Southwest Borderlands: Confluence and Conflict

The United States and Mexico have shaped each other’s borders, identities, and cultures over hundreds of years. The U.S.-Mexico border is often portrayed today as a site of sharp political and ethnic divisions. Yet shared history, commerce, and labor contribute to the rich and dynamic culture along the nearly two-thousand-mile border spanning California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.

Border Debates

The Border Patrol was created in 1924 to enforce U.S. laws excluding Chinese laborers and preventing the spread of illicit activities south of the U.S.-Mexico line. Almost immediately, the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Immigration realized that controlling migration across the border was difficult.

After the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, the number of immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border who did not possess valid visas significantly increased due to strict policies regulating and restricting U.S. immigration. Three decades later, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) supported transborder economies, which drew people north across the border.

 

Cartoon from California newspaper, depicting perceived vice on the U.S.-Mexico border, around 1924

Cartoon from California newspaper, depicting perceived vice on the U.S.-Mexico border, around 1924

Courtesy of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Hearst Magazines International

Border fence between Mexicali and Calexico

Border fence between Mexicali and Calexico

This border fence separated the Mexican city of Mexicali from the U.S. city of Calexico, California. The first fence was erected in 1919 and then expanded in the 1940s. In 1998 this chain-link fence was removed and replaced with a more substantial metal barrier.

Gift of Armando J. Rascon

U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Border protection in the United States has evolved since its inception in 1924, but its primary mission remains the same: to guard the nation’s borders and to prevent the unauthorized entry of people and goods into the United States. These pieces of a uniform were worn by border agents while they patrolled the U.S.-Mexico border from 1998 through 2003.

Clothing worn by Border Patrol agents

Clothing worn by Border Patrol agents

Gifts of Joseph Banco and Richard J. Fortunato

Lost in Transit

Some people without documentation have crossed harsh terrains along the Mexico border to enter the United States. These objects reflect the measures they took to migrate despite treacherous conditions. Others, primarily Mexicans who live and work along the border, have been granted special identification cards allowing them to cross for 72 hours.

Items left in the Arizona desert, carried by unknown travelers on their journey north from Mexico, around 2009–2012

Items left in the Arizona desert, carried by unknown travelers on their journey north from Mexico, around 2009–2012

Gift of Jason De Leon

Dynamic Border Culture

The land around the U.S.-Mexico border has been defined by interactions among multiple cultural groups, including Native Americans, Mexicans, white settlers, and migrants from around the globe. It is an area where cultures and identities are created, blended, and negotiated. The borderlands show us that multiple stories of racial and ethnic difference make up America.

The accordion became a popular instrument to accompany corridos, or ballads, at the turn of the 19th century. The accordion continues to be heard in cafés and music halls throughout Texas and the Southwest.

Texas musician Flaco Jiménez playing an accordion, around 2010

Texas musician Flaco Jiménez playing an accordion, around 2010

Courtesy of Tim Pich

Accordion used by Flaco Jiménez in Texas, around 2009

Gift of Gilbert Reyes, Jr.

View object record

Music along the California borderlands mixes dynamic sounds of R&B and salsa with traditional rhythms from across the globe. These shoes and tarima were used by Martha Gonzalez of the Grammy-winning band Quetzal. The tarima, a stomp box with roots in African and Mexican musical traditions, is used like a drum.

Martha Gonzalez of the band Quetzal, around 2010

Martha Gonzalez of the band Quetzal, around 2010

Courtesy of Jewelz Beelou Channita

Tarima and shoes used by Martha Gonzalez in California, 1999

Gifts of Martha Gonzalez

View object record

Drums have been part of the musical tradition of American Indians in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands for generations. They are used to keep rhythm for fast-paced dance performances. Native groups from New Mexico made and used these drums to keep their traditions alive.

Drums used in Easter procession, Sonora, Mexico, 2002

Drums used in Easter procession, Sonora, Mexico, 2002

Courtesy of David Bacon

Violins were introduced to the United States by Europeans and have become important in the dance and folk music of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Widespread use of stringed instruments across the border demonstrates interaction and adaptation as key elements of borderland cultures and communities.

Cirilo Gauna Saucedo playing a folk violin, Nuevo León, Mexico, around 1999

Cirilo Gauna Saucedo playing a folk violin, Nuevo León, Mexico, around 1999

Courtesy of Hector Guerrero Mata

La Virgen

The Virgin of Guadalupe is a religious icon that takes on special cultural significance in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. La Virgen symbolizes empowerment for mestizos, those of mixed indigenous and European descent. The frequently used icon blends culture, racial identity, and religious devotion.

Car hood made by Victor’s Paint and Body Shop, Chimayó, New Mexico, 1991