The Changing Face of Border Culture Studies

September 25, 2007

Though research on the U.S.-Mexico border has a short history, the history of cultural studies of the border is even shorter. Despite its young age, border culture studies has emerged as a passionate field of study. In its short existence it has passed through at least five stages, which I would like to sketch here. This essay, which is based on a reading of over 50 publications produced by more than three dozen researchers, focuses exclusively on Mexican sources. Drawing on those sources that in my judgment are the most illustrative of each stage of border studies, it attempts to outline the conceptual, political and ethical bases of each of the different perspectives.

Writing in the mid-1970s, Miguel Leon-Portilla was the first Mexican researcher to examine the nature of the culture in northern Mexico, what he called "norteña society."[1] Referring to the culture of this region as "a northern variant of Mexican culture," he introduced a notion that has considerable heuristic power. For Leon-Portilla, the norteña societies displayed characteristics that were a sui generis variant of Mexican culture. Their specificity did not give rise to any political or cultural judgments; he simply recognized the uniqueness of northern culture, which had not been studied much and, as a result, was not widely known.

Leon-Portilla was not concerned about the fact that Mexico's northern region shares a border with the United States. For him, that proximity is a historical fact that highlights the region's distinctiveness, but is no more or less important a piece of information than the extensive presence of the Jesuits during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Both are notable for being social and historical conditions that other regions of Mexico do not share. What was so groundbreaking about Leon-Portilla's work was not so much his conclusions, or even his historical and anthropological descriptions of the border region. It was, rather, the focus that he adopted. His intent was simply to recognize the region's uniqueness, just as the uniqueness of the societies of Mexico's southeast, Centro-Occidente and Altiplano, were recognized.

Leon-Portilla's insights did not have much of an echo in Mexican academia. On the contrary, the works that followed in the 1980s adopted a completely different approach, in which both methodology and analysis were rooted in a metaphor: the cultural "invasion." In this approach, the border appears as a North American zone of cultural influence. For academics writing from this perspective, the essential goal of describing this regional culture is precisely—often exclusively—the cultural subjugation of Mexico to North American influence.[2]

The emphasis on "invasion" produced a political and cultural rhetoric that insisted on safeguarding national traditions and values from the powerful North American penetration. This approach is preoccupied with "losses": Mexicans living on the border are seen as obliged to speak English, use dollars, listen to North American radio programs, watch U.S. television, support the spread of Anglo-Saxon religious institutions and make their purchases on the "other side." The border, as seen through the eyes of these researchers, is a zone of high cultural risk. As a result, they argue, the local media, schools, parents, neighborhood associations and other institutional actors should support the battle that Mexicans on the border wage "to avert the systematic destruction of ways of life, the system of values, and way of thinking of Mexicans as a whole who live there."[3] According to this perspective, the authentic Mexico, located in central Mexico, is impervious to foreign "penetration"; in the outskirts—the northern border—national culture is thinner. Because of its distance from the center, the northern border is a zone that is particularly vulnerable to cultural invasion.

There is no scientific rationale for this focus on "the culturally invaded" or "the risky" zone. It emerges from a political and ethical framework that considers the "North Americanization" of Mexicans to be dangerous. Advocates of this perspective, which is rooted in nineteenth-century Mexican romantic nationalism, see their audience as the national government and its institutions.[4] Their goal is to alert those responsible for the country's educational, cultural and communication policies to the dangers of U.S. cultural penetration. Cultural exchange in the border region is viewed as surrender, loss and risk. It is, in other words, a "de-Mexicanization," as it is defined from the center of power.

The vision of a "culturally invaded" border, it seems to me, is based on a naïve reification of national cultures. Otherwise, it would be impossible to talk about "penetrations." Academics writing in this perspective conceive of national cultures as solid, unambiguous entities that are correctly distributed across human space. Margarita Nolasco and María Luisa Acevedo, who assert that the border is a "long imaginary line" that divides "Latin culture in its Mexican variant" from "Anglo-Saxon culture in its U.S. variant," are particularly guilty of such reification.[5] With these conceptual dichotomies, it is very easy to draw the borders and build military metaphors.

In reaction to the focus on "invasion," a wave of new studies emerged that sought to demonstrate the exact opposite of the "invasion" approach. This school argued that Mexicans on the border are, culturally speaking, very Mexican. This new approach was, at first, timidly presented.[6] But later, the idea that border communities were best suited to defend Mexican culture began to take on nationalist overtones.[7]

In this perspective, cultural and national identity emerges in the process of differentiating between "us" and "them." Since the "other" is inevitably the "North American," it follows, according to this logic, that Mexicans on the border—who are in daily contact with the "true concrete others"—will necessarily seek to differentiate themselves. To the extent that they see themselves as different from the "North American," they will more easily recognize their own identity.

Advocates of this new perspective gathered evidence that made it possible to show that the border is a place of differentiation vis-à-vis the foreign, the "other." They then concluded that Mexicans on the border not only better resisted North American cultural "penetration," but also that they are more deeply attached to national traditions and values in natural reaction to the proximity of the "other." The closeness, in this case, has the opposite effect to that asserted in previous studies. Now the geographic proximity distinguishes, differentiates, separates, clarifies.

This approach, I think, suffers from three sorts of theoretical naïveté. First, "national identity" is presented as something already completed and uniform in space and time as if it were a ready-to-wear suit. Everything is presented as if individuals have only to spontaneously select the identity that suited them and best represented their interests. Second, the rejection of foreign (North American) culture is conceived of as the "natural" result of geographic proximity. It almost seems to be a game of action and reaction in a divided arena where the "other" is always different and always found on "the other side." Finally, the definition of national identity that underlies this perspective assumes that the "other" is in its place, like in scholastic maps, and, therefore, the "we" is like the national territory—united, contiguous, indivisible. The difference is that now national identity is not constructed from the center, but from the margins.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, some academics began to portray the border as the crucible of new identities, a kind of postmodern laboratory. This school, examined by Eduardo Barrera, conceives of the border as a unique territory where identities are transformed as a result of encounters and acts of resistance, mixtures and migrations, bonds and ruptures, giving way to new identities, new oppositions and "curious" symbolic co-existences.[8] This literature points to one main conclusion: The border is a zone where hybrid identities are produced by very diverse and heterogeneous cultural crosscutting. "National identity is not the opposite of international identity," asserts Carlos Monsiváis, one proponent of this view, "but the method to internalize an international condition (life under savage capitalism)."[9]

Researchers within this school of thought directed their attention to the production of new identities that they defined as such. In other words, the spotlight focused on the "new we's" that, at least on the surface, are characteristic of border society. Thus, to the degree that globalization, and communications have expanded greatly in recent decades, the border—a producer of new identities where almost everything fits—presages what is going to happen in many other regions of a postmodern world characterized by deterritorialization, multiple identities and blending.

This discourse, like that of the "penetration" theorists, was directed at ruling elites, but not to indicate that border societies were culturally in jeopardy or valiantly defending national culture. Rather, the point was to show that the mixing of culture is the common fate of all open societies. Proponents of this view may not expect that state powers are going to welcome the new identities and cultural hybrids, but they hope to at least make them recognize that they are inevitable.

The emerging border identities, according to these researchers, bring together dissimilar elements, forging new identities in the process. Each of these elements is classified by its place of origin on the most simple scholastic map: the Brazilian is in Brazil or comes from Brazil; the North American is in the United States or comes from the United States; the rural is in the countryside or originates in the countryside; the angelino is in Los Angeles or comes from Los Angeles, and so on. Given its geographic position, each element enjoys, according to this analysis, an original purity. At the moment when an individual migrates—changes places—and comes together with other individuals from other places, the space or place of this intermingling ushers in new identities. In the eyes of the academic, this totality of heterogeneous facts—these facts that "are not in their place"—lend themselves to the singular metaphor of blending. There is a new unity: the unity that produces the mixture. Néstor García Canclini, one of the leading writers within this school, says: "We find intercultural blending also in another group from Tijuana and the border, like the rockeros, cholos and punks, who edit magazines and produce records and cassettes with information and music from various continents."[10]

By the late 1990s, a different focus emerged that sought to define the border culture starting from what Mexicans on the border say about themselves. This change is the likely result of the confluence of three factors. First, there was the criticism and self-criticism of different researchers.[11] Secondly, the inhabitants of the border demanded to define themselves, not be defined by outside observers.[12] And third, it was recognized that the border cannot be defined from only one side, but must be understood as a space of multiple interactions, as diffusion, as dispersion and emptying out.[13]

The critiques of previous approaches to border culture studies first recognized that the notions that have been used to construct descriptions of border life (tradition, otherness, identity, territory, etc.) presuppose the existence of both unity and exclusion. For that reason, these notions are incapable of accommodating what happens in regions where cultural dispersion is the most striking fact and where, as Jorge Arditi suggests, "cultures are not closed or unitary."[14] In fact, no culture is closed and unitary, least of all border cultures. The criticism invites the recognition that the notions that we academics use make it impossible to represent a border society that does not define itself as unitary or exclusionary.

The external character of the observer is not a function of place of birth or residence, but rather of the position that the observer occupies and the public to whom s/he directs her/his work. Observers are external if they position themselves as judge, arbitrator or evaluator of whether or not border societies respect or reproduce Mexican national values. Observers are external if their discourses are directed at the centers of power or if they attempt to explain the cultural characteristics of border societies to those who produce institutional controls. Observers are also external when they talk to border inhabitants from a position of academic power in order to fit them in one or more categories. The external nature of observation comes from an academic ritual in which the researcher gives name to those who have not been named. This is the only possible way to understand how we academics talk about invasion, defense, emergence and hybrid identities when referring to social actors who do not see themselves as invaded or defenders or newly emerged or hybrids.

Clearly, border inhabitants want to participate in the definition of their own society. Actually, the border inhabitants, as sociologist Pablo Vila contends, describe themselves in multiple and contradictory ways.[15] The important thing is to recognize those narratives in all their contradiction, in their positive and negative facets, in their fluidity and construction.[16]

This school, which can be called the "insider perspective," tries to take seriously the fact that all inhabited borders include diffusion and exchange. Therefore, the border cannot be described from only one side and at the service of only one side. Borders are defined precisely as the contiguity of many spatial and historical sides in which many codes co-exist and come in conflict. If this is so, it is not possible to continue studying border societies "from the Mexican point of view" while ignoring the other points of view. The border contains many points of view; its story can only be told from and through the diffusion of these various points of view.

This new perspective has permitted the discovery of the multiplicity of the "others" found on the border. In other words, for Mexican border inhabitants, the "others" are not exclusively or principally Anglo-Saxon. Often, the "others" are Mexicans from the south, Mexican-Americans, "Tex-Mexes" and indigenous Mexicans. Authors such as Laura Velasco have also brought to light the fact that border inhabitants of indigenous descent are building transborder images of their own communities in the south.[17] At the same time, in contrast to the earlier approaches described in this essay, writers of this school do not stress the confrontation with the "other" or reproduce binary oppositions, but rather express multiple subjectivities that interact in very dynamic spaces.[18]

The other distinguishing feature of the "insider" perspective is that it does not consider the state or ruling elites as its public. In fact, as a methodological principle, it ignores the claims, goals and agendas of cultural policy. Instead, it aims to put its research at the service of the same actors that it claims to describe in an attempt to undermine the academic pretense of seeking, in Olympian fashion, to replace the voices of the producers of societies. The "insider" perspective and the program established by Miguel Leon-Portilla thus share the same ethnographic approach: to study the "border variants of Mexican culture" without a political or institutional agenda.

These narratives do not fit into the canons of state concerns. Because they do not reproduce conceptual dichotomies, they create confusion among state actors whose function is to create borders and invent dichotomies. In relating the many ways in which the border is experienced and described by the border inhabitants, one is relating the unthinkable from the perspective of the canons of cultural policy or academic orthodoxy.

A conversation I had with nine-year-old Jaime in Ciudad Juárez illustrates this point. When I asked him how he viewed North Americans, Jaime responded: "Like us. The north [of Mexico] is almost the same as the United States, and the south is different." When asked why the north and south were different, Jaime explained that in northern Mexico, "America and Mexico are very close." "People go to El Paso to buy clothes," he said, "and here in Juárez, they are making clothes, just like in El Paso." When I asked him whether he thought northerners were most like Mexicans in the south or those in El Paso, he chose the latter. "That," he said, "is because almost everything now is the same."[19]

Víctor Zúñiga is professor of sociology at the Universidad de Monterrey and a member of the doctoral committee for the social sciences at the Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León. He has written widely on Mexican-American cultural relations and policies, cultural aspects of Mexican international migration to the United States, and urban poverty. He is also the director of The Georgia Project and has been a member of the National System of Researchers of Mexico since 1989. Translated from the Spanish by Deidre McFadyen.

The Changing Face of Border Studies
1. Miguel Leon-Portilla, Culturas en peligro (Mexico City: Alianza Editorial Mexicana, 1976).
2. José Isabel Candelaria, "La americanización de la frontera Tamaulipeca," Revista Momento (Nuevo Laredo: 1987), pp. 12-14; Alicia Castellano, Ciudad Juárez, la vida fronteriza (Mexico City: Editorial Nuestro Tiempo, 1981); Alicia Castellanos y Gilberto López, "La influencia norteamericana en la cultura de la frontera norte de México," in Roque González Salazar, ed., La frontera norte (Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 1981), pp. 68-84; Carlos Monsiváis, "La cultura de la frontera," in Estudios fronterizos (Mexico City: Asociación Nacional de Universidades e Instituciones de Educación Superior, 1981), pp. 289-310; Alejandra Salas-Porras, "La frontera: una larga lucha por la independencia," in Alejandra Salas-Porras, ed., Nuestra frontera norte (Mexico City: Editorial Nuestro Tiempo, 1989), pp. 7-42; Jorge Carrera, "Ciudad Juárez: Punta de lanza de las transnacionales," in Salas-Porras, ed., Nuestra frontera norte, pp. 119-142.
3. Margarita Nolasco and Maria Luisa Acevedo, Los niños de la frontera (¿Espejismos de una nueva generación?) (Mexico City: Ediciones Océano, 1985), p. 177.
4. Víctor Zúñiga, "Nations and Borders: Romantic Nationalism and the Project of Modernity," in David Spener and Kathleen Staudt, eds., The U.S.-Mexico Border: Transcending Divisions, Contesting Identities (Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998), pp. 35-55.
5. Nolasco and Acevedo, Los niños de la frontera, p. 167.
6. Amelia Malagamba, La televisión y su impacto en la población infantil de Tijuana (Tijuana: CEFNOMEX, 1986); Jorge Bustamante, "La aceptación de valores tradicionales es mayor en las ciudades norteñas," Cultura Norte, No. 2 (1980), pp. 32-36; Jorge Bustamante, "Identidad nacional en la frontera norte: Hallazgos preliminares," in Alfonso Corona Rentería, ed., Impactos regionales de las relaciones económicas México-Estados Unidos (Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 1984), pp. 36-49; Jorge Bustamante, "Frontera México-Estados Unidos, reflexiones para un marco teórico," in José Manuel Valenzuela, ed., Decadencia y auge de las identidades (Tijuana: El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, 1992), pp. 91-118; Jose Carlos Lozano, "Identidad nacional en la frontera norte," in Historia y Cultura, Vol. 6 (1992), pp. 51-75; Guillermina Valdez, "La demistificación de la frontera," in José Manuel Valenzuela, ed., Entre la magia y la historia (Mexico City: Programa Cultural de las Fronteras, 1992), pp. 249-259; José Manuel Valenzuela, "Identidades culturales: Comunidades imaginarias y contingentes," in Valenzuela, ed., Decadencia, pp. 49-66.
7. Néstor García Canclini, Culturas Híbridas (Mexico City: Grijalbo-Conaculta, 1989); Néstor García Canclini, "Escenas sin territorio: Cultura de los migrantes e identidades en transición," in Valenzuela, ed., Decadencia, pp. 11-32; Roger Rouse, Mexicano, chicano, pocho, la migración mexicana y el espacio social del posmodernismo (Mexico City: Paginauno, Unomasuno, 1988); José Manuel Valenzuela, "Las identidades nacionales frente al TLC," Sociológica, Vol. 8, No. 21 (1993), pp. 103-150; Maya Lorena Perez, "Las identidades entre fronteras," in Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, ed., Nuevas identidades culturales en México (Mexico City: CONACULTA, 1993), pp. 126-153.
8. Eduardo Barrera, Discursos emergentes de (desde/sobre) la frontera norte (Ciudad Juárez: ENTORNO, 1995), pp. 7-15.
9. Carlos Monsiváis, "La identidad nacional ante el espejo," in Valenzuela, ed., Decadencia, p. 72.
10. Néstor García Canclini, "Escenas sin territorio," in Valenzuela, Decadencia, p. 128
11. José Carlos Lozano, "Enfoques teóricos para el estudio de la cultura en la frontera México con Estados Unidos," Rio Bravo, a Journal of Borderlands, No. 3 (1991), pp. 27-46; Eduardo Barrera, Discursos emergentes, pp. 7-15; Víctor Zúñiga, ed., Voces de la frontera: Estudios sobre la dispersión cultural en la frontera México-Estados Unidos (Monterrey: Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León, 1998); Socorro Tabuenca, Mujeres y fronteras, una perspectiva de género (Chihuahua: Instituto Chihuahense de Cultura, 1998).
12. Luis García Abusaid, Oferta cultural y audiencias (Saltillo: Instituto Coahuilense de Cultura, 1998).
13. Jorge Arditi, "Dispersión, poder e identidad," in Zúñiga, ed., Voces, pp. 15-27.
14. Jorge Arditi, "Dispersión, poder e identidad," in Zúñiga, ed., Voces, pp. 15-27.
15. Víctoria Novelo, "Fronteras imaginadas," in Zúñiga, ed., Voces, pp. 29-41.
16. Pablo Vila, Angela Escajeda and Yvonne Montejano, "The Social Construction of Homogeneity and Heterogeneity on the U.S.-Mexico Border," in Fernando Rodriguez, ed., Understanding Sociology through Multicultural Issues (Dubuque: Eddie Bowers Publishing, 1996) pp. 59-80; Pablo Vila, "Sistemas clasificatorios y narrativas identitarias en Ciudad Juárez y El Paso," in Zúñiga, ed., Voces, pp. 137-220; and Victor Zúñiga, "Fronteras interétnicas," Revista Fronteras, No. 9 (1998), pp. 20-27.
17. Laura Velasco, "Voces indígenas: La rearticulación del territorio y tiempo en las comunidades de migrantes," in Zúñiga, Voces, pp. 83-136.
18. Tabuenca, Mujeres y fronteras.
19. Víctor Zúñiga, "Les Fonctions Séparatrices des Catégories de l'Espace: Enfants de la Frontière Mexique/États-Unis," Revue Geographie et Culture (forthcoming in 1999).

Tags: US-Mexico border, academia, culture, identity

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