Borderlands of Modernity and Abandonment: The Lines within Ambos Nogales and the Tohono O’odham Nation

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Only sixty miles west of tall steel border walls in Ambos Nogales on the U.S.-Mexico border, people pass casually through staggered fences on the Tohono O’odham reservation. These border spaces are adjacent points along the same international boundary, but the contrast between them could not be more apparent. Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora, together are known as Ambos Nogales and assert a single community identity despite different histories (the Spanish word ambos means “both”). Ambos Nogales has continuous border fencing, storefronts, and homes that crowd as close to the international line as laws permit, and hundreds of U.S. and Mexican government agents police everything that moves across the border. (See cover illustration for a view of this border fencing in the mid-twentieth century). Heading west from the city, steel walls turn into chain link and barbed wire fences, and vehicle barriers spaced far enough apart for cattle and people to cross through. These fences soon reach the lands of the Tohono O’odham, a binational indigenous group divided by the border. Their borderlands remain rural, sparsely populated, and comparatively less policed. They lack the fortress-like walls that symbolize the border's militarization; brick and mortar businesses that represent cross-border commerce; and customs and immigration compounds that embody U.S. and Mexican states on the frontiers of both nations.1 This article explains how two borderlands so close together developed so differently. It begins in the mid-nineteenth century, with the demarcation of the border after the U.S.-Mexico War, but moves quickly to the mid-twentieth century. After World War II, the U.S.-Mexico border region boomed. Hundreds of thousands of people with varied citizenships, races, and identities streamed into borderlands cities. U.S. and Mexican officials enforced the border, but they also encouraged cross-border social, cultural, and economic exchanges that promoted harmonious international relations and shared visions …
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)362-383
JournalThe Journal of American History
StatePublished - 2011


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