The Chihuahuan Desert and Borders

Saturday, January 4, 2020: 1:50 PM
New York Ballroom East (Sheraton New York)
C.J. Alvarez, University of Texas at Austin
The Chihuahuan Desert is the largest desert in North America, the arid heart of the continent. Its vast expanse sprawls across southern New Mexico, western Texas, eastern Chihuahua, and western Coahuila. It is one of the least recognized deserts and one of the most poorly understood, despite the fact that it has been home to some of the signal developments in modern human history. The Mexican Revolution, the first major social uprising of the twentieth century, was largely fought in the drylands. Two of the most important revolutionary presidents came from its arid countryside. Manhattan Project scientists detonated the first atomic bomb in southern New Mexico, inaugurating not only a new era of Cold War brinksmanship, but also cancer clusters among rural Mexican Americans who continue to protest for redress to this day. The Chihuahuan Desert was also a proving ground for one of the most transformative technological innovations of the last century: the groundwater pump. Earth scientists, journalists, hydrologists, and more and more humanists agree that profligate water use in arid and marginal environments is tantamount to suicide. Amid all these complexities, the desert is also divided by the U.S.-Mexico border. This paper takes the boundaries of an ecoregion as its starting point and then questions the meaning and importance of artificial, political borders within it. From this vantage, we can reassess both similarities and differences between American and Mexican space and land use. We can also see the extent to which, in the desert, borders between states can often be even more salient than the international divide.