Diaz on Lim, 'Porous Borders: Multiracial Migrations and the Law in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands'

Julian Lim
George T. Diaz

Julian Lim. Porous Borders: Multiracial Migrations and the Law in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017. 320 pp. $32.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-3550-7.

Reviewed by George T. Diaz (The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley) Published on H-Law (May, 2018) Commissioned by Laurent Corbeil (Department of History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=51489

In Porous Borders: Multiracial Migrations and the Law in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, Julian Lim illuminates the complexity of race and belonging in the borderlands in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Rather than delineate this history to an encounter between Anglos and Mexicans, Lim examines how states brought diverse peoples together across national divides.

Her book begins in the 1880s, when railroads began to bind border communities with Mexican and US national visions. Railroads brought the world to the borderlands as isolated communities saw an influx of African Americans, ethnic Mexicans, and Chinese immigrants. The arrival of these groups provided the labor needed for Mexican and US economic development, but also complicated national and elite concepts of racial order. Although states relied on multiracial communities, mixed populations challenged homogenous national identities embraced by the US and Mexican governments. Rather than acknowledge this complexity, the United States and Mexico sought to exclude immigrants who did not conform to visions of a uniform national identity and render invisible the multiracial milieu which migrations created.

It is fitting that Lim centers her history of multiracial migrations in El Paso/Ciudad Juárez. Aside from its central location across the US-Mexico divide, railroad linkages tied border cities into wider networks of trade, national ambitions, and streams of migration. But railroads, and the capitalist expansion they offered and represented, also depended on Indian removal. Instead of focusing on violence and physical removal, Lim examines how states erased ethnic diversity. Indians who spoke Spanish became Mexicans in Anglo eyes and, despite a centuries-long presence, vanished from census rolls.

But official erasure did not remove people from the streets—where African Americans on the periphery of Jim Crow met, mingled, and (progressives feared) intermarried. Despite their second-class status, ethnic Mexican women were legally white and had been since the 1848 treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Marriages between Mexican women and African American men challenged the color line and prompted law enforcement raids against multiracial households. Texas laws, however, could not stop multiracial couples from marrying in Mexico or forming intimate relations. By the 1930s, the children of these unions—commonly called “negro burros”—exposed racists’ failure to establish a color line. They also demonstrated the power of progressives to define ethnoracial categories (p. 82).

The outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 produced violent unrest and migratory disorder, but also offered black soldiers, Indian scouts, and Mexican and Chinese civilians an opportunity to redefine their relationship to the United States. Apache scouts both asserted their “fitness for citizenship” and utilized the US Army against old foes in Mexico (p. 129). Military service provided African Americans an opportunity to demonstrate their ability and traction for asserting their rights. Mexican-Chinese communities who aided American forces in Mexico attached themselves to the Punitive Expedition as it withdrew, thereby bypassing US exclusion laws as “deserving refugees” (p. 156). 

One of Lim’s achievements is her consideration of how the US and Mexican immigration systems mirrored each other. In the wake of the Mexican Revolution, Mexico’s government embraced indigenismo as a means of fostering national identity and belonging. Although the embrace of an indigenous past may have provided a means to reconcile lingering divisions, would-be Chinese Mexicans found themselves excluded and othered. “Antichinismo” extended to national policy as the Mexican Constitution of 1917 defined foreigners as those without a Mexican nationality (p. 158). Moreover, the new constitution granted the government the power to expel foreigners deemed undesirable, many of whom were Asians and African Americans attempting to escape Jim Crow. 

Whereas other books have succeeded in including Asians or African Americans in the borderlands, Lim’s book is the first to examine how Native Americans, Mexicans, Anglos, African Americans, and Asian immigrants formed multiracial communities across the US-Mexico divide. Lim’s ability to weave an analytical narrative from an array of disparate sources in local, state, and national archives in Mexico as well as the United States makes Porous Borders a model for transnational history and the historian’s craft. The book would make a fine addition for upper-division and graduate classes in borderlands history. 

Citation: George T. Diaz. Review of Lim, Julian, Porous Borders: Multiracial Migrations and the Law in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. H-Law, H-Net Reviews. May, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=51489

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.