The Ghosts of Frontiers Past: Making and Unmaking Space in the Borderlands

By Truett, Samuel | Journal of the Southwest, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview
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The Ghosts of Frontiers Past: Making and Unmaking Space in the Borderlands


Truett, Samuel, Journal of the Southwest


Many Americans imagine the U.S.-Mexico borderlands as a land that time forgot, a wild, unsettled place where "renegades" and "bandits" such as Geronimo and Pancho Villa have simply given way to newer barbarians: mercenary narcotraficantes, immigrant desperadoes, and camouflaged vigilantes. "What we call the border," writes best-selling author Robert Kaplan, has always been a "wild, unstable swath of desert," marked by a dearth of political, military, and social control. The border is the "21st century frontier," agrees Susan Zakin, referring to clashes between the "hunters and the hunted"--that is, armed ranchers hunting undocumented immigrants--along the Arizona-Sonora border. Unlike Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier, these writers propose that the borderlands never closed. Instead, they remain haunted by the ghosts of frontiers past. (1)

Such portrayals hardly seem surprising when we consider what the borderlands divide. The American West and the Mexican North are both famous in popular thought for their frontier legacies of danger and desire, lawlessness and liberation, violence and virtue. Even Robert Kaplan's "unstable swath of desert" evokes the limits of culture and authority that we tend to associate with frontiers, whether in Zane Grey's Southwest, the Mexican wastelands of The Wild Bunch, or even the distant plant of Tatooine. And from a linguistic point of view, at least, this is also unsurprising: The word desert derives from the Latin verb de-serere, or "to sever connection with," and what, if not severed ties to the body politic, make the frontier what it is? (2) And yet frontiers are also about forging new ties and bringing order to disorder. On the frontier, the wild becomes tame, borderlands become bounded, and the story reaches a conclusion, usually ending with a finished nation. So how do we make sense of a history that appears to resist this closure? How do we tell the story of a space that seems chronically unmade? (3)

No less important, how do we tell this story in a critical fashion--in a way that does not simply reaffirm fears, desires, and mythologies? After all, stories of borderland disorder and dislocation often orient larger national fables about the virtues of order and integration, telling us what we must strive to overcome as citizens. This was a powerful topos in many cinematic westerns, and it lives on in such recent border films as Stephen Soderberg's Traffic (2000) and Ron Howard's The Missing (2003). Yet if we peel back the skin of myth and rhetoric, what kind of connective tissue do we find below the surface? What, beyond ideology, links the U.S.-Mexico borderlands to the Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. frontier pasts? To what extent did frontier relations live on in the borderlands, even after U.S. and Mexican mapmakers tried to pin the frontier in place after 1854? Or to put it another way, what is the significance of the frontier to borderlands history?

In this essay, I would like to propose a few modest starting points for engaging these larger questions by looking at the transition from colonial frontier to transnational borderlands in Arizona and Sonora. (4) Before the United States annexed northern Mexico in 1848 (and in 1854 with the Gadsden Purchase), this was a contested terrain of empires, nations, and native communities. It was a frontier in Silvio R. Duncan Baretta and John Markoff's sense of the word: a land where nobody exercised "an enduring monopoly on violence." (25) It was also a meeting place of cultures, whose relationships could hardly be reduced to a single line, but what made it a frontier was its relationship to the colonial and early national state. It was the state's effort to articulate its authority vis-a-vis what lay beyond its margins--and the tenuous, uneven, and incomplete nature of this colonial project--that made the frontier a unique locus of social struggle and identity formation. The inability of the nation-state and its citizens to fully incorporate and domesticate this space endured after it became a transnational crossroads in the mid-nineteenth century.

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