American Civilisation and Its Jagged Frontier: The Depiction of the U.S.-Mexico Border As Rough Country

By Dr. Joel Zapata

Anthropologist Victor M. Ortiz Gonzalez has noted that the United States’ popular culture continually represents the nation’s southern “border region as a ‘no-man’s-land.’ ”[1] In other words, within the American popular imaginary, the U.S.-Mexico border is at the frontier of the nation’s dominant—Anglo-American—social-cultural world. Unsurprisingly, contemporary right-wing American politicians that routinely espouse white supremist ideals have adopted such depictions of the U.S.-Mexico border within their rhetoric. This partisan rhetoric is perhaps the most illuminating way to demonstrate how the U.S.-Mexico border is imagined as a frontier outside the total control of Anglo-American society.

For example, in the summer of 2015 the then Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump told the explicitly right-wing Fox News that he would visit the American border city of Laredo, Texas “despite the great danger.” He went on to say, “I may never see you again, but we’re going to do it.” Despite the supposed danger of visiting the U.S.-Mexico border, Trump “affirmed that ‘I have to do it, I love this country.’ ”[2] Trump embraced the idea that border was (is) a dangerous place that remains outside of the United State’s full control. Thus, the border was (is) in need of civilizing through fencing, policing, militarizing, and organizing citizens.

Laredo, however, is actually one of the safest cities in the state of Texas.[3] In addition, the largest American city along the Texas-Mexico Border, El Paso, has been ranked as the safest large city in the United States for multiple years in a row since 2011.[4] Confirming the safety felt along Texas’s border communities, a 2010 poll commissioned by the Border Network for Human Rights found that of the 1,222 people surveyed, “87.5 percent…said they felt safe as they drove and walked in their neighborhoods.” Some Texas border cities surpassed that percentage, such as in McAllen, where “93 percent of residents said they felt safe.”[5] Reporting on the poll, the officially non-partisan Texas Tribune concluded that “[a] large majority of the residents of Texas cities on the U.S.-Mexico border feel relatively safe despite harsh rhetoric from lawmakers and a consistent media portrayal of their communities as war zones.”[6] Why, though, do lawmakers, those who aspire to become lawmakers, and a popular media outlets portray border communities as dangerous to the point of depicting them as war zones?

Fundamentally, those running for political office as well as media outlets want votes and ratings from sensationally depicting the border as dangerous and as not fully controlled by American society. Yet, when politicians and media outlets portray the U.S.-Mexico border as a dangerous place where life remains perilous, they are tapping into a long-held sentiments that historians have closely tracked. Historical Anthropologist Robert Wuthnow has documented how nineteenth-century Anglo-American newspapers described the Rio Grande Valley, where South Texas borders Mexico, as populated “by ‘semi-civilized Mexicans, a vicious conglomerate by interbreeding of the dregs of Spanish Europe, the wild Indian tribes, and the negros.’ ”[7] Through such language, nineteenth-century observers pushed for “corrective measures” in order to ensure “that civilization would prevail” in the rough country of the Rio Grande Valley, the frontier of Anglo-American civilization.[8]

Rhetoric embraced by some Trump’s supporters follows similar lines of reasoning. Revealingly, one of Trump’s supporters that greeted him in Laredo, a woman named Elizabeth Allen, told The Atlantic,They live here in the ugliest little houses. They will kill for their flag….They will never love our country. They are here only to use us and to steal our money.” Allen was referring to undocumented Mexican immigrants. However, she did not seem to differentiate between an unauthorized immigrant, authorized immigrants, and Mexican Americans since all three groups can live in poverty and within “the ugliest little houses.” She went on to claim that she grew up near the border and that “her uncle was stabbed by an illegal immigrant.”[9] Evidently, some individuals still see the border as populated by “vicious” and “semi-civilized” Mexicans who live in housing outside of the middle-class Anglo-American norm, steal, kill, and make the border region a rough country. Such lines of thought, of course, match the xenophobic rhetoric of President Donald Trump and others who depict Mexicans as dangerous criminals. Indeed, Trump launched his 2016 presidential campaign with an anti-Mexican tirade that garnered him widespread attention and perhaps his electoral victory:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.….And it only makes common sense. It only makes common sense. They’re sending us not the right people. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.[10]

Notably, such words ignore the lower crime rates among immigrants when compared to United States citizens, a social fact acknowledged by both left-leaning and right-leaning researchers.[11] Nevertheless, the majority Mexican-origin population of the border helps make the region an imaginatively dangerous region at the fringes of American society, or civilization. Such ideas regarding the border and its inhabitants, whether imagined or real, seem to be the foundation for Trump’s ability to declare some of the safest communities in the United States as dangerous for him and others. When challenged, he can unspecifically reply, “ ‘We’ll be showing you the evidence,’ ” because in the psyche of some Americans, the border is a region is a rough country in need of civilisation with or without solid evidence.


Dr Joel Zapata is Assistant Professor of History at Oregon State University. His dissertation: “The Mexican Southern Plains: Creating an Ethnic Mexican Homeland on the Llano,” received the 2020 National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies Tejas Foco Dissertation Award and he has published widely on the history of the U.S.-Mexico border. You can read more about his work at joelzapata.com or follow him on Twitter @xicanohistorian.

Image Credit:

Photo of Tijuana/San Diego Mexico/U.S. Border By Sgt. 1st Class Gordon Hyde – http://www.ngb.army.mil, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2614735

References:

[1] Victor M. Ortiz Gonzalez, El Paso: Local Frontiers at a Global Crossroads (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), x.

[2] Nick Corasaniti, “Donald Trump Visits Border in Laredo, ‘Despite the Great Danger,’ ” New York Times, July 23, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/politics/first-draft/2015/07/23/donald-trumps-border-visit-stirs-passions-in-laredo/?_r=0.

[3] Corasaniti.

[4] Daniel Borunda, “El Paso rankings: Safest, best places for families, least hipster,” El Paso Times, January 8, 2014, http://archive.elpasotimes.com/news/ci_24865165/el-paso-rankings-safest-best-places-families-and/; Julían Aguilar, “El Paso Again Tops the List of the Safest U.S. Cities,” Texas Tribune, February 5, 2013, http://www.texastribune.org/2013/02/05/el-paso-again-ranked-countrys-safest-city/.

[5] Julían Aguilar, “The Majority of Texas Border Residents Feel Safe,” Texas Tribune, August 10, 2010, http://www.texastribune.org/2010/08/10/poll-majority-of-border-residents-feel-safe/.

[6] Julían Aguilar, “The Majority of Texas Border Residents Feel Safe.”

[7] Robert Wuthnow, Rough Country: How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible-Belt State (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 27.

[8] Wuthnow, 26.

[9] Molly Ball, “There’s No Stopping the Trump Show,” The Atlantic, July 24, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/07/theres-no-stopping-the-trump-show/399587/.

[10] Time Staff, “Here’s Donald Trump’s Presidential Announcement Speech,” Time, June 16, 2015, http://time.com/3923128/donald-trump-announcement-speech/.

[11] Christopher Ingraham, “Two charts demolish the notion that immigrants here illegally commit more crime,” The Washington Post, June 19, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2018/06/19/two-charts-demolish-the-notion-that-immigrants-here-illegally-commit-more-crime/; Alex Nowrasteh, “Illegal Immigrants and Crime—Assessing Evidence,” March 4, 2019, Cato Institute, https://www.cato.org/blog/illegal-immigrants-crime-assessing-evidence.