Rewriting the West: A Discussion About the Cultural History of the American “Frontier”




“REWRITING THE WEST” IS A PARTNERSHIP between journalist and Soros Equality fellow Michelle García and Guernica magazine. The series is comprised of long-form narrative reports, essays, and public events that analyze the nexus of national identity, race, and the US West. Produced by a team of award-winning contributors, it addresses well-entrenched exclusionary and violent cultural history while documenting the emerging cultural and political moment grounded in a changing narrative about what it means to be an America and American.

The following is a converstion with Michelle García and two additional contributors, Carolina A. Miranda and Fernanda Santos.

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STEPHANIE MALAK: The West seems to be the embodiment of an active process existing beyond politics or morality and a place in the constant effect of influence. In these terms, what is next for the West? What changes are on the horizon?

MICHELLE GARCÍA: We are witnessing a reckoning with the mythology about who we, as a nation, as part of the West, are and the region’s complex truth. Some may call this an eruption brought on by “demographic changes” or immigration, but as we all know — sooner or later the fantasies we tell ourselves, as individuals and collectively, expire and we are presented with an opportunity to redraw our image, our identity, in a way that more closely reflects reality. The myth of the “West” was born from a such a mythology, a westward gaze and vision that has powerfully influenced our politics, culture, and national identity. Let’s recall Joan Didion’s confrontation with her California.

What we are seeing right now — with the humanitarian crisis at the border, the government shutdown, the demands for a border wall, despite a lack of metrics that prove effectiveness — is a nation held hostage by a frontier mythology. These changes are often described as loss, a loss of identity, a loss of the familiar. But what is lost, in many ways, was not accurate, not reflective. What we set out to do with the series is narrate the nation, the West, in a way that both illuminates the underlying forces behind the current political moment and replaces fantasy with reality.

CAROLINA A. MIRANDA: And it’s so important to surface that reality. The mythology of the West is one that often overlooks the history of the Southwest before it became the United States — its indigenous history, its colonial history, and the early republican history that connected the entire region to Mexico. Growing up in California, our pre-US history studies in school consisted of a primer on the Spanish mission system, followed by annexation in 1850 — and that was about it. Without that background, the mythology of the West then becomes one that makes of the Mexican, something foreign, when, in fact, Mexican identity has been a part of this country for a very long time.

FERNANDA SANTOS: And that, Carolina, makes me think about the meaning of citizenship and belonging and how these have been shaped by and also changed by history and historic perceptions that haven’t always reflected the reality of the West, this mythology that you and Michelle talked about. As an immigrant from Brazil who came to Arizona to cover Arizona and then decided to stay here and fully become part of the fabric of the state — to move from witness to participant — I have experienced this Mexican/immigrant/brown identity not as a new identity, but as the identity that has helped make sense of the West for me.

Los Angeles as north, Los Angeles as east. It is an epicenter whose ordinal orientation depends on the perceiver’s compass. With this in mind and based on your own research, what is bespoke to Los Angeles?

CAROLINA A. MIRANDA: I think it goes back to my own upbringing here and how I viewed Southern California growing up. It’s funny because the whole idea of “The West” was something I feel like I learned in textbooks (Manifest Destiny, the Westward Expansion, et cetera). It was a mythology that seemed so unrelated to my experience of California and that of so many people here. For my parents, who are immigrants from Chile and Perú, this was the North. For a lot of my Asian friends growing up — I went to a high school with large populations of Filipino, Vietnamese, and Korean students — it was the East. For us, California wasn’t the end of the line. It was the beginning.

And I feel like the city bears so much of this in its physical aspect. Los Angeles, in its layout, its urbanism, its vibe, in its name, has always felt very Latin American to me (and therefore familiar to my parents). Plus, Asian culture has shaped so much of the city’s landscape — its architecture, its landscape design, its food. The hybrids that have resulted as the result of the ways in which these two cultures have met (hello, Korean tacos), are part of what makes this place so interesting and so dynamic.

So when people posit that somehow European (especially Anglo) immigration is the immigration that is foundational to our identity as a nation, that the Westward Ho is who we are, I’m like, whoa, wait a second: Los Angeles, since its foundation, has been a city that has been shaped by people from places that weren’t the East Coast or Europe. That was the case in 1850, when California joined the union. And that is the case now. It’s right there in the city’s physical structure: a Mexican colonial grid built around a mestizo central plaza — a space that became the city’s first Chinatown. That is Los Angeles.

Let’s consider citizenship as practice. In this same conversation taking place over decades about the border and its porosity, how do we orient ourselves toward the border while having a dialogue that does change the narrative?

FERNANDA SANTOS: We allow the narrative to be told by the people who live on the border. We allow it to be told through the experiences of the people who live on the border. We allow it to portray the border for what it is: not the United States, not Mexico, but its own place, its own country, with common languages (plural) and culture (singular) that transcend any physical barrier or imaginary line. The narrative will only change when it is not defined by outsiders.

The border identity extends well beyond the caravans and the asylum seekers trapped in Mexico and the drug and human smugglers who may or may not be invading the United States. Though these are the elements of the border story we most hear about and read about in the news, they do not reflect the everyday reality of the people who live there. If you ask them, they will not list security or lack of security as their main concern. They will talk to you about the need for more opportunity and employment, as well as the need for inclusion: they are the people who are talked about without their voices ever being truly heard. We need to shut up and listen to those voices, and we need to learn from them.

CAROLINA A. MIRANDA: It’s so true. The reality of the border has been buried in an avalanche of rhetoric about the border. Late last month, The New York Times published a story that noted that all nine House members whose districts touch the border oppose the wall. I’ve covered the cultural scene in San Diego and Tijuana, two contiguous border communities that surround the busiest land border crossing in the world. On all sides, it is really is this hybrid cultural space that is not quite Mexico, not quite the United States: Tijuana professors teach in San Diego, American artists live in Tijuana; they listen to each other’s radio stations and pick up each other’s cell signals.

They also share important natural ecosystems. Last year, I reported on a research project by San Diego architect Teddy Cruz and political scientist Fonna Forman that proposed a 154,000-square-mile border region called MEXUS designed around the eight watersheds that straddle the US-Mexico line — a project that draws from research on both sides of the border that they presented at the Venice Architecture Biennale in Italy. The level of dialogue and exchange between the two communities bears no resemblance to what the xenophobes describe on TV. The border is a dynamic place. We make it less so by militarizing it.

MICHELLE GARCÍA: Where I’m from, the border was a birthplace, a region that gave rise to the ranching tradition that we now associate with Texas. My father’s people have established a village near the border in the 1700s, before the Declaration of Independence. That part of Texas is where we find a history and a culture that predate the borders. It’s a site that tells the story of native people, Spanish conquest, former slaves, where the Civil War was fought.

I think the beauty of the “Rewriting the West” series is each of you took something: citizenship, the Alamo, Los Angeles, to reveal its complexity while simultaneously exposing the often narrow or limited meaning often assigned to issues and places. My piece on what it means to be “majority-minority” forced a reckoning — still ongoing — with my own perspective about the story I inherited about what it means to be Latina in Texas, in the United States.

How does creating a mythological ethos beget change or stasis? In other words, how do the region’s origin stories positively or negatively affect how the region’s citizens interact with the region’s cities as they are now?

MICHELLE GARCÍA: The region’s origin story was created to justify violence as a necessity, to embody ideals and aspirations while at the same time containing and directing public discontent, particularly among whites. As Richard Slotkin writes, the mythology of the West served to quell class struggle by redirecting fury onto the “savage” other — Native American, Mexican. And now, as we see, the proxy for Mexican and Central American migrants.

CAROLINA A. MIRANDA: The thing with origin stories is that they get circulated within the popular culture and then broadcast to other places. So, for example, the film industry — which is in Los Angeles, but not really of it — has helped cement this idea of the West as something that didn’t exist until it was settled by rugged cowboys and pretty ladies in gingham. Those ideas get internalized by the culture and I think do affect how a city sees itself and outsiders see you. There are Angelenos who are convinced that Los Angeles doesn’t have much in the way of history. My question is: What kind and whose history are we talking about?

FERNANDA SANTOS: And who tells the story, or the stories?

How do you (and the others) as journalists and writers believe border residents participate in politics?

MICHELLE GARCÍA: In Texas, a resurgence is underway along the border, particularly in the Rio Grande Valley. The prevailing issues of our time, nationally and in Washington, such as climate change, class inequality, racial injustice, human rights, are all coalescing on the border. We are seeing border residents wrestling the border wall from the president, who wields it as a political weapon. To come together against the wall is a rallying symbol for the pressing issues and horrors of our time. The Valley is where children were taken from their parents, the Valley is the site of destruction of rare natural habitat, the Valley will be powerfully impacted by climate change, and it is the site where working families are confronting a government that wants to take their land. If the West is where aspirations and fantasies were projected, the border is where the nation reckons with itself, its values, and its convictions.

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“Rewriting the West” can be found here.

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Stephanie Malak is the assistant director of the Los Angeles Review of Books publishing wing, LARB Books.


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