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2020 Cummings Award

C.J. Alvarez 

Border Land, Border Water: A History of Construction on the U.S.-Mexico Divide 

University of Texas Press, 2019

In Border Land, Border Water: A History of Construction on the U.S.-Mexico Divide, C. J. Alvarez tackles an original, ambitious, and timely project: interpreting the cultural landscape of the artificial line that both links and separates the United States and Mexico.   First established by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, the border—at least as it is imagined—has been the subject of increasingly intense debate in recent years.  Yet, as Alvarez notes, few people of any nationality have actually traversed its entire length, as its stretches almost two thousand miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. Certainly, no other scholar has undertaken a serious consideration of this extensive built environment at any moment in its history, let alone over the past 170 years.  Thus, Alvarez is the first to explore this expansive landscape, to grapple with its natural and cultural variability, and to understand it as the product of as a series of attempts—none of them altogether successful—to make the border visible and therefore subject to human control.   

Alvarez has demonstrated admirable scholarly creativity in determining what constitutes the components of the built environment, including late nineteenth-century surveys and the related placement of border markers; the straightening of the Rio Grande and other large-scale interventions in the natural environment in the twentieth; and the fraught issue of border fence construction in our own day.   Attentive to the layering of what otherwise might seem disparate projects, he argues that much of the what was been wrought along the border since the middle of the twentieth century is what he has termed compensatory building, that is, “construction designed to mitigate the unsustainable results of previous projects.”  Understanding sustainability in both ecological and social terms, Alvarez models an approach that maintains a sharp analytical focus on the deep interconnections between the natural environment and the cultural landscape. 

Just as impressive is the quality of the research upon which the argument stands.   Many border projects were bi-national undertakings that have left substantial documentary records in both Mexico City and Washington, D.C.  Produced by bureaucrats charged with supervising highly technical projects, the topographical maps and aerial photographs that dominate the archives have often eluded cultural interpretation.  Alvarez, however, offers compelling readings of these documents, sometimes noting their limitations in recording the character of desert flora and fauna, at others seeing them as evidence of the border-builders’ “preoccupation with sight.”  

Border Land, Border Water takes on a challenging topic.  In the process, it demonstrates the benefits of ignoring the conceptual categories—especially the political boundaries—often used to delimit scholarly inquiry.   The result is a welcome reminder that, while borders may originate as imaginary lines on a map, they ultimately become cultural landscapes that shape human lives and the natural world.   

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