The Broken Edge of Empire:
Making Violence, Nations and State Power in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, 1821-1890
Over the course of the nineteenth century, a series of overlapping violent conflicts reshaped the face of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. At the beginning of this period, the borderlands were a multipolar region, largely under the control of powerful indigenous nations. Its colonial settlements occupied tenuous positions at the edges of fledgling nation-state projects in Mexico and the United States. A complex web of kinship, community, exchange, diplomacy, and violence knit together the region’s diverse native and colonial polities, with people and goods regularly passing among them. As a result, identity, political allegiance, and social groups were fluid, porous, and contingent. By the century’s closing decades, however, independent native power had been largely erased, with Mexico and the United States claiming political and cultural hegemony on both sides of a fixed international border. The meanings of nationalism and state power remained fluid, but local people could now successfully shape them only from within, as citizens or subjects of the two modern nation-states.
My project uses a comparative cultural history of borderland violence and the struggles waged over its meanings to better understand the ways in which political power and ethnic and national identities evolved over the course of this key transition period. I examine diverse communities across the region to show how the organization of violence at the local level structured society in fundamental ways. For elites and ordinary people alike, sponsoring or participating in war making, community defense, and other forms of violence offered access to social and political capital and played key roles in defining the boundaries of social inclusion. Local military mobilization was also a primary tool of state- and nation-building throughout this period, as nation-states and indigenous confederacies alike relied on local individuals and community networks to project their political power. Meanwhile, the highly gendered and racialized discourses that surrounded acts of violence created sites in which borderland people struggled over the shifting form and meaning of nationalism and state power and reckoned their own positions within those constructions. These discourses connected local people and events with large-scale changes in identity and political power that swept North America as the U.S. and Mexican nation-states rose to dominance.
Multiple imperial and national projects violently converged in the borderlands. As these loosely bound projects struggled for control of the region, they repeatedly seemed to fracture and blur together at the edges, even as some gradually assumed great power. I argue this phenomenon stemmed from the particular ways in which the nation-state and other political systems developed on the ground. From the beginning, state and nation were intimately woven into the kith, kin, and trade relationships that already defined everyday life across the region. At the most basic level, these were personal ties among local individuals. Though often undermining national unity, the intersection of the nation-state with local families and communities was also central to its rise as a viable social institution and a meaningful form of collective identity. Personal experiences of borderland violence could suddenly collapse the distinctions between family, community, and nation, with potent results. Such moments made sweeping abstractions like state power and nationalism intimately and painfully real for local people.
My comparative study of borderland violence, therefore, illustrates the ways in which nationalism and state power were not simply imposed from outside, but developed through complex patterns of cooperation and conflict that reached across borders and involved both local people and centralizing institutions. Most importantly, however, the ubiquity of borderland violence in the nineteenth century offers a framework through which I analyze the region’s diverse societies in common terms, showing how they navigated parallel challenges in often strikingly similar ways.
The scope of this project covers the greater Rio Grande/Rio Bravo Basin, encompassing parts of the modern states of New Mexico, Texas, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas. It begins in 1821 with the founding of the Mexican nation-state and the beginnings of large-scale Anglo-American colonization in Texas and New Mexico, and continues through the end of the 1880s, during which the last vestiges of independent Native American power were violently erased on both sides of the border. From within this extensive scope, I have selected particular moments and examples, some well known, others obscure, to illustrate the broader social, cultural, and political patterns that reshaped the region. Above all, I seek to create windows into the experiences of ordinary people on the ground, and to connect and compare the stories of the borderlands’ diverse peoples.
A comparative cultural history of borderland violence in the nineteenth century holds great potential for broadening our understandings of the role of violence in shaping human society and culture. The region presents an ideal historical laboratory in which to study the relationship between violence, political institutions, and ethnic and national identities. Through the course of the nineteenth century, it was home to a diverse array of local societies, which interacted with and participated in multiple nation-building and other large-scale political projects. Then as today, acts of violence were central to the ways in which individuals experienced and understood themselves, their societies, and the people around them. Borderland violence often spurred individuals to write public and private accounts that used violence as fodder to construct the meanings of nationalism, ethnicity, gender, and race, and to consider their own positions within nation-states and other large polities. At the same time, borderland violence was a crucial way in which individuals on the ground directly participated in and experienced the emerging power of the nation-state.
Amidst the seismic social and political changes of our own present moment, these stories offer invaluable insights on the ways in which experiences and interpretations of violence shape identity and political power across cultures. Borderland violence and its contested meanings still hold great power, as we can see clearly in the increasingly politicized and militarized state of the modern U.S.-Mexico border. Strikingly, the same gendered ideologies and familial experiences persist too, in bitter debates over border detention and family separation, in sensationalized reporting on immigrant crime, in divisive campaign rhetoric painting Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” and in the martial masculine violence of civilian border militias and drug cartels. The meanings and experiences of nationalism and state power remain inextricably woven into the fabric of the families and communities that define everyday life for individuals.