Line in the Sand: A History of the Western U.S.-Mexico Border

Volume 45 (2012)

Reviewed Work(s)

Line in the Sand: A History of the Western U.S.-Mexico Border. America in the World Series. By Rachel St. John.(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011). x + 284 pp. Cloth, $29.95. Paper, $24.95.


In Line in the Sand, Rachel St. John takes a transnational yet highly specific approach to the study of the borderlands.  Rather than focusing on national policy structures, or an ethnic or racial group, St. John instead explores the complex history of the thin strip of land that separates the United States from Mexico, from the boundary’s first tentative survey in 1848 until the emergence of a modern border in the early 1930s.  This book can be divided into two parts.  The first half of this book details how the U.S.-Mexico border was established and enforced through the cooperation of both the United States and Mexico.  The second half explores how the border became racialized as the United States began to unilaterally exert power and control over the border.  St. John offers both a chronological and topical approach, examining how the meaning of the border has changed over time and how this transformation has led to “a line in the sand [to become] a conditional barrier between two nations and their people.” As a result, the author skillfully interrogates the ability of the nation-state to define physical as well as cultural and racial boundaries, noting “[t]his is the story of how two nation-states, their citizens and a host of historical forces have transformed an undistinguished strip of land into a site of capitalist production and a meaningful marker of state power and national identities” (11).

St. John begins her narrative at the beginning of both nations’ attempts to demarcate a geopolitical border between them.  Chapter 1 explores the difficulties of a binational effort to survey the U.S.-Mexico boundary in the decade following the conclusion of the U.S.-Mexican War.  According to St. John, the hardships that surveyors experienced while traversing the desert terrain and mapping the boundary on a physical landscape, as well as the failure of the Survey’s leaders to follow the orders of their national governments, exposes the inability of the nation-state to effectively organize and regulate physical space.  Chapter 2 details how the border began to solidify between the 1850s and the 1880s, as both nations cooperated in the capture of Apaches and rogue filibusterers.  The efforts of both the U.S. and Mexican militaries were integral to the firm establishment and demarcation of the border between the respective nation-states.  The next chapter builds upon the cooperative efforts of both Mexico and the United States by detailing how the borderlands had become an interconnected international community based on an emerging copper industry during the last two decades of the nineteenth century.

In chapter 4, the cleavages between the United States and Mexico become apparent.  The strict enforcement of customs duties along the border reshaped the borderlands and its citizens.  As customs revenue increased in importance in the first decade of the twentieth century, it became much more important to regulate the flow of traffic along the border and differentiate people based on national affiliation.  The following chapters explore how the border became less porous due to concerns of Mexican instability and iniquity.  In response to the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the U.S. began to guard the border heavily and suspect Mexicans living in the United States of being radical and anti-American.  During the Prohibition-era, the presence of red-light districts in Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez—where prostitution, gambling, and alcohol were allowed— led to the closing of ports of entry at nine o’clock in the evening.  Increased regulation disrupted the lives of many border-town denizens.  Businessmen and laypeople found their traditional movement across the border restricted.  Prominent citizens who had lived their lives in Mexicali, Mexico and Calexico, California saw their daily lives impeded when they could not cross the border to visit relatives or supervise businesses.  Such a stringent enforcement of the border represented a dramatic rupture in the traditionally binational nature of commerce and life in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

The final chapter of the book includes a discussion of the border patrol and its goal of preventing Chinese and later Mexican immigrants from crossing the border.  St. John adds nuance to this narrative by detailing how the U.S. government adjusted the porosity of the border to meets its needs.  A demand for agricultural labor forced the United States to allow Mexican migrants to cross the border freely to work in the fields of large agribusiness.  During the Great Depression, however, a dearth of jobs in the United States motivated the government to deport the same Mexican agricultural laborers that were once encouraged to cross the border.  To be sure, the border and its meaning to both the government and ordinary people fluctuated and changed over time.

In Line in the Sand, St. John emphasizes that while the U.S. government had a keenly defined vision for the border, the reality rarely matched its expectations.  Though the Border Patrol and its predecessors were successful in delimiting the border as a racialized space in which Chinese immigrants and later Mexican immigrants were deemed illegal, various groups were able to utilize this dividing line to their own advantage.  Line in the Sand also describes how weak the U.S. state was in controlling both physical space and the Apaches.  In the first chapter, she explains that the mapping process did not fulfill expectations because geographical markers intended to demarcate the border were not static.  While the U.S. government stated that the middle of the Gila River was meant to be a dividing line, the river constantly changed course so the middle would sometimes be closer to Mexico or the U.S. and at other times, went completely dry and thwarted both countries.  The U.S. government was also helpless in extirpating the threat posed by Apaches.  Without the aid and cooperation of renowned Mexican border-fighters such as Emilio Kosterlitzky, Apaches would have continued to thwart the U.S.’s sovereign space.  Later in the book, St. John details how Chinese immigrants crossed the border to obtain free-passage back to China after earning their desired amount of money in Mexico.

According to St. John, the history of the U.S-Mexico border demonstrates that it is anything but a rigid line that separates two countries.  Instead, she argues that while the border may be a fixed geopolitical boundary, it does not necessarily possess a singularly static and unchanging meaning.  St. John deftly demonstrates that the nation-state’s vision of borders and boundaries can be thwarted and manipulated by geography and culture.  She makes a poignant point when she reveals that the border-town of Nogales, Arizona/Sonora was once the site of binational celebrations which commemorated both Cinco de Mayo and George Washington’s birthday.  During these two holidays, the Arizona National Guard and the Gendarmería Físcal both paraded through the streets and swapped stories and drank well into the night.  Such an image contrasts sharply with the book’s conclusion in which St. John focuses on the Secure Fence Act of 2006. This act of Congress authorized the construction of physical barriers, the addition of more vehicle checkpoints, and the increased implementation of surveillance technology in order to prevent migrants from crossing into the United States from Mexico.  The Secure Fence Act exemplifies how the shared binational conviviality that had once defined the porosity of the border had transmogrified into a distinct mentality of uninational separation.  Cooperation had been replaced by unilateral policing; binational commerce and fluid immigration patterns were superseded by restrictions and stringent national barriers.  St. John aptly demonstrates that the border’s meaning has changed over time, and perhaps will change again in due time if we do not allow ourselves to become fenced in by the border’s current definition.

St. John joins a distinguished cadre of scholars who have diligently worked to uncover the diversity of the border’s meaning across time.  Line in the Sand, builds on the work of such scholars as Richard White as well as Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron, whose respective ideas of a “middle ground” and “peoples in between” emphasized how the hazy perimeters of nation-states allowed for typically marginalized actors to exploit the tenuous legal meaning of borders.[1]  St. John adds concreteness to the notion of a “peoples in between” by demonstrating how the border’s evolution revealed a hardening of the legal separation between two countries and highlights this process’s disruptive effects on traditional borderlanders.  St. John also adds to a growing body of literature that examines how market expansion along the U.S.-Mexico border contributed to the fluidity and later the solidification of racial identity in the borderlands.[2]  Finally, Line in the Sand also contributes to a nascent but growing field of scholarship which examines how the enforcement mechanisms along the U.S.-Mexico border were part of a transnational effort of state-building.[3] Joining a relative explosion of literature that examines borders, St. John ably adds to that discussion with a strict focus on an actual geopolitical boundary and its effects on state-building, industrial growth, and identity formation.  While other authors treat the boundary line as a secondary item of analysis, St. John instead elevates the geopolitical border to the primary subject of study.  This approach teases out the transnational aspects of the border and its creation, demonstrating that borders are anything but the strict demarcations of a nation’s perimeter.  The emphasis on the border illuminates how state-power, capitalist markets, and local folkways all intersect and influence one another at the border.  Such a focus ably adds to the historiography by demonstrating that the border was never really an indomitable marker of legal separation, but instead was, and is, a malleable social construction whose meaning often contradicts the purposes of surveyors, lawmakers, custom-officers, border-patrol agents, and those who would call the U.S.-Mexico borderlands home.

Line in the Sandis a timely and concise history of the U.S.-Mexico border.  It is a transnational and borderlands study that offers unique insight into contemporary political issues.  It will be beneficial to borderlands specialists as well as readers interested in the broader themes of environmental history and the North American West.  The book’s lucid and well-organized presentation of the broader issues regarding the history of the border makes it a welcome addition in upper-division undergraduate courses and graduate seminars.

Sean P. Harvey

Utah State University


[1] Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1600–1815(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) and Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron, “From Borderlands to Borders: Empires, Nation-States, and the Peoples in Between in North American History,” American Historical Review 104 (June 1999): 814–41.

[2] For recent works on race in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, see Samuel Truett, Fugitive Landscapes: The Forgotten History of the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006); Eric V. Meeks, Border Citizens: The Making of Indians, Mexicans, and Anglos in Arizona (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007); Karl Jacoby, Shadows at Dawn: A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History (New York: Penguin, 2008); and Katherine Benton-Cohen, Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).

[3] For more on transnational border enforcement, see Kelly Lytle Hernández, Migra!: A History of the U.S. Border Patrol (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010). For a comparative perspective on this process, see Andrew Graybill, Policing the Great Plains: Rangers, Mounties, and the North American Frontier, 1875–1910 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007).


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