Borderline Americans

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Katherine Benton-Cohen. Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2009. 384 pp. $21.00, ISBN 9780674060531.



Katherine Benton-Cohen begins Borderline Americans with a question that Cochise County, Arizona, Sheriff Henry Wheeler posed in 1917: “Are you an American, or are you not?” (1) Wheeler asked this as he and a large group of specially-recruited deputies rounded up and deported, in the end, 1,186 people they suspected to be labor organizers, strikers, and/or subversive elements from the copper mining town of Bisbee within months of the United States’s entrance into World War I.

Unpacking the question of “American” or “not,” deceptively simple on its surface, is the basis of Benton-Cohen’s book. She shows the changing answers to this question in Cochise County, located in southeastern Arizona. Chronologically, she sets the book between present-day Arizona’s entrance into the United States under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848 and Gadsden Purchase of 1853 and the Great Depression. The changing answers to that question hinged on an extensive interweaving of gender, race, ethnicity, and class in different locations of Cochise County. As a general rule, though, the definition was more fluid earlier in the period she covers, but had hardened and become more exclusive by the Great Depression.

Her first chapters cover the dynamics in different communities. She begins with the settlement of Tres Alamos, where the line between the people later defined as Anglos and Mexicans was virtually nonexistent in the nineteenth century: both were Americans. Benton-Cohen attributes this stronger communal identity to the shared Apache threat and the needs of communal water sharing.

She then turns to Tombstone, home of the famous shootout in 1881. In that settlement, as well, “American” included both those considered Anglo and Mexican—indeed, the “Cowboys,” representing lawlessness, were the “other” in the early 1880s, as were Apaches. Chinese—a small portion of the population—also became a threat in the eyes of “Americans.”

The copper mining town of Bisbee, by contrast, started as a “white man’s camp,” and remained that way. Unlike Tres Alamos and Tombstone, Mexicans—with some exceptions, notably those considered “Spanish”—did not count as “white” or “American.” The mining companies that dominated in Bisbee (particularly Phelps Dodge) practiced a dual-wage system that reserved the best-paying jobs for those classified as white or American, a distinction that remained fuzzy for Slavs, Italians, and others of Eastern and Southern European descent. The company’s model suburb of Warren reinforced these distinctions even further.

Meanwhile, in a similar fashion to Tres Alamos, later in the nineteenth and early in the twentieth century a more fluid situation existed between Mormon settlers and people of Mexican descent in the San Pedro River Valley, including the settlements of Cascabel and Benson. Benton-Cohen then turns her attention to homesteading in the early twentieth century, finding that two other river valleys—the San Simon and Sulphur Springs—bred not only more fluid ethnic lines but gender lines as well. Both Mexican and Anglo families—some headed by women—filed homestead claims.

Thus, for her setup for the early twentieth century, leading to the Bisbee Deportation of 1917, Benton-Cohen shows that ethnic lines were more fluid in farming communities and rigid in Bisbee. This would soon change, though. The county’s population grew significantly in the 1910s, particularly through an influx of Midwesterners and Southerners who brought more rigid ethno-racial lines from their original homes. This coincided with the hardening of racial lines statewide, and gradual moves toward classifying Mexicans as a separate race. Labor organization also increased in Bisbee. Finally, during a strike just after the United States entered World War I, the county’s sheriff organized a mass raid against the International Workers of the World—but in the end targeted mostly miners of Slavic and Mexican descent. Benton-Cohen concludes that this move, while based in Cochise County’s history, was the most extreme manifestation of a national panic about wartime subversion.

Benton-Cohen closes the book by examining the 1920s and 1930s, when the duality between “American” and “non-American” found in Bisbee became the norm across Cochise County and, indeed, Arizona. Even in 1930, the U.S. Census for the first time added “Mexican” as a separate racial category from “white,” and countywide New Deal programs in the next decade used the dual-wage system started in Bisbee’s mines to dole out different benefits to those defined as “white” and “non-white”—including Mexicans.


David McKenzie, spring 2015

Benton-Cohen uses Cochise County which, as she reminds her reader, is the size of Rhode Island and Connecticut combined, as a microcosm for wider issues of ethno-racial boundary-making in the United States, particularly in the multi-ethnic West. Although she points out a certain exceptionalism for the county—home of Geronimo, the shootout at the OK Corral, and the Bisbee Deportation—she largely uses it to show how the definition of American and non-American, white and non-white, evolved in the context of the West’s multitude of ethnicities. Benton-Cohen joins other Western historians like Patricia Nelson Limerick and Michael Bottoms in rightfully arguing the stronger relevance of this evolution, versus the East’s black-white dichotomy, for the long-term outlook of an increasingly multiethnic United States. As she also notes in arguing for the county’s significance, Cochise County sits on the border with Mexico and has been the site of increased migration, and increased anti-immigrant activity, in the past decade.

Benton-Cohen also rightfully argues that categories of race, ethnicity, national origin, class, occupation, and gender cannot be separated in this context. Rather, all of these factors played into whether one was considered an “American” or not, based on the roles expected of that person in a particular milieu. This focus deepens her analysis, bringing a wider array of issues to the surface to explain particular developments in the county’s history to the Great Depression, as well as how they reflect wider trends and helped to influence those trends.

This work is, indeed, an important one not just for borderlands or Western history, but for U.S. history. As Benton-Cohen argues, Arizona is often ignored in relation to the other border states of California, New Mexico, and Texas. While she does not speculate on the reason, I suspect this happened because those three states had a cohesive identity during the Spanish and Mexican periods, whereas present-day Arizona was divided among Sonora, New Mexico, and Alta California, only becoming a separate territory in 1863 and a state in 1912. Nonetheless, she argues that the state has taken on an outsized importance in the country as a whole, between recent debates about immigration and the prominence of politicians like Barry Goldwater and John McCain. It also has a history unique to the border states. Arizona’s history especially contrasts with that of New Mexico, in which people of Hispanic descent—who sometimes preferred not to be labeled Mexican—continued to wield significant clout long after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

Although Borderline Americans is a microstudy, it illuminates larger trends in the United States and is essential reading for understanding the larger picture of the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries beyond the East Coast (too strong of a focus for Daniel Rodgers's Atlantic Crossings, for example), traditionally the realm of historians dissecting the Progressive Era.

Andrew Salamone Spring 2016

In her 2009 book Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands, Katherine Benton-Cohen sought to answer what she considered one of the enduring questions in the United States; who is an American? She examined the process of “race making” as it occurred in Arizona during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. She contended that “building national and racial boundaries required the removal and exclusion of some people and the new inclusion of others,” and she sought to uncover how some groups, particularly southern and eastern Europeans, were transformed from being viewed as nonwhite to being full citizens.

Benton-Cohen asserted that changes in the way race and nationality were viewed began in the 1880s with the creation of restrictions on Chinese immigrants. She argued that placing restrictions on where Chinese immigrants could work, the jobs they could do, and making them “illegal aliens” demonstrated the idea that nationality could be a “proxy for race.” Once copper was discovered in the town of Bisbee, this same conflation of race and nationality was applied to Mexicans. White mine owners and operators establish a “white man’s camp” in which Mexicans were restricted to specific jobs and were paid on a separate scale from their white peers. She also highlighted the role that white women played in sharpening the racial divisions through what she termed “corporate maternalism.” Elsewhere in Arizona, white-dominated political patronage networks, an influx of white citizens from outside Arizona, and a growing convergence in views about patriotism, nationalism and whiteness between rural white farmers and city dwellers,” combined to harden the distinction between whites and Mexicans.

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