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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.

  • 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

Border Land, Border Water is an essential and timely book that recovers a forgotten history of the US-Mexico borderlands. Drawing on in-depth archival research in the United States and Mexico, C. J. Alvarez tells the stories of the private individuals, organizations, and governmental officials who constructed binational waterworks, transportation systems, and immigration enforcement structures. These disparate projects shared a common purpose--the exertion of control over the perceived unruliness of the border--and exacted a heavy toll on border residents and migrants. Yet despite these costs, the building projects of the early twentieth century laid the discursive, political, and material foundations for the constant reconstruction of the line. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in borderlands, environmental, immigration, political, and international history.”
S. Deborah Kang, California State University San Marcos, author of The INS on the Line: Making Immigration Law on the US-Mexico Border, 1917-1954

“C. J. Alvarez has written a rich and engrossing story of difficult journeys, nation-building, environmental transformation (and degradation), and elusive efforts to control people and the environment. His book uniquely weaves together a history of policing and of the natural and built environment along the entire length of the border. It is an excellent work and should be required reading for historians and students of the US-Mexico borderlands.”
Eric V. Meeks, Northern Arizona University, author of Border Citizens: The Making of Indians, Mexicans, and Anglos in Arizona