Transnational Representations of the U.S. Borderlands. Outlaw Women in Contemporary "Border Cinema"

Master's Thesis, 2014

202 Pages, Grade: 1,0




2.1 The View from the North: The U.S.-Mexico Border(lands) According to Hollywood
2.2 The View from the South: Mexican Border Cinema and la frontera

3.1 Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel: Border Cinema Goes Global
3.2 María Novaro’s Sin dejar huella: Border Cinema Meets Road Movie



Appendix A: FIGURES
Film Stills from Babel (2006)
Film Stills from Sin dejar huella (2000)
Film Posters
Directors’ Filmographies
Selected Border Filmographies
Features (Fiction)
Shorts (Fiction)
Documentaries (including short films)



“[T]he figure of the border is iconic on the screen.” (Fregoso 1999: 178)

The border and borderlands1 between the United States and Mexico occupy a pivotal role in both the U.S. American2 and Mexican cinematographic imaginary. The filmic representation and negotiation of the longest contiguous international boundary between a so-called “First World” country (in this case, no less than the world’s economic superpower) and a developing nation—as well as of border experiences at the most frequently crossed international land boundary worldwide (and that only refers to the legal crossings)3 —can be regarded as central issues in both national cinemas almost since the beginning of the movie industry. Hollywood cinema has long been fascinated with the U.S.-Mexico border, which has been the subject of many hundreds of movies since the early days of silent film, as film scholar Rosa Linda Fregoso points out:

The U.S. film industry has likely made (if one counts all of the one-reel silent films) thousands of films dealing with the U.S. Mexico border. While they are too numerous to list, among the better known examples of the border genre film are Licking the Greasers (1914), Girl of the Rio (1932), Bordertown (1935), Border Incident (1949), Touch of Evil (1958), The Wild Bunch (1969), The Border (1982), Born in East L.A. (1987). (2003: 183)

The Mexican Revolution4 of the 1910s alone is considered to have inspired some hundreds of border films, mostly documentaries and docudramas (cp. Arreola 25).

The Mexican film industry has a nearly equally long history of representing the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. According to Norma Iglesias-Prieto, one of the leading scholars in the field of Mexican border cinema, more than 300 border films were produced in Mexico between 1936 and 1996.5 “By the 1930s, Mexican producers were beginning to view the border as a profitable theme for Mexico’s national film industry” (Iglesias-Prieto 1998: 146). Referring to Iglesias-Prieto’s classic book-length study Entre yerba, polvo y plomo: Lo fronterizo visto por el cine mexicano (1991), Fregoso argues that Mexico produced 147 border films in the decade between 1979 and 1989 alone (cp. 2003: 53). Charles Ramírez Berg also points to a boom in cine fronterizo in the 1980s:

Border films have flourished on the lowest end of the economic and aesthetic Mexican moviemaking scale for decades. The narcotraficante film, a Mexican police genre, is the most popular type of cine fronterizo. Narcotraficante films boomed from 1979 to 1989, when at least forty were made.6

“Border cinema”, a film genre (spanning many others) and a cultural industry in Mexico and the United States

The U.S.-Mexico border—“[p]erhaps the border that has resulted in more feature films than any other” (Naficy 2001: 239)—has generated such a vast number of films, set and produced on both sides of la frontera, that is has formed the genre of “border cinema” – “a rich genre with a long history in both countries” (Deleyto & Azcona 90). As Elena Dell’Agnese puts it:

The region surrounding the US–Mexico divide is probably one of the most frequently screened landscapes of North America. Since the beginning of commercial cinema, the border has been a leading or secondary character in dozens of movies, ranging from the obvious westerns to the less obvious horror, science fiction and film-noir categories. (2005: 204)

The “cinema of borders” (Bennett & Tyler 2007) not only includes many different subgenres7, but also encompasses an enormous variety of filmic genres. According to María S. Arbeláez, the U.S.-Mexican borderlands have “produced a considerable number and variety of films in accordance to its complex and conflict-ridden existence”:

Movies in and about the border have portrayed its spatial intersections, otherness, estrangement, and haziness. Inasmuch as the border has been a space of negotiation, confrontation, transacculturation, and hybrid identities, its representation in films covers a wide gamut of cinematic genres. Borderline movies can be grouped, according to the cultural intersections that take place on its space, into three types of productions: United States (mainly Hollywood), Mexico, and its dwellers, the fronterizos. (cp. 2008: 49–50)

Iglesias-Prieto (2006) argues that five major types of cinema have participated in the representation of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, “an area of convergence, conflict, exchange, dependence, interdependent national economies, state authorities, interactive nationalities, and cultural characteristics” (Gómez-Quiñones & Maciel 34): Hollywood mainstream cinema, Mexican commercial c ine fronterizo, the Nuevo Cine Mexicano 8, Chicano cinema9, as well as independent border films and videos made and produced by local fronterizos (“borderlanders”, particularly in the Tijuana–San Diego area since the 1980s). David R. Maciel, who offers one of only very few comparative analyses of both U.S. American and Mexican border films, points out that “[t]he cinema of the U.S.-Mexican border is unique as compared to other national, thematic, or regional cinemas, and it offers a rich area for study and analysis”:

Border cinema encompasses parallels and contrasts, common expressive modes, and clear differences between three distinct perspectives: North American commercial cinema, independent cinema, and Mexican commercial cinema. Altogether since the 1970s, over a hundred exhibited films have dealt with the U.S.-Mexican border. (cp. Maciel 1990: 3)

Andrea Noble contends that the Mexico-U.S. border is a “central cinematic trope in both the Hollywood and Mexican cinemas” (2005: 24). However, the meaning and function of the border in both national cinemas derives from distinctive cinematic traditions, which have been “shaped by the particular, contrasting characteristics of Mexican and U.S. history, society, and polity,” Alex M. Saragoza argues:

Thus, the representation of the border has signified the differences, rather than the commonalities, between the two countries. Rarely has the border been projected by moviemakers as fortuitous or as a site of mutual understanding. Rather, the cinematic depiction of the border has generally reflected the tension that has marked the relations between “distant neighbors.” (cp. 156)

As an integral part of the cultural industry, the art form of film has not only played a crucial role in the definition, characterization, and mythification of la frontera and the area surrounding it, but also “in the construction of limiting binary oppositions of identity and nationhood”:

The border not only defines difference – i.e. where Mexico ends and the United States begins (or vice versa, depending on where you are looking from) – it also gives rise to a seemingly endless series of cultural binary oppositions: order/chaos; hard-working/lazy; active/passive; masculine/feminine; civilisation/barbarism; lawful/lawless; first/third, and so on. So widely disseminated and deeply ingrained are these cultural binaries, that it hardly needs stating that Mexico conventionally occupies the second position in each case. (…) Furthermore, (…) the border is deeply implicated in the politics and erotics of looking: it delineates an ideologically located position from which viewing subject (‘ de acá de este lado ’/on this side of the border) observes viewed object (‘ al otro lado ’/on the other side). (cp. Noble 2005: 147–48)

Following Noble, “cinema has played an important role in the construction of such viewing positions and the propagation of meanings that circulate around the border”. She explains that “there exists a play of eroticism and desire in the relationship between Mexico and the United States that at once underpins and undercuts such stereotypes” and points out how both national imaginaries have reinforced the idea of profound difference between the two societies inherent in cultural representations until today:

In the US cultural imaginary, Mexico figures not only as primitive, lawless hinterland, but also (…) as an exotic and liberating avenue of escape. In the Mexican imaginary meanwhile, the United States is both a hostile neo-colonialist power and site of a deeply coveted capitalist modernity. (cp. 2005: 147)

According to Noble, “[t]hese oppositions crystallise in the border as a key trope within cinematic traditions both to its north and south” (2005: 148).

Mexico’s northern frontier is undoubtedly one of the regions most strongly beset by stereotypes. Its substantial distance from central Mexico, its unfamiliarity to much of Mexico’s population and, above all, its proximity to the United States have long been key to an erroneous and biassed interpretation of life on the border. Nor is there any doubt that film had played a very important role in creating and strengthening border stereotypes. (Iglesias-Prieto 1998: 145)

Drawing and crossing the line between “law and order” and presumed “lawlessness”

Given the international dominance of the U.S. film industry, it is “the most pervasive image machine of the border region for a global audience” (Fojas 2008a: 3). In U.S. American silent films, Westerns and road movies, the crossing of the border to Mexico, the Mexican nation, and Mexicans have tended to fulfill symbolic functions, mostly motivated by masculinist fantasies of (sexual) adventures and freedom. The U.S.-Mexico border functioned as “a no man’s land where Puritan values were severely relaxed and anything was possible in the way of sex or romance, violence, drugs, conspiracy, desertion, or hide out” from the earliest days of U.S. cinema (cp. Keller 84). Hollywood predominantly presented Mexico as

a place to escape from American law; a place of corrupt anarchy, overwhelming poverty, and cheap hedonism; a place where the American dollar can last a long time; and a place where dark-haired, copper-skinned beauties share their beds for a few pesos. (Reyes & Rubie 3)

Ramírez Berg contends that “Hollywood’s characters are forced south of the border”. Typically, these characters are either “heading for the border” to run from the law or to seek someone on the run. Moreover, there are Hollywood characters “looking for the kind of good time (alcohol in the days of Prohibition, gambling before Las Vegas, sex anytime) that can’t be found in the United States”. For “disenchanted expatriots,” for example, “Mexico is a retreat”. Anyhow, “[a] corollary to Hollywood’s Mexican assumption is that few visitors to Mexico go there for cultural reasons”. Activities such as sightseeing in Mexico or the study of Mexican art and history would acknowledge the possibility to learn something from the southern neighbor, “something Hollywood’s ethnocentric prejudice typically denies even its most open-minded, liberal, countercultural characters” (cp. Ramírez Berg 2002: 199). As Fojas puts it:

It is certainly no accident that the border zone has become the frontier of radical experience, where the US citizen goes for underage drinking, exploration of various transgressive sexual acts and desires, gambling, and every vice forbidden by the standards of western morality. And it is no accident that these outlaw practices converge on the border just below and beyond the national body. Hollywood border films play out the psychodrama of border transgression that allegorize a larger threat to the integrity of US national identity. (Fojas 2007: 81–82)

In U.S. American border films, Saragoza points out, “crossing the border becomes a way of extending the frontier, a place where the lonely, detached hero must confront a villain, where the law fails to function”:

As a consequence, American movies often portray Mexicans as unstrained barbarians. The border represents a crossing into a different realm that requires the services of the western hero. (…) The Mexicans (…) are secondary, to be manipulated for cinematic purpose—the ultimate form of rendering them insignificant. American films have frequently reduced Mexicans to props, to be used as needed for the main thematic narrative. (cp. 164–65)

The southwestern border landscape as a setting and Mexican characters were first and foremost chosen to dissociate the U.S. nation from its southern neighbor. U.S. American cinema has a long history of portraying Mexicans, and Latinos in general, in negative, stereotypical, and often even racist terms, as cultural (and mostly criminal) “others” – representations that are built on cultural and racial prejudices and a notion of Anglo-American superiority:

The United States has long had a racial-national sense of superiority to Mexico, characterized as traditional, backward, corrupt, exotic, and so on. This has been expressed both externally, as negative tropes about the country of Mexico, and internally, as negative tropes about Mexican immigrants (…). Both dimensions of this discriminatory ideology come together at the border, for example in the central trope of “all poverty is Mexican” (…). (Heyman 56)

Camilla Fojas states that North American culture “has defined itself at every turn against Mexico and Mexicans, against Mexican labor and immigration, and against the Mexican culture of the Southwest” (2008a: 195). “Though a tangible place, the border is also a symbolic zone created to suture the gaps of North American national identity against the infiltration of ‘unwanted’ immigrants” (Fojas 2006: 20). According to Saragoza, the U.S.-Mexican border has been “subjected to an American viewpoint, rather than recognized as a boundary or an obstacle, much less a painful memory”:

For Americans, the border points to the peculiar combination of arrogance and paternalism that has characterized U.S. relations with Latin America and Mexico specifically. This condescending view of Mexico underscores the depiction of the border in American films. Equally important, the portrayal of the border has usually complemented basic elements and paradigms of American cinema. (…) In contrast to Mexican movies, the border has figured frequently in American film as setting or locale, but rarely as a symbol of restraint or of respect for Mexico’s sovereignty. Rather, for much of the American film’s history, the border has been either disregarded, as Americans cross it with impunity, or has served to demonstrate the distinction between the superiority of the United States an the inferiority of its southern neighbor. In either case, American film has been marked by a lack of recognition for the border as an authentic boundary and by a refusal to see Mexico and its peoples in images other than stereotypes. In short, the portrayal of the border in American cinema has sustained, with only occasional exceptions, myths of American individualism and superiority. (cp. 157)

The vast majority of U.S. American films dealing with the U.S.-Mexican border(lands) have utilized the international boundary as a physical marker to delimit the idealized image the United States wants to project as a nation of justice and submission to the law.

In many early U.S. border films, such as Border Caballero (1936), the Mexican side of the border “functions as a disorderly criminal haven, while the United States stand for law and order” (Brégent-Heald 266). Rafael Hernández Rodríguez contends that the image of Mexico as ‘other’ was used to “enforce the formulaic dichotomy of American law versus Mexican lawlessness” (24).

Not surprisingly, American cinema often has disregarded the sovereignty of Mexico, and when it has, the boundary inevitably possesses a negative connotation. More recently, especially with the concern over “law and order,” the border as a constraint has been magnified as a refuge for criminals, as in the old westerns, but embellished with more contemporary issues, such as drug smuggling (…). Nevertheless, the impression remains essentially constant: the border represents an impediment, a restraint on the individual and true justice. (Saragoza 163)

More often than not, border films reflect conventional ideologies about “law and order” and “the nation”10. As borders are markers of national identity, questions of identity, cultural belonging and “otherness” are particularly striking topics in the genre of “border cinema”:

The border genre, like the Western, emanates from a long history that preceded its cinematic incarnation. From dime novels to silent greaser films, popular Westerns, and action films, the border signifies a North American complex and neurosis about self-identity. U.S. popular culture defines national identity against the borderlands and their mythologized inhabitants: an inchoate mass of criminals, sexual deviants, and racialized outsiders. The more independent review of the genre by Chicano, Latino and Native American filmmakers recycles border imagery to a different end, though one that equally impacts the conception of national identity and cultural belonging. (Fojas 2008a: 13)

Film has been crucial to formations of U.S.-Mexican border images, which reflect the social chasm and “the shared history of conflict, conquest, and distrust” between the two neighboring nations that have opposing views of one another (cp. Saragoza 155). In both the U.S. American and Mexican cinemas, the U.S.-Mexico border has clearly served as “otherized territory” (Fregoso 1999: 178):

In the cultural imaginary of both the United States and Mexico, the border figures as the trope for absolute alterity, a “no-man’s land” symbolizing eroticized underdevelopment – an untamed breeding ground for otherness and the site of unrepressed libidinal energies. Its inhabitants are coded as outcasts, degenerates, sexually hungry subalterns, and outlaws. In both Mexican and U.S. cinemas, the representation of the border as a no-man’s land is symptomatic of a colonialist and racist imaginary. The product of an ethnocentric gaze, this representation of frontier territories as abject serves both to define the United States and metropolitan Mexico and to shape their respective national identities. (Fregoso 2003: 53)

As movies tend to express national myths, the U.S.-Mexican border “as a symbolic source and place for mutual respect and understanding in United States-Mexico relations remains largely unfulfilled in the cinema of the two countries” (Saragoza 158).

Bandits, villains, and outlaws in Hollywood border cinema

The U.S. American construction of the border with Mexico has been particularly plagued with stereotypes of outlaw practices and Mexicans represented as evil, bandits, and outlaws:

Hollywood has perpetrated the image of banditry along the border through misuse of history, misrepresentation of socioeconomic conditions, neutralizations of political tensions, and other such sleights of hand that create and perpetuate a false mythology of the borderlands and its inhabitants. (Fojas 2008a: 5)

According to Fojas, the Mexican bandit is “not only one of the most abiding stereotypes of Mexicans in Hollywood history, but also the symbolic center and cardinal icon of the borderland narrative”. The roots of this stereotype date back to 19th century dime novels11, silent-era greaser12 films, and/or “films with plots structured around Mexican villains” (cp. Fojas 2008a: 5). As Allen L. Woll puts it in The Latin Image in American Film:

Although the majority of early silent films emphasized action and violence, the Mexican bandits were clearly among the most vile. They robbed, murdered, plundered, raped, cheated, gambled, lied, and displayed virtually every vice that could be shown on the screen. (7)

Since the early days of Hollywood cinema, “the Hispanic bandit is a demented, despicable creature who must be punished for his brutal behavior,” Ramírez Berg explains:

Typically, he is treacherous, shifty, and dishonest. His reactions are emotional, irrational, and usually violent; his intelligence is severely limited, resulting in flawed strategies. He is dirty and unkempt—usually displaying an unshaven face; missing teeth; and disheveled, oily hair. A modern incarnation of this type, the Latin American drug runner, shows superficial changes in the stereotype without altering its essence. He is slicker, of course, and he has traded his black hat for a white suit and his tired horse for a glitzy Porsche, yet he is still driven to satisfy base cravings—for money, power and sexual pleasure—and routinely employs vicious and illegal means to obtain them. (…) Other versions of the bandit stereotype include Latin American rebel leaders, corrupt dictators, and inner-city youth gang members. (cp. Ramírez Berg 1997: 113)

According to Ramírez Berg, the Hollywood bandido stereotype continues to appear “in a long list of Westerns and adventure films”. In contemporary Hollywood films, the bandit still exists in two incarnations: as Latin American gangster/drug runner, and as inner-city gang member in numerous urban thrillers and crime dramas (cp. Ramírez Berg 2002: 68). Latino juvenile delinquents can be understood as a continuation of the old stereotype of the bandit, as “a contemporary, urban bandido” (Ramírez Berg 2002: 41). “Reminiscent of the border region of the western,” Christine List argues, “the urban setting for these gang films are mapped as sites where lawlessness and violence prevail” (33).

The vast majority of feature films that treat U.S.-Mexican themes and characters from the nineteenth century to World War II are westerns, resulting in easily prescribed and negative stereotypes—for male characters, the greaser-bandit, the lecherous “Latin lover,” and the doltish sidekick; for females, the self-sacrificing maiden and the cantina whore. (Baugh 270)

“The bandit’s female equivalent is a sexually promiscuous and loose woman, typically a prostitute” (Fojas 2008a: 6). Border films usually center their narratives on single male protagonists, while women “feature as mere triggers to the plot” (cp. Noble 2005: 161). Fojas mentions that the 2006 border film Bandidas, starring Penélope Cruz and Salma Hayek as a couple of “female social bandits in the turn-of-the-century Mexico who rob from the rich and aid the poor”, is “one of the first depictions of female bandits”13. She describes the types of characters that can typically be found in U.S. American border cinema as follows:

Border films have stock characters—the sultry Latina, the pious female Mexican immigrant, the righteous cowboy/border guard, the job-taking male immigrant, the crooked drug runner—and stock sets and scenery—the open desert, abandoned border towns, the canteen, the whorehouse. Many of these border films belong to other genres or types—the Western, the action film, the drug trafficking film, and Latino film—but they are all Hollywood productions on, near, or about the border region (…). Hollywood border films are not about the immigrant experience or cultural conflict; rather, they are concerned with fortifying U.S. national identity during times of cultural transition. Border films provide a vital history of the United States through key cinematic moments, from the “birth of the nation” after the American Civil War, the post-World War II era, the civil rights era, the Reaganite 1980s, and the liberal “multicultural” 1990s to the current state of border anxieties relating to fears of drug trafficking and terrorism after September 11, 2001. The heritage of most of these films can be traced back to the original border genre, the Western, some more obliquely than others. (Fojas 2008a: 15–16)

Camilla Fojas argues that every border film “begins and ends with the Western, since even Latino border films cannot escape the legacy of the Western”:

In Westerns, the southern frontier marks the limitation of movement, the outer limit of the narration beyond which there is land that cannot be readily conquered. The border delimits freedoms typically associated with the western frontier; Western heroes “make a run for the border” and escape into Mexico, seeking profit and pleasure and escape from the law or other restrictions of North American culture. In border films, the border is variously a significant backdrop, another character in the story, a symbolic zone, a line between opposing forces and values, a line separating barbarism from civilization, the horizon of modernity, and the outer limit of a nation. (cp. 2008a: 25)

As described by Fojas, border films are deeply linked to the Western, Hollywood’s most enduring genre, which has been strongly associated with the construction of a U.S. American national identity and masculinity:

No wonder the Western is the most popular genre for the American (male-identified) public. While the ostensible pleasure of the narrative emanates from the lack of limits on the expression of primal desires and urges, the storylines are rigged with contemporary fantasies about the expanding circumference of national influence and potency. (Fojas 2008a: 82)

During the first decades of the 20th century, “movie images of border life were conveyed primarily through North American westerns” (Iglesias 1998: 146). The U.S. American Western genre featured Mexican and U.S. American characters that could easily be distinguished from each other:

The border Mexican was generally dark skinned, sported a sombrero and a moustache, was dirty, drunk, and a skirt chaser. Mexican women were also dark, violent and savage, dirty but seductive, and cleverer than their North American counterparts. The North American male, in contrast, was by definition the white hero, clean, compassionate, and, foremost, a good and intelligent man.14

Even though the Mexican vaquero precedes the all-American cowboy15 and “the real cowboy of the Western range upon whom the hero is based came from different backgrounds”—including Hispanics, mestizos 16, African Americans, and mulattoes—, Juan J. Alonzo argues, “[a]s a symbol of American identity, the Western hero is white”. “In the world of the Western,” he states, “it is not the Indian with whom the Anglo is predominantly concerned, but the Mexican” (cp. 2009: 68). The Western film genre used Hispanic, and most notably Mexican, characters to “create an alien and exotic domain—both physical and moral—counterposed to the WASP world” (Keller 39). Rosa Linda Fregoso explains:

It is the encounter with Mexicans that would ultimately consolidate a discourse of white superiority as the basis for national identity, one that posited citizenship and immigration in terms of the racial differences: civilization (whites as insiders to the nation) and wilderness (Mexicans as outsiders). (2003: 138)

List argues that the character of the Mexican bandit is a “bloodthirsty symbol which still fuels the Anglo imagination of the region” (32). To put it differently: “In hegemonic U.S. histories and popular culture, the Mexican bandit is invariably an outlaw” (Fojas 2008a: 7).

According to Fojas, the “negation of racial and other outsiders is the legacy of the border genre and its place at the center of questions of ‘American’ identity” (2011: 96):

Since the inception of cinema, the Hollywood motion picture industry has commandeered the borderlands to tell a story about U.S. dominance in the American hemisphere. Hollywood has often exploited the trope of the southern border between the United States and Mexico to capture a range of “American” ideals and values—integrity, moral clarity, industriousness, rugged survivalism, confidence, and self-sufficiency, among others. The border is also a vital repository of threatening ideas—homosexuality, prostitution, globalization, economic liberalization, drug trafficking and abuse, sexual promiscuity, effeminacy, and terrorism—and undesirable or inassimilable people such as Mexicans, Native Americans, racially mixed characters, immigrants, war veterans, terrorists, and dominant and domineering women. (Fojas 2008a: 2)

While ethnic minorities and women are often limited to negative stereotypes, significant social issues along the border the U.S. shares with Mexico are seldom addressed in Hollywood border films. Given Hollywood’s long history of depicting male “racial others”, such as Mexicans and Native Americans, as outlaw characters, it is all the more important and interesting to analyze the representation of what I term ‘outlaw women’ in contemporary border cinema.


This interdisciplinary study, situated between American Studies and Latin American Studies and blending textual analysis with film and cultural theory, offers a comparative analysis of transnational filmic representations of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands and different types of female outlaw characters in contemporary border cinema.17 Through a reading of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006) and María Novaro’s Sin dejar huella (2000) in the context of the history of border cinema, this study aims to analyze how these cross-genre border films position themselves in contemporary debates on migration, mobility, and globalization. Albeit in very different ways, both fictional feature films utilize ‘outlaw women’ to offer counter-images to many taken-for-granted stereotypical representations in border cinema and new ways to portray the U.S.-Mexican borderlands, a space in which issues of national importance—such as migration, security, and smuggling—come particularly to the fore. In the context of prevailing xenophobic attitudes in the border regions, increasing anti-immigrant sentiments in the U.S., and the militarization of U.S. borders in the aftermath of 9/1118, this thesis discusses the multifaceted ways in which contemporary border films approach the topic of borders, borderlands, border crossings, and female border crossers who act outside the law in some way. My analysis of recent border films will focus on two different types of border films (in terms of genre, formal approach, content, budget, distribution etc.) as well as on different types of ‘outlaw women’, female protagonists who are involved in illegal activities in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, to determine what type of information these films present about borders, (il)legality, and criminality. As illegality and criminality are important concepts in the framing of (usually male) Mexicans, and Latinos in general, it is substantial to look at Mexican women represented as illegal and/or criminal. Furthermore, it is important to note that in the history of border cinema, women have typically been given secondary roles – almost without exception. This under-representation resulted in “a serious lack of important or interesting gender representation” (cp. Maciel & García-Acevedo 165). Since the female protagonists in the border films I selected are central characters, this represents one of the gender traits the films subvert.

The close film analyses of Babel and Sin dejar huella seek to illustrate not only the functioning of each border film’s specific visual and narrative strategies, but also the narrative perspective of these reinvented outlaws – female protagonists who knowingly break the law in some sense. The term “outlaw” stems from the Middle English word outlawe [from Old English ūtlaga, Old Norse ūtlagi ] and can be defined as “a person who has broken the law, especially one who remains at large or is a fugitive”.19 The female characters in the selected fictional full-length feature films can be seen as ‘outlaws’ because they violate the law, though in very different ways, and act outside the rules of dominant society. Thus, they may be viewed as criminal and/or illegal by those in power (e.g. Border Patrol, or national police forces). They are not outlaws in the sense of habitual criminals or gangsters who gained notoriety for committing famous or violent crimes (kidnapping, bank robberies, murders etc.), but women who are driven to the edge of legality in a number of different ways. Even though the outlaw couple in Sin dejar huella has guns, these characters all disregard the law in order to move forward in their lives and do not present a credible threat to public safety. Rather, they are fugitives for single crimes and act out of desperation.

The narrative function of these female outlaw characters in contemporary border cinema, I contend, is to invite the audience to adopt the point of view of the female (and mostly also ethnic) “other”: the viewpoint of an undocumented Mexican immigrant living in the U.S. in Babel, and the perspective of two very dissimilar Mexican women who are involved in smuggling, stealing and other crimes in Sin dejar huella. For a U.S. American audience, the identification with these outlaw women is additionally facilitated through the aid of Anglo-American characters (and established Hollywood stars like Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) in Babel. The aim of these border films is to humanize the law-breaking protagonists, asking the viewer to identify and empathize with the female characters and the inequalities and struggles they face. In doing so, these current border films challenge prevailing perceptions of the U.S.-Mexican borderlands, as conveyed by the mainstream movie industry, and rework the genre of “border cinema”. Stereotypes and images of (Mexican) bandits and outlaws as well as traditional female roles (as passive and sexualized objects of the male gaze) typically associated with the border genre are deconstructed and subverted to establish an empathetic connection between the audience and the female agents actively involved in different kinds of illicit actions in the increasingly globalized U.S.-Mexican borderlands. The films’ reworkings of the border genre will be explored with specific reference to the characterization of these female outlaw characters – protagonists who are connected by the common theme of crossing the U.S. borderlands illegally. As the border crossings and their consequences are essential for the outlaw status as well as for the discursive construction of the female characters in both films, the crucial border crossing sequences and the function of their particular mode of crossing are analyzed more in detail.

Movie selection

In order to encompass different areas of investigation, such as content, aesthetics, reception, production history etc., the analysis of contemporary border cinema was limited to two narrative feature films, which have received international acclaim due to their presence in film festivals across the globe. Considering the significant under-representation of both female characters and women directors in border cinema, as well as in the global film industry in general, I decided to explore border films that focus on women in lead roles. Moreover, both directors are from Mexico. Both films place special emphasis on their female outlaw characters and recycle the formularized elements one expects from typical border film productions. Analyzing these movies, which differ considerably in content, style, and approach, is a quite complex task, as the scope of these revisionist cross-genre border films transcends the border film categorization. The selected films not only use some of the conventions of the border film genre as a starting point to subvert and contest them, but their development also goes beyond these conventions and involves other filmic genres, such as hyperlink cinema in Babel, and the road movie in Sin dejar huella, to present more sophisticated and personal approaches. Due to their individuality, both films fall into the classification of auteur ’s films, that is, narrative films in which “the director is acknowledged to conceive the idea and theme of the film, write or co-write the script, supervise each and every aspect of the filmmaking process” (cp. Maciel & García-Acevedo 184). Moreover, I have chosen films that move me emotionally as well as aesthetically with their narrative and visual style.

As these contemporary filmic representations need to be understood within a socio-historical context and a larger discourse on “othering”, it is essential to theorize and historicize the phenomenon of border cinema itself first. The following chapter, chapter 2, maps the generic terrain of border cinema and traces its thematic and ideological evolution in the U.S. American as well as Mexican film industry to provide a basic understanding of how the U.S. (mostly Hollywood) and Mexican cinemas have constructed their ideas of the border, borderlands, and border crossers.


The topic of borders, borderlands and their crossings has become one of the most prominent issues of the early 21st century. As Karin Ikas and Gerhard Wagner put it in Communicating in the Third Space: “At the turn of the 21st century, globalization has transformed the earth into a planet of nomads” (1). In this globalized age of transnational mobility, borders have received renewed academic attention. In recent years, the popularity of border studies among scholars from different disciplines worldwide has led to a rich body of publications and studies on borders, boundaries, frontiers, and the people crossing them:

In a world characterized by more frequent and intense transnational links between people, the border is where the transnational takes place, and the borderland is the space constructed around such exchanges. (…) In cultural theory, the border has become, therefore, a line of exclusion and conflict, of paranoid defense against the other, and a space of integration and hybridity, a meeting point between cultures, where different groups clash but also enrich each other and form the mongrel identity that, to a large extent, characterizes contemporary society. (Deleyto & Azcona 96)

“As we enter the 21st century,” Robert R. Alvarez Jr. argues, “the negotiation of borders and borderlands illustrate what has come to be standard human behavior in the global arena” (1999: 225). Borders, and the U.S.-Mexican border(lands) in specific, “have become sites of not only physical and political but also discursive and artistic struggles” (Naficy 1999: 3). When speaking of the U.S. borderlands in cinema, as well as in general, it is important to note that until recently, the term “borderlands” was used as equivalent for the U.S.-Mexican borderlands, serving “as a sort of shorthand to refer to the present-day U.S. Southwest and the Mexican North, with little thought to the border dividing Canada from the United States” (Johnson & Graybill 4). In Border Culture (2010), Ilan Stavans describes the U.S.-Mexico borderlands as “a universe onto itself”:

With more than 30 million people, it is a no man’s land, neither American nor mexicano —a hybrid civilization with its own politics, language, and tradition. Nowhere else in the globe do two more polarized nations surrender their identities, giving place to a veritable New World. (cp. viii)

As one of the most iconic borders in the world—“a symbol – and site – of conflict, collaboration, and transnational mobility” (Mains 253)—, the U.S.-Mexico border has been the subject of a large body of scholarship by now. It has functioned as “the template for border studies in whatever part of the globe border research is carried out”. The Mexican-U.S. border has become “the touchstone for analyses of other borders, as a kind of ‘hyperborder’ that epitomized processes that other borders seemed to share” (cp. Wilson & Donnan 7):

In the last two decades the Mexico–US border has continued to be the focus of strong ethnography and interdisciplinary research. The existing themes of immigration, contraband, commerce, militarization and labor continue to be highlighted in border studies. Gender, citizenship and other themes reveal the complex engagement of people on both sides of the Mexico–US border and a growing trend to engage the complexity of life and society in the bordered zones of the geopolitical line. (Alvarez Jr. 2012: 551)

Over the past two decades, the U.S.-Mexico border(lands) and its portrayal has increasingly become the object of study for filmmakers and novelists, film and literary theorists, and social scientists. “Compared with the long history and great diversity of scholarship on the U.S.-Mexico borderlands,” Benjamin H. Johnson and Andrew R. Graybill point out in Bridging National Borders in North America: Transnational and Comparative Histories (2010), “there has been far less academic attention directed at the Canada-U.S. borderlands”.20 This lack of scholarship can be explained by the fact that the United States and Canada—“as advanced liberal capitalist democracies populated mostly by descendants of European settlers”—not only have a common ground shared, figuratively speaking, but they “appear to have more in common with one another than they do with Mexico”:

Accordingly, for most Americans and some Canadians—at least until the emergence of terrorism as a perceived threat to American national security—the international boundary separating the two countries has seemed largely inconsequential, as suggested by the familiar refrain that Canada and the United States share the longest undefended border in the world. (…) Whereas armies and insurrectionists have splashed their way across the Rio Grande on numerous occasions, since the War of 1812 the northern border has experienced much less international conflict. Even the most contentious issue in the history of the northern borderlands—the dispute over the Oregon boundary—was resolved through diplomatic channels (at almost the same moment that the United States invaded Mexico to conquer what later became the American Southwest). Moreover, the border-related issues that usually divide Washington and Ottawa tend to be of a milder nature (concerns about American cattle possibly transmitting mad cow disease to Canadian livestock, for example) than those (like the intractable matter of illegal immigration) that estrange federal officials in the United States from their Mexican counterparts. (cp. Johnson & Graybill 10)

When it comes to film, my interest here, the vast majority of scholars has equally tended to limit their study on the U.S.-Mexico border(lands). Moreover, scholars as well as filmmakers have preferably focused on the U.S. side of the U.S.-Mexican border region:

In recent decades, academic writing has called attention to the region north of the border—its long, largely untold history of oppression of one culture by another, and the increasingly visible artistic manifestations of a rich and sophisticated culture in literature, painting, popular music, and other arts, including film. By contrast, the southern part of that region as remained relatively unexplored by U.S. and Mexican cinema, with only occasional narratives that zero in on the excesses and exploitation of the maquiladora industry, as in the case of Bordertown and documentaries like Maquilapolis (2006). (Deleyto & Azcona 92)

In order to define border films, most scholars of border cinema (cp. Fregoso 2003: 183, 1999: 189–90; Martínez-Zalce 106; Naficy 2001: 239) cite from or refer to Norma Iglesias-Prieto’s study Entre yerba, polvo y plomo: Lo fronterizo visto por el cine mexicano (1991: 17), in which she defines “border cinema” regarding the following criteria:

(1) The plot, or a significant part of it, takes place in the Mexico-U.S. border region.
(2) The story deals with one or more characters from the borderlands region, irrespective of the setting.
(3) The film refers to the population of Mexican-origin living in the United States.
(4) The film is shot on location in the borderlands, regardless of the plot.
(5) The story, or a key part of it, refers to the borderlands or to problems of national identity.

According to Iglesias-Prieto, a border film must include at least one of these characteristics. She notes that her definition of the border genre is “as complex as the meaning of the term ‘border’”:

Sometimes it refers to an encounter, a crossing, a mixture, a confrontation, or a limit. Thus, the label “border cinema” alludes to types of characters, a production form, a specific geographic space, a question of limits, and a confrontation between “us” in relation to the “other.” These classifications are constantly shifting and reorganizing. (cp. 1999: 234–35)

As border films from both the U.S. and Mexico have tended to portray the border region to achieve nationalist ends, it is not surprising that the U.S.-Mexican border and borderlands have a long history of negative portrayals, also outside the world of cinema.21 However, its treatment by the cinemas of both the United States and Mexico has been particularly influential, as film scholar David R. Maciel points out:

Since early in their developmental histories, numerous cinematic productions have focused upon the U.S.-Mexican border either as a setting of the story or as the basic theme of the film. While other cycles or subject matters in North American or Mexican cinema have come and gone, the depiction of la frontera in films has been continuous over time. There is no greater cultural manifestation of the general image and widely held perceptions of the U.S.-Mexican border than the cinema. (1990: 2)

The border between Mexico and the U.S., and border towns and cities in specific, immediately conjure up a variety of negative images. “These images,” Iglesias-Prieto argues, “as social representations, are informed by direct experiences of the place, as well as by the mass media” (2003a: 183). Films are a central element in this social and symbolic representation of the borderlands:

The border has been represented in commercial film as a place of undocumented migration, prostitution, crime, and lost identity. Historically, these representations have been translated into normative criteria, shaping the Mexican central government’s cultural policies in the region. They have also contributed to our own self-definition as border people. (2003a: 185)

Filmic representations of the borderlands are even more important than literary representations, as space is “represented in film in a more obvious and forceful way than in literary texts” (Martínez-Zalce 107). According to Graciela Martínez-Zalce, the relevance of the phenomenon of border cinema within border studies is that

through a discourse constructed on stereotypes, these films have contributed to disseminate an idea of border towns or cities as places where violence, crime, prostitution, drugs, exist as the only way of living (104).

“Among the world’s borderlands,” Oscar J. Martínez argues, “the Mexican border has perhaps the most notorious reputation for vice, decadence, and unlawful activity”. By the 1920s, the “stereotype of Mexican border towns as Sodoms and Gomorrahs was added to the already long list of negative images of Mexico” (cp. 21–22). With the implementation of the National Prohibition Act, also known as Volstead Act, in the U.S. in 1920, the production and sale of alcohol was outlawed, which led to a booming tourism in the border towns on the Mexican side during the age of Prohibition:

During Prohibition, many border towns became havens for Americans seeking a “good time”—drinking, gambling, and related activities. Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez particularly suffered from their association with Americans crossing the border to get drunk, to bet on races, and to visit brothels. (Saragoza 174)

This reputation of Mexican border towns and cities can be ascribed to historical events, as María Socorro Tabuenca Córdoba explains:

Cities along the U.S.–Mexico border garnered a reputation for vice and lawlessness beginning with the tumultuous geopolitical separation of the two nations in 1848. This characterization was exacerbated by the role border towns played during Prohibition in the United States (1920–33) and was continued with the Bracero Program (1942–64), which imported thousands of migrant agricultural workers from Mexico to the United States. The collective weight of these historical events, combined with the current state of overwhelming impunity that plagues the border region, has eroded the area’s identity and cultural production. The apparently inexplicable nature of border violence has caught the attention of artists, writers, and journalists who have traveled to Ciudad Juárez from all over the world to film documentaries, write poems, plays, novels, and articles; to set up installations; to organize performances; to design Web pages; and so on. (83)

Sister border cities, such as Tijuana/San Diego and El Paso/Ciudad Juárez, and border crossings “have figured in many mainstream and independent films by Chicano and other filmmakers”22. According to Iglesias-Prieto, border towns and cities “became spaces par excellence where one would flee justice” in both the U.S. American and Mexican cinematographic imaginary:

The United States-Mexico border has always featured in the cinematographic imaginary of Mexican and North American film. Motion pictures from The Pony Express (1907) through Touch of Evil (1958), to Traffic (2000) have forged an image of the border as a savage but appealing place, with few rules and much disorder; a generic place for outlaw narratives. (…) In Hollywood films, people arrived at the border from the north, and in Mexican cinema they arrived from the south. In both cases, the border represented as a free, lawless place, open to all. Border cinema has played a significant role in creating and reinforcing such border stereotypes. (2003a: 186–87)

Maciel argues that both U.S. American and Mexican commercial border films “provide equally stereotypical views of the border region, and are generally devoid of social reality”. Usually, the portrayal of the border is “negative and superficial in nature” and reflects “a chauvinistic, egocentric view”. For the most part, commercially oriented filmmakers “have not incorporated a border perspective, either through better researched screenplays or by seeking out informed consultants”. Most of the commercial films dealing with border themes classify as the “‘B’ type, that is, of secondary billing or cine negro” and are made to “earn profitable receipts at the box office, not necessarily to provide artistic quality or to stress realism or complex issues”:

With very few exceptions, the border films produced and exhibited have been commercial mainstream cinema financed and distributed by the major studios in the United States and Mexico. (…) Independent cinema, that is, films produced outside the confines of the major studios, tends to be more oriented toward aesthetic value or social issues, but for the most part has not addressed significant border issues. This situation has changed in the United States with the flowering of Chicano cinema. However, Mexican independent cinema, which has produced a number of outstanding films, has yet to contribute important feature films dealing with the U.S.-Mexican border. (cp. Maciel 1990: 4)

This concentration on profit has not only led to very repetitive plots in commercial border films from both Mexico and the U.S., but also to the “absence of screenplays which treat such contemporary critical border issues as labor, women, border society, and regional politics”. Instead, certain themes in border cinema, such as “westerns, crime, immigration, comedies, and, to a much lesser degree, (…) historical subjects”, “have remained static since their initial appearance” (cp. Maciel 1990: 5). Iglesias-Prieto explains that the constant repetition of plots, themes, and stereotypical image repertoires is a characteristic of commercial Mexican border cinema:

Border cinema has insisted on reappropriating characters, themes, situations, stereotypes, and actors. Instead of boring the spectator, the tactic seems to produce a phenomenon of “habit” and includes the pleasure of repetition. Thus, the repetition of the formula topics of migration and drugs is not seen by the audience as boring or negative. (Iglesias-Prieto 1999: 242)

In fact, quite to the contrary, the main target audience for these profit-oriented border films, “an audience who has a strong emotional link with the genre—along the U.S.–Mexico border and in the central part of Mexico”, “has repeatedly enjoyed reliving those adventures and suffering that a great many of them remember having experienced during their crossing into the United States” (Iglesias-Prieto 1999: 233, 242). Border films often present the crossing of the border southward as an easy passage, whereas crossings from the Mexican side to the U.S. are portrayed as being much more difficult to achieve (as in Gregory Nava’s border film El Norte, “one of the first films seen through the eyes of the immigrant characters within a larger critique of the dehumanization of capitalism and the exploitation of workers”, cp. Fojas 2008a: 170). According to Dell’Agnese, the U.S.-Mexican border can also be used as a geopolitical metaphor that symbolizes

not only the political separation between two sovereign states, but also (…) the fundamental divide between the Haves and the Have-Nots – that is, between the first world, which is easy to leave but inaccessible from outside, and the rest of the world, which is extraordinarily difficult to leave but easy to enter. (219)

In order to further explore the phenomenon of border cinema in general, as well as major differences and similarities between different types of U.S. American and Mexican border films and their representation of the U.S. border, borderlands, border crossings and crossers, it is useful to start by tracing the distinct evolution in both the United States and Mexico.23 Let’s begin with the U.S. American cinematographic imaginary of the U.S.-Mexico border(lands).

2.1 The View from the North: The U.S.-Mexico Border(lands) According to Hollywood

“Since the beginnings of cinema, Hollywood has depicted the U.S.-Mexico border as a lawless place ruled by a dark mythology, and home to every illicit activity and industry.” (Fojas 2008a: 183)

The U.S. borderlands, and the U.S.-Mexico border in specific, have been negatively mythologized throughout the 20th and early 21st century. As a good deal of this vision has been shaped by major Hollywood commercial productions, my discussion of U.S. American border cinema will mainly focus on these popular movies whose reach and range of influence are particularly striking. In Looking for the Other: Feminism, Film, and the Imperial Gaze (1997), E. Ann Kaplan explains Hollywood’s claim to provide universal images as follows:

Part of Hollywood’s imaginary self-construction is that it is not a national cinema, but a universal or global one. One can see this on a simple, literal level in the names Hollywood studios give to themselves—like “Paramount” and “Universal”. (…) [T]he “universal” imagery is meant to apply also to the characters and content of narratives, i.e., that these are universal human stories true all over the world. The globe symbols insist that Hollywood is not about Americans and American life, but about all human life and behavior. (57)

Elena Dell’Agnese argues that American popular culture has turned the U.S.-Mexican border into “a powerful icon, framed and reframed in the making of the complex narrative of national Self in its relation with the external Other” (218):

Along with the open spaces of the West and the fragmented spaces of New York and Los Angeles, the region surrounding the US–Mexico divide is probably one of the most frequently screened landscapes of North America. Along with them, it represents a way of ‘narrating’ the nation, that is, of embodying its features and qualities in a certain place, or image of place. However, the cinematic versions of Monument Valley and the North American cityscapes usually promote (or challenge) the many dimensions of the US national narrative, while the cinematic border – with its function of interfacing (what is considered to be) the Self with (what is considered to be) the Other – figures as a prominent feature in the making of a more internationally oriented geopolitical discourse, narrating the United States in its relations with the Outside. (Dell’Agnese 204–05)

“Border” not only meant Mexico for scholars, but also for filmmakers: “In titles of American movies, ‘border’ has consistently meant the U.S.-Mexican border” (Cortés 38). The word “border” in a U.S. movie title seems not only to imply the dividing line between the U.S. and Mexico, as if it was the border by definition, but also to address most notably to U.S. American audiences directly associating the southern (and not the northern!) national border. Examples date back as far as Francis Boggs’s 1909 silent short film On the Border, and include films such as Bordertown (1935), Border Patrol (1943), Border Incident (1949), The Border (1980), Borderline (1980), The Border (1982), as well as more recent examples such as On the Borderline (2001), Bordertown (2006), Borderland (2007), Border Lost (2008), Borderline (2009), Blood on the Border (2013), Bloody Border (2013), and Border Run (2013). These films “all deal with Mexico” and, more often than not, involve smuggling of drugs or people.24 “All carry the verbal weight of that particular border as a problem or contributor to problems,” Carlos E. Cortés contends:

Implicitly and sometimes explicitly, that border has served as a movie-hyped threat to U.S. society—a funnel for criminals, refugees and undocumented immigrants rather than as a political protector of a mythological American way of life. (38)

In comparison to the U.S.-Mexican border, the U.S.-Canadian border has received very little filmic attention by the U.S. American film industry. Klaus Dodds points out that only a few films, such as Michael Moore’s Canadian Bacon (1995) and Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog (1997), “satirised this border and its associated security implications” (567). From the Canadian side, rare examples such as Bruce McDonald’s Highway 61 (1991) have mirrored the relationship and cultural differences between Canada and the United States.25 Dodds explains:

In stark contrast to the southerly border of the United States, this was a border where illegal flows of people, drugs, weapons, and criminality were not seen as pervasive unless of course it involved Homer Simpson trying to smuggle drugs from Canada into his hometown of Springfield.26

Constructing a criminal haven and inferior “others” since the early days of film

The U.S.-American film industry has used the U.S.-Mexico border as a backdrop for criminal activities, such as drug or migrant smuggling, since the very early 20th century. As Gary D. Keller puts it in Hispanics and United States Film: An Overview and Handbook (1994): “From the first films the border and drugs appeared to go together like Soy Sauce and Wasabi (…). If it wasn’t drugs being smuggled, it was illegal aliens, often Orientals”. Keller argues that On the Border (1909, dir. Francis Boggs), “the first border story film of record, sets the tone for this type”.27 The silent short film, centered around an Anglo Vigilante Committee who secures the border by freeing the town from the badmen, portrays Mexico as a “refuge for those hardened criminal types of any nationality or breed that required a place to hide out for a while until things cooled off”. This can be explained by the fact that U.S. officers were not authorized to follow culprits across the border under the laws existing between the two nations at that time (cp. 85). In America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies (2009), Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin point out that “As early as the 1910s, Mexico had complained to Hollywood about its ongoing practice of negatively stereotyping Mexican and Mexican American characters” (145).

The first U.S. American films that associated the U.S.-Mexican border with the smuggling and interception of drugs, in these early days of cinema mostly opium, followed soon afterwards with silent films such as The Border Detective (1912), On the Border (1914), and Border Runner (1915). Keller points out that The Border Sheriff (1926, dir. Robert N. Bradbury) is considered the first film that links the border with drugs “as a reflection of international drug cartels”. In spite of further complaints by the Mexican government against the negative portrayal of Mexico and Mexicans in U.S. American films, such as Charlie Chaplin’s The Pilgrim (1923) and Clarence G. Badger’s The Bad Man (1930), the number of drug and other smuggling films even increased in the 1930s (cp. Keller 85–86). Dominique Brégent-Heald states:

Throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s, other Hollywood films focused on subduing a perceived racial threat—the smuggling of Chinese and Mexican laborers. Federal authorities in the United States had linked the trafficking of illegal substances, particularly the opium trade, with the unlawful cross-border immigration of Chinese workers. Responding to a North American climate of racism and nativism, Chinese-smuggling films similarly positioned the borders as both economic and racial divides, whose vulnerability necessitated enforcement on behalf of Anglo-American/Canadian authorities.28

Keller contends that undocumented immigration from Mexico “dates at least as early as the 1930 film, On the Border” (138). This film and other border films of the early 1930s, such as I Cover the Waterfront, depicted the smuggling of Chinese illegal immigrants across the Mexico-U.S. border. “The plot characteristic of Chinese illegals continued into the 1940s” (Keller 138). Brégent-Heald explains that

By the 1930s, the on-screen racialization of borders indicated a new concern over the smuggling of Mexican laborers across the U.S.-Mexican border. Prior to the First World War, there were no restrictions imposed on non-Asians crossing the U.S.-Mexican border.29

Film titles such as The Lawless Frontier (1934), Lawless Border (1935) etc. indicate that the border zone was first and foremost imagined as lawless and dangerous space. Hence, border films of the 1930s—such as On the Border (1930), God’s Country and the Man (1931), The Lone Defender (1934), Skull and Crown (1935), The Border Patrolman (1936), and El Diablo Rides (1939)—“increasingly featured protagonists who were representatives of U.S. federal authority, such as Border Patrol officers, customs and immigration agents, or G-men” (cp. Brégent-Heald 268). Brégent-Heald contends that the increasing appearance of heroic U.S. agents and officers in border films of the 1930s is related to the introduction of the Production Code in 1934, which not only led to the self-censorship of motion pictures, but also to their mission to “make clear to audiences that crime does not pay” (268). Furthermore, a cycle of so-called “B” Westerns “coded the Canadian and Mexican borders as places of instability” during the late 1930s and 1940s:

Beginning in the late 1930s, a cycle of B-Westerns appeared that depicted America’s long, permeable borders as ideal refuges for Axis spies and saboteurs, who then used the unguarded borders as convenient portals of entry into the United States. Through democracy ultimately prevails at the conclusion of these films, the presence of enemy agents upon America’s doorstep fostered a sense that the United States was under threat. For example, Border G-Man (1938), Pals of the Saddle (1938), and Death Rides the Range (1940) focus on the espionage and sabotage on the U.S.-Mexican border, while Valley of Hunted Men (1942) features Nazi POWS who escape the Canadian border into the neutral United States. (cp. Brégent-Heald 269)

Luis Reyes and Peter Rubie explain that the B Westerns of this period “had a great deal to do with creating a backlot Mexico that has passed into movie mythology”:

On the Republic Studios backlot or in most studios in Hollywood, there was a permanent standing set of a typical Mexican adobe town with a church, a plaza, a cantina, and a hacienda residence. This set was used to represent Mexico and the Southwest in hundreds of films. (cp. 3)

From the beginning of the U.S. film industry, there have been only very few films sympathetic to the Mexico-U.S. border, or to the inhabitants of the countries south of the border in general. Hollywood has perpetuated stereotypes for decades:

Most film portrayals of Hispanic and Latin American characters (i.e., those living south of the Mexico-U.S. border or those living in the U.S. having a Spanish heritage) by North Americans reflect the ignorance of the filmmakers and perpetuate myths that are for the most part negative. Banana republics, sleepy villages with lazy peons basking in the sun, uncivilized half-naked Indians, violent government coups spearheaded by cruel dictators, mustachioed bandits and beautiful senoritas, and the idea that one Anglo is worth ten Latinos are just some of the many stereotypical images most North Americans have of Latin America, Hispanics, and Hispanic Americans. (Reyes & Rubie 2)

Hispanic characters in the first decades of U.S. American film were most likely to be portrayed as “not only violent, but perversely so”; they were “either robbing, assaulting, kidnapping, smuggling, cheating, killing, or attempting murder” (Keller 71). According to Keller, “the earliest [U.S. American] films mostly catered to the dominant culture, usually the WASP power elite or sometimes farmers and ranchers, at the expense of out-groups,” including Native and Asian Americans, blacks, and Hispanics.30 Ramírez Berg identifies six basic and remarkably consistent Hollywood stereotypes of the Hispanic: el bandido, the halfbreed harlot, the male buffoon (ridiculed Hispanic characters, e.g. Pancho in “The Cisco Kid”), the female clown (e.g. Lupe Vélez, “a comic star in Hollywood in the 1930s”), the Latin lover, and the “mysterious, virginal, inscrutable, aristocratic” dark lady (cp. 112–16).31 The female stereotype of the halfbreed harlot, “a familiar stock figure in the American cinema, particularly in westerns,” corresponds to the Mexican bandit:

Like the bandit, she is a secondary character, and not always a halfbreed. She is lusty and hot-tempered, and her main function (…) is “to provide as much sexual titillation as current censorship standards will permit”. The Halfbreed Harlot is a slave to her passions; her character is based on the premise that she is a nymphomaniac. In true stereotypical fashion, motivation for her actions is not given—she is a prostitute because she likes to work, not because social or economic forces have shaped her life. (cp. Ramírez Berg 1997: 113).

Whereas Hispanic male characters typically functioned as a foil to the Anglo hero, the range of Hispanic female characters was even more limited because they served primarily “in relationship to an Anglo love interest”: “Outside of the parameters of romance or sex, there are virtually no roles for Hispanic females”. Keller points out that most of the female Hispanic characters in the first decades of U.S. American cinema were either depicted as cantina girls, faithful self-sacrificing señoritas, or vamps. The female vamp or temptress, “the most common female Hispanic type during the first decades of American film production,” was the counterpart to the male ‘bad Mexican’ (cp. Keller 44–48).32 Keller argues that the badmen role—which he labels as the ‘bad Mexican’, standing “by antonomasia for all the Hispanic villains”—was “pervasive in the first decades of American film, as was the Western film itself”:

The bad Mexican is, of course, very close to the bandit. However, there is an occupational difference. In contrast to the bandit, the bad Mexican opportunistically engages in some evil, almost always against Anglos. They are crooked gamblers, generals or other soldiers, hangers-on, merchants, lurkers, tramps, or landlords. While sometimes he simply wants money, power, or property, more often than not the bad Mexican is interested in satisfying his sexual desires in the basest manner. Usually the object of his lust is a white woman. (cp. 58)

And even the character type of the ‘good badman,’ Keller argues, “is more often than not, a bandit” (60). Ramírez Berg explains the function of such stereotypical characterizations as follows:

Viewed as a tool of the dominant ideology, the creation and perpetuation of stereotypes in the movies and in the media function to maintain the status quo by representing dominant groups as ‘naturally’ empowered and marginal groups as disenfranchised. In the case of the Hispanics, their portrayal as bandits and buffoons, whores and exotic clowns, Latin Lovers and Dark Ladies marks them as symbols of ethnic exclusion. (Ramírez Berg 1997: 111)

Many U.S. American silent films dealing with the U.S.-Mexico border obviously “reveal a racist contempt for Mexican history and, by extension, U.S. citizens of Mexican heritage” (Baugh 271). According to Fregoso, silent films played a significant role in “spreading a colonialist discourse” and in reinventing the “myth of racial homogeneity” (2003: 138):

It is clear that filmmakers drew from a wide repertoire of available social discourses, interweaving colonialist and pseudoscientific discourse of the nineteenth century with emerging political, social, and pseudoscientific paradigms of the new century. The association of Mexicans with violence derives from the convergence of colonialist ideology with twentieth-century political debates about the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and journalistic coverage of the war in Mexico; views about Mexicans as pathogens in the body politic stems from social anxieties about venereal disease on the borderlands; and constructions of Mexican criminality originate in the notion, propagated by the pseudoscience of eugenics, that “temperament and behavior” are generically linked to race. (Fregoso 2003: 141–42)

The Mexican Revolution constitutes an important historical event in the relations between Mexico and the United States, as it was one of the prime causes for the displacement of Mexicans to the U.S. The first massive immigration of Mexicans, known as the First Great Migration, occurred in the 1910s and 1920s, when an estimated number of 1.5 million people—about a tenth of Mexico’s population at that time—crossed the border from Mexico to the U.S. as a result of the Revolution.33 The Mexican Revolution, which occurred “just as the U.S. film industry began gaining power and prestige” (Baugh 271), “inspired the most recognizable villain in the American film Western canon, the Mexican bandit, or bandido” (Alonzo 46). Dominique Brégent-Heald argues that the “villainous mexicano stereotype in southwest border films intensified following the onset the Mexican Revolution”:

The emergence of Southern California as the epicenter of film production in the United States coincided with Mexico’s Revolutionary period (1910–20). Not only did this facilitate the ability of filmmakers to record the Revolutionary events occurring in the southwestern region, it also provided exciting source material for feature films. (cp. 261)

Claire F. Fox explains the strong impact of border images after the Revolution with the rise of new forms of visual media in the U.S., namely feature-length films, newsreels, and picture postcards:

With such media coverage of the Revolution, images of the border figured prominently. Many key battles were fought on the Mexican sides of border twin cities, because they were strategically valuable points of entry for arms from the United States as well as collection sites for customs duties. The images of the U.S.–Mexico border of this era mark the emergence of an allegorical way of seeing the region that (…) continues to be invoked to this day. According to this allegorical model, the border is a synecdoche of the nations it divides. That is, developments on the border are perceived to be symptomatic of the overall status of U.S.–Mexico relations, and the importance of border events is presented from the point of view of national actors rather than local inhabitants. This process of marking the border as an internationally strategic site also involved representing it as a militarized zone, rather than merely as a haven for individual deviants, as it had been portrayed in the Western genre. (69)

This new mass media coverage in the U.S. focused on binary oppositions (such as Anglo/Mexican, civilization/barbarism etc.) in order to distinguish Mexico and Mexicans from the U.S. and U.S. Americans. As a marker of difference, Fox contends, the border “became an overnight celebrity” (70). She points out that “borders figured prominently in the United States as symbols of conflict and conflict resolution” throughout the Mexican Revolution, which “has proven to be an extremely elastic vehicle for representing any number of political positions” (cp. Fox 72, 85–86). According to Arbeláez, “North American moviemakers made the 1910–20 Mexican Revolution a never-ending source of cinematic storytelling” (2008: 50). Thereby, U.S. cinema “has tended to reduce the numerous regional tendencies of the Revolution into two opposing camps, which makes it easy to distinguish the ‘good side’ from the ‘bad side’” (Fox 86). Mexican revolutionaries, such as Francisco Villa (also known as Pancho Villa) and Emiliano Zapata, have mostly been depicted negatively, as bandidos. Even in more favorable representations, they were most certainly depicted “in subordinate relations to Anglo mercenaries, depending upon the status of U.S.–Mexico relations in a given historical period” (cp. Fox 86). According to Fojas, the historical character of Francisco Villa, who has been “framed either as a villain or a hero of the Mexican revolution”, is “perhaps the most infamous Mexican bandit and screen legend”.34

Not surprisingly, “The U.S. fantasy vision of the border during the Mexican Revolution has been constructed largely without the inclusion of a Mexican point of view” (Fox 94). Instead, as Kim Newman puts it: “The essential for most American-made sagas of the Mexican Revolution is (…) a gringo character to stand in for the audience”.35 Movies about the Mexican Revolution not only provided the U.S. American public with “powerful images of the region, but also produced a popular discourse about the geopolitical reasons for the events”, as Dell’Agnese points out:

In 1916 alone, seven feature films were released that explicitly dealt with military mobilisation on the border. They were quite racist productions in which Mexicans were represented as ‘greasers’ and amply vilified, while the Americans were generally shown as heroes. (cp. 205)

Fox contends that silent movies produced during the era following Pancho Villa “gave rise to a system of representing the border in U.S. popular culture that drew heavily upon notions of citizenship and militarism” (12). “In the realm of popular culture,” Alonzo argues, “the revolution and its figures form the iconic material from which cinematic stereotypes of greasers, bandits, and revolutionaries take their inspiration” (2009: 4).

Western heroes vs. greasers, villains, bandits, revolutionaries, and half-breeds

The first archetypical stereotype of the U.S.-Mexican border, the bandido, transformed into villains in the first silent Westerns (cp. Gozalbo Felip 150). According to Alonzo, the emergence of the so-called Western “myth-hero” during the 1910s goes along with the formation of the oppositional Mexican villain character:

The “myth-hero” is the center of the Western, for he is the highest representative of Anglo-American values and he is the embodiment of the “Myth of the Frontier.” That American film founded the Western hero at this historical moment is significant for Mexican representation, for this is also the moment when the film industry conflated the Mexican revolutionary with the bandit. If the early Western positions the Mexican as the nemesis the hero must overcome, then this binary placement is further emphasized by the threat that the Mexican Revolution instantiated in Hollywood filmmakers’ imagination. (2009: 54)

Before the invention of film, Mexicans have been degraded in U.S. American literature. In Badmen, Bandits, and Folk Heroes: The Ambivalence of Mexican American Identity in Literature and Film, Juan J. Alonzo argues that Mexican masculinity has been represented in “several significant cinematic and literary incarnations, namely, in the characters of the ‘greaser,’ bandit, revolutionary, ‘badman,’ and social deviant”:

The Mexican male as a villainous figure appears as early as 1840s conquest fiction, but his enduring presence is owed to the concurrent emergence of the cinema in the United States at the turn of the century, to the consequent wholesale adaptation of previous literary stereotypes, and to the eruption of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. (cp. 2009: 3)

These negative figures as greasers, badmen, social deviants etc. “emerged at different historical junctures and articulated the ambivalent relation between American culture and Mexican masculinity” (Alonzo 2009: 166). Mexicans were equated with violence and criminality as a way to reinforce Anglo-American superiority—racially as well as morally—and to justify the conquest of northern Mexico (today’s U.S. Southwest):

The line connecting the conquest fiction of the nineteenth century to the modern pulp westerns set in the Southwest is direct and obvious. Action, plot, and characters remain the same: Anglo heroes best Mexican bandidos, blonde heroines compete with Castilian dark ladies for honorable marriages, and sexy halfbreeds more explicitly bed, but still rarely wed, the Saxon hero. (Pettit 111)

As Allen L. Woll puts it: “Whenever Mexicans are placed in conflict with North Americans, the Yankee always wins, owing to his superior moral quality and innate intelligence” (1977: 9). The racist stereotype of the greaser “easily fed a host of ready-made characters into Hollywood which produced more than 300 ‘Mexican’ themed movies during its first decade” (List 31):

Early Westerns frequently portrayed “Injuns” and Mexicans or “greasers” (who were generally perceived by the public as any character of Latino origin hailing from either Spain, Argentina, Cuba or even Brazil […]) as dishonorable villains, slithering and conniving bad guys. Fast on the heels of the mythic Latin lover, so popular during the first attempts at onscreen drama and romance comes the negative depiction of Latinos viewed through the film-lens, a perspective perpetuating o the silver screen one of history’s most infamous racial slurs to date: The Greaser. The Latino Hollywood community has come a long way by battling it out with the poncho-wearing, burro-riding, knife-wielding, gun-toting, lazy sombrero-over-the-face, siesta-sleeping, tequila-drinking and señorita-chasing stereotype portrayed by most early films, especially Westerns. (Rivera-Viruet & Resto 65)

The U.S.-Mexico border was associated to the figure of the greaser as early as in 1908. Keller points out that D.W. Griffith’s The Greaser’s Gauntlet (1908), “a tale of the Mexican border”, is the “first American film to use the epithet greaser in the title” (cp. 28, 16). In the 1910s, the term “greaser” appeared in the titles of many U.S. American movies, such as Ah Sing and the Greasers (1910), Tony, the Greaser (1911), The Greaser and the Weakling (1912), The Girl and the Greaser (1913), The Greaser’s Revenge (1914), Bronco Billy and the Greaser (1914), Licking the Greasers (1914), or, simply, The Greaser (1915). The greaser movies of this period “played on the association of Latinos and criminality, often portraying a roving Mexican outlaw whose main occupations consisted of every vice imaginable” (Fojas 2008a: 5). As Bender puts it:

Hollywood embraced the ‘greaser’ label to describe its unflattering creation of despicable Mexicans who robbed, raped, and murdered their way through the Southwest. (xiv)

Keller points out that the depiction of so-called “half-breeds” and other “mixed-bloods” in U.S. films was similar to the portrayal of greasers, “and in some cases the term half-breed is simply synonymous to greaser”. But, “in contrast to greasers, where males overwhelmingly predominated, there were numerous half-breed women”. Furthermore, half-breeds were “almost always of mixed Hispanic-American Indian ancestry, very rarely of Anglo-American Indian background” and all male half-breeds were presented as villains (cp. Keller 91). According to Keller, these racial attitudes toward half-breeds in the early film period can be best summarized with the term “mongrelization”:

Half-breeds, such as mulattoes, were among the worst, most deplorable human types. Part and parcel of this attitude was the great fear of miscegenation, which at the same time produced considerable titillation in films. Many of the period films have “fate worse than death” scenes, which typically used some mongrelized character as a would-be rapist. Attempted, but usually unconsummated, interracial rape was a speciality of early film. (33)

The large number of Westerns and Indian films produced by the U.S. American film industry has made a major contribution to the depiction of race and ethnicity and determined the selection of specific minority groups. Often, dime novels and pulp magazine stories were adapted to film, “many using Mexicans or Indians as foils to Anglo heroes and heroines” (cp. Keller 29). Fojas argues that Duel in the Sun (1946, dir. King Vidor) “establishes one of the primary tropes of the border genre in that the international line allegorizes the boundaries between races”36:

The depiction of interracial relationships sets the terms for the political objectives of border narratives to either subjugate the racial other through assimilation as a second-class citizen (…)—or to depict the racial other as an outlaw character, either a bandit or a loose woman, who must be eliminated. (Fojas 2008a: 31)

Keller identifies seven different categories within the Western film genre: “the cattle empire, the ranch, the revenge, the cowboy-versus-Indians, the outlaw, the law-and-order, and the conquest story” (31). The portrayal of Mexicans and Native Americans in these Westerns “matched the formulas that prevailed in the dime novels and pulp fiction” (Keller 31–32):

In Western films set in the southwestern frontier, mexicanos frequently filled the role of the melodramatic villain. Western films correspondingly demonized other marginalized racial groups, namely “half-breeds” and “bloodthirsty Indians,” who often operated in cahoots with mexicanos to menace the expanding Anglo-American settler population. (…) The on-screen vilification of Mexicans was not without precedent. As early as in the sixteenth century, the English along with the Dutch slandered the Spaniards, claiming that their imperial rivals were barbaric and racially impure, giving rise to the so-called Black Legend, which then migrated to Spain’s New World colonies. (Brégent-Heald 260)

Border Westerns

The large number of film titles such as A Romance of the Rio Grande (1911), Romance of the Rio Grande (1929), Rio Grande (1920; 1950), South of the Rio Grande (1932; 1945), Across the Rio Grande (1949), Rio Grande Patrol (1950), and Rio Bravo (1950; 1959) indicates that many Westerns take place in the U.S.-Mexican transborder region. These border Westerns, Fojas points out, all refer to “the use of the river as a natural demarcation between nations rather than the result of war” (2008b: 45). The Rio Grande (or Río Bravo, as it is named on the Mexican side) border region is a common Western setting that is “repeatedly depicted as an open landscape of vast wilderness in order to emphasise the regenerating role of the frontier experience”.37 In U.S. American Westerns, the border to Mexico often symbolizes “the line of the law”:

The border was a common setting in feature films almost from the beginning of commercial cinema. Westerns set in “border towns” were a popular subgenre in the early teens and continued to be produced after the Revolution. These did not specifically explore the border as a geographical region; rather, they exploited the narrative possibilities of a dual legal system. They depicted U.S. border towns as zones of (relative) lawlessness, while the “other side” was simply coded as the absence of law altogether. (Fox 76)

“Since The Caballero Way, an early silent film about the Cisco Kid,” Dell’Agnese points out, “westerns set in Mexico have become sufficiently numerous to represent a specific subgenre of their own right”.38 Mexico plays an important role as a setting in the Western genre, “it is a place the central characters move in and/or out of” (Robards 66):

In many western films the Rio Grande represents crossing over to a place where both the guilty and the wrongly accused can escape the Law (e.g. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). Most often the border crosser in westerns merely passes from one violent space to another. This is because it is not the side of the border that is important to the western, but rather, in the western genre the entire border region is delineated as a space where men who can’t or won’t fit into civilization go to act out their lowest desires. (List 32)

“By their very name,” Fojas argues, “Westerns are a genre of western expansionism, of a manifest destiny west of the Mississippi River” (2008a: 28).39 In Wild West Movies: How the West was found, won, lost, lied about, filmed and forgotten, Newman contends that “[t]he story of the Western is the story of America”:

Although formed by folk tales, national dreams, popular songs, yellow press reportage, dime fiction and outright lies, the Western is rooted in the historical realities of what took place during the gradual advance Westward, in the nineteenth century, of the United States of America. While couched in terms of the coming of civilization, the rise of law and order or the establishment of community values, the Western is essentially about conquest. Cavalries conquer the Indians, pioneers conquer the wilderness, lawmen conquer outlaws and individuals conquer their circumstances. But with each conquest, another stretch of territory, whether geographical or philosophical, comes under the hegemony of the United States of America. (xv)

The Western genre is not only the quintessential U.S. American film genre par excellence but also “possibly the longest lasting one of all” – facts that point to “America’s fascination with the frontier as a site of hope for something new and better” (Hayward 498). As Peter C. Rollins and John E. O’Connor put it in Hollywood's West: The American Frontier in Film, Television, and History: “There is no more characteristic American art from than the Western film” (1). The Western “must be cited as one of the building blocks of filmmaking, a genre possibly as old as moving pictures, cameras, screens, and projectors” (Merlock ix). The most archetypical genre in U.S. American cinema was born, as the name already indicates, in the Western border area of the United States, the so-called “frontier”, where the nation expanded its territory by conquest:

A central trope of Anglo-American desire for conquest and westward expansion, “frontier” metaphorically signifies ‘no-man’s-land (better yet, ‘no-white-man’s-land,’ as in the Western genre), namely territories outside of white men’s jurisdiction and, therefore, land available for private appropriation. (Fregoso 1993: 66)

Because of the association of Westerns with the U.S. westward expansion (and “uncivilized” territory to be conquered), the film genre “has rarely been identified with the southern frontier, though the relationship of U.S. citizens to Mexico and Mexicans is a dominant trope of the genre,” Fojas explains: “Many Westerns make use of the border region, many cross the border, and many make the southern U.S. frontier a major character in the story” (2008a: 28). Thereby, Mexico is assigned various significations:

it represents a victorious sign of territorial expansion (…) but it also represents the possibility of loss, of the need to continually defend the national frontier from hostile invasion or re-annexation. Mexico is often depicted as a racialized and primitive wilderness where Western male heroes go to reinvigorate their masculinity—often with the help of Mexican or “Indian” women; where mixed race characters and relationships are common, and it often represents the uncivilized past of the United States, the idyllic land that, during post–Civil War era stories, replaces the terrain just beyond the Western frontier. (Fojas 2008b: 46)

According to Fojas, the southern frontier is “one of the most emotionally charged zones of the United States, second only to its historical predecessor and partner, the western frontier”. By the early 20th century, “the western frontier had lost some of its representational power to the southern frontier” (cp. Fojas 2008a: 2, 184):

The southern line replaced the western frontier as a major organizing symbol of popular culture because it defined the nation on different, more modern terms: the United States was now bounded, limited, and exclusive. Hollywood used the border to symbolize the expansion of the global power and influence of the United States and convey its messianic duty to international “protection” and “assistance” through intervention. (Fojas 2008a: 29)

“With the demise of the mythology of the [western] frontier,” Fojas argues, “the cowboy and outlaw alike lost dominion over the West”:

[O]ut-maneuvered by the railroad and other technological innovations, the man of the West sought to reinstitute his potency by traveling south and fixing things to his principles in Mexico. By traveling over the border and around Mexico, the cowboy, ex-cavalryman, or ex-soldier returned to his rightful place in the moral universe of the Western. Moreover, in the borderlands and in Mexico he could find women, unsullied by the liberties of urban life, who would support the hero in his plight. (cp. 2008a: 81)

The border between Mexico and the U.S. became the “new frontier of U.S. national identity”: “From the Alamo to the Civil War to the French invasion of Mexico,” Fojas argues, “all the major battles of the Western occur somewhere along the shifting line between the United States and Mexico” (2008a: 81–82). Some “lost battles of history”, such as the Alamo40, “are replayed on the border to conclusions that restore confidence in the “American way”:

Hollywood border films do important social work: they offer a cinematic space through which viewers can manage traumatic and undesirable histories and ultimately reaffirm core “American” values. At the same time, these border narratives shape “proper” identification with a singular and exceptional moral hero who might register anywhere from maverick to vigilante. These stories delineate opposing values and ideas –for instance, the proper from the improper and the citizen from the unwanted guest or “alien.”(cp. Fojas 2008a: 2)

Westerns often “depicted the hostile takeover of the Southwest by the United States as a benevolent and just endeavor by hardy pioneers” (Fojas 2008a: 18). Fojas describes the border in Westerns as “a place where mythic national icons are lionized, including the Texas Rangers, the cavalry, the border patrol and the hardy Anglo settlers of the Southwest” (2008a: 29):

The emergence of the southern frontier defined the United States against Mexico and the rest of Latin America while it signified U.S. prominence as a military power. The southern frontier activates a distinctly North American sense of nationalism as limit and defense, an idea that resounds throughout the border genre; the United States is viewed in border Westerns as a place of both limits and limitations and of regulations and restrictions, while Mexico is depicted without limits, laws or restrictions. In many Westerns, the border replaces the western frontier and provides a different line of access to the freedoms that once typified the roaming frontiersman. (Fojas 2008a: 28)

According to Fojas, post–World War II Westerns “comprise the most popular Westerns, the epitome of the genre” (2008a: 17):

In many post–World War II border Westerns, the border is little more than an imaginary line in the desert or naturally existing river that functions as a major political referent for each side of the hemisphere. (…) At the height of the Western genre, the border was a defining symbol by which audiences could explore and monitor the dynamics and tensions of U.S. relations to Mexico in particular and to the rest of the hemisphere in general. Border Westerns remythologize the major events of history toward a more favorable outcome for the United States. (…) Yet, the historical circumstances that led to changes in the size and power of the United States are not part of the overt narrative or story discourse. Rather, they are encoded in the stories in plotlines that follow a mythic historical line: all battles were won, new territories are swiftly integrated, racial and ethnic outsiders assimilate without complaint, and the cowboy, Texas Ranger, and cavalry continue to reign over the Southwest. (2008a: 184)

In the Western, Newman argues, “Mexico boils down to two things, fiestas and la revolución, usually separately, but occasionally, as in Old Gringo (1989), at the same time”:

For the most part, the traditional Western prefers to deal with a pleasant fantasy of Mexico rather than the even more colourful but contradictory historical reality. The earliest Westerns were much tainted by a racist attitude towards Mexicans, fuelled perhaps by Pancho Villa’s contemporary raiding along the border.41

Interestingly, the Canadian border(lands) and Canada were similarly reduced to stereotypical representations in U.S. American Westerns:

If Mexico has been represented in the Western by two simplified clichés, then Canada has suffered from an even more limited image. Almost all Canadian-set Westerns are concerned exclusively with the doings of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, deemed cinematic by virtue of their red tunics, Boy Scout hats and determination to ‘get their man’. Prior to 1920 – when most Mountie movies are set – the force was known as the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, and confined its activities to the trackless wildernesses of the Western half of the country. (…) Away from the Mounties, the only area in which Canada impinges much on the Western is in dramas of gold-prospecting in the Frozen North, which frequently blur the distinctions between the Klondike and Alaskan goldfields, and which mainly present a vision of lawless communities much like the wide-open cow-towns of the Western proper. Most of these are solidly American in their themes, concerns and attitudes, and movies as varied as The Alaskan (1924)[,] (…) Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925), the John Wayne vehicle North to Alaska (1960) and Nicolas Roeg’s Eureka (1981) view Canada as just a stopping point on the way to more of America. (Newman 159–62)

Although the number of Westerns and other border films set in the U.S.-Mexican borderlands exceeds the quantity of films set in the U.S.-Canada border zones by large, and despite iconographic differences within and between the border regions, Hollywood cinema has generally tended to screen “the tension between closed borders and open borderlands by dramatizing the process by which dynamic frontiers became borders” (Brégent-Heald 250). U.S. American Westerns set in the U.S.-Canadian borderlands used a repertoire of stereotypical characterizations and images that can be compared to the misrepresentations of the U.S.-Mexico border:

While Canada’s Northwest Mounted Police perpetually secured the 49th parallel by pacifying Indians, half-breeds, and criminals, on the U.S.-Mexico border, cowboys and rangers subdued Indians, mestizos, Mexicans, and outlaws. The popular image of the Mounties as the police officers of the northwestern frontier served as a filmic model for representations of the Texas Rangers on the southwestern frontier.42

Fojas argues that the popularity of the U.S.-Mexico border, “a symbol of national order and control”, in Westerns throughout the 20th and early 21st century has coincided with political concerns, “particularly the control of the national labor market, immigration from the south, and the troubled relationship with Mexico” (2008b: 45).

Undocumented immigration from Mexico and the modern version of the Western: Anglo buddy cops vs. ‘illegal aliens,’ ‘bad guys,’ and drug traffickers from the South

“The migration of workers toward the United is the first, and perhaps the most important theme in the entire history of border film,” Iglesias-Prieto argues (1998: 146). The short film Her Last Resort (1912) is considered to be the first U.S.-American film on the theme of immigration from Mexico. However, the short Western The Mexican (1914, dir. Tom Mix) is “the single other silent immigration film” (cp. Maciel & García-Acevedo 165). In the late 1940s and 1950s, border films such as Border Incident (1949, dir. Anthony Mann), Borderline (1950, dir. William A. Seiter), The Lawless (1950, dir. Joseph Losey), and Wetbacks (1956, dir. Hank McCune) began to address the Mexican immigrant experience in the U.S., “even though they often functioned as passive pawns to incite Anglo crime and Anglo crime-fighting” (Keller 138). According to Maciel and García-Acevedo, Border Incident is “one of the—if not the—best Hollywood immigration films ever” (168). Dell’Agnese states that Anthony Mann’s film-noir was “the benchmark for a long series of American movies dealing with crossing the border from the Mexican side”:

Since its release, Hollywood productions have shown going to El Norte as a question of legality/illegality, immigration, smuggling and law-enforcement – a set of issues never tackled when moving in the opposite direction.43

Border Incident not only shows the exploitation of braceros, undocumented Mexican farmworkers who are smuggled into California, but also how Mexican and U.S. American authorities fight the illegal smuggling of Mexican workers together. Maciel and García-Acevedo contend that the film is exceptional because otherwise

Hollywood immigration films have not revealed much of the human dimension of Mexican immigrants, nor have they reflected or portrayed the substantial contributions that Mexican immigrants have made to the U.S. economy and to the social and cultural matrix of the nation. In fact, although the immigrants are presumably central to the narratives of the films, they are nonexistent as visible characters. Immigrants are only portrayed as defenseless people who are in dire need of a white champion to come to their aid. In such cinematic representations, reference to the white man’s burden is clearly transmitted. (195–96)

Since the 1960s, several border films have dealt with undocumented immigration, an issue of much public debate in these decades. Even though “a new wave of films emerged” in this era, “the theme of passive Mexican immigrants being saved by noble Anglos continued to dominate,” Keller explains:

None of these Hollywood treatments have ever risen above the mediocre. The films of the 1980s have scarcely improved upon the first of the lot in terms of veracity, character development, or esthetics. Hollywood indocumentado pictures have never surpassed the limitations of the social problem genre as originally conceived in the 1930s and 1940s.44

In the 1980s, Hollywood films such as The Border (also known as The Blood Barrier and Border Cop; 1980, dir. Christopher Leitch), Borderline (1980, dir. Jerrold Freedman), and The Border (1982, dir. Tony Richardson), and Flashpoint (1984, dir. William Tannen) portrayed the U.S.-Mexico border as “a porous border region that featured a ceaseless influx of Latin American immigrants, the corruption of the border police, and drug trafficking”. “Although these films showed some of the problems Latinos faced in trying to assimilate,” Mario Alberto Velázquez points out, “the main focus was on the cultural barriers that compelled them to remain separate” (170). In Freedman’s Borderline, “the first major contemporary Hollywood genre film on the theme of Mexican immigration,” the characters “are all secondary to the hero and the villain,” Maciel and García-Acevedo argue: “The undocumented workers, the supposed subject matter of the story, are the least developed” (cp. 170–71). “They have no names, personal histories, motivations, nor feelings. The reasons for their ordeal or circumstances are never revealed” (Maciel 1990: 56). Leitch’s The Border focuses on Jack Nicholson as good-hearted border agent, while the undocumented immigrant only serves as a “screen for the ‘good values’ of the border guard” (Fojas 2008a: 102). In Flashpoint, “there is no representation of immigrants, who are tellingly referred to as ‘imaginary illegal aliens’” (Fojas 2008a: 100). The Border and Borderline —“the most wide-reaching Hollywood statements on the issues of Mexican immigration to date”—were not screened in Mexican theaters, however:

Government officials found the films degrading to Mexico and enforced a law which stipulates that no cultural or media production offensive to the country shall be exhibited in movie theaters. (cp. Maciel & García-Acevedo 174)

Maciel argues that “Hollywood has not produced other movies on Mexican immigration” since the release of these two films (1990: 61). From the silent-film era to the present, Hollywood films on Mexican migration and the border have followed a “basic discursive formula, a modified version of the western in which the hero struggles valiantly against gangs involved in the trafficking of undocumented workers”. Of course, the Anglo hero invariably defeats the gangs at the end. Instead of dealing with the Mexican immigrant experience, this aspect is “always vague and the least developed (…) of the film”. Hollywood immigration movies have “a clear policy message: the importance of the control of our southern border and the need to institutionalize a campaign against the smuggling of undocumented workers”. These films, in which women are always given secondary characters, “do not offer any alternative solutions to Mexican undocumented immigration” and are, “without an exception, a vehicle for a traditional action story for the principal star, be it Tom Mix or Jack Nicholson” (cp. Maciel & García-Acevedo 164–65).

Fojas uses the term “Bordersploitation” to refer to Hollywood border films of the early 1980s, in which “we are drawn into sympathy with the corrupt [U.S. American] agents and made to understand the motives behind their corruption” (2008a: 95):

In these border films, our sympathies are aligned with the populist figure of the border agent, who, during a time of incredible affluence, is overworked and underpaid. The main stars are a pair of buddies, one of whom loses his life on the job, leaving the lone-ranger hero to accomplish the moral mission of the narrative with his new partner, the viewer, in tow. (Fojas 2007: 97)

These buddy-cop plots usually feature “at least one border cop who is sympathetic to the migrants’ struggles”. In doing so, “The liberal discourse of the film rests on this exceptional figure whose heroism and humanism redeem him and the U.S. policing efforts along the border” (Fojas 2008a: 84). These Hollywood narratives frequently focus on the “need for better and stronger frontier security,” Fojas contends. The conservative perspective of the main protagonists is representing the lower middle class: “The border patrol agents are depicted as losing power both individually and in their professions; their loss of control parallels the lowered defenses of the nation” (cp. 2008a: 85). According to Fojas, “the ostensible migration narrative that becomes a thin veneer for the real story about the demise of the Western hero” is “the primary marker of the 1980s Hollywood narrative” (2007: 87):

By the 1980s, the Western has gained a new guise as the border film in which the cowboy returns as the border patrolman and the sheriff as an agent of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). (…) The border films of the 1980s share a post-1965 preoccupation with issues of immigration, particularly relating to fears of increased immigration from Mexico. (Fojas 2008a: 19)

Hollywood border films of the 1980s “stage immigrant disruptions to national identity in story lines drawn from a cinematic repertoire of ‘American’ good guys: vigilantes, cowboys, and buddy cops,” while male border crossers are presented as ‘bad guys’ and ‘illegal aliens’ who “infiltrate the national body as carriers of cultural, economic, and political ills” (cp. Fojas 2007: 80):

The majority of male border crossers are never fully humanized subjects, but are meaningful as a sign of the cops’ unhappiness, sacrifice, and noble good. Border films of the 1980s depict these officers as maverick individuals and humane bearers of the law, whereas the undocumented immigrants are sub-human and massified by the joint features of race and working-class clothing. The subjection of the immigrant reassures the viewer that the border zone is under control and that the laws protect against the conflicts and crises of national identity. 1980s-style border films play on society’s unconscious associations and inchoate fears of borderlands by invoking the bottom line, the cost to the taxpayer. (Fojas 2007: 94)

Fojas argues that “the racial division in border films is drawn across national boundaries, where Anglo buddy cops bond against racial invaders from south of the Rio Bravo” (2007: 89). The U.S. American hero in the Hollywood border films of the 1980s is always central, usually handles the situation from the U.S. side of the border, and falls in love with the female ‘illegal’ in need of his help or protection. The difficult circumstances, the risks, and the brutality the undocumented immigrants face clearly suggest a “‘stay at home’ discourse” (cp. Dell’Agnese 210). Moreover, the female immigrant was typically portrayed as “a singular hapless victim of a changing world”:

She often represents industriousness, old-world values, and familial bonds; our sympathies are reserved for her. This split in depictions allows the viewer to maintain a sympathetic position while simultaneously holding contempt for the “illegal alien.” (cp. Fojas 2008a: 86)

Fojas argues that female immigrants in Hollywood border films of this era embodied “the moral imperative of migration to restore the family unit, while male immigrants are bent on destroying it, typically through drug trafficking” (2007: 87).

By the late 1980s, drug trafficking became one of the favored tropes of Hollywood border cinema, evident in films such as Extreme Prejudice (1987, dir. Walter Hill), Deep Cover (1992, dir. Bill Duke), and Clear and Present Danger (1994, dir. Phillip Noyce), to name only three examples. Extreme Prejudice can be considered an updated version of Hollywood’s “action westerns with the fair-hair Anglo hero against the sleazy, corrupt, and cruel Mexican villains”; the plot is “silly and totally senseless” (Maciel 1990: 61). Velázquez explains that the increased presence of narco-trafficking from Mexico to the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s was quickly embraced by the U.S. movie industry:

The movie industry quickly adopted the character of the Mexican or Colombian drug trafficker as the new Latino villain. Some of the first films to do this were Code of Silence (1985), Stick (1985), Stand Alone (1986), Running Scared (1986), and Scarface (1985). Risk theory shows that it is necessary to construct motives that justify the exclusion of the other. These films show one of them: Latinos associated with drugs and criminal behavior. The principal character in Scarface, Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is the prototype. The contaminated other, the Mexican villain in the border region, is now represented by the well-dressed city boy. (171)

The U.S.-Mexico border in Hollywood movies not only demanded the policing of undocumented immigrants by the late 1980s, but “became the subject of full-scale war”:

By the late 1980s, the war on drugs had reached Hollywood with a vengeance. The border patrol, DEA agents, and Texas Rangers in border drug trafficking films provide cultural redemption from the moral degradation of a globalization that opens borders and lets in agents of an evil Latin American drug empire. (cp. Fojas 2008a: 185)

The Latin American gangster/drug dealer, as well as juvenile delinquents and gangs45 in these films—further incarnations of the bandido stereotype—became popular antagonists for the heroic U.S. American characters representing the law (FBI, DEA, etc.) – a confrontation that has been repeated over and over again, down to the present day:

Each film plays out the same drama and the same topoi again and again, as if the work of the first incarnation was left unfinished and the borders were a national wound that refused to heal. The borderlands are containers of traumatic material and unassimilated histories repeated endlessly in the dream work of Hollywood cinema. The current slate of border films and television dramas – Extreme Prejudice (1987), Deep Cover (1992), Traffic (2000), Blow (2001), Kingpin (NBC 2003), and A Man Apart (2003) – reopen the trauma of Hollywood film and television border images. The US is again heroic, and though Latinos are represented with greater nuance, this is not achieved without sacrifices, without reactivating a Hollywood history of the dark mythology of the borderlands that intensify phobias about external threats to national health and “homeland security.” (Fojas 2007: 98)

The “narc hero”—typically a U.S. American undercover cop, DEA agent, border patrolman, or Texas Ranger, is characterized by “deeply ‘American’ values of righteousness, enterprise, autonomy, and initiative”; he is the “last man standing, the lone cowboy with a moral mission in the midst of borderless free trade or globalization without boundaries”. While “relieving the United States of responsibility for its role as a consumer nation in the perpetuation of drug trade,” narco-border films usually “target Latin American nations as producers and suppliers of drugs” (cp. Fojas 2008a: 111–12):

Contemporary border films locate the responsibility of the “drug menace” in Latin America, either for the region’s lack of cooperation in the “war on drugs” or for its perceived enabling of the production and distribution of contraband headed to a U.S. market. (Fojas 2011: 98)

The Hollywood border drug trafficking films of the 1980s—from today’s perspective, “boosterish and boorishly nationalistic” stories (Fojas 2007: 98)—suggested a connection between drugs, terrorism, and border patrol that continues to “shape the cultural agenda into the present”:

These modern Westerns achieve resolution by eliminating the remainders and reminders of U.S. wars of intervention, particularly Vietnam, and by knocking off the Latin/o American drug kingpin. A major plotline in all of these films and media involves the work of a narc hero, someone who acts alone and according to an internal moral imperative to bring down drug-trafficking kingpins, suggesting that deep-rooted and complex drug trade issues are readily “solvable” through the U.S.-sponsored war on drugs. (…) Hollywood drug trafficking films do not address changes in dynamics across the Americas that severely undercut the division between producer and consumer nations. The war on drugs is not reframed, but reinvigorated with the redeployment of the same tropes. (Fojas 2008a: 142)


1 The U.S.-Mexico borderlands extend beyond the nearly 2,000-mile-long international border reaching from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico, encompassing the vast territory of the present-day U.S. Southwest—including Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and California—, as well as the northern Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, Coahuila, Chihuahua, Durango, Sinaloa, Sonora, and Baja California (cp. Wood xvii). For an overview of U.S.-Mexican border history, culture, and politics, see Andrew G. Wood’s Encyclopedia of Culture and Politics on the U.S.–Mexico Divide (2008).

2 This study employs the terms “United States”/“U.S.” and “U.S. American” rather than “America”/“American” to refer to the United States of America and its inhabitants, unless the author cited speaks of “America”. The terms “America” and “Americans” are applied to refer to the continent of the Americas and its inhabitants, including Latin America(ns) as well as Canada(ians).

3 An estimated number of 350 million people cross the U.S.-Mexican border legally every year, making it the busiest land border on our globe (cp. AFP 2010). In The Borders of Inequality: Where Wealth and Poverty Collide (2011), Íñigo Moré Martínez points out that “[i]t would be necessary to add up half a dozen borders from any other place in the world to reach the dimensions of activity between Mexico and the United States” (100). Fernando Romero labels the world’s busiest border as hyperborder: “Long-standing differences between the standards of living and economies of the neighboring nations—as well as their geographical proximity—have provided the framework for a border shaped by numerous complexities and unique levels of hyperactivity. Crime, corruption, free trade, urbanization, resource scarcity, migration, border control, death, and environmental degradation are just some of the influences that have come to define the nature of the hyperborder, making the boundary unique in the contemporary world for the breadth of issues confronting it” (42).

4 “The Mexican Revolution refers to a series of armed conflicts, social reformations, and cultural changes that occurred in Mexico beginning in 1910 with democracy advocate Francisco Madero’s call for armed struggle against the dictatorial regime of Porfirio Díaz. The Revolution extended into the 1920s though much of its fervor subsided with the signing of a new constitution in 1917 under President Venustiano Carranzo. While autonomous insurrections occurred throughout Mexico, the majority of armed conflict centered on two stages, one in the south, under the leadership of Emiliano Zapata, and the other in the north, lead by Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa” (Goble 151).

5 Cp. Naficy 2001: 313. Hamid Naficy refers to Iglesias-Prieto’s paper titled “Representations of the Frontier” presented at the Society for Cinema Studies Conference in San Diego in April 1998.

6 Cp. 2002: 226. “Arriving at a precise number is difficult because of their ephemeral mode of production (most were made by small, independent production companies, which sprang up overnight), their choice of media (some were shot on film, others on video), and, for some, their non-traditional distribution pattern (many bypassed theatrical exhibition, opting instead for release to Spanish-language home video markets in Mexico, Latin America, and the United States)” (ibid.).

7 To give an example: With more than 250 border films dealing with the Mexican Revolution, these movies comprise a subgenre of border cinema on their own, including the successful melodrama ranchero (cp. Gonzalbo Felip 150–51).

8 The “New Mexican Cinema” emerged in the early 1990s and achieved its international breakthrough with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s debut feature film Amores perros (2000) (cp. Mauer 17). Nissa Torrents coined the term New Mexican Cinema in her 1993 essay “Mexican Cinema Comes Alive” (cp. Noble 2005: 21).

9 The term “Chicano/a”—etymologically mostly considered to be an English version of “mejicano/a”—was first used by Mexican-American activists in the 1960s “as a source of cultural pride, and to individuate themselves from catch-all labels like ‘Latino’ or ‘Hispanic’” (Benshoff & Griffin 154). “Chicano/a” is a “politically inflected term of Mexican-American racial and ethnic solidarity and pride” (Fojas 2008a: 14). Nowadays, the terms “Chicano” and “Chicana” are less politicized and often used to designate U.S.-born or long-term residents of Mexican origin in the United States. Chicano cinema had its origins in the 1970s and includes “all of those films written, directed or produced with major Chicano participation that seek to more closely approximate the realities of a population which has previously been ignored on film screens” (Maciel 1993: 314–15).

10 “The nation is still a preeminent entity around which community identities are built. Since identity seems to be anchored in the national space, the nation is still the indisputable field where culture and daily life operate” (Martínez-Zalce 105).

11 “Dime novels were ‘light’ short stories typically about life in the Wild West. The first famous cowboys appeared in these dime novels, and their enemies were usually American Indians or Mexicans” (Velázquez 166).

12 “Greaser” became a popular derogatory term to designate Mexicans living in the U.S. after the Mexican-American War (1846–48)—“a favorite Hollywood theme” (Wood 2008: 50)—, “when international and interracial tensions ran high and the borders of national identity were in flux”. The term “indicates a dark-skinned outlaw or bandit who is unhygienic, filthy, and unsavory, with a marked proclivity for violence and criminality” and emanates from “Anglo perceptions that the Mexicans’ skin color was either the result of applying grease to the skin or was deemed similar to the color of grease” (cp. Fojas 2008a: 6). “Although the term continued to be associated with Mexican men in its Hollywood usage,” Steven Bender points out, “‘greasers’ came to refer to Mexicans generally, encompassing both sexes as well as both Mexicans and Mexican Americans” (xiii). According to Gary D. Keller, the term originated from the “supposed use of grease by Mexicans to comb their hair” and was “originally used primarily to refer to Mexicans, and possibly ‘half-breeds,’ but was extended occasionally to other Hispanics” (13).

13 Cp. 2008a: 198. Dominique Henz considers Bandidas as an accomplished Western comedy: “Neben dem Banküberfall benutzt Bandidas weitere Standardsituationen des Western wie Saloon-Schlägereien, Shoot-outs oder die mythisch aufgeladene Kulisse der mexikanischen Wüste, doch Hayek und Cruz gelingt die satirische Umdeutung des männlichen Rollenklischees vom Desperado. In einem erfrischend subversiven finalen Befreiungsschlag durchschneidet Hayeks europäisch gebildete Sandoval ihr Korsett und findet so zu einer neuen weiblichen Persönlichkeit jenseits der objekthaften, künstlichen Schönheit. Sie ist, wie schon Simone de Beauvoir Brigitte Bardot charakterisierte, ebenso Jäger wie Beute” (69). According to Nathan Southern’s review summary in the New York Times, “Bandidas marks one of only a handful of films in its genre (along with Bad Girls, Cattle Annie and Little Britches, and Johnny Guitar) to use women as its principals, and distinguishes itself further by adding hefty doses of comic relief to the Western formula”. The Czech film title, Sexy Pistols, reveals the film’s marketing of Hollywood’s flagship Latinas as sexy bandits. This might be explained by the fact that only men were involved in the film’s direction (Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg) and screenwriting (Luc Besson, Robert Mark Kamen).

14 Cp. Iglesias 1998: 146. She refers to early U.S. American border short films such as The Pony Express, A Tale of Texas, The Mexican’s Crime, Tony, the Greaser, Broncho Billy’s Mexican Wife, and Greaser’s Revenge.

15 Alonzo explains that Mexican and Spanish vaqueros preceded the U.S. American cowboy: “The Mexican is, in a very real sense, the original cowboy—the vaquero —of the West. If the Native American is the first inhabitant of the West, it is not the Anglo who comes afterward, but the Spaniard or Mexican. When the Anglo cowboy arrives on the scene, he imitates the vaquero’s ways” (2009: 67).

16 The term “mestizo” generally refers to people of ‘mixed’ European and Native American ancestry. In Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Gloria Anzaldúa refers to mestizos as a “new race” which emerged after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire: “En 1521 nació una nueva raza, el mestizo, el mexicano (people of mixed Indian and Spanish blood), a race that had never existed before. Chicanos, Mexican-Americans, are the offspring of those first matings” (27). Dominique Brégent-Heald argues that the “mestizo peoples of the U.S. Southwest and ‘Greater Mexico’ not only dwell in this in-between region, but their hybrid identities embody the very dualism that underpins the borderlands” (255).

17 Traversing the borders separating two nations, the genre of border cinema is per se transnational: border films “fashion their narrative and aesthetic dynamics in relation to more than one national or cultural community” (cp. Ezra & Rowden). According to Noble, “the border, and by extension the border movie, is a powerful instance of the way in which considerations of the national inevitably collide with issues of transnationalism” (2005: 172–73). As Fojas puts it: “Border films anticipate the critical work of Latin/o American cultural studies by moving beyond the nation and foregrounding contact across the hemisphere, particularly between the United States and Mexico. Border films, though often ideologically retrograde, make this contact a point of departure of the narrative. They are tacitly hemispheric in focus for the many forays from and into Mexico and the international efforts at border patrol and control, as well as the truly distinct globalism of border cultures” (2008a: 13). Since the 1990s, scholars of American Studies have turned toward ‘Transnational American Studies’ and ‘Inter-American Studies’—“the approach of choice in examining the hemispheric contexts of all American cultures – be they local, regional, national or transnational” (cp. Raab & Butler 5). According to Wilfred Raussert, “The call for inter-American studies comes at a time when both American Studies and Latin American Studies show signs of tremendous change as manifested in the turn to Post-American Studies” (19). Following Raussert, “‘Inter-American’ refers to a transcultural imaginary that suggests multiple interconnectedness and hence requires dialogic models of investigation” (20). Moreover, the concept of Transnational American Studies “is by definition political” (cp. Fluck, Brandt & Thaler 7).

18 For a discussion of anti-immigration policies and heightened border security after 9/11, see Bloch & Rocha Silva: “Undocumented Immigration between the U.S. and Mexico: The Complex Development of Militarized Borders and Social Responses” (2011), as well as Andreas & Biersteker: The Rebordering of North America: Integration and Exclusion in a New Security Context (2003).

19 Cp. Oxford English Dictionary. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary similarly defines an outlaw as a person who is running away or hiding to avoid legal punishment: “a lawless person or a fugitive from the law”, “a person (…) under a ban or restriction”, or “one that is unconventional or rebellious”. Historically, the term “outlaw” was used to refer to “a person excluded from the benefit or protection of the law”. According to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, ‘outlaw’ also “brings to mind the cattle rustlers and gunslingers of the Wild West, but it comes to us from a much earlier time, when guns were not yet invented but cattle stealing was”. The Old English word ūtlaga, which was adopted after the Scandinavian invasion and settlement in England between the 8th and 11th century, originally “designated someone who because of criminal acts had to give up his property to the crown and could be killed without recrimination”. Over the course of the Middle Ages, however, the “legal status of the outlaw became less severe” and the term was used more loosely “to designate criminals in general” in Middle English – a usage that “lives on in tales of the Wild West” (cp. The American Heritage Dictionary). Billy the Kid, for example, was “one of the most famous outlaws of America’s early history” (cp. Merriam-Webster).

20 Cp. 10. Furthermore, only very few scholars have addressed both the U.S.-Mexican and U.S. Canadian border(lands). For a comparative historiography, see Johnson and Graybill’s anthology.

21 “Beginning in the late 19th century and continuing throughout the 20th century, writers and media productions specialists have portrayed the U.S.-Mexican border as a lawless, rugged, individualistic, and perilous area populated by men and women of action, criminals and crime fighters, settlers, and others who sought a last frontier” (Maciel 1990: 2).

22 Cp. Naficy 2001: 240. Non-Chicano border films from the U.S. side include Touch of Evil (1958, dir. Orson Welles), The Wild Bunch (1969, dir. Sam Peckinpah), The Border (1982, dir. Tony Richardson), and Lone Star (1996, dir. John Sayles) (cp. Naficy 2001: 313). Touch of Evil is known for Miguel Vargas’ (played by Charlton Heston) famous sentence “All border towns bring out the worst in a country.”

23 “There is a distinct evolution in the production of border cinema which follows certain factors in both countries,” Maciel points out. “These factors include political, economic, artistic, and business considerations” (cp. 1990: 5).

24 Other border films, such as The Tijuana Story (1957) and Niagara (1953), “have used place names as metaphors for an international border, thereby preparing audiences for some kind of border experience” (cp. Cortés 38).

25 The short film Deserter (2007, dir. Rick Rowley), for example, focuses on the journey of a U.S. deserter and his wife who cross the border to Canada to seek refugee status and escape deployment.

26 Cp. 567. In The Simpsons Movie (2007), Homer Simpson tries to smuggle drugs into Springfield by bribing a U.S. border guard. – In the first half of the 20th century, however, both the U.S.-Canadian as well as the U.S.-Mexican borderlands “served as prominent geographic settings for American motion pictures”. “These representations,” Dominique Brégent-Heald states, “both reinforced and challenged the dominant myths about Mexico and Canada, as well as the border each nation shares with the United States” (271–72): “The U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada concurrently figured as precarious locales, populated by dangerous revolutionaries, smugglers, gunrunners, whiskey traders, outlaws, fugitives, and spies. Consequently, these violent and bloodstained border spaces require policing by law enforcement agents. The frequent depiction of trans-boundary criminal activities heightened concerns regarding lax control over both borders, thereby helping to create the perceived need to curb their permeability. Border films focused on the importance of securing boundaries as linear divides between order and chaos” (259–60). – For a general history of Canadian film, see Markus Heide & Claudia Kotte: Kanadischer Film: Geschichte, Themen, Tendenzen (2006).

27 1909 was also the year in which the U.S. government began constructing the first border fence between the United States and Mexico, along the California–Baja California borderline (cp. St. John 116).

28 She refers to films such as The Cyclone (1920), in which smugglers transport Chinese laborers across the Canada-U.S. border, and Sky High (1922), in which an immigration officer prevents Chinese people from crossing the Mexican border to the U.S. (cp. 266–67).

29 Border films such as Soldiers of the Storm (1933) and Secret Service of the Air (1939), which focus “on the extralegal entry of Mexican migrants typically position the laborers as pawns in elaborate smuggling schemes, which were often carried out by air as opposed to physically crossing the border” (cp. Brégent-Heald 267).

30 Cp. 6. Outside the border context, non-white characters in early U.S. American films were generally used “as the foils or the villains” because this “was a safe procedure: lambasting a black, Hispanic, Oriental or Indian was hardly going to cause a ripple”. Films such as D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation “fulfilled the function of gaining acceptability among the upper classes in American society” (cp. 18). Ethnic minorities were created as racial antagonists “whose defeat could be the basis of a moral lesson for both the character on-screen and the audience” as well as for “happy endings evoking the moral and physical superiority of Anglos over the degenerate or primitive out-races” (Keller 29).

31 “By and large, Hispanic stereotypes, and the traits that define them, essentially have not changed over the decades. Rather, they exist as repetitive variations played upon too-familiar themes. There have been numerous cinematic examples of combinations of these six stereotypes, but such stereotypic blends are still one-dimensional, formulaic characters” (Ramírez Berg 1997: 116–17).

32 “Both the archetypal and stereotypical grandmother of the Hispanic vamp in American film as well as the Hispanic vamp produced by other film industries surely was Carmen” (Keller 45).

33 Cp. Camarillo 16. In explaining the four major periods that characterize the massive Mexican migration to the United States in the 20th century, Albert Camarillo helps us to better understand this migratory phenomenon: “Four periods of immigration mark the history of movement of Mexican people to the United States: the first “Great Migration” (1910s–1920s), the “Bracero Era” (1942–1964), the so-called “Los Mojados” period (1950s), and the “Second Great Migration” (1970s–present). (…) Though circumstances have changed greatly over time for those seeking to enter the United States, most have done so for a chance to work and to earn a fair wage before returning home” (15). Juan Villa proposes a fifth period, the Third Great Migration, beginning in 2000 and continuing until today (17).

34 Cp. 2008a: 7. U.S. American films dealing with Pancho Villa inlude early films such as The Life of General Villa (1914) and Viva Villa! (1934), as well as contemporary films such as And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (2003), or documentaries such as The Lost Reels of Pancho Villa (2003). Woll argues that “Villa becomes a fantastic creature, who resembles Hollywood’s stock portrayal of the violent Latin rather than a representation of the actual historical figure” (46). “For contemporary Chicanos, the Mexican Revolution is often regarded as a source of anti-imperialist inspiration and as a link with a revolutionary tradition. The figures of Villa and Zapata have become folk heroes in Chicano culture” (List 93).

35 Cp. 155–56. The derogatory term “gringo” emerged in the mid-1800s, at the same time as the term “bandido”. Fojas refers to Pedro Malavet who has “described the term as emerging during the Mexican-American War to refer to the ‘green coats’ worn by U.S. soldiers, while other accounts link the term to a transliteration of a song, ‘Green Grows the Grass,’ said to have been sung by U.S. soldiers while invading Mexico. (cp. 2008a: 78). According to Keller, “The most accepted etymology of gringo is as a variation of griego, used commonly in phrases during medieval times both in the Romance languages and in English that communicated foreignness, e.g., ‘It’s Greek to me.’ Gringo appears in the Quixote, published in 1605, with that meaning hundreds of years before Anglo-Mexican contact on the U.S. border and is commonly used in Argentina to refer to non-Anglo foreigners, usually Italians” (69).

36 Fojas 2008a: 31. “Duel in the Sun was one of the first films to depict intimacy and irrepressible attraction between Anglo and mixed-blood Native American characters. Unlike other mixed-race melodramas in which the major drama centers on the female characters’ issues of identity, this film is a drama of ambivalent attraction to the Native American character that reflects the national drama over the role and status of Native Americans” (Fojas 2008a: 34).

37 Cp. Dell’Agnese 207. In “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (1893)—“clearly a landmark in border studies” (Wilson & Donnan 9)—, historian Frederick Jackson Turner imagined the frontier as a dividing line between civilization and wilderness and claimed that “the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development” (30). Turner not only took up the notion of Anglo-Americans as “a chosen people whose mission is to conquer wilderness and if necessary subjugate native peoples to advance the course of what they consider civilisation” (Leen 2002: 97), which contributed to Mexico’s image as the natural extension of the “closed frontier” after 1890, but also emphasized the importance of the U.S. westward expansion for the formation of a U.S. American national identity: “American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character. The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West” (Turner 31). Fojas contends that Turner’s ‘frontier thesis’ “was a turning point not just in historical studies, but also in the history of the United States”: “The western frontier has always been a defining symbol of the United States, signifying the wide and open range and the opportunity to settle new territories where the only hindrance to this forward expansion is the hostile and bloodthirsty Indian and the Mexican bandit. The frontier is a repository of these and other romantic legends of the Old West” (2008a: 27).

38 Cp. 207. Dell’Agnese refers to the genre of “Mexico westerns,” including films such as Vera Cruz (1954) , The Magnificent Seven (1960), and The Wild Bunch. “One stand of the western reveals the greaser-bandit in the form of the ‘good badman,’ modeling a Hispanic Robin Hood. Perhaps the most popular of this type are the Cisco Kid series and the Zorro franchise, both inspired by The White Vaquero (1913) and The Caballero’s Way (1914),” Baugh points out (270). Both the Cisco Kid and Zorro made their way to television and “had a lasting influence on the bandit character” (ibid.). According to Thomas Torrans, the U.S.-Mexican border has never again been as romanticized as in the Cisco Kid films of the 1930s and early 1940s. These films include In Old Arizona (1928), The Cisco Kid (1931), The Return of the Cisco Kid (1939), The Cisco Kid and the Lady (1939), The Gay Caballero (1940), and Romance of the Rio Grande (1941) (cp. 21).

39 According to James Yates, the “origins of the American conflict with Mexico are rooted in the expansionist ideology of Manifest Destiny” (86). Ramírez Berg explains: “In the United States, especially in the Southwest, Manifest Destiny meant taking land from Mexico, displacing Mexican landowners, subjugating Tejanos, Hispanos, and Californios (Texans, New Mexicans, and Californians of Mexican heritage), and exploiting them as cheap and expendable labor. In order to rationalize the expansionist goals laid out by the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny, Latinos—whether U.S. citizens, newly arrived migrants from the south, or Latin Americans in their own countries—needed to be shown as lesser beings. Movie stereotyping of Latinos, therefore, has been and continues to be part of an American imperialistic discourse about who should rule the hemisphere—a sort of “Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny Illustrated” (2002: 4–5).

40 “The Alamo is a mission site in San Antonio, Texas. In late 1835, residents converted it into a fortress on what was the location of one of the most significant battles in the Texas Revolution against Mexican rule. ‘Remember the Alamo’ became the rallying cry uniting the Texans to fight for independence” (Hamm 6). Fojas argues that Western films “have long contributed to the mythos of the Alamo as the origin story of southwestern consolidation and expansion of the United States” (2008: 63). According to Anzaldúa, “The Battle of the Alamo, in which the Mexican forces vanquished the whites, became, for the whites, the symbol for the cowardly and villainous character of the Mexicans. It became (and still is) a symbol that legitimized the white imperialist takeover” (28).

41 Cp. 153. The negative cinematic depictions of the U.S.-Mexico border and its inhabitants “have not been inflexible or unchanging”, however: “The conventional cinematic imagery of the border has had its exceptions. Most noticeably during World War II, the imperatives of the Good Neighbor policy and wartime alliances required a positive portrayal of Mexico and Mexicans and a different view of the border” (Saragoza 165). According to Brégent-Heald, “The most perceptible transformation was the absence of ‘greasers’ or bandidos in border films” (270). However, this “positive aura of the 1940s waned quickly, and it would not be until the late 1960s that American cinema revised its view of the border” (Saragoza 166).

42 Cp. Brégent-Heald 264. The so-called “Mounties”, Canada’s North-West Mounted Police established in 1873, also entered the screen to restore law and order in border films such as In Defiance of the Law (1914), Helene of the North (1914), Until They Get Me (1917), Out of the Snows (1920), The Challenge of the Law (1920), and South of Northern Lights (1922). The Cattle Thieves (1909), “one of the earliest films about cattle rustling, which would become a common motif in border-themed Westerns”, was publicized as the first film to introduce the Mounted Police to the U.S. American public. However, “rustling appears as a plot device more frequently in films set in the southwest border region” (cp. Brégent-Heald 263–64).

43 Cp. 210. “Notwithstanding its attempt at being anti-racist,” Dell’Agnese argues, Border Incident “typecasts Mexico with the usual stereotypes” (209).

44 Cp. 172. In the genre of the “Hollywood social problem film”, which emerged with the Great Depression and is best exemplified by Bordertown (1935), Hispanics were portrayed in more positive terms. Keller refers to The Lawless (1950) and Salt of the Earth (1954) as the “most daring and best realized of the Hispanic-focused social problem films” (cp. Keller 127, 132). As Noriega puts it: “With the exception of Salt of the Earth and Giant, the social problem films ‘about’ Mexican-Americans center on a ‘Mexican’ male protagonist and his place or role within American society. In contrast, Salt of the Earth and Giant employ a feminist critique in order to reorient class and racial hierarchies” (62). Although directed by a U.S. American, Herbert Biberman’s feature film Salt of the Earth is considered to have marked the beginning of Chicano cinema: “This film, in which Chicanos are the protagonists, revealed for the first time a Chicano vision of the social issues of the community” (Maciel 1993: 315). For a discussion of Bordertown and the social problem film, see Ramírez Berg: “Bordertown, the Assimilation Narrative, and the Chicano Social Problem Film.” In: Latino Images in Film: Stereotypes, Subversion, Resistance (2002). 111–27.

45 “Gang films, focusing on juveniles, date back in the U.S. film industry to the earliest days of the silent period, before the move to Hollywood, with the bad boy films. The genre was not associated particularly with Hispanics, however, until the 1960s. (…) Nevertheless, youth gang films focusing on Hispanics were a product originating in the 1960s and they have abounded ever since” (Keller 161). West Side Story (1961), “the cinematic adaptation of the Broadway musical, was a major achievement of the period and of course a film that transcends the gang film genre” (ibid.).

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Transnational Representations of the U.S. Borderlands. Outlaw Women in Contemporary "Border Cinema"
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Department of English and American Studies)
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Nominated for the Humboldt Prize. Comment from the supervisor: "Die Arbeit besticht auch durch die exzellente Bibliographie und - ganz besonders - die Filmographie (als solches bereits eine bemerkenswerte Forschungsleistung!). Das überaus kenntnisreiche Zusammenbringen von amerikanischer (d.h. US) und mexikanischer Filmgeschichte ist für das Forschungsfeld 'border film' außergewöhnlich und hervorragend." (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)
border cinema, U.S.-Mexico border, U.S.-Mexico borderlands, immigration films, cine fronterizo, The View from the North: The U.S.-Mexico Border(lands) According to Hollywood, The View from the South: Mexican Border Cinema and 'la frontera', la frontera, film
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Jeanette Gonsior (Author), 2014, Transnational Representations of the U.S. Borderlands. Outlaw Women in Contemporary "Border Cinema", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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