C Magazine


Issue 134

Racialized Landscapes: Marking Territory Across North America
by Mary E. Mendoza

In July 2012, the town of Stanstead, QC, which sits on the Canada–USA divide, officially barricaded the last of three streets crossing into the town of Derby Line, Vermont. After an uptick in illegal entry into Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police facilitated a joint-agreement with the Integrated Border Enforcement team and local officials from both towns to authoritatively block cross-border traffic on Church Street. Three years prior to this agreement, officials had closed off the other two streets using small, unimposing metal gates but opted to leave Church Street open. This was in large part because the Haskell Free Library and Opera House straddles the borderline at Church Street and has served both towns since 1904. Residents worried that closing the street would restrict access to the historic transnational institution. To protect the library’s cross-border legacy, officials agreed to continue allowing access to the building for locals from both sides of the border with no requirement for a passport or visa. Still, the need for a barrier to mark the boundary line on the street seemed pressing. In the end, officials settled on an unimposing barricade: a row of flower pots.

This cross-border library on the Canada–USA divide is emblematic of how boundaries connect. At the point where Stanstead meets Derby Line, the Haskell Library, built to cultivate cross-border ties, brings people together to share stories, knowledge and art. Inside the library, a black line on the floor marks the place where the international boundary line splits the historic building, yet people move across it without a care as they browse books and interact with one another. The building acts as a space where international communities merge. Inside, it is almost a border-free zone. It is the ideal border community.

But borders are funny places. They are paradoxical. They connect, but they also divide. Along the Canada-USA border, one can find Indigenous lands divided and increasing concern about migration across the line. And, If you travel roughly 2,600 miles south and west from the Haskell Free Library, you’ll encounter even more disruption: a border environment where huge, metal barriers erupt from the ground, tearing through vast landscapes, marking where “the Third World grates against the first and bleeds.”1 These metal barriers show a darker side of border enforcement and division and, given recent events in the United States, there is no indication that the construction of large, imposing barriers intended to wall off one community from another will subside any time soon.

Fences along the USA-Mexico border, though, are not new. The earliest border-fortification projects along the line appeared in 1911. Built by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to stop the movement of wandering cattle believed to carry a disease-spreading tick to the northern ranges of the U.S, these fences served to protect the then-growing stock industry in the USA West. Years earlier, the USDA had launched an eradication campaign to rid the USA of the tick, but cattle in Mexico that wandered across the border continued to threaten that eradication program. To ensure that cattle would not cross the border without inspection, the USDA set up checkpoints and built fences along the border so that cattle entering the USA for trade could be examined and quarantined before travelling north. These first fences, then, had nothing to do with human migration.

In the 1940s, after decades of concern about cattle disease, border fortification projects transformed from efforts to control animals and pathogens into a large-scale project to control the nature of human migration. In the wake of the American entry into World War II, labour gaps in the USA caused by the departure of thousands of men and women for the war effort prompted the USA and Mexican governments to sign a bilateral agreement for a guest-worker program known as the Bracero Program (1942–1964). The declared rationale underpinning this program was reciprocity and mutual respect. First, by bringing in guest workers, the United States would gain from cheap labour to fill in gaps in the labour force, which would promote the growth of economies of the Southwest (and elsewhere). Second, Mexico would benefit from a system that created a way for Mexican officials to regulate emigration to the United States. Mexican government officials, intent on maintaining a stable workforce, hoped to limit the number of labourers leaving Mexico for the United States.

Because not all Mexicans who applied to work as part of the Bracero Program were accepted, many aspiring labourers opted to venture north on their own, hoping to earn a living working on USA soil.2 This resulted in a mass exodus that caused concern on both sides of the border. Within one year of the start of the Bracero Program, Mexican landholders as well as braceros themselves petitioned the Mexican government to curtail the flight of workers. Landholders in Mexico complained the cause of crop failure was a dwindling labour force while braceros in the USA argued that unsanctioned migrants were taking jobs away from them and reducing their wages.3 Hearing these cries, Mexican officials pressured the USA to secure its borders.

Within six months of a 1943 meeting between the two governments, the USA Border Patrol “committed itself to strengthen patrol force along the Mexican border,”4 with new agents focused on apprehending Mexican nationals who crossed the border surreptitiously. By the end of 1943, Border Patrol Chief William F. Kelly launched a concentrated apprehension effort and the agency began a decade-long deportation campaign, culminating with the largest official deportation effort known as Operation Wetback in 1954. Between 1943 and 1954, the Border Patrol deported thousands of Mexican border-crossers. To supplement the work of patrolmen, the USA Department of Labor also built fences in urban areas to push migrants into rural areas where agents could more easily find them.

During the Bracero era, which ended in 1964, increasingly strict immigration guidelines and policing curtailed people’s freedom of movement, and the USA and Mexican governments began to see fences primarily as a deterrent to human migration. Notions of racial difference played a central part in this shift, as increasingly anxious white authorities looked back on public health concerns from earlier in the century that had marked Mexican stock and Mexico as filthy and diseased. The transition from bugs to human bodies came about through larger discourses about race, space and purity, and migration itself soon became a criminal act.

Fences became a focal point and the go-to tool for immigration control. In the postwar era, they grew in length and size, and increasing concerns about migration from Mexico saturated the news, dominated political debate and resulted in continued fortification to control the flow of human migration. The fence transformed from barbed wire, to chain link, then into large, metal barricades and finally into a series of metal poles placed very near to each other to mark the international line.

Fences have a long, complex history in the United States. From colonial New England to the 21st century USA Southwest, fences have demarcated spatial relationships in a powerful way. They have marked out racial territory and restricted the movement of people and animals, often significantly affecting access to vital resources. In colonial New England, fences were “the most visible symbol of an ‘improved’ landscape.’”5 When John Winthrop arrived in Massachusetts, he asserted that the absence of fences justified banishing Native peoples in ways that would resonate with Euro-Americans for centuries.6

For Winthrop, the absence of fences left the American landscape open for settlement and meant that Native Americans were not making claim to the land they inhabited. As settlers “improved” the land by seizing it and building on it, laws and fences began to dictate the way property was defined. Settlers built fences to protect their crops. If they didn’t, then they could not make a claim in court if their crops incurred damage from other settlers’ roaming livestock.7

According to Virginia DeJohn Anderson, “Livestock caused major problems with subsistence practices, land use, property rights and ultimately, political authority.”8 Commons grazing was standard practice in early America, but the free movement of animals also meant that there was the danger of animals wandering into planted fields and ruining crops. Anderson argues that, in New England, fences not only to kept animals in a particular place, but also to kept them out of cropland. This differed from English law, which only required fences to keep animals confined within a certain space. This dual function resulted in thousands of miles of fences across the land– and with that spread came massive dispossession of Native land.

Just as fences severely disrupted the Native American economy in New England, the same became true in the American West. Fences blocked Native Americans from hunting grounds, closed off transportation routes and displaced them from their land. As settlers bound the land, they created a checkerboard of racialized spaces across the continent. Some scholars go as far as to claim that fences were the cause of Native American ethnocide.9 This imposition of Euro-American ideals robbed Native Americans of their practices regarding land use. Yet fences, for settlers represented material proclamations, indicating dominion over the land.10 In short, fences in American history have reinforced deeply entrenched racial hierarchies in USA society.

And those divisions did not stop at Native dispossession. As fences sprouted in the developing west, they also rose out of the ground to delineate where the USA ended and Mexico began, cutting cross-border communities in two; dividing families, towns, ecosystems and economies, and blocking Latino immigrants from entry into the United States. Today, over 650 miles of fences stretch across the 1,951-mile border landscape. The fences funnel migrants to dangerous deserts or rivers where they face the harsh realities of the natural elements. Since 2000, roughly 6,000 migrant bodies have been found dead in the borderlands and there are likely countless others yet to be discovered. Border fences work to actively drive human traffic to the most dangerous places in order to prevent them from entering USA territory. These fences, too, are highly racialized.

In spite of this fraught history, fences continue to permeate and define USA society and ideas about ownership and property. In celebration of the American fence, the National Building Museum created an exhibition that, from May 31, 1996 until January 5, 1997, displayed the various kinds of fences built across the United States. Just over 10 years later, the Smithsonian used these materials to create a travelling exhibition in 2008. Between Fences encouraged visitors to, “embrace the importance of a crucial aspect of our personal and national heritage.”11 Although it did ask some provocative questions about the role of the fence in creating exclusive communities, the exhibition mostly exalted fences, arguing that fences are a cornerstone of American society. In the exhibition’s publication, curator Gregory K. Dreicer wrote of fences:

Fences define, protect, confine, and liberate. They tell us where we belong and who we are in relation to others. Fences join the public and the private. Remove a fence; invite chaos. Erect a fence; you are home… Fences make space into place.12

Although the publication briefly discusses fences at international borders, it does not appear to take any stand, and, in praising fences as a crucial technology in American culture, it focuses on the ways in which fences have allowed for “progress.” Later that year, when the Arizona Humanities Council agreed to host the exhibition at six different museums in the border state, it was not well received.13

Two thousand six hundred and sixty-five miles from Derby Line, Vermont and Stanstead, QC lies another cross-border community – Ambos Nogales. Ambos means “both” in Spanish and it refers to what is now two distinct towns located on either side of a large fence: Nogales, Arizona lies north of the border while Nogales, Sonora lies to the south of it. Just north of one of the ports of entry to the USA along International Street, there is a small building with a noticeable but unimposing clock tower. Built in 1914, the building originally housed inmates as the Nogales City Hall and Jail. Today it is home to the Pimería Alta Historical Society. Named in recognition of the towns’ origins as the upper land of the Pima Indians, part of this building now serves as a small heritage centre and archive for both border towns. In 2008, when the local community heard that the Smithsonian’s travelling fences exhibition would make its debut in Arizona at the Historical Society, archivists, local historians and town residents mobilized to create their own exhibition to refute the celebration of barriers and to celebrate the cross-border communities. The exhibition, aptly called In Spite of Fences, consisted of local artifacts, books, oral histories and photographs, used to “tell the story of how the industrial, commercial, cultural and social world of Ambos Nogales functions as one.”14 It included information on migratory birds, cross-border families, ranches and Indigenous knowledge and culture that continues to traverse the border.

In an article about the exhibition, Alfred C. Holden criticized the American government’s continual efforts to divide Nogales’ vibrant border community, challenging the notion that fences led to progress. “Fences exist because far removed national governments decide they are needed,”he wrote. “While accomplishing other ends, fences on our border don’t convey harmony or friendship.” He went on to describe the transition from an open, friendly community to one increasingly marred by divisive structures:

Now the word ambos has vanished from our local lexicon. In the old days, we could stroll on either of the parallel International Streets with an open view of the other side unimpeded by the huge American customs and immigration buildings. The first two story government building of 1964 blocked the view and destroyed our classic 1905 stone railroad depot; then again in the 1990s an even more forbidding behemoth rose, the DeConcini building, that encroaches deeper into Nogales, Arizona and so tall as to leave adjacent areas in sinister shadows. All starting with a fence.

Despite this local resistance, fences continue to divide Ambos Nogales and other communities along the USA– Mexico border.

Around the time of the exhibition, construction on a new set of fences in Ambos Nogales commenced. This iteration of construction was a part of the Secure Fence Act, signed in 2006 by USA President George W. Bush. The Act legislated that the Department of Homeland Security build 700 miles of reinforced fences in segments along the USA-Mexico border. To date, around 650 miles of fences, built in segments, exist. And, in recent weeks, the Department of Homeland Security, under the new presidential leadership of Donald Trump, has solicited proposals from architects and contractors for a continuous, 2,000-mile wall to completely wall off one nation from the other, much to the chagrin of border residents.

For Indigenous tribes like the Tohono O’odham Nation, the proposed wall threatens their way of life. The O’odham’s traditional lands traverse the border and were severed when the boundary line was drawn in 1848. In recent years, increasing enforcement and growing fences have kept tribal members living south of the border from entering their historic lands north of the line. Sometimes members go to the current border to conduct tribal business across the fence. The fence is now made up of posts of varying heights that are strung together by several strands of barbed wire. The different sized posts, called vehicle barriers, are designed to prevent one from balancing a ramp on the posts and driving a car over the fence. But as it stands, the fence on the reservation, although it has disrupted tribal life, is relatively small. A wall would threaten their sovereignty and way of life even more. In a recent interview, Bradley Moreno, a tribal member noted how a wall would affect tribal life, “It’s going to affect our sacred lands. It’s going to affect our ceremonial sites. It’s going to affect the environment. We have wildlife, and they have their own patterns of migration. There are just so many things that are wrong with this. The whole idea behind it is just racist.”15

Indeed, border enforcement practices can reveal much about race relations in the USA and across the North American continent. Borders are funny places. Lines that connect and divide, they are unnatural and imposing to the cultural and natural lexicon of ecosystems that they slice. Marking the edges of nation states, these paradoxical locations perplex those who seek to control them. In spite of fences, people, animals, bugs and ideas continue to cross national boundaries, rendering fences powerless to stop movement, yet they remain highly symbolic of Euro-American dominance over historically marginalized peoples.