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.

La Virgen As Seen From Both Sides

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The second in a series of Mexican snapshots for The Noise, published in Flagstaff. To read the entire issue, which is excellent, download the pdf (16.9mb).

La Virgen As Seen From Both Sides
a Cross-Border Look at the Virgin of Guadalupe

The fireworks have been exploding for twenty-four hours without stop. There are mustaches drawn on all the male children under the age of three. Mariachis are playing in nearly every neighborhood. There can only be one explanation for all this colorful chaos, which even here in Mexico is beyond average: this must be the 475th anniversary of the appearance of La Virgen de Guadalupe. This must be December 12th, Día de la Virgen.

On this day shrines pop up on nearly every street corner, each bedecked with noche buena flowers. Thousands of pilgrims stream into Mexico City’s Basilica, carrying portraits of la Virgen on their backs and crawling the final steps on their knees, leaving dark stains of their faith on the stones behind them.


“This is a very important day for us,” says Antonio Perez, an out-of-work mariachi who is hanging around Cuernavaca’s main square on the night of the 12th. “I have a lot of faith and devotion to her.” He’s an impeccably dressed old man with watery eyes, soft-spoken and sincere. The words he’s saying are written everywhere on the streets around us as he says them.

We’re sitting near el Calvario, one of Cuernavaca’s soaring churches where  reverence for La Virgen is focused. It’s here that the local parents bring their young children dressed as peasants to have their pictures taken in mock rural landscapes. They jam through the wide doors of the church, children on their shoulders, pushing to hear one of the masses being said every two hours. Inside, the church is a sea of dark hair, a sea whose waves sigh in rosaries and undulate onto their knees in prayer.

Along with Día de los Muertos in early November, December 12th is a day that is exclusively Mexican. La Virgen is the patron saint of Mexico and is also called “the Queen of the Americas.” As Octavio Paz wrote in 1974: “the Mexican people, after more than two centuries of experiments, have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery.”

But to those of us from the southwest U.S., this all sounds familiar. Even if it’s only seeing her likeness emblazoned on the spare-tire cover of a certain pink VW bus that haunts Aspen between San Francisco and Agassiz Streets in downtown Flagstaff, we’re aware of her presence. It’s evidence that while political boundaries between Mexico and the U.S. were redrawn in 1848, cultural boundaries remain much more fluid.

In Bisbee, Arizona, just a stone’s throw from the international line, one sees old cars pushing through the narrow streets with bumper stickers that read, “IN GUAD WE TRUST.” On a December morning not long after the 12th, Elaine Blake and artist Judy Perry are gardening in front of the Bisbee Episcopal Church. “A lot of us have had experiences with the Virgin,” says Perry. Blake agrees, “she just made herself really known and vivid to me. She talks to me and I talk to her... she is the divine presence that is anchored in this place, in this earth.” Both women recall being attracted to Guadalupe thanks to her being a female religious figure. “I think it’s important to bring the female and male energies together in spiritual life,” says Perry.

Perez, speaking of La Virgen’s appeal to Mexicans, says “we feel proud that she came here to Mexico to appear... the story is that she appeared to somebody who was of the most lowly people, his name was Juan Diego.”

In Bisbee, anthropology and faith seem to occupy the same space at the same time without getting into a fistfight. At the Bisbee event on the 12th, “there was a woman [Maggie McQuaid] who talked about the cultural antecedents, Tonantzin, the Aztec goddess,” according to Blake.

Such talk, though, has no place in the mind of the average Mexican on the night of the 12th. Perez, for one, shirks the suggestion of La Virgen being related to the pre-Hispanic gods. He shakes his head, “no, no, no, no, no, I don’t understand that, I’d say no.”

 Blake seemed to be a bit surprised by the reverence held for Guadalupe in the southwest. “I’ve talked to a couple of people who have said ‘I’m a Guadalupian, not a Christian,’” she said.

Meanwhile, in central Mexico, Perez leans against a park bench, smiling. “Everybody’s walking around content today. Just so happy for this day.” Two peoples, two countries, unified at least once every year by their faith in figure that they see from different perspectives. Sounds like just another story from the border.