Mexican border troubles: social war, settler colonialism and the production of frontier discourses, 1848-1880

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Callahan, Manuel

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This study analyzes the social war of the US-Mexico borderlands during the second half of the nineteenth century. The more prominent conflicts, or “brushfire wars” –the Merchants War, Cortina War, Las Cuevas War, and the San Elizario Salt War—are fully elaborated to show a more complex resistance by the Mexican community. Mexicanos’ short-lived and often narrow victories in opposition to Anglo processes of domination not only reveal the ambiguity of settler colonialism but the ambivalences of ethnic Mexicans and Indigenous peoples who played an integral part in frontier expansion and defense. The research allows for a thick description of the large-scale violence as well as the “everyday forms” of conflict, combined with social and structural violence, which constitute the ongoing social war of the greater borderlands. Data derived from state-sponsored investigations, military records, testimonies from a variety legal processes, and the urgent pleas for government protection documents the social war as constituting and constituted by violent episodes that were as much discursive events as irregular warfare. The study challenges manichean constructions of domination and resistance by complicating the rigid boundaries that have been constructed as a “three cornered conflict” between Anglos, Indigenous peoples and Mexicanos. Frontier defense as a discourse formation, revealing both the symbolic and material operations of violence, not only erased the contributions of Mexicanos and Indigenous peoples to frontier settlement but also invites a reinterpretation of capitalist transformation and state formation as ongoing processes linked to the enduring consequences of violence. The dissertation concludes that the social war in the US-Mexico borderlands unfolded not only as a struggle between alienation and accommodation to market, state and cultural forces, but also as a complex and shifting struggle for dignity.