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March 1, 2007
Vol. 64
No. 6

Rethinking the Line Between Us

Studying U.S.-Mexican immigration issues helps students understand the global economic and social forces that affect us all.

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A huge monument in Mexico City's bustling Chapultepec Park reads, “In memory of those who died in the North American invasion.” In Mexico, virtually all schoolchildren are taught that their country lost about half its territory to the United States following the 1846–48 war. For Mexicans, there is nothing sacred or inevitable about the line that divides the two countries.
But in the United States, the U.S. war with Mexico is, at best, a curricular afterthought. Despite ferocious public debates about immigration policy, standard curriculums in U.S. schools fail to help students think historically and critically about immigration issues. Addressing two key questions about U.S.-Mexican immigration—What is the origin of the U.S.-Mexico border? and, Why are so many people today fleeing Mexico and coming to the United States?—can help students gain a fuller perspective about the line between us.

Reexamining the Border

At a massive May Day march and rally in Chicago last year, one of the placards featured a large map showing the original Mexican territory, stretching north to today's Oregon border and east to where Texas meets Louisiana. The caption on the placard read, “While tracing my roots, I realized . . . I am home!”
Yet in my students' minds, the line dividing Mexico from the United States is as clear as if it had been decreed by some border deity. When I began a unit on the relationship between the two countries by asking my 11th grade Global Studies students—mostly European American and working class—to write about the border, they threw pronouns and possessive adjectives at the page: “us,” “them,” “we,” “they,” “ours,” “theirs.” These linguistic certainties not only rest on a shaky historical foundation, but also prevent students from thinking clearly about the global economic and social forces that affect us all.
In Portland Public Schools, where I teach high school social studies, the main United States history text is Glencoe/McGraw-Hill's American Odyssey (2003). In the two paragraphs it devotes to the United States–Mexico War, the book states that the war began as a “border skirmish”—one of those nonexplanatory explanations that pepper so many textbooks and train students to accept glib sound bites, such as “War broke out” or “Chaos erupted” in place of analysis (Loewen, 1995).
Eyewitnesses like Colonel Ethan Allen Hitchcock, an aide to General Zachary Taylor, had a different take on the conflict's origins: It looks as if the [U.S.] government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have a pretext for taking California and as much of this country [Mexico] as it chooses. (Zinn & Arnove, 2004, p. 156)
In 1846, President James Polk ordered U.S. troops into an area between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande that had long been part of Mexico. When the U.S. soldiers were attacked (as Polk and others had predicted), he asked Congress for war appropriations—which were dutifully approved after less than two hours of debate. James Russell Lowell's sardonic The Biglow Papers elaborated on Hitchcock's point of view:
They jest want this Californy
So's to lug new slave-states in
To abuse ye, an' to scorn ye,
An' to plunder ye like sin.
(Encyclopedia Britannica, 1968, p. 349)
As part of my class's study of United States–Mexico relations, I created a tea party activity to introduce students to some of the individuals and issues they would encounter in readings on the war from American Odyssey as well as Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States (2003) and Milton Meltzer's Bound for the Rio Grande(1974). In the tea party, students assume the roles of 19 different individuals who had some connection to the U.S.-Mexico War—for example, Frederick Douglass, who opposed the war from an abolitionist and antiracist standpoint; Jefferson Davis, who supported the war as a way to expand U.S. territory that might be opened to slavery; Maria Josefa Martínez, a woman living in Santa Fe with many more rights under Mexican law than she would enjoy under U.S. law, such as the right to own property in her own name; Sergeant John Riley, one of about 260 Irish immigrants who deserted the U.S. Army to fight for Mexico as the San Patricio Brigade; and the writer Henry David Thoreau, who coined the term civil disobedience defending his refusal to pay the poll tax in support of what he believed to be an unjust war.
Each student receives a role description and “becomes” that character. In a lively class period of discovery and conversation, students circulate through the classroom, meeting one another in their roles as they seek answers to a series of questions, such as, Find someone who supports the U.S. war with Mexico. Who is the person? Why does this person support the war? and, Find someone who was shocked by things he or she saw in the war. Who is the person? What shocked this person?
The tea party activity alerts students to the fact that there are multiple perspectives on the war—perspectives that do not necessarily slice neatly between “Mexican” and “American.” For example, Maria Josefa Martínez and several other Mexican characters believed that, in the words of a common Mexican-American observation, “they did not cross the border, the border crossed them.” Among Americans, the invasion of Mexico triggered an antiwar movement; not all of “us” supported the war.
In class, we also listen to the song “San Patricio Brigade” by the Irish immigrant rock group Black 47, which expresses the views of Brigade members denouncing U.S. discrimination against them:
Oh, they spat at my crucifix
Laughed at my church
They called me a papist
And many things worse.
Seen from the standpoint of many Mexicans and Mexican Americans, the border is una herida abierta, an open wound. It marks the frontier where the U.S. military concluded its invasion and land grab. Of course, as educators, our job is not to hand students conclusions about the border. But especially because this history does not figure prominently in the traditional curriculum in U.S. schools—and students are unlikely to be exposed to it on the nightly news—it's up to us to introduce some critical voices.

Reexamining Migrant Roots

U.S. news media exhibit a shocking lack of curiosity about why enormous numbers of people risk their lives to enter the United States. There are plenty of stories about immigration debates in Congress, about the U.S. Border Patrol, and even about migrants' daring attempts to enter the United States. But the media ask few questions about the changes occurring in Mexico that prompt so many people to risk everything to flee.
My hunch is that this silence stems from a stereotype about Mexicans and Mexico: They are poor people in a poor country; of course they want to come to the United States. But Mexico has changed tremendously in the last 15 years or so; today, the majority of Mexicans are poorer and more economically insecure than they were just a few years ago. Exploring the roots of this transformation with students enables them to understand why so many people continue to flee Mexico and prompts them to see the limits of thinking in strictly national terms about “us” and “them.” This is a key aim of the NAFTA Role Play, an activity that I created to examine some of the impact the North American Free Trade Agreement has had on Mexico.
NAFTA greatly reduced tariff and nontariff trade barriers between Mexico, the United States, and Canada. President Bill Clinton, an enthusiastic promoter of NAFTA, promised that the expansion of trade and investment would bring economic benefits to all three countries. The role play is premised on a fictional Mexico–United States Free Trade Conference in 1993 that includes representatives from seven social groups on both sides of the border: Tijuana maquiladora (assembly plant) workers; U.S. frozen food corporate executives; poor farmers from the southern Mexican state of Chiapas; workers in U.S. jeans factories; prosperous farmers in northern Mexico; business representatives in the USA-NAFTA Coalition; and a joint U.S.-Mexican environmental justice coalition. Students receive detailed role descriptions (see Bigelow, 2006). As President Clinton, I chair the gathering.
Divided into their respective social groups, students deliberate on various parts of NAFTA: the elimination of tariffs and investment restrictions; a requirement that Mexico scrap sections of its constitution promoting land reform, collective ownership of land, and restrictions on foreign ownership; a provision that would allow corporations to sue national governments in secret tribunals in the event of government measures that allegedly harm future profits; a requirement of minimum labor and environmental standards; and a proposal that “free trade” also include the free movement of people between NAFTA countries.
It may seem that high school students would find these issues complicated and bewildering. But as students wander around the classroom, meeting with other groups and building alliances, the issues come into focus. Students see that positions on these issues do not fall neatly into national camps. For example, the Chiapas farmers adamantly oppose any changes to Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution, which guarantees them collective land and promises land for the landless; the prosperous farmers in northern Mexico are equally insistent that Article 27 is anachronistic and stifles potentially lucrative deals with U.S. agribusiness companies. Similarly, U.S. jeans factory workers fear that corporations will flee to Mexico to take advantage of cheap labor and lax environmental enforcement, but the USANAFTA Coalition argues that such investment flexibility is part of living in an increasingly free society.
The role play's cross-border alliance-building alerts students that “free trade” reforms did not threaten all Mexicans, nor did they benefit all groups in the United States. Students generally make astute predictions about NAFTA's effects. The role play sets the stage for follow-up research on post-NAFTA economic developments, especially in Mexico, and we look at statistics describing the effects of NAFTA and NAFTA-related reforms.
NAFTA's 10th anniversary, in 2004, sparked a flurry of “10-year-after” articles and conferences. NAFTA promoters spoke of increased efficiencies—trade between NAFTA partners doubled, direct investment in Mexico more than quadrupled, Mexican exports more than doubled, productivity in Mexican manufacturing jumped 50 percent, andmaquiladora employment grew by about half a million.
After looking at these seemingly rosy statistics, I ask students to list other measurements that might give a fuller account of the effects of NAFTA and other reforms in Mexico. Students soon recognize what's been left out. They list wages, poverty, and environmental effects. Sure enough, despite productivity increases, in NAFTA's first 10 years manufacturing wages throughout Mexico declined 9 percent, poverty in rural Mexico increased from 54 percent in 1989 to 81 percent in 2001. Air pollution skyrocketed. According to the Carnegie Endowment, by 2003, almost 1.5 million Mexican farmers had been driven off their land because of cheap corn imports from the United States (Pollan, 2004). And according to the Pew Hispanic Center, immigration from Mexico increased from 332,000 in 1993 to 459,000 in 2004 (Passel & Suro, 2005).
Who is the “we” who benefited from NAFTA? Who is the “we” who suffered? The role play and our subsequent study muddy these waters. My students respond to this curriculum in various ways. Sometimes their reactions are contradictory. For example, after the role play and a lesson on the lives of migrants at the border, I asked students to draw pictures commenting on some aspect of the relationship between Mexico and the United States. Marissa titled her drawing of an exploding building “The Corporate A-Bomb” and described it at length: This drawing represents the effects of NAFTA on Mexico. The building represents corporate America. It is shown as an atomic bomb in Mexico, killing and destroying everything in its way. The cacti that are in the shapes of crosses and say no identificado on them, which means no identification in Spanish, represent the hundreds of people who die every year attempting to cross the border. . . . All of this is tied into the sign that says, “Welcome to corporate America!” Because that's what NAFTA is doing, bringing a part of corporate America that isn't good at all to Mexico.
Although in this assignment Marissa expressed an understanding of the adversity many Mexicans face, in a final discussion on immigration policy she embraced the us/them dichotomy with gusto. Discussing a proposal to cut off undocumented immigrants from public education, social services, and nonemergency health benefits—as California's Proposition 187, passed in 1994, did—Marissa declared, “They're not legal. Our benefits aren't to benefit their country. It's our children who we should educate, not theirs.”
Other students were more reflective about their us/them assumptions. Josh, for instance, said very little in class discussions, but in his papers he seemed disturbed and moved by what he encountered throughout the unit. I ran into Josh at an immigrant rights rally more than a year after our class had ended.

Getting Beyond “Immigrants, Go Home!”

As educators, we can't simply abandon young people to the stereotypes, biases, and historical misinformation that have become so much a part of the public discourse around immigration. To make sense of today's policy tug-of-war over border and immigration issues, our students need to be equipped to think historically and to approach issues from diverse perspectives. Our job is to offer students imaginative ways to engage the historical, social, and economic background that will equip them to think carefully about the lines between us and the bonds that connect us.
References

American Odyssey: The 20th century and beyond. (2003). Glencoe/McGraw-Hill.

Bigelow, B. (2006). The line between us: Teaching about the border and Mexican immigration. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools.

Encyclopedia Brittanica. (1968). Annals of America: Vol. 7, 1841–1848. Manifest destiny. Chicago: William Benton.

Loewen, J. (1995). Lies my teacher told me. New York: The New Press.

Meltzer, M. (1974). Bound for the Rio Grande. New York: Random House.

Passel, J., & Suro, R. (2005). Rise, peak, and decline: Trends in U.S. immigration, 1992–2004.Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center.

Pollan, M. (2004, April 23). A flood of U.S. corn rips at Mexico. Los Angeles Times, p. B13.

Zinn, H. (2003). A people's history of the United States. New York: Harper Perreniel.

Zinn, H., & Arnove, A. (Eds.). (2004). Voices of a people's history of the United States. New York: Seven Stories Press.

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