Retelling Borderlands History
Walking the narrow corridors of what once housed a federal
prison in Mexico City to search the archives for his book
published in 2003, Revolution in Texas, SMU historian
Benjamin Johnson could only imagine what the halls might have
witnessed long ago.
“The documents are stored in the jail cells where the walls are
still covered with graffiti from the prisoners,” says Johnson, associate
professor of history in Dedman
College of Humanities and Sciences.
“The atmosphere was intense, but
these papers were the records of the
1910 land redistribution, near Mexico’s
Matamoras and opposite Brownsville,
Texas, that helped inspire the revolt.”
Revolution in Texas (Yale University
Press) recounts an early 20th century
uprising of Tejanos (Texans
of Mexican origin) that occurred in the lower Rio Grande Valley
and was fueled by Anglo settlers’ desire for land.
For years, this violent regional history was suppressed. Eventual
cooperation between the U.S. and Mexican governments helped
end the cross-border attacks, but the events would inspire Tejanos
to fight for their rights as Americans, an effort that still continues.
Tejanos who weren’t part of the violence went on to found organizations
like the League of United Latin American Citizens
(LULAC) in 1929.
In his latest book, Bordertown: The Odyssey of An American
Place (Yale University Press, September 2008), Johnson uses the
remote town of Roma, Texas, as an example of the larger history of the U.S.-Mexico border and its changing
role in the United States. Similar to the
first work, Bordertown, which features photographs
by Jeffrey Gusky, is an explanation
of how border residents came to
identify themselves as Americans in the
United States while continuing to feel powerful
kinship with their Mexican heritage.
Bordertown also includes exploration of
material culture and urban layout.
Borderlands research piqued this native
Texan’s interest while in graduate
school at Yale – where he earned M.A.
and Ph.D. degrees – as he realized the
Mexican border’s importance to the
United States. “The United States is not
self-contained; to understand our history requires an understanding
of our connection with other parts of the world, in this case
Mexico,” says Johnson, who joined SMU in 2002. Estimating that by 2050, more than a quarter of the United
States’ population will have some kind of Hispanic ancestry,
mostly Mexican, Johnson says the Hispanic role in American history
has been largely ignored. “The United States is such a polyglot
society, and there are many notions of Americanism.
Different people have found a place
to fit in, which is one way our country
works. Telling these stories about
history has made room for them.”
Johnson also studies environmental
history, a relatively new field that
examines interactions between
humans and the natural world. He
focuses on the experience and social
history of conservation.
Another book under contract with Yale University Press, Escaping
the Dark, Gray City: How Conservation Re-made City, Suburb
and Countryside in the Progressive Era, combines several aspects
of the conservation story, including environmental politics, urban
history and architectural forms, and traces the rise of the movement
and its effects on industrial society.
“Conservation has been a more profound strand within American
culture than most realize and is usually presented as a movement
followed by a small, undemocratic elite,” Johnson says. “But
I see mass support for it in spite of complicated circumstances.”
For more information: faculty.smu.edu/bjohnson/