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Cross-cultural contact along the U.S.-Mexico border

Morgan Falkner
Rio Rico High School


     Teaching AP World History along the U.S.-Mexico border comes with certain challenges. For example, more than one Rio Rico High School colleague of mine has bemoaned the limited geographical horizons of many of our students. Based on nearly ten years worth of informal conversations with students here, the typical geographical range of their travels is bounded by Phoenix in the north, and Hermosillo or Puerto Peñasco in the south—that is, roughly the extent of the Sonoran Desert. And because many of our students are judged to be below the federally determined poverty line, our students, so the critique goes, suffer from a case of geographical parochialism and, yes, illiteracy—of not only the rest of the world, but of the United States itself.

     On a side note, I find it difficult to believe that RRHS's and other border schools' students are a millstone dragging down the United States' geography test scores. I rather suspect that geographical ignorance is shared, generously, by a great many students throughout the nation.

     More problematic for teachers along the border, it seems to me, is the issue of language acquisition. It's estimated that ninety-five percent of RRHS students' first language—and almost certainly the primary language within the home—is Spanish. Although no formal research has been attempted at my school, anecdotal and quantitative evidence would seem to suggest that many students give a wide berth to AP World (and, for that matter, AP English) simply because of the perception, if not the reality, that college-level English-language texts pose too great a barrier.

     Bearing in mind that our school has been steadily growing over the past ten years, here are some recent comparative statistics. In the 2003-2004 school year, seven students took the AP English Literature exam, ten AP World, and twenty-nine AP Spanish Language. The following year, thirteen took English, twelve World, and thirty-seven Spanish. And in 2006-2007, fifteen took English, twenty-three World, and fifty-one Spanish. The difference is striking, and it speaks to the degree to which the English language may be intimidating all too many otherwise talented students.

     But there are pluses to teaching AP World History here, and in these rather personal and impressionistic remarks, I intend to explore a distinct strength of this population of AP World students. Difficult though language acquisition may be, my students tend to get one particular concept that's of vital importance to the new world history increasingly being practiced. I'm speaking here of cross-cultural contact. As world history teachers in the United States move increasingly beyond the nation-state model to regional and global paradigms, previously unexplored lines of inquiry have opened up. We're now paying more attention to frontiers and the historical dynamics of cross-cultural identity.

     Just to be clear, I'm not suggesting that the concept of cross-cultural contact is inherently inaccessible or abstruse. I'm not arguing that U.S. high school students in, say, the Midwest are somehow incapable of grasping cross-cultural curricula. But I would argue that, for example, when I speak to my students about Perso-Islamic Chinggisid-Timurid conquerors migrating to northwestern India, or the Islamization of insular Southeast Asia, it doesn't require a lot of intellectualizing for them to understand what's being talked about. That's because, albeit in a far different geographical and cultural milieu, they've experienced the dynamic of cross-cultural contact. It's the difference between understanding something at an abstract, intellectualized level, and understanding through immersion and lived experience.

     The realms of language and pop music represent merely two of the more obvious examples of local cross-cultural syncretism as it plays out here in southern Arizona. The Spanish spoken here and throughout the Sonoran region differs significantly from that spoken in central Mexico or, even more dramatically, Spain itself. "Spanglish," as the dialect has come to be known, blends Spanish and English in ways that, so I'm told, are fairly horrifying to more "standard" varieties of Spanish common elsewhere (that is, in areas "uncorrupted" by proximity to non-Spanish language systems). The dialect borrows freely from English, so that, for example, it's not unusual to hear a student speak not of his automovile, but rather of his "carro." The English "car," with the masculine suffix, thus produces a word that is manifestly syncretic.

     And although my Spanish is, shall we say, problematic, I can very nearly follow some conversations here simply because the speakers invariably switch—with dizzying and unconscious frequency—between the two languages. Without it being jarring or disruptive in the least, speakers flip between Spanish and English multiple times even within the same sentence. Consequently, it isn't terribly difficult for my students to comprehend, in a profound way, how and why Swahili would develop along the coast of East Africa. People here speak their own syncretized language on a daily basis.

     Music, too, represents an arena in which cross-cultural blending isn't just a concept to be understood. It's experienced and lived. Mariachi may be what tourists to the region expect, and do indeed find, at Mexican restaurants here and across the line. And make no mistake, mariachi is alive and well (Nogales High School, which is within easy walking distance of the border, has a vibrant mariachi program as part of its Music Department). But the odds are pretty good that that Mexican restaurant owner's daughter, or the busboy, listens to rap—either in its most recognizable North American urban form, or in a Hispanicized form. It was fairly surprising to discover, upon my arrival here in 1998, that sizable numbers of Hispanic students are as punked out and Gothed out as any Anglo kids you could find north of the border. And their forms of expression are no different, either. The t-shirts, piercings, and, counter-culture affectations are all there. And yes, they jam to their music on ipods and irritate mom and dad with their own garage bands.

     Two other points are worth making quick reference to here. First, although my school's student body—and, presumably, those of other border high schools as well—does segregate itself along class and ethnic lines, sometimes it's awfully hard to tell. Cross-ethnic dating and friendships are by no means uncommon. As far as I can tell, it rarely if ever raises an eyebrow; and I can't recall a single act of violence resulting from it. I'm not suggesting that here one finds the fulfillment of some utopian dream, but I would argue that ethnicity is but one of many factors that go into the construction of identity and social relations here along the border.

     Finally, the juxtaposition of these two cultures, one of which is widely regarded as hegemonic not only in the Western hemisphere but globally, sometimes produces reactions that, again, are instructive in the classroom: at an experiential level as much or more than an analytical one. The dynamic, as it's reached me anecdotally, goes something like this: an RRHS student goes on vacation to visit extended family in Mexico, perhaps three or more hours south of Mexico's border with the United States. Uncles and cousins hear the speech patterns by their American relatives, the liberal sprinkling of English words and phrases, the "Americanized" leisure habits (favorite bands, video games, and the like) and, in half-jest—but with an unmistakable jab—bemoan their cousin's loss of Mexican identity. So globalization, too, along with discussions of cultural imperialism, also play out here in ways that are three-dimensional and very much alive.

     Students along the southern frontier understand these aspects of geography perhaps more profoundly than others in the United States. Students here may or may not be able to find Japan on a map, but they understand the historical and geographical concept of cross-cultural contact just fine.

Biographical Note: Morgan Falkner teaches world history and AP World History at Rio Rico High School, which is located in southern Arizona about 50 miles south of Tucson and less than 10 miles north of Nogales and the Mexico border. The Santa Cruz River mirrors the human migratory trend in that both flow northward from Mexico.


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