Redefining the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

An Analysis of Theoretical Concepts and Models

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2011

44 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1 Introduction: Mexico as the United States’ Shadow?

2 Defining the Borderlands
2.1 Socio-Geographic Approach
2.2 Constructivist Perception of the Borderlands
2.2.1 Contact Zone and Transculturation
2.2.2 Interaction Zone

3 Theoretical Models of the Borderlands
3.1 Martinez’ ‘Model of Borderlands Interaction’ and Criticism
3.2 Pick’s and Butler’s ‘Model for Marginality at National Borders’ and Criticism
3.3 Model for Marginality at the U.S.-Mexico Border
3.4 Alegría’s ‘Conceptual Model of Transborder Processes’ and Criticism
3.5 Amalgamation of Previous Border Models

4 Conclusion: Redefinition of the Borderlands

Table of Figures

Works Cited

1 Introduction: Mexico as the United States’ Shadow?

Principally, borders serve to separate the ‘foreign’ from the ‘own’ (Pisarz-Ramírez 15; Bustamante 24; 160). In the case of the U.S.-Mexico border, this is not forcibly so. In spite of marking the “Scheidelinie zwischen Anglo-Amerika und Lateinamerika“ (Pisarz-Ramírez 24), “[t]wo peoples classed as in separate areas yet adjoining each other along the interarea boundary almost inevitably have much in common. It is probable that they normally have more traits in common with each other than with the peoples at the focal points of their respective areas” (Kroeber 5). As a result, “this borderland area has found to have a unique, hybrid culture and a history of its own” (Kurian 252).

Notwithstanding the variety of borderland studies, there is a lack of common theoretical framework. For this reason, most authors develop their own definitions and models as there is no agreement on what the borderlands actually are. Depending on the issue, their character is so different that a specific approach seems more applicable. In this paper, various definitions and models concerning the borderlands will be analysed and compared. The aim is to find a workable definition and a theoretical model that is, to a certain extent, generally applicable to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Special attention shall be placed on the socio-economic dimension of the borderlands which is probably best described by the notion of ‘interaction zone’. Moreover, it is the basis for the cultural development and identity, a process that began with books like Mexican Village (Niggli), Tortilla Flat (Steinbeck) or Borderlands = La Frontera (Anzaldúa) which were written by authors originating from the borderlands.

Possibly, this view will help to understand what Anzaldúa, who significantly contributed to the academic acceptance of Chicano literature, expressed as follows:

Admit that Mexico is your double, that she exists in the shadow of this country, that we are irrevocably tied to her. Gringo, accept the doppelganger in your psyche. By taking back your collective shadow the intra-cultural split will heal (Anzaldúa 108).

In other words, a theoretical perspective can lay the basis for a better understanding of cultural processes in the borderlands.

2 Defining the Borderlands

Beginning in the 1970s, the U.S.-Mexico border has become a major field of interest for scholars of various disciplines (House 5). Ranging from geography to politics, economics and anthropology, the study of borderlands is highly interdisciplinary. Consequently, it becomes difficult to agree on a universally pertinent definition that encompasses this wide range of research. As a result, it shall be the attempt to discuss some definitions of ‘borderlands’ in the following so as to form an idea of the subject matter.

To begin with, it is necessary to discriminate the terms ‘border’, ‘boundary’ and ‘frontier’. Even though they are often used interchangeably in colloquial language, some academics (but not all: cf. Johnston 52) differentiate them with more precision.

For instance, Gabriele Pisarz-Ramírez, Professor for Minority Studies at the University of Leipzig in Germany, distinguishes a political-geographic (boundary) and a geographic-cultural line of demarcation (border) where the latter is the ‘fringe area’ of culture (Pisarz-Ramírez 14). Conversely, the ‘frontier’ is described as an area of continuous first encounters (Pisarz-Ramírez 44) thereby serving as a dividing line between “savagery and civilization” (Pisarz-Ramírez 14).

Maybe, the distinction becomes more tangible in the definitions of the borderlands scholar Joseph Nevins. He describes

boundary as a strict line of demarcation between two (at least theoretically) distinct territories, a frontier as a forward zone of contact with the uncontrolled or sparsely settled, and a border as an area of interaction and gradual division between two separate political entities (Nevins 8).

For the discussion of the borderlands, two dimensions seem important. On the one hand, it is the territorial expansion and, on the other hand, it is the openness of a border. Whereas boundaries describe the invariable, constant and impermeable line of national sovereignty[1], borders can be crossed and also have a geographic extension[2]. In a wider sense, they are surrounded by land that is called borderlands. Finally, there is the vague, indefinable, shifting and hardly locatable area that is called frontier.[3]

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 1: Dimensions of the Borderlands

When arranging these terms in a diagram, one can derive a high interrelationship between the permeability and the territorial extension. Through high legislative, economic and cultural openness, the border becomes blurred and expands. This development favours the existence of a particular borderlands society.

At the top of the grouping is the frontier. However, the frontier seriously threatens the integrity of the classical nation-state (Nevins 157) since nationalism without boundaries is hardly imaginable (Pisarz-Ramírez 13). Hence, already around the time of the American Westward Movement, the Census Bureau had to define a line of demarcation up to which it claimed sovereignty (Turner 2).

Notably, as will be outlined in detail later, the U.S.-Mexico borderlands are slowly moving towards a frontier. Indeed, as the historian David Kennedy warned, Hispanics will soon have attained a “critical mass” (Kennedy 169–70) that allows them to “challenge the existing cultural, political, legal, commercial, and educational systems” (Kennedy 169–70) and to redefine the “meaning of citizenship and national identity” (Kennedy 169–70). As a result, the nation-state “constantly reproduce[s] boundaries (…) between ‘us’ and ‘them’” (Nevins 160), because it is “one of the state’s most important functions” (Nevins 160). Paradoxically, the U.S. thus has to underline the incompatibility of the American and Mexican culture (Pisarz-Ramírez 15) while, at the same time, the existence of the Tex-Mex culture, for example, is undeniable (Hawley and Nelson 118).

In this light, the U.S. government’s recent endeavours to regain control over the border appear fundamental since a ‘frontier’ would menace the very existence of the U.S. Arguably, for a nation-state, ‘borderlands’ would be a stable equilibrium between maximum openness and containment of third-party influences.

2.1 Socio-Geographic Approach

In a first step, the attention shall be drawn to the geographic borderlands. A fairly official limitation of the borderlands is given by the Code of Federal Regulation. Paragraph 287 on the powers and duties of field officers limits the area of operation for a patrol agent to “distances not exceeding 100 air miles” (Department of Homeland Security) from the international borderline, i.e. the boundary. Hence, the juridical definition is rather clear cut but can rarely be found in academic discourse[4] as it ignores the social and economic reality of the borderlands. Another, more common, definition relates to the Border States:

The U.S.-Mexico Borderlands is defined as consisting of the six Mexican border states (Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, Tamaulipas) and the four U.S. border states (California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas) plus the state of Colorado. Colorado is included because of its high percentage of Spanish-origin population (Pick and Butler 32).

However, this passage has a logic flaw. While a definition by federal states or even counties which are in the immediate vicinity of the international boundary appears comprehensible, the inclusion of Colorado for its high percentage of Hispanics is less so. In this case, the question arises why other states that also display a high Spanish-origin population are excluded. Of course, one needs to take into consideration that Pick’s definition dates from 1990 and since then the U.S. demographics have changed noticeably. Nevertheless, a look at the 1990 U.S. census data reveals that the inclusion of Colorado would logically prescribe the addition of other federal states such as Nevada, Florida or even Washington. Consequently, the borderlands would extend far into the U.S. territory and abut upon the Canadian boundary. Yet, the singular character of the U.S.-Mexico border region is no longer present in such remote areas.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 2: Hispanic Population in the U.S. 1980-2006 (U.S. Census Bureau)

Over the last decades, the percentage of Hispanics has increased significantly so that it represented 14.8% in 2006.[5] Interestingly, the Hispanic growth rate (24.3%) exceeded the evolution of the total population (6.1%) by the factor of three in the period of 2000 to 2006. As can be derived from figure two, the border regions have a particularly high percentage of Hispanics. Remarkably, Mexicans account for 64% of the total Hispanic populace thereby forming the largest group (U.S. Census Bureau). When looking at the distribution of the Hispanic residents in the U.S., it is remarkable to observe that the contour of the Hispanic settlement area is highly reminiscent of Mexico’s historical territory before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In some way, the demographic development seems to confirm what Gloria Anzaldúa already predicted in 1987:

This land was Mexican once

was Indian always

and is.

And will be again (Anzaldúa 113).

Besides, the twin cities which are situated along and on the border seem to illustrate that “the U.S.-Mexico boundary, as a line of control and division, is, to a significant degree, an illusion. Mexico and the United States are increasingly one” (Nevins 188).

In addition, the inclusion of Colorado lays the geographic focus on the United States since the borderlands are not solely defined by immigration. On the Mexican side, it is the economic influence of the U.S. that shapes the region. Actually, Pick’s definition indirectly supports one of its fundamental characteristics, i.e. the overwhelming ‘power asymmetry’ (Bustamante 13; House 2) between the U.S. and Mexico. Very often, the literature on the borderlands is primarily concerned with the American view and neglects the impact of the border on the Mexican territory.

Nonetheless, as Gabriele Pisarz-Ramírez points out, geographic concepts have a ‘key position’ in the construction of American identity (Pisarz-Ramírez 13). Borders often become places where the national identity and sovereignty are reassured and manifested (Pisarz-Ramírez 13–14; Martinez, Beezley, and MacLachlan xiii).

Hence, to come back to the juridical definition of a 100 miles radius from the boundary seems at least not discriminatory. After all,

Borderlands remain difficult to map, for, in most cases, distance decay seems to be more operational than the more directly difference-laden process of differentiation that accompanies the drawing of a boundary (Wastl-Walter, Morehouse, and Pavlakovich-Kochi 30).

2.2 Constructivist Perception of the Borderlands

Despite the lucidity of a socio-geographic explanation, one needs to keep in mind that the borderlands are an area where people live who can be “specifically defined and identified” (Alvarez 451). This gives the borderlands the character of a local ecology for human action which is framed by politics (Greenberg and Park 4–7; Heyman 51). Many authors choose a more general and wider concept not only concentrating on spatial but also on juridical, political, economic, historical, social, psychological and cultural aspects of the borderlands (160; House 2; Konrad ix) as “that shading is found as much in the mind as on the land” (Konrad ix). Instead of following the “fatal logic of geography” (House 2), they discuss the idea of ‘border identities’.


[1] “The international boundary line sharply divides formal political jurisdiction over space.” (Herzog 140) Moreover, “Grenzen sind häufig Orte der Manifestation des Nationalen, Orte, an denen sich der Nationalstaat seiner Existenz versichert” (Pisarz-Ramírez 13–14).

[2] “A border may be quite narrow, huddling close to the boundary, or it may extend for many miles in one or both directions from the dividing line.” (Wastl-Walter, Morehouse, and Pavlakovich-Kochi 30)

[3] “A zone of varying width that refers either to the political division between two countries or to the settled and uninhabited parts of a country” (Johnston 282).

[4] “The international boundary line sharply divides formal political jurisdiction over space.” (Herzog 140)

[5] This number does not include the illegal immigrants, the number of which is estimated between 11.5 and 15 million (Knickerbocker).

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Redefining the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands
An Analysis of Theoretical Concepts and Models
University of Passau
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US-Mexico border;, US-Mexican border;, Mexican American border;, borderlands;, model;, theoretical model;, interaction zone;, contact zone;, transculturation;, definition borderlands;, definition;, frontier;, border;, boundary;
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Marvin Hanisch (Author), 2011, Redefining the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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