An examination of how major Hollywood films exploit the border between Mexico and the United States to tell a story about U.S. dominance in the Western hemisphere.
The southern frontier is one of the most emotionally charged zones in the United States, second only to its historical predecessor and partner, the western frontier. Though they span many genres, border films share common themes, trace the mood swings of public policy, and shape our cultural agenda.
In this examination, Camilla Fojas studies how major Hollywood films exploit the border between Mexico and the United States to tell a story about U.S. dominance in the American hemisphere. She charts the shift from the mythos of the open western frontier to that of the embattled southern frontier by offering in-depth analyses of particular border films, from post-World War II Westerns to drug-trafficking films to contemporary Latino/a cinema, within their historical and political contexts.
Fojas argues that Hollywood border films do important social work by offering a cinematic space through which viewers can manage traumatic and undesirable histories and ultimately reaffirm core "American" values. At the same time, these border narratives delineate opposing values and ideas.
Latino border films offer a critical vantage onto these topics; they challenge the presumptions of U.S. nationalism and subsequent cultural attitudes about immigrants and immigration, and often critically reconstruct their Hollywood kin.
By analyzing films such as Duel in the Sun, The Wild Bunch, El Norte, The Border, Traffic, and Brokeback Mountain, Fojas demands that we reexamine the powerful mythology of the Hollywood borderlands. This detailed scrutiny recognizes that these films are part of a national narrative comprised of many texts and symbols that create the myth of the United States as capital of the Americas.
- Introduction: Welcome to the Alamo; Hollywood on the Border
- Chapter One: How the Southwest Was Won; Border Westerns and the Southern Frontier
- Chapter Two: "The Imaginary Illegal Alien"; Hollywood Border Crossers and Buddy Cops in the 1980s
- Chapter Three: The "Narc" in All of Us; Border Media and the War on Drugs
- Chapter Four: Urban Frontiers; Border Cinema and the Global City
- Conclusion: Frontier Myths on the Line; Border Cinema Redux
—Now that you're here what are you going to do? Sell us tickets to the policeman's ball?
—We're with the border patrol ma'am, we don't have any balls.
On January 26, 2006 the United States Border Patrol, working with agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency, discovered what many claim was the largest and most sophisticated cross-border tunnel to date. Information about this tunnel quickly hit the headlines with news flashes engineered to elicit fears about the hydra of villainy: drug traffickers, "illegal" immigrants, and terrorists. The 2,400-foot tunnel grabbed attention for its infrastructure and amenities; fortified with concrete, it boasted electric lights, a ventilation system, groundwater pumping, and was fully equipped with a pulley system for the rapid transit of "drugs and other contraband." The tunnel was described by many news sources as having a south-to-north trajectory that originated in Tijuana and terminated in an industrial warehouse in San Diego. The two tons of marijuana found in the tunnel were a clue to its main function, but the discovery sparked fears: "These tunnels are known to be used for smuggling drugs and illegal aliens. They also could be used (and almost certainly are being used) to smuggle terrorists—along with weapons and explosives—into the United States." The tunnel quickly became the clearinghouse for North American fears about underground traffic into the United States and about the spawning of illegal activity with roots in Mexico that pointed to conspiracies against national security. The whole scenario read like the ongoing plot of the popular television show 24 (Fox), in which terrorists find covert and illegal ways of entering the United States. No similar media ploy exists for the north-to-south traffic into major border cities like Tijuana or Ciudad Juárez where visitors from the United States go in search of illicit activities, or for unauthorized north-to-south traffic in merchandise. Instead, mainstream U.S. media depict the border as a necessary barrier to unwanted traffic while the borderlands are often represented as a repository of all things illegal. Recently, news items about such tunnels have appeared more frequently, causing some to claim that underground entry into the United States obviates the need to erect a wall against invaders from the south. These stories deny the realities of economic and political interdependence between Mexico and the United States and act as symbolic blockades to cross-border dialogue.
Since the inception of cinema, the Hollywood motion picture industry has commandeered the borderlands to tell a story about U.S. dominance in the American hemisphere. Hollywood has often exploited the trope of the southern border between the United States and Mexico to capture a range of "American" ideals and values—integrity, moral clarity, industriousness, rugged survivalism, confidence, and self-sufficiency, among others. The border is also a vital repository of threatening ideas—homosexuality, prostitution, globalization, economic liberalization, drug trafficking and abuse, sexual promiscuity, effeminacy, and terrorism—and undesirable or inassimilable people such as Mexicans, Native Americans, racially mixed characters, immigrants, war veterans, terrorists, and dominant and domineering women. Moreover, many of the lost battles of history—the Alamo and Vietnam in particular—are replayed on the border to conclusions that restore confidence in the "American way." I argue that Hollywood border films do important social work: they offer a cinematic space through which viewers can manage traumatic and undesirable histories and ultimately reaffirm core "American" values. At the same time, these border narratives shape "proper" identification with a singular and exceptional moral hero who might register anywhere from maverick to vigilante. These stories delineate opposing values and ideas—for instance, the proper from the improper and the citizen from the unwanted guest or "alien." Latino border films offer a critical vantage from which to consider these topics; they challenge the presumptions of U.S. nationalism and subsequent cultural attitudes about immigrants and immigration and often critically reconstruct their Hollywood kin.
The southern frontier is one of the most emotionally charged zones of the United States, second only to its historical predecessor and partner, the western frontier. The border has become the symbol of a strong and fortified nation that is protected on all sides from invasion and infiltration of harmful or unwanted people, ideas, and things. Though spanning many different genres, border films share a preoccupation with mobility, border patrol, immigration restrictions, and the control of various kinds of traffic into the country; they trace policy mood swings and shape cultural agenda. Many of the films that take place on or near the borderlands express "American" anxieties, messianic prophecies, and fears about porous boundaries and the integration of the hemisphere through political intervention, economic globalization, and transnational migration.
Hollywood and major independent films are not alone in the fascination and fixation on the border region, but the U.S. film industry is the most pervasive image machine of the border region for a global audience. The Mexican film industry has as long a history of depicting the border region to similarly nationalist ends, yet Hollywood rarely has taken notice. In her analysis of the rich genealogy of Mexican border cinema, Norma Iglesias notes that the border did not appear as an actual place in Mexican cinema until the 1960s, prior to which it was merely a verbal construction—something characters talked about as a point of reference in the development of the plot. By the 1960s, during the boom of the Mexican Western, the border emerged as a geographic location and space of action. Some notable films of this era are El terror de la frontera (1963) and Pistoleros de la frontera (1967), both of which are set in small border towns that harbor thieves in hiding. As in U.S. Westerns, the border is depicted as a place of escape at the far reaches of the nation that is often beyond the limits of the law.
Alex Saragoza has argued that the border in Mexican film tends to represent "self-absorption, introspection, and distrust of the outside" in a manner not unexpected from an embattled nation after suffering years of colonialism and U.S. interventions. By the 1980s, Mexican border films deal with the various sociocultural and familial effects of northern migration: for example, the migration and subsequent estrangement of members of families, the figuring of the United States or el norte, the north, as a source of economic and political freedom, or the fantasy about success in the U.S. entertainment industries. For example, Mamá solita (1980) and Mojado de nacimiento (1981) depict sons longing to reunite with their exiled fathers in the United States.
María Herrera-Sobek describes a subgenre of the Mexican border film that derives from the Spanish picaresque tradition; these films are comedies of misadventure that feature a protagonist who emanates "from the working class, possesses wit, ingenuity, humor, and an uncanny skill for survival" and who often outwits and escapes his or her captors and antagonists. The titles of these films foreground their parodic and comedic premises: El milusos llegó de mojado (n.d.), El remojado (1984), Ni de aquí ni de allá (1988), and Mojado Power (1979). There is also a slate of Mexican films that offer cautionary tales about the dangers of the trans-border journey and often end in tragedy, such as the film El vagón de la muerte (1987). Herrera-Sobek notes that many Mexican films about undocumented immigration use corridos, Mexican ballads, as source material. The corrido acts as "hypertext" or as an intertextual source of information that introduces themes and historical events and frames narrative meaning.
Iglesias describes another border formation that emerged during the 1980s where the border is not just a film set but establishes a whole set of industrial conditions as the site of production of a flourishing film industry. Mirroring the generic efficiency of the Hollywood studio system, filmmakers often used border sets multiple times for similar narratives. Many famous producers used their own properties for filming various types of border narratives, from immigration genre dramas to action and border narcotraficante films. The latter border subgenre became an industry commonplace, leading to the well-known "crossover" film, El Mariachi (1992), the production of which followed the industrial patterns of Mexican border filmmaking, including using sets belonging to friends and family members.
There are a number of border films that fall outside of the established generic patterns of the border film industry, but that use the border as a sign of future promise. For example, Mujeres insumisas (1995) narrates the story of a group of Mexican women who escape to Los Angeles in search of liberation from gender oppression. Similarly, Sin dejar huella (2000) is about two women who meet on the road and become friends as they unite trying to evade the law en route to Cancún. The documentary Al otro lado (2005) deals with immigrants' dreams of success in the U.S.-based entertainment industry into which many Mexican performers have migrated.
There is a major difference in perspective and narrative topoi between Mexican and Hollywood films about northern migration. Though both fall into the category David Maciel and María Rosa García-Acevedo describe as "immigration genre films," Mexican border films are strongly nationalist, discouraging northerly migration and debunking the myth of the "American Dream." They thematize the entanglements of cultural contact and the experience of displacement and economic exile, whereas Hollywood border films tend to focus on the heroic mission of the Texas Rangers, border guards, DEA agents, or other police personnel. This difference leads the more critical Mexican border stories away from their border provenance and into U.S. cities where conflicts of dislocation take place. Norma Iglesias notes that this displacement from the border had become more prevalent by the 1980s, so that the genre engaged the "problems of being Mexican in the United States," and "the problems of confrontation between Mexican and American culture," rather than life on the border or the difficulties of crossing over. Some Mexican border films are part of what Herrera-Sobek calls "border aesthetics," the activist aesthetics devoted to politically transformative depictions of the border region, representations that depart from and critically reconstruct the normative and phobic images of the borderlands and border crossers in the northern imaginary.
Bandits and Bad Men
Hollywood has perpetrated the image of banditry along the border through misuse of history, misrepresentation of socioeconomic conditions, neutralization of poliatical tensions, and other such sleights of hand that create and perpetuate a false mythology of the borderlands and its inhabitants. The bandit is not only one of the most abiding stereotypes of Mexicans in Hollywood history, but also the symbolic center and cardinal icon of the borderland narrative.
The bandit has roots in nineteenth-century dime novels and early silent greaser films or films with plots structured around Mexican villains such as Tony the Greaser (1914), Broncho Billy and the Greaser (1914), The Greaser's Revenge (1914), and the very last film to contain the term "greaser" in its title, Guns and Greasers (1918). The greaser film played on the association of Latinos and criminality, often portraying a roving Mexican outlaw whose main occupations consisted of every vice imaginable: lust, greed, thievery, treachery, rapaciousness, deceit, gambling, and murder. After the end of World War I, the term "greaser" was eliminated in films, partly due to the demand for Hollywood films in the Latin American market where commercial viability foreclosed on overtly derogatory depictions of Latinos and partly due to a shift in villainry to "the Kaiser and the Hun." The bandit, however, would not be so graciously put to rest.
The denigrating term "greaser" was popular just after the U.S. war with Mexico (1846-1848), when international and interracial tensions ran high and the borders of national identity were in flux. It originates from Anglo perceptions that the Mexicans' skin color was either the result of applying grease to the skin or was deemed similar to the color of grease. The former meaning derived from a practice whereby Mexican laborers in the Southwest applied grease to their backs to facilitate the transport of hides and cargo. In both instances, greaser indicates a dark-skinned outlaw or bandit who is unhygienic, filthy, and unsavory, with a marked proclivity for violence and criminality. These attitudes were reflected in anti-Hispano legislation; for instance, California's 1855 anti-vagrancy act was also called the "Greaser Act" and was designed to target "all persons who are commonly known as 'Greasers' or the issue of Spanish and Indian blood . . . and who go armed and are not peaceable and quiet persons." These laws were open to loose interpretations to facilitate the detainment and incarceration of anyone with dark skin or who spoke Spanish, characteristics which were associated with criminality.
Charles Ramírez Berg describes the Hollywood bandit as the outgrowth of the earlier silent-era greaser character. Like the greaser, the bandit represents the darker urges repressed in civilized society and is perceived as a psychopath who lacks a moral compass or an empathic connection to others. His bad behavior is evident in his physical composition—the aesthetic counterpart to his irrational violence, dishonesty, and illegal dealings is an unkempt appearance marked by greasy hair and missing teeth. The bandit demands moral retribution from the Anglo characters; he is a "demented, despicable creature who must be punished for his brutal behavior." The bandit's female equivalent is a sexually promiscuous and loose woman, typically a prostitute. According to Rosa Linda Fregoso, the border was inscribed across these women's bodies; that is, native Mexicanas, Tejanas, and Californias were coded as foreign and degenerate against depictions of civilized Anglo-American women. The natives of the Southwest were depicted as inferior and as harlots and bandits, often to justify colonial expansion and the expropriation of their land and property through war and theft.
The greaser and the bandit emerged after the tremendous loss of land and rights for natives of the Southwest following the Mexican-American War. Indeed, there was a rise in banditry among the displaced who took up arms against Anglo aggressors. This scenario recalls Eric Hobsbawm's distinction between the bandit and the social bandit; the latter emerges from the underclass or peasantry and engages the tactics of banditry as social rebellion.
In hegemonic U.S. histories and popular culture, the Mexican bandit is invariably an outlaw. However, Mike Davis exposes a different angle to the official story about the Mexican bandit along the California-Mexico border. He draws a lineage of violence along the border into California from the wars of conquest of 1846-1847 and Anglo gangs of the 1850s to contemporary U.S. border vigilantism. He refers specifically to Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy's unrelentingly macabre account of the violence of Glanton and his gang, an account that offers a realist depiction of racially motivated violence in the Anglo conquest of California. The violence perpetrated by Native Americans and Mexican "bandits" was often misrepresented as unprovoked, malicious, and excessive, rather than what Davis describes as acts of defense of land and property, self-protection, and sometimes retaliation. Infamous bandits like Tiburcio Vásquez, Pio Lunares, Juan Flores, and Joaquin Murieta were relegated to history as "desperados" rather than as "social bandits" or "guerilla chieftains" engaged in ongoing conflict with Anglo vigilantes and conquistadores. After the turn of the nineteenth century, perhaps the most infamous Mexican bandit and screen legend is Francisco "Pancho" Villa, a historical character framed either as a villain or a hero of the Mexican revolution.
The diverse uses of the title "Border Bandits" reveal the tensions and contradictions along the border region regarding the meaning and attribution of banditry. For example, Border Bandits is the title of a B-grade Western from 1946 about a group of outlaws who escape to the "other" side of the border and the marshal who must bring them back into the domain of law and order in the North. Border Bandits is also the title of an acclaimed documentary by writer-producer Kirby Warnock about a group of Texas Rangers who committed mass murder of Tejanos based on their own lawless sense of justice. As mentioned earlier, Mexican natives of Texas were often mislabeled "bandits" by Anglo civilians and Texas Rangers to justify stealing the Mexicans' land. Without the use of the racially stigmatizing bandit label, it would have been much harder for Anglos to obtain Texas land titles and wrest control of the state. More recently, Joseph Nevins used the term "border bandit" to refer to those who attack and rob undocumented immigrants as they make the journey across the border; Nevins notes that these bandits are part of the violent repercussions of the Clinton administration's attempt to crack down on the border with Operation Gatekeeper. In an atmosphere of increased policing, migrants become more vulnerable targets of crime since they are viewed as having no legal recourse against their perpetrators.
The Mexican bandit continues to live on in Hollywood through various incarnations and across multiple genres, many of which intersect with the border film, including Westerns, drug trafficking films, urban gang films, and immigrant genre films. The bandit rarely remains unpunished or unchallenged by his antagonist, the character who represents the law—most typically the Texas Ranger, border patrol agent, or DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) agent.
Indian Warrior, Mexican Vaquero, and Texas Ranger
The 1920 play by Porter Emerson Browne, The Bad Man, transferred to the screen in 1923, told the story of a Mexican bandit; the film was remade in 1930, but this time the bandit was brought to justice by his antithesis, the Texas Ranger. The Texas Rangers are considered the moral saviors of Texas when in reality they were often driven by racially and ethnically phobic motivations and the desire to secure more land for Anglo Texans. In his infamous history of the Texas Rangers, Walter Prescott Webb lionizes the Rangers as a natural response to the "conflict of civilizations," referring to the Rangers' position against the renegade Anglo, Indian, and Mexican bandit. The foreword to the 1965 edition of the Texas Rangers (originally published in 1935), written during the escalation of the Vietnam War by then president and fellow Texan Lyndon B. Johnson, is a testament to the nationalist purpose of the tome. Later, Hollywood would unify the three types of villains described by Webb—renegade Anglos, Indians, and Mexican bandits—into the arms- and contraband-peddling "comancheros" in the Western, The Comancheros (1961), set in the 1860s Texas borderlands. John Wayne sets things straight as the morally crusading Texas Ranger battling against this tripartite threat in a manner that justifies the role and purpose of the Rangers for contemporary audiences. For Webb, the Ranger's moral position is clear: he is "a man standing alone between society and its enemies" and "it has been his duty to meet the outlaw breed of three races, the Indian warrior, Mexican bandit, and American desperado, on the enemy's ground and deliver each safely within the jail door or the cemetery gate." However, there are varying accounts of the manner in which the Rangers interpreted and enacted their "duty." For historians like Webb, Eugene C. Barker, Rupert Richardson, and others, Anglo violence in Texas and along the border was justified as part of the process of nation-building.
Américo Paredes is perhaps the most renowned critic of the Webb-inspired mythology of the Texas Rangers. He examines border ballads or corridos as oral histories that unearth the repressed history of the experience of the Anglo invasion of the Southwest. In his book he offers the "official history" of the Rangers as a counterpoint to the subjugated histories of the natives on the frontier:
The Rangers have been pictured as a fearless, almost superhuman breed of men, capable of incredible feats. It may take a company of militia to quell a riot, but one Ranger was said to be enough for one mob. Evildoers, especially the Mexican ones, were said to quail at the mere mention of the name. To the Ranger is given the credit for ending lawlessness and disorder along the Rio Grande.
Paredes contradicts this characterization and attributes the intensification of border violence and unrest to the lawlessness propagated by the Rangers, which deepened the racial divide in the borderlands. The Rangers inspired Mexican distrust of the United States while enabling the consolidation of border communities and the creation of more spirited social bandits.
The Ranger was called a rinche in Spanish, which quickly became an umbrella term for all "Americans armed and mounted and looking for Mexicans to kill." Paredes compiled a list of Mexican "sayings and anecdotes" about the Rangers, a list that may or may not accrue to historical veracity, but that certainly provides the basis for an alternate mythology. He claims, contrary to purported Ranger heroism, that the Ranger always carries an extra gun so that when he kills an unarmed Mexican he can deposit it with the body, that the Ranger prefers to kill armed Mexicans when they are sleeping or have their backs to him, that the Ranger prefers to hide behind U.S. soldiers, and that he engages in retaliatory killings and murder by proxy—a practice described by an ex-Ranger in the documentary cited earlier, Border Bandits. Paredes gives credence to only one part of the Ranger mythos, the Ranger dictum to "shoot first, ask questions later," which confirms the existence of the rampant injustice of indiscriminate murder through racial profiling.
Like Paredes, John Weaver charges Ranger historian Webb with confusing fact with myth in his account of the Texas Rangers. Julian Samora, Joe Bernal, and Albert Peña further note that this mingling of fact and myth is partly a consequence of the self-promotional work of the Texas Rangers as evident in the many memoirs and autobiographies of these men. These official histories often remain uncontested as the only extant records of the period since many Tejano and Native American records were destroyed or delegitimated.
María Herrera-Sobek invokes a hidden history of Mexican involvement in the making of the culture of the Southwest and of the United States. She cites an example that has become the major foundation of the Western and of national identity: the origin of the cowboy. Herrera-Sobek notes the irony that the cowboy, "that archetypal embodiment of what has been imprinted in the popular mind as quintessentially American," is actually an outgrowth of the Mexican vaquero who brought the skills of generations of ranch and cow work to the southwestern United States.
However, Charles Zurhorst, in his work The First Cowboys and Those Who Followed, notes that the cowboy has been described in opposition to Mexicans, citing Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar, second president of the Texas Republic in the late 1830s, as defining cowboys, in Zurhorst's words, as "rustlers of longhorns who hate all things Mexican." Zurhorst cites many different texts that claim to have located the origin of the cowboy, including one that describes the cowboy as an outgrowth of the contact between Anglos and Mexicans in Texas. But in the end, he denies this history, finding the roots of the "American" cowboy in bands of men who struggled for the rights of tenants in the anti-rent rebellion of 1766 in New York: "And so, in 1766, the American cowboy, or cow-boy, was born. It is interesting to note that the first cowboy was (like his present day image) a rugged outdoorsman, dedicated to justice, and a rebel at heart." These men were called "cow-boys" because they would raid farms of livestock, including cows, to fund their mission; men like these brought this practice to Texas, where they took possession of wild cattle and stole cattle that belonged to Mexicans, an account that coincides with Américo Paredes' description of the violent origins of the Texas ranch empire. Zurhorst goes on to assert that "contrary to the belief of some, the first Texas cowboy was not an offshoot of the Mexican vaquero," using as slim evidence Lamar's claims, cited above, that cowboys hated Mexicans. However, Arnold Rojas notes some undeniable similarities between the Anglo cattle-handling buckaroo and its precursor, the Mexican vaquero. The vaquero, a staple of the Mexican hacienda in central and northern Mexico, migrated north of the Rio Grande to disseminate vaquero culture, skills, and tradition to accommodating Anglos. Zurhorst's outright denial of the vaquero in the diverse genealogy of the cowboy is part of the official history of the United States, which is itself premised on the erasure of the Mexican history of the Southwest.
Thanks to crimes from the outright theft of Mexican livestock, property, and land to the systematic extermination of native populations of the Southwest, the history of the contributions of native peoples—Californios, Mexicanos, Tejanos, and various Native American tribes—to the formation of the nation has been rendered invisible to dominant popular narratives. Like Paredes, Herrera-Sobek explores this hidden history through the oral tradition of the corrido, which documents the events surrounding the introduction of vaquero culture in what is now the Southwest of the United States.
The obliteration of the Mexican genesis of southwestern culture persisted late into the twentieth century in cinematic constructions not just of the cowboy but also more generally of the borderlands. Recent work by critical filmmakers in the border genre has brought to light much that has hitherto been repressed, rendered invisible, or marginalized; for instance, the "other" history of the Alamo in Lone Star (1996), the depiction of the Mexican vaquero in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), or the experience of crossing the border in Babel (2006).
Hollywood Border Cinema
Much of border cinema derives from its precursors, the silent greaser film and its offshoot the Western, particularly the latter for its persistence into the present. Although Westerns take place in the Southwest, a smaller subcategory of these take place on or near the border or explicitly traverse the border as part of the story. Many more Westerns are set in small isolated frontier towns or depict expansive vistas traversed by gunslinging outlaws and marauding Indians. Hollywood border cinema offers a vision of the United States at its defining limits, and its popularity roughly corresponds to the crises and mood swings of national immigration and border policies. The border acts as a political symbol of national order and control, namely, the control of the national labor market and immigration from the south. Though each border film is unique in the specificities of narrative, a discussion of genre is useful for charting the changing currents of its social and cultural significance. The assertion of genre is ambitious; it implies cohesion among individual texts whose meanings often extend beyond a single genre. And border cinema designates texts linked more by a common geographical or symbolic referent than a shared ideology or textual meaning.
In an attempt to excavate the history of genre, Rick Altman distills two millennia of literary theory, reading for its usefulness to film theory in terms of its major theoretical pitfalls. Most notably, he finds that the assessment of genre as an independent entity bespeaks a lack of attention to the role of the reader and critic. The migration of genre theory to film analysis immediately heightened the institutional and industrial horizons of aesthetic production. Thomas Schatz describes the genre film of the classical era of the big studio factories, from the 1930s to the 1960s, as one that "involves familiar, essentially one-dimensional characters acting out a predictable story pattern within a familiar setting." This pattern was not accidental; it followed industrial capital efficiency by recycling sets and marketing stories and stars who had already garnered success, thus making the films surefire hits.
Film critics often describe the genre film as a commodity designed to maximize studio profits. However, Altman contests this shorthand of genre criticism. He argues that there is at least one case of studio executives attempting to create and define a genre to no avail. The genre film, in his estimation, is not so entirely determined by market forces. Genres are both "static" and "dynamic"; they refer to similar narrative systems, but change according to historical circumstance and subsequent transformations in cultural attitudes and the individual disposition of the reader-critic. Altman likens genre-theorists to city-planners who plan but cannot control the use of the city: "Just as city-planners once thought that people would automatically inhabit their city as designed, so genre-theorists once believed that readers and viewers would automatically follow the lead of textual producers." The individual social and cultural conditions of the spectator or the group dynamics of the audience as well as the actual conditions of viewing—whether in the cinema or on DVD or VHS, alone or with a group—in short, all material circumstances, personal philosophies and psychologies, and contextual factors contribute to the experience of the film and the production of its meaning. Regardless of the shifting and alterable conditions of viewing, film genres are very resilient conductors of meaning. A genre persists because the major cultural conflicts to which it refers remain unresolved.
Gloria Anzaldúa describes the border as a wound caused by the violent encounter of First to Third World; indeed, it is a space that resonates with trauma, a wound that refuses to heal, and so it becomes the object of tremendous cultural work. The border genre, like the Western, emanates from a long literary history that preceded its cinematic incarnation. From dime novels to silent greaser films, popular Westerns, and action films, the border signifies a North American complex and neurosis about self-identity. U.S. popular culture defines national identity against the borderlands and their mythologized inhabitants: an inchoate mass of criminals, sexual deviants, and racialized outsiders. The more independent review of the genre by Chicano/Latino and Native American filmmakers recycles border imagery to a different end, though one that equally impacts the conception of national identity and cultural belonging.
Border films anticipate the critical work of Latina/o American cultural studies by moving beyond the nation and foregrounding contact across the hemisphere, particularly between the United States and Mexico. Border films, though often ideologically retrograde, make this contact a point of departure of the narrative. They are tacitly hemispheric in focus for the many forays from and into Mexico and the international efforts at border patrol and control, as well as the truly distinct globalism of border cultures. Studies of the border inevitably traverse the boundaries separating geographies and fields of interest. Borderland criticism, as Héctor Calderón and José David Saldívar have noted, is thus deeply dialogic and relational.
Pablo Vila challenges the idea that the borderlands are a utopian space of multiculturalism and a globalized ideal of internationalism, multiplicities, and mestizaje. He argues that binational relations produce divisions and intensify identification within difference. He explores how binaries are generated in this region; he finds that it is more a place of conflict and contention than cohesion and confluence. Through extensive interviews taken from 1991 to 1997, Vila documents the various social categories that organize borderlands discourse and contribute to ongoing tensions among ethnic, racial and regional groups. Unique among his findings is the idea that Mexican-Americans view Mexicans as alien "others," which is contrary to the critical view of a historical Anglo-Mexican dichotomy. This nationalist disidentification has roots in the denigration of all things Mexican perpetrated in social and cultural discourses and mass media. Mexican-Americans profess a particularly intense disidentification with Mexican migrants and recent arrivals as a way of consolidating a tenuous sense of place and belonging. On the other hand, Vila finds that Mexicans also view Mexican-Americans as "other," specifically as pochos, "rotten or discolored ones," a denigrating term for those of Mexican origin raised in the United States without a sense of cultural heritage or fully developed Spanish language skills. Recently, some Mexican-Americans have reclaimed the term "pocho," emptying it of its negative connotations, to describe different permutations of language, such as Spanglish, and hybrid Mexican and U.S. cultural identity. This latter resignification puts its meaning closer to that of "Chicano," a politically inflected term of Mexican-American racial and ethnic solidarity and pride.