After the many successful independence movements across Latin America, indigenous and Latinx people continued to struggle for sovereignty and freedom. At the same time, the United States continued its quest for land and domination under the banner of Manifest Destiny. “Over the year, the United States would repeatedly assert its power and economic interests in Latin America through military and political interventions in the region’s affairs, contributing to or exacerbating political conflict and economic instability in Latin American nations. This resulted in mass migrations of tens of thousand of Latin Americans fleeing civil wars, violence, and poverty and seeking shelter in the United States throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.”16 These migrations from Latin America to the U.S. in search of safety are still occurring today, and too many Americans fail to realize the true cause of instability in Latin America is in large part due to the United States’ repeated interventions in the interest of the U.S. and at the expense of Latin America.
Thus crossing borders has long been and continues to be an aspect of Latinx identity for many people. Furthermore, not only have Latinx people been crossing borders to safety, but also borders have been crossing them, changing their government, their national identity, and their citizenship – or lack of citizenship – without their consent. The popular saying amongst Chicanos is: “We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us.” This will be a theme for this unit.
The Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 is a prime example of this concept. President James Polk’s campaign was built upon the promise of expansion and annexation of Texas – which had in 1836 broken off from Mexico with the support of U.S. aid – and northern Mexico. Polk was elected and just before he took office, in 1845 President Tyler annexed Texas, and the no longer the independent “Lone Star Republic” entered the United States as a slave state. Soon after taking office, Polk ordered troops to the Rio Grande, 150 miles south of the mutually recognized Texas-Mexico border, clearly provoking Mexican troops by entering their country’s territory. Thus began the very war Polk had hoped to instigate, claiming Mexico had fired the first shot.17 After a bloody two-year war and a U.S. victory – despite significant opposition by Congress members, abolitionists, and deserting soldiers alike – the United States negotiated the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which seized half of Mexico’s land. Article VIII of the treaty promised Mexican citizens who remained for more than a year in the newly acquired territory, U.S. citizenship, and with it a claim to their land and property.18 “Within a year of the treaty’s ratification, the United States government violated the citizenship stipulation and began a process of racialization that ascribed to Mexicans different legal rights on the basis of race. Mexicans who were White were given full legal citizenship, while mestizos, Christianized Indians, and afromestizos were accorded inferior legal rights.”19
This American racialization points to a distinction between Mexico, which had abolished slavery in 1824, and the U.S. who would not abolish slavery for another twenty years after acquiring these new territories. It also reveals a multi-racial cross-national antiracist solidarity that American abolitionists and Mexicans shared, one that is too rarely taught in schools. Abolitionists knew that the expansion of U.S. territory would also mean the expansion of slavery, adding another reason to their opposition to the U.S.’s calculated instigation of war with Mexico. Abolitionists also recognized antiracism as a component of the Latin American independence movements, and viewed those fighting for their continent’s liberation as fellow black, brown, and indigenous comrades. “The antislavery spirit stoked by Jose Morelos, Vicente Guerrero, and the Mexican War of Independence persisted, and made Mexico a sanctuary for African Americans fleeing from the burgeoning slave labor camps of the Southwest. Sensing the possibility of finding freedom in Mexico, enslaved African Americans as far away as Florida escaped to the Republic of Mexico.”20
Changing borders – and forced movement across borders – did not end with the 19th century. For Mexicans and Mexican-Americans the United States continued to determine their ability to reside in the U.S. based only on U.S. interests. While the 1910s and 1920s were a time of immigration acts and quotas, which restricted immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, Mexicans were largely exempt from these restrictions because of the United States’ desire for steady Mexican labor in the Southwest of the U.S. The Immigration Act of 1929, however, began to regulate Mexican entry in the U.S., classifying crossing the border without permission as a misdemeanor. After the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, the United States’ treatment of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans changed drastically. In the 1930 Census, for the first time in history “Mexican” was listed as a distinct race, while earlier policies had classified Mexicans as white. Thus, not only did the U.S. use nation-state borders to impose new lives and identities onto Mexicans, but also Census categories, which legally changed the race of an estimated 600,000 Mexicans living in the United States at the time. Mexicans were scapegoated during the Great Depression, not only by white Americans, but also by the U.S. Government who “repatriated,” or forcibly removed somewhere between 350,000 and 500,000 Mexican and Mexican American people.21 This pushing and pulling across borders would repeat itself again during and after World War II. That is, when U.S. found itself in need of labor, the government attracted male Mexican workers back to the U.S. through the Bracero Program, which lasted 20 years and was well documented for its abuses of Mexican workers. During this same era, the U.S. government and media claimed that Mexican immigrants were coming to the U.S. illegally. So, from 1954-1958, in what the U.S. called “Operation Wetback,” Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) and the U.S. Border Patrol began instituting raids and sweeps. They claimed that they had deported more than a million people and that hundreds of thousands left on their own. “In the end, Operation Wetback neither deported as many people as the Border Patrol claimed, nor solved the problem of unauthorized immigration, and its short-term, success relied on changed in the Bracero Program. In the long term, Operation Wetback changed how the Mexican American community saw itself, led to a movement to end the Bracero Program, and led to a push for civil rights in the 1960s.”22
While Mexico has been the focus of this unit on borders, it is also important to note a very different kind of border surrounding Puerto Rico. Unlike most of Latin America, which gained independence in the early 19th century, it was not until the conclusion of the Spanish-American War when both Cuba and Puerto Rico finally got independence from Spain. Yet, U.S. imperialism kept – and in fact, keeps –Puerto Rico, and to a certain extent Cuba under its control. In 1824, once most of Latin America had gained their independence from Spain, the Spanish retreated to the islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico. In Cuba, the Spanish crown became increasingly repressive, taking all control away from Cubans and taxing them more heavily. Wealthy Cubans supposedly appealed to the United States to annex Cuba, and President Polk attempted to purchase the island from the Spanish. Cubans rebelled and the Ten Years’ War for Cuban independence began in 1868. The war did not actually end in 1878, though it did free enslaved people who fought for either side of the war. In 1895 the conflict escalated again, and by the following year Cuba was seeing success in their struggle for independence. Despite this, the U.S. found a pre-text to enter the conflict against Spain, and the war was dubbed the Spanish-American War of 1898, ending in victory against the Spanish. The U.S. was given sovereignty over Cuba, and although the United States granted Cuba autonomy the U.S. retained Guantanamo Bay and continues to occupy it as a prison camp to this day.23
Puerto Rican history follows a similar trajectory as Cuba during these thirty years. That is, in 1868 Puerto Rico initiated its struggle for independence against Spain shortly before Cuba. And in 1897, Spain granted both Puerto Rico and Cuba “political autonomy” scheduling elections for the following year. At the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, like Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines were all ceded to the United States. However, while Cuba gained independence for most of its country, Puerto Rico and Guam were kept as U.S. possessions. In 1900 the Foraker Act established a civilian government in Puerto Rico and in 1917 the Jones-Shafroth Act granted limited U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans. Given this history and current status, the borderland space and identity that many Puerto Ricans occupy and experience is a complicated one. Most Puerto Ricans speak Spanish because of their centuries of Spanish colonization, and at the end of the 19th century, with U.S. imperialism, a new border crossed them, one that eventually made them Americans. Yet, they are not full Americans and the borders of Puerto Rico, the island and commonwealth, continue to feel very distinct and in some ways distant from the mainland United States. Puerto Rican citizens—U.S. citizens—are still not permitted to vote in U.S. presidential elections, and as we saw with Hurricane Maria, the residents of Puerto Rico are not given the same aid and support as official U.S. states. Finally, it is important to note that the Jones-Shafroth Act granting Puerto Ricans limited U.S. citizenship was passed just a month before the U.S. entered World War I, and 20,000 Puerto Ricans served in this war wearing U.S. uniforms.24 Thus, Puerto Ricans are imposed with the burdens of being American citizens, but not the privileges.
Gloria Anzaldua’s 1987 publication, Borderlands / La Frontera, speaks to the experience of Latinx people caught between different languages, contradicting worlds, and straddling identities. While these experiences are in some ways unique to Latinx people, especially those living along/across the U.S.-Mexican border and those living in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, there are also ways that other groups of people can understand a borderland identity. Anzaldua’s preface to the first edition of her book is a required reading for this curricular unit:
“The actual physical borderland that I'm dealing with in this book is the Texas-U.S Southwest/Mexican border. The psychological borderlands, the sexual borderlands and the spiritual borderlands are not particular to the Southwest. In fact, the Borderlands are physically present wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy.
I am a border woman. I grew up between two cultures, the Mexican (with a heavy Indian influence) and the Anglo (as a member of a colonized people in our own territory). I have been straddling that tejas-Mexican border, and others, all my life. It’s not a comfortable territory to live in, this place of contradictions. Hatred, anger and exploitation are the prominent features of this landscape.
However, there have been compensations for this mestiza, and certain joys. Living on borders and in margins, keeping intact one's shifting and multiple identity and integrity, is like trying to swim in a new element, an "alien" element. There is an exhilaration in being a participant in the further evolution of humankind, in being "worked" on. I have the sense that certain “faculties” – not just in me but in every border resident, colored or noncolored – and dormant areas of consciousness are being activated, awakened. Strange, huh? And yes, the "alien" element has become familiar—never comfortable, not with society's clamor to uphold the old, to rejoin the flock, to go with the herd. No, not comfortable but home.
This book, then, speaks of my existence. My preoccupations with the inner life of the Self, and with the struggle of that Self amidst adversity and violation; with the confluence of primordial images; with the unique positionings consciousness takes at these confluent streams; and with my almost instinctive urge to communicate, to speak, to write about life on the borders, life in the shadows.
Books saved my sanity, knowledge opened the locked places in me and taught me first how to survive and then how to soar. La madre naturaleza succored me, allowed me to grow roots that anchored me to the earth. My love of images—mesquite flowering, the wind, Ehecatl, whispering its secret knowledge, the fleeting images of the soul in fantasy—and words, my passion for the daily struggle to render them concrete in the world and on paper, to render them flesh, keeps me alive.
The switching of "codes" in this book from English to Castillian Spanish to the North Mexican dialect to Tex-Mex to a sprinkling of Nahuatl to a mixture of all of these, reflects my language, a new language—the language of the Borderlands. There, at the juncture of cultures, languages cross-pollinate and are revitalized; they die and are born. Presently this infant language, this bastard language, Chicano Spanish, is not approved by any society. But we Chicanos no longer feel that we need to beg entrance, that we need always to make the first overture—to translate to Anglos, Mexicans and Latinos, apology blurting out of our mouths with every step. Today we ask to be met halfway. This book is our invitation to you—from the new mestizas.”25