It is 1857, and Henry Crabb is leading a group of maybe 100 men into the Mexican border state of Sonora. The intent is to take over the government there, and with the assistance of various locals, annex any captured territory into the United States.
Things don't go quite as planned. A 10-day battle results in the 70 or so survivors being trapped in a church in the pueblo of Caborca. Hopelessly surrounded, hungry, thirsty and mad with fear, the filibusters finally surrender. The victorious defenders of Mexican sovereignty show their mercy by releasing a 14-year-old boy. They aren't as kindly disposed toward the rest of the group, however.
The firing squad lines up. The rifles boom; the gringo invaders fall to the ground, and their red blood leaks into the thirsty dust. In Caborca, people still tell the story of the special fate that awaited Crabb. His head was reportedly cut off, pickled in a jar and carried about on display for some time after.
There has always been trouble along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The complex, conflicted, sometimes violent and always fascinating relationship between Mexico and the United States along their shared boundary is the subject of UA professor Oscar Martinez's revised Troublesome Border.
The book was originally published in 1988, and this new edition is a response to the many significant changes that have affected the border region over the past 18 years.
Martinez takes a unique approach to understanding the border region, utilizing the idea of conflict as a theme for getting at the historic and present-day nature of the love/hate relationship between the two countries. His method works surprisingly well.
The book is not meant to be a comprehensive history of the borderlands; rather, Martinez outlines specific incidents and allows these stories to tell the tale of how the relationship between Mexico and the United States has developed over time. He is an archaeologist of border culture, attempting to excavate the roots of the problems and conflicts facing today's border residents.
It was Manifest Destiny, the idea that no less an authority than God Himself had presented white America with a mandate to settle the West, which ultimately set the tone for future relations with Mexico.
The 19th-century era of U.S. expansionism led to conflict with Mexico, and ultimately the seizure of half of Mexico's territory by 1848. Martinez notes that Abraham Lincoln believed that President James Polk had waged a "war of conquest," a war initiated on nothing more than trumped-up causes rooted in American greed. Interestingly, the United States came fairly close to annexing the entirety of Mexico, although this may have been used simply to leverage a faster settlement of just how much territory the United States would end up with. There was actually an "all Mexico" movement at the time.
The machinations of an aggressive U.S. government and its unquenchable thirst for Mexican lands make for unsettling reading. We like to think of ourselves as "the good guys." It's pretty obvious that this wasn't the case. We were the bully who beat up the neighborhood weakling, but instead of taking his lunch money, we took half his house away and continuously agitated for more. It was only the intervention of the American Civil War that diverted our attention to other matters.
Martinez provides a clear description of the complex, murky phenomenon of filibustering--repeated attempts on the part of various American and sometimes European interests to invade and acquire portions of Northern Mexico. As late as 1919, a U.S. senator from Arizona actually called for the purchase of Baja and Sonora. Imagine, if you will, the Mexican government calling for or demanding the purchase of Arizona and California.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the border region has been the story of the Native Americans who called the place home. Even today, the Mexican government ignores the concerns of tribes, as they recently slam-dunked a hazardous-waste facility on traditional lands revered by the Tohono O'odham.
Later chapters examine the evolution of a separate border culture, border environmental issues and the rise of the migration and drug-smuggling issues. The only real weakness of Troublesome Border is where Martinez puts the blame for the drug problem squarely on the United States. This is a little naïve and simplistic, as it ignores the dark realities of Mexican government policy, economics, unemployment and the role of corruption.
This lean, unique, well-written book is packed with information. It is fascinating reading that creates a broader context for any understanding of the border and the complex issues that have always been part of its culture. How Dr. Martinez pulls this off in so few pages is a credit to his scholarship.