private but state-sanctioned detective agencies and fugitive hunters like the Pinkertons.14

When the Mexican Revolution broke out in 1911, U.S. and Mexican businessmen had established, with the help of both governments, a complex and lucrative network of extraction and large-scale agriculture in Mexico. The fighting brought great uncertainty and fear, and elites in Mexico and the United States panicked, wondering which of the revolutionary generals would best sustain the system as it had been under Díaz. The William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson administrations in the United States cycled through a series of contradictory policies toward Mexico, oscillating between arms embargos and arms supplies and direct military intervention and neutrality. Taft first sent troops to the border when war broke out in northern Mexico, but Wilson vastly expanded his predecessor’s border militarization policy. This produced a watershed moment in the history of border policing as 160,000 men converged along the international divide in 1917. This buildup didn’t last long, as most of the soldiers shipped out to Europe soon after they arrived in the borderland. This domestic deployment to the border was important, however, not only because the sheer numbers of armed men along the line outstripped anything before or since, but because the new infrastructure required to house them and facilitate their patrols would be repurposed for other kinds of policing for generations to come. The 1910s thus initiated a significant and durable shift in the history of the border, years in which U.S. elites became convinced the borderland was a dangerous space that needed to be policed.

The United States emerged victorious from World War I as a new global superpower. Riding the economic boom of the 1920s, Congress was intent upon expanding the power and scope of federal police forces and increasing regulations on immigration. In 1924 the United States established the Border Patrol. The new agency represented the general proliferation of federal law enforcement agencies from the 1910s to the 1930s and was housed in the Department of Labor. This was fitting because the Border Patrol, though officially tasked with policing international migration, effectively functioned as an agency to regulate migrant workers from Mexico.

The labor policing mandate of the Border Patrol was thrown into high relief in the mid-1940s after the advent of the Bracero Program in 1942. The Mexican government complained that the Border Patrol was working at the behest of major growers in the borderland by allowing too many workers without proper contracts to cross the line. The response was the biggest crackdown on undocumented farm labor in U.S. history, “Operation Wetback,” in which the Immigration and Naturalization Service claimed to have deported more than 1 million people in the summer of 1954.15

For the first time in U.S. history, Congress placed a national origin quota on Mexicans entering the United States in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and discontinued the guest worker program at the same time. Long-established patterns of migrant labor continued unabated, however, recasting these historical circulations of workers in terms of illegality. This lent a new justification to the Border Patrol, and Nixon’s declaration of the “War on Drugs” in 1971 only increased national political sensitivity to the border.

In the 1990s the Border Patrol shifted both its tactics and strategies through a series of operations—“Hold-the-Line” in El Paso, “Gatekeeper” in San Diego, “Safeguard” in Arizona. The agents moved to a forward position along the borderline itself, and the number of agents rose meteorically. The borderland became a building site, too, undergirded by military infrastructure and physical barriers. As in the 1920s, policing accompanied economic expansion. The new strategy was described as “prevention through deterrence,” but many migrants were not deterred from crossing, but rather did so in exceptionally dangerous stretches of desert instead of traditional migration corridors. Unlike the 1920s, the new border policing triggered a new phenomenon of migrant deaths due to hyperthermia, overexposure, and drowning.16

Border law enforcement has several features that set it apart from other policing traditions, such as the disproportionate focus on non-citizens, zero tolerance policies, and greatly diminished standards of probable cause. Like borderland capitalism, however, policing along the border follows the logic of a much larger system. The dramatic increase in the Border Patrol since the mid-1980s is linked to skyrocketing prison populations, as well as the increasing privatization of incarceration and migrant detention more generally. These seemingly disparate phenomena define, in the aggregate, a larger political consensus that legal scholar David Garland calls the “culture of control,” in which more and more social policies gravitate toward punitive criminal justice responses.17


The unusual concentration of policing along the international divide in recent years is perhaps the borderland’s most distinctive feature, which begs the question: If the borderland is, for many industries, a waypoint in a much larger nexus of commerce, is it possible to understand the borderland as a unique cultural space as well, somehow distinct from these mega systems? And if the long history of policing in the borderland has been propelled by federal dollars and pesos to work in lockstep with far-reaching capitalist flows, can we simultaneously think of the borderland as a local space with its own traditions?

Mexican Americans have been the largest ethnic minority group in the U.S. borderland for the entirety of the 20th century and constitute the overwhelming majority in many cities and counties. According to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the U.S.-Mexican War, Mexican descent people were legally “white” and were to enjoy all the rights and privileges of U.S. citizens, unlike African Americans and Native Americans in the same period. An egregious series of betrayals and exclusions followed, including mob violence, police brutality, land expropriation, and various forms of segregation. Not until 1971 did a district judge find that Mexican Americans were an “identifiable minority group” in Cisneros v. Corpus Christi ISD. This was a victory for the larger civil rights and Chicano movements, though it also triggered a significant change of course for older Mexican American activist organizations like the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the American G.I. Forum that had long advocated for the “whiteness” of Mexican descent people in the United States.

The Mexican American population, largely concentrated in the border states, has never represented a cross section of Mexican society, however. Mexican America is less diverse than Mexico because Mexican America is historically and disproportionately composed of a laboring class that came from the Bajío states of Jalisco and Guanajuato, as well as Michoacán and Zacatecas (none of which are border states). These residents ended up in very specific industries in the United States—agriculture, meat packing, icehouses—that kept them isolated from the dominant civil society. Pinched between the mainline cultures of both the United States and Mexico, both of which were inaccessible to most working-class Mexican Americans, a new “in-between” society emerged along with its own hybrid language and folk traditions.18

During the 20th century Native peoples in the borderland faded almost completely out of mainstream America’s view except when incorporated into consumer culture. Indians remained a feature of the borderlands through representations in television and film and the early tourist industry in northern New Mexico, boosted by the Santa Fe Railroad and the Fred Harvey Company, a hotel and restaurant chain.19 In the postwar and post–Civil Rights era, however, a pan-Indian and even internationalist mentality has emerged that has united Native peoples in new ways that make the U.S.-Mexico border, a mid-19th-century invention, a less useful way of framing politics and identity. In 2007, for instance, the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples formally recognized Native peoples’ traditional claims on language, territory, and customs, though these claims were asserted through the cosmopolitanism of the United Nations. These assertions made by and on behalf of autochthonous populations around the globe, most of whom are still living along the fringes of capitalist systems, lend both local and internationalist authority to their pleas for justice and equality, rendering the “borderland” a less operative category of analysis.

The idea of the American Southwest as a place apart, within the United States but host to “exotic” and ancient traditions and peoples, made northern New Mexico in particular a magnet for outsiders looking for creative outlets. D. H. Lawrence, Georgia O’Keeffe, Alfred Stieglitz, and a host of other artists and intellectuals imagined and represented Taos and Santa Fe during the Great Depression and war years as a mystical place of spiritual awakening.20 They internalized, in other words, what author Rubén Martínez calls the “boutique desert,” which is predicated upon the commodification of indigenous and Spanish-descent culture, touristic consumerism, and artistic production. The boutique desert has other outposts throughout the borderland, including Death Valley, California; Bisbee, Arizona; and Marfa, Texas. These pockets, seasonally inhabited by outsiders fascinated by the local color of the landscape and its history and people, are surrounded on all sides by different deserts, what Martínez calls the “deserts of addiction.”21 Out there in the interstitial space between the handful of famous Southwestern destination towns live forgotten people, wrestling daily with drugs, poverty, and the effects of undereducation.

Ultimately, then, borderland history defies any kind of unitary analysis that privileges one narrative, one cultural group, or one set of outcomes. The border has always been both porous to some and impenetrable to others, both a zone of interdiction and free circulation, generative of both tremendous profits and abject destitution, and both an isolated and cosmopolitan space.

Figure 4. Just east of the Columbus, New Mexico, port of entry the pedestrian fence abruptly ends.

(Photograph by the author, 2012.)

Discussion of the Literature

The term “borderlands,” used as a scholarly reference to the region that is now northern Mexican and the American Southwest, was invented by an editor at Yale University Press in an effort to package a new book by Herbert Eugene Bolton.22 Bolton was a historian who, upon moving to the University of Texas at Austin and familiarizing himself with Mexican history, committed himself to disrupting what was then the master narrative of American history that rooted the development of the United States in the British empire. His book adopted the point of view of the Spanish empire instead and traced the ways in which the fringes of New Spain evolved in this larger Hispanic context.

This perspective proved to be a potent corrective to Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 “frontier thesis,” which tied American democracy to the supposedly rugged individualists who settled the American West. Bolton, Turner’s former student, pointed out that the Spanish had been there first and dedicated his career to understanding the institutions and politics of the Spanish empire. Bolton trained scores of graduate students, and his Spain-centric viewpoint reoriented generations of scholars who paid special attention to the Hispanic roots of what is now the United States–Mexico borderland.23

Though three generations of borderlands historians had successfully adjusted the focus of American history, theirs was a version of the past that placed European empires at the center of the analysis. The new social historians of the 1960s and ’70s, in both Europe and the United States, created a counterweight to these kinds of macroscopic political and institutional histories. Instead, they wrote history from the perspectives of the working class, women, Native peoples, Mexican Americans, African Americans, and others whose voices were either muted or completely absent from official state archives.24 This fundamentally reoriented borderlands scholarship yet again, splicing into ethnic and labor history, as well as the burgeoning field of queer studies.25

Recent scholarship on the borderlands has taken its cues from international, transnational, and global history. Rooted in archives in multiple countries, this kind of history writing adopts aspects of the institutional histories of the early 20th century as well as the attention to local spaces and people of the late 20th century. It has made some radical interventions, aiming not only to “recover” the lost voices of Indians and other subalterns and chronicle their “resistance,” but also explain the ways in which they expressed political and economic power.26

Despite the long arc of borderlands history and the great strides that have been made in recent years, there are still aspects of the borderland that are poorly understood. For instance, the Mexican North remains understudied and rarely considered on its own terms.27 This is partly due to the tendency toward U.S.-centrism in English language scholarship, and partly due to an apparent lack of interest on the part of Mexican historians. Historia Mexicana, for instance, one of Mexico’s most important professional history journals, has published no articles about the post–Mexican Revolution borderland. The critically important years in the 1960s and ’70s, after the demise of the Bracero Program, the rise of the Border Industrialization Program, and the concomitant demographic transformation of the northern Mexican border states, remains fertile ground for study, as does a historically rigorous analysis of the disproportionate role the Mexican North played in the most recent drug war.

In their assessment of the field in 2011, borderlands historians Pekka Hämäläinen and Samuel Truett optimistically claimed that, with “stories rooted in other nations, other cultures, and other places, borderlands history is today poised to pull American history from its centrist bearings and make it something different altogether.”28 Whether or not this call to arms will materialize and prove durable will depend on at least three factors. A new, non-nationalist American history (or Mexican history for that matter) that is based on borderland studies must have a rigorous theoretical orientation, a guiding concept that helps explain why things happened when and where they did. Without underlying claims that other scholars can understand, and perhaps even appropriate, borderlands history runs the risk of limiting its readership and influence to only those who are already convinced of its importance.

Also, if the importance of borderlands history is to ever reach outside the already segregated echo chamber of the academy, it must actively foster a public history component. This may include museum exhibitions, book websites that help explain and illustrate the primary source bases that make up history writing, and journalistic writing in widely read publications.

Primary Sources

Main Types of Primary Sources

The history of the border can be accessed, like any other aspect of American or Mexican history, through government documents. These are particularly easy to obtain through municipal, state, and national archives in both countries. Because the border divides the U.S. national space from a foreign territory, government agencies have paid a particular kind of attention to it, focusing on questions of sovereignty, defense, security, and capital. These discussions appear in congressional hearings as well as in correspondence between cabinet level bureaucracies, law enforcement agencies, and state and city governments. Diplomatic records, too, speak to the international issues that arise in border disputes, agreements, and other interactions. In general, U.S. archives tend to be more thoroughly organized and categorized than Mexican archives, though in Mexico, too, there is widespread access to huge quantities of documents. A useful analytic exercise is comparing U.S. and Mexican documents pertaining to the same event or time period to assess how their interpretations diverge or converge.

The borderland was not developed exclusively by the state, however. Private interests, investment, and construction projects also gave shape to the region. Corporate records, however, because they are private, can be much more difficult to access, though it is important to try to gain access whenever possible. Students and researchers should bear in mind the extent to which private and public interests are often aligned, reinforce one another, and rarely operate in isolation. Using government documents strategically, one can gain a view into private industry by paying attention to government contracts, diplomatic deals, and other ways in which the public record discusses governmental interactions with corporations and firms.

Non-textual sources, like oral histories, music, photographic collections, and maps, can also be useful in establishing a more complex and textured understanding of border history. Oral histories can provide idiosyncratic opinions and points of view that call into question overarching narratives of whole ethnic groups, places, or industries. Music—both lyrics and instrumental arrangements, especially of the “folk” variety—can give voice to people who do not typically appear in the elite archives of the U.S. and Mexican governments. Corridos, or Mexican folk ballads, have proven a particularly rich source for historians over the years. Photographs, when read critically and not taken for granted as simply “objective” illustrations of a place and time, can also tell us a great deal about the built environment, urban planning, and social interaction more generally. Finally, maps, when viewed as socially and culturally constructed documents, can explain aspirations to power, systems of law and order, social control, the transformation of the natural environment, and local development with a different kind of precision than written sources.

Some Important Archives

Further Reading

  • Adelman, Jeremy, and Stephen Aron. “From Borderlands to Borders: Empires, Nation-States, and the Peoples in Between in North American History.” The American Historical Review 104.3 (1999): 814–841.
  • Andreas, Peter. Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009.
  • Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999 [1987].
  • Brooks, James F. Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
  • Brown, Wendy. Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. Cambridge, MA: Zone Books, 2010.
  • Cadava, Geraldo. Standing on Common Ground: The Making of a Sunbelt Borderland. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.
  • Chang, Kornel. Pacific Connections: The Making of the U.S.-Canadian Borderlands. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.
  • DeLay, Brian. War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the U.S.-Mexican War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.
  • Dunn, Timothy J. Blockading the Border and Human Rights: The El Paso Operation That Remade Immigration Enforcement. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009.
  • Gordon, Linda. The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • Hämäläinen, Pekka. The Comanche Empire. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.
  • Hämäläinen, Pekka, and Samuel Truett. “On Borderlands.” The Journal of American History 98.2 (2011): 338–361.
  • Jacoby, Karl. Shadows at Dawn: A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History. New York: Penguin, 2008.
  • Johnson, Benjamin H., and Andrew R. Graybill, eds. Bridging National Borders in North America. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.
  • Lytle Hernández, Kelly. Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.
  • Masco, Joseph. The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.
  • Needham, Andrew. Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.
  • Reséndez, Andrés. Changing National Identities at the Frontier: Texas and New Mexico, 1800–1850. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Sheffer, Edith. Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • St. John, Rachel. Line in the Sand: A History of the Western U.S.-Mexico Border. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.
  • Truett, Samuel. Fugitive Landscapes: The Forgotten History of the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.
  • Truett, Samuel, and Elliot Young, eds. Continental Crossroads: Remapping the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands History. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.
  • Weber, David J. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.


  • 1. Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009); Brian DeLay, War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the U.S.-Mexican War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008); Andrés Reséndez, Changing National Identities at the Frontier: Texas and New Mexico, 1800–1850 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004); and Friedrich Katz, The Life and Times of Pancho Villa (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998).

  • 2. Ernesto Chavez, The U.S. War with Mexico: A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2007), 78, 86.

  • 3. Rachel St. John, Line in the Sand: A History of the Western U.S.-Mexico Border (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011).

  • 4. Richard Griswold del Castillo, The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: A Legacy of Conflict (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990); and William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb, Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence Against Mexicans in the United States, 1848–1928 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

  • 5. Reséndez, Changing National Identities at the Frontier, 93–94.

  • 6. Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011), 209.

  • 7. John H. Coatsworth, Growth Against Development: The Economic Impact of Railroads in Porfirian Mexico, Origins of modern Mexico (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1981), 4.

  • 8. Katz, The Life and Times of Pancho Villa, David Montejano, Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836–1986 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987); Coatsworth, Growth Against Development, 179; and Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).

  • 9. Paul Vanderwood, Disorder and Progress: Bandits, Police, and Mexican Development (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 1992), 175.

  • 10. Stephen Haber, Herbert S. Klein, Noel Maurer, and Kevin J. Middlebrook, Mexico Since 1980 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2008); and Wendy Brown, “American Nightmare: Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism, and De-Democratization,” Political Theory 34.6 (2006): 690–714.

  • 11. Andrew R. Graybill, Policing the Great Plains: Rangers, Mounties, and the North American Frontier, 1875–1910 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007).

  • 12. Vanderwood, Disorder and Progress.

  • 13. Carrigan and Webb, Forgotten Dead.

  • 14. Katherine Unterman, Uncle Sam’s Policemen: The Pursuit of Fugitives Across Borders (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).

  • 15. Kelly Lytle Hernández, Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).

  • 16. Jason De Leon, The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015).

  • 17. David Garland, The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

  • 18. Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999 [1987]); and Américo Paredes, “With a Pistol in His Hand”: A Border Ballad and Its Hero (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1970).

  • 19. Dustin Tahmahkera, Tribal Television: Viewing Native People in Sitcoms (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

  • 20. Chris Wilson, The Myth of Santa Fe: Creating a Modern Regional Tradition (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997).

  • 21. Rubén Martínez, Desert America: A Journey Through Our Most Divided Landscape (New York: Picador, 2013).

  • 22. Herbert Eugene Bolton, The Spanish Borderlands: A Chronicle of Old Florida and the Southwest (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1921).

  • 23. The two most important intellectual heirs to Bolton’s legacy are John Francis Bannon, The Spanish Borderlands Frontier, 1513–1821 (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970); and David J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992).

  • 24. The call to arms in U.S. Western history was Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: Norton, 1987).

  • 25. See, for instance Montejano, Anglos and Mexicans; Neil Foley, The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); and Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera.

  • 26. See Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire; and DeLay, War of a Thousand Deserts. For examples of the internationalist approach, see Samuel Truett, Fugitive Landscapes: The Forgotten History of the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006); Karl Jacoby, Shadows at Dawn: A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History (New York: Penguin, 2008); and St. John, Line in the Sand.

  • 27. Notable exceptions include Katz, The Life and Times of Pancho Villa and Reséndez.

  • 28. Pekka Hämäläinen and Samuel Truett, “On Borderlands,” Journal of American History 98.2 (2011): 345–346.