Hernandez on Valerio-Jiménez, 'River of Hope: Forging Identity and Nation in the Rio Grande Borderlands'

Omar S. Valerio-Jiménez
Sonia Hernandez

Omar S. Valerio-Jiménez. River of Hope: Forging Identity and Nation in the Rio Grande Borderlands. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013. xiv + 369 pp. $99.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8223-5171-9; $26.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8223-5185-6.

Reviewed by Sonia Hernandez (University of Texas Pan American) Published on H-Borderlands (September, 2013) Commissioned by Benjamin H. Johnson

Negotiating Everyday State Formation along the Rio Grande

The Rio Grande borderlands, as Omar S. Valerio-Jiménez contends, were shaped through daily negotiations of gender, class, and racial ideologies. Such negotiations--whether personal in daily encounters, or public in courts or military confrontations--informed inhabitants’ identities as they managed to cope with the profound changes wrought by war, conquest, and empire and nation building. Residents’ identities were not static and changed as the Villas del Norte came under the control of different empires and nation-states. The Villas del Norte were the Spanish settlements in Nuevo Santander located along the Rio Grande from Laredo to the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico. Using binational archival documents (both religious and secular), including the rarely cited (but crucial to borderlands history) Archivo Histórico de Reynosa, Valerio-Jiménez shows how the region’s inhabitants underwent profound changes during the Spanish, Mexican, and finally American occupation of the region from the 1740s to the early 1900s. Doing borderlands history while simultaneously addressing indigenous and Chicana/o history, Valerio-Jiménez is to be commended for his attention to the intersections of gender, class, and race. Further, he places such intersections within the context of a changing community rife with political animosities and competing ideas of belonging and privilege. His arguments are placed within and engage current debates in the fields of women’s and Mexican historiography; he also incorporates key Mexican scholarship for a balanced interpretation of historical events.

By the late nineteenth century, the inhabitants of the former Villas del Norte, now subjects of the U.S. government, became for the most part a marginalized people. From a position of “privilege” during the early Nuevo Santander period to that of “neglected,” as Mexico became a republic, the peoples of the Rio Grande valley region came to use localized ideas of race and citizenship to frequently challenge newly created local and state laws as the region became part of the United States. People’s “class and gender differences further shaped their perception of American rule” (p. 12). What followed was a process of identity formation based on localized ideas of culture, gender, class, and political orientation shaped by living in a region influenced by indigenous, Spanish, Mexican, and Euro-American customs and practices.

Valerio-Jiménez’s scholarship is in line with recently published works by such scholars as Raul Ramos (Forging Mexican Ethnicity in San Antonio, 1821-1861 [2009]), Miguel Levario (Militarizing the Border: When Mexicans Became the Enemy [2012]), and José Angel Hernández (Mexican American Colonization during the Nineteenth Century: A History of the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands [2012]), who pay close attention to residents’ role in the making of nation-states and its often contested border corridors.[1] What sets River of Hope apart is the extent to which it includes in-depth analysis of resident and transient women of all social classes and ethnicities. Valerio-Jiménez explains how women and their male counterparts frequently challenged larger, national, and even transnational changes. Working-class indigenous and/or mestizo inhabitants, as well as criadas and criados (female and male servants), used legal channels to demand protection, or to rectify abuses. He explains this and more in six chapters spanning over two centuries of history.

While Valerio-Jiménez dedicates specific chapters to an analysis of gender ideologies and gender expectations, he deserves credit for interweaving women’s experiences throughout his monograph. Moreover, he does so not studying women in isolation but rather in relation to others in the community. Class often shaped women’s position in society and could certainly trump gender, yet, as the author proves, even women from underprivileged positions accessed the courts and used them quite frequently. Although not all women won their cases, the legal records reveal their willingness to use the available legal channels. To be sure, women’s proactive approaches to present grievances reveal the way in which they attempted to negotiate the terms of their subjugated positions vis-à-vis husbands/or family patriarchs--not necessarily to demand gender equity, as the author points out. The drawing of the boundary in 1848 ushered a new era for women--on both sides. Texas, while at times more progressive than other states with regard to its laws, offered women legal recourse when it came to cases of seduction and rape. Texas law also recognized civil and common law marriages, unlike Mexican law. Divorce was also now an option and would remain a recourse for women (and men) in Mexico until decades later. Nonetheless, such legal options were still very much colored by entrenched gender ideologies. Judges still considered women’s sexual past in most cases, whereas men’s sexual past was hardly taken into account.  

River of Hope is a timely reminder of the devastating consequences of conquest and the uneven process of incorporation--which remained incomplete. Such processes were, however, shaped by local voices and events. As Anglo-Americans became the majority in terms of occupying privileged political and law enforcement positions, and as ranching and small-scale agriculture dominated the economy, the borderlands region became one ruled by vigilantes, unscrupulous local lawmen, and Texas Rangers who “inspired fear among mexicanos” as a way to “pacify the region” (p. 164). Such violence could in fact be countered and one way was by crossing the Rio Grande. The river was a source of hope for many, as some “fled across the border to avoid conscription or criminal prosecution,” while others presented claims via legal channels on the Texas side, or petitioned for a divorce (p. 279). Ultimately, life in this region was not easy, but residents found ways to negotiate everyday challenges; in this way, Valerio-Jiménez convincingly demonstrates how these people on the margins were not marginal at all and played a determining role in shaping their community and the boundaries between two nation-states. Further, this study reveals how identity was shaped by racial, gender, and class ideologies, and how inhabitants frequently used such identities to cope with, resist, and negotiate changes in the community. Given River of Hope’s emphasis on gender, class, race, resistance, and identity and citizenship, students of Chicano/a studies, as well as borderlands, migration, and women’s history will find it quite useful.


[1]. There are other examples; however, these monographs mainly focus on the eastern end of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. 

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=38259

Citation: Sonia Hernandez. Review of Valerio-Jiménez, Omar S., River of Hope: Forging Identity and Nation in the Rio Grande Borderlands. H-Borderlands, H-Net Reviews. September, 2013. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=38259

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