Jan 162021
 

This Guardian article – ‘My neighbourhood is being destroyed to pacify his supporters’: the race to complete Trump’s wall – highlights the problems created (not solved) by US efforts to build a wall along its southern border.

Judy King coverFor what it’s worth, here is my own take on the wall, written a few years ago as a short chapter for Judy King’s book, Echoes from the Wall: Real Stories of Mexican Migrants (Mexico Insights, 2019). The majority of King’s book is based on her one-on-one interviews with a varied and fascinating selection of Mexican migrants who at one time or another lived and/or worked in the US. King’s personal, in-depth approach was time consuming but was amply rewarded and she acquired some extraordinary individual accounts. The book also includes short “backgrounders” on the history of Mexican-US migration and the practicalities involved.

My chapter focused on the geography related to the wall building.

The Border Story: the effects of a barrier wall (written in 2018)

The U.S.-Mexico border is unique in terms of its geography. It is the longest land border in the world between a developed economy and an emerging economy. The continental U.S.-Mexico border (excluding offshore limits) is about 1990 miles (3200 km) long. At roughly the mid-point, the cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez face each other across the boundary line. East of these cities, the border follows the course of the Río Grande (Río Bravo as it is known to Mexicans) to the Gulf of Mexico; west of these cities, it crosses the Sonoran desert to reach the Pacific Ocean between San Diego and Tijuana.

Map of Mexico, 1824

Map of Mexico, 1824

This boundary was established in the middle of the 19th century. After the Mexican‑American War (1846‑1848) the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ceded over half of Mexico’s territory to the USA. A few years later, under the 1853 Gadsden Purchase (Treaty of La Mesilla), northern portions of Sonora and Chihuahua were also transferred to the USA. This more or less established the current border between the two countries.

Minor disputes have occurred since due to the constantly migrating meanders of the Río Grande/Bravo. Flooding during the early 1860s moved the river channel south, shifting an area of about 2.6 square kilometers (1 square mile) from Ciudad Juárez in Mexico to El Paso in the U.S. Both countries claimed the area, giving rise to the El Chamizal dispute. This dispute went to international arbitration in 1911 and was only finally resolved in 1963 with the ratification of the Chamizal Treaty by President John F. Kennedy and his Mexican counterpart, Adolfo López Mateos.

A permanent memorial to Chamizal was established in El Paso in 1966 to commemorate the two nations’ laudable international cooperation, diplomacy and respect for cultural values in arriving at a mutually acceptable resolution to the conflict. A later dispute about changes in river meanders – the Ojinaga Cut – was amicably resolved in 1970.

There are about fifty places where people can legally cross the U.S.-Mexico States border but only one where the cities on either side of the border have the same name: Nogales. Historically, straddling the international border was not a drawback to residents of the “Two Nogales” (Ambos Nogales).

Postcard of Ambos Nogales, ca 1915

Postcard of Ambos Nogales, ca 1915

A century ago, one street in Nogales – International Avenue – actually ran east‑west along the border, with one side of the street in the U.S. and the other in Mexico. Even before a boundary fence was erected down the middle, residents were apparently still required to cross at one of two entry points: either the Morley Avenue crossing or the Grand Avenue crossing. The 60-foot-wide avenue had been created in 1897 after all buildings close to the border were razed to the ground as a way of limiting customs fraud. A permanent border fence was built in 1918 following the Battle of Ambos Nogales (La batalla del 27 de agosto).

During the prohibition years (1919-34) in the U.S., Mexican cities close to the border benefited from an influx of free-spending visitors. These years were boom times for the bars, casinos, brothels and race tracks of cities such as Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana. These cities also did well during World War II, when many of the large number of U.S. military personnel stationed near the border were able to circumvent wartime rationing at home by hopping south.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, physical barriers (fences, walls) were erected along some sections of the border to try and stem the flow of migrants from Mexico. Other sectors are closely monitored via electronic sensors, drones, cameras and mobile and satellite surveillance systems. In total, about 30% of the border already has some form of barrier, physical or virtual.

Existing barriers have already made life very difficult in many places. For example, it used to be a ten minute walk for residents of Ejido Jacume in Baja California to cross the border into Jacumba Hot Springs, California, to go to school, work, shop or attend the health clinic. With the barrier, it is now a two hour drive via Tecate.

Most of the physical barriers already built are along the western half of the border (where California, Arizona and New Mexico meet Baja California, Sonora and Chihuahua), They aim to prevent undocumented crossings into the major cities, especially San Diego and El Paso. They have forced would-be migrants to take on crossing the border somewhere in the largely unpopulated Sonoran Desert west of Nogales. The arduousness of this trip has cost the lives of many, many migrants, with the number of deaths of border-crossers since 2004, in this section alone, averaging more than 200 a year.

One of the many ironies associated with demands to build more and higher barriers between the two countries, given their extremely close social and economic ties, is that there is a simultaneous demand (in other quarters) to ease the movement of people and goods across the border in order to boost tourism and facilitate trade. For instance, in December 2015, a 120-million-dollar pedestrian bridge, known as The Cross Border Xpress (CBX), opened to allow passengers living in California to walk across the border into Tijuana International Airport. This helped ease border congestion at the existing land crossings into Tijuana.

Similarly, U.S. and Mexican border officials have piloted joint customs inspection procedures to cut border-crossing times for freight by up to 80%. Trade between the two countries is worth 1.4 billion dollars a day. The first tests of the new joint system were at Laredo international airport in Texas (for vehicle, electronic and aerospace components being flown to eight cities in Mexico), the Mesa de Otay in Baja California (for Mexican farm products entering the U.S.) and San Jerónimo in Chihuahua (for computers and other electronic exports from Mexico). The project has been warmly welcomed by business representatives on both sides of the border.

Finding the right location to build any barrier/wall may prove harder than many would anticipate. While most existing sections of barriers along the western half of the border are located very close to the true boundary line, this is not possible east of El Paso where the boundary runs (theoretically) down the deepest channel of the Río Grande/Río Bravo. Here, a wall or barrier along the boundary is impracticable.

Several protected National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) areas sit on or astride the boundary. They include the Lower Rio Grande Valley NWR and the Santa Ana NWR in Texas, the the Tijuana Slough NWR in California, and the Cabeza Prieta NWR in Arizona (the 3rd largest national wildlife refuge in the lower 48 states) which is contiguous to the UNESCO-designated World Heritage site of El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve in Sonora. In west Texas, Big Bend National Park extends to the border where it meets the Cañon de Santa Elena National Park in Chihuahua.

Ecologists have grave concerns about animal migration corridors and the future of numerous trans-border species. Up to now, only rudimentary and superficial Environmental Stewardship Plans (ESPs) have been prepared for the border areas where barriers have been constructed. These ESPs almost invariably claim that any adverse impacts on plant and animal populations will be only short-term, even in the absence of any scientific studies assessing existing populations.

Barriers such as walls prevent some species from crossing the border and can separate existing cross-border populations into two distinct groups, reducing their viability and increasing the risks of in-breeding, reducing their resilience to changes in climate or food sources. One major study identified 93 currently endangered species likely to be affected by a wall, including jaguars, ocelots, Mexican gray wolves and Quino checkerspot butterflies. Black bears in Texas that currently migrate across the border annually will have their natural territory sliced in half, as will the pronghorn antelope herds further west. Several species, including the jaguar, arroyo toad, the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl (which flies close to the ground) and Peninsular bighorn sheep, have critical habitats either side of the border.

People, too, have cross-border territories. Spare a thought for Native American groups such as the Tohono O’odham people whose ancestral lands now lie on either side of the Arizona-Sonora border. Their divided territory originated in 1853 with the Gadsden Purchase. Most of the estimated 25,000 Tohono O’odham alive today reside in Arizona but about 1500 live in northern Sonora. For decades, the two groups of Tohono O’odham, never granted dual citizenship, kept in regular contact for work, religious ceremonies and festivals, crossing the border as needed without any problem. Stricter border controls have made this impossible today.

Repeated efforts to solve the “one people‑two country” problem by granting U.S. citizenship to all registered members of the Tohono O’odham, regardless of their residence, have so far not succeeded. Ironically, because of its relatively remote location, the Tohono O’odham Nation has often been called upon to provide emergency assistance to undocumented workers (and drug traffickers) attempting to cross the border who have underestimated the severe challenges of crossing this section of the harsh Sonora desert.

Land ownership along any wall-building line is another issue. Building it on federal land is relatively easy, especially if the U.S. administration continues to utilize mechanisms that ignore, or they claim trump, dozens of existing environmental and cultural laws. Costs and protests rise where the planned barrier is located on privately-owned land.

Some sections of barrier have already been built in the wrong place. In 2008, for instance, one Native American human rights delegation reported that the official International Boundary obelisks marking the Arizona/Sonora boundary had been moved about 20 meters south during barrier construction, a clear violation of international law. Costs escalate still further whenever the barrier needs to be relocated.

The effective implementation of many cross-border agreements will be adversely affected by a barrier. For instance, the U.S. Forest Service and Mexico’s National Forestry Commission have a co-operation agreement, the Bi‑national Convention on Forest Fires, for dealing with cross-border wildfires on the Arizona/Sonora border. It aims to increase public safety on both sides of the border, reduce habitat loss, and facilitate the fighting of wildfires. It allows for a united bi‑national command to be established and for firefighting brigades, together with supporting vehicles and aircraft, to cross the border by up to 16 km (10 miles) in either direction in order to battle ongoing wildfires, provided advance notice is given. With a wall, this is clearly impossible.

Quite apart from the cost implications and the potential adverse impacts for people, communities, trade and fauna in the border regions, building a wall is not the answer. Animals may not have a viable choice after a wall is built but if people still want to cross, and can’t do so by land, they will surely turn to the air, the oceans, or (as has already happened repeatedly with smugglers in both directions) underground tunnels.

In fact, despite fear-mongering news reports in the U.S. press, the flow of migrants over the past decade has actually reversed: the number of people now crossing the border from the U.S. to live in Mexico is higher than the number of Mexicans moving north. While some of the migrants moving south are Mexicans returning home, others are estadoudienses preferring to retire, live or work in Mexico.

Judy King’s Echoes from the Wall: Real Stories of Mexican Migrants (Mexico Insights, 2019) is available worldwide via Amazon. The case studies of individual migrants are excellent starting-points for geography classes about international migration in high schools and colleges.

Review of “Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty”

 Books and resources, Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on Review of “Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty”
Oct 292019
 

In honor of the award of the 2019 Nobel Prize for Economics to Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty, we republish this post from five years ago in which we highlighted the significance of the pioneering work of Banerjee and Duflo:

Every so often a book comes along that shakes up established wisdom and forces us to rethink our viewpoints and beliefs. The latest such book to cross my desk is Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo, published by PublicAffairs in 2011.

poor-economicsThis is a worthy read for anyone interested in development theory, policy, practice and economics. The authors are professors of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and co-founded the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). Their book reports on the effectiveness of solutions to global poverty using an evidence-based randomized control trial approach.

Banerjee and Duflo argue that many anti-poverty policies have failed over the years because of an inadequate understanding of poverty. They conclude that the battle against poverty can be won, but it will take patience, careful thinking and a willingness to learn from evidence.

The authors look at some of the unexpected questions related to poverty that empirical studies have thrown up, such as :

  • Why do the poor (those living on less than 99 cents a day) need to borrow in order to save?
  • Why do the poor miss out on free life-saving immunizations but pay for drugs that they do not need?
  • Why do the poor start many businesses but do not grow any of them?

The book was supported by an outstanding website that included:

  • Introductions to each chapter
  • Maps showing cited studies with links to original sources
  • Data and figures used with interactive data tools
  • A “What Can You Do” page with links to major organizations working in the field or for the problem discussed in the chapter

The website’s links to research papers mentioned in the book included four studies related to Mexico:

1. Do Conditional Cash Transfers Affect Electoral Behavior? Evidence from a Randomized Experiment in Mexico, by Ana L. De La O.

The evidence comes from the pioneering Progresa, the original Mexican conditional cash transfer (CCT) program (since repackaged as Oportunidades).  This CCT program led to a 7% increase in turnout and a 16% increase in the  incumbent vote share, with clear implications for politicians in areas where CCT programs reach a large percentage of voters.

2 School Subsidies for the Poor: Evaluating the Mexican Progresa Poverty Program, by T. Paul Schultz of Yale University (August 2001).

This study considered how a CCT program affected school enrollment. The CCT program increased enrollment in school in grades 3 through 9, with the increase often greater for girls than boys. The cumulative effect was estimated to add 0.66 years to the baseline level of 6.80 years of schooling.

3 Experimental Evidence on Returns to Capital and Access to Finance in Mexico, by David McKenzie and Christopher Woodruff (March 2008)

Microenterprises are often unable to access suitable financing, even though they are responsible for employing a large portion of the total workforce. This experiment, which gave cash and in-kind grants to small retail firms, demonstrated that this additional capital generated large increases in profits, with the effects concentrated on those firms which were more financially constrained. The estimated return to capital was found to be at least 20 to 33 percent per month, three to five times higher than market interest rates.

4 Working for the Future: Female Factory Work and Child Health in Mexico, by David Atkin (April 2009)

Atkins’ paper found that children whose mothers lived in a town where a maquiladora (export factory) opened when the women were sixteen years old were much taller than those children born to mothers who did not have a similar opportunity. The effect was so large that “it can bridge the entire gap in height between a poor Mexican child and the “norm” for a well-fed American child.” (Poor Economics, 229)

The increase in height could not be fully explained by the changes in family income resulting from employment in a maquiladora. As Bannerjee and Duflo suggest, “Perhaps the sense of control over the future that people get from knowing that there will be an income coming in every month -and not just the income itself- is what allows these women to focus on building their own careers and those of their children. Perhaps this idea that there is a future is what makes the difference between the poor and the middle class.” (Poor Economics, 229)

Conclusion

Banerjee and Duflo’s positive message is that poverty can indeed be alleviated, but we need to take one small measurable step at a time with constant evaluation of whether or not particular policies are successful, based on evidence, not just on belief systems.

Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty” deserves its place of honor alongside other such genuine classics as E.F. Schumaker’s “Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered” (1973). It is a must-read for geographers, regardless of your political persuasion.

Note: this is a lightly edited version of a post first published 27 January 2014.

Related posts

Video of the Sea of Cortés (Gulf of California)

 Books and resources  Comments Off on Video of the Sea of Cortés (Gulf of California)
Aug 232016
 

This PostandFly video explores the islands of San Jose, San Francisco and Espiritu Santo. The Sea of Cortés (Gulf of California) is the body of water that separates the Baja California Peninsula from the Mexican mainland. The Sea of Cortés is thought to be one of the most diverse seas on the planet, and is home to more than 5,000 species of micro-invertebrates. A large part of the Sea of Cortés is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Several rivers feed the Sea of Cortés, including the Colorado, Fuerte and Yaqui. The Sea of Cortés has more than 300 estuaries and other wetlands on its shores, of which the delta of the Colorado River is especially important. The vast reduction in the Colorado’s flow has negatively impacted wetlands and fisheries.

Previous Geo-Mexico posts on this area of Mexico include:

Photos of Mexico’s indigenous peoples

 Books and resources  Comments Off on Photos of Mexico’s indigenous peoples
Jul 212016
 

Mexican photographer Diego Huerta has spent the past four years on a quest to photograph all of the indigenous groups in the country. He publishes select images on his website and on his instagram account and the collection of images makes for compelling viewing, hence articles about him in the press, including one entitled “Photographer Captures The Breathtaking Beauty Of Mexico’s Indigenous Communities” in the Huffington Post.

Related posts

For an introduction to Mexico’s indigenous peoples see An overview of Mexico’s indigenous peoples. Recent research has shown that the indigenous groups are more genetically diverse than was previously thought. They add a very significant diversity to the languages spoken in Mexico. See, for example, The geography of languages in Mexico: Spanish and 62 indigenous languages, and Is the number of speakers of indigenous languages in Mexico increasing? The many indigenous languages have resulted in some very distinctive place names.

At least one of the indigenous languages in Mexico is very unusual – Whistling your way from A to B: the whistled language of the Chinantec people in Oaxaca – and some have no words for “left” or “right”, while others are now spoken by only a very small number of people. The extreme example of this is Only two native speakers remain of Ayapaneco, an indigenous language in Tabasco.

Geo-Mexico has dozens of posts about specific indigenous groups in Mexico. The tag system and the site search engine will locate short articles related to the Huichol, Tarahumara, Aztecs, Maya and several other groups.

“Huichol Women, Weavers, and Shamans” by Stacy B. Schaefer

 Books and resources  Comments Off on “Huichol Women, Weavers, and Shamans” by Stacy B. Schaefer
May 162016
 

Stacy B. Schaefer is professor emeritus of anthropology at California State University, Chico, and has worked in research and education at a number of California museums. Schaefer has a long-standing interest in Mexico, with particular interest in the Huichol Indians. She is the author of To Think With a Good Heart: Wixarika Women, Weavers, and Shamans (University of Utah Press, 2002) and the co-editor, with Peter Furst, of People of the Peyote: Huichol Indian History, Religion, and Survival (University of New Mexico, 1997).

In 2015, the University of New Mexico issued a revised reprint of To Think With a Good Heart with the new title, Huichol Women, Weavers, and Shamans. (We are pleased to say that Geo-Mexico produced a map for this new version, though a production glitch makes the numbers on the scale look like meaningless boxes!)

schafer-coverThe unique aspect of this book is that the author not only lived among the Huichol for extended periods of time over two decades, but committed herself to a long apprenticeship to become a weaver.

Schaefer’s account is a masterful interweaving of personal experiences and  ethnographic research. Her interest in weaving enabled her to become a trusted member of the community, affording her valuable insights into their lives, beliefs and customs.

The book considers the significance of weaving in relation to every aspect of Huichol life, from food gathering and farming to pregnancy, birth, shrines and goddesses. Schaeffer’s eventual success in becoming a master weaver opened yet more doors into the community, with fresh insights into local shamanism.

Schaeffer lived experiences that most of us can only hope to read about. Fortunately, her descriptions are captivating and detailed, as, for example, when she writes about her trip accompanying Huichol “family” on their pilgrimage to collect sacred peyote cactus.

As the back cover blurb states, “For centuries the Huichol (Wixárika) Indian women of Jalisco, Mexico, have been weaving textiles on backstrap looms. This West Mexican tradition has been passed down from mothers to daughters since pre-Columbian times. Weaving is a part of each woman’s identity – allowing them to express their ancient religious beliefs as well as to reflect the personal transformations they have undergone throughout their lives.”

While this is an academic work, Stacy Schaefer does an outstanding job in explaining all this in a way which is easily accessible to the general reader.

Schaefer also wrote Amada’s Blessings from the Peyote Gardens of South Texas (University of New Mexico, 2015), which tells the story (based on 13 years of fieldwork) of Amada Cardenas, a Mexican-American woman, and her pivotal role in the little-known history of the peyote trade, which began in the 1930s.

Related posts:

May 022016
 

This little 77-page gem only recently came to my attention, but is sufficiently interesting, for lots of different reasons, to make it well worth reading if you have the chance.

Written in straightforward, non-academic language, Stanislawski sets about unpacking the factors explaining the land use patterns for eleven towns in the western Mexico state of Michoacán. Stanislawski knows the land use patterns of these town, because he painstakingly compiled them, with the help of multiple informants in each town, in the 1940s.

Aria de Rosales. (Stanislawski, 1950)

Aria de Rosales. (Stanislawski, 1950)

Stanislawski explains that his purpose was to find a method that would reliably identify the “personality differences” that he had intuitively recognized, during earlier fieldwork, for towns in Michoacán. He set out to map the four distinct categories of land use – stores, crafts, administrative offices and services – that he thought would likely reveal the “distributional aspects that might indicate differences between towns.”

Pichátaro. (Stanislawski, 1950)

Pichátaro. (Stanislawski, 1950)

He assumed that each town would be influenced by its geographic area, and therefore chose eleven towns that he thought would be a systematic sample: one in the coastal lowlands, three in the low Balsas valley, two in the upper Balsas valley (close to the temperate slopes), four within the mountain ranges of the volcanic area of Michoacán, and one at an elevation of 2400 m (8000 ft).

The maps he produced revealed that “the geographical region could not explain the differences between the towns except in part.” At least as important, Stanislawski decided, was which of the two basic cultural groups – Hispanic or Indian – was predominant in the town. He proposed a threefold classification: Hispanic, Indian or dual-character.

On this basis, Aria de Rosales (upper map), with its imposing plaza the focus of most commercial activity, is an Hispanic town. On the other hand, Pichátaro (lower map), where the plaza is unimportant, is Indian. Of course, these differences, identified by Stanislawski in the 1940s, do not necessarily apply today. Since the 1940s, transport systems have changed, there have been waves of migration out of many Michoacán towns, and the range of economic activities in towns has increased significantly, with a trend away from primary activities and a sharp rise in tertiary 9service) activities.

In the 1980s (sadly ignorant at the time of Stanislawski’s work), I employed a small army of geography students to undertake a somewhat similar mapping exercise in various Michoacán settlements, ranging in size from the small village of Jungapeo to the mining town of Angangueo and the large city of Zitácuaro. For an example of this kind of work, see The distribution of retail activities in the city of Zitácuaro, Michoácan, Mexico. Sadly, those 1980s maps were later discarded during a clean-out of the department map cabinet by a well-intentioned, if ill-informed, successor.

Source:

  • The Anatomy of Eleven Towns in Michoacán (review) by Dan Stanislawski (University of Texas, Institute of Latin American Studies, Latin American Studies X, 1950); reprinted by Greenwood Press, New York, 1969.

Mar 242016
 

A recent National Geographic piece about the U.S.-Mexico border wall has some stunning photos of exactly what the wall looks like in various different places.

U.S. business magnate, and would-be politician Donald Trump has repeatedly promised to completely seal the U.S.-Mexico border with a wall if he is elected President, and has vowed that he would make Mexico pay for the expense. At present, the parts of the border not already walled or fenced off have security via border guards, drones and scanners.

Border fence near Campo, California. Credit: Fred Greaves/Reuters

Border fence near Campo, California. Credit: Fred Greaves/Reuters

The National Geographic article has photographs taken by James Whitlow Delano, who has visited the border several times in the past decades as the walls have gone up.

One photo shows the border wall separating Jacumba, California, from Jacume, Mexico, in the high desert. Until September 2001, several years after the first border barricade was built here in the mid-1990s, “residents of Jacume could cross freely into Jacumba to buy groceries or to work, and children would be brought across to go to school or to the health clinic.” Now, what was formerly a 10-minute walk has become a 2-hour drive through the official border crossing at Tecate.

Another photo shows the infamous Smuggler’s Gulch fence, part of a 60-million-dollar project to ensure security between San Diego and Tijuana by completing a triple line of fencing.

The photos are thought-provoking images of one of the world’s most significant land borders. The situation along the border has changed dramatically in recent years. When the first fences were built, Mexican migration to the U.S. was on the rise. Now, however, the net flow of people between the two countries each year is close to zero:

For more about the U.S.-Mexico border zone, see these related Geo-Mexico posts:

Acclaimed biography of Alexander von Humboldt completely ignores his time in Mexico

 Books and resources  Comments Off on Acclaimed biography of Alexander von Humboldt completely ignores his time in Mexico
Feb 292016
 

The English language press has lavished dollops of praise on The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science, the biography of Humboldt written by Andrea Wulf, a design historian at the Royal College of Art in London.

wulf-humboldt

Cover of U.S. edition

According to a review in the New Scientist, “Historian Andrea Wulf calls Humboldt the lost hero of science. It is extraordinary that a man once so revered is now largely forgotten.” This claim is gross exaggeration. It has limited validity in the English-speaking world and even less validity in the German-, French- and Spanish-speaking worlds.

There have been several previous English-language biographies of Humboldt, some better than others. The earliest that immediately comes to mind, and one of the best illustrated, is Douglas Botting’s Humboldt and the Cosmos (1973). More recent works include Humboldt’s Cosmos by Gerard Helferich (2004); The Humboldt Current (2006), by Aaron Sachs (2006); and The Passage to Cosmos, by Laura Dassow Walls (2011). Generations of geographers have grown up learning about Humboldt’s explorations and his revolutionary ideas.

There is no question that Humboldt’s life and work are worthy of numerous biographies. There is no question, either, that Wulf’s biography is an interesting read, and contains lots of valuable ideas. The author clearly went to great lengths to visit many of the important locales in Humboldt’s writing, and to read dozens of his books in their original German, and much of his voluminous correspondence, as well as examining Darwin’s copies of Humboldt’s works, etc., etc.

However, Wulf misses the mark in this biography in two main regards. First, too much of the book is taken up with accounts of the sometimes tenuous links between Humboldt and later thinkers about environmental and other matters.

The second concern, and the one that most concerns Geo-Mexico, is that Wulf completely ignores Humboldt’s time in Mexico, despite providing detailed accounts of his explorations elsewhere. It is arguably his year-long visit to Mexico that gave Humboldt not only the opportunity to collect yet more data and information, but also to reflect on the significance of his discoveries in South America.

Surely, Humboldt’s views about volcanoes, for example, were shaped by the opportunity he had in Mexico to study Jorullo, the volcano (in present-day Michoacán) that had erupted a few years previously? Equally, Humboldt’s observations in the “Mexican Andes” (Sierra Madre Occidental and Volcanic Axis) undoubtedly helped Humboldt arrive at the conclusion that vegetation zonation with altitude had general applicability and was not confined to South America. Furthermore, it was Humboldt who first remarked on the fact that Mexican volcanoes lie in an East-west belt (Volcanic Axis) and were not arranged parallel to the main mountain ranges, as in South America. (The alignment of the Volcanic Axis is still something of a geological puzzle, since it does not appear to fit the general model of plate tectonics).

The omission of Mexico and the large number of pages devoted to later thinkers detract from the quality of Wulf’s biography, making it an interesting and readable, but unbalanced, and ultimately unsatisfying, portrait of one of the world’s greatest ever thinkers.

For a definitive account of Humboldt’s time in Mexico, see, La Obra de Alexander Von Humboldt en Mexico, Fundamento de la Geografía Moderna. by Rayfred Lionel Stevens-Middleton (Instituto Panamericano de Geografía y Historia, 1956).

Related posts:

A 1902 travel account, and unexpected link between Mexico and a Swiss castle

 Books and resources  Comments Off on A 1902 travel account, and unexpected link between Mexico and a Swiss castle
Feb 252016
 

Dr Carl Wilhelm Schiess (1869-1929) is the unexpected link between Mexico and a Swiss castle. Schiess wrote a travel account, first published in 1902, of a two-month trip in Mexico in the winter of 1899-1900. The account, only ever published in German, is Quer durch Mexiko vom Atlantischen zum Stillen Ocean (“Across Mexico from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean”), published in Berlin by Dietrich Reimer.

Early travel accounts of Mexico are a valuable source of information for historical geographers, as well as for armchair travelers. Schiess’s account is no exception.

Who was Carl Wilhelm Schiess?

Carl Wilhelm Schiess of Basel and Herisau was born on 12 July 1869. His father was Prof. Dr. Heinrich Schiess, a well-known ophthalmologist in Basel, and his mother Rosalie Gemuseus. After completing his medical studies, the young doctor traveled abroad. These travels included  a trip with his brother to Mexico over the winter of 1899-1900.

Where he travel in Mexico?

They entered Mexico (and returned) via New Orleans. The brothers traveled by rail to Torreón, and then to Durango, before crossing the Western Sierra Madre to Mazatlán. From Mazatlán, they took a steamer to San Blas, and then proceeded to cross the country from west to east, via Tepic, Tequila, Guadalajara, Chapala, Zamora, Uruapan, Pátzcuaro, Morelia, Mexico City, Amecameca, to Veracruz, before returning north via Orizaba, Cordoba, Guanajuato, Aguascalientes and Zacatecas. Quite the itinerary to complete in just two months!

They were very impressed by the grandeur of the Juanacatlan Falls and the book includes several photographs of that area, including the falls themselves, women washing clothes below the falls, and this photo of an unpolluted River Santiago (aka Rio Grande) immediately before the falls.

Wilhelm Schiess: Rio Grande, Juanacatlan (December 1899)

Wilhelm Schiess: Rio Grande, Juanacatlan (December 1899)

Schiess and his brother had plenty of adventures along the way. Like most other early travelers in Mexico, they made a point of climbing Popocatepetl Volcano, but the brothers went one better than most and photographed the interior of its crater. The two men made several trips to places, such as mines, that were well off the beaten track. In central Mexico, they took the time to explore the ruins of Xochicalco, an archaeological site that even today is often ignored by passing tourists. The main pyramid at that time (photo) had not been restored.

Wilhelm Schiess: Xochicalco (December 1899)

Wilhelm Schiess: Xochicalco (December 1899)

Schiess’ account of their travels in Mexico is essentially a factual, straightforward account of their impressions and what they did, with few digressions, more of a journal than a modern-day travel book. It was well received at the time as an accurate, first-hand account of several little-known parts of Mexico.

A review in the Bulletin of the American Geographical Society claimed that, “His route from Durango across the Sierra Madre to Mazatlan has perhaps never been described before, and the interesting regions he crossed between San Blas and Lake Chapala are not well-known.” It probably is unlikely that the Durango-Mazatlan route had been described in detail prior to Schiess, though (by coincidence) Carl Lumholtz’s Unknown Mexico, which covers some of the same ground, and was based on travels between 1890 and 1900, was also first published, like Schiess’s book, in 1902.

However, the reviewer’s claim that the “regions” between San Blas and Lake Chapala were not well known is a clear exaggeration, since there had been several earlier, detailed, first-hand descriptions of the route from San Blas via Tepic to Guadalajara (and Lake Chapala) on account of this being a major trading and smuggling route during the nineteenth century.

Wilhelm Schiess: Street in Patzcuaro (December 1899)

Wilhelm Schiess: Street in Pátzcuaro (December 1899)

While one reviewer of Schiess’ book lamented the lack of reference to any earlier writers, all agreed that the inclusion of 71 photographs, many of high quality, made the book a valuable addition to the existing literature about Mexico.

Sadly, and presumably because the book was never translated into any other language, Schiess’s work has never received very wide attention. [If any German-speaking reader has time on their hands, and wants to undertake a worthwhile project,… then get in touch!]

Schiess’s account of Mexico is interesting in its own right, but his personal story after the trip to Mexico is just as interesting.

Scheiss’s connection to a Swiss castle

In 1900, shortly after his return to Switzerland, Schiess’s aunt, Mrs. Rosina Magdalena Gemuseus, bought Spiez Castle, on Lake Thun in the Swiss canton of Bern. Parts of the castle date back to the tenth century.

On 28 July 1900, Schiess opened his medical practice – in the castle. Announcing in a local newspaper that his practice was now open at Spiez Castle, with office hours daily in the morning to 11 clock, and with a clinic for eye diseases on Tuesday and Friday mornings, Schiess practiced and lived in the castle for many years, though it is not known which living spaces were used by either his aunt, or the doctor and his wife.

The village of Spiez grew rapidly after 1900. Roads were improved and villagers added a new stone church and many new homes. In about 1906, Dr. Schiess commissioned a firm of Basel architects to build him a large home in the village, to house both his family and his medical office. In other respects, Schiess lived quite modestly, continuing to make his rounds to visit patients by bicycle. Contemporaries described Schiess as a friendly, helpful and keen doctor, who, during the terrible 1918 flu epidemic, worked tirelessly, with no breaks, for several months.

In 1907, Schiess’s aunt sold him some of the outlying castle properties, including the old church, rectory, manager’s house, cherry orchard, vineyards and an area of forest. After his aunt’s death on 3 February 1919, the castle itself passed to Schiess. However, the upkeep was costly, and Schiess soon found himself having to sell valuable objects from the castle to pay for its ongoing maintenance.

By 1922, Schiess was actively looking for potential purchasers. A group of villagers established a foundation with the idea of preserving the castle for future generations. On 1 August 1929, the Spiez Castle Foundation and Schiess agreed terms for the sale of the castle. Barely two weeks later, on 14 August 1929, Schiess died unexpectedly of heart failure.

The castle and gardens first opened to the public in June 1930. The castle rooms are now used for conferences, concerts, exhibitions and other events.

Source:

  • Alfred Stettler. 2004. “75 Jahre Stiftung Schloss Spiez: Die Anfänge” (“75 years of the Spiez Castle Foundation: The beginnings”) in Jahrbuch: vom Thuner und Brienzersee, 2004 (“Yearbook of the lakes Thun and Brienz, 2004). Uferschutzverband Thuner- und Brienzersee.

The evolution of Mexico as a nation

 Books and resources  Comments Off on The evolution of Mexico as a nation
Feb 182016
 

What better way to describe Mexico’s territorial evolution as a nation than via an animated graphic? Fortunately, we didn’t have to do the work ourselves, but found one, showing all of North America, at giphy.com. Sadly, it is no longer active.

The graphic covered the period 1750-2000. Mexico appeared in 1821, when it became formally independent from Spain. The Mexico of 1821 was much larger than today’s Mexico. Its northern border in the 1820s and 1830s reached deep into the modern-day U.S. states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Utah and Colorado. These areas remained part of Mexico until after the disastrous 1846-48 Mexico-U.S. war.

At the end of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ceded over half of Mexico’s territory to the USA. A few years later, under the 1853 Gadsden Purchase (Treaty of La Mesilla), northern portions of Sonora and Chihuahua were transferred to the USA. With minor exceptions since, to take account of changes in the meanders of the Río Bravo/Río Grande, this established the current border between the two countries.

Related posts: