About the Wall

Trazando la línea

Courtesy of the University of North Texas Digital Library.

On February 2, 1848, a Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits and Settlement was signed at Guadalupe Hidalgo, thus terminating the Mexican-American War. While the conflict was ostensibly about securing the boundary of the recently-annexed state of Texas, it was clear from the outset that the U.S. goal was territorial expansion. Some decades earlier, the U.S. had secured the Louisiana Purchase, and President Polk now saw it as America’s ‘manifest destiny’ to acquire access to a western ocean. As a consequence of the war, Mexico was obliged to cede its territories of Alta California, Nuevo México, and northern portions of the states of Sonora, Coahuila and Tamaulipas.

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Mexico before the border

William Hemsley Emory; Papagos Indians; 1859; United States & Mexican Boundary Survey, Vol. 2.

Mexican prehistory is known world-wide because of the Olmec, Maya, Toltec and Aztec civilizations, especially the fabulous cities of Mesoamerica. These extended through most of present-day central, southern and southwestern Mexico and the Yucatan, and into Guatemala, Belize, and the western part of Honduras and El Salvador.

The region between Mesoamerica and the northern periphery, sometimes called La Gran Chichimeca, was settled before 10,000BC.  A settlement system based on formal agriculture practices appeared in many places between 2000 BC and 500 AD. Not far from the present-day border in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, the town of Paquimé (near Casas Grandes) rose to dominate the region from about 1200 to 1450 AD. With a population of about 3,000 people, Paquimé was a regional capital that controlled an extensive trading network extending south to Mesoamerica and north as far as Chaco Canyon, in present-day New Mexico.

Baja California today is a land of coastal deserts. However, past climates were more benign and peninsular Baja was rich in flora and fauna, with relatively plentiful water. The peninsula may have been one of the earliest parts of the continent reached from Alaska over 40,000 years ago. The earliest accepted carbon date in the region comes from a piece of charcoal found at the Cueva Pintada, one of the largest caves in the Central Baja complex, which indicates human settlement occurred over 10,000 years ago.

The arrival of the Spanish in the Americas irrevocably altered the entire hemisphere. The present-day borderlands were visited, for example, by the peripatetic Cabeza de Vaca who roamed the Chihuahuan interior, criss-crossing the Rio Grande between 1534 and 1536. In 1540-42, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado swept through the western region and the Pueblo cultures. And in 1542 Juan Rodrigo Cabrillo entered San Diego Bay. But by the time Balthazar de Obregón entered Paquimé in 1584, he encountered ruins that were already almost a century old.

The northern regions of the Spanish empire were difficult to subdue. Uprisings were common and was usually met with harsh repression by the conquerors. Missionaries were an important part of Spanish pacification strategies, but they came late to Baja and Alta California. On August 19, 1773, Fray Francisco Paloú established first formal division of Alta California and Baja California, authorizing the Franciscans to convert people in Alta California, and Dominicans the people of Baja.

Following Mexico’s independence, the presidios lost their imperial purpose of pacification and control; and by the 1830s, secularization had removed the missions’ purpose in Texas, Arizona, California and New Mexico. Widespread land reforms followed, often involving large grants of public lands to encourage settlement. Enormous ranches were created at Tecate and Tía Juana . Through inter-marriage and business many newcomers were absorbed into the new society, adopting food and clothing styles, mixing languages, and serving in armies composed of different races. A strong home rule sentiment became pervasive in the north, abetted by central government neglect. Many Mexicans wanted to secure U.S. sovereignty for the frontier lands.  In the years leading up to the 1846-48 war, the integration of Mexico’s northern territories into U.S. economy and society was the most pertinent factor in the lives of most people.

After the 1848 Treaty, the frontier spaces that the Spanish had struggled to conquer became border places that Mexico and the U.S. sought to control, primarily in order to secure the new territorial limits of their respective countries.  The U.S. established new military bases along the northern bank of the Río Bravo. As border-town trade and commerce developed, many Mexicans moved north of the river in search of economic opportunities. On the western edge of the continent, the signing of the Treaty coincided with the discovery of gold in northern California.

Although Mexico sought to integrate the north into the new republic, secessionist movements were common on both sides of the border. In the early 19th century, Spanish-speaking frontier dwellers, Native Americans, and recently-arrived Anglo Americans emerged as Mexicans, Tejanos, and Americans.  The speed of transformation saw Mexican-Texans move from Spanish subjects, to Mexican citizens, to Texans, and to Americans, all within the span of a single lifetime.

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Marking the line

Michael Dear; Boundary Fence Between Mexico and The U.S.A., Pinacate, Sonora; 2003

Article V of The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo required the designation of a “boundary line with due precision, upon authoritative maps, and to establish upon the ground landmarks which shall show the limits of both republics.” Based on the Disturnell map attached to the Treaty, the line would extend from the mouth of the deepest channel of the Río Bravo del Norte; up the river to “the town called Paso” (present-day Ciudad Juárez); from thence overland to the Gila and Colorado Rivers; after which it would follow the division between Alta California and Baja California to the Pacific Ocean. The boundary survey began on July 6, 1849, just south of San Diego, and took six years to complete.

Between 1849 and 1854, each nation established survey commissions to mark the new boundary. Pedro Garcia Conde and John Russell Bartlett were the first commissioners to begin the work. One of the earliest tasks was to establish a first boundary marker (punto inicial) between Alta and Baja California. The survey work was often arduous and dangerous but also characterized by a high degree of cooperation between teams under the direction of Commissioners Jose Salazar Ylarregui and William Emory. What had previously been an open frontier was now transformed into an international boundary, albeit loosely defined and casually honored.

The boundary surveyors produced over 50 maps that carefully delineated the new line. They were accompanied by many artists and scientists, charged with recording the territory and its resources, who produced many landscape sketches and paintings as well as recording the plants, animals and people they encountered. Unfortunately, very few records of the Mexican survey survive to this day, the most famous being Salazar’s Datos, a narrative of the California section of the survey.

As the borderland population grew during the second half of the nineteenth century, disputes over the exact location of the boundary line became more frequent. In 1882 delegates from both countries undertook a military reconnaissance of the entire land boundary from Ciudad Juárez-El Paso to the Pacific. En route to the Pacific, the survey team found that many boundary monuments were missing or in a state of disrepair. Some were little more than piles of stones. In 1891, a new boundary commission was created to assume the task of re-marking the border.

The new survey teams encountered numerous difficulties and confusions during their work. Frequently, the original monuments were hard to find, especially in mountainous terrain. Errors in the original survey meant that some early monuments were incorrectly positioned; such mistakes were either quietly adjusted, or left unchallenged so as to avoid the need for negotiating new treaties of reconciliation. Many difficulties were the result of deliberate human interference, including the destruction of the monuments and stone mounds by marauding Indians. Monuments were also dismantled for use as building materials, or by the actions of ranchers and miners north of the border who destroyed or moved markers in order to gain control over land and mineral resources.

By June 1894, the work of the second survey commission had come to an end. Boundary monument number 1, on the Pacific Ocean, was redesignated as number 258, since the surveyors had worked west from El Paso. The old monument was sent to San Diego for polishing and re-engraving, and was later re-installed within an iron fence to prevent vandalism. In the following two decades, a further 18 monuments were erected, bringing the total to 276. The International Boundary Commission also undertook the restoration of monuments and erected monuments on new bridges built across the Rio Bravo. With the completion of 276 monuments, the official monument program was terminated. Henceforward, both countries agreed that any further delimitation would consist of smaller ‘markers’ of concrete (known as mojoneras). By 1975, already 442 markers had been added, principally in and around the sprawling border cities and towns; another 51 were added in 1984.

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Baja goes global

The post-1848 survey was undertaken amicably by Commissioners Salazar and Emory, foreshadowing the strong connections that were to develop between the ‘twin towns’ along the line. By the end of the 20th century, these towns had grown into major cities with global connections. Cross-border ties were a common feature of everyday life among the diverse peoples of the borderlands.

The railway boom and influx of foreign investment into Mexico during the era of Porfirio Díaz encouraged economic and demographic expansion of the twin towns on both sides of the international boundary. Tijuana was founded on June 11, 1889, where a customs house had stood since 1874. Mexicali and Tecate followed in the early 20th century, when advances in irrigation technology opened up agricultural opportunities in the Imperial Valley of California and the Mexicali Valley in Baja. By 1910, the six Mexican border states had a population of over 1.6 million (or 10.9 percent of the national total), and the four U.S. states had 4.9 million inhabitants (7.3 percent).

The Mexican Revolution was closely observed by the U.S. government as well as curious people along the line. Mexican citizens sometimes crossed over to seek refuge from the conflict. Both sides involved in the struggle maintained connections with the north in order to obtain supplies and war material.

Modernization along the borderlands was aided by political agreements between the two countries. Chief among these was the 1889 establishment of La Comisión Internacional de Límites/International Boundary Commission and its 1944 successor, La Comisión Internacional de Límites y Aguas/International Boundary and Water Commission. Collaboration between these agencies persist to the present day, and include boundary monument maintenance, construction of dams for hydroelectric power and flood control, river channel upkeep, and resolving boundary disputes.

During the second half of the 19th-century, the border zone was a wild and lawless place. Indian raids and counter-raids frequently took place in Mexican and U.S. territories; and filibusters from the U.S. charged into Mexico in search of quick plunder and further conquest. Increasing concerns over immigration led in 1924 to the creation of the U.S. Border Patrol, transforming the loosely-defined border territory into a formal line that was for the first time policed by a specially-constituted law enforcement agency. However, Mexico and the U.S. continued to cooperate in matters of migration control, smuggling and national security. In the early decades of the Border patrol, policing the line was a relatively low-key affair.

Borderland twin towns grew closer together through ties of work, family, shopping and leisure. As a consequence, the harsh memories of the bitter war tended to recede, although popular culture sometimes revealed that international tensions were never far below the surface.

In 1965, Mexico launched the Border Industrialization Program to develop the border towns’ manufacturing industry and provide employment for workers returning to Mexico at the end of the Bracero program. Although slow to start, maquiladora production accounted for one quarter of Mexican manufacturing exports by 1979. The number of maquilas along the border grew from 12 in 1965, to 1,500 by 1996, employing over one million workers. Two-thirds of all Mexican maquilas were established in just three border towns: Tijuana, Mexicali, and Ciudad Juárez.

The Tratado de Libre Comercio (TLC), or the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), was signed in 1994 and cemented the ties between Mexico and the U.S. By the end of the twentieth century, the borderlands had become one of the fastest-growing regions in Mexico, experiencing enormous economic and population growth, political change, and an explosion of cultural innovation. In 2000, the six border states in Mexico (Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas) contained 18.2 million people, or 16 percent of Mexico’s total population. The four U.S. border states (California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas) were home to 66.9 million or 21 percent of the U.S. population.

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The Wall

Michael Dear; Boundary Fence Between Mexico and The U.S.A., Campo, California; 2002

In 1945, the first official fence designed to curtail the flow of unauthorized cross-border migration was built along both sides of the All American Canal near Calexico, California. It was about 9 kilometers long, and consisted of posts connected by chain-link fencing about 3 meters high, using materials recycled from a camp where Japanese-Americans had been interned by the U.S. during the Second World War. The governor of Baja California stationed Mexican troops at the border to protect the fence while under construction. In the 1990s and again in the first decade of the 21st century, much more extensive fortifications were constructed along the borderline.

A new era in border policing began when the U.S. built fences to prevent crossings in major border cities. In 1994 ‘Operation Hold the Line’ introduced unprecedented levels of patrols and high-tech surveillance in El Paso. This was followed by ‘Operation Gatekeeper’ in San Diego County which included extensive fencing between Tijuana and San Diego. One year later ‘Operation Safeguard’ extended fencing between the two Nogales in Sonora and Arizona. The new fencing was constructed from steel mats that had been used to furnish temporary landing strips for U.S. aircraft during the Vietnam war.

Outside the major border towns, most of the line remained wide open territory. Deterred by the new fences in urban areas, migrants began crossing in more hazardous mountain and desert zones, and the number of deaths increased. Existing fencing deteriorated quickly as a consequence of adverse environmental conditions and abuse.

After the attacks of 9/11, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security undertook to construct 700 miles of fencing along the land boundary, at a cost of over US$2 billion. The Wall took various forms, including steel ramparts, wire-mesh fences, closely-spaced concrete pillars and bollards, vehicle barriers and razor wire. In some places no fewer than three layers of fencing divided the two counties, and the intervening tracks were groomed to permit high-speed chases. Much environmental damage was caused by the construction, including soil erosion, flooding, and plant/animal habitat destruction. The boundary monuments became encased in steel or caged behind the Wall, inaccessible and hidden from view on the U.S. side.

At the same time that the U.S. spent lavishly to secure the boundary line, it also invested heavily – in cooperation with Mexico – to increase the number of Ports of Entry connecting the two sides. The Wall was porous. Determined migrants still found ways over, under, through and around the Wall. In many mountainous areas of Baja, the Wall simply petered out.

Ancient boundary monument number 1 still stands at the Río Bravo in El Paso. Revolutionary leader Francisco Madero built his headquarters near it. Today, there is no fence at this point; the line is marked by a simple berm and sign. Madero’s Casa de Adobe was reconstructed as a museum commemorating the Revolution’s centenary, and a bust of the leader stands on a plinth outside, very near the refurbished monument.

Monument 122A stands on a bluff at Avenida Internacional in Nogales. Above it, there is a modern-day surveillance tower and a 1990s-era Gatekeeper-style fence. In order to secure the monument’s foundations, a concrete retaining wall has been poured, upon which local artists have spray-painted symbols of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations. The layers in this landscape provide poignant reminders of Mexico’s deep history and her troubled relations with the U.S.

After a decade of fortification-building, the space that had historically been a permeable membrane between two nations had been sliced through by a fortress-like fortification that threatened cross-border connections. The monuments endure as silent sentinels, recalling a rich borderland history and anticipating the time when the communities on both sides of the line are once again united.

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Third Nation

Michael Dear; San Luis, Arizona Monument Refurbishment; 2005

Michael Dear; San Luis, Arizona Monument Refurbishment; 2005

Michael Dear; San Luis, Arizona Monument Refurbishment; 2005

For most of human history, there was no United States of America or Estados Unidos Mexicanos. Both nations arrived late on the global scene; the international boundary between them is little over a century-and-a half old. Before 1848, the borderlands were an open frontier, a vista of endless horizons and limitless challenge. Our prehistoric ancestors roamed widely in large numbers over the land in search of sustenance, and evolved complex civilizations based in extended networks of settlement, kinship and trade on a sub-continental scale. The hallmarks of these societies were connectivity and continuity over space and time, even though contact was not always harmonious or enduring.

The Wall separating Mexico and the U.S. will come down. Walls always do. The Wall won’t work because the transborder ‘third nation’ is a connecting tissue that no partition can erase. It is the place where a new set of binational values is being created – organically, readily, and without artifice.  The ‘third nation’ is the locus of fusion and becoming between two nations.

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March 2010