This panel presents three diverse yet complementary research projects about borders and the people who crossed them – or tried to – during the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. For many years, the history of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands was studied in isolation, from either the U.S. side or the Mexican side of the border. Scholarship on the U.S. borderlands and the Southwest was further shaped by a focus on Mexican immigration to the United States and Mexican American identity formation. This focus provided an important corrective to national narratives that marginalized Mexican Americans in U.S. history, yet it again limited the scope of investigation to one side of the border. Building on these foundational works, over the past decade a new generation of scholars has begun to approach the study of the borderlands from transnational perspectives and with a curiosity for historical inquiry unconstrained by national boundaries and traditional borders. The participants on this panel – including the Chair and Commentator – are among this new generation of scholars, and this panel presents an opportunity to advance the discussion about the meanings of borders – both real and imagined – and border crossers in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.
Bringing historical attention to the experiences of certain African Americans who were denied entry into Mexico during the 1920s and 1930s, Lim’s paper reverses the usual inquiry into immigration at the border, asking what happened from the Mexican side of the border and situating the U.S.-Mexico borderlands within a broader geography of parallel nation-building projects premised on immigration control and racial exclusion. Meanwhile, St. John retraces the wide-reaching footsteps of an expansionist politician, William McKendree Gwin, to destabilize standard narratives about U.S. boundaries and explore the many different national and imperial configurations that were possible in nineteenth-century North America. Finally, in following the adventures of a nineteenth-century sailor, John Denton Hall, from England to Asia and then the Americas, Truett’s paper decenters the north-south gaze of U.S.-Mexico borderlands studies and places the borderlands within a larger global context, shaped significantly by Pacific empires and the east-west connections that they facilitated. The variety of geographical perspectives that the panelists offer – from the U.S.-Mexico border to the broader North American continent and beyond – connect the borderlands to national and international landscapes; tie the local to the transnational; and engage multiple and shifting national identities and blurred boundaries to provide new insights about human agency and mobility during an age of empire and nation-building. Bridging the experiences of certain individuals to broader social, communal, and political histories, the panelists collectively raise larger questions about borderlands, nation-building processes, and transnational connections, and suggest exciting new directions for the study of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.