Monday, February 06, 2006

Grafting of Local History

“I didn’t move, the borders did.” Throughout the southwestern US there are variations of this aphorism. It is an affirmation that the place where they have always lived is also El Norte, historically the northern part of Mexico, and that their history cannot be solely contained within American history.

Sharon’s recent post on the nature of local history has me thinking. Most local histories do something familiar: they situate the local in the national, or use the local to as a prism to gain a better understanding of national history. However, it occurs to me that there are types of local history that are difficult to write because they do not conform to the ideal relationship between the local and national. These local histories must contend with complicated dimensions of transnationalism: borderlands, migration, cross-border enterprise and employment, immigrant communities, and cultural exchange.

Communities on the boundaries and frontiers, sometimes annexed by nation-states against their will, have difficulties writing their own histories. The past is filled with pain and conflict, and nationalists are often indifferent to the uncertainty of identity. The norms of nationality have already been established, sometimes in opposition to the facts of ethnicity and race. And yet there is an expectation that the people will act as if they consented to the terms of nationality.

Furthermore, the character of their transnationalism can be difficult to place. Perhaps their endeavors bring them into contact with foreigners on a regular basis. The proximity to national boundaries can bring large immigrant communities. In such arenas, struggles over authenticity can erupt between groups of people even though they are related to one another. Regular contact with foreign elements encourages bilingualism, bi-culturalism, or cultural and economic particularism that are not often tolerated at the national level.

In some cases, a border community can thrive, culturally and economically, because of its cross-border relations. But more often than not, the pain is aggravated by poverty. Because integration is difficult, economic opportunities cannot be exploited. Capital and investment avoid borderlands because of their instability. Seasonal migrations and long-term migrations cast community members far afield, seeking money in foreign places that will be sent home. The space of a communities activities can extend far outside its proper boundaries.

Local histories that are crossed by transnationalism (however it is constituted) must contend with these complicated factors. If done well, they tend to celebrate the peculiar position of the community in the world, but do a average job of showing it as part of the nation.

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