Q&A with C.J. Alvarez on His History of Construction on the US-Mexico Divide

From the boundary surveys of the 1850s to the ever-expanding fences and highway networks of the twenty-first century, Border Land, Border Water: A History of Construction on the US-Mexico Divide examines the history of the construction projects that have shaped the region where the United States and Mexico meet.

Tracing the accretion of ports of entry, boundary markers, transportation networks, fences and barriers, surveillance infrastructure, and dams and other river engineering projects, C. J. Alvarez advances a broad chronological narrative that captures the full life cycle of border building. He explains how initial groundbreaking in the nineteenth century transitioned to unbridled faith in the capacity to control the movement of people, goods, and water through the use of physical structures. By the 1960s, however, the built environment of the border began to display increasingly obvious systemic flaws. More often than not, Alvarez shows, federal agencies in both countries responded with more construction—“compensatory building” designed to mitigate unsustainable policies relating to immigration, black markets, and the natural world. Border Land, Border Water reframes our understanding of how the border has come to look and function as it does and is essential to current debates about the future of the US-Mexico divide.

Give us the elevator pitch for your research and the resulting book.

The US-Mexico border is at the center of an unprecedented national debate, yet very few people from either the United States or Mexico have ever been to the international divide. This book explains the complex history of construction projects on the border that have been underway for over 100 years.

How did you get interested in the subject of your book?

I thought this was an important subject to write about not because it has become especially controversial but because I grew up in the border region. To us border dwellers, the international divide and the various ecosystems through which it passes have always been relevant.

Why is it important to study the built environment on the US-Mexico border?
Government policies—whether we’re talking about the “drug wars” or immigration law—are often enacted through physical construction projects. Fences and walls are the most obvious examples of this, but it’s important to understand other, less-obvious kinds of building, such as border survey markers, roads and highways, surveillance infrastructure, bridges, and massive storage dams.

In what ways did engineering and police projects affect the geography, environment, and communities on both sides of the international divide?

One of the most surprising conclusions I came to through my archival research was that the Rio Grande border has undergone a far higher degree of environmental transformation than the land border. There is almost nothing “natural” about the Rio Grande watershed, and this has produced fascinatingly complex results in border communities. On one hand, some of these river modifications made it easier for immigration police to surveil the international divide, and on the other hand, an untold number of people have been saved from disastrous floods.

What context might be missing from contemporary debates about the ongoing “drug wars” of the border region and border enforcement policy?

Government and business interests in both the United States and Mexico have spent over a century painstakingly building connective tissue between our two countries. First it was the railroads of the 1880s, then, with the invention of automobiles and trucks in the early twentieth century, more complex road networks were introduced: after the 1950s, that meant the interstate highway system, and after the free trade agreements in the 1980s and 1990s, superhighways and port-of-entry expansions. These were all bilateral projects; you can’t build only half a port of entry. The US-Mexico border is designed to be open to commerce, which means you can’t cherry pick those who cross it, weeding out illicit business and the unauthorized movement of people, no matter how many fences you build.

C. J. Alvarez is an assistant professor of Mexican American and Latina/o studies at the University of Texas at Austin.