. . .Border society is an abstract concept compounded of ideas about
the sovereignty of nation-states, the intensification of commerce and social
discourse, and strategies of cultural representation. . . .
Introduction || People
at the Border || Regions of the Border || The Border in History
Borderlands have often been the locale of major
folk cultural achievements, from the outlaw ballads of the Scottish-English
border to the heroic "corridos" of south Texas. Energized by the
lives of heroes and others, borderlands continue to spark themes of frontier
lawlessness, national pride, rebellion against injustice, and a community
hero's stand against all odds. What is it about a border that triggers these
and other cultural forms, such as souvenirs, duty-free liquors, retaining
walls made of automobile tires, and "maquiladora" assembly plants?
Is the border a particular kind of region or social environment? If so,
does the border tend to produce a particular kind of culture? And what is
the relationship between this environment and its culture?
A line drawn in various ways, a border marks the place where adjacent
jurisdictions meet. This combined conjunction and separation of national
laws and customs creates a zone in which movements of people and goods are
greatly regulated, examined, discussed, and hidden. Commerce attains a higher
importance in border society as does dialogue about the identities of its
peoples. Smuggling, the myriad signs in border towns, legal and illegal
immigration, and the use of unneighborly names between neighbors are parts
of this picture of accentuated concern with the trade in goods and the flow
The border is an environment of opportunity. Individuals find work enforcing
or avoiding the laws that regulate movement. Companies use national differences
in labor and environmental regulations to pursue their advantage. Border
society thrives on difference, and people and institutions come there to
exploit niches in its environment.
Borders are artifacts of history and are subject to change over time.
When borders shift, lands and peoples are subjected to different sets of
rules; this creates opportunities for exploitation, conditions of hardship,
and motivations for revolt.
An approach to describing a society constructed by difference is necessarily
many-voiced. Rather than a central, authoritative perspective, we strive
for a de-centered point of view, one with many authoritative speakers. Of
course, this is more easily achieved in the Festival of American Folklife
program, where citizens of the border region speak and perform for themselves
and their communities. But even in this printed medium, through translation
and transcription, a variety of authorities are represented.
Border society is an abstract concept compounded of ideas about the sovereignty
of nation-states, the intensification of commerce and social discourse,
and strategies of cultural representation. The U.S.-Mexico border can be
understood in those terms; and in this it is similar to borders like those
between the United States and Canada, East and West Germany, or Kenya and
Tanzania. But a particular history of the U.S.-Mexico border is expressed
in the images, sounds, discourse genres, and social formations discussed
within this and other essays. This particular historical development has
made the border the planet's longest between a country characterized by
economic practices and achievements sometimes known as "first-world"
and a country whose economy is sometimes characterized as"'third-world."
The growth of a capitalist world economy provided the context for the development
not only of U.S.-Mexico border culture, but also of other types of cultural
processes that incorporate difference: acculturation, creolization, and
the growth of various cultural diasporas.
Cultural processes which may be opaque and elusive elsewhere become clear
at the border. This is the case, as Dr. Valenzuela points out, in the formation
of cultural identity. The border offers a stark context of cultural difference,
social inequality, and ever present reminders of governmental power to limit
individual opportunity by ascribing national identity. The dominant discourse
that assigns low social value to particular sectors of the population is
answered by a creative flood of expressions of identity in music, graphic
arts, poetry, and styles of clothing and self presentation.
People speak passionately and often artistically about themselves and
others; they regulate exchange and avoid regulation; they struggle to survive
in an environment often shaped by the practices of nation-states and a global
economy. These human acts are not unique to borders but they occur there
with a clarity and an urgency that commands our concern.
People at the Border
The region between the Gulf of Mexico and Baja California has been inhabited
by many Native American societies, which first settled and used the land.
Spaniards took ownership of these lands in grants made by the Spanish crown
according to a perceived divine right. Mestizos, whose practices, like their
ancestry, combined Indian and Hispanic heritage, inhabited the region. And
English-speaking citizens of the U.S., whose land-acquiring and -owning
practices were informed by principles of commercial capital and manifest
destiny, also settled here. The border region is usually thought of as composed
of these principal groups of landowners, former landowners, and workers,
but its environment of opportunity has attracted many others, whose successive
arrivals continue to transform the sociocultural life of the region.
On the Gulf coast, Jewish families from central Mexico sought refuge
from religious persecution in the eighteenth century and established businesses
in Matamoros and along the valley. In the latter part of the nineteenth
century, a Mexican government concerned by U.S. expansionism encouraged
settlement and in some cases granted land in the western region of the border
to groups as diverse as Chinese, Mennonites, Molokan Russians, Black Seminoles,
and Kickapoo Indians. Black Seminoles and Kickapoos were welcomed with the
stipulation that they defend the territory against the Apache and Comanche
As Maricela Gonzalez describes in her article, Chinese managers and laborers
established residence in the towns of Mexicali and Calexico at the beginning
of the twentieth century. The damming of the Colorado River converted this
area in the Imperial Valley into fertile agricultural land. Anglo landowners
leased this land to Chinese entrepreneurs from California, who smuggled
agricultural laborers into Mexico from China.
The Bracero Program of 1942-64, first negotiated by the United States
and Mexico as an emergency measure during World War II, encouraged large
migrations of Mexican workers to the United States. Under the terms of the
program, American agricultural enterprises could legally bring Mexican contract
laborers for seasonal work. In the off-season, many did not return home
and settled on the border, often selecting a place where people from their
home state were already established.
The Mixtecos are one of sixteen indigenous groups from Oaxaca who, for
at least thirty years, have been migrating to urban and agricultural areas
in Mexico and in the United States. As Francisco Moreno's article points
out, they are not a monolithic group but have regional linguistic and cultural
differences. For them, as for other indigenous migrants in Mexico, the sale
of traditional and tourist crafts has been an economic mainstay. Today,
some of the most popular tourist items sold throughout Mexico are the rag
dolls dressed in archetypal peasant garb with no strong regional identity.
Mixteco women vendors sell them in Tijuana. They formerly made the dolls
but now buy them, along with other traditional crafts, from other migrants
in Tijuana, who come from the western Mexican states of Jalisco and Guanajuato
as well as from Guatemala. The traditional and tourist crafts displayed
on a Mixteco vendor's cart represent the labor of many cultural groups on
the border and the entrepreneurial skill of Mixtecos who make a living in
this market created by short-distance tourism.
Mexican immigrants continue to seek economic opportunities. Workers have
been attracted to the border area by the 1961-65 Mexican National Border
Economic Development Program followed in 1965 by the Industrialization Program
of the Border, which introduced the maquiladora assembly plants to the region.
In her article, Maria Eugenia de la O records testimonies of several maquila
workers in Ciudad Juarez.
From the 1980s onward, economic and political refugees from Central America
have swelled populations at the border and migrations across it. Individuals,
groups, and corporate bodies continue to be attracted to the border to exploit
niches in an environment created by difference and marginality. What they
have constructed, appropriated, abandoned, and reconstructed fill the social
landscape of the border region.
Regions of the Border
While border cultures share an environment created by adjacent jurisdictions
and socioeconomic marginality and difference, cultural expressions do vary
from one border town or region to another. Older, established communities
populate the string of small towns on both sides of the river along the
Rio Grande/Rio Bravo Valley to Laredo/Nuevo Laredo. Eagle Pass/Piedras Negras
and Del Rio/Ciudad Acuna began as coal-mining towns in the 1800s. In Del
Rio, the San Felipe spring feeds a network of canals, creating a lushness
not otherwise seen in South Texas and inviting the establishment of Italian
vineyards. Here regional cultural traditions are shaped by agriculture,
cattle ranching, and mining as much as by the early conflicts between the
Mexican land-grant settlements and the northern landgrabbers. Labor unions
of Mexican farmers, service employees, and oil workers now organize maquila
workers at the assembly plants that are replacing those older industries
on the Mexican side.
The border follows the river through the rough terrain of the Big Bend
and through the once-busy trading posts of Presidio/Ojinaga and on to the
El Paso/Ciudad Juarez twins established as the "Passage to the North"
between the mountain ranges, "the border's fulcrum, where the river
gives way to the fence and where North and South have been horse trading
for centuries" (Weisman 1986). El Paso/Ciudad Juarez is a crucible
of cultural identities, in which shared border personas are created, exported,
re-imported, and transformed. Here the "pachuco," a Mexican American,
neighborhood identity of the 1940s and '50s was reforged as that of the
"cholo," Mexican and Mexican American youth of today.
West of the river a series of straight lines, not the topography, define
the boundary. Here the Sonoran Desert border is home to Yaqui and O'odham
Indians. As noted by Dr. Griffith, there is in this region a unique cultural
interdependence between Native Americans and Mexicans, exemplified by the
shared celebration of the patron saint Francisco Xavier and of the missionary
Francisco de Kino (often merged into a composite St. Francis along with
St. Francis of Assisi). Members of those groups share each other's crafts
and food at the feast in Magdalena, twenty miles south of Ambos Nogales
(the Two Nogales). In this area, the socioeconomic struggle of the Rio Grande/Rio
Bravo region is not as dominant a feature of life. Whereas lower border
corridos praise the valor of men who fight for their rights, corridos in
this area celebrate famed horses that win epic races.
The westernmost border area between the Californias is very different.
The original Native American populations are surrounded and forgotten by
the growing urbanization of the early twentieth century. Many have migrated
to San Diego and Los Angeles, establishing large communities.
A striking architectural feature in the Tijuana working-class neighborhoods
that spread on the sloping canyons of the city is the use of tires in landscaping.
Tires create stairs that lead up to hillside houses, and they are built
into retaining walls that keep homes from sliding downhill. Architects have
integrated the distinctive tire embankment motif into the cement retaining
walls they design for affluent neighborhoods. In Nogales, street vendors
reserve their space on a downtown street with bright yellow half tires lined
up like croquet wickets to mark their territory and attract customers. In
Laredo and throughout the valley, sculpted and painted tire flowerpots decorate
the front yards and yard shrines. And as almost everywhere, border children
swing on tires hung from trees in house yards or from metal scaffolds in
The Border in History
The Mexican and U. S. governments settled the location of the border
with the signing of the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty in 1848 and the Gadsden
Purchase in 1853. But long before there was a border, Indian communities
had settlements in the areas between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific
Ocean. In the seventeenth century, Spanish settlers established the same
area as the northern frontier of New Spain and then of Mexico after its
War of Independence in 1810. In the Spanish colonial period, this area was
a frontier that attracted the most adventuresome explorers and dedicated
The eastern region of the border along the Rio Bravo (later called Rio
Grande in the United States) was more hospitable and became a focus of regional
life as towns grew up along its banks. As Dr. Ceballos points out, residents
of these towns like Laredo felt a strong allegiance to a Mexican identity.
El Paso del Norte, now known as El Paso, was the first and largest town
built on the river in the early 1600s in the mountain corridor that was
called "El Paso del Norte," the "Passage to the North."
Many small towns established before the creation of the border still dot
the Texas Valley.
The Rio Grande/Rio Bravo, a "symbol of separation" in Texas,
constitutes more than half the length of the border. In the decades following
the Mexican-American War (1850s), U.S. cattle barons and agricultural opportunists
from the East and Midwest with substantial capital and extensive mercantile
connections came to dominate U.S.-Mexican trade across this Texas river
border. Shortly after their rise, these merchants began to acquire extensive
tracts of land in Texas and to assert dominion over the earlier Spanish
and Mexican settlers. This created an environment of cultural and economic
conflict that characterizes the border to this day.
During the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910, the border population
increased significantly as many moved across the border seeking refuge.
Migration patterns were established between particular states in Mexico
and particular regions or towns on the border. For example, refugees from
central Mexico who settled in the Texas valley were likely to be joined
later by immigrants from their hometowns. Migrants from the northwestern
states of Zacatecas, Durango, and Sinaloa regularly traveled to Ciudad Juarez/EI
When economic recessions hit the United States, efforts mounted to push
immigrants back to Mexico. In 1914-15, the U.S. side of the Rio Grande Valley
experienced a winter of violence when hundreds of Mexicans, or "Mexicanos"
in border usage, were persecuted and killed by the Texas border patrols.
The Great Depression of the 1930s brought a new wave of deportations in
which immigrants who had lived undisturbed in the U.S. for decades were
As people from different cultural regions of Mexico have settled on the
border, they have evolved a complexly layered cultural and social environment
that has been created by competition and adaptation for survival. In this
struggle, border peoples have developed distinctive styles, social organizations,
and local economies. An interesting example of this is the way Mixteco vendors
in Tijuana appropriate the traditional and tourist handicrafts made by other
Mexican migrants to create a market that helps to support not only their
own cultural identity but also that of the other groups.
Local economies that develop on the Mexican side capitalize not only
on available skills but also on available, usually discarded, materials.
Small businesses trade in secondhand clothes purchased by the pound and
cardboard from the United States. Some items, like the used tires found
everywhere along the border, are made into distinctive items that support
local economies and define a border style.
The extensive use of tires is evidence of economic difference and marginality
and of the cultural inventiveness and resilience that exploits the border
environment. But the visible presence of discarded materials is also a reminder
of the pollution that is unfortunately also prevalent on the border. The
poorly regulated industrialization, including that of agriculture, on both
sides of the border increasingly contaminates the air, water, and land.
While border residents can creatively reuse discarded tires, the unchecked
and growing regional pollution, which seriously affects their health as
well as the environment, is at present beyond their control.
About the Author
Olivia Cadaval is curator of the Festival's United States Alexiro Borderlands
program. She has conducted research and collaborated in public programming
with the Washington, D.C., Latino, Latin American, and Caribbean communities
for more than a decade. She received her Ph.D. from George Washington University.