This was the question Sheriff Harry Wheeler, pictured at right courtesy of the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum, asked Cochise County residents as he prepared to enact one of the most outrageous vigilante actions ever carried out on US soil -- the Bisbee Deportation, in which Wheeler and his fellow vigilantes kidnapped, detained, and deported 1,300 striking mine workers across the border to New Mexico with a warning not to return. This action, though manifestly illegal and declared so by a presidential commission appointed after the fact, provided a popular template for quelling labor unrest and ridding the country of "undesirables" during the decades to come.
Wheeler's choice of words provides a clue to the links between race, labor militancy and "Americanness" in the Arizona borderlands. It's the subject of Katherine Benton-Cohen's Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands, which investigates closely the meaning of race in an area whose promise of land and work drew seekers of all nationalities, creating a virtual social laboratory in which Americans worked out what it meant to be "white," and indeed what it meant to be "American."
Benton-Cohen is here on video, courtesy of Georgetown University, discussing her research both in its historical context and in terms of how we can think about the issues of race that still capture our attention today when we think about the border and who gets to be on which side of it -- who gets to be an "American." Her careful work demonstrates that the more you look at these seemingly concrete categories, the more you realize that they are in fact fluid and depend on historical contingency -- they don't just appear; they have to be worked out, and once you learn how they've been established in the past you can maybe begin to see a new way forward.
Those of you living in the borderlands may want to note that the author will be doing a few appearances during the coming weeks: May 9 at the Community Center in Cascabel, AZ; May 10 at the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum; May 11 at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, AZ.