Borderline Cases

On the Border: Portraits of America's Southwestern Frontier

by Tom Miller
Harper & Row, 226 pp., $12.95

The Border Economy: Regional Development in the Southwest

by Niles Hansen
University of Texas Press, 225 pp., $8.95 (paper)

“The border means more than a customshouse, a passport officer, a man with a gun,” Graham Greene said. “Over there everything is going to be different…. The man seeking scenery imagines strange woods and unheard-of mountains; the romantic believes that the women over the border will be more beautiful and complaisant than those at home; the unhappy man imagines at least a different hell; the suicidal traveler expects the death he never finds.” That Greene wrote those words after visiting not Hong Kong or Trieste but Laredo should come as no surprise. The Mexican border—the very words are a metaphor for starting over—has been the inspiration for more feverish literary fantasies than that. The immediate significance of the border, however, is no longer to be found in the frequently overblown notions of romance or promise it provides south-bound travelers and writers, especially writers—Mexico, as Paul Fussell says, makes Anglo-Saxon authors go all to pieces—but in its distinction as the only international frontier in the world that separates a largely impoverished nation from a highly developed one. To the extent that the border still offers the promise of a fresh start it is not for those moving south, but north.

Though it is not really necessary to do so, one might quibble with Tom Miller’s description of the border as merely a strip of land two thousand miles long and twenty miles wide; the radians of its influence certainly extend as far as Louisiana to the east and Colorado to the north, roughly the area that Joel Garreau, in his imaginative book The Nine Nations of North America, has christened “MexAmerica,” and in several important ways there is now no place in the country they do not touch.

But the border as a sphere of influence is another topic altogether; as a meeting point of two countries it is equally deserving of study, if only because it is often no more than an imaginative collection of convenient fictions. For the moment, the most troublesome myth seems to be that the border between the United States and Mexico, like the one between, say, West Germany and Czechoslovakia, is a frontier over which this country can, should it choose to do so, exercise a near-absolute degree of sovereign control. This is not so, and even the idea that political boundaries in general ought to be barriers to mobility is relatively recent. In his book Abroad, Paul Fussell quotes C.E. Montague, the British novelist and journalist, recalling Europe before the First World War as a place where “you wandered freely about the Continent as if it were your own country…without knowing what a passport looked like.” So it was too in America, where until the early part of this century the only formality required of Mexican immigrants was the payment of fifty cents. Not until 1915, following the outbreak of war in Europe, did the US begin requiring visas of foreign visitors, and until the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 there…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.