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1848 Beyond the 19th Century: Border Fictions, Peripheral Modernities

Escalera, Gibran. 1848 Beyond the 19th Century: Border Fictions, Peripheral Modernities. 2015. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

This dissertation analyzes 20th and 21st century border fictions that recreate the meaning of 1848 by disrupting the legacies of colonial modernity, in particular the territorial preoccupation of U.S. expansionism. The dissertation demonstrates that while the consequent border asymmetries have since dictated material formations and social imaginaries of the U.S.-Mexico border these are also challenged via what the dissertation names "trans-temporality." This term refers to the crucial difference between the border deployed by colonial modernity in terms of a territory to be seized and administered, replete with its own unitary and self-affirming temporality, versus the ways that local border communities imagine and experience time. In order to make this argument, the dissertation reads counter-narratives that are border adaptations of four major modern literary formations, modernism, neopoliciaco detective fiction, postmodern metafiction and neorealism. The stakes in doing so are not only that these distinct re-conceptualizations of 1848 result in unique border adaptions of mainstream literary styles but also how these create the possibility of examining the non-territorial dimensions of space.

In arguing for the significance of 1848 in the present within the context of the literary, this dissertation builds on and moves beyond the Chicano/a nationalist and post-nationalist fiction and scholarship, which pioneered the anti-colonial critique of 1848 by re-imagining the annexed territories as the Chicano/a homeland Aztlán. Further, this dissertation engages borderlands criticism, in particular Debra Castillo and María Socorro Tabuenca Córdoba, Claire Fox, and Jaime Javier Rodríguez. Significantly, the dissertation's contribution is developed by fully exploring the link between the anti-colonial critique of the legacy of 1848 and literary style. Specifically, the dissertation demonstrates that an interrogation of the colonialist logic underpinning the U.S.-Mexico border can actually be gleaned through an analysis of modern fiction. The dissertation shows that the selected border fictions are not only counter-narratives to the U.S. expansionist narrative but in fact generate new aesthetics. This process is revealed through comparative analyses between borderlands fiction--that is written by U.S. and Mexican-American authors--and fronterizo texts, written in and about Northern Mexico.

Chapter One examines border modernism by comparing two works that narrate the clash between projects of colonial modernity, imperial modernization, and mexicano anti-colonial revolutions of the 1910s, John Dos Passos's The 42nd Parallel (1930) and Américo Paredes's George Washington Gómez (1990). In George Washington Gómez, set in a small-scale border region (South Texas), the conflict is between agricultural modernization and traditional border corrido culture, resulting in sharply defined inter-ethnic conflict. Conversely, in The 42nd Parallel the focus is hemispheric. Mexico appears as central rather than peripheral to the U.S. as its modernizing project undergoes a qualitative and geographic shift towards trans-American scale, defined as much by imperial economic hierarchies as by cartography. Linking these texts is border modernism's adaptation of modernist representational techniques, in particular shifting narrative modes and non-chronological structures.

Chapter Two examines Gabriel Trujillo Muñoz's neopoliciaco detective fiction Mezquite Road (1995) and "Tijuana City Blues" via what this dissertation terms the "Neo-Private Eye:" a product of the neoliberal border setting of the late 1990s, who is not an autonomous detective but rather a figure for the grassroots pursuit of justice and its necessarily conditional relationship to the neoliberal blurring of the private-public dichotomy. Neopoliciaco border fiction thus challenges the core dichotomy of neoliberalism that private interest is the highest public good. In addition to exposing the state as a criminal apparatus the border neopoliciaco's critique of ratiocination counters the legacies of 1848 by showing how border asymmetries are as much a question of discourse and policy as they are territory. By detailing the private eye Morgado's investigation of fifties era urban legends, "Tijuana City Blues" foregrounds how the discursive ruse that private individualism is the highest public good effectively re-produces the border beyond the purely territorial. If "Tijuana City Blues" critiques economic progress narratives, Mezquite Road shows how U.S. and Mexican state law enforcement agencies protect and thus sustain neoliberal ideologies. By delineating the complex network of state agencies and border citizens in Mexicali, Mezquite Road illuminates how the persistence of the border as a state-sanctioned, and thus legal, geopolitical divider is reinforced, paradoxically, by flouting the law.

Chapter Three analyzes Instrucciones para cruzar la frontera (2011) in which Luis Humberto Crosthwaite adapts the postmodern strategies of parody, metafiction and pastiche in order to show how the normalization of borders as unobstructed transit points conceals the racialized logic of securing border zones. Using the array of strategies noted above, the chapter shows that while the text portrays conditions in which the geographic space of multinational capital is flattened out and borders are less barriers than metaphors, it does so in the service of a historical critique. Thus the accent falls on border in "border postmodernism" not only because, as important as it is, Crosthwaite's text emphasizes the difficulties of south-to-north crossing from the perspective of Tijuanenses. Rather, it is the way in which the metafictional strategies in Instrucciones para cruzar la frontera mediate a historical context where the very presence of human life is perceived as a threat so imminently real, however imagined it may be in reality, that capital punishment actually becomes a rational measure precisely because of the U.S. claim to "security."

Chapter Four analyzes the use of neorealism in Paul Flores's Along the Border Lies (2001) and Ana Castillo's The Guardians (2007) to show that analyses of border violence are flawed in perceiving the U.S.-Mexico borderline as a stable territorial referent. In defining neorealism, the dissertation draws on Kris Versluys, who identifies "mimetic prose" and "verisimilitude" as characteristic features, as well as Robert Rebein, who emphasizes the centrality of character experience. Specifically, the dissertation shows how the historical circumstances of border militarization and narco-trafficking are mediated by each text's implementation of the neorealist lack of closure in order to critique geographically based explanations of border violence. In Along the Border Lies, narco-trafficking occurs between San Diego and Tijuana, yet as the text foregrounds this traffic is less about physical borders than the non-spatial dimensions of border violence, registered stylistically through multi-perspectival narrative accounts. By rendering the character experience of drug trafficking on an increasingly militarized border without resolving a single plotline, the text suggests that border violence cannot be plotted exclusively through geography. Similarly, The Guardians portrays a series of abductions in the borderlands of New Mexico, Texas and Cd. Juárez. The difference however is that resistance to closure is not about unresolved plotlines but a limited interpretive capacity. By constructing an imagined world inhabited by characters where the object of their description, abduction, is in excess of their descriptive and analytic capacity, Castillo suggests an alternative vocabulary with which to revisit the paradigm that border violence is intertwined at both the individual and state levels.