Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands. By Katherine Benton-Cohen.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, May 2009. Cloth: ISBN 9780674032774, $29.95. 384 pages.
Review by Tiffany Noell, Arizona State University
At a time when the immigration debate has come to the forefront in Arizona (and across the United States), Katherine Benton-Cohen presents a historiographical examination of many of the underlying issues surrounding the debate. Focused on events in Cochise County, Arizona near the Mexican border during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, she explores what it means to be an “American” from a local, national, racial, and ideological standpoint while troubling the idea that the concept of “American” was/is necessarily separate from “Mexican” or other racialized categories. As one of the largest copper- and silver-mining regions in the world, this geographic area brought together many disparate people including wealthy mine operators from New York and the Midwest, immigrants including Mexicans and Eastern Europeans (all of whom had their racial status questioned and established at the time), local white American citizens, Progressive white women, and Native Americans. She argues that at the time, borderline Americans, or immigrant US residents living near the US-Mexico border, were arbitrarily determined by outsiders, often from the East Coast, to be either white or not, which then had significant effects on daily realities; her argument complicates the often oppositional perspectives of the current immigration debate as well as the binary of the US racial system, which she recognizes as a construct. In the first four chapters, Benton-Cohen investigates how different communities within Cochise County, AZ discussed and classified racial status; the last four chapters focuses on events in the twentieth century leading up to and after the Bisbee Deportation, a key moment of change for the area.
Chapter One looks at Tres Alamos, no longer in existence, where water and land, not racial status, was the key factor in community relationships. Benton-Cohen explores this racially diverse community as a site between the US’s rigid binary racial system and Mexico’s more fluid caste system, where, she argues, people had the ability to “become” a different racial status based on changing socioeconomic and citizenship status, thus exposing the historical construction of race. Chapter Two examines Tombstone, where the fight at the OK Corral between the “lawmen” and the “cowboys” is explored more as the apex of continued tensions between the industrial mining interests and the “outlaw” cattle rustlers, who frequently took advantage of the US-Mexican border, making border security an important issue for both governments. This issue was furthered by Chiricahua Apache hostilities on both sides of the border and the “illegal” immigration of oppressed Chinese, who endeavored to immigrate to the US in spite of anti-Chinese laws and sentiments at the end of the nineteenth century. Chapter Three focuses on Bisbee, a copper mining town and supposedly “a white man’s camp”; Benton-Cohen challenges the validity of that claim as well as how the concept of racial superiority effected wages and the essentializing of many groups into larger categories such as “white” “Americans” or “non-white” “Mexicans” even though there were many people between and outside of that binary. Chapter Four considers the largely middle-class “American” company town of Warren, which was more of a “planned community” than the ramshackle tenant housing of past company towns. Concurrently, Benton-Cohen discusses the growing labor movement in Arizona as a factor in Calumet & Arizona’s decision to create a different type of company town for “American” families, as opposed to single men or “foreigners.”
Chapter Five investigates the changing race relations in four communities, Benson, Cascabel, Pomerene, and Tres Alamos, in the early twentieth century. These northeast Cochise County communities moved away from the diverse interdependent relations towards isolationist towns of either Mexican-Americans or Mormons; the few interactions were largely arguments over water rights. Chapter Six explores the twentieth-century influx of white farmers, drawn by agricultural promoters advertising the ideal “white” “American” family life. As “white” and “American” were increasingly conflated, white women became a focus for the advertisers as imperative for an ideal Western vision, which changed old patterns and relationships within rural Cochise County. Chapter Seven concentrates on the Bisbee Strike and subsequent Deportation of 1917 (also the introductory story of the book) in which all miners not determined to be “American” were rounded up and shipped to New Mexico, often without their families. The deportation of one-fifth of the Bisbee workers was blamed on a combination of racial tensions, national patriotism (as the inciting strike was blamed on German and Mexican interests during the height of World War I), and union concerns. Chapter Eight inspects the decline of mining after World War I and farming with the onset of the droughts of 1919 and the early 1930s. As a result of past events, Benton-Cohen argues that the county and the state became polarized into “Mexican” and “white American” factions while introducing the idea of the unwelcome and “alien” Mexican through unequal relief programs of the New Deal.
Borderline Americans is a case study of the racial complexities in various historical events and communities in Cochise County, Arizona, on the US-Mexican border. Although it is slow to build and can be tangential at times, the book provides a strong historical background into current border issues and race relations. Unfortunately, the connections to modern-day debates are not thoroughly developed; instead, they are relegated to short passages in the introduction and the conclusion. Nonetheless, Benton-Cohen explores many aspects of the present immigration debate within the confines of a frequently evolving and complicated site during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
updated 5:23 PM