JUNE 3, 2021 — Jill Fleuriet, professor in the UTSA Department of Anthropology, has devoted the past several years to research commonly called “anthropology at home,” which includes long-term immersion in one's own community.
In this case, she has conducted over 100 interviews and news analysis of nearly 800 articles about the Texas Rio Grande Valley.
This work has now culminated in a newly published book called Rhetoric and Reality on the U.S. Mexico Border. She recently connected with UTSA Today to discuss what she hopes this scholarly work will accomplish, and how widely held perceptions of the Rio Grande Valley differ greatly from the experiences of those who call the region home.
First, can you tell us what motivated you to focus on this particular region?
The South Texas region of the Rio Grande Valley is my childhood home. My Valley — a borderlands rich with potential, creativity, and diverse approaches to solving problems that face our nation — is so different than what the American public most often thinks of as “the border.” Most people who don’t live in the region treat it as a dangerous, faraway place that threatens the social fabric of our nation.
I’ve heard people talk of the Valley as “Narcoland.” I wrote this book to understand why we as a nation are so quick to demonize the borderlands and to offer an alternative way of thinking about the region that is instructive for our nation. I showcase what the South Texas borderlands have to offer the rest of the nation. As several participants told me, the Valley is the front door, not the back door, of the United States, and we are the “true North” of the United States.
The approach you take in this book is what’s called “anthropology at home.” Can you describe how this practice of studying a region and its culture differs from other approaches in the anthropology field?
Anthropology started as an academic discipline to study “other people” in distant locales, and the assumption was that we’d find difference, not similarity, to our own culture. Anthropology at home is one way we’ve grown past that problematic beginning. We study ourselves now, too. What are our dominant meanings and assumptions about the world? What does it mean to “be American?” How does that fit in with our meanings and assumptions about what is the right political system or economic system? We take questions like that — ones we used to only ask of people we saw as different from ourselves — and we apply them to the communities where we live.
Throughout your research, you’ve interviewed those that were pro-Valley and pro-borderlands and were active participants in various influential sectors in community life. What is it that they share in common? What is the underlying thread that they wanted to communicate to you about “home?”
Above all else, the Valley is “home” for those who love it and for those who lead its communities, whether through activism, business, health care, law enforcement, education or philanthropy. Their home indexes a place of resilience, potential, and the success of binational economic and cultural relationships.
The very things most Americans associate with our southern border as negative —immigration and proximity to Mexico — are recast by Valley leaders. These elements of the borderlands are what makes our region so potentially helpful to the nation: the simultaneous bridging, the clash, and the new combinations of ideas from two countries and constant movement of goods and people produces new possibilities.
In your research, the Valley leaders reject the idea of the South Texas borderlands as a faraway place and claim that it is more American because of its proximity and/or relationship to Mexico. This is a novel way of thinking about our southern border. Can you describe how this is exactly accomplished?
Valley leaders’ stories about the region emphasize family, community, hard work, public service, and ties to the land. Each is a key element of the American ideal. “Home” is a place to do work that benefits family and the larger community, working collaboratively through the close ties that permeate Valley life.
Being close to Mexico with its cultural values of family, hard work and entrepreneurialism reinforces this American ideal but also adds to it in new ways. Leaders give examples, such as expectations that families will take care of their elders and the trust in educational leaders, to illustrate how Mexican and American values show up in daily life in our region.
You argue that the RGV leaders “flip the script” on how they strive to change the narrative pushed by those outside the region, both in the news and in the political realm. Texas Valley residents currently feel that the story is “manufactured and/or incomplete.” Can you give an example?
Three long-standing ideas about “the border” are: 1) undocumented immigration is largely a result of individuals or small groups sneaking across the borderline; 2) large caches of drugs come with these people; and 3) the region is more corrupt than other places in the United States. In reality, the majority of undocumented immigration is due to overstaying visas in other areas of the country; drugs are more likely to cross the border at points of entry through vehicles; and major cities in the U.S. have higher rates of documented corruption.
Yes, there is undocumented immigration by individuals and small groups in rural swaths of South Texas. Yes, there are sometimes drugs with them. Yes, there is some corruption in the Rio Grande Valley. It is the assumptions about scope and cause that are incorrect. And those mistakes mean we don’t focus on the real problems. Our attention is diverted, and our biases are reinforced each time a news article or politician either inadvertently or intentionally reproduces these mistaken ideas.
One of the goals of your book is to show that the RGV is a model for innovation. Could you provide an example?
One of the best examples is the creation of The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley as a bicultural, bilingual and biliterate university [that] takes the strengths of living in the borderlands and offers new ways of learning essential to cultural citizenship in a globalized world. UTRGV intentionally incorporates a partnership model of public education, industry, and community organizations to address long-standing issues of poverty and poor health. Both yield new approaches and solutions to national challenges of better education, economic growth, and healthcare.
Ultimately, who do you think should read your book and why? How will reading your book help people understand the importance of questioning how a border such as a the RGV is defined and the consequences of those definitions?
My book is about asking ourselves why we think of some places as better, safer or more American than others. Other scholars have shown the consequences on policy, funding, health and wellbeing. My work also asks us to think of historically stigmatized places and people as sources of strength and innovation.
What can we learn? In the case of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, we can learn about new models of partnership across lines of historical difference to improve public education, health, and the economy. My hope is people will read the book and turn the lens on their own communities, do their own “anthropology at home,” and find oft-ignored sources of creative problem-solving.
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