Tuesday, July 07, 2020

SDSU Press brings you an exclusive Interview with Professor Steven Bender on his best selling book, How the West Was Juan: Reimagining the U.S. / Mexico Border

Interviewed by David Ornelas                    
SDSU Press editorial/marketing associate

Professor Steven W. Bender
How the West Was Juan creatively approaches the current political stalemate over restrictive v. compassionate border policy by imagining a different U.S.-Mexico border, one that returns to the early 1800s U.S.-Mexico border. Steven Bender is a national academic leader on immigration law and policy, as well as an expert in real estate law. Among his honors, the Minority Groups Section of the Association of American Law Schools presented him with the C. Clyde Ferguson, Jr., Award, a prestigious national award recognizing scholarly reputation, mentoring of junior faculty, and teaching excellence. 

Exclusive Interview with Professor Steven W. Bender

David Ornelas: What’s your name, occupation and title?

Professor Steven Bender: Steven Bender, a law professor and associate dean at Seattle University.

David Ornelas: What inspired you to write your book? Especially how your book approaches the current political stalemate over restrictive v. compassionate border policy by imagining a different U.S.-Mexico border, one that returns to the early 1800s U.S.-Mexico border.

Professor Steven Bender: My aim with several books of late, including this one, is to look at contentious social and legal issues, in this case Mexican migration to the United States, through a novel lens to supply fresh perspectives on long-standing and sadly violent debates and policies. Imagining a return today to the early 1800s U.S.-Mexico border and the economy and culture and immigration policies and practices that might result reveals, at bottom, the artificiality and futility of borders, and therefore of armoring borders. As I have shown in other books, no border will exclude the human spirit and instinct to survive, and our best course is to be “good neighbors” as most U.S. states are to each other, including those many U.S. states in the terrain of what was once Mexico.

David Ornelas: In your book, we get to fully understand the Anglo migration to Mexico and Alto Mexico, then Mexico migration to Alto Mexico. What are your thoughts of this sense of this perverse prison we call “reality?”

Professor Steven Bender: Alto Mexico is what I call the current states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, as well as parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, and Oklahoma—spanning from the California/Oregon coastal border to Port Arthur, Texas on the Gulf of Mexico, all on land once governed by Spain and then Mexico. Most Mexican immigrants work and reside in this terrain today; a Mexico controlled Southwest would mean that these Mexican workers need not die in their journey to jobs in the Southwest, nor their families be in constant danger of being ripped apart. Still, the immigration issue would remain, as the rest of the United States—such as the Northwest, the Midwest, and the South, are equally reliant on cheap and precarious migrant labor from Mexico (and other global regions), raising the possibility the “border” would simply shift northward with all the same political pressures to armor it against the entry of illicit drugs demanded by U.S. addicts and users, and undocumented labor that we all rely on and benefit from, even those who rail against undocumented people.

David Ornelas: Having written different books encompassing legal, cultural, political and historical issues, which category do you feel your book, “How the West Was Juan: Re imagining the U.S. / Mexico Border” falls under? If they all apply to your book, can you explain which one and their connection?
Professor Steven Bender: Although I am trained as a legal scholar, I am also steeped in the values and practices of critical Outsider scholarship.  One of these values is the salience of critical histories in examining laws, policies, and practices of the present and their origins and motivations. I routinely excavate these histories as I did in How the West Was Juan. I don’t think you can tell a legal story without regard to history. Nor, as the grandson of two Mexican immigrants, can I tell a legal story divorced from the culture of my community and my background, having been born and raised in the East Los Angeles area in a Mexican American household by a Mexican mother and Mexican stepfather. Culture runs deep in my life, and I examine it, question it, while cherishing it daily.

David Ornelas: When writing your book, did you feel there was this idea of inaccuracy of our traditional history books that needs to be fixed in order for it to be accurate? If so, which certain topics should we dig deep into when considering histories’ inaccuracy?

Professor Steven Bender: History books gloss over the problematic acquisition of the terrain of the United States, some of which is still in the grip of imperial limbo such as Puerto Rico. In How the West Was Juan, my focus is on the terrain of Texas and the U.S. Southwest, and I critique how the protection of slavery provided the impetus for that acquisition through war. Before the civil war over slavery, the United States helped satiate its thirst for new terrain in order to protect the institution of slavery in Texas, as well as expand its control to West Coast ports, all in the interest of Manifest Destiny that white governance, rather than Mexican, native, or other people seen as non-white, was crucial to realize the fullest potential of the terrain.

David Ornelas: You state the book is devoted to asking the question, “with this critical history of U.S. ownership origins rooted in slavery, what now?” So from your standpoint, what now? Where do we go from here?

Professor Steven Bender: Today, finally, there is critical attention being paid to the origin of monuments to slavery and colonial histories across the United States. How the West Was Juan adds a provocative challenge to that national interrogation—how far does our literal deconstruction extend? If the terrain of Texas in U.S. control is demonstrably rooted in the ability of white settlers to own and abuse slaves in a plantation economy, then what does it take to dismantle that history? Are we to treat the ownership of Texas and the Southwest as we would native lands which will never be returned (while still mindful of the similar problematic history of Indian/Spanish settler/Mexican conflicts in the same terrain before U.S. conquest)? Who truly owns or should govern the Southwest? What reparations are necessary to undo the legacies of conquest and Manifest Destiny? If impractical or impossible, what is practical or possible? These are some of the issues debated through the lens of how the West was  once “Juan.”

David Ornelas: Is your book different or similar to your other published works in terms of the story you’re trying to convey?

Professor Steven Bender: I believe it is a unique perspective and lens. There are plenty of books on U.S. history, and many on immigration, but mine imagines an epiphany of the immorality of slavery that prevents the chain of events that led to the forcible U.S. taking of Mexico land, and then examines what that different U.S.-Mexico border today would mean for contentious policy issues such as immigration.

David Ornelas: Which claims or points does your book challenge when it comes to the past and present history of the U.S./Mexico Border?

Professor Steven Bender: Among my challenges are, similar to still-prevailing misconceptions of the Civil War, that the impetus for the acquisition of Texas and beyond was rooted not in local or state’s rights to governance and their local freedoms, but in slavery—essentially the “freedom” to hold black people unfree and to profit from their enslavement. Another key point of unlearning in this book is one revealed by an earlier book I wrote, Run for the Border, which confirms that no matter how the border is protected and armored, immigration/labor and goods desired by the other “side” will continue unimpaired through, among other motivations, the tenacity of the human spirit. How the West Was Juan adds the dimension to my prior study that no matter where the U.S.-Mexico border is located, the same dynamics will exist, that no border (whether physical or on a map) feasibly will stop.

David Ornelas: When reading your book, is there a specific part we should focus on when forming our own thoughts on the U.S./Mexico Border?

Professor Steven Bender: Particularly for those current residents of what I term Alto Mexico in Texas and the U.S. Southwest, they might imagine their life in a Mexico-controlled Alto Mexico. How would its economy, culture, laws, demographics, and communities differ from where they currently live? For those in the “rest” of the United States, what is the U.S. national identity without control of such vast terrain? Does an international border separating Oregon from California, or Oklahoma from Texas, for instance, change their opinion of the current U.S.-Mexico border? Of migration policy?

David Ornelas: The U.S./Mexico Border has been widely discussed in the past 7-8 years. When writing your book, which outside information did you focus on that you mentioned in your book? Was it politically driven or focusing on one certain key point that you want you reader’s to take into consideration when forming their own thoughts?

Professor Steven Bender: I try not to be driven by political considerations in my writing. Instead, my writing is rooted in concern for the “bottom,” those most adversely affected by law and societal practices. When I began thinking about a re-imagined U.S.-Mexico border—one returning to the U.S.-Mexico border of the early 1800s, I had no agenda other than to examine policy issues through that relocated lens and to see where it led, while ever mindful of the need for compassion for the lives of those we so often vilify in the interest of border security and the “rule of law.”

David Ornelas: As stated before, the U.S./Mexico Border has been in the front line for years now. Many stories surrounding immigration and migration. Why did you choose to focus a good portion of your book on the migration Anglo migration to Mexico and Alto migration, then Mexico migration to Alto Mexico?

Professor Steven Bender: In my earlier book Run for the Border, I focused on why and when and what people and goods were crossing the border through the centuries. When U.S. residents think of the southern border, invariably they focus on northbound movement of people and goods, in the latter case particularly drugs. But I wanted to focus in that book equally on flows of people and goods in the other direction, from partying youth on Mexican beaches, to retirees, to U.S. companies such as Walmart that displace smaller Mexican businesses, to criminals fleeing south in a “run for the border,” to guns and money headed south, made possible by the insatiable appetite of U.S. drug users of all stripes. In How the West Was Juan, I equally wanted readers to overcome their one-sided focus on travel northward from Mexico of people and goods, and to critically examine their own greater freedom to themselves head “south of the border,” wherever that border may lie, for retirement, work, or more often the vacation of their dreams.

David Ornelas: After a reader completes your book, What would you suggest they take away and apply to their future thinking when it comes to the U.S./Mexico Border?

Professor Steven Bender: My book in no way invites a forcible or even political reconquest of the Southwest back to Mexico control, but instead offers a novel lens for readers to think about the contentious issues we associate with the current U.S.-Mexico border and which divide so many. Ultimately, I hope that readers emerge with a sense of the connectedness of the two countries, whose legacies and futures are bound together as a writer once described the Rio Grande and the communities of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez on either side—“The river instead of separating them . . . bound them together.”

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