VQR on borders and barriers.

Border Crosses
Crosses along the border wall memorialize those who didn’t make it (Kay Fochtmann / CC)

The newly-released spring issue of Virginia Quarterly Review is dedicated to the topic of border walls, notably those found in Israel, the United States, China and formerly in Germany. It’s the pair of articles about the U.S. / Mexico border that I have learned the most from.

One of those, Philip Caputo’s “Life on the Line: The Arizona-Mexico Border” is available to the general public. The author writes about the human toll of immigration (and the lack thereof), explaining how immigration has affected Americans who live along the border and how immigration restrictions have affected Mexicans and their centuries-old cyclical work migration patterns.

The second article, Charles Rappleye’s “Mexico, America, and the Continental Divide,” is available only to subscribers. Rappleye explains the history of the southern border itself, migratory workers, and how American policy has changed over the years to deal with the need for workers. One of the most remarkable bits in the article was this:

[A]s I reviewed the mapped, state-by-state data from the most recent American census, I was struck by a remarkable pattern: those states with the highest concentrations of Latinos (or as they are called by the census, Persons of Hispanic Origins) conform almost precisely to the region appropriated from Mexico by the United States in the 1840s. If you include just the states where Latinos comprise 25 percent or more of the population, there are no exceptions: California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. If you draw the line at 10 percent Latino, you get some others in geographic proximity—Nevada and Colorado—and a few more that are anomalous: Illinois, where Mexicans have worked industrial jobs since the 1920s; New York, which includes many non-Mexican Hispanics; and Florida, where Cubans and other Caribbean Latins swell the count.


In other words, it’s fair to say that Los Angeles is as much Mexican as it is American, but it’s more than that. Los Angeles is the metropolitan seat of a broad region of Anglo-Mexican overlap and integration, a region that was given by one historian the hybrid name “Mexamerica.” It’s an apt designation, but it’s too static to capture the dynamic nature of what’s going on. What the census map suggests to me is the continuing extension of Mexico’s population into its natural hinterlands. It’s a matter of flow, the demographic equivalent of osmosis. Remember, in terms of human history and the movement of peoples, this is still a very young continent. Five hundred years, if you count the first landfall of white men; fewer if you count actual settlement. Within that time frame, the gradual infill of peoples is an ongoing process, far from complete. If you start with the Anglos in the east, and the Mexicans in the south, “the finger of nature,” as Thomas Hart Benton termed it, would designate the American Southwest as Mexican turf.

I’ve expressed uncertainty about how to deal with our southern border, and after reading these two articles, I’m not sure that I have any better of any idea as to the solution than I did before. The problem, though, I almost understand.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

5 replies on “VQR on borders and barriers.”

  1. Funny to see this post right after reading your last one:

    It’s time to build a wall between those blogs that are premised on this behavior and those that won’t stand for it.


  2. What a great article, “Life on the Line: The Arizona-Mexico Border,” by Phil Caputo! Told mainly from the point-of-view of US ranchers, it manages to include the thoughts of illegals, the Minutemen, and the ACLU without ever being preachy. The article brings one of its best lines – “the border issue isn’t two-sided—it’s more of a polygon” – to life. At 19 pages it’s a little longer than the 500 word articles many of us are used to, but it’s well-written and well worth it.

  3. I’m glad you liked it, JS. I suspect that somebody less open minded on either side of the debate would find it angering, given that it does display all of the sides of the issue pretty reasonably. It certainly challenged some of my assumptions on the topic. I wish that Rappleye’s piece were available to non-subscribers. He addresses the topic nearly as deftly as Caputo, from a policy perspective, rather than a human perspective.

    Caputo, BTW, is enormously famous as the author of A Rumor of War which forms one third of the triptych of literary works that define the Vietnam War. (The other two being Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” and Jim Webb’s “The Fields of Fire.”)

  4. If you haven’t read Enrique’s Journey (a wonderful book by Sonia Nazario), you really must. It’s written almost like a novel, but thoroughly researched. Enrique began his journey in Honduras, where I spend part of each summer working with other children who have been abused or abandoned. Even with that personal knowledge, I learned so much from this book. I practically stand on street corners handing it out.

Comments are closed.