Third Nation or Trans-Nation? Remapping the US-Mexico Borderlands

UC Berkeley Professor of City and Regional Planning Michael Dear’s ambitious new book, Why Walls Won’t Work, offers an engaging view into the everyday lives of residents on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Dear prompts a critical re-evaluation of our understanding of the U.S.’ southern border with Mexico, and his timely discussion is relevant to the proposed federal immigration bill, which, if passed, will likely spur further border securitization. Central to Dear’s argument is a framing of the borderlands stretching from southern California to the Gulf of Mexico as a “third nation,” distinct from the U.S. and Mexican nation states. However, by proposing this spatial category, Dear reproduces a territorial model for understanding a region largely defined by its tumultuous engagement with and subversion of the nationalist (territorializing) claims and technologies of the U.S. and Mexican governments. Borrowing a term from anthropologist Nicholas De Genova, I will suggest that instead of redrawing an alternative boundary, we should approach the region as a “transnational conjunctural space,” (see De Genova’s Working the Boundaries).

Dear stakes his provocative assertion that the barrier will fail based on the historic and continued practices of transnationality (and economic interdependence) that undermine the wall’s claims of territorial national sovereignty. Drawing on borderlands historiography, Dear takes us back to the Comanches raids along the southern border prior to the U.S.-Mexican War (see Brian DeLay’s illuminating War of A Thousand Deserts) to suggest that the borderlands share more than a common history, but also blurred cultures, value systems, and practices of mutuality—in short, what Dear identifies as an alternative nationalism. Dear highlights the two dimensions that compose the “third nation’s” nationalism. Firstly the crossings, tunnels, economic interdependence, and other material exchanges that make up what Dear calls the “third nation before the wall,” and secondly, the cultural and language exchanges that make up what Dear calls the “third nation of the mind.” However, Dear for the most part engages these dynamics as parallel, rather than intersecting and inseparable. An illustration of this approach would be a focus on the ways that transnationality is experienced unevenly and unequally by borderlands residents, (for a rigorous analysis of the “nation form” see Manu Goswami, 2002).

Daniela De Leo, in her review of Dear’s book in Volume 26 of the Berkeley Planning Journal, questions the efficacy of a nationalism operating outside a formal nation-state. Perhaps this ambivalence comes from the lack of physical mediums through which nationalism can be performed and distributed in non-state spaces (Benedict Anderson’s famous example of the printing press in Western Europe comes to mind). I share De Leo’s concern. In the southern borderlands, these potential mediums are violently disrupted by physical and legal barriers—or more precisely, access to existing mediums is highly unequal. As geographer Doreen Massey would put it, “different social groups, and different individuals, are placed in very distinct ways in relation to these flows and interconnections.”

From the privileged perspective that comes with U.S. visibility, transnational fluidity seems remarkable. But from the perspective of Mexican citizens, physical transnationality can only be experienced after years of paperwork, steep fees, and too often, the risks involved with undocumented entry into the US. Similarly, cultural exchanges and economic interdependencies are highly uneven and often perpetuate inequality.

Alternatively, UC San Diego architect Teddy Cruz looks at borderlands through the lens of political economy, focusing on the vastly uneven experiences of transnationality along the border, resource flows, and the particular effects of borderlands capitalism. Instead of a coherent alternative nationalism, Cruz sees creative informality, which he argues, forces us to develop a new political language and spatial categories.

I do not suggest that alternative nationalisms can only emerge from state formations or that the “nation form” is an outdated frame, since nationalist movements from India to South Africa suggest otherwise. But in the US-Mexico borderlands, where the experience of transationality is highly uneven, I fail to see the usefulness in attributing territorial nationality to a place of informal dissonance, but exciting political creativity, as Cruz proposes.

Rather than a third nation, the southern borderlands lend themselves to an exciting alternative to bounded geographic models. Lucidly explained by Doreen Massey in her seminal essay, “A Global Sense of Place,” I want to suggest that we approach the southern borderlands not as a third bounded space carved out of a national boundary, but as a dynamic node of global interconnections where local histories, global capital, and uneven transnational agency come together in illumining ways.

Luis Flores is a 2013-14 visiting researcher at UC Berkeley under the auspice of the Judith Lee Stronach Baccalaureate Prize. His project, “Discovering the IRCA Generation” aims to produce a political economy of immigrants’ integration into housing markets during the 1990s and 2000s, illuminating the dangers of articulating assimilation with financial participation, as well as emphasizing the transnational dimensions to the Great Recession. Luis was raised along the southern border in the town of Calexico, California. He can be reached at