Alice Baumgartner on Her March 2015 JAH Article

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Alice Baumgartner is a Ph.D. student at Yale University, whose research focuses on the U.S.–Mexico borderlands. Her dissertation examines the thousands of American slaves who escaped to Mexico during the nineteenth century and the ways in which their story revises our understandings of the Civil War. Her Louis Pelzer Award–winning article “The Line of Positive Safety: Borders and Boundaries in the Rio Grande Valley, 1848–1880” appeared in the March 2015 issue of the Journal of American History.

Could you briefly summarize what your article is about?

The article asks: what makes a border a border? At first glance, the answer seems simple: if a border divides two countries, then the Rio Grande was a border from the moment the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo delineated it as the dividing line between the United States and Mexico. But, as historians are wont to point out, reality is more complicated.

After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the U.S. government claimed limited jurisdiction on the Mexican border, defending only against incursions by Indians and foreign armies. Local authorities were responsible for policing transnational crime. At first, local officials succeeded in maintaining order because of the economic and social ties that facilitated cooperation with authorities across the border. But as these ties grew strained, violence and crime increased, not only limiting movement across the border, but also threatening to provoke a war with Mexico. Although the threat came neither from Indians nor foreign armies, the government sent troops to the Rio Grande, claiming jurisdiction previously assigned to the states.

Could you expand on or give a concrete example of the “transnational crime”–what exactly did this entail?

Some of it was what you would expect: gunfights, hold-ups, robberies. (The U.S. Consul in Matamoros memorably complained that a man could commit murder in Mexico and then cross to Texas, still dressed “in his pantaloons stained with the blood of his victim.”) But the most common and destructive crime was livestock rustling, which, admittedly, seems antiquated and obscure—so much so that the archivists often thought they had misunderstood me when I asked for help. (“You’re researching what?”) In a region dominated by ranching though, livestock thieves wreaked havoc. They were, in some respects, the narcos of the nineteenth century. To one diplomat, they were “unendurable…worse than the Apaches in the heyday of their career.”

How did you become interested in your topic?

It all started with Steve Aron and Jeremy Adelman’s provocative state-of-the-field essay “From Borderlands to Bordered Lands.” The essay stated that the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo “inscribed the Rio Grande as a border” but also that that “international boundaries remained dotted lines that took a generation to solidify” (838, 840). That got me thinking: What happened in those three decades? Did the border “solidify”? What would that even mean?

Why is borderland history new, exciting, and different?

Arguably, the most important question that history can answer is how things change—and, particularly now, as our political system stalls, and each news cycle seems even more disturbing than the last, if anything ever changes. Borderlands historians have often answered in the negative. Emphasizing continuity over change, they argue that these peripheral regions represent an “unbroken past” (as Patty Limerick put it) of state imposition and local resistance.

But borderlands history is particularly suited to answering questions about change, because it is, by definition, comparative, and because its geographic constraints present fewer independent variables than any other kind of comparative history. (In other words, if something changes in northern Mexico, but not South Texas—a region that is subject to at least some of the same forces—you have a narrower range of possible explanations than if you are trying to explain why something changes in, say, Cuba but not Brazil.) American historians don’t talk as much as we should about methodology, but that, to me, is what makes borderlands history exciting: its methodological possibilities.

This history is particularly important now, as Congress debates how to secure the border with Mexico. The assumption often seems to be that the border has never been secure because the drones, fences, and Border Patrol agents are recent innovations. But the militarization of the border is not directly proportional to its security, as even the most casual observer of our northern and southern borders knows. Even before white trucks began to patrol the Rio Grande, or a corrugated metal wall stretched into the Pacific at Imperial Beach, the U.S-Mexico border was, at times, secure. It is impossible to know for certain what will work in the future—no one has a crystal ball—but looking at what worked in the past gives us clues.

Has your work made you think of other types of borders or borderlands to be explored that may be removed from what most people consider borders? In other words, how expansive is this topic? Is it limited by nation-states? Geography?

It struck me, when I started this project, that no historian had defined borders, at least not explicitly. To some, the instruments of state power—gates and fences, patrols and immigration officers—were evidence of border formation. By this standard, could the less militarized Canadian border even qualify as such?  To others, what defined a border was state control over who or what could cross it. But no border is impermeable—not even the Berlin Wall. The obstacles to crossing a border, whether political or economic, social or physical, are in continuous flux, as are the means of avoiding these constraints. But that got me thinking of the relationship between borders and mobility. I grew up in Chicago and live in New Haven, and in both cities, a street marks the line between where it is safe and unsafe to walk at night. And if these were boundaries, then national borders were a subset of a much larger category.

I started to think of boundaries as any line across which movement was restricted and borders as a kind of political boundary. (So, to answer the question, the definition of borders was limited to nation-states, the more expansive category of boundaries was not.) These lines were not impermeable—to cross them came at a risk—but they were distinct from what I called border lines, which statesmen drew on maps, but which citizens did not hesitate to cross. These distinctions helped me to see the means by which the line became a boundary is intimately linked to the process by which the boundary became a border

How did you decide what sources to use? What sort of benefits/drawbacks are there from using these sources?

The most important source that I used was the testimonies collected in 1873 by three Mexican commissioners sent to investigate the growing disorder in the Rio Grande Valley. The commissioners asked a standard series of questions to anyone who would come speak with them—a wide swathe of norteños from ranch hands to justices of the peace. This was an incredible source—and I have Brian DeLay to thank for pointing me to it. (It was, as he put it, a “GOLDMINE.”) That said, the commission was not objective: the government in Mexico City wanted to discredit a U.S. report that blamed Mexico for the border’s lawlessness. (And, unsurprisingly, that is what the commissioners concluded.) The norteños who testified might also have had a bone to pick with the Americans, and some of their testimonies have to be taken with a grain of salt. But then there are parts where they are saying things that they don’t have to say: the witnesses might have condemned the Texans for everything that went wrong since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, but instead they talked about cooperating with their neighbors in the 1850s and 60s. I was still a little skeptical of this “Golden Age” of cooperation, until I found evidence of it in local and state archives in northern Mexico.

What might scholars outside of your field take away from your article?

Historians like to talk about politics and economics, law and ideas, war and resistance, as mechanisms of historical change. This article suggests that we should add violence to that list.

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