The Unruly Río Grande’s Rupture to Settler Time/Space during the Chamizal Land Dispute

Authors: Alana De Hinojosa*, UCLA
Topics: Landscape, Legal Geography, Historical Geography
Keywords: Rio Grande, El Paso, Ciudad Juarez, U.S.-Mexico borderlands, settler temporality
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/10/2021
Start / End Time: 11:10 AM / 12:25 PM
Room: Virtual 30
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


This paper examines the unruly Rio Grande that caused the Chamizal Land Dispute (1864-1964). I argue that the Chamizal Treaty of 1964 not only sought to resolve this dispute, but moreover to possess the meandering Río Grande’s with the goal of suppressing its very possibility—that is, concealing the river’s hand in (re)shaping the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez borderlands according to its own needs and desires. Concealing this unruly terrain took on multiple forms; and today’s canalization of the Río Grande between El Paso and Juarez reflects the colonial requirement that unruliness must be kept submissively and passively “in its place.” But this canal also locates rebellion and (im)possibility, as its primary function is to conceal the river’s unacceptable capacity to rupture “white possessive logics” (Moreton-Robinson 2015, p. xii). In this paper, I consider this project of concealment by focusing on a 1903 lawsuit wherein U.S. courts dismissed mexicano claims to disputed territory regionally known as “el Chamizal” by relegating their claims and the meandering Río Grande to a bygone era outside of U.S. history. I am, therefore, working out two interconnected processes: 1) how the white settler in this region becomes emplaced through juridical narratives of settler time and space centered on eliminating the river’s unruly terrain; and 2) how this unruly river rupture simultaneously exposes/ruptures settler colonial spatialities and, in turn, denaturalizes both the U.S. and Mexico as a white possessions.

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