3: The Long Border
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The long border is sun, sand, rocks, and mountains. It is cactus, creosote bush, yucca, and candlewood. Green strips border the Río Grande and other streams and irrigation channels. The long border runs nearly 2,000 miles from the Gulf of Mexico following the Río Grande northwest to El Paso. Although 1,200 miles by the river's winding course, it
is only 685 straight-line miles from the Gulf. From El Paso west, the border is a surveyed
line along the western half of New Mexico's southern border, then the Arizona and
California lines to the Pacific just south of San Diego.
The Border Country
At the Gulf of Mexico the border is barely south of 26 degrees latitude, about level
with Miami. Then it follows the mid-point of the Río Grande northwest to 31 degrees 47
minutes at El Paso, about the latitude of Savannah, Georgia. From there it goes west 100
miles, then south to parallel 31 degrees 21 minutes, then west to longitude Ill degrees at
Nogales, Arizona, where it slants northwest to the Colorado River at a point 20 miles
below its junction with the Gila River at Yuma, Arizona. From near Yuma the line runs west
to the Pacific Ocean, slightly north of the latitude of El Paso.
Border elevations rise slowly from the Gulf of Mexico to 420 feet above sea level at
Laredo, Texas, 180 miles from the Gulf; and 1,461 feet at Eagle Pass-Piedras Negras, 290
miles from the Gulf. After that the land rises into the mountainous Great Bend country of
the Río Grande, where the river runs through canyons 1,500 feet deep. In the Chisos
Mountains in Big Bend National Park not far from the Río Grande, Emory Peak rises to
7,800 feet. Then the river passes through the fertile El Paso-Ciudad Juárez Valley, 85
miles long and 4 miles wide. The twin cities are at an elevation of 3,800 feet in the
plateau and mountain valley country of North America that stretches for thousands of miles
through central Mexico and western United States.
West of El Paso the border through New Mexico and much of Arizona is generally at 3,000
to 4,000 feet. The border surveys of the 1850s noted that if the seas rose 4,000 feet, a
ship could be sailed along this line, with a bit of deviation to avoid isolated peaks. At
El Paso the waterway would narrow to a gunshot length from each shore, and peaks would
tower above the ships.
The crow flies 270 miles from El Paso to the two Nogales, in Mexico and Arizona, where
the elevation is 3,689 feet; but only 66 miles north of there, Tucson is at 2,423 feet,
with a pleasant winter climate. Not far west of Nogales and continuing along the border
for many miles are the Papago Indian Reservation and the Organ Pipe Cactus National
Monument. Within the reservation is Kitt Peak National Observatory, on a 6,875-foot
mountain only 56 miles southwest of Tucson, whose lights provide the only obstacle to
astronomers in that vacant land. Near the observatory is 7,300-foot Mt. Baboquivari--the
center of the universe and the home of God, according to Papago legend.
Not far west of Mt. Baboquivari, the elevation begins to fall off in the Gila River
Valley. At the junction of the Gila and Colorado rivers at Yuma--280 miles west of
Nogales--the border is only 275 feet above sea level. Beyond that it is just over 200
miles from the Arizona-California line at the Colorado River to the Pacific shore.
Immediately beyond the Colorado River, the border falls into the Salton Sink, a great
depression below the level of the sea, 85 miles long, 20 miles wide, and comprising the
Imperial and Coachella valleys in the United States and the Mexicali Valley in Mexico. The
sink once was an inland lake, and it left deep deposits of silt to make rich farmland. The
line west of the sink goes over a range of mountains almost to the Pacific before dipping
to the sea just south of San Diego.
South of the Salton Sink in Mexico the land falls away into the Colorado River delta
for about 100 miles to the Gulf of Lower California. It is hot country, ruled much of the
year by a fiery sun. Day after day it broils, often over 100 degrees. The air shimmers,
mirages pop into view, and distant mountains hide in a heat haze. In the high country the
fierce but dry heat of the summer day can be relieved in the cool dimness of adobe
structures with thick walls; and the mountain nights are balmy. But no relief comes along
the lower Colorado River and in the Great Sink of California, where temperatures reach
130' and poor farm workers sleep in the irrigation ditches.
During the brief winters cold winds bring snow to the cactus and chapparal of the high
country. Even Tucson, considerably lower than El Paso or Nogales, has, some frosty nights
in winter. Northers come down onto the eastern half of the border country and immobilize
the lizards and rattlesnakes. Storms from the Gulf sometimes come up the border through
Texas and even into eastern New Mexico.
Although the whole area along the border is a sun belt, temperature varies with
elevation and season, helping to define the best zones for citrus, grapes, cotton, and
vegetables. Equally defining is the sparse rainfall of a thirsty country. Lakes and
streams are rare. Water conservation is the first law of living organisms in the great
border country. Animals lay up by day. Plants store water in their tissues, and desert
animals and old prospectors know how to extract it. Dry stream gulches, subject to rare
infusions of storm water, are much more common than running water.
Most of southern California gets less than ten inches of rain a year. Yuma, Arizona,
enjoys less than four inches! Tucson has eleven inches and is so dry a locality that many
winters pass without snow, although occasional temperatures would allow it. Spaniards
drove mule trains and wagons through the Río Grande's parched bed. Texans say it is a
river that can be plowed. Even in the delta area near the Gulf of Mexico the moderate
annual rainfall of about twenty-four inches falls mostly in summer, so that irrigation is
needed at other times.
The great rivers are the Río Grande and the Colorado. The Río Grande flows 1,800
miles from the high Rockies in southern Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico, and for about the
lower half of its course forms the international border. Normally shallow, sluggish, and
even dry some summers, it is, nevertheless, the lifeblood of New Mexico, south Texas, and
the northern parts of the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and
Tamaulipas. Although the river turns into a half-mile torrent in spring thaws or sudden
storms, such occasions normally occur only between May and September. The river delivers
an annual volume of some 9.38 million acre-feet, little compared with the more than 1 00
million spewed forth by the mighty Mississippi. The Río Grande drains a great area of
185,000 square miles, of which 105,000 are in the United States. From its source to Ft.
Quitman, south of El Paso, all the water in the river rises in the United States. The
greatest tributary is the Pecos, born in the southern Sangre de Cristo Range in New Mexico
and joining the Río Grande in Texas. Below Ft. Quitman more water comes from Mexican than
from United States streams; and in the end about half the water comes from each country,
so in every way the Río Grande (or Bravo) belongs to both.
The Colorado River rises in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and flows 1,450 miles to
the Gulf of Lower California. For a mere 20 miles it is the boundary between Mexico and
Arizona, and for the last 100 miles of its course it is a Mexican stream. It drains
242,000 square miles in the United States and only 2,000 in Mexico. Its average annual
flow of some 15.7 million acre-feet once seemed adequate but will not take care of the
lettuce fields, date palms, air conditioners, and highballs of the mushrooming populations
of California, Arizona, Sonora, and Baja California Norte. It is a mighty--if still
insufficient--resource and a bone of contention.
The natural vegetation in the border country generally is gray- or olive-colored brush
or scrubby trees, except in a few river bottoms where there may be taller trees and green
grass and shrubs. In some places, there are stands of Saguaro giant cactus, some more than
twenty feet tall. The natural land often is poor for animals except in the stream bottoms
and in the Río Grande country, where in some brushlands deer are plentiful, with dove and
quail; and some turkeys run. Mostly it is a land of darting lizards, Gila monsters, horned
toads, and seldom-seen snakes. Coyotes roam and howl, pursued by ranchers who reject
environmentalist claims that coyotes do not kill livestock and help preserve the balance
of nature. On the plateaus real forests do not occur at altitudes under 5,000 feet, so are
seldom seen on the border. They are evident nearby on the ranges and peaks of the United
States and Mexico that rise out of the great North American upland.
History to 1821
Despite its harsh sun and limited water, the border country has supported human life
for thousands of years. Some twenty-five thousand years ago, the seas were low, their
waters locked in ice, and grassy plains lay between Siberia and Alaska. Across those
plains from Siberia moved animals--many of which are now extinct--and what came to be
known as the American Indians. For thousands of years humans and animals wandered south
throughout the entire Western Hemisphere, the land bridge disappearing as the ice melted.
A few humans settled near what much later would be the border country between Mexico and
the United States.
One group in existence before 10,000 B.C. was the Clovis hunting people, named for
spearheads found near Clovis, New Mexico. The moist climate of that period made the
continental interior a warm land of lakes and bogs and huge mammals that the tiny humans
could kill in swamps or gulleys. As the climate changed and the land turned dry and harsh,
much of the big game, like the mammoth and mastodon, died out. The people became rabbit
chasers and gatherers of nuts and seeds.
Eventually, maize was developed, or imported from the more advanced Indian cultures of
Mexico. Squash and beans became cultivated plants. Most Indians eked out a living in the
harsh environment by living in careful balance with the available water, game, and
vegetation in nomadic or semi-nomadic bands. Only a few thousand lived near the later
border, while a thousand or so miles to the south, in central Mexico, the great cities of
Teotihuacán and Tenochtitlán, their pyramids reaching toward
the sky, testified to the growth of civilization among some of the hunters who came from
Asia so long ago.
In what we now call the Southwest, the Hohokam people lived near the present Phoenix,
Arizona, at the confluence of the Salt and Gila rivers. They became full-time farmers and
built elaborate irrigation systems before 500 A.D. Their descendants are the modern
Papagos and Pimas. Northeast of the Hohokam and a bit later were the Anasazi people, out
of whom came the modern Pueblos, whose great age was 1100-1300 A.D. The Pueblos spread
south to the border country and then both to the east and west, similar in their adobe
apartments and other culture traits, but varied in language. In eastern Texas and in far
western California were more primitive Indians.
Few Indian groups had much contact with others. Travel was difficult, long before the
day of such far-ranging centaurs of the plains as the Comanches. The American horse was
extinct and the Old World horse was not brought by the Spaniards until the sixteenth
In the 1530s a few Spanish friars and conquistadores came up from central Mexico,
pursuing tales of riches--the Seven Cities of Cíbola, actually poor pueblos. Friar Marcos
de Níza Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, and others explored what became Arizona, New
Mexico, Oklahoma, and Kansas, finding not cities or gold, but a few poor Indians and a
generally scorched and unattractive land. Interest in the area dwindled, but as Spaniards
and Mexicans slowly moved northward in central Mexico, following the silver lodes to
Guanajuato, San Luís Potosí, Zacatecas, and Durango, a few missionaries, traders, and
primitive stockmen came to live in what now is northern Mexico. Occasionally they raided
the borderlands for Indian slaves to work the mines. In 1590 they founded a village at
Monterrey, 120 miles from the Río Grande. It long remained a primitive outpost, becoming
a metropolis only in the twentieth century.
A Spaniard, Juán de Oñate, finally undertook the conquest of the Zuñi
pueblo-dwellers in New Mexico in 1598, investing in an expedition of some four hundred
men, women, and children, eighty carts and wagons, and seven thousand head of stock. There
was little Indian resistance, but the colony barely survived. Santa Fe was founded in
1609, a village in the wilderness. The Indians, apparently accepting their subordination
and Christianity, secretly clung to old ways and in 1680 rebelled and pushed all whites
far south to the Río Grande. Spaniards and Mexicans return to bloodily reconquer the
Zuñi from 1692 to 1696.
From northern Mexico and Santa Fe, horses got into the hands of Indians by trade,
robbery, and the growth of wild herds. Horses reached Indians on the faraway eastern
fringes of the great plains and led them in increasing numbers to a wandering life in that
huge area, galloping after buffalo, and dragging their tepees and other gear on long poles
trailed behind "ponies." In the eighteenth century the plains Pawnees traded
with Spanish Santa Fe and Taos for horses and sold them far to the east.
The scant far northern activity was of little interest to Spain or its viceroy in
Mexico City--until in 1683 the Sieur de la Salle emerged at the mouth of the Mississippi
River from French Canada. The next year Spain heard that La Salle had French support for
movement to Texas, aimed at the Indian labor and silver of central Mexico.
Spanish indifference ended, and from 1686 to 1689 expeditions went by land and sea
against the La Salle settlement, finding it abandoned at Matagorda Bay in Texas, two
hundred miles north of the Río Grande. Still fearful, Spaniards in 1690 went far to the
north and founded two missions among the Asinai (Téjas) Indians on the Neches River, near
the present boundary with Louisiana. But the Indians were hostile, the land unkind, and
communications with Mexico poor; so in 1693 the missionaries withdrew.
In the next few years the French busied themselves near the Mississippi, then in 1713
jumped west to Natchitoches in what is now western Louisiana, founding a trading post. So
Mexico City ordered action, and in February 1716 an expedition left Saltillo, about one
hundred seventy miles south of the Río Grande, with sixty-five persons, including nine
friars and twenty-five soldiers-an army for this howling wilderness. It marched more than
six hundred miles to eastern Texas and set up a mission and presidio (military garrison,
such as it was) among the Asinais. To support that tiny, isolated position, Spaniards
erected an intermediate post at San Antonio, some three hundred miles north of Monterrey
and Saltillo and as far from the new outpost to the northeast. These were slender threads
to bind so vast an area.
The French improved their position in 1718 by founding New Orleans and in 1719 moved
out of Natchitoches to drive the Spaniards from east Texas all the way to San Antonio.
Three years later an expedition from Mexico of five hundred men--a gigantic
effort!--reestablished in east Texas a mission and presidios. Texas also was made a
separate province, with its capital at Los Adaes (now Robeline, Louisiana), not far from
the French position at Natchitoches. Then, abruptly, the warfare ceased because France was
busy with a desperate duel with England for control of eastern North America. That ended
in 1763 after the war in which young George Washington fought on the Virginia frontier.
Spain, now allied with France, lost the Floridas to England; but France, thrust completely
out of Canada and North America east of the Mississippi River by the triumphant English,
ceded its western claims (Louisiana) to Spain. Clearly, Spain's position in Mexico would
help the allies protect the territory against the rampaging English.
In the meantime, in the west, Spanish advancement to the north was nearly stalled by
fierce Indians in the mountains and deserts, and by the fact that there was little to
attract men from central Mexico. The missionary friars were stopped in the 1650s in the
northwest by a loose alliance of wild tribes dominated by the Apaches. The Apaches were
bands that originally came down from the north and for centuries moved about in the
underpopulated lands within a few hundred miles of the present border, all the way from
near the Gulf of Lower California into central Texas.
The northwestern barrier was slightly pierced in the 1680s when Jesuit Friar Eusebio
Kino moved into the far northwest, living among the Pimas from 1687 to 1711 and exploring
the Gila-Colorado country in the territory of the present-day United States. The Pimas
were foes of the Apaches, and their temporary alliance with the Spaniards allowed Kino to
survive. Missions and primitive ranches sprang up. In the 1730s a silver strike in the
Arizona area, in the Altar Valley southwest of the two Nogales on the present border,
brought in a few Spaniards. But the silver played out, and the Apache country remained
little known and dangerous.
Far away in northern California the Russians in the eighteenth century began
penetrating from their fur-trading bases in Alaska, so Spain in 1769 sent from Lower
California a military expedition by land and sea under Gaspar de Portolá, accompanied by
the Franciscan missionary Friar Junípero Serra. A mission and presidio were founded at
San Diego, within the present-day United States, in 1769. A few other towns, presidios,
and missions were set up later, from San Francisco (1776) to Los Angeles (1781). But the
Spanish population of Upper California remained small because there was little to tempt
the men of Mexico to make the difficult journey. The land route was laid out in the 1770s
by Juan Bautista de Anza with the aid of the Yumas of the lower Colorado. But the Yumas
turned against the Spaniards in 1781 and killed all they could reach, and the trail was
closed and not reopened in Spanish times, which ended in 1821.
With the acquisition of Louisiana, Spain again decided it could let eastern Texas
decay. This decision was not altered much when Napoleon demanded Louisiana back in 1800
and then sold it to the United States in 1803. Texas in 1820 had only four thousand
Mexican settlers, and Mexico for many miles south of the Río Grande was not much more
populated. Mexicans did not go voluntarily to Texas, because central Mexico seemed more
valuable and assisted emigration was too expensive in view of Spain's other defense needs.
So Texas lay virtually unpeopled when U.S. citizens, led by Stephen Austin, were allowed
by the newly independent government of Mexico to settle in the early 1820s.(1)
Texas was but part of the huge paper tiger Mexico inherited from Spain upon declaring
its independence in 1821. Few Europeans lived in the enormous territory from Texas north
and west below the boundary of the purchase Jefferson made from Napoleon. But in the
United States, nearly forty years old in 1821, people were pouring to the west who were
not much impressed by paper tigers.
Americans had been moving across the Mississippi since the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.
Louisiana became a state in 1812, Missouri in 1821, and clearly other western states would
follow. Frontiersmen, traders, and adventurers prowled the Louisiana-Texas border between
Natchitoches, a constant threat to peace between Spain and the United States. Most
settlers on the Austin lands in Mexican Texas came from southern states, and counted on
using black slaves. Most were Protestants. They resisted adoption of the Spanish-Mexican
language, religion, and law, justifying the fears of those Mexicans who opposed this
method of providing population and revenue in a lightly held land.
Events in the United States continued arouse these Mexican fears. In 1822 a hide trade by sea began
between New England and Mexican Upper California. In 1825 the U.S. Congress authorized a
commission to lay out a rail from St. Louis to Mexican Santa Fe, where the population was
still small, poor, and isolated.
In the 1820s in the United States there was talk that the boundary with Mexico was not
at the Sabine River as specified in the treaty of 1821 with Spain, but farther south at
another other stream, even the distant Río Grande. Also worrisome to Mexico was an
alteration in the relative strengths of the nations. In 1790 the population of Mexico was
5 million, that of the United States 4 million; but in 1830 it was respectively, 6 million
to 13 million.
During the years 1826 and 1827, a few of the new settlers in Texas rose in arms to
create the Fredonian Republic; although it was put down by Americans from the Austin
grants, it increased alarm in Mexico City. The latter tried and failed to persuade
Mexicans to move to Texas. Then in 1829 Mexico abolished slavery for all the country but
found it could not enforce it in Texas. By that time there were 25,000 Americans living in
the province, so in 1830 Mexico combined Texas with the state of Coahuila, with its
capital at Saltillo, more than six hundred miles from northeastern Texas. Texans objected
to that. Then in 1835 Mexicans decided to replace their federal system with a centralized
republic--not just because of the Texas issue--and Texans believed the new system
interfered with their rights. The result of accumulated fears and resentments was a
rebellion in Texas and a declaration of independence in 1836.
Mexico was too weak to subdue Texas. Furthermore, urged by England and France, it
became almost reconciled to the idea of an independent Texas, as a buffer against the
United States. The European powers dreamed of Texas as a state reaching from the Gulf of
Mexico to the Pacific, permanently restricting Yankee power. That dream was shattered by
Texas preference for incorporation into the U.S.
After ten years of argument over the issue of admitting new slave territory, in 1845
Texas was taken into the Union. The ensuing war with Mexico might have been avoided if the
only issue had been Texas, but Americans were moving in on Mexican claims west and
northwest of there, too: traders with New Mexico; fur gatherers in the Rockies; settlers
and adventurers in California; and, in the arrival of Brigham Young and his Mormon
followers at the basin of the Great Salt Lake. It was a movement that Washington could not
have stopped even if it had tried. The United States then had a population of 20 million
(against 8 million Mexicans), and it was on the move. Furthermore, the Polk
administration was openly expansionist and not conciliatory. Control of the westward
movement became even more impossible after gold was discovered in California, whereupon
its population in four years (1848-1852) zoomed from 15,000 to 250,000, nearly all of it
located in northern California, and nearly all of it Americans. No government in
Washington could have controlled that. Nor could the 5,000 Mexican residents of
California. In an irony of history, the U.S. faced the same problem in the 1970s, as
millions of Mexicans poured into the United States.
The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo (1848) at the end of the
Mexican War set the border from the mouth of the Río Grande to the Pacific. The Gadsden
Purchase of 1853 added to the United States a narrow wedge from El Paso to the Colorado
River, to incorporate some lands at a lower altitude favorable to a transportation route.
Thus huge territories, some of them barely explored and scarcely settled by Spain and
Mexico, were transferred to the United States.
The New Southwest
Civil War General William T. Sherman, sent to pacify the Southwest, said that if he
owned Texas and Hell, he would sell Texas and live in Hell. Other Americans were more
optimistic. Still, development of the Southwest involved tough problems, especially
"controlling" Indians, building up transportation, supplying water, importing
population, and building mining, ranching, agriculture, and, later, commerce and industry.
Americans had long since set their Indian policy: kill, enslave, drive away, or herd
them into reservations. Texans had warred relentlessly with Indians and in the 1850s
refused to accept reservations set up by the U.S. government. Texans were numerous enough
to implement a policy of pushing Indians out, although the warfare was bitter for decades.
There were fewer Americans in New Mexico and Arizona, and the reach was farther for the
army. The most savage warfare of those areas involved Americans and Mexicans against
Apaches. The latter had been forced from central Texas to the west by Plains Indians in
the eighteenth century but even before then were secure in the high country of desert and
mountains in the far southwest. Warring to preserve their way of life, they lived in small
groups, including Chiricahuas, Mimbreños, and Mescaleros. Perhaps they never totaled more
then five thousand, not including the Navajos who settled down to sheep raising, weaving,
and some farming, although Navajos long plundered Spanish New Mexico and after 1848
resisted Yankee penetration of Arizona.
The Apaches hated Spaniards and Mexicans the most (and later Americans) for kidnaping
and enslaving their women and children. They complained that girls were turned into
whores. Like women in all Indian groups, Apache women suffered gang rapes by whites. Even
Navajos in faraway Arizona were taken as slaves to New Mexico. In 1866 an estimated two
thousand Indian slaves (not all Apaches) were held by whites in New Mexico and Arizona and
others in Sonora and Chihuahua.
As the Civil War began, Arizona had a tiny white population. When most of the army
garrisons were withdrawn from New Mexico and Arizona, the Apaches swept whites from the
latter, with only Tucson remaining as a place of importance--two hundred persons. The
Navajo also rose against the whites. Then American troops were sent and in 1863 and 1864
tried to exterminate the Apache. The Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora long had paid
bounties for Apache scalps, and in 1866 an Arizona county was offering $250 for each one.
The war continued, ferociously, though on a smaller scale in the later 1860s, with some
cooperation between the United States and Sonora and Chihuahua. The Americans considered
any war method justified, including truce violations during peace talks. Then after 1871
more conciliatory methods were tried, with a policy of reservations for Indians. The
warfare decreased with reduction in the size of the Indian population. After Gerónimo's
last brave and pitiful stand in the late 1880s, Indian resistance had to take other forms
American and Mexican bandits also interfered with the development of the border areas.
Natural and easy in a poor country with bad transportation and weak government were
brigandage, smuggling, and cattle rustling. In 1859 the band of Juan Cortina (a sort of
Mexican Robin Hood) occupied Brownsville, Texas, and provoked the Texas Rangers and the
U.S. Army into pursuing them into Mexico. Cortina called on Mexican-Americans to resist
abuse and on Anglos to learn to regard Mexican-Americans as brothers. Brigandage remained
so much a problem that the U.S. Congress in the 1870s named an investigating commission.
Mexico did not care for the doctrine of "hot pursuit," although it briefly
agreed to it in the early 1880s. Then, because of economic development and the
law-and-order dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (1876-1911), brigandage declined by the later
Development depended heavily on railroads. The mules and horses that for many years had
carried the freight and passengers of the borderlands were slow and expensive. In 1857 the
overland stage from San Antonio to San Diego made a trip in four weeks via Tucson. In
summer it was a miserably hot and dusty ride. At all times it was a jolting experience.
The railroads were essential as trunk lines for the long hauls, although stages and wagons
continued for years to serve as connecting links.
By 1882 rails ran from Texas through the border country to the Pacific. In 1886 the
first trainload of oranges went east from California. From 1880 to 1884 the line up the
central valleys of Mexico was built--1,224 miles from Mexico City to Paso del Norte (later
Ciudad Juárez), in Chihuahua, across the Río Grande from El Paso, Texas. The short route
from Mexico City to the eastern United States, through Monterrey to Laredo was ready in
1888. Other lines followed. Then, considerably later, came modern highways. The first
between the United States and Mexico City, with one terminus at Laredo, opened in 1936,
but most of the road links between the countries were built in the 1940s and later.
The railways were important to the growth of cattle ranching. Spanish Texas had little
market. The longhorns roamed half-wild. Soldiers at presidios and vaqueros (cowboys, after
vaca, "cow") slaughtered animals for food as they pleased. Cattlemen in
Texas and what now is northern Mexico drove stock to mines in Chihuahua, Durango, and
Zacatecas to feed the mining camps and turn wheels and raise hoists and pull ore-crushers.
But it was too far from Texas. The sheep of New Mexico also were far from buyers, though
some wool went south into Old Mexico.
The Anglo and the Mexican-Texan cowboys in Texas after the 1820s used the Mexican
lariat, saddle, chaps, kerchief, pointed boots with spurs, and wide-brimmed sombrero. They
used Spanish words: lasso, hoosegow, rodeo, calaboose, adobe, ranch, and savvy. The ranch
owner was like the Mexican patrón, boss of the cattle realm but patriarch to his people
(a distant ancestor of the Ben Cartwright of the Ponderosa later prettified on
television). Markets for this cattle kingdom grew rapidly after the Civil War, when for
nearly twenty years cattle moved over the Chisholm Trail, from Texas through Indian
territory later called Oklahoma, to railheads in Kansas. Finally, the cattle cars came to
Texas itself. Some ranches became principalities.
Water was critical to border development, and disputes were inevitable. Riots occurred
in 1877 in the upper Río Grande Valley when residents of Mexico protested that irrigation
water returned to the river in New Mexico was heavy with salts that poisoned crops in
Chihuahua. The United States claimed that it could use river waters in its territory as it
chose, but retreated in 1906 in a treaty guaranteeing Río Grande water to Mexico in
exchange for Mexican acquiescence in construction of the Elephant Butte Dam in New Mexico.
The dam's waters were mostly intended for users in the United States.
The Colorado River became a problem when a new canal in 1901 began to divert its water
into the Imperial Valley of California. Mexican protests were little heeded until the
diversion proved unsatisfactory and Americans proposed an intake canal on Mexican
territory. Mexico agreed, for a guarantee of half the water diverted. American use grew as
southern California's population zoomed. The All-American Canal was built north of the
border to divert water to southern California, and a great dam at Boulder Canyon was
completed in 1936, impounding a lake and generating electricity. Increased use in the
United States cut the river's flow into Mexico and polluted it with soil salts.
Mexico's protests had little impact until it found a lever, far away, in the Río
Grande basin. That was a prosperous farming region by the 1940s, with both sides of the
border sending fruits and vegetables throughout the United States. Mexican dams and canals
reduced the flow to the Río Grande, thus presenting a reversal of the Colorado River
dispute. Most of the Río Grande's water in the lower river came from its Mexican
tributaries, but new dams and canals in Mexico cut the flow to the main river. Texas
pressured Washington for "protection," so Washington was willing to compromise.
It also wanted to improve Mexican cooperation during World War II. The result was a treaty
(1944) guaranteeing water to Mexico from the Colorado River and to the United States from
the Río Grande. Although amounts were not set, the principle of collaboration was.(2)
In the later nineteenth century some border areas enjoyed mineral and petroleum booms.
Commercial agriculture continued to expand. Pink grapefruit alone created fortunes in the
Río Grande Valley. Then came manufacturing. Chambers of commerce from Brownsville to San
Diego touted the cloudless skies--and the availability of power for air conditioning. The
equivalent Cámaras de Comercio and Cámaras de Industria in Mexican border towns invited
development. In the U.S. the virtues of the Sun Belt became obvious to business people,
tourists, and retirees--as they had been discovered long before by the armed forces. In
Mexico, citizens of the border towns enjoyed higher incomes than in most of Mexico, much
of it due to the exchange of goods and services between the two countries. That was
important earliest on the Río Grande section of the border, with interchange of some
consequence even before Texas statehood was achieved in 1845. It came later in California,
whose statehood came in 1850, but development took a long time in the southern part of the
state. Growth lagged in Arizona and New Mexico, both of which left territorial status for
statehood in 1912.
Mexican Revolution, 1910-1917
Border relations became dangerous during the great Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917, an
eruption of rage that ended the Díaz regime, with its favors to the lords of haciendas,
sale of national resources to foreigners, and disdain for peons and peasants. During this
civil war many Mexicans prudently stepped over the border into the U.S. There they
sometimes broke neutrality laws by helping factions back home. Some revolutionary exiles,
such as Francisco Madero, who lived in Texas from 1910 to 1911, received aid from local
Mexican-Americans. Also, businessmen in U.S. border towns, often owners of hardware
stores, sold arms and munitions to Mexican nationals. Violence, fear, grief, and greed
made a combustible mixture along the great border.
A group of Mexicans and Americans, led by the Flores Magón brothers, Mexican
anarchists, invaded Lower California from the United States in November 1910. Some of the
unsuccessful band members were pro-Mexican, some wanted an independent republic, others
wished to attach northwestern Mexico to the United States. Civil war in Mexico encouraged
such forays across the border, even though President William H. Taft did not. The violence
in Mexico led Taft in March 1911 to order mobilization of 20,000 men for border duty.
After Madero became president of Mexico in November 1911 he complained that arms and
munitions for his enemies came into Mexico from the United States. Taft and the Congress
made some effort to control the traffic, but it was difficult. In February 1912, however,
when Pascual Orozco revolted in Chihuahua, Taft embargoed arms to the rebels while
allowing sales to Madero's government.
Great civil wars always damage foreign nationals and their property. Equally
inevitable, in 1912 Americans demanded that Washington provide protection. That demand was
especially worrisome to Mexico because the common border made action so simple.
Furthermore, historical memory and the presence of new oil fields near Tampico, made
Mexicans fear a plot to seize Mexican territory under cover of preserving order.
Violence increased in Mexico when the moderate Madero was murdered in February 1913 by
a group that included General Victoriano Huerta. Woodrow Wilson,
inaugurated on March 4, soon tried to end arms sales to Huerta; but the border was porous
and European governments declined to stop shipments by sea. Wilson took another tack by
recognizing the claim of Venustiano Carranza of Coahuila to be provisional head of a
"Constitutionalist" government. Carranza also was accepted by the important
northern in military leaders Alvaro Obregón of
Sonora and Pancho Villa
of Chihuahua. Finally, Wilson permitted arms sales to the Constitutionalists. Huerta
resigned on July 15, 1914, partly because of Constitutionalist military victories, partly
because of U.S. interventions at Tampico and Veracruz in April 1914, essentially to weaken
Huerta. American forces occupied Veracruz until November, despite Carranza's denunciation
of the intervention, which Wilson thought he should welcome! The American president could
not fathom the nationalist Carranza but finally wearied of squabbling with a leader who
clearly was in the ascendant. So, on October 19, 1915, Wilson recognized Carranza's
government and embargoed arms to all other Mexicans.
That led to more striking border incidents. In October 1915 Villa's army had
Constitutionalist forces penned in at the border town of Agua Prieta, across the line from
Douglas, Arizona. Carranza got permission from Wilson to move his troops across Texas, New
Mexico, and into Arizona to reinforce Agua Prieta. On November 1, the Constitutionalist
troops drove across the border and forced the retreat of Villa, who was fuming at Wilson's
action. As a result, on January 10, 1916, a Villista group stopped a train at Santa Ysabel
in central Chihuahua and killed several U.S. mining personnel, an action that infuriated
many Americans. Carranza promised to punish the Villistas but was in no position to do so
at once. The U.S. Congress on March 7 resolved to undertake armed intervention to protect
Americans citizens in Mexico. On the same day Villa himself added to American outrage by
leading a raid on the border town of Columbus, New Mexico. Although he was repelled by
American soldiers and civilians, seventeen U.S. citizens were killed.
President Wilson, with wide backing in the United States, ordered troops into Mexico to
seize Villa. On March 15 they crossed the border under General John Pershing. During the
next several years American soldiers frequently chased raiders in Mexico. Civil war in
Mexico just over a common border led to a state of constant actual or threatened invasion
by the United States.
Carranza's reaction to the invasion (or "hot pursuit") was at first
temperate, but that did not last long. Pershing could not find Villa in the wild country
of Chihuahua. Before long, Mexican troops and private citizens attacked the invaders.
Carranza and other Mexican leaders demanded that American troops withdraw. In June 1916
some Mexicans raided U.S. territory. On June 21 there was an ugly firefight in Mexico
between American and Carranza troops. War seemed possible, though neither government
wanted that. Wilson wearied of Mexican problems as Washington drew nearer to war with
Germany. Finally, he pulled the troops out of Mexico and appointed an ambassador to Mexico
in February 1917. Thus, more important concerns drew America's interest away from its
neighbor. Years later, other issues would be decided in Mexico's favor in a similar way
with the coming of World War .
Fortunately for Mexico, political and economic conditions enormously improved between
the world wars, so its border situation with an immensely stronger nation was not again
dangerously complicated by disorder at home.
Living very near the border now, in both countries, are some six million people, most
of them in twenty-one twin cities divided by the boundary. The Mexican cities usually are
larger than the American. San Diego-Tijuana is the largest complex, with some 1.7 million
people, about half in each country, and with Tijuana growing the faster. Mexicali in
Mexico has 400,000; Calexico, across the border, only some 11,000. El Paso-Ciudad Juárez
have about a million, more than half of them in Mexico. The two Laredos share about a
quarter-million, three fourths of them in Mexico. The growing size of the border cities
has complicated problems of economic exchange and of control of illegal activity.
The growth of the Mexican cities rests in part on all conditions in a large
country--some 760,000 square miles, eleventh largest in the world. Mexico has bountiful
natural resources, a stable political system, and one of the best economic growth records
in recent times--an average of better than 6 percent per year since 1940, scarcely matched
elsewhere. If that growth rate has not created a paradise for Mexicans, the same can be
said of all states in the world.
Finally, there are many Mexicans: 65 million, making Mexico the eleventh most populous
nation in the world. Mexico swarms with children, and living conditions permit them to
grow up and have families of their own, so that the population grows by 3.5 percent a
year, compared to less than 1 percent in the United States and the USSR. There were only
19.6 million Mexicans in 1940, but 48.3 million in 1970. It is projected that Mexico's
population will be 120 million by the year 2000. At that rate, sometime in the first half
of the twenty-first century Mexico will have more people than either the United States or
People and goods crossing the border now are more troublesome than past disputes over
water, which is now channeled, divided, and purified by agreement. Such manipulating is
harder to do with goods or people. Much of the flow of people, and goods is legal, but
much is bootlegged. Growing to unmanageable proportions for both countries, this flow
threatens to poison international relations.
There is a constant legal flow of people, with little restraint on crossings not meant
to penetrate the interior. Many Mexicans clog the crossings in the early morning to work
in the United States; then late in the afternoon and in the evening the flow reverses. In
addition, there are millions of crossings to buy goods or entertainment. There are some 20
million American visits to Tijuana a year, with U.S. Navy personnel flowing back and forth
between San Diego and Tijuana like the tide. There also are huge American military bases
elsewhere along the border. Their personnel and other Americans pour more than $1 billion
a year into Mexican border towns.
Americans go south for entertainment, even though the need might seem less acute than
in the past. During Prohibition ( 1918-1933) the legal booze in Mexico held obvious charm.
Once upon a time sex for sale seemed more conveniently packaged in Mexico, but that was
before the massage parlor illuminated the North American scene. For some years Ciudad
Juárez was a giant divorce mill, attracting Americans from as far away as New
York. With one-day divorces, it was a pleasant way of cutting the tie. But at the
beginning of 1971 Mexico closed it down as degrading to the national image.
Still, the Mexican border areas offer tequila and fine Mexican beer, bullfights,
nightclubs, prostitution, souvenirs, and other goods, and the pleasure of living briefly
and safely in a different culture. It is pleasant to have an "exotic" meal in
Mexico, even though the border towns have become infected with a "Tex-Mex"
cookery, which central Mexico disdains.
Finally, there is some pleasure in visiting Mexico in order to appreciate the familiar
virtues of the "good old U.S.A."
Swelling international contact along the border, much of it illegal but openly winked
at, was found by Mexico City to be a barrier to integration of the national economy.
Mexicans in Matamoros, ran the writ from the Federal District, should not go to
Brownsville and buy sheets made in North Carolina, but stay home and buy sheets sent from
factories in Puebla; buy electric blenders made in the interior, not cheaper blenders made
in Schenectady, New York.
Mexicans, however, continue to buy goods in American border towns because of their
higher quality and lower price, even driving from the far interior to buy in the border
marts of the United States. Since much traffic defies Mexican law, partly by bribery of
low-paid officials, no one knows the total value of smuggled goods. Stores in Laredo and
other American border towns could give some idea, since many advertise in Spanish and
cater to customers from over the border. The traffic was so notoriously heavy by 1970 that
a Mexican distillery touted its Scotch whisky (the only whisky Mexicans consider
palatable) on television by showing the surprise and anger of Mexican smugglers in
discovering that it was as good as contraband.(3)
U.S. expenditures in Mexico include not only jewelry, rugs, pottery, petroleum,
tomatoes, and railway cars, but the huge outlays of tourists at such interior playgrounds
as Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta, and investment in commercial and manufacturing
enterprises. The Mexican government encourages United States corporations to lease land in
Mexico's border cities and to import raw materials free of duty as long as the finished
products are exported to the United States. The lure to American manufacturers is the same
as that in Hong Kong and Taiwan-cheap labor. By 1977 there were more than six hundred
American plants just south of the Mexican border, assembling such items as tools,
electronic equipment, and shoes. Some of America's best-known corporations thus carry jobs
to Mexico-as American organized labor complains -and Mexico derives income from wages,
taxes, and the sale of supplies and services.(4)
The Drug Traffic
Marijuana and narcotics smuggled from Mexico became a serious and much discussed
problem in the 1960s and 1970s, when American use greatly increased. The issue became
emotionalized as marijuana came to represent an alternative life-style which included
student radicalism. People believed that marijuana introduced users to LSD, heroin, and
cocaine. Drugs seemed to some Americans a cause of violent crime and of corruption,
degeneration, even revolution.
Heroin and cocaine usage in Mexico is severely repressed, and in any case is too
expensive for most Mexicans. Marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms and other plants have
been confined chiefly to the religious and social rituals of small indigenous groups. But
producing and exporting marijuana and heroin for the U.S. market naturally appeals to the
cupidity as well as the real economic need of many Mexicans. They are not concerned that
the traffic often is controlled by criminals from several countries.
The marijuana trade is cheapest and safest. Usage is widely accepted in the United
States, and the usual penalty for possession of small quantities is on the order of a
traffic ticket. Marijuana is widespread in wild form, even in Kansas and Nebraska. It is
easy to cultivate and process. Users often raise it in flowerpots, a not uncommon
decorative theme of the counterculture. But Mexican marijuana is better quality, much of
it grown in large quantities. In northern Mexico its sale value to poor farmers in a poor
land is tempting. Detection is difficult in so vast a territory. The farmer may get a ton
of marijuana per acre and sell it for $3,500 in a country where the average annual income
is only about $1,000. In Mexico City the ton sells for $20,000. In a city in the southwest
United States, the ton retails for $30,000. Cut into kilogram bricks, the ton fetches
$100,000 to $215,000. Broken down into lids (one-ounce bags), the ton sells for almost
half million dollars. So profits are high, even allowing for costs--transportation,
bribes, protection, and losses to law agencies.
Such amateur American traders as students, housewives, tourists, and military personnel
carry small amounts across the border--in brassieres, shoe heels, and spare tires. Body
searches foul up the lines at border stations, bringing howls of protest when customs
agents guess wrong. Professional smugglers, on the other hand, move tons of marijuana at a
time, usually in large vehicles. Organization, speed, and bribery help them evade
Heroin production and smuggling are riskier. The orange-red poppy flowers stand out
more--especially from the air--than the green stalks of marijuana. Lesser social
acceptance of heroin means greater efforts at control. The cost is higher than for
marijuana because heroin requires more intensive cultivation, and converting the sap of
the seed pods to powder requires expensive equipment and procedures. The high value tempts
hijackers, with financial loss and personal injury to smugglers.
Cocaine is a South American product that merely passes through Mexico, leaving profits
behind. Derived from the leaves
of the coca plant of the Andes mountains, the refined product equals or surpasses
heroin in value. Mexico is an entrepôt because of its well-established networks with the
United States, where the demand is large.
Cooperation by Mexican authorities is one key to control. Drugs are best destroyed in
the fields, before they hit the market. A sealed border would do almost as well, but that
cannot be arranged without creating economic distress in both countries, and neither is
willing to pay the price. Nor is either country willing to pay for the huge number of
guards that would be needed to effectively patrol two thousand miles of border. They would
have to be well paid to keep down bribery.
Mexican authorities, on the border and in the interior, make a considerable effort,
fearful of the spread of drug use in Mexico and of the obvious crime and corruption of
officials caused by the traffic. The head of the Mexican Federal Judicial Police was
arrested in San Antonio in 1972 with eighty-nine pounds of heroin in his possession. Great
Mexican efforts to control the growing of opium poppies and marijuana in the mid-1970s
were effective, partly because the United States gave aid with helicopters and herbicides.
By early 1980 the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration noted that flows from Mexico were
notably down. Of course, flows were up from other countries.
The drug traffic contributes to corruption and crime in the United States, as well as
in Mexico. Border residents sometimes suffer from warfare between drug gangs. Nuevo
Laredo, Laredo, and San Antonio endured street shoot-outs in 1972. The Mexican national
police commandant was sent to Nuevo Laredo, only to be machine-gunned to death there.
Mexican army units were moved into the area. Americans said it showed the poor quality of
Mexican police work; Mexicans said it showed their willingness to take any necessary
measures, as opposed to the feeble efforts of American agencies.
Americans jailed in Mexico, often for drug possession, get sympathy back home by
complaining of brutality and crying their innocence of anything but long hair, poverty,
and use of --never commerce in--drugs. It is true that Mexican police occasionally single
out what they call North American "ippies," but increasing addiction of Mexicans
to the youth culture makes long hair and sloppy clothes less a plain mark of just the
Yankee. In any event, young people are a small problem between two large nations. Only a
handful of Americans were involved in the exchange of prisoners arranged in 1977. The
Americans from Mexican jails and the Mexicans from northern calabooses both went home with
tales of their brutal treatment at the hands of their foreign jailkeepers.
The larger problem of drug traffic from Mexico to the United States will not much
escalate because today there are so many alternate sources of marijuana and narcotics.
Jimmy Jones may grow marijuana under lamps in his closet or buy hard stuff from dealers
hooked into poisonous networks reaching across the oceans to Italy, Turkey, and other
lands. So why take drastic measures against Mexico, when the junk merely will flow through
other channels? And no one knows how to cut use in the United States, the heart of the
problem. For all the talk, this is not a major issue between the United States and Mexico.
It is otherwise with the illegal flow of Mexicans across the border.
For more recent information, see Drug Policy in the 1990s.
1. See the
Mexican American War Homepage for more information on this controversial period.
2. For more on subsequent U.S.-Mexican water disputes, see chapter 9.
3. The Mexican currency devaluation of 1976 cut heavily into U.S.
border sales to Mexicans, but subsequent price increases in Mexico began to make it more
4. See chapter 8 for more on economic change
between the two countries.
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