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Thursday, July 7, 2022

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A vintage photo of the original boundary marker near San Ysidro-Tijuana port of entry. A vintage photo of the original boundary marker near San Ysidro-Tijuana port of entry.

Off the Beaten Course: CCS 375

This course explores the U.S./Mexico border as an ever-changing product of a historical process that affects diverse populations.
By SDSU News Team

Off the Beaten Course is a series that delves into SDSU's course catalog to share unique and non-traditional classes.

Course title: Chicana and Chicano Studies 375: U.S. Mexico Border History
Professor’s name: Roberto D. Hernández

Hernández is an assistant professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies and affiliated with the Center for Latin American Studies, Center for Arabic and Islamic Studies and the Master of Arts in Liberal Arts and Sciences program. He also works with several local community organizations that focus on border, migration and indigenous issues.

1) What inspired you to create this course?

I was born in Mexico but was raised within blocks of the United States/Mexico border, regularly going back and forth between San Ysidro and Tijuana. From a young age my experiences crossing always sparked a lot of questions — I wanted to know how such diverse social, economic, political and cultural situations had been created within miles of each other. The more answers I sought, the more questions emerged. I realized then that one must properly historicize the U.S./Mexico border to understand the pressing issues of today.

2) What can students expect to learn from this course?

Some students enroll thinking the course will simply be about the history of conflict, tension and cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico. Instead, students learn to look at the U.S./Mexico border as an ever-changing product of a historical process that has differentially affected various diverse populations. Rather than assume the existence of a stable and timeless national-territorial boundary, we analyze the history of the construction of the boundary as a process of simultaneously building and consolidating the distinct national identities of Mexicans and Americans.

In other words, the course is more of a social history of the borderlands, the areas surrounding both sides of the national-territorial boundary. The most important aspect of the course is demystifying sensationalized views many of us have about the border, particularly around issues of violence, immigration, national identity and border security.

3) What makes this course different from similar courses?

Instead of accepting the countries of Mexico and the United States as static entities and normalizing them as units of analysis, we focus on the various communities who have, at one point or another, inhabited the region or for whom the border has had a significant role in their formation. The course explores historical experiences of people who have crossed and continue to cross the border: migrants seeking better opportunities; enslaved Africans seeking freedom; Indigenous nations who have themselves been crossed by the border — as is the case here in San Diego with the Kumeyaay whose territories stretch from North County down towards Ensenada — and present day transfronterizos who cross the border on an almost daily basis.

Given our proximity to the border, and the close relationship that many students have with the border, the course also provides a unique venue to both validate and reflect on the spaces we call home and how those are shaped, informed and even warped by the existence of man-made barriers that both unite and divide communities.

4) Is there one day on the syllabus for this course you most look forward to? If yes, why?

I always look forward to discussing the historical meaning and relationship to the border for African-Americans, particularly with regards to slavery. I enjoy these days because they often unsettle assumptions about the United States being the preferred destination for those seeking a better life. For many students it is often inconceivable and even jarring to think that anyone would migrate to Mexico in search of freedom. This strikes at the core of historical thinking — the need to challenge our taken-for-granted premises.

5) What’s your favorite thing about teaching this course?

Pushing students to think historically about border issues that are often only considered in the immediate or short-term, if at all. Many students who have lived most of their lives in the area have never had the opportunity to reflect systematically or concretely on the border even though it is something that affects their lives in significant ways. I sometimes get students who enroll in my class and assume a Chicana and Chicano Studies course such as this one will be a platform for me to share one-sided grievances of U.S. policy towards Mexico. I enjoy their bewilderment, as the course progresses, at the fact that our discussions and readings are different from what they assume; that the course does not adhere and, in fact, challenges commitments to any nation-state-centric points of view.

6) Any other thoughts?

This course was previously taught in the spring semester as a stand-alone course, but I now teach it in the fall semester so that those interested in current events can take it as a sequence with Chicano/Chicana Studies 355 on contemporary U.S./Mexico border issues.