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Your faculty and staff news since 1965
November 15, 2004
Volume 40, Number 4

Historian focuses on U.S./Mexico borderlands

By Carolyn Gonzales

Sam Truett's new book project is "Old New Worlds." Photo by Carolyn Gonzales.
United States history is replete with Sams. There’s Samuel Adams, 1722-1803, who founded the Sons of Liberty and signed the Declaration of Independence. Then there’s the statesman and military commander Sam Houston, 1793-1863, who led the fight for Texas independence from Mexico and later its admission into the United States.

Where would U.S. history be without Uncle Sam? Although historians aren’t completely certain how the character “Uncle Sam” was created, or who, if anyone, he was named after, the prevailing theory is that he was named after Samuel Wilson, who, during the War of 1812, provided large shipments of meat to the U.S. Army, in barrels stamped with the initials “U.S.” Supposedly, someone who saw the “U.S.” stamp suggested the initials stood for “Uncle Sam” Wilson. The suggestion that the meat shipments came from “Uncle Sam” led to the idea that Uncle Sam symbolized the federal government.

UNM has its own historical Sam – Sam Truett.
A member of the History Department since 1998, his mission has been to teach people about the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. He spent a year in Finland on a Fulbright fellowship where he taught how to include Mexico in North American Studies. “In Finland, in particular, they identify very strongly with Canada. My intent was to broaden their perspective to see Mexico as part of North America,” he said.

Currently a Mellon Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., he is researching a new book project on ruins in America. Tentatively titled “Old New Worlds,” Truett is exploring how America—often conceived of as a “new” land—has come to terms with its own antiquity, reflected in the ruins of earlier American empires and “civilizations.”

“The story begins at the time of Daniel Boone [1734-1820], as Americans went west and encountered ancient earthworks built by native peoples– the so-called Mound Builders –in the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys. Many connected them to biblical stories of ‘lost tribes of Israel,’ and architectural remains of Aztecs, Mayas and the Native American Southwest – then part of New Spain – thereby linking Mexico’s past with that of their own nation,” he said.

Americans later became fascinated with the Spanish ruins and Anglo ghost towns of the U.S.-Mexican borderlands. Truett asks how these ruins challenged the myth of America as a virgin land and forced Americans to come to terms with the limits of their own westward-moving empire.

Much of Truett’s teaching concerns borderlands. He teaches a course on Hispanic Frontiers and another on U.S./Mexico Borderlands. “I’m excited how UNM students love borderlands history. When I first started teaching the courses in 1999, I had approximately 30 students. By the spring of 2004, I had 90,” he said.

Truett points out that New Mexicans grasp the complicated regional history – its Spanish and Mexican colonial past, its legacy as a U.S. territory, and its transition into a U.S. state.
He also credits the History Department with “thinking across borders.”

Generally, however, teaching of the Southwest is “fragmented,” Truett said. “It’s a place in the American imagination.”

Truett wants to strip away the perceptions of New Mexico created by the tourism industry and look at the Southwest as a crossroads between Latin America and North America. “The Southwest is a fluid meeting ground between two places,” he said.

Borders aren’t just geographical. “Language, race and culture are all borders. Mexico and the U.S. are set apart for many by language, ethnicity and fear,” he said. For Mexicans, this can be fear of deportation and discrimination, but “the border can also represent something positive –the promise of economic opportunity, or at another stage in life, a chance to return to the cultural homeland,” Truett said.

Mexico also represents lost cultural elements to Americans.

“There is also the fantasy of Mexico. There is the idea that you don’t have to follow the same rules you do in the U.S. Much of that is scripted by tourism,” he said.

Truett acknowledges that teaching borderlands history is different post 9/11. “We see the border tightening and increased regulations and efforts to keep people out. After September 11 we see bigger distinctions being drawn, officially, between ‘desirables’ and ‘non-desirables,’” he said.

He said this isn’t a first in U.S. history. “In the 1920s anti-immigrant legislation was passed. It was then that the Border Patrol was created. Although legislation in the 1920s wasn’t specifically directed at Mexico, repatriation policies in the 1930s were, as was Operation Wetback in the 1950s.”
California’s Proposition 187 was another form of gate keeping, he said.

Born in Tucson, Ariz., Truett earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Arizona before going to Yale to further his education. He was a William P. Clements Research Fellow in Southwest Studies at the Clements Center for Southwest Studies at SMU in 1997-98 and followed up with his first book, a transnational history of Northern Sonora and Southern Arizona in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Although neither statesman nor military commander, UNM’s historical Sam is helping a new generation of students to look at the American West and Southwest and surrounding region with new eyes and an appreciation for the similarities and differences that exist in the borderlands.