The U.S. hemispheric empire has been shaped by many hands and by many imaginations. Throughout the twentieth century, the empire’s life has played out every day in some of its most crowded public spaces: parks, beaches, museums, cathedrals, airports and railroad stations, and hotel lobbies and restaurants. In these arenas, travelers and hosts have encountered, observed, insulted, admired, and reimagined one another. Together, they have enriched the empire’s increasingly complex everyday life and helped to construct the transnational cultural context in which political economy and diplomacy took place.
Comparative analysis brings into focus the various ways in which the process has worked. U.S. visitors and their southern hosts first met one another on a mass scale in postrevolutionary Mexico. Bartenders and wouldbe cowboys, prostitutes and clients, casino owners and local labor unions, Lone Eagles and poets, border officials and railroad managers, archeologists and history buffs, collectively wielding a veritable arsenal of soft powers, entered into two decades of skirmishing and negotiation. They did not calculate national debt payments, transfer arms, or delineate geographic borders. They left such matters to government aides. Instead, their summit meetings established patterns of production and consumption; leisure and employment; race, class, and gender relations; and national identities.
International scholars are accustomed to probing identities during times of war and political crisis, when patriotism and fear often lead combatant societies to exaggerate their uniqueness and idealize their national character. An examination of peoples immersed in the rituals of modern leisure yields a more complex and arguably more well-rounded understanding of modern imagined communities. Let loose in cultural contact zones, tourists often experience pangs of insecurity and fits of chauvinism. At the same time, many unwind, peel off layers of stress, pursue educational opportunities and