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.

La Otra Arizona: Our Migratory Border, II

La Otra Arizona: Our Migratory Border, Part II (Guadalupe-Hidalgo)

ublished in The Noise, Fall 2012

There’s no getting around it: Arizona was once part of Mexico. Together with the looming water shortages, it is the inconvenient truth that is ever-present in Arizona politics. That which we don’t want to talk about and is yet omnipresent––making us either  uncomfortable or resentful, but always lending just the right amount of irony to the anti-immigration rhetoric spewed by state politicians. 

But that was then, they say, this is now. What’s the big deal? 

The Deal is that the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 did more to shape the destiny of North America than any single incident since the landing of Columbus. Consciously or not, we’re still struggling to come to terms with its consequences. 

The war, and specifically the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo that followed it, is the key moment in the U.S.’s rise to superpower status––or an early victory of budding U.S. imperialism, depending on which vocabulary you’d prefer to use. 

Oh, and the majority of what was later to become Arizona was won by the United States during the conflict. The borders of Mexican states and indigenous societies that had crisscrossed the territory were suddenly erased from the map. With the stroke of a pen in a distant capital city, Arizona was on the way to becoming the political entity that we know today. 

Interesting, then, that the war registers as barely a blip on the historical radar of the U.S. populace, and hardly more than that here in Arizona. Meanwhile, in Mexico, it’s a different story. The First American Intervention––as the conflict is also known––factors hugely in national history, patriotic legends, and self-image. That contrast alone is telling, but there’s much more to be learned about ourselves and our state from even a few of the anecdotes from 1847.

Not that there’s room here to fully address the history. Entire books can––and have––been written on the subject. Instead, we’ll look at a few details that are particularly relevant to our story of the malleable, migratory and often blurry borders that outline Arizona. 

Though California and Texas were well-known to citizens of the U.S. in the 1840’s, the term New Mexico barely factored into the national consciousness, and Arizona not at all. The name which we have grown to know and love was then used only to describe a small region southeast of Nogales, and its etymology is a source of debate. Indeed, the winning of Arizona was incidental in the push to own the coast of California, fueled and justified by the spiritual-cum-political doctrine of Manifest Destiny. (See part I of this LOA series)

The inexact nature of borders had everything to do with the beginning of the Mexican-American War. Texas had been a proxy in the U.S.-Mexico conflict since the moment that the latter country gained independence, and its southern limit a matter of dispute. The border was literally in two different places at once, depending on which country you asked. 

The U.S. President Polk moved troops into the area claimed by Mexico in 1845, and soon decried Mexican aggression when shots broke out early the following year. It was an eery foreshadowing of the justifications for later U.S. wars––think Gulf of Tonkin or weapons of mass destruction.

By March 1847 General Winfield Scott was making the first major amphibious assault in U.S. military history on the Mexican port of Veracruz, and from there leading the march to Mexico City. Interestingly, this was nearly the exact route taken a few centuries earlier by the conquistador Hernán Cortés in his invasion of Mexico on behalf of a growing empire. Scott advanced in a bloody campaign marked by widespread disease and mass desertions of soldiers from both sides, but was victorious and officially occupied Mexico City for the U.S. for nearly six months. If a map had been drawn of U.S. territory then, what would it have looked like? 

The terms of Guadalupe-Hidalgo were negotiated while the autocratic Mexican President Santa Anna had a gun to his head (almost literally). Mexico would turn over more than half of its territory to the U.S. in exchange for $15 million dollars. By paying for the territory, the U.S. was able to call the “Mexican Cession” a purchase rather than a conquest and thus assuage its conscience. Not that any money actually exchanged hands, though––the $15 million was simply applied against the enormous debt that Mexico owed to the U.S. at the time. 

Conveniently, the year after California became part of the U.S., giant gold deposits were discovered there. This jumpstarted the first push of U.S. citizens into their new territory, an estimated 300,000 people total. In only first five years of the gold rush, 370 tons of the metal was extracted––that’s roughly $668 million in 1854 dollars or more than $16 billion in 2010 dollars. 

So you could say the U.S. got a good deal. And that’s the crux of Guadalupe-Hidalgo’s relevance today. The enormous natural wealth of western North America is what shot the young United States onto the world stage as a major power. 

It is the same phenomena that had transformed Europe into a globally dominant force centuries before, when the Spanish took the vast gold works of the conquered indigenous empires, melted them down into ingots and shipped them across the Atlantic.

It’s not a stretch to say then that the first world was created thanks to the wealth of las Américas. 

And boom. Manifest Destiny manifested, right? Sea-to-shining-sea? With its appetite for expansionism satiated, the U.S. could relax into its continental crib, no more need for interventions or purchases… right?

Our story of borders-on-the-march continues next month, just south of Arizona’s Gila River. 


For further reading:
Officer, James E. Hispanic Arizona, 1536-1856, 1987.
Wagoner, Jay J. Early Arizona: Prehistory to Civil War, 1975.
Zinn, Howard. “We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God.” A People’s History of the United States, 1980.


La Otra Arizona: Our Migratory Border, Part III

La Otra Arizona: Our Migratory Border, Part III (Gadsden)

Published in The Noise, Fall 2012

We live in a time when most talk of the border between Mexico and the United States revolves around how best to fortify it. A higher wall? A dual-wall system a-la Palestine? A “virtual fence” of cameras and motion detectors? But what about environmental impact? The humanitarian costs? 

Border fortifications are a political chess piece, bandied out at opportune moments by purveyors of fear-motivated politics. John McCain’s last reelection campaign prominently featured a television commercial which depicted the incumbent senator walking near Nogales with Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu. Filmed in gritty, high-contrast close ups, the ad’s dialog is precious:

McCain: “Drug and human smuggling, home invasions, murder.”

Babeu: “We’re outmanned. With all the illegals in America, more than half come through Arizona.” 

McCain: “Have we got the right plan?”

Babeu: “Plan’s perfect. We bring troops, local and county law enforcement together.”

McCain: “And complete the danged fence.”

Babeu: “It’ll work this time. Senator, you’re one of us.”

We’ll set aside for a moment the disingenuous rhetorical connection made between “illegals” and violent crime. We’ll even disregard the fact that now Mr. Babeu is under investigation for allegedly using his positional power to leverage sex and silence from at least one Mexican lover. All these are symptoms of a wider moral corruption and simplification of context when it comes to discussing the border. Let’s dig deeper––even if maybe it might work this time, do we know where to build the danged fence?

Under the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, Arizona ended at the Gila river, just south of modern Phoenix. (See part II of this LOA series.) It was a convenient natural demarcation, the Gila being one of the most important rivers in the area, second only to the mighty Colorado. And yet when driving down I-10 we roll over the sucked-dry river without so much as noticing––where’s the Border Patrol? 

They’re 100 miles south, of course, patrolling a straight line drawn just north of 31º longitude, a line devoid of any natural barriers. Huh?

Throughout this series we’ve taken the long view and watched the borders as they leap, stumble and fight their way across North America and beyond. Far from being a firm, pseudo-geographical limit, the indecisive “U.S. border” moved nearly once a decade for over sixty years. 

This brings us to 1853. How did the border suddenly migrate south from the Gila to its present position? Short answer: by railroad. 

Just a few years after the U.S. invasion and occupation of Mexico in 1848, it became obvious that the bureaucrats who drew up the “Mexican Cession” had made a mistake. They hadn’t taken enough territory. Sure, Mexico had just “sold” some 55% of its land for a song, but there still wasn’t enough room for the U.S. to build an all-weather transcontinental railroad along its new southern edge from sea-to-shining-sea. 

Sure, there were already two other railroad routes that would span the continent, but they had the Rocky Mountains to deal with. For the mid-nineteenth century businessmen-politicians still high on Manifest Destiny, strapping the land down with iron rails was something of a spiritual quest. After all, gold had just been discovered in California. Lots of it. 

So the U.S. brought Mexican President Santa Anna back to the table in Mexico City, sat him down with James Gadsden and set about “negotiating” another land sale. Context is everything here. By and large the Mexican people were furious with Santa Anna for Guadalupe-Hidalgo. The new treaty had to be discussed in secret in order to avoid a popular uprising against the president. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the calls continued for the young country to just avoid future complications and take all of Mexico.

Gadsden––a railroad man, of course––was sent from Washington by President Franklin Pierce with five different offers. One would acquire almost an additional half of Mexico, putting the border somewhere south of Sonora. Another would push the border south of the pueblo of Tucson, and include all of Baja California as well. In the end, the smallest proposal won the day, and the U.S. paid $10 million for the sliver of land from the Mesilla valley in New Mexico to Yuma in eastern Arizona.

Not that either Gadsden nor Santa Anna knew the land they were talking about. The final version of the agreement provided for a bilateral survey expedition to figure out where exactly the border was. 

The Boundary Commission set out through unknown territory, looking to settle the debates that had been raging among surveyors and politicians since Guadalupe-Hidalgo, all of whom had been imagining the line in various places according to differing measurements. It had been nearly a decade since the beginning of the Mexican-American war when the final location of the border was decided upon in 1856.

The point is to keep all this in mind, especially in an election year. Politicians will mention the border in terms of permanence and threat, proposing that more defense contracts might work this time. 

But when studying the history, we realize that what happens on the border rarely begins there. The problems start with the doctrines held in the hearts of both countries, not the consequences found at their edges. 

It follows then that solutions should begin internally as well. Looking at our border, we can choose to see malleability and possibility, opening ourselves up to new, deeper solutions that surely stand a much better chance of working. 


For further reading:
Wagoner, Jay J. Early Arizona: Prehistory to Civil War, 1975.
Zinn, Howard. “We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God.” A People’s History of the United States, 1980.