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2. Exploring Borders   

2. Exploring

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Activities: Context Activities

Shared Spaces: Contact Zones and Borderlands

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Disturnell Map of Mexico

[5615] Anonymous, Disturnell Map of Mexico (c. 1850), courtesy of the Benson Latin American Collection, the University of Texas, Austin.
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Gloria Anzaldúa has compared the U.S./Mexico border to an "open wound" that violently splits homes, bodies, and cultures. But while the physical demarcation of the border may be a space of divisiveness and pain, the regions on either side of the border--the "Borderlands," as Anzaldúa calls them--are vibrant, dynamic places of creation and innovation. Artistic, political, and cultural practices in the borderlands blend pre-Conquest, Indian, and European heritage to form new, syncretic traditions. (In perhaps the best-known example of this syncretism, the unique version of Catholicism found in the American Southwest and Mexico incorporates pre-Conquest Indian beliefs, figures, and symbols into European Catholic rituals and tenets.) Because the geographic placement of a national border is always arbitrary and artificial, the zones on either side of it contradict the notion that people and cultures can be kept separate or distinct from one another. Instead, borderlands are permeable places where traditions interconnect and cultures overlap. They are spaces marked by conflict, violence, and hatred, but they can also produce cooperation, innovation, and hybridity.

When European explorers first landed in the New World, they crossed previously intact boundaries, bringing cultures that had been separated geographically and historically into contact with one another for the first time. Scholar Mary Louise Pratt has coined the term contact zone to describe the space of this kind of meeting. As Pratt puts it, a contact zone is an area in which previously separated peoples "come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict." Although unequal power relations characterized contact zones in the New World, with Europeans usually asserting dominance over native peoples, contact is never a one-way phenomenon. The interactive, improvisational nature of contact necessarily creates subjects who are impacted by relations with one another within a mutually constituted experience. The concept of transculturation usefully expresses the complicated power relations at work within the contact zone. A term coined by Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz, transculturation refers to a process through which "members of subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted by a dominant culture." Transculturation emphasizes the agency involved in cultural change, as well as the loss that accompanies cultural acquisition. In these ways, "transculturation" differs from the older terms "assimilation" and "acculturation," which emphasize a more one-way transmission of culture from the colonizer to the colonized, from the dominant to the marginalized. The concept of transculturation makes clear that different groups living in contact zones do not share the same experience or necessarily see their relationship with one another in the same way. One need only examine the markedly different perspectives on the Conquest of Mexico offered by the Indian-authored codices and European-authored narratives to appreciate the profound disjunctions and misunderstandings that separated indigenous peoples and European colonizers. It is precisely these disjunctions--the presence of multiple, diverse, and often hostile viewpoints--that give rise to the dynamism of contact zones.

Eventually, centuries of war, intermarriage, rape, slavery, and disease created a mixed culture in what had once been the contact zone of the New World. As conquerors and conquered merged, a new mestizo identity (a blending of Indian, European, and African heritage) was created in South America, Mexico, and what is today the southwestern United States.

By the nineteenth century, mestizo culture in northern Mexico was changed dramatically when European Americans began moving into the areas bordering and within Mexico, eventually annexing Texas for themselves. After the Mexican-American War, the United States and Mexico adopted the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), which settled the location of the boundary between the nations at the Rio Bravo (or Rio Grande) River. The new boundary ran through the center of what had once been the Mexican province of Nuevo Santander, separating people who had long thought of one another as neighbors. Unhappy with what felt like an unnatural boundary, people in the region continued to cross the river to trade, travel, entertain one another, and practice their religion.

In the early twentieth century, the United States began to create and enforce stricter regulations in an attempt to control trade and movement over the border. In times of economic hardship, the United States deported Mexican and Mexican American workers, even deporting American citizens of Mexican descent during the Great Depression of the 1930s. (Ironically, the government performed a radical about-face and began encouraging Mexican workers to cross the border when the United States suffered from a labor shortage during World War II.) Despite rigid regulations, people on both sides of the border did and continue to collaborate on resisting and finding ways around the rules that order trade and social relations between Mexico and the United States. The borderlands have always been spaces of subversion, giving rise to patterns of illegal immigration and smuggling. These kinds of challenges to border regulations are recounted and celebrated in the corridos, or border ballads, that are sung in the region (see Unit 5). As the stories recorded in the corridos testify, government regulations can never control the permeability of the borderlands. Music, food, language, fashion, and religious practices unite people on both sides of the border in everyday cultural experiences, and the borderlands continue to be spaces of dynamic transculturation and innovation. The mestizo identity formed within this space is always in flux, reflecting the complexity and diversity of border culture. Contemporary mestizo and mestiza writers like Gloria Anzaldúa strive to represent the breadth and hybridity of life in the borderlands, developing innovative narratives that reflect the decentered, many-sided quality of life in the region. In this way, mestizo identity challenges the artificial boundary imposed by the official border; in Anzaldúa's words, "the skin of the earth is seamless."

  1. Comprehension: What is a "contact zone"?

  2. Comprehension: What are "borderlands"?

  3. Comprehension: What is transculturation? Why is it important for understanding the Chicano borderlands?

  4. Comprehension: Historically, what kinds of conflict have been central to the culture of the U.S./Mexico border region?

  5. Context: Listen to some of the corridos in the archive. What values do they espouse? How do they represent life in the borderlands?

  6. Context: When Cabeza de Vaca traveled through what is today the American Southwest, there were no national borders, but he certainly experienced contact, and participated in intercultural trade, with a variety of Indian groups. How might Cabeza de Vaca's narrative be understood as a prehistory to the culture that would eventually develop in the borderlands? How does the absence of a clear national border make his experience different from that of later inhabitants of the borderlands?

  7. Context: Do a close reading of the photo of the El Paso Barrio. What landmarks attest to the hybrid nature of the neighborhood? To what extent does the photo depict a scene of radical inequality and conflict, and to what extent is it celebratory of the neighborhood's culture?

  8. Exploration: Why do Americans have such different attitudes toward the Canadian and Mexican borders? Is there a border culture around the Canadian border?

  9. Exploration: What characteristics might some neighborhoods in cities that are not near the Mexican border share with the borderlands? Does a location have to be on an actual national border to be characterized by hybridity, conflict, and cultural and commercial trade?

  10. Exploration: Should the seventeenth-century Massachusetts Puritan colonies be considered contact zones? Why or why not?

[5615] Anonymous, Disturnell Map of Mexico (c. 1850),
courtesy of the Benson Latin American Collection, the University of Texas, Austin.
Although the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo officially ended the expansionist Mexican-American War in 1848, disputes continued between the Mexican and United States governments concerning, among other issues, the border of Texas.

[5761] N. Currier, The Battle of Sacramento (1847),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-1966].
Americans charge against Mexicans during the battle near Rancho Sacramento, just north of Chihuahua, Mexico, on February 28, 1847. The heroism and forcefulness of the American soldiers contrast with the limpness of the Mexican forces and reflect American biases.

[6387] Jose Suarez, Corrido: Venimos de Matamoros [We Come from Matamoros] (1939),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, American Memory.
The alternate title for this Spanish-language corrido, which features vocals and guitar accompaniment, is "BanditTrouble on the Rio Grande Border 1915."

[6587] Walter Barnes Studio, A Young Paredes with His Guitar (n.d.),
courtesy of the University of Texas, Austin.
This photograph shows Americo Paredes strumming his guitar. Paredes devoted a good deal of his life to the study of Mexican border ballads, or corridos.

[6708] Judith F. Baca, Pieces of Stardust (1992),
courtesy of the Social and Public Art Resource Center.
Baca is an acclaimed muralist whose work is based on the belief that art can be a forum for social dialogue.

[6709] Judith F. Baca, 350,000 Mexican Americans Deported segment from The Great Wall of Los Angeles (c. 1980),
courtesy of the Social and Public Art Resource Center.
Since 1976, muralist Baca has worked as the founder and artistic director of the Social and Public Art Resource Center in Los Angeles. She has headed a number of large-scale projects dealing with interracial relations.

[7584] Anonymous, Florentine Codex, Book 12, plate 40 (1500-99),
courtesy of the School of American Research and the University of Utah Press.
One of a series of plates showing Spanish soldiers marching from Itztapalapan to Tenochitlan. Assembled in the 1540s by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, the Florentine Codex contains a mixture of Nahuatl (the language of the Aztec peoples) and pictographic illustrations describing Aztec society and culture.

[7746] Danny Lyon, Young Men of the Second Ward, El Paso's Classic "Barrio" Near the Mexican Border (n.d.)
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
Photograph by Danny Lyon for the Environmental Protection Agency's Documerica project. Lyon, one of the most creative documentary photographers of the late twentieth century, photographed the Rio Grande Valley and the Chicano barrio of South El Paso, Texas.

[7750] Danny Lyon, Chicano Teenager in El Paso's Second Ward. A Classic "Barrio" Which Is Slowly Giving Way to Urban Renewal (1972),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
Another Lyon photo for the Environmental Protection Agency's Documerica project. Lyon photographed the Rio Grande Valley and the Chicano barrio of South El Paso, Texas.

[7942] José Suarez and Joe K. Wells, Corrido de las Elecciones de Brownsville (1939),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [AFC 1939/001 2610b1].
Audio file of a corrido composed by Benino Sandoval, based on the true story of Carlo Guillen, a noted bandit.

[7974] Janjapp Dekker, Sandra Cisneros with Virgen de Guadalupe Boots (n.d.),
courtesy of El Andar Magazine.
Here, Cisneros wears boots with pictures of La Virgen de Guadalupe, a vision of the Virgin Mary that appeared to an Indian convert in the sixteenth century.

[9061] N. Currier, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe: Our Lady of Guadalupe (1848),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-2890].
This image shows a fairly Anglicized version of La Virgen de Guadelupe, buoyed by an angel.

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