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Fluidity and Fixity in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

Any cultural or political description of the Mexican-American borderlands is complicated and hotly contested, shot through with multiple and often conflicting layers of accounts, histories, and theories. These borderlands are in a constant state of flux, of movement, of exchange. Tourists, students, workers, businesspeople, goods and services—some legal or documented, some not—flow back and forth every day. Others live their entire lives near the border and never cross it, but are nonetheless shaped by its presence. This essay will show some of the political and cultural definitions of the border and the concrete impact these exert on its residents. For example, freedom of movement in these areas is restricted depending on one's citizenship, legal status, and access to legal assistance and education regarding the necessary paperwork, which has significant economic and personal consequences for individuals and families on either side.

As the political is also and always cultural, this essay will also show how the languages spoken in the borderlands are a direct product of its history, with language serving as a double-edged sword that can divide or unite, oppress or embrace. This cannot be done without also reflecting upon the ways in which gender, race, ethnicity, and nationality impact the political and cultural identities and experiences of the residents and occupants of the borderlands. The plurality of "borderlands" is important to emphasize here, since cultural experiences and issues vary widely between San Diego, California/Tijuana, Baja California to the west and Brownsville, Texas/Matamoros, Tamaulipas to the east, not to mention the nearly 2,000 miles of border towns and crossings that lie between them.

A Tale of Two (Kinds of) Borders

This essay will be using two sometimes-overlapping definitions of the borderlands. The first is the simplest: the formal political definition of the U.S.-Mexico Border Area as established by the 1983 Agreement for the Protection and Improvement of the Environment in the Border Area, also known as the La Paz Agreement. According to this agreement, the border area extends 100 km (62.5 miles) north and south of the U.S.-Mexico boundary. Checkpoints are established along major roads and highways to enforce these extended borders as well. Notably, the level of vigilance in maintaining and enforcing these borders is far greater than it is to the north along the U.S.-Canada border, particularly on the U.S. side.[1] While these political borders appear rigid, the cultural definition or conception of the people's lived experiences is far more mutable and difficult to contain. This leads me to the second definition or conception of the border, which is cultural in nature and, as such, impossible to describe succinctly due to the variety, complexity, and ever-shifting nature of experiences of the borderlands for residents and visitors alike. In later sections, I will be focusing on issues of language, gender, and sexuality as well as some of the philosophical works that have played a vital role in shaping these kinds of borders.

Despite the multiplicity and fluidity of the concept of U.S.-Mexico border culture, its impact is nonetheless entirely tangible. Sociologists William Isaac Thomas and Dorothy Swaine Thomas developed a theorem in 1928 that is still very useful to remember here: "If men (women) define situations as real, they are real in their consequences." If the U.S. media portrays Mexican and Latino immigration in a positive or negative light, as undocumented immigrants or illegal aliens, the value of their presence has been qualitatively shown to decrease, which can create unpleasant, difficult or dangerous situations for anyone who "looks Mexican" or who does not "look American" (i.e. is not white, despite the obviously incorrect assumption that all Americans are white).[2] In a similar vein, if the use of Spanglish is deemed worthy of scorn by residents on either side of the border, the economic, political, and social consequences that result for those

who do use it are very real indeed.[3]

Facts, Figures, and a Short History of the U.S.-Mexico Border Area

A political and geographical border implies a reassuringly firm, clear line—easily visible on any map and therefore (theoretically, at least) difficult to dispute. If one seeks a definition of the U.S.-Mexico border, however, it quickly becomes apparent that multiple definitions and various manifestations of the border are in effect. Rather than a decisive line, the perception of the border is actually quite fluid, and so it is essential to consider the factors involved in creating a sense of that border, and the ways in which it is created, indicated (i.e. made visible), and maintained or enforced. Indeed, the U.S.-Mexico border itself has undergone radical changes in the last 200 years, since Mexican territory once encompassed all of what is now California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, as well as parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Texas, and Oklahoma.[4]

As the United States expanded its own boundaries farther and farther west as part of the ideology of Manifest Destiny, the ensuing conflict between the two nations resulted in the Mexican-American War, better known in Mexico as the American Intervention (1846–1848). The war ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which required Mexico to cede the previously listed territories to the United States, transforming Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas into the new northern border states. Approximately 300,000 Mexican nationals were faced with the decision to either assume American citizenship or to relocate south of the radically shifted border, where the government had offered free land as an incentive to populate the area.[5] That treaty, along with the Gadsden Purchase in 1853, resulted in an enormous loss of land—nearly one million square miles—for Mexico, with the middle of Río Grande ultimately serving as the dividing line between the two countries.

Rivers, unfortunately, do not make for particularly stable borders, and the two treaties had not accounted for shifts in the river's topography due to weather or other factors. This was particularly evident in the Chamizal region between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, where the river left its banks and created new channels at least twice due to heavy rain (in 1864 and again in 1868).[6] Since the border was considered to be in the middle of the Río Grande, when the river channels moved, the border moved also, and with highly disruptive results. It took almost a century to resolve the bitter and litigious national and territorial disputes in that area. Both countries finally came to an agreement in 1963, which was emphatically marked by setting the river into a concrete channel that runs for about four miles, literally cementing that part of the border.[7]

As with the movement of the Río Grande in the Chamizal region, the impact on the 300,000 Mexican residents who lived in the region impacted by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was concrete, intense, and often quite negative. The treaty stipulated that they had a year to decide whether to 'return home' to Mexico (a rather insulting offer, given that they would have to leave their own homes to do it) or remain and become U.S. citizens. In theory, those who remained would have been able to retain their property, though a number of these Mexicans lost their land anyway due to the deletion of Article X, which would have explicitly protected land grants of the Tejanos in the area and allowed Mexican landholders to complete the necessary paperwork to maintain their property or to reclaim dispossessed property acquired by Anglos in the region. That article was removed from the treaty by then-president James K. Polk after the treaty was ratified by the Mexican government and passed on to the United States, and that is the version of the treaty that was enacted.[8]

The animosity between the dispossessed Mexicans and the ever-growing Anglo population was intense, in part because the Anglos used their greater economic, legal, and military power to force out the Mexican residents. Such was the case with American businessman Charles Stillman, who in 1846 opened a trading center in Brownsville on land that belonged to the Casavos family. Some of Stillman's friends came to the area as well and occupied it as squatters, demanding corresponding squatters' rights to the property, and Stillman himself ignored the Casavos family's lawsuit against him, since he had military support from nearby Fort Brown. Even though the court eventually ruled in favor of the Casavos

family, the amount awarded them was far less than the worth of the property—$33,000 USD for land that had been valued at $214,000. Worse yet, the ruling was never enforced and the family was never paid, nor were the lands ever returned.[9] Clashes also arose over differences in language, religion, and various everyday social issues, with memories of the Mexican-American War still strong in many residents' minds. Indeed, the aftershocks of these disagreements have carried forward to the present day in terms of attitudes, perceptions, and legislation adopted by the two countries toward one another.[10] These deep roots of international and multicultural conflicts cannot be ignored in any consideration of today's borderlands.

When an intangible political border shifts in such a way, stable-sounding elements are impacted: homes, property, and citizenship are all threatened or transformed and, in this case, with no input from the residents whose lives were so significantly affected. The issues that consequently arise range from the pragmatic to the deeply personal: how and to whom taxes must be paid, the legal paperwork involved in keeping one's land, the sense of connection to the land, and the ways in which perceptions of class and status are accepted or rejected by the intermingling citizens of both countries. This history is important to understand before examining the more recent manifestations of the borderlands and the ways it has impacted present border life as well as the political and cultural issues that are present on both sides of the once- unruly geographical border. The next section will focus on some of the ways in which these imagined borders place various requirements and impositions on their residents, as well as the ways in which possibilities and opportunities for progress are created within those intermixed cultures.

Languages Crossing Lenguas: Cultural and Linguistic Negotiations of Identity

In her now-classic text Borderlands/La Frontera, Chicana scholar and theorist Gloria Anzaldúa pulls no punches when she declares that the U.S.-Mexico border is an open wound, "una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first (sic) and bleeds."[11] As such, the blood from the two countries or worlds intermingles to form a third space or country—what Anzaldúa dubs the border culture. If we follow her imagery, this exchange is painful, unpredictable, and (quite literally) fluid. Despite the violence invoked by Anzaldúa's imagery, the irrevocably mixed blood that has been spilled does not only denote destruction, but also formation of new spaces and cultures with complex histories.

To do this, Anzaldúa draws on the concept of mestizaje, the mixture of races that began with the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, and on the more recently developed concept of the mestizo as presented by Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos in his 1925 work La Raza Cósmica (The Cosmic Race). According to Vasconcelos, these particular mestizos were Latin Americans who, as a result of their mixed-race blood, took on all the best traits of each race to form a new Cosmic Race that was greater than the sum of its parts. His construction of the mestizo became a cornerstone upon which ideals of Mexican identity were built following the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920). This provided a utopic ideal for a country that was fragmented and economically and psychologically devastated by a decade-long war; conveniently, it also provided a platform on which to build a defiant stance against their overbearing neighbors to the north.

In Borderlands and much of her other work, Anzaldúa stretches and adapts Vasconcelos's concept of mestizaje to her own ends, considering gender, socioeconomic class, and sexuality as well as race and cultural production. "From this racial, ideological, cultural and biological cross-pollinization, an 'alien' consciousness is in the making," she declares—"a new mestiza consciousness, una conciencia de mujer. It is the consciousness of the Borderlands."[12] She, like Vasconcelos, finds freedom in this mixture; unlike Vasconcelos, she also recognizes the violent implications of these mixtures (as in her metaphor of border as open wound in the previous paragraph). Even so, Anzaldúa claims mestizaje as a place of rebirth and self-recreation, paying close attention to mestiza women's experiences and forms of expression in this space. She examines the ways in which economics, race, culture, language, and sexuality define or shape life in the borderlands, all of which are constantly interacting in a geographical space in which—as she pointedly reminds the reader—the original illegal inhabitants were the Anglos who migrated to Texas in the 1800s and drove out the native


Anzaldúa further illustrates this point by writing in what she terms "the language of the Borderlands," switching "from English to Castilian Spanish to the North Mexican dialect to Tex-Mex to a sprinkling of Nahuatl to a mixture of all of these."[14] Her insistence on a mixed language (what Anzaldúa herself calls a "bastard language") without translations or explicatory footnotes illustrates the ever-shifting nature of her chosen form of communication. There are no language academies or prescriptive dictionaries to regulate her speech; instead, she changes her words and her communicative codes depending on her audience, her memories, and her desire for self-expression.

In reading Anzaldúa's work, it becomes clear that the nature of this borderland language means that no two borderland residents speak exactly the same language. Some may insist on a strictly 'correct' Castilian Spanish or American English, while others choose the dialects of Northern Mexico or the myriad variations of Spanglish, or Spanish-English code switching, that one will hear along the 2,000 mile-long border. (While the limits of this essay will only permit me to address its use in this region, it must be emphasized that Spanglish is in no way restricted or unique to the U.S.-Mexico border). Indigenous languages such as Nahuatl are also spoken along the border, albeit in ever-shrinking numbers, and the Mennonite residents in northern Mexico also speak Low German. Not all of these groups can or choose to display Anzaldúa's linguistic flexibility; for that matter, it is worth remembering that not all of them have to do so. As such, the balance of power in the borderlands hinges in part on the languages that one dominates (or not), as well as the predominant attitudes held toward particular languages, dialects, or even accents.


These invisible borders are often only perceptible when crossed, as those who may live comfortably within particular social or linguistic spheres may never have the need to test their limits and thus ignore their existence entirely. Others, however, are only too aware of these kinds of borders, and the previously mentioned Thomas theorem holds true regarding their unmistakable reality. If a Mexican American child speaks what is deemed "español pocho" (a derisive term for Americanized Spanish) while visiting her elders in northern Mexico, if a group of teenagers speaking Spanish in a shopping center on the U.S. side receives extra attention and raised eyebrows from mall security, if a car with a placa fronteriza (borderlands license plate) attempts to cross the unfenced but checkpoint-littered border 100 km/62.5 miles north or south of the geographical one, those imagined borders become as solid and undeniable as the concrete that now regulates the flow of the Río Grande.


[1] Martínez, Troublesome Border (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1988), 149. [2] Sheila L. Steinberg, "Undocumented Immigrants or Illegal Aliens? Southwestern Media Portrayals of Latino Immigrants." Humboldt Journal of Social Relations 28, no. 1 (2004). 109-133. [3] Professor and cultural commentator Ilán Stavans recalls an interview in which Octavio Paz, a famous Mexican author who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, is said to have deemed Spanglish "ni bueno ni malo, sino abominable" (neither good nor bad, but rather abominable). In doing so, Paz reinforced the widespread assumption that speakers of Spanglish "are no longer fluent in the language of Cervantes but have also failed to master that of Shakespeare." "Spanglish: Tickling the Tongue," World Literature Today 74, no. 3 (Summer 2000): 555-558. [4] Fernando Romero, Hyperborder: The Contemporary U.S.-Mexico Border and Its Future (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2008), 66-67. [5] Sandra Hernández, "The Legacy of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on Tejanos' Land." The Journal of Popular Culture 35, no. 2 (Fall 2001): 101-109. [6] Jeffrey M. Schulze, "The Chamizal Blues: El Paso, the Wayward River, and the Peoples in Between." The Western

Historical Quarterly 43, no. 3 (Autumn 2012): 301-322. [7] Hernández, "The Legacy of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on Tejanos' Land," 101. [8] Ibid., 103. [9] Ibid., 106-107. [10] Oscar J. Martínez, Troublesome Border, 29.

[11] Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands: The New Mestiza = La Frontera, 3rd ed. (San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books, 2007),


[12] Ibid., 99. [13] Ibid., 6.

[14] Ibid., 20.

About the Author

Sara Potter

Sara Potter is an assistant professor of Spanish at the University of Texas at El Paso. She received a BA in music and Spanish from

Central Michigan University, an MA in Spanish from Middlebury College in Vermont, after which time she taught as an adjunct at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and also held instructor and visiting professor positions at Grand Valley State University before going on to earn her PhD in Hispanic Languages and Linguistics from Washington University in Saint Louis. During the 2011–2012 academic year, she earned a Fulbright García-Robles scholarship to spend a year doing dissertation research in Mexico City. Her dissertation, entitled "Disturbing Muses: Gender, Technology, and Resistance in Mexican Avant- Garde Cultures," won the award for best dissertation of the Mexican Section at the 2014 LASA (Latin American Studies Association) Conference.

Select Citation Style:


MLA Potter, Sara. "Fluidity and Fixity in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands." The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience. ABC-CLIO, 2016. Web. 24 Aug. 2016.

Entry ID: 1924167