Blurring the borders


The first concerted attempt to integrate the histories of both of the international borders in North America reveals much about the region’s evolving face


Bridging National Borders in North America: Transnational and Comparative Histories
Edited by Benjamin H. Johnson and Andrew R. Graybill
2010, Duke University Press
373 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

THIS collection of essays about borderlands in North America is long overdue, combining for the first time as it does work on the two principal frontiers in the region: that between Mexico and the US and that between the US and Canada.

The result points to an exciting new direction in history, eroding US-centric narratives among geopolitical neighbours, challenging the nationalist historiography of the region, and allowing scholars from all three countries to benefit from the work and ideas of others.

It may also begin to offer the basis of policy alternatives to a growing militarisation of the US border with Mexico as well as the problems associated with identity that are fuelled by subliminal racism towards Latinos in both of the English-speaking northern American countries.

Bridging National Borders in North America departs from the recognition that the fate of all three sovereignties in the region is intimately related, and that a rigid understanding of history defined by crisp lines on maps is fundamentally flawed. As the editors point out so refreshingly:

“National borders represent the territorial embodiment of a bundle of ideas that modern states have propagated and enforced… But rather than unquestioningly accepting the existence of such national borders, we might instead treat them as interesting intellectual problems, and ask some historical questions about them: How did they come to be, and how and why did they take on their current configurations?” [p. 2]

Johnson and Graybill go on to explain that the 10 essays in this volume proceed on this basis: questioning national borders rather than taking them for granted.

Evolving region

It may come as a surprise that this volume offers the first concerted attempt to integrate the histories of both of the international borders in North America, but in doing so it reveals much about the evolving face of the region and, it has to be said, the changing global position of its dominant player, the US.

This book comes at a time of relative decline in US hegemony, both regionally and globally, and as such represents a mature recognition of the need to rethink its engagement and relationship both with its immediate neighbours but also Latin America more generally. Such a recognition will help the US as much as its regional counterparts adjust more readily to the momentous geopolitical changes that are occurring everywhere.

As the editors suggest, there is a move to understand history in the region more generally as North American, and this chimes with increasing references to “North America” as a regional identity in all forms of discourse since the creation of NAFTA in 1994.

The essays in this collection examine issues of race and identity in border formation and consolidation, state-making and environmental control on the frontier, and border representation and national identity. If one suspects there may be a slight weighting towards the US-Mexico border, which has so far overwhelmingly dominated the academic focus in the US, the contributions suggest otherwise. Essays about the Canadian border by Michael Hogue, Jennifer Seltz, Lissa Wadewitz, Andrea Geiger among others, as well as pan-North American, contributions, offer valuable insights about the similarities and differences in border policies and lore from the north of the continent.

Perhaps the most interesting essay is by Dominique Brégent-Heald, who examines cinematic representations of the borderlands and borders between 1908-40.

Brégent-Heald explores both how films projected myths about nation-state formation and the tensions generated by borders, often with a racial hue, and also how the latter are depicted as danger zones where the key themes become law enforcement, order and justice and the threats posed by the porosity of frontiers.

As early as 1910 with the screen adaptation of Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 novel Ramona, cinema was being employed to expose white injustice towards the Indian and dispossession along the border area. Ramona was translated into Spanish by José Martí and represented the transnational, interracial and intercultural subject that, 100 years later, the publication of Bridging National Borders in North America alludes to.

Subsequent westerns, however, more commonly propagated the tried-and-tested stereotype of the villainous and unreliable “mexicano” (one that can still be found in much Anglo-Saxon discourse), and portrayed the border as a hazardous crossing teeming with bandidos.

A comment from 1914 by Harry B. Ott, the New York Dramatic Mirror’s correspondent in Chihuahua, for example, is highly instructive and resonates to this day, noting that picturehouse exhibitors in Mexico:

“…complain loudly of the deluge of films which have flooded the American market recently in which Mexicans are always portrayed as villains and dastardly characters… There is hardly a shipment of pictures received nowadays in which at least one of these objectionable pictures is not to be found.” [p. 262]

This excellent collection of essays has no conclusion, which for once seems appropriate as the emergence of transnational issues, identities and policies seems more likely in the North American region today than ever before. It is only unfortunate that it provides such a limited snapshot of a vast topic, and one can only hope that a follow-up volume bringing the theme into the more recent past is envisaged by the publisher.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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