James David Nichols is an assistant professor of history at City University of New York, Queensborough Community College. His new book, The Limits of Liberty: Mobility and the Making of the Eastern U.S.-Mexico Border (July 2018), chronicles the formation of the U.S.-Mexico border from a unique vantage of how “mobile peoples” assisted in constructing the international boundary from both sides.
Of Borders and Birthers
Ostensibly, The Limits of Liberty is a story of the U.S.-Mexico border in the early to mid-nineteenth century. But there is a metahistory contained within the pages of the book.
In 2008, the year I began my research in Mexico for The Limits of Liberty, the world witnessed Barack Obama’s election to the presidency of the United States. In my mind, Obama’s election reflected the most positive aspects of globalization. A black American born of Kenyan and Kansan heritage, Obama was a sort of human residue of global currents. The centripetal forces that so often mobilize the best ideas and most talented peoples worldwide toward global centers had produced in America a leader of exquisite charge and cosmopolitanism. I had my doubts about globalization, of course. I was by this time a veteran protester of the World Trade Organization, Neo-Liberalism, and the global war on terror. But for me and most of my friends, Obama’s election gave us cause for optimism.
Inspired by the election, I set out to tell a hopeful story about overcoming borders in my own research. In archives scattered throughout Mexico and Texas, I discovered a veritable army of mobile border-crossers. Runaway slaves, Native Americans, and migrant peones constantly set out to get to the other side of the U.S.-Mexico divide. The availability of refuge on the other side of a poorly policed border galvanized people, shifting them toward the places where they could find the best opportunities for themselves, and where they could find host societies that welcomed them and benefited from their talents.
But despite the positive global dimensions of the Obama election, subsequent events revealed that borders weren’t going anywhere. For one thing, the Obama years witnessed the increased militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border and a significant increase in deportations. And border-building was about to make an even greater comeback during Obama’s bid for reelection. The most significant event of 2012 was the beginning of the “birther movement.” Donald Trump first brought up the issue of Obama’s birthplace on Fox News in an interview on October 26, 2011. He gained traction with the issue soon thereafter and unleashed a tweetstorm on the subject in the Spring of 2012.
The arrival of birtherism registered itself along the border in a racist, but also very unique and anti-global way. The birther argument implied that lax border control had somehow allowed an imposter in America of Kenyan-Kansan descent to claim the White House. It was the strange geographic specificity of the birther argument that most interested me: Obama had been smuggled into Hawaii to claim U.S. citizenship and then later went to Indonesia (where presumably he became a Muslim) before moving to Chicago. This type of person, who some might celebrate as a cosmopolitan—indeed, a man of the world—was instead portrayed as an alien. It should not surprise us, then, that the cultural firestorm created by the birther movement also allowed Trump to begin proclaiming loudly about borders. It was not long before he began talking about a “beautiful wall” that Mexico would pay for. The characterization of Mexicans as “rapists” and the moral panic induced by the (delicious) prospect of taco trucks on every corner inferred that Anglo heartland values were somehow at risk of contagion and only a new wall could help.
As for my own work, this turn of events against globalism and open borders inspired me to ascribe more significance to various forms of parochialism—regionalism, local patriotism, and nationalism—in my own work. After I defended my thesis and began drafting the Limits of Liberty, I saw stronger borders than I had while dissertating. I became especially interested in a particular brand of Mexican regionalism that arose in the 1850s, and which was inspired in no small part by antagonism toward foreigners. White Texan vigilantes represented an obvious threat to territorial integrity. But so too did the many Native Americans and blacks who Mexicans did not think their frontier societies could absorb. Hence, it was probably ethnic chauvinism as much as anything else that led to an increased sense of norteño (frontier) identity in Mexico. Building borders also inspired Mexicans to gather into militias to defend their territory violently from interlopers. (In an interesting historical twist, Mexican militias were busy in the 1850s guarding their frontiers against illegal border-crossers from the United States.)
As I analyzed the regional identity that was slowly forming in the Mexican North, I also pondered how border-crossers threatened Americans on the other side. I specifically concentrated on the way that Anglo Texans in the 1850s embraced a newly-energized nativism. Most notably, the Know-Nothing Party (who were nativist ex-Whigs) despised Mexican cartsmen in Texas for dragging down wages. Anglos (and Tejanos elites) in Texas were also likely to accuse Mexican migrants of being thieves who stole both human and animal property. Finally, the characterization of the Mexican as a stiletto-wielding assassin entered the American imagination around this time. Indeed, accusing Mexican migrants of being “murderers” is nothing new.
I started out my project by asking a simple question. Inspired by many of the historical works that have the word “making” in their titles, I wanted to ask how the border was historically constructed. While I continue to believe that archival research and insistence on historical specificity have the potential to bring the past alive in all of its alien glory, borderlands are nevertheless special and refuse to ever be fully constructed. In the course of writing The Limits of Liberty, I came to see the border as a haunted place. As much as I might have insisted on historical particularity, the dividing line is home to too many specters from the past. Maybe it would be best to think of the U.S.-Mexico border as a sticky place. Whereas it has always existed in discreet times (and even places, thanks to a gradually shifting river channel), it has just accrued too much meaning over time to ever break free from its past. And even as the inevitable march of globalization continues apace, bordering thrives along the Rio Grande—bringing with it the ghosts of the past to live in the present and to weigh on the brain of the living.