Porous Borders: Multiracial Migrations and the Law in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands – LIM (THT)

LIM, Julian. Porous Borders: Multiracial Migrations and the Law in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017. 320p. Resenha de: BELL-WILSON, Chloe. The History Teacher, v.52, n.4, p.719-720, ago., 2019.

Borderlands history, already a crowded field, has found a new, multiracial, multinational narrative in Julian Lim’s Porous Borders: Multiracial Migrations and the Law in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. In her introduction, Lim sets out clearly what she intends to do: mitigate the history about erasure and reveal the history of the multiracial past that “has become so hidden, erased from geographical and historical landscape of the borderlands and the nation itself” (p.5). Spanning the 1880s to the 1930s and using rich archival sources from both sides of the Mexican-American border, she shows how the borderlands was never just a space where people of two opposing nationalities vied for dominance. Instead, it was a complicated place that saw the intersection of Native Americans, white (or more white) Mexicans and Americans, black peoples, and Chinese peoples.

Lim looks mainly at the border town of El Paso, Texas, tracing its foundation as a small backwater to its growth into a thriving commercial metropolis, thanks to the arrival of the train. As a border town, El Paso proves an effective window into larger ideations of race, class, and nationalities from both the United States and Mexico. She also examines the sister city of Ciudad Juárez, just on the other side of the border, to illuminate similarities and differences in the two countries.

For a large portion of her work, Lim draws upon legal evidence to substantiate her claims. Some of what she draws upon is well known, like the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Chinese Exclusion Act. But in her assessment, she adds a layer of complexity by showing not only how those in power expected their legislation to function, but also how everyday people circumvented them or, indeed, used them to their own advantage. The Chinese, she explains, were able to flout the Exclusion Act by trickling into El Paso through Mexico. They also used, for a time, racial blending to avoid detection, successfully masquerading as Mexican to cross into the United States. She also makes use of more everyday court cases, like those of miscegenation, workers compensation, and race classification. Though the prohibition of black/white relationships in twentiethcentury America is well known, Lim adds to the interrogation of interracial relations by investigating the way the courts attempted to regulate intermarriage between Chinese, Mexican, and African Americans. In doing so, she shows how socio-cultural norms translated into legal proceedings, and vice versa.

Additionally, Lim’s commitment to showing a well-rounded, inclusive narrative produces an analysis that shows how racial and national identity intersect to create complicated lives. One of her strongest points to this effect is her analysis of how African Americans, after finding themselves rejected by Mexico as either immigrants or tourists, identified even more strongly as proud Americans, even as conditions in the Jim Crow South continued to deteriorate for them. She also carefully traces agency for each group across the entire period she assesses. She opens her work with a detailed assessment of the role Native Americans had in constructing the borderlands, showing that their patterns of commerce, travel, and living in fact set the stage for how the borderlands developed. Rather than abandoning their narrative after both Mexico and the United States forcibly displaced them, however, she then follows their story through the rest of her work.

For example, in 1916, the Apache acted as scouts for the U.S. military during the retaliatory Punitive Expedition in response to the feared invasion of Pancho Villa. Thus, importantly, Lim asserts the continued presence and role of Native Americans at the border.

With clear, well-written prose, Porous Borders provides an illuminating narrative that would be useful for both undergraduate and graduate students looking to understand more about the evolvement of the Mexican-American border into what it is today. For secondary school teachers, Lim’s complex understanding of landmarks in history, like treaties and major immigration legislation, can be used to help students understand the difference between intentions of those in power and the realities of everyday life. Overall, Lim provides a fascinating insight into a period and a narrative that too often faces neglect in borderlands history. Her balance of cultural and legal history in the borderlands provides insight into how large-scale events play out at the local level—a useful conceptualization neatly applied and worth copying.

Chloe Bell-Wilson – California State University, Long Beach.

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