Events + Media

When L.A. Became the Capital of the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

Laws That Shaped LA: When L.A. Became the Capital of the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands
KCET: Departures
29 April 2013
Photo: Cars returning to the U.S. from Mexico in 1941. The drivers and their passengers had apparently been attending the horse races at Agua Caliente. Photo from the Herald-Examiner Collection and courtesy the Los Angeles Public Library

Professor of City and Regional Planning Michael Dear spotlights the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on Jeremy Rosenberg's weekly column, Laws That Shaped L.A.

On February 2, 1848, a "Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits and Settlement" was signed at Guadalupe Hidalgo, thus terminating the Mexican-American war. The war was ostensibly about securing the boundary of the recently-annexed state of Texas, but it was clear from the outset that the U.S. goal was territorial expansion. President Polk saw it as America's 'manifest destiny' to reach the western ocean through the acquisition of Nuevo México and the Californias (which included parts of the present-day states of Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado).

Today, the U.S.-Mexico borderlands are among the fastest-growing regions in both countries. The six Mexican border states contain 16 percent of Mexico's population (17 million people) and the four U.S. border states 21 percent of the U.S. population (54 million). Many cities and towns on the U.S. side have a majority Mexican population, and major metropolises such as L.A. and Monterrey (in the state of Nuevo Léon) have been inexorably drawn into the orbit of borderland growth.

Mutual dependence has been the hallmark of cross-border lives for centuries, before the border even existed. The spaces between Mexico and the U.S. can be regarded as a third nation even though it's not truly a sovereign state. Border dwellers possess a shared identity, common history, and entwined futures. People in San Diego and Tijuana readily assert that they have more in common with each other than with their host nations. Others describe themselves as 'transborder citizens.' One man who lives and works on both sides, told me: "I forget which side of the border I'm on."

The current fortifications along the border are without historical precedent. They threaten to suffocate the arteries supplying the third nation's oxygen. The border zone has been incorporated into Fortress U.S.A., consisting of an archipelago of law enforcement and justice agencies dedicated to apprehension, detention, prosecution and deportation of undocumented migrants. These are bolstered by corporate security interests, producing a kind of 'Border Industrial Complex.'

L.A. burst into life as a Spanish/Mexican outpost. By now, it is truly a capital of the borderland's third nation. People of Mexican origin in California rarely tire of pointing out: "It was the border that moved, not us."