From the dramatic increase in
traffic across the border between the United States and Mexico, people
have shaped lives and
built institutions in transnational ways that challege traditional claims
of both nation-states. These movements have "destabilize[d]
fixed and unitary notions of community, culture, nationality, and indeed,
of the territorial 'nation' itself," writes David G. Gutiérrez in
Ethnicity, and the Third Space: The Shifting Politics of
Nationalism in Greater Mexico. National governments seem
increasingly unsure how to respond: whether to assert, abandon, or adapt
their traditional attempts to assert values and allocate resources in
Challenges to the nation-state challenge history to its core. The modern practice of history developed two centuries ago to construct narratives about the fate of nations, to try to persuade people to interpret their lives in nation-centered terms. As recent changes have left nations less self-evidently necessary or desirable, and more fragile and constructed, we can ask questions that were unthinkable a generation ago about the practice of history.
To explore and rethink connections between history and the nation-state, the Journal of American History developed a special issue that centered on Mexico and the United States. Mexico was a natural choice. The volume of border crossings has accelerated dramatically, while the variety of those crossings has illuminated themes that interest historians from immigration to law, popular culture to politics, commerce to diplomacy. Those crossings have sparked ferocious conflicts that have ranged from the grass roots to the highest councils of state. And in the identities that people have constructed out of transnational experiences and the lenses through which scholars viewed those constructions, the United States-Mexican border has generated the paradigmatic perspective of the new field of "borderland studies" in which borders become sites not for dividing people into separate spheres and opposing identities (Catholic and Methodist, gay and straight) but sites for interaction between individuals from many backgrounds, sites for hybridization, creolization, and negotiation. Finally, we turned to Mexico because dramatic events in that country over the past three decades have generated wide-ranging conflicts about the meaning and possibilities of ideas at the center of nation and history: democracy, nationality, politics, and the rights of citizens and their relationship to the state. Indeed, Mexicans are exploring those issues with a freshness and clarity that are absent at this moment north of the border and thus can help Americans reinvigorate their own discussions. Amid this widening sense of crisis, with uncertain outcomes to these conflicts, historians have played an ever more central role in Mexican public life. In articles prepared for this special issue they present a fresh sense of what may be at stake in doing history amid transnational realities. The purposes and themes of the issue are developed in the Introduction. The titles and themes of the individual articles and interviews are listed in the Table of Contents. While words convey part of the story, we concluded that pictures also evoke the issues very well--and differently. And so we created "picture galleries" to illustrate conflicts and meanings generated by the border itself, activities the Mexican government has created in its Mexican Communities Abroad program to win and retain allegiance from its migrants; and crucial events that have led to this crisis in Mexico.