The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1991, Volume 37, Number 1
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Border: The U.S.-Mexico Line.

By Leon C. Metz. El Paso: Mangan Books (6245 Snowheights, El Paso, TX, 79912), 1989. Bibliography. Photographs. Maps. Index. 467 pages. $29.95. 

Reviewed by Paul Ganster, Director, Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias, San Diego State University.

Border, in the words of author Leon C. Metz, is a “chronicle of the Mexican border … It is a historical accounting described largely through the eyes and experiences of government agents, politicians, soldiers, revolutionaries, outlaws, Indians, engineers, immigrants, developers, illegal aliens, business people, and wayfarers looking for a job.” (p. ix). This massive work, divided into seven books and thirty-three chapters focuses on the international boundary, its establishment, and subsequent events in the region.

The book begins with a detailed narrative of the surveys carried out to locate and mark the international border, a tale of politics and bureaucratic fumbling on the part of the United States and of lack of resources to do a proper job on the part of Mexico. The next sections chronicle the story of this new region delineated by the boundary. Subjects discussed include filibustering expeditions launched from the United States and elsewhere in the late 1840s, the 1850s, and early 1860s; the course of slavery in the region; the impact of the U.S. civil war; the effect of Mexican political unrest; and continued banditry and Indian raids. A recurring theme in these sections is the inability of the two federal governments to fully cope with the ebb and flow of events back and forth across the border.

Next, the key role of the border in the great Mexican Revolution of 1910 is described. Insurgent and government forces alike used settlements in the United States, particularly El Paso, as a place of supply and of refuge. The two subsequent books of the Border examine the dual issues of maintaining the boundary in the face of meandering rivers and of dividing the water rights to the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers. The final book tells the story of documented and undocumented immigration and treats selected contemporary issues such as the maquiladora (in-bond, or production sharing manufacturing) industry and border environmental problems.

Border is the result of significant basic research into the printed materials (as the excellent bibliography shows), U.S. government documents, theses and dissertations, newspapers, and more than thirty oral interviews. However, other than a few printed works, the author makes little reference to the Mexican historical literature or archival sources that pertain to internal conditions in that country, relations with the United States, or the border region. Thus, the reader has to keep in mind that there is another side to the story, another perspective on the events under scrutiny. And, since Mr. Metz skillfully portrays events by using direct quotes from contemporary observers, American stereotypes and prejudices about Mexico and Mexican come across quite clearly. While this helps the reader better understand the mentality of the participants, it also reinforces the North-of-the-border emphasis.

The work also has a geographical perspective that centers on the Texas end of the border, particularly the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez area. Of course, this is to be expected as that region was the most populous and dynamic area of the border in the 19th and early 20th centuries, before the Sunbelt boom that brought to prominence the western end of the border. Readers of the journal of San Diego History will find this geographical emphasis on San Diego useful and enlightening.

Border, which is a very ambitious book, is a major contribution to the literature of the border and has only a few minor imperfections. Its most original feature is the detailed description of the border from the time of the boundary surveys through the Mexican Revolution. Metz is a fine writer and his skill in including quotations of original materials and many meaningful and amusing anecdotes makes the subject come alive. The tremendous detail provided for various periods and topics takes the reader beyond the accepted truths about the border that appear in more general histories. For example, some U.S. and Mexican writers have characterized 19th century border relations as simply the story of American aggression and continued violations of Mexican sovereignty. However, Metz carefully documents bandit and Indian raids as well as military invasions from Mexico into the United States and vice versa. He shows that border events characterized by Washington, D.C. and Mexico City as grave violations of sovereignty were often necessary local responses to specific conditions.

Metz is also to be commended for this research that produced many interesting historical photographs that are included in the book. As well, he has provided many excellent original maps that compliment the text.

Border is concentrated on narration of events along boundary. As a result, more analytical works such as Troublesome Border by Oscar J. Martinez, can supplement Border by placing events in a broader historical context. Also, readers would find Michael Myer and William Sherman, The Course of Mexican History, a useful reference for better understanding the events of Central Mexico that so influenced the North.

Overall, Border is a very important contribution to the literature on the U.S.-Mexico border region. Scholars and persons interested in the development of the region will find it to be an important reference work.