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The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration

reviewed by Jerry Garcia - September 28, 2006

coverTitle: The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration
Author(s): Bill Bigelow
Publisher: Rethinking Schools, Milwaukee
ISBN: 0942961315 , Pages: 149, Year: 2006
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The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration was published by the Milwaukee-based company, Rethinking Schools, known for publishing books that take innovative approaches to historical and contemporary issues.  The author, Bill Bigelow, has over 25 years of teaching experience at the secondary level. Mr. Bigelow also has an impressive list of publications that include Stranger in Their Country: A Curriculum on South Africa and Rethinking Globalization: Teaching for Justice in an Unjust World. Readers will enjoy the fact that Bigelow has long ago honed his skills on curriculum development and putting pedagogical theory into practice.  

The publication of The Line Between Us could not have come at a better time. Immigration, and in particular, Mexican immigration, is of central concern to the American public and its policymakers. Similar to the difficulty of introducing a meaningful discussion on race in the classroom, border issues and an insightful dialogue on Mexican immigration requires sound knowledge coupled with an engaging pedagogy that will have a long-lasting effect on the student population. Yet, effective approaches addressing border issues and immigration often elude the best educators with the inevitable result being a water-downed discussion on critical issues of the day.  Mexican immigration to the United States is considered the longest sustained labor migration anywhere in the world. Thus, teaching tools such as The Line Between Us are vital in order to explain a complex and often sophisticated process at a level of understanding for the non-specialist. It is clear that Mr. Bigelow’s target audience is secondary teachers, but with some modification and ingenuity, middle school teachers could also benefit from this timely publication.

The Line between Us is divided into six sections: 1) Teaching About Them and Us; 2) Historical Roots of the Border; 3) NAFTA’s Impact; 4) First Crossing; 5) Life On the Border; 6) Resources.   Section One, Teaching About Them and Us, provides the foundation for the remainder of the book. This section is divided into six individual chapters addressing border history, border issues, immigration, the cause and effect of immigration, and the social and economic concerns from both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. What stands out from these initial chapters is the author’s intimate and broad knowledge of the subject. The information, oral interviews, and description of the border region comes from someone who has traveled and visited the border extensively, thus providing the needed authenticity to express convincingly such scenes as the environmental impact of industrialization along the U.S.-Mexican border, the working conditions of a maquiladora (factories that import materials and equipment for manufacturing and then re-export the assembled product), the de-sensitization of Border Patrol agents, and most importantly, the people of the border and their immigration to the United States. From a critical perspective, these first chapters provide excellent information on contemporary border issues that will allow the reader to understand the connection between foreign investment, the establishment of maquiladoras, disparity in wages, personal testimonies of living along the border, and the environmental impact globalization has had on the border.

Unfortunately, because of the demands placed on today’s primary and secondary educators, meaningful time spent on important historical and social issues is a premium most struggle to achieve. However, Mr. Bigelow’s suggested curriculum and teaching activities should help in overcoming many of the implementation obstacles. Furthermore, the pedagogy suggested provides a clear understanding of and approach to the topic of immigration. One area of central concern to any class—vital when teaching about the border and Mexican immigration—is the reliability of the information being presented. The Line Between Us makes an excellent effort to provide the historical background apropos to the creation of the so-called line between the U.S. and Mexico. I regularly tell my students that studying history and historical analysis is about seeking the truth. Often, at the primary and secondary level, history is presented in a celebratory and romanticized manner. And, although I do not believe the truth is purposefully neglected, students at this level rarely are given the opportunity to critically examine an historical period or contemporary event. This is what separates The Line Between Us from the traditional curriculum. Mr. Bigelow provides the student and teacher with information that allows them to see that the border between the U.S. and Mexico was not a natural occurrence, but instead, was the result of an act of aggression that created a new artificial line in the mid-19th century. More importantly, this military invasion and conquest has had long lasting consequences, which continue to be felt in the contemporary period. Thus, any meaningful discussion on border issues and Mexican immigration must begin with an honest examination of the historical circumstances that created a real, but often artificial barrier between people.

After providing the historical analysis and background on the border, The Line Between Us segues into what can be called the human factor of the border and Mexican immigration.  In the contemporary period, the approach often used to describe or teach Mexican immigration resorts to cold statistics. This approach, unfortunately, de-humanizes those individuals caught within the web of statisticians and cross-hairs of legislation that does not take into account the lives of people. Bill Bigelow and The Line Between Us puts a human face on immigration and reminds us that these immigrants are not simply numbers, but mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters attempting to survive within the construct of a global economy that has created a situation where individuals have to make a choice between survival and destitution.  Furthermore, it is clear from the text that Bill Bigelow wants students and teachers to understand that the border region is not static or fixed, but constantly changing, flowing, and filled with what he calls metaphors of life.  Thus, metaphors become a teaching tool that teachers and students engage with in order to understand better border life and the consequences of U.S. border policy.

Immigration in general, and Mexican immigration in particular, is a complex process with numerous variables. This book helps break down some of these complexities. For example, The Line Between Us explores some of the root causes of Mexican immigration and breaks down complex and often confusing terminology such as liberalism and neoliberalism, and explains institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.  Mr. Bigelow also provides an honest commentary and suggested exercises to discuss immigration legislation that affects immigrants in the United States.          

Sections Two through Six contain the tools and activities teachers can use to communicate the information gleaned from Section One. A book such as this, a teaching aide for teachers, is only useful if it contains accurate and appropriate information. Just as important are the suggested tools and activities for a curriculum on border issues and immigration. Mr. Bigelow has provided a full curriculum with exercises for each topic in Section One.  Sections Two through Six of the book are really the heart of The Line Between Us, which facilitates the transmission of information from teacher to student. More importantly, there are interactive exercises that put the student in charge of discovering the issues of the border and Mexican immigration. These teaching activities include: role playing, conducting oral interviews, interpreting historical texts and policy documents, participating in mock trade conferences and empathy-building exercises, which help in understanding life on the border. Teachers will find very useful the detailed instructions for each exercise as Bigelow allows for flexibility and adaptation for all of the activities to fit various school situations or limitations. The final section of the book is an extensive list of resources for teachers to utilize in the classroom, ranging from films, videos, books, organizations, websites, and journals.

The limitations of this book are few. The Line Between Us goes to great lengths in bringing a complex situation to a level of understanding, particularly in regards to the economics of Mexican immigration. Mr. Bigelow expends a tremendous amount of space in implicating the North American Free Trade Agreement in creating a large gap in income in Mexico and its role in displacing Mexicans and the Mexican farmer. Although NAFTA has had a negative impact on the poor and working class in Mexico, to focus simply on NAFTA is a narrow approach to the economic side of immigration. The Line Between Us would have benefited from a broader discussion on the various economic models used by Mexico in the 20th century so that teachers and students understand that, like immigration itself, Mexico’s economy has ebbed and flowed for most of the last century, thus, affecting the movement of people across the border.  

Overall, The Line Between Us is an imaginative and innovative approach to understanding the U.S.-Mexican border and Mexican immigration. This teaching text is filled with poetry by well-known authors, as well as students, to remind us of the human experience. Using poetry at the secondary level allows many students to connect to an otherwise disconcerting issue.  Furthermore, Mr. Bigelow uses important historical texts such as the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, eyewitness accounts to the Mexican American War, and political speeches that examine border and immigration issues. The Line Between Us utilizes numerous photographs that are appropriate for each section of the book. Throughout Section One, Mr. Bigelow uses what can be called “side-bars” that provide additional information regarding some of the details discussed within each chapter. The Line Between Us is also not afraid to confront race, racism, and prejudice regarding immigration policy, border issues, or the anti-immigration fervor in the United States. Yet, the exercises allow students to come to their own conclusions with often surprising results. Mr. Bigelow and his book make it clear that this is not about victimization; rather, it is about immigrants and border citizens finding ways to resist their poverty, since, like the border itself, poverty is not a natural state, but one imposed. The one limitation aside, The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration is a very useful teaching aide to disseminate information on one the most pressing issues of the day, not just in the United States, but globally.   

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 28, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12745, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 2:42:31 AM

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About the Author
  • Jerry Garcia
    Michigan State University
    E-mail Author
    JERRY GARCIA is currently an Assistant Professor with Michigan State University’s Department of History and Chicano/Latino Studies Program. Professor Garcia’s main areas of interest include Mexican immigration, labor, race, and ethnicity. His most recent publications are Memory, Community, and Activism: Mexican Migration and Labor in the Pacific Northwest (2005) and “A Measure of a Cock: Mexican Cockfighting, Masculinity, and Culture,” in Chon Noreiga and Wendy Belcher I AM AZTLAN: The Personal Essay in Chicano Studies (2004). Professor Garcia’s forthcoming book is Myth, Popular Culture, and the Racialization of Mexicans in the United States.
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