La Otra Arizona: Our Migratory Border, I

La Otra Arizona: Our Migratory Border, Part I

Published in The Noise, Fall 2012

Arizona’s southern border with Mexico has an ubiquitous presence in state politics. Financially, the state benefits from it, receiving an influx of countless hundreds of millions of dollars from federal law enforcement programs, in addition to the sales tax paid by the droves of trans-border shoppers from Mexico. Politically, our lawmakers decry it, using fear tactics and stoking xenophobia to win elections and grab national headlines. 

And yet despite its huge influence, we seldom ask ourselves the questions just under the surface: just who decided the location of the border? When was the familiar rectangle outline of Arizona first drawn? Geographically, just what is the United States anyway? 

The answer is as not as simple as any politician would prefer. The truth is that throughout its 236-year history the United States has been an amorphous presence on the world map, framed by superimposed boundaries which are constantly shifting. 

Before even considering historical examples, we ponder the shape of the United States today. Is it the familiar outline of the continental U.S., framed by dual peninsulas in the east, ragged coastlines in the south, a swooping demarcation on the north and the bulge of the west coast? Sure. But digging only slightly deeper complicates the issue substantially. 

First, what about Hawaii and Alaska, which appear only on the margins of our maps? Surely they are also the U.S. But Puerto Rico? The Minor Outlying Islands? Then there’s the territory controlled by our uncountable hundreds (literally––no one knows how many) of military installations worldwide. Is that ours too? 

All of this is still leaving out the realm of political influence and international commercial-cultural relationships, which would of course further widen what could be considered to be the geographic area controlled by the U.S. 

If this undeniably complex web of geopolitics could be summed up in a single phrase, it would be this: our borders are migratory. Like people, they are in constant movement, following opportunity and responding to necessity. 

To arrive at the drawing of Arizona, we begin with the most well-known period of our country’s border-flux: the explosion of expansion from 1783 to 1848. In just 65 years the U.S. went from holding only the territory encompassed by the original thirteen states to controlling the entire middle section of the North American continent. 

How did it happen? Short answer: rapidly and by any means necessary. Though the details of every acquisition differ slightly, they are all variations on a theme of cunning and military-economic might. Before the how is the why––why move the border every few years during the course of a generation? 

John O’Sullivan, editor of Washington’s Democratic Review, famously addressed the motivation and justification in 1845, framing it as “our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”

He had coined the term that captured perfectly the national sentiment––soon senators and congressmen were alining themselves with the “doctrine of Manifest Destiny.” In essence, there wasn’t reason to look into it too deeply. The country deserved the continent basically because, well, our God said so. 

However, the roots of the U.S.’s expansionist philosophy do indeed run deep. Among the best examinations is Frederick Turner’s 1993 book Beyond Geography: The Western Spirit Against the Wilderness. According to Turner, “the true story of Western exploration, and thus of America, is a spiritual one. It has its basis not in technology… but rather in the history of that mythology that tied the West together into a quarrelsome, unloving, but nevertheless recognizable unit.” 

He calls his work a “spiritual history [that is] necessarily tentative,” but asserts that “at last it is founded on that surest of realities: the human spirit and its dark necessity to realize itself through body and place.”

Deep enough for you yet? 

Let’s turn back to the Copper State. After at least ten millennia of indigenous history that included complex cultures such as the Hohokam [see LOA: Natives…], Europeans came to permanently reside in Pimería Alta––as the area was known––in the 1730’s, and even then they were few, mostly all Jesuits recruited from German states.

Distant bloody battles and political machinations culminated in Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821. What is now Arizona was crossed by the borders of the Mexican states of Sonora, Alta California, Nuevo México and a bit of Chihuahua and had a non-indigenous population of perhaps 1,000. Meanwhile, a diverse number of indigenous cultures continued their control of the area outside the Santa Cruz river valley. This, despite centuries of enduring the ravages of viruses that had arrived to the area from Europe even before the Europeans themselves did, thanks to the high communicability of the viruses and the efficiency of the long-standing native trading networks. 

Trade was also what brought the first Anglo-Americans into what is now the Southwest. Restrictions had been relaxed following Mexico’s independence, and by 1824 the first of the great wagon trains was blazing the Santa Fe trail to the Mexican settlements. Far from a national capital that was consumed with a myriad of political problems, the Mexicans welcomed the manufactured goods in exchange for their gold, silver and furs. Thus the U.S. immediately began brokering influence with the area, already looking to push its border past the limits of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. 

By the mid 1840’s, with the idea of Manifest Destiny dancing inside them, politicians in the U.S. set their ambitions firmly on the Pacific––only the coastline could provide the definitive U.S. border. As for the territory in between (read: New Mexico and Arizona), logic said it should come along too. 

Only one thing stood in the way: a half-million square miles of sovereign Mexico. Our story of migratory borders continues next month. 

For further reading:
Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, 2005.
Officer, James E. Hispanic Arizona, 1536-1856, 1987.
Wagoner, Jay J. Early Arizona: Prehistory to Civil War, 1975.