When a River Is a Border: A Conversation with C.J. Alvarez

a portion of a map showing the rio grande as a border between the united states and mexico

So many of the people who theorize, write, and legislate about the U.S.–Mexico border do not live there, C.J. Alvarez observes. Although the border is a site of humanitarian crisis and a focal point for political polarization, it is also a massive, diverse resource frontier where humans have had to live around and in response to water, or its scarcity, for many generations. From rope bridges to seesaws to multinational damming projects, the U.S.–Mexico border land is a built world and a site of construction and collaboration. But it is also an unruly space capable of resisting attempts at regulation or administration, just as a treaty cannot prevent a river from changing its course.

In September 2019, C.J. talked to me from his residency in Santa Fe, New Mexico, about water, community, and new ways of seeing borderlands in his new book, Border Land, Border Water: A History of Construction on the U.S.–Mexico Divide.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.

Interview highlights:

These highlights have been edited for length and clarity

Elena McGrath: The first chapter of Border Land, Border Water is a series of adventures, for lack of a better term, of people who are spending various amounts of resources trying to chart the border (and sometimes giving up). It’s an interesting counter-history, because we often think of maps as creating space. But, for a number of decades, whether people could get down the river determined whether or not the border was constructed on at all.

C.J. Alvarez: There’s two parts of that, land and water. The land part, and by that I mean the first border surveys of the 1850s and 1890s, is interesting because they’re trying to draw a border that’s a relatively straight line. In the mid 19th-century, there aren’t very many straight-lined borders in the world at that point. It’s the quintessentially artificial way of delineating space. And it was the first in a long line of border policies, especially from the point of view of the U.S., that really didn’t take into consideration—in any way, shape, or form—border people and what was already going on there. It was policy that originated elsewhere.

You can read that not only in the straight lines of the western land border, but you can also read it in exactly what you pointed out. Like, oh my god, we’re in a desert! We’re in a desert and deserts are terrible places. And anybody who lives in a desert is some form of savage or well outside the realm of what we consider, we being the people who devised this line, to be civilized or civilization.

A river runs through a narrow gap in tall rock canyons

The canyons and shifting embankments of the Rio Grande confound attempts to create a straight and easily mapped border. In this 2004 photograph by Ken Lund, the left side is in the U.S. and the right side is in Mexico.

The river border, and choosing that as a river border, is fundamentally different. In the mid 19th century, it made sense to choose some feature of the natural environment, whether it’s mountains or in this case a river, as an easy ready-made dividing line. But, as you say, the river was in many ways far more intractable than even the harshest deserts of the western border. There’s canyons and rapids. This was before dams were built on the Rio Grande. It was a wild river. They really couldn’t get down it, and they didn’t survey it for quite a while.

Turns out by the 1890s, and certainly into the 20th century when property lines become more important in the context of mining, ranching, farming and when international borders become more important politically, you couldn’t have chosen a worse kind of border than a river, especially a river like the Rio Grande that moves around a lot. So, the river becomes the focus of a lot of border projects, precisely because it moves around a lot. That’s not a desirable feature if you’re in the business of trying to create fixed, hardened, and permanent political borders.

EM: Your book discusses the Border Patrol, but at least as important to the story is a more obscure agency that people don’t generally talk about: the International Boundary and Water Commission. Can you talk a little bit about that agency, and it’s Mexican equivalent, and how they came to be so central to the border?

CA: You’re right, I write quite a bit about the INS and the Border Patrol, in both its early iterations in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, but also present day. The book covers a long time-span, more or less from the end of the Mexican–American War, and the first boundary survey of 1850, all the way up to the Secure Fence Act and the construction that took place after 2006.

the cover of the book "border land, border water," a desert landscape with a wall running down the middle of itOne reason I branched out from writing about that particular agency was my realization that it’s very difficult to reduce border history to a single agency, precisely because there’s so many different kinds of bureaucracies on both the U.S. and Mexican side that are involved in orchestrating border related projects.

IBWC, the International Boundary and Water Commission is, to my mind, a least common denominator for border history. Here’s why. For one, it’s the oldest organization. The previous iteration of that agency was the Boundary Commission that first surveyed, demarcated, and delineated the border surveys in the 1850s and 1890s. But it’s also very curious, because it has a Mexican counterpart, a Mexican mirror side, called the CILA, La Comisión Internacional de Límites y Aguas, which means the exact same thing in Spanish (the International Boundary and Water Commission).

They’re both federal agencies, but unlike other federal agencies that have their headquarters in Washington D.C. and Mexico City, the headquarters of the IBWC on the U.S. side is in El Paso, Texas, one of the ultimate, oldest border towns, and then the headquarters of the CILA, is in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, right on the other side of El Paso.

a topographical map showing the rio grande on the border between the united states and mexico

The International Boundary Commission is a long-standing and unique organization which manages and surveys the U.S.–Mexico border. Map of the International Boundary Commission Surveys of the Rio Grande, 1910-1911, via University of Texas at Austin.

They live and work in the space that they administer. They’re bilingual: all the official documents are produced in both English and Spanish. The commissioners of both agencies are also physically close to one another. They don’t have to go through long diplomatic channels between D.C. and Mexico City. According to oral histories, according to folks I’ve talked to, according to the good folks at the Texas Observer who’ve done more current reporting on the IBWC, it seems to be the case that they’re pretty friendly with one another. These are agencies that get along pretty well, especially in contrast to this narrative that we often have of the border that is rooted in antagonism and conflict. So, you see the border differently if you look through the lens of the IBWC and CILA.

Another thing I think is particularly interesting is that they’re the only agencies, on both sides of the border, that actually think about the U.S.–Mexico divide as one thing. Even the Border Patrol, unless you’re talking about the highest-ranking agents in the Border Patrol, are not thinking in terms of two thousand miles of international divide. They’re thinking in terms of sectors or in terms of individual agents, they’re thinking in terms of just the place that they patrol which could be a very small couple of blocks in a border town. But the Boundary Commission, they’re working on storage dams. They’re working on (historically) fencing. They’re working on cross-border water sanitation issues. They have to keep an eye on dozens of different cross-border projects that they’re involved in administering in a way that no other agency does. We talk a lot about the border, but we’re rarely talking about the whole thing. We’re talking about specific border towns or specific places. But the IBWC and CILA are actually thinking about the whole thing.

a bridge crowded with cars stretches over a mostly dry riverbed of concrete

Border infrastructure continues to grow, as both the U.S. and Mexico invest in new construction and ports of entry. The Bridge of the Americas connects El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. Photo by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 2016.

EM: One of the stories you tell is about how interest has not exclusively been in controlling space and preventing people from moving. One of the major impulses of development has also been business, conducting business, moving resources and people across.

CA: That’s exactly right. In the last chapter of the book, I talk about the number of bridges that were built across the Rio Grande along the Texas, Mexico, Texas, Chihuahua, Coahuila Nuevo León, and the Tamaulipas border in anticipation of the Free Trade Agreement in 1994.

From the early 1990s up until about 2010, there were actually two major construction projects taking place on the U.S.–Mexico border. One is fencing, the modern, durable, heavy barriers, vehicle barriers, and pedestrian barriers of the border fence that we already have. And two, and arguably more importantly in terms of our ability to interpret the history of the U.S.–Mexico border, is the construction of new ports of entry, new connective tissue between the two countries: expanded ports of entry; more lanes added; bigger inspection stations for commercial goods; new trucking regulations that allowed, in theory at least, trucks to cross the border more easily. An entirely new highway system was built, especially on the Mexican side, to accommodate the anticipated, and actualized, huge uptick in trade and overland commerce. To me, any conversation about the barriers in the interstitial spaces between the ports of entry has to be accompanied by a conversation about the expansion of the ports of entry. Which, in Texas, because it’s a river border, are bridges.

Featured image: A portion of a map produced by the International Boundary Commission in 1910, depicting the river border between the U.S. and Mexico. Image available via the Library of Congress.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

C.J. Alvarez is Assistant Professor of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies at University of Texas at Austin. His research and teaching interests include environmental history and the history of the U.S.–Mexico border. His first book, Border Land, Border Water: A History of Construction on the U.S.–Mexico Divide, was published in 2019 by the University of Texas Press. Alvarez is currently researching a history of the Chihuahuan desert at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Contact.

Elena McGrath is a visiting assistant professor of Latin American History at Carleton College in Minnesota. Her research interests include revolutionary movements, race, gender, and natural resources in Latin America. She is working on a book exploring the limits of nationalism and populism as drivers of revolutionary change in twentieth century Bolivia. Her previous contributions to Edge Effects include “Mining for Change in Bolivia” (November 2016). Contact.