The Book: Why Walls Won’t Work

Book Jacket Introduction


Thinking about the border separating the United States from Mexico, what typically comes to mind is an unwelcoming zone of violent, poverty-ridden towns, cities, and maquiladoras on one side and an increasingly militarized network of barriers and surveillance systems on the other. It was not always this way. In fact, from the end of Mexican-American War until the late twentieth century, the border was a very porous and loosely regulated region.

In this sweeping account of life within the United States-Mexican border zone, acclaimed urbanist and geographer, Michael Dear, traces the border’s long history of cultural interaction, from the region’s numerous Mesoamerican tribes onwards. Once Mexican and American settlers met at the Rio Grande and the southwest in the nineteenth century, new forms of interaction evolved. But as Dear warns in his bracing study, this vibrant zone of cultural and social amalgamation is in danger of fading away because of highly restrictive American policies and the violence along Mexico’s side of the border. As he explains through analyses of the U.S. border security complex and the emerging Mexican narco-state, the very existence of the “third nation” occupied by both Americans and Mexicans is under serious threat. But through a series of evocative portraits of contemporary border communities, he shows that the potential for revitalizing this in-between nation still remains.

Oxford Universtiy Press, 2013.

Table of Contents
  1. Monuments, Mexico, and Manifest Destiny
  2. Maps without Borders: Continuity and Connection in Early Times
  3. From Frontier Settlements to Transborder Cities
  4. Law and Order at the Border
  5. Third Nation before the Wall
  6. Third Nation of the Mind
  7. Fortress USA
  8. Mexico: Narco-State or Failed State?
  9. Third Nation Interrupted
  10. Why Walls Won’t Work
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Combining a broad historical perspective and a commanding overview of present-day problems, Why Walls Won’t Work represents a major intellectual foray into one of the most hotly contested political issues of our era.

Preface from Why Walls Won’t Work

The US–Mexico borderlands are among the most misunderstood places on earth. The communities along the line are far distant from the centers of political power in each nation’s capital. They are staunchly independent and composed of many cultures with hybrid loyalties. Historically, the eastern border counties were among the poorest regions in both countries; those in the center were sparsely populated agricultural and mining districts; and in the more affluent west, the upstart Baja California was always more closely connected to the State of California than to Mexico. Nowadays, border states are among the fastest-growing regions in both countries. They are places of teeming contradiction, extremes of wealth and poverty, and vibrant political and cultural change.

There are also enormous tensions along the borderlands, associated with undocumented immigration and drug wars. Neither of these problems originated in the borderlands. Instead, they came from outside, and borderland communities have limited capacity for self-determination in such matters. At the national level, the US and Mexico seek security and peace through the sacrifices of the small subset of their populations that resides in the border region. They are the people who must endure the exogenously-induced trials, often with scant assistance from their national and local governments beyond unpredictable military and police interventions. Border dwellers have made what adjustments they can, along the way demonstrating a remarkable durability and adaptability based in centuries of co-existence.

Mutual interdependence has always been the hallmark of cross-border lives. Over time, a series of binational “twin cities” sprang up along the line, with identities sufficiently distinct to warrant the collective title of a “third nation,” snugly slotted in the space between the two host countries. The third nation does not divide Mexico and the US but instead acts as a connective membrane uniting them. This way of looking at the border substitutes continuity and coexistence in place of concerns with sovereignty and difference. It is a view that runs directly counter to received wisdom in the US, which regards the border as the last line of national defense against unfettered immigration and runaway global terrorism.

The current fortifications along the border are without historical precedent, and threaten to suffocate the arteries supplying the third nation’s oxygen. Even after the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo established the international boundary, the dividing line remained loosely marked, haphazardly maintained, and casually observed. But in the 1990s, responding to increased waves of undocumented crossings from Mexico, large fences sprouted on the border edges of cities such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez. Then, following the attacks of 9/11, the US unilaterally adopted an aggressive program of constructing fortifications along the entire line.

The new walls, fences, and checkpoints rudely interrupted the lives and livelihoods of third nation dwellers. On the US side, the border became a fortress containing an archipelago of law enforcement and justice agencies dedicated to apprehension, detention, prosecution and deportation of undocumented migrants, all bolstered by a new industry of corporate security interests. On the Mexican side, tranquility was usurped from a different source—the federal government’s war against drug cartels. As the numbers of dead catapulted into the tens of thousands, cartel power was consolidated and Mexico seemingly drifted toward becoming a “failed state,” incapable of maintaining order or fulfilling its other obligations.

On December 17, 2002, I began traveling the entire length of the US–Mexico border, on both sides, from Tijuana/San Diego on the Pacific Ocean to Matamoros/Brownsville on the Gulf of Mexico, a journey of 4,000 miles. Assisted by a grant from the National Geographic Society, I voyaged in the footsteps of giants: sixteenth-century Spanish explorers Cabeza de Vaca and Francisco Vásquez de Coronado came this way; Generals Santa Anna and Zachary Taylor fought important battles for these lands during the Mexican-American War; and after the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the War, William H. Emory and Jose Salazar Ylaguerri undertook the heroic surveys which marked the boundary between Mexico and the United States.

What began as an impulsive journey of discovery was rapidly overtaken by events. I had the good (and bad) fortune to begin before the US undertook the fortification of its southern boundary, so I became an unintentional witness to the border’s closure, an experience that altered my understanding of both countries. My border-long, binational exploration was completed on March 16, 2005, but since then I have continued my visits, right up to the present, adding thousands more miles to my borderland travel log.

The borderlands have enormous significance as the place where immigration tensions and drug wars are enacted. Important as these are, I do not spend much time in this book addressing the nuances of US immigration policy, nor assembling yet another lurid account of Mexico’s cartel-induced violence. As my travels unfolded, I became more focused on the well-being of the third nation and the lessons it was teaching; these insights are the focus of this book.

My story begins by outlining the origin and rise of the third nation from earliest times (chapters 1–6), then assesses how the US borderland fortifications and Mexican drug wars have impacted the third nation (chapters 7–9), and in the final chapter, explains precisely why walls won’t work.

My experiences provide a powerful rejoinder to those who would abandon the Mexican border to the drug cartels, or those in the US who would use the borderlands as a surrogate battlefield against migrants. Despite these interruptions, the third nation endures. It reveals new ways of thinking about the joint future of the Estados Unidos Mexicanos and the United States of America.

Berkeley and Los Angeles, California, USA
Mexicali, Baja California, México

What others are saying about Why Walls Won’t Work

Over the past decade Dear traveled the entire length of the 3,000-mile-long borderline on both sides. His photographs and on-the-ground observations are complemented with meticulously researched historical details about who passed through the borderland landscape.

What gives the book a depth and punch that is often lacking in other recent books about the U.S.-Mexico border is Dear’s decision to begin at the beginning. Rather than starting with the construction of the U.S.-Mexico wall … Dear goes back as far as archeological records allow to the first humans who inhabited the Americas. It provides perspective that demonstrates how recent, and rash, the current walled and securitized border really is. Dear also gives equal time to events on both sides of the border rather than privileging the U.S. perspective. He writes beautifully, and the style is designed to be serious but not in a way that will turn off more casual readers. …

With the broad historical sweep and the patience to tell those earlier stories first without rushing ahead to our walled and bordered present, this book could become the definitive history of the U.S.-Mexico border. It is certainly the best I have read.

Reece Jones, Geographical Review, April 19, 2013 -Excerpt

A fascinating and indispensable book for everyone living in North America. Michael Dear deploys a rigorous social science mixed with the fresh eye of an explorer to guide us through the ‘third nation’ that has sprung up between Mexico and the US.

Sergio Aguayo, El Colegio de México

A comprehensive history of the multiple tensions and processes related to the creation and strengthening of the demarcation at the U.S.-Mexican border, based on a transnational and transdisciplinary perspective that recovers the multiplicity of visions and challenges on both sides of the border. The most novel aspect of Dear’s approach is the complex and optimistic emphasis placed on the social and cultural practices of border people, which show connectivity, continuity, and the possibility of thinking about a region without walls. This is a challenge not only to the notion of border and nation, but also a powerful counterargument to the discourses of fear that permeate perceptions of one of the world’s most sensitive geopolitical edges.

Norma V. Iglesias-Prieto, San Diego State University

Michael Dear, Professor of City and Regional Planning at the University of California, Berkeley, has given us a brilliant portrait of border towns from the end of the Mexican American War until the twentieth century. The author believes that many of the problems are due to highly restrictive American policies and violence along the Mexican border. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo established the basic boundary. In the 1990s, due to many undocumented crossings from Mexico, large fences began to rise in cities such as Tijuana and Cuidad Juarez. Also, after 9/11 many walls, fences, and checkpoints arose along the Mexican-American border. It is the main purpose of this book to focus on these border towns and the lessons one has learned.

San Francisco Book Review

In this lucid, concise, engaging, graceful, and constructive volume, Michael Dear draws on insights from across the social sciences and humanities to map the emergence and significance of a ‘third nation,’ formed from the juxtaposition, interconnection, and exchange between Mexico and the United States on both sides of their increasingly blurred political border. Dear argues convincingly and eloquently that the physical barrier being constructed along the US-Mexico frontier is an unprecedented and damaging historical aberration that will eventually be overwhelmed by the strong, positive human connections between the United States and Mexico.

Abraham F. Lowenthal, University of Southern California

This is an important, elegantly written volume that reflects the very hybridity it seeks to portray: it flips between Mexican origins and U.S. politics, between cultural studies and hard social science, between the personal and the analytical with a playful skill and ease that captures the very spirit of the borderlands. Dear reveals the creation of a new border culture in which blended identities, and daily transnational and transcultural interactions are emerging even as the walls between our two countries continue to rise.

Manuel Pastor, University of Southern California