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Border Land, Border Water

Border Land, Border Water
A History of Construction on the US-Mexico Divide

A 150-year history of the border region between the United States and Mexico, told through the fences and barriers, the river engineering projects, and the surveillance infrastructure that have reshaped the natural landscape.

October 2019
312 pages | 6 x 9 | 32 b&w photos, 2 b&w illus., 21 b&w maps |

From the boundary surveys of the 1850s to the ever-expanding fences and highway networks of the twenty-first century, Border Land, Border Water 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.


Winner of the 2020 Abbott Lowell Cummings Award
Vernacular Architecture Forum (VAF)

  • Introduction
  • 1. The Border Environment in the Nineteenth Century
  • 2. The Border and the Mexican Revolution
  • 3. Police and Waterworks on the Border: Aspirations to Control through Building
  • 4. Police and Waterworks on the Border: Systemic Flaws
  • 5. Building the Border of Today
  • Epilogue
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

C. J. Alvarez
Austin, Texas

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


Border Land, Border Water is a must-read for historians of the US-Mexico divide, environmental historians, and anyone interested in better understanding from a historical perspective current calls [for] construction on the border.”
New Books Network: American Studies

“Alvarez bridges borderlands and environmental histories in order to examine how the built world on the border 'functions and for whom.' He achieves this by looking at the border region as multiple spaces that different actors (military, private companies, governments) utilized for their own political motives...Border Land, Border Water not only examines the ways the built environment changed the border region, it also urges people question the history of the land where they grew up.”
Not Even Past

“Original, ambitious, and timely...Border Land, Border Water takes on a challenging topic. In the process, it demonstrates the benefits of ignoring the conceptual categories—especially the political boundaries—often used to delimit scholarly inquiry. The result is a welcome reminder that, while borders may originate as imaginary lines on a map, they ultimately become cultural landscapes that shape human lives and the natural world.”
Vernacular Architecture Forum

“[A] deeply researched and very timely new book...Spanning the period from the Mexican-American War almost to the present, Alvarez’s narrative should be read as a cautionary tale for would-be wall builders, beginning as it does 'amid the breathless ignorance of exploration' and ending 'in the willful ignorance of the overbuilt border of today'...By taking the long view, Alvarez captures the full life cycle of border works. That allows him to illuminate connections and unintended consequences that more near-sighted builders, policymakers, and social scientists rarely perceived.”
Journal of Arizona History

“The border between the United States and Mexico has been extensively researched over the past fifty years, but C.J. Alvarez is the first scholar to successfully combine two seemingly discrete fields of inquiry: the history of border surveillance and the history of hydraulic engineering...Scholars have long understood that the [International Boundary and Water Commission] and Border Patrol have overlapping jurisdictions, common purposes, and a symbiotic relationship. Alvarez, however, is the first scholar to show how deeply indebted each is to the other—and, most importantly, how subservient the IBWC has been to the requirements of border control and surveillance.”
Southwestern Historical Quarterly

“[An] impressive study…essential reading for borderland courses and for experts and journalists seeking to understand how Mexico and the United States (mostly) cooperated to police, regulate, discourage, or prevent human migration into the United States.”
Pacific Historical Review

“[An] illuminating book...Informed by impressive archival research, Border Land, Border Water provides a valuable and highly original perspective on the United States-Mexico borderlands...In helping us to see underneath and beyond the infrastructure that litters the borderlands and that so many take for granted, C.J. Alvarez allows us to see what was lost, and imagine what have could have been. Most importantly, perhaps, he challenges us to bring about a different borderlands, one that embodies 'ecological stewardship, deeper cultural understanding, and peace.'”
North American Congress on Latin America