Informed by the experiences of postmodernism, postcoloniality, and globalization, scholarship in the humanities and social sciences has turned, since the late 1980s, to the concepts of space and place as key tropes and categories of analysis to complement, if not replace, traditional “evolutionary” approaches to historical and cultural inquiry. Both space and place are not understood as static, essentialist markers of territoriality but as dynamic, socially constructed sites of complex, and often contradictory, cultural practices, social relationships, and ideological formations, commonly but not necessarily with regard to a certain territory (Massey; Soja). For the study of the United States Wilfried Raussert argues that place “is no longer used as a trope evoking myths of fixed identity, neither is it envisioned as a locale in which differences fuse into a melting pot, nor is it perceived as a new frontier of exceptional cultural status and development” (par. 34). Within literary and cultural studies in particular, one can witness not only a focus on imagined and symbolic (social) spaces but also a critical (re)valuation of concrete, geographically identifiable spaces, both as a topic in cultural practices and as a condition for the creation of culture (Hallet and Neumann 22–24; Weigel 158).
With this new emphasis and reformulation of space and place, liminal spaces and borders as well as the practices of creating, shifting, crossing, transgressing, and blurring their (out)lines have gained particular attention in recent years. Border Studies in a wider sense of the term encompass not only various internal and external lines of social, political, economic, and cultural division but also the liminal social and geographic spaces these engender (Michaelsen and Johnson; Mignolo, Local Histories). A narrower version of this area of inquiry focuses on geographic borders that have gained significance as social as well as territorial demarcation lines, such as the borders—encompassing the sea and land routes and barriers—between Africa and Europe, or the national border between the United States and Mexico. Within the studies of the United States and of the Americas at large, the latter border region represents a prime example of scholarly analysis, as it derives its relevance from its role as a delineating geographic marker highlighting the space/place of direct, physical confrontation and contact not only between two neighboring countries but also between Anglo-1 and Latin America, “First” and “Third” World. Informed by Postcolonial and Ethnic Studies perspectives, research on the U.S.-Mexico borderlands has explored the transnational history, cultures, and relations of this social and geographic space.2 As various scholars have noted, this border—la frontera in Spanish—today rivals, if not displaces, the frontier, the often mystified, ever westward-pushing zone of encounter and conflict between “civilization” and “wilderness” (Turner) as a conceptual paradigm of U.S.-American national identity as well as of the research area of U.S.-American Studies (Heide 48–50; Saldívar xii–xiv).
Border scholars and artists have praised the potential of border(land)s and border discourses to become utopian spaces, loci of resistance to normative centers, or sites where “new relations, hybrid cultures, and multiple-voiced aesthetics” (Saldívar 13–14) emerge. Néstor García Canclini, for instance, understands the contemporary urban conglomerates along the U.S.-Mexico border as an intercultural aesthetic laboratory that questions notions of the national and generates a new “border identity” (263–327). Yet, there are also cautionary voices: Günter Lenz and José Limón argue that border discourses should not be used merely as “metaphors for describing cultural differences and otherness” but be contextualized in their “specific material and discursive contexts” (Lenz 470; see also Limón). José Manuel Valenzuela Arce scrutinizes the homogeneity that notions of a distinctive border identity tend to imply:
Border cultures articulate different levels of interaction between the regional and the national, as well as between the different groups and cultural domains that make up the region, in addition to processes of integration, recreation, and cultural resistance derived from the transborder interaction with the other side. (99, authors’ translation)
Other scholars as well as political activists warn against forgetting the often dystopian experiences of those border crossers and dwellers the various borders seek to keep away or mark off (Saldívar 19). Gloria Anzaldúa poetically and poignantly summarizes this dualism with regard to the U.S.-Mexico Border region in her by now classic book Borderlands/La Frontera:
As a mestiza I have no country, my homeland cast me out; yet all countries are mine because I am every woman’s sister or potential lover. (As a lesbian I have no race, my own people disclaim me; but I am all races because there is the queer of me in all races.) I am cultureless because, as a feminist, I challenge the collective cultural/religious male-derived beliefs of Indo-Hispanics and Anglos; yet I am cultured because I am participating in the creation of yet another culture, a new story to explain the world and our participation in it, a new value system with images and symbols that connect us to each other and to the planet. Soy un amasamiento, I am an act of kneading, of uniting and joining that not only has produced both a creature of darkness and a creature of light, but also a creature that questions the definitions of light and dark and gives them new meanings. (3–4)
In the area of U.S.-American cultural production—to be understood as encompassing a wide array of modes of cultural expression—the U.S.-Mexico border has informed in particular the literature, music, folklore, and the visual and performing arts of Mexican Americans. Chicana/o writing prominently negotiates the impact the border has been having on the history and life experiences of its community (Calderón and Saldívar; Pisarz-Ramírez; Saldívar). What Markus Heide observes with regard to fictional texts thus might be generalized and applied to Mexican American cultural practice in general: “Both on the level of the plot and in ‘estranged’ form as either rhetorical figure or formal element, the border and border crossing characterize topics and motifs of Chicano narrative” (45–46, authors’ translation; see also 47–48). Within Mexican culture, la frontera signifies the territorial proximity to the United States that entails both the specter of U.S. cultural hegemony over its southern neighbor and the promise of economic opportunity for Mexican migrants in the United States (Tabuenca Córdoba). North Mexican fronterizo (border) culture, however, remains largely marginalized within the nation to date as being too far removed from normative Mexican and too close to U.S. culture (Tabuenca Córdoba; Vilanova).
While the term “border” emphasizes social or geographic distinction at best and conflict at worst, the concept of the contact zone, often applied to border spaces, though not limited to them (Clifford 204), stresses encounter. First theorized by Mary Louise Pratt, contact zones refer to “social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of dominance and subordination—like colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out across the globe today” (Pratt 4; see also 6–7). With the bilingual expression of the “transfrontera contact zone” (3), José David Saldívar appropriates Pratt’s concept to emphasize the U.S.-Mexico borderlands as an area of transnational and intercultural interaction that is aware of, yet (at times) also defies, the border and its hegemonic imprint of United States political, economic, and cultural domination. Thus subverting the logic of U.S.-American territorial and hegemonic cultural expansion and East-West trajectory of movement of the frontier concept, “the borderlands, their rites of passage and tales of transgression, constitute a potent foundational myth of transnational or inter-American identities” (Thies and Raab 14).
Taking up the perception of the U.S.-Mexico border region as a transnational social, cultural, and geographic space, the essays of this volume address transnational cultures of the borderlands from multiple perspectives, exploring cultural articulations from the entire border area—both Mexican and U.S.-American, both from the Eastern and the Western parts of the borderlands—as well as the complexity and intersectionality of ethnic, national, and class identities in the region. These articles explicitly align with the “transnational/postnational turn” that has occurred in U.S.-American Studies since the 1980s as well as with the more recent shift toward hemispheric perspectives in the Americas-related humanities and social sciences (Fox and Sadowski-Smith; McClennen). Informed in particular by postcolonial theory and Ethnic Studies, “New Americanist” scholarship has moved away from an exclusive analytic focus on the nation state in favor of a “dynamic transnational and intercultural conceptualization of U.S. culture” (Rowe 3; also Pease 20–21) and toward a higher valuation of “how the nation is seen from vantage points beyond its borders” (Fishkin 20) that aims to critically examine United States society and the role of the nation in a changing world order. With their multiplicity of perspectives, the present essays respond to the possible danger that some scholars have articulated regarding the potential that transnational U.S.-American Studies have in affirming, rather than dismantling, residues of United States exceptionalism (Fluck 69, 80–81, 92–93; McClennen 394, 402). The moreover answer to the demand that transnational and inter-American endeavors engage in a true, non-hierarchical dialogue with scholarship and paradigms of thought coming from outside the United States (Lenz 469, 474–77; Mignolo and Ennis, “Coloniality” 27–28).
The articles in the volume are arranged in a roughly chronological as well as genre-specific order. Astrid Haas’s essay “Borderlands Identities and Borderlands Ideologies in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbiship” analyzes the depiction of the complex ethnic, regional, and national identities in the mid-nineteenth-century Southern New Mexico in Cather’s 1927 historical novel about two French missionaries in the Borderlands. In her contribution “Transfrontera Crimes: Representations of the Juárez Femicides in Recent Fictional and Non-Fictional Accounts” Marietta Messmer explores the ways U.S. and Latin American narrative and documentary literature and film from the late 1990s to this day address the wave of unresolved femicides that has been troubling the North Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez since the mid-1990s. Norma Iglesias-Prieto’s “The U.S.-Mexico Border and Children’s Social Imaginary: An Analysis of Wacha el Border and Beyond the Border”focuses on two short animated films produced by children from San Diego and Tijuana in a 2008 filmmaking workshop about their imaginations of and experiences with the respective other side of the national border that divides the two cities. In her essay “Border Consciousness and Artivist Aesthetics: Richard Lou’s Performance and Multimedia Artwork” Guisela Latorre discusses the work of the contemporary Chinese Mexican American artist Richard Lou, whose politically activist site-specific art not only focuses on U.S.-Mexico border issues but also reaches beyond those to address the “color line” as one of the most crucial social borders within the United States. María Herrera-Sobek’s “The Border Patrol and Their Migra Corridos: Propaganda, Genre Adaptation, and Mexican Immigration” analyzes how the U.S. Border Patrol recently appropriated the traditional musical format of the Mexican border ballad as part of its own anti-immigration propaganda. The article further employs this case study to argue for an extension of adaptation theory beyond current conceptualizations of literary adaptations. The volume concludes with an interview Josef Raab conducted with Tejano novelist Rolando Hinojosa. Their conversation explores the writer’s fiction—most of which is set in the Lower Rio Grande Valley—in the contexts of the south Texas border region, Chicana/o U.S. literature, and their participation in both a critical regionalism and global developments.
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Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. “Crossroads of Cultures: The Transnational Turn in American Studies—Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, November 12, 2004.” American Quarterly 57.1 (2005): 17–57.
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