In recent years, conversations about the US-Mexico border have centered around the border wall. However, according to today’s guest, C.J. Alvarez, the wall is one of many construction projects that have occurred in the border region in the last 30 years. “From the boundary surveys of the 1850s to the ever-expanding fences and highway networks of the twenty-first century, Border Land, Border Water examines the history of the construction projects that have shaped the region where the United States and Mexico meet.”
Border Land, Border Water: A History of Construction on the US-Mexico Divide.C.J. Alvarez. (University of Texas Press, 2019.)
- C.J. AlvarezAssistant Professor in Department of Mexican American & Latina/o Studies at the University of Texas at Austin
- Alina ScottPhD Candidate in the History Department at the University of Texas at Austin
Welcome to 15 minute history. I’m your host, Alina Scott, doctoral candidate in the Department of History at UT Austin. And today we are talking about the history of the US Mexico border with Professor C. J. Alvarez. Professor Alvarez, Thank you so much for being here.
Professor Alvarez is an assistant professor in the Department of Mexican American and Latino Latino Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He writes and teaches about the history of the US Mexico border and environmental history. His first book, which we’ll be talking about today. Border land, border, water. A history of construction on the US Mexico divide is a history of the built world of the US Mexico border line already. This book is the winner of the vernacular architecture forums Abbott Lowell Cummings Award, given annually to the newly published book that has made the most significant contribution to the study of vernacular architecture and cultural landscapes of North America. Prov. Alvarez, thank you again for being here. I’m super excited to talk to you because I just finished your book and it was so interesting. It brought up so many questions, especially considering the border is in the news so frequently these days. But your book is about large construction projects on the US Mexico border. Can you give us a few examples of what these projects are?
Sure, I’ll give you three examples of building projects that I write about in the book that might not be familiar to most listeners. The first one is remote Army Patrol roads in the 19 tens, not something we typically think about when we think about border construction or even even border history. But if we look back to the to the decade of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to 1920 what we find at its peak in 1917 was 100 and 60,000 troops deployed by the US government to the Mexican border, which is eight times larger than the U. S. Border Patrol is today, and those troops operated a range of remote patrols. They were hybrid, uh, kinds of expeditions that comprised both newly invented trucks and planes, but also animals. So mule trains and they traveled through these remote destinations throughout the US Mexico border region on this elaborate system of dirt roads. In the book, I focus in particular on the remote roads of the Big Bend region of West Texas, and the point I’m trying to make with this is that access roads are a crucial dimension of his, uh, in history of border policing that is often overlooked. The second example I would point to is what was called the Rio Grande Rectification Project in the 19 thirties. Rectification, in this case, meaning straightening. This took place outside the cities of El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua. At the time, the river had a lot of bends in it, as rivers tend to do, especially desert rivers like the Rio Grande. It meandered through the desert flats, and this created flooding as well, so partly as a flood control project. Border builders moved six million cubic yards of dirt to shorten and straighten the river in this particular location, and when they were done, they had actually removed 67 miles of river, so the river itself, by the end of this was shorter. This also made it a more legible border, and so this I use as an example to point to how environmental engineering projects such as this also made the river easier to patrol and police by border police in this time and the final example I would give. Among the among the many I discussed in the book is Amistad Dam that was completed in 1969. This is a very large concrete storage damn, and it was built as a joint project between the United States and Mexico, half in one country, half and the other half designed by Mexican engineers, half designed by American engineers. Same thing with the workers that actually built the project itself. And I think this is possibly the best example of U. S. Mexico border collaboration anywhere you’re going to find on the entire line.
So I want to get to this idea of control, especially as it comes to control of the environment. But before I do that, I want to talk about the term border region that you use a lot in your book. So when people think about the border, they often envision either immigration and customs inspections at ports of entry or the physical border wall. But in the book, you expand this frame of analysis by talking about a broader border region. Can you talk about why you use the term border region more often than simply the border?
Yeah, Like you say, I almost never use the term border or the border to describe this place, this very complex and heterogeneous place of the US Mexico border region. If you look at the frontispiece of my book, you will find a very complicated and, I think, very beautiful map. When I was writing this book I am and processing the final manuscript and going through, like just multiple multiple edits and and trying to bring it to fruition from a manuscript to an actual book, I kept track of every single place name that I mentioned in the entire thing. And not just towns and cities and states, but also mountain ranges, rivers and their tributaries, entire ecosystems. And then, of course, the big infrastructure projects that I talk about in the book. And I give this list to my genius map maker graduate student named Josh Conrad in the School of Architecture. And I said, Josh, can you fit all this onto a single map? And he said, I’ll try and he did, and he succeeded with flying colors. And and this map is intended as a guide to readers to consult as they read, because I don’t know how many times I’ve been reading a history book, and the author is just mentioning place, name after place, name after place, name, and I’m just going back and forth to Google to try to figure out where where are we in this story? And so I wanted to to to to use this map as a way of as a guide to readers. But this map is also intended to make a deeper argument. When we talk about the border, we are only referencing a political division, uh, which started as an arbitrary political division between two nation states. But the history of the region is a complex interaction between not just political developments but also natural environments and also built environments. And so when I say border region throughout this book, what I’m trying to do is emphasize that border history is always a delicate balance between these macroscopic stories of US Mexico relations and how these two countries meet on an international divide but also multiple regionally specific histories throughout this this vast swath of territory that runs for 2000 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.
So throughout the book, you talk a lot about the natural world in addition to the built environment. Would you categorize your book as an environmental history?
I wouldn’t call it environmental history. I want I think it. I hope it speaks to environmental historians. The in my research I It became very clear to me as I researched the history of border construction from the point of view of border builders themselves, that they had a very specific kind of environmental knowledge, and I don’t mean that they were conservationists or preservationists or environmentalists the way we would typically think about it. But they had a very deep understanding of the composition of the earth and the movement of water, geology and hydrology. And I often say when I talk about this that anyone who’s ever tried to build anything outside knows what I’m talking about. Even if it’s just a fence or a shed, or in addition to your house, you have to really, really have an understanding of of what kind of soil you’re working with. what kind of rainfall you get in that region. How water moves. And and so I tried to see the natural world through their eyes in an effort to tell this history of border building and pay attention to how they articulated the challenges they they experienced building out there in this multiple ecosystems on the U. S. Mexico and what’s now the US Mexico border region. I also try to pay attention to how they expressed certain prejudices toward ecosystems, particularly desserts. And this aspect of the research gave me the idea from my current book project, which I’ve been working on now for a couple of years, which is a history of the Chihuahuan Desert, the largest cross border ecosystem on the US Mexico divide. And the idea that I’m working on now in my current work is to write an environmental history that, like that, starts from the point of view of environmental history of this cross border ecosystem as an attempt to rethink how we approach border history in general.
That’s really fascinating. To go back to what we were talking about a little bit earlier. This idea of control, um, one of the key ideas in border history as the idea of control, and this theme comes up a lot in your book. Can you talk more about how you think examining construction projects helps us understand this meaning of control?
So in the very simplest terms, police there’s this long history of police and military patrols on the US Mexico border and in the border region. Police and military building have been designed to control the movement of people and goods. Hydraulic engineering that is, water construction projects have been designed to control the course of rivers and indeed, of nature itself. So while many other historians have focused on legal and policy history on the border, and how that has expressed itself coercively how it’s expressed to sort of a night nationalist ideology, how the concept of race and ethnicity in the United States and foreignness and another nous is embedded in those kinds of border policies, I’ve tried to explore how these ideas manifested in the built environment and also, while other historians have explored dam building and an irrigation construction projects in the context of arid lands history in the Mexican north and in the American West, I tried to explain how hydraulic engineering unfolded on the border. And so, to me, the payoff of of thinking about the concept of control through both land and water on the US Mexico divide is you can start to see connections between the building projects that were meant to control the movement of people and the building projects that were meant to control the movement of nature. And so this was all an effort, in short, to reframe how we think about the concept of control on the US Mexico divide not just in terms of people migrants smuggling, black markets, those types of things, but also the natural world. And I think you’ll find, if you, if you find yourself reading my book at some point. There are these really surprising connections between hydraulic engineering projects and then border policing projects that just that never cease to amaze me as they unfolded. And the more I looked, the deeper those connections became in ways that are fundamentally distinct, I think, from policing projects in the interior of Mexico and in the United States, and from hydraulic engineering projects elsewhere in Mexico and the United States.
So I noticed you haven’t really mentioned the border fence or the border wall that everybody has been talking about for the last decade. Maybe, um, even though you know, that is the the construction project that most people are familiar with, Um, where do you think recent attempts to fortify the US Mexico border fit into this longer history that you write about border construction?
So, Alina, you’re a historian too, you know that when that when a historian thinks of recent I think of the past 30 years, not the past four years, which I think is most people’s point of reference in this regard. So the first large scale heavy border fences started to be constructed in Southern California in the early 19 nineties, and these barricades rapidly expanded after the 2000 and six Secure Fence Act. And in the aggregate, these border barricades, these multiple fence building projects starting in the 19 nineties constitute a mega project or what we how we refer to construction projects, the cost of a billion dollars, just a massive massive construction undertaking. And I make two points about this in the book. The first point is, there were actually two megaprojects that unfolded in the U. S Mexico border region from the 19 nineties. Up to the present day one is the fence, which we all know too well. But the other going back to this idea all the way to the to the to the patrol roads of the 19 tens. And even before the other mega project that unfolded on the border, that’s much less visible. Much less photogenic is the expansion of transportation infrastructure in the context of the free trade agreement in 1994 which, of course, they were building an anticipation of, uh, even as even as far back as the eighties. And even before I think so. What this meant is that existing ports of entry were dramatically expanded to accommodate more truck traffic coming across the border. New ports of entry were created out of thin air, which also meant highway spurs and what we call NAFTA lanes and and the the increased just highway construction leading up to the border on the Mexican side and on the US side. And to give an example of this just in the case of Texas, where, of course, we have a water border with Mexico. We’ve got 28 vehicle border bridges between Texas and the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas. And since 1990 27 of the 28 have been expanded, improved or built absolutely from scratch. And so this is all taking place at the same time as border barricades are taking place in these more remote regions. And so, in order to understand the current and again by current I mean the 30 year old border fence, you also have to understand that it’s not the only building project that was taking place, not the only mega project that was taking place on the US Mexico divide. The other point I make about the recent recent history since the nineties is that for most of border construction history, building projects have been tailored to a specific local or regional context. This is most obvious in the context of dams, obviously, because the site selection, um, is is a complex thing, that you can’t just build a dam anywhere. It has to have the right geology. It has to has to make sense in terms of the topography and the hydrology of of a given river system. But this is also the case, even with early, smaller scale fencing projects on the western border. Where but the Western land border. That is where barbed wire fences were put up in specific places in the context of an animal quarantine and based on a foot and mouth disease outbreak in Mexico in 1947. And so they use this local input from, uh, from the Bureau of Animal Industry and Agriculture on the Mexican side to say All right, so where would we want to put these animal barriers? Who could? Since there’s no river dividing the two countries then wander across the wander across the line? Yeah. In contrast, since the 19 nineties, the time of the big fence construction border policing policy, border construction policy has been propelled by national level politics, by by politicians who have never really been to the border, who aren’t from border states and who don’t really understand the landscape, the culture of the people or the literal physical spaces of where the border is and what goes on there. And so I think that’s one of the most important things to recognize about the shift that was certainly exaggerated in the past four years, but was building on this national level preoccupation of the border and construction projects. That’s really been with us for most of my students lives, which which which creates a real, real teaching challenge, because they grew up in a time when they think that that’s just the way it is. And so one of the one of the challenges I I hope I rise to the occasion of my border history class is to de familiarize this 30 year present for my students and explain to them just how anomalous that is, not just in terms of construction projects, but also where the impetus for those construction projects is coming from.
So you’re saying the border looked different 30 years ago?
I am saying that, and I and I am lucky enough to remember it. And I remember I was in North Dakota a few years ago. This is kind of an aside, and I drove to the Manitoba North Dakota border to see what it looked like because I haven’t spent a lot of time on the U. S. Canada border, and it looks like a little kiosk where they inspect, you know, like they check papers and, um and, you know, agricultural goods and that sort of thing. But aside from that, there’s no patrols out in the out in the landscape. There’s no there’s no fences. There’s no razor wire, there’s no AWACS. There’s no surveillance system to speak of. And I think that many people remember a time, uh, many people alive. Remember a time when the US Mexico border was not that different? It’s certainly, um, has always had a tension built into it that the U. S Canada border has not. But but the extent to which the US Mexico border is this massive, massive construction project, the accumulation and accretion of really 160 years of momentum that that the extent of that is a very new thing, both in terms of of police infrastructure, but also trade infrastructure.
What drew you to this topic– to write about the border region?
Well, I’ll tell you what, didn’t draw me to it, and that’s current events. Uh, you know, a lot of people have commented since the book came out how relevant the book is, and I will tell you that I grew up in southern New Mexico myself and my family has been there since the 18 sixties, when they came from Mexico. And for border dwellers like us, the region and its history has always been relevant. Um, whether or not like the dynamics of international border policy actually affected our day to day lives or not just living in the desert. Living in a place that that is a typical for both Mexico and the United States has always been a source of relevance and familiarity to me. And so I wrote the book to speak to the broader discipline of history, no doubt about it. And I’ve been really honored that it’s been well received by by various groups of people and historians. But I also wrote the book for Border People and one of the, um, one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had since the book came out is border people from all across the line coming up to me, writing me emails, saying I recognize these these places. I recognize this stuff that just seems like concrete and steel like, aside from the border fence that just seems like this this quotidian infrastructure. That’s just kind of around. But But I tried as hard as I could to breathe some kind of narrative life and historical context into those very banal features of border infrastructure such that it would be recognisable for people who are familiar with the border and also, um, familiarize people who have not spent a lot of time on the US Mexico divide with just how complicated the built environment, but also the natural world of the border region. Yes,
So I actually have one more question, um, for our listeners, who many of our listeners are teachers and students at varying educational levels. Um, what’s one thing you would like them to take away from either your book or, you know, a conversation about the current U.S Mexico border?
I think it’s really important when you when you approach border history and when you try to teach border history to distinguish between border dwellers and long distance migrants, both are really important and and oftentimes they intersect. But oftentimes they don’t. And by border dweller, I mean people who have been in places like El Paso, Texas, which has been there for hundreds of years people have been in in Matamoros, Uh, you know, Brownsville area places where people have been for hundreds of years, certainly from indigenous point of view. Um, in a lot of these places, people have been there’s been sustained occupation for, um for thousands of years. And that rooted nous in place is in some ways, right? Yeah, yeah. Let me say this: That rootedness in place and the specific geographic and cultural context of border dwellers is so much more interesting than a policy discussion and so much more deeply meaningful to for border people and desert people who define their sense of self and community and belonging in the world according to these very difficult and harsh environments that through which this relatively recent edition of the US Mexico border cuts. And then you have long distance migrants that is, people coming from the interior of Mexico For most of the 20th century people coming from Central America, people coming from Africa, people coming from all over the world passing through Mexico, crossing the US Mexico border as a waypoint and in so doing, encountering the apparatus of the state encountering immigration policy and enforcement. And then, if they’re lucky, getting past it somehow, either by being granted asylum or making it in the country and then going somewhere else to Chicago to L. A. To the Carolinas to wherever they have family or think they can make, um, think they can get some traction, um, economically or just in terms of personal safety. And for them, the border is a very crucial waypoint in a much larger journey. And oftentimes these two histories are kind of passing side by side and aren’t necessarily connected with one another. So that’s the distinction that I like to make two people. And that’s something I’d like to leave, especially teachers with is not to say one is right or wrong or one is more important than the other. But to recognize that that there are two registers. I think that it’s useful to talk about the US Mexico border region, the register of the super local and the um and the sustained in habitation, and then the register of the way point in a longer journey.