Informed by the experiences of postmodernism, postcolonialism, and globalization, scholarship in the humanities and social sciences has turned, since the late 1980s, to the concepts of space and place as key tropes and categories of analysis to complement, if not replace, traditional “evolutionary” approaches to historical and cultural inquiry. Both space and place are not understood as static, essentialist markers of territoriality but as dynamic, socially constructed sites of complex, and often contradictory, cultural practices, social relationships, and ideological formations, commonly but not necessarily with regard to a certain territory. For the study of the United States, Wilfried Raussert argues that place “is no longer used as a trope evoking myths of fixed identity, neither is it envisioned as a locale in which differences fuse into a melting pot, nor is it perceived as a new frontier of exceptional cultural status and development.” Within literary and cultural studies one can witness not only a focus on imagined and symbolic spaces but also a critical (re)valuation of concrete, geographically identifiable spaces, both as a topic in cultural practices and as a condition for the creation of culture.
With this new emphasis and reformulation of space and place, liminal spaces and borders, as well as the practices of creating, shifting, crossing, transgressing, and blurring their (out)lines, have gained particular attention in recent years. Border Studies in a wider sense of the term encompass not only various internal and external lines of social, political, economic, and cultural divisions but also the liminal social and geographic spaces these engender. A narrower version of this area of inquiry focuses on geographic borders that have gained significance as social as well as territorial demarcation lines, such as the borders—encompassing the sea and land routes and barriers—between Africa and Europe, or the national border between the United States and Mexico.
Within the studies of the United States and of the Americas at large, the latter border region represents a prime example of scholarly analysis, as it derives its relevance from its role as a delineating geographic marker highlighting the space/place of direct, physical confrontation and contact not only between two neighboring countries but also between Anglo- and Latin America, “First” and “Third” Worlds. Informed by Postcolonial and Ethnic Studies perspectives, research on the U.S.-Mexico borderlands has explored the transnational history, cultures, and relations of this social and geographic space. As various scholars have noted, this border—la frontera in Spanish—today rivals, if not displaces, the frontier, the often mystified, ever westward-pushing zone of encounter and conflict between “civilization” and “wilderness” as a conceptual paradigm of U.S.-American national identity as well as of the research area of U.S.-American Studies.
Within Mexican culture, la frontera signifies the territorial proximity to the United States that entails both the specter of U.S. cultural hegemony over its southern neighbor and the promise of economic opportunity for Mexican migrants in the United States. Ironically, Northern Mexican fronterizo (border) culture, however, remains largely marginalized within Mexico as being too far removed from normative Mexican culture and too close to U.S. culture. Culturally, some feel as if they have two homes and yet at the same time no home at all. Thus, for these people living between two countries or two cultural worlds, the question that artists, historians, politicians, musicians, and authors are trying to answer is “what does it mean to live at the edges of our worlds?”
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