What is most surprising is not how hard it was to predict this world in 1891 , but how hard it is to remember it today . This is partly due to the power of national history : Mexicans and Americans usually take the border for granted when they think of the past .
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Most Americans have forgotten transnational histories not only because they have trusted maps of the nation , but also because they have succumbed to the siren song of the state .
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In this state – centered view , citizens are the legitimate bearers of history , and enemies of the state haunt the frontiers of the body politic like forces of nature , taunting the narrative logic of the nation . The historical borderlands are thus as unstable as they are divided . In a world ruled by nations , states , and their master tales , transnational history is by its very nature ephemeral , frequently hidden , and , at the very least , hard to pin down .
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This is the history of what actually happened . Corporations , states , and regional entrepreneurs hoped to domesticate and modernize a fugitive landscape — what they saw as a wild and barbaric frontier — but it continually slipped out of their control . Their reorganization of the borderlands remained tenuous , uneven , and incomplete . Over the short term they often made impressive gains , but in the long run , their dreams were dashed and their stories were forgotten .
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By recapturing this past , I hope to suggest new ways of moving U.S . and Mexican history onto a larger American stage . I also want to give dreamers today a sense of the contingency and messiness of transnational relations . If present and past dreams of integration and globalization have one thing in common , it is the notion that market forces and enlightened development will bring our planet under greater human control . Prophets of free trade see the world wrapped in a carefully woven cocoon of economic systems , business practices , and diplomatic alliances . With rational management , they propose , ideas , things , and people will migrate across borders to the greater global good . Yet looking back , we find two things that these dreamers have lost : memory and humility . History reminds us that efforts to control the world , especially in a transnational context , have rarely turned out as planned .
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To address these blind spots and develop the untapped potential of borderlands history , historians need to reclaim the center of the field . We need to start with the border itself and include spaces on both sides as our unit of analysis . Only then can we explore what Michiel Baud and Willem Van Schendel call the “ paradoxical character ” of borderlands , the fact that they both divide and connect .
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The copper borderlands were indeed not so much a discrete , coherent landscape as a shifting palimpsest of spaces , each with its own circuits and borders . The history of the region unfolds in various spatial registers , like transparent maps which can be read individually or stacked as a collective whole .
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Indeed , the ultimate goal of this book is to understand how the best – laid plans of states , entrepreneurs , and corporations repeatedly ran aground in fugitive landscapes of subaltern power .
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On one hand , this is a forgotten story of failed dreams , of the messy and often unintended consequences of crossing national borders to control nature and people . On the other hand , it is the story of people and places that endured , and why . If anything , I hope to reconstitute the historical tissue that connects the U.S . and Mexican past . In the shadow lands between nations , inhabited by dreams , ghosts , and hidden histories , what became of our flesh and kin ? How did their transnational journeys shape our world ? And what can they tell us about the fugitive landscapes that divide us still ?
Part I. Frontier
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This abstracted view of nature as an inventory of resources , a catalogue of exotic species , an “ unbroken waste ” permeated early U.S . accounts of the borderlands . Almost ritualistically , Bartlett and his cohort stripped the land of its human skin . This tendency says much about the mindset of exploration but profoundly distorts our understanding of the region , for border people had long turned nature to their advantage .
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If he dreamed of “ regular furrows ” of Old World wheat and a loaf of bread for dinner , he gradually devoted space to native corn , which yielded better harvests . Driven to make this a land worthy of God , Jesuits yielded to environmental constraints and native wisdom , interweaving American and European landscapes .
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Yet this bounding and privatization of land also limited the state’s power , since it enabled frontier elites to monopolize space on their own terms , thereby undermining the relative power of Madrid and Mexico City . If Bourbon rulers saw authority and control through the lens of enlightened mercantilism , whose conduits led from the periphery to the core , frontier elites sought to keep power at the periphery through local , traditional circuits of marriage , custom , and patron – client relations .
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These relationships exposed a larger middle ground that had emerged in Sonora . The province had slipped away from colonial dreamers to hover ambivalently between civilized core and barbarous periphery . Yet if missionaries , miners , military elites , and the colonial state were unable to transform Sonora as completely as they had hoped , this was not necessarily a sign of failure . For it was precisely the indeterminate , unfixed , and nomadic nature of this land that allowed residents to survive at the uneven fringes of state power . If the state was concerned with mapping out a coherent political space marked by dichotomies of subject and other , frontier residents learned to ride out the rough spots of this unruly terrain by pragmatically incorporating what the state had been unable to destroy . In a sense , they built immunities to a world in which the defenses of the state were weak by exposing themselves to and eventually internalizing a range of nonstate practices from beyond the colonial pale .
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When Mexico achieved independence in 1821 , British entrepreneurs coursed across the ocean , sending back a flurry of promotional pamphlets on mines and prospects . Their dream was the same across the board : British ingenuity and technologies , including steam engines to drain flooded mines , would reclaim these lost landscapes from both nature and a backward colonial past , thereby completing the domestication of Mexico .
Part II. Border Crossings
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The railroad changed things , as did Thomas Edison’s decision in 1882 to use copper as an electrical conductor . More than anything else , the rising need for refined copper to electrify America made Bisbee possible . Yet few could have predicted this in the early 1880s . The copper on the market at the time conducted electricity poorly because refining methods left arsenic , nickel , and iron impurities in the metal . The only way to make copper an effective conductor was through electrolytic refining , a process that required abundant , cheap electric power . Electricity needed electrolytic refineries , which needed electricity . Not surprisingly , the two had to evolve in tandem : it was not until 1891 that electrical generators using improved copper were themselves sufficiently improved to refine large quantities of quality copper at a cheap price . One has to consider this when thinking about Bisbee in the early 1880s , for the future of copper was not only uncertain , but also inconceivable to most Americans .
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The United States was fighting Spain in Cuba and the Philippines and gearing up for a new age of commercial influence abroad . Romero , as always , hoped to avert U.S . energies from conquest of territory and toward a shared conquest of nature . And in 1898 , entrepreneurs and capitalists in Arizona began to take his vision seriously . In the copper boomtowns of Nacozari and Cananea , Sonora , they began to dream with their Mexican neighbors about a new , modern age . Gazing into the Mexican cornucopia , they learned , like James Douglas , to see the borderlands in a new way .
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Soon afterward , the San Francisco promoter W . G . Moody made a similar visit to the abandoned mines of Nacozari . Like D’Aumaile , he noted how successfully Apaches had reclaimed the land . Their power was marked by a conspicuous absence of livestock and the decline of orchards and fields . Local mountains , once heavily grazed , were “ covered with grass from base to summit , ” and trees that formerly succumbed to the axe formed a “ perfect forest , ” interspersed with feral progeny of “ peach , pomegranate , quince , and fig trees , with occasional grape vines . ” Apaches had made this a “ waste , ” Moody observed , but they had also made nature abundant .
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Like their Mexican precursors , men such as Clifford mined on the fly , following ephemeral stringers and pockets of red metal when they paid , turning to different work when they vanished into barren rock . Copper came and went , but what mattered most was staying afloat , by staying in motion . For their part , the Phelps Dodge freighters were hauling the building blocks of a different kind of world . Engines , rails , crushers , water jackets , and converter vessels were technologies designed to pin space down .
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More important , it already served as a gateway to “ one of the most richly mineralized regions of the American continent , ” the highlands of Sonora . Local entrepreneurs knew this region well , but the railroad was beginning to transform their field of vision . It was as if someone had telescoped space and time , allowing them to see Mexico’s natural wealth — and its modern future — for the first time .
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Greene’s entrepreneurial roots were also distinctive in other ways . He and other ranchers operated in a landscape of mobility and custom that was worlds apart from the more fixed industrial landscapes of Phelps Dodge . Although based in Arizona , Packard and Greene claimed water rights and leased land near Cananea and were listed in the census of 1890 as residents of Mexico . Either they had separate herds in Arizona and Sonora or maintained legal access to lands on both sides to accommodate their nomadic assets . The border was unfenced , “ and American and Mexican cattle alike strayed back and forth between the two countries , ” recalled Axford , who worked with Packard and Greene .
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The rhetoric of custom — based on the idea that certain relationships predated the intervention of states — also resonated with regional Mexican elites , who drew on patron – client and kin relationships to manage economic exchanges and mobility . Custom was a byword for local relations of power , filtered through a ranching guild that had replaced older military guilds of Indian fighters . Ranch families like the Elíases , in fact , hailed from these military guilds : the language of custom was the language of their patriarchal power . And in a cross – border context , it became a lingua franca of enterprise because it benefited rural elites , but also because its grammar was familiar to both sides .
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It was this binational terrain of entrepreneurial alliance and local custom — rather than large – scale convergences between Wall Street capital and the modernizing Porfirian state — that led Greene south to Cananea .
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As the copper borderlands grew in the early twentieth century , the problems of seeing and controlling space at the edges of the corporate vision grew as well . In years to come , corporations would increase their power over land and life through expanding circuits of railroads , mines , banking , and trade . These market – driven pathways would link the copper borderlands to a larger , regional economy and amplify earlier ties to the centers of U.S . and Mexican power . Yet as corporations and states gained power , so too did ordinary people and landscapes . Networks of corporate and state power supported equally powerful shadow pathways oriented around the local lives of Mexican smelter workers , Yaqui miners , Chinese farmers , U.S . colonists , and others . These human webs kept the borderlands in motion , even as states and corporations bent their collective will to lashing this fugitive terrain to the managerial foundations of modern America .
Epilogue: Remapping the Borderlands
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Other fugitive landscapes persist here as well . As in decades past , the San Pedro River remains a transportation corridor for those seeking less visible border crossings at the periphery of the state’s vision . In recent years , this former high road for Tombstone prospectors , Apache raiders , and Chinese smugglers has become one of the most heavily traveled routes for undocumented workers seeking access to the United States . And if empty water bottles , cut fences , and footprints fuel concerns of border invasions to rival those of the Mexican Revolution era , “ volunteer ” groups such as Ranch Rescue , American Border Patrol , and the Minuteman Project evoke familiar specters of American posses and “ cow – boy ” justice . Whether one sees this unsettled land from north or south , what is most apparent is its uncanny persistence , its failure to submit to dreams of order , domestication , and civility after all these years .