C.J. Alvarez
Border Land, Border Water: A History of Construction on the U.S./ Mexico Divide
University of Texas Press, 2019
301 pages

Reviewed by Alhelí Harvey

If you were to look at a map, you could easily point to the international divide between the US and Mexico. You can hear about it on the radio, see it “captured” on your Instagram feed, but, do you really have a sense of what that stretch of land is? What it means? How it came to be that way? Alvarez lays out a panoramic history of the projects that have shaped the political and physical points of contact along the almost 2,000 miles spanning from Tijuana/San Diego to Matamoros/Brownsville in his first book. The thesis he submits to us is compelling and it is what allows his to keep a constant eye on tensions between the local and the global, how national public projects shape private lives (and vice versa), and how really, the “border” is more than just a national boundary. Border Land, Border Water examines how building projects dotting the line set the stage to both tie the two countries together, put forward the infrastructure for further policing, and ultimately morphed the region into a place where individuals, bureaucracies, and governments sought a common purpose: control. 

He introduces us to what he calls “compensatory building”, the accumulation of more and more projects to try to “correct” rivers or “stem the flow” of people and trade.  Briefly, put, Alvarez shows how “infrastructure begets more infrastructure”: by the 1960s, the deep systemic flaws in the built environment not only displace people physically when their towns are flooded, but the binational building concretizes other global exercises of power. Political priorities begin to shift, just like the river that eludes efforts to correct it. Throughout the text, Alvarez puts forward that the political ramifications of racist and exclusionary policy is directly connected to these building projects— they are not separate, but rather always working in tandem. 

Organized into five chapters, Alvarez follows how the logics of the earliest boundary survey expeditions in 1850s are connected to the railroads, highways, dams, and fencing that has become highly contested in the 21st-century. These chapters revolve around “border land” and “border water”, both of which are marked by accretion of building projects designed with the idea of gaining mastery and control over the flow of goods, people, and the environment. The first chapter introduces readers to the earliest boundary survey projects, and importantly, introduces the International Boundary Commission, which became the International Boundary and Water Commission in 1944 and which will dominate most of the projects the book takes as case studies. Importantly, Alvarez reminds us of the complex binational nature of many of these developments, thus avoiding a US-centered analysis and providing greater insight into how the border region constantly defies expectation.  The second chapter examines the role of the army in building the border to facilitate the flow of goods and how these practices built up contemporary police practices and border infrastructure. In this reviewer’s favorite chapter, the third section of the book furthers Alvarez’s connection between efforts to control the ecologically diverse environment of the region and the ideological thread those efforts share in controlling people.  The fourth chapter expands on this by highlighting the systemic flaws of waterworks and policing while the fifth and final chapter illuminates the ubiquitous fencing of the 1990s to today. 

The whole point of the book is to poke holes in anything that might seem “natural” about the border while also demonstrating how contemporary developments are in no way new to the border, but part of a long line of projects aimed at alienating people from the environment, extraction, and control. Through an in-depth and binational archival method, combined with maps, photographs, and even brief testimonies, Alvarez’s methods are reflective of a desire to approach the events that shaped the region in two ways. The official archives and images are representative of bureaucratic and state actors’ understanding of the region. Secondly, the people who were most affected by those understandings comprised communities that were pathologized by virtue of living in “desert wastelands” and were also the first to experience the effects of the built environment and its political aftershocks.

For those in search of an environmental or built environment history, the text is a useful example of the transnational flows that are not often explored in borderlands history, which tend to focus on the border patrol, migration, and colonial histories. Those who are familiar with many borderlands histories will find new information that will help bring into focus the physical dimensions of transnational flows. The greatest intervention the text makes is the case for familiarity. As a means to address how the political discourse of the US/ Mexico border in our contemporary moment is informed by how building projects have literally provided the physical space for police and rhetorical violence to take place. This book is one that adds to histories of the INS, Border Patrol, and understanding the degree of reductionism that sneaks its ways into even the most well-intentioned discussions of the international divide. 

On a style point, emerging scholars will find this text to be a good example of how to write with clarity and use archival information in nuanced ways. Alvarez does not anchor his analysis in heavy theory, but rather roots it in dissecting the work of maps, topographical details, photographs and design plans and then pairing that information with details from officials and the fates of towns and people. From the early pages of the book, my favorite narration is a salient example I am willing to share (I do not want to provide readers with spoilers).  Alavrez writes, in reference to descriptions of the boundary reports of the late 19th century that the commissioners detailed the 

“…various “atmospheric freaks’ presented themselves, fallaciously of course, to the travelers…Desert fauna, too, were subject to phantasmagoric reconfiguration…In one instance, “a band of wild horses was mistaken for a herd of antelope, and followed for several miles as such before the mistake was discovered”… But despite these incessant motifs of desolation, barrenness, and distortion in the desert, people lived there.”