A Brief History of the People and Relations of the United States-Mexican Border

A Brief History of the People and Relations of the United States-Mexican Border

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A Brief History of the People and Relations of the United States-Mexican Border

Wind tugging at my sleeve
feet sinking into the sand
I stand at the edge where the earth touches
where the two overlap
a gentle coming together
at other times and places a violent clash
Across the border in Mexico
stark silhouette of houses gutted by waves,
cliffs crumbling into the sea,
silver waves marbled with spume
gashing a hole under the border fence.

Miro el mar atacar
la cerca en Border Field Park
con sus buchones de agua,
an Easter Sunday resurrection
of the brown blood in my veins.

Oigo el llorido del mar, el respiro del aire,
my heart surges to the beat of the sea.
In the gray haze of the sun
the gulls’ shrill cry of hunger,
the tangy smell of the sea seeping into me.

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I walk through the hole in the fence
to the other side.
Under my fingers I feel the gritty wire
rusted by 139 years
of the salty breath of the sea.

Beneath the iron sky
Mexican children kick their soccer ball across,
run after it, entering the US

I press my hand to the steel curtain-
chialilink fence crowned with rolled barbed wire-
rippling from the sea where Tijuana touches San Diego
unrolling over mountains
and plains
and deserts,
this "Tortilla Curtain" turning into el rio Grande
flowing down to the flatlands
of the Magic Valley of South Texas
its mouth emptying into the Gulf.

1,950 mile-long open wound
dividing a pueblo, a culture,
running down the length of my body,
staking fence rods in my flesh,
splits me, splits me
me raja me raja

This is my home
this thin edge of

But the skin of the earth is seamless.
The sea cannot be fenced,
el mar does not stop at borders.
To show the white man what she thought of his arrogance,
Yemaya blew that wire fence down.

This land was Mexican once,
was Indian always, and is.
And will be again.

--Gloria Anzaldua

Webster’s Dictionary informs us that a border simply exist as "the outer part or edge of anything; the exterior limit of a place,", yet all who live in the Borderlands understand the extent of how much more there is to the border besides this rudimentary definition. Wherever man has decided to pick up his pen and produce artificial lines upon a map, declaring boundaries between the flow of land or water that encompass the earth, a border exist. A particularly interesting border carrying myriad stories and an overwhelmingly emotional history ranging from bloodshed to compromise is the border that lies between The United States of America and Mexico. Although in an ideal relationship between any two countries, both nations maintain equal power, in reality one country is often more powerful and dominating then the other. This relationship currently exist between the USA and Mexico. The Mexican-American Border is a place where people from opposing nations and cultures coalesce to form a separate culture in and of itself. A contact zone is created when people originating from vastly different places ( a first world and a third world country) maintaining separate customs and ideologies are exposed to one another and learn to borrow and share everything from ideas to language with the people across the border. If citizens on both sides work to educate their children on the value of maintaining an equal relationship between nations, we have only wonderful, peaceful relations to look forward to in the future.

Currently citizens of Mexico and the United States maintain a friendly relationship, but it was not long ago when hostility and hatred were prevalent among these people. According to Oscar J Martinez who has spent about 75% of his life living amongst and studying people of the border, there are four different kinds of borderlands interaction and the Mexican-American border has experienced three of them. The four include (in order of least to most friendly contact) alienated, (like many borders in the Middle East) coexistent, (currently like Israel and Egypt), interdependent, (such as the US and Mexico now) and integrated borderlands (like now in the Regio Basiliensis transfrontier zone-between France, Germany and Switzerland). Through numerous years and countless lives, the US and Mexico has struggled to reach the stable relationship they are at now, if we work even harder it is evident these countries could eventually elevate their relationship to one of equality.

The least desirable of these models is alienated borderlands because tension remains high and citizens of each side elimate communication with the opposing side. In this type of setting, little or no interaction across the border exists and the border stays for the most part functionally closed. Significant factors that play a role in creating an atmosphere of such alienation include "warfare, political disputes, intense nationalism, ideological animosity, religious enmity, cultural dissimilarity and ethnic rivalry," (Martinez, 1994).

The American/Mexican Border existed in a state of alienation from the 1560’s to 1880. A tremendous fight for land began in the 16th century when imperialist from Spain, England and France claimed part of what is now the US. Land swapping existed as common practice amongst these superpowers and in 1803 France sold the US Louisiana, but without an explicit location of the western border of the purchase. This situation left the US and Spain in heated debates. Finally, in 1819, the Adams-Onis Treaty was signed, infuriating Americans who realized Texas was not part of their land and continuing many of their dreams of expansion. America attempted to purchase the province along with more land from the Mexicans after Mexico emerged as an independent nation in 1821, but Mexico refused to give up her land. Hostility heightened between the two nations when America annexed Texas in 1845 after many Americans had immigrated there throughout the 1820s and 1830s. The next year, war broke out. Mexico suffered a great loss of land (almost half) after America provoked her into war in 1846 and victoriously claimed what is presently Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. Many Americans felt justified in this imperialism and had never forgiven the Mexicans for the Battle of the Alamo where Mexico’s people displayed their might. Power struggles like this exemplify the bitterness both sides experience in times of great misbalances of power and display why it is so important that we work towards equalizing the relationship between the two countries. Fortunately for both sides, this arrangement of alienation was not permanent. In the 1850’s through 1870’s borderlands in both countries were increasingly supplying more minerals, cheap labor for industries, crops and cattle that helped to foster friendlier relations with the opposing country.

The next stage of border-types that naturally followed for Americans and Mexicans to go through was the Coexistent Borderlands model. Coexistence develops when international conflicts are reduced so that they still exist, but are manageable. The border remains slightly open depending on the stability of the relations between the countries involved. Some binational interaction takes place, but not a great deal of it. Coexistence often emerges from alienation after a great deal of time has passed since atrocities were last committed on both sides and hatred eventually lessens, or a truce has resulted from a serious argument so international relations exist but cross-border interaction remains on a down low.

Coexistence best describes the situation concerning the Mexican/American border from 1880 to 1920. Improved relations between the US and Mexico led to a significant decrease in international conflict fostering a new boom of regional development and prosperity. America no longer hungered to gobble-up more territory from Mexico and a general desire for improved relations prevailed. The Mexican dictator, Porfiiro Diaz ruled with the ideas of order and progress.

Diaz also encouraged stable and businesslike relations with US which lasted until the Mexican Revolution in 1910 when America and Mexico were once again thrown into a state of turmoil, especially along the border. Mexico became angry and hostile when the US attempted to intervene in her national affairs. During this period borderlanders on both sides observed countless clashes of ideas, and racial arguments that often emerged into raids or revolts.

Race hatred flared into a frenzy "after Mexican-American resisters robbed a train in Brownsville, Texas on October 18, 1915, and Anglo vigilante groups began lynching Chicanos," (Anzaldua, 1987). After only a few months, a hundred Chicanos were killed and many more abandoned their property to flee home to Mexico. Then, in "1916, a raid on Columbus, New Mexico by the forces of Pancho Villa precipitated a punitive US expedition onto Mexican soil, bringing the two nations dangerously close to war," (Martinez, 1994). However, both sides cooled off and ties between American and Mexican sides of the border endured. Once again, a trend toward increasing binational interchange continued. It’s mutually beneficial for countries to not use their scarce resources killing the people in the other country and to work together to help each other out in times of need.
Strengthened economic interaction helped secure the bond between the US and Mexico. Capitalist excited by the thought of profits from exploiting resource-rich areas in Mexico such as Sonora and Chihuaha enthusiastically advocated friendly relations between the nations. Diaz baited foreigners to invest in the Mexican economy with incentives such as tax exemptions, mineral rights and cash subsidies to railroad companies. A plethora of acres of Mexican land was snatched up by companies eager to make money. Mexicans raced across the border to higher paying US jobs while US companies raced to hire thousands of Mexican workers who they could cheaply pay. Once the railroads were established and running on both sides of the border even more international business associating took place. Relations became even friendlier then they previously had been.

As the two nations grew closer and more dependent upon one another, their relationship could be described as one of interdependence. Interdependent borderlands are characterized as usually remaining stable and having high rates of border interaction. Also, these borderlands tend to have favorable social and economic conditions and the Borderlanders often carry on mutually benefiting, friendly relationships. People on both sides of the border are interested in pursuing growth in foreign resources, markets, and labor. The economies of each nation are strongly tied to the other as labor and goods cross freely from both sides of the border. Out of this arrangement grows an economic system that is mutually beneficial to both parties involved.

Although in an ideal interdependent relationship between borderlands both nations maintain equal power, in reality one country is often more powerful and dominating then the other. Often a wealthy country has this kind of a relationship with a poorer one and benefits from cheap labor and raw materials while the less wealthy one benefits economically also. With the rise of economic interdependence comes the rise of cultural and social sharing. As long as the two nations exist in harmony concerning their policies, interdependence remains unharmed. "Concerns over immigration, trade competition, smuggling, and ethnic nationalism compel the central governments to monitor the border carefully, keeping it open only to the extent that it serves national agendas," (Martinez, 1994).

America and Mexico are presently in a state of interdependence and have been since about 1920. Prohibition acted as a catalyst leading to the road of interdependence. People determined to drink if they pleased, regardless of American laws, fostered many Americans to turn to Mexico to fulfill their thirst. The Great Depression was a set back because people were tighter with spending and businesses went bankrupt- but the road to the sharing of cultures was already paved and was destined to be continued. One thing that helped improve relations between the two countries was President Roosevelt’s "Good Neighbor Policy" in the 1930’s and 1940’s that led to an increase in cooperation and compromise on both sides.

Although Mexican-American relations are for the most part extremely amiable, there have always been sources of resentment and hostility throughout this period and realistically will continue into the future. In the early 1920’s tension rose during the debates on immigration quotas that had become an issue in the United States. Then in the 30’s anger heightened over "repatriation of a half-million Mexican’s from the United States," (Martinez 1994) and after that in the 1940’s there were high numbers of arguments over provisions of the Bracero Program. (The Bracero Program was implemented in 1942, it was "the bilateral labor-contract arrangement that supplied Mexican workers to US agriculture well into the 1960’s....creat[ing] a stream of migration that swelled the population of the frontier communities," (Martinez 1994) Then in the early 50’s there was the problem of Mexicans being deported under "Operation Wetback" as well as border incidents that angered both sides. Presently (starting in the 1960’s) tensions have flared concerning desires in America to restrain undocumented immigration, a new restrictive law that was passed in 1986, abuses of human rights, and of course, more border incidents. Unfortunately, "of the four problem areas that have troubled US-Mexican border relations since the 1920's-the property rights of foreigners in Mexico, protectionism, drug trafficking and undocumented immigration-only the first one has been eliminated as an active source of tension," (Martinez, 1994). Most likely the other three will be a source of problems well into the 21st century. Only if people on both sides of the border truly care and work towards maintaining an equal relationship will these problems dwindle to the point of mere complaints that don’t affect relationships.

Although myriad problems exist, the American-Mexican border remains a place of close contact and mutual sharing. Economically, the roughly 80 million citizens of Mexico are virtually completely dependent upon the USA (Anzaldua 1987). After oil, the major source of revenue in US dollars are the maquiladoras where young docile women ages 16-24 work in horrible conditions for little money. Maquiladoras are foreign owned assembly plants in Mexico that "flourished after a 1965 Mexican program began to offer incentives to corporations willing to locate manufacturing plants at the US-Mexican border,"(Cravey, 1995). Maquiladoras labor force is composed almost exclusively of females (80-90%) whose discipline and good health assure their employers of high rates of productivity. "By early 1982 there were six hundred plants employing 122,799 persons, and by September of 1996, 2,490 plants employed, 788,205 persons," (Prieto 1997) revealing the astronomical rate of growth of these labor-intensive sweat shops. While the young women work, their children are often left to fend for themselves at home.

Although issues such as human rights in the Maquiladoras are still heavily debated today with many steadfast on their opinions of what is right and wrong, no one can debate that relationships between Americans and Mexicans on the US-Mexican border have grown and flourished. We have moved from wars and bloodshed to free trade and cultures have come together to create their own border culture. Perhaps in the future more tensions will be lessened and problems resolved and we can work towards a goal of having Integrated Borderlands between the US and Mexico. In this situation "stability is strong and permanent, the economies of the two countries are functionally merged, and there is unrestricted movement of people and goods across the boundary," (Martinez, 1994). Perhaps even more appealing is the way integrated borderlanders see themselves as a single social system, working together toward common dreams and goals. Even now there is a great mix of people living in borders in both countries. In 1990 approximately nine million people lived among the Mexican-American border. Anglos comprise about half of the population in American border counties while Mexican-Americans represent another 41 percent and Blacks and Native Americans rounding out the remaining nine percent (Martinez, 1994). This fact illustrates how people of varying backgrounds have come together to share communities. Just as problems between siblings will most likely always persist, so do disagreements between countries seem to continue in some shape or form. However, if everyone works towards harmony, we can truly make the Mexican-American border an integrated border, a place where people of different nations meet in a contact zone and mutually learn, benefit and adapt the customs of the others.

Works Cited

Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Spinster, 1987.

Cravey, Altha J. Women and Work in Mexico's Maquiladoras. Lanham: Roman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1998.

Martinez, Oscar J. Border People Life and Society in the U.S.-Mexican Borderlands. Tucson: The University of Arizona, 1994.

Prieto, Norma Iglesias. Beautiful Flowers of the Maquiladora-Life Histories of Women Workers in Tijuana. Trans. Michael Stone and Gabrielle Winkler. Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1995.
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