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Oct. 3, 2022

Southwest Borderlands in the 19th Century

Through the 19th Century, the US-Mexico border moved repeatedly, and the shifting borderlands were a space of cultural and economic transition that often gave rise to racialized gendered violence.  

In this episode I speak with Dr. Bernadine Hernández, Associate Professor of American Literary Studies at the University of New Mexico, an activist with fronteristxs, and author of Border Bodies: Racialized Sexuality, Sexual Capital, and Violence in the Nineteenth-Century Borderlands.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. The episode image is: “Mexican church at the smelter, El Paso, Texas, United States, ca. 1907,” Detroit Publishing Co. No known restrictions on publication, Accessed via the Library of Congress.


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Kelly Therese Pollock  0:00  
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please, tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too. Today we'll be discussing gender, race and violence in the US Mexico borderlands during the 19th century. To understand the borderlands, we need to understand the history of the border itself. In the present day, we discuss the border between the United States and Mexico as a physical location. In some places, it's marked by fences or walls. In other places, the border is largely a digital one, surveilled electronically. But during the 19th century, not only did the concept of the border change, but the physical location of the border itself moved several times. On September 16, 1810, Catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, called for Mexico's independence from Spain, launching a revolution. After a decade of fighting, the Mexican War of Independence ended with the Declaration of Independence of the Mexican Empire, drafted in Mexico City on September 28, 1821. At the time of its founding, Mexican Empire included the land that is now Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Texas, along with parts of what would become a few other states. Mexico shared a large border with the United States along the Louisiana Purchase Territory, which the US had acquired in 1803. Texas was sparsely populated, and the Mexican government created liberal immigration policies to encourage foreigners to settle there, partly to keep the indigenous population in check. From early on, the Anglo settlers found themselves in occasional armed conflict with the Mexican government. In October, 1835, after General Santa Anna declared himself a dictator, and repealed the Mexican Constitution of 1824, the Texas Revolution officially began with the Battle of Gonzales. The Texas Revolution ended in 1836 with the Battle of San Jacinto and on May 14, Santa Anna signed the Treaty of Velasco, which recognized Texas' independence and set the border between the two nations at the Rio Grande. The Mexican Congress refused to recognize the treaty, since it had been signed while Santa Anna was captive. But Texas was recognized as an independent country by Britain, France, and the United States. The Independent Republic of Texas was short lived. On December 29, 1845, Texas became the 28th state of the United States, admitted as a slave state. This annexation prompted the Mexican American War. Mexico, which was already facing dire domestic problems, lost the war to the United States, when the US Army, under General Winfield Scott marched in New Mexico City in September, 1847. In February, 1848, Nicholas Trist, who had been formally recalled by President James K. Polk, nonetheless negotiated the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the war. As part of the treaty, the United States paid $15 million to Mexico, and assumed Mexico's debts to US citizens in exchange for 55% of Mexico's territory, including what is now California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, most of Arizona and Colorado and parts of Oklahoma, Kansas and Wyoming. Mexico gave up its claims to Texas and set the Rio Grande as its border with the US.

One final change to the border came in 1854, when the United States purchased an additional nearly 30,000 square miles from Mexico, in what is now southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico, in order to build a transcontinental railroad there. Violence had established the border and violence reinforced the border. During and after the Texas Revolution, Texas Rangers, originally hired to protect the Anglo settlers from Native American attacks, used violence to secure the border with Mexico. In 1882, with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese immigrants attempted to enter the United States via Mexico, prompting the US to think for the first time about its southern border as a space that required immigration surveillance and control. At the time, however, the US wasn't actively keeping Mexican immigrants out. That changed when the Mexican Revolution broke out in 1910; and Mexicans began to cross the border in huge numbers, threatening to bring the conflict with them. We'll focus on that era in more detail in a future episode. Regardless of where the border was at various moments, the border lands were a space where cultures mixed, and sometimes clashed, when differences were highlighted and exacerbated. The US Mexico border in the late 19th century, was also a space of economic transition, as US capitalism took over the west and southwest. That capitalist transformation had real implications for the people, especially the women, living in the region. Today's guest argues that, "Racialized sex, gender and sexuality are very much tied to the ways capital is able to function," in what she calls "sexual capital." We'll discuss more about that in our conversation today. One of the women caught up in the racialized gendered violence was Josefa "Chipita" Rodriguez, a Mexican American woman in South Texas, born at the tail end of the 18th century. In 1863, she was running a small inn, really more of a lean-to beside the Nueces River. A horse trader named John Savage stopped there, and was later found dead in the river, killed by an axe. Although the motive was said to be robbery, the $600 he carried in gold was found near his body. Rodriguez denied any guilt. She may have been protecting someone with her further silence. Despite only circumstantial evidence against her, she was found guilty. Although the jury recommended leniency, the judge sentenced her to death by hanging. Rodriguez's  last words were, " No soy culpable," which translates to, "I am not guilty." 100 years later, she was finally absolved, when Texas legislators voted for a resolution saying that she did not receive a fair trial. To help us understand more about sex, gender, race and violence in the US Mexico borderlands during the 19 century, I'm speaking now with Dr. Bernadine Hernandez, Associate Professor of American Literary Studies at the University of New Mexico and the author of, "Border Bodies: Racialized Sexuality, Sexual Capital, and Violence in the Nineteenth-Century Borderlands." Hi Bernadine. Welcome, and thank you so much for joining me today.

Bernadine Hernandez  9:37  
Thank you for having me. I'm really excited. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  9:40  
Yeah. So as soon as I saw your book announcement come out, I said I need to talk to her. So I'm glad we were able to make this work. I wanted to start just by asking a little bit about your inspiration in writing the book, why you wanted to study 19th century borderlands, and sex and sexual capital and bodies?

Bernadine Hernandez  10:03  
Yeah, it's a great question to start with. So I think it's kind of two parts. And I say that because it's part personal and part academics. So my father is from, was born and raised in El Paso, and so our family on my father's side was there. And I went between Albuquerque, New Mexico and El Paso, and Juarez throughout my childhood, and it just became a really important space in my life. I didn't really realize it growing up. But then as I got older, I realized how important it was to be a sort of binational in that type of way. And I understood the border as a very, very different space than my actual home that I was living in in Albuquerque, and I didn't quite understand why. It was just very hectic all the time, there was a lot of military presence. And, you know, the further along that I got into grad school, I knew that that was something that I wanted to make my career of. And so my advisor, in grad school was Rosetta Sanchez, who was one of the first Chicanas to be a professor in the academy. So she kind of paved the way for me in terms of thinking about all of these disparate parts together. She is an orthodox Marxist. And so I was trained by her as a Marxist and thinking about, you know, how Marxism was maybe missing a certain conversation on women of color, particularly, and you know, me growing up kind of in the heyday of all of the feminicidios and the disappearing women on the US Mexico border, it all kind of just came together, for me to be able to write the book "Border Bodies," and for me to be able to think together, sex, capital, gender, and empire.

Kelly Therese Pollock  12:00  
Yeah, I'm gonna come back to borderlands in a little bit. But I want to talk a little bit about methodology and your type of analysis. So I interview a lot of historians on this show, and so people are sort of, I think, familiar with their methodology somewhat. But you are in an English department and you do literary history. And so I want to talk a little bit about what that means, what it is that your archives are, that you're looking at, and, you know, sort of how you look at those and analyze them for the kind of research that you're doing.

Bernadine Hernandez  12:35  
Yeah, I think I probably wanted to just be a historian from the get go. But I ended up taking this literature route just because I really loved to read. And my program was an interdisciplinary program that also focused on cultural studies. And so we did a lot of theoretical work, there were a lot of people in my program that were, you know, doing public facing scholarship, that we're not necessarily only reading literature to read literature. So I, I found it very, very fruitful to be in an interdisciplinary program in that way. So the way that I define literary studies or literary history is the history of literature and how it actually makes us who we are today. I think that there's so much that we could take from Fredric Jameson's kind of reading of the archive, right? And thinking about how literature really informed literature and art basically, really inform the way that we look at what we're doing as a society or what we're not doing as a society. And one of the things that Fredric Jameson said that has always stuck with me, and has been really important for me to think about is that he said, you know, he's looking at science fiction. And that's the big kind of wave right now is thinking about science fiction. And he says that the historical novel is the science fiction novel. And that really stuck with me to think like, what does it mean for him to say that history is the future? And what does it mean for him to say that literary history is the future? And so I think that that's the way that I approach literary history is thinking about it as us constantly repeating these kinds of phases and giving us a look into what the future is going to look like and what our present is looking like. And I think it's just so important to to be able to be a voracious reader in that type of way to be able to look sideways, to look backwards, and to look forward. And that's kind of what I did in the book. It was really, really hard to find archives that focused on sexual history, that focused on sex at all, that focused on poor women and how they were having sex at that time. It was very, very hard to find those archives so I think that I did what you know Saidiya Hartman talks about in one of her essays about the archive and she reads, she says she reads between the silences. And that's exactly what I did. I looked at so many archives in this book, I am actually quite, you know, not wanting to be an 18th century scholar anymore because I don't want to deal with the dead anymore. But the first archive that I really, really jumped into was chapter four of the book, which was the debt peonage chapter. And I just read all of these WPA stories, which, you know, the Works Progress Administration was, was doing all of this work to be able to hire writers during the Great Depression, right. And so I just read all of these stories. And they were basically male centered on debt peonage. But I found all of these like side periphery characters of women that were actually doing the work of debt peonage. And I thought this is really interesting. And then I compared that with New Mexico Territorial, the New Mexico Supreme Court territory cases, and found that debt peonage was actually a thriving economic system in New Mexico whereas scholars before had said that it was only an economic system in Mexico. So that was something really interesting to think about. And I actually started to see kind of the sexual implications of this economic system on women's bodies, particularly women of color's bodies. And so that archive was really vast and really kind of made me put things together that didn't really fit together. So I had to make might make my own puzzle out of it. And I, you know, read that in relation to a bunch of these different guia cases where it was showing how all of these men would take all of these different types of whatever it was, mercantile kind of like clothing, or ropes or paper, or whatever they were selling at that time. It would show all of the inventory that they had. But what was silent in that inventory was who actually made that inventory and to trace it back to the women that were actually making that inventory. And to see that that inventory was then going down to Mexico, Chihuahua, and was going out into a transnational trade, which made it really, really interesting to think about how women's bodies are actually being utilized, and how, you know, pushing up against the idea that the southwest and the west weren't necessarily a capitalist place before the transnational continental railroad. So I kind of made that intervention that it was these women's bodies that were the linchpins of capitalist production, in the Southwest and the West, which really hasn't been made before. So those that archive was just so vast, and so great to deal with. But like I said, it wasn't very, I didn't know I had to put the pieces together. There wasn't a really, you know, specific line that the research took me in. And so I think that's how it was for all of the archives that I dealt with that one was just like one specifically. I could go on probably for days and talk about the prostitute chapter that I did. And thinking about how I had to connect the dots on what was going on with prostitution during the turn of the century, but also how it was attached to immigration law, which we don't really kind of think about in that kind of way, right. And so it became this racialized sexual pathology that was mapped onto these women's bodies. And so all of my archives were not very apparent, and they were sporadic. And I had to really, really work hard to make them fit together.

Kelly Therese Pollock  18:38  
Yeah, and something that's so interesting, as you're studying the borderlands is that the the archives, of course, are sort of on both sides of the border, because people are crossing frequently, but also the border moves over time, right? And so, you know, how do you sort of navigate all of that and figure out, you know, well, this, this person that I'm studying was here, and then they were here, and then the state came around them, and you know, how you sort of look at all of those?

Bernadine Hernandez  19:07  
It's so hard, I would get I would get so confused. Sometimes I'm like, wait, what colonial or imperial power am I working on right now? Because like, I start in Spanish colonialism, and then Mexico gains its independence from Spain in 1821. And then I'm working in Mexican kind of national independence. But all of these places are very much local places that don't really I mean, Mexico City is so far from like places like Arizona and New Mexico, so they kind of had their own government and then when it gets you know, when 1848 comes, and the US cedes Mexico, the whole southwest or northern part of Mexico, it's a completely different power relation as well there. So I always had to continue to ask myself what colonial or imperial power am I working within because the border moved so much during, just during the time of my book, right, from 18, kind of 20 to 1910. But I also had to track people down, like you said, on both sides of the border, which was, you know, it required a linguistic dexterity for me to be actually bilingual. But people were actually writing a lot of Spanish newspapers in the US. And so it's this really interesting kind of, I don't know, I want to say whirlwind of languages and things that are happening on the border, and they all kind of coalesce and collide to make these people's lives kind of miserable. But most of the time, these people are, you know, these women, particularly are thriving. What I found super interesting was the prostitution laws are so much different during the same time period in the US than they are in Mexico. So I had to read prostitution codes in Spanish in Mexico at the turn of the century, versus what the prostitution codes were here. And so it was really interesting to see like how these women were working in cross-nationally, bi-nationally, and then they would get deported in the US for all kinds of reasons that you could read in my book. But prostitution was legal in on the other side, just like, you know, 100 feet away. So it's a really, I think it's the study is really rich in that way, because it not only works with different, like I said colonial imperial powers within those powers, but it also works in different languages. And I did have to hire a translator because some of the 19th century Spanish I just could not I could not understand. It was just, the penmanship was so different. The wording was so different. So I had to hire somebody that was specifically trained in 19th century kind of Castilian Spanish.

Kelly Therese Pollock  21:51  
So you've mentioned the term racialized sex, gender and sexuality. And that's something you return to a lot in the book. I wonder if you could tease that out a little bit in sort of what you mean by those terms, what it means for that to be racialized.

Bernadine Hernandez  22:08  
Yeah. So when I started studying sexuality, it really for me was something that was identity based. And so you know, all of the people that I were reading like Rod Ferguson, all of these kind of specialists in sexuality, particularly racialized sexuality, were talking about sexuality as an identity category. So either heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, and I was really trying to think about the materiality of sexuality, what what sex and sexuality actually does in a society, and if it actually produces capital, if it doesn't produce capital, like what is what does it do, besides being a reproductive kind of force to reproduce a labor system? And so in me thinking about it materially, I had, I began kind of thinking about how racialized sexuality always had these legal jurisdiction codes attached to it. And so if you, you know, if you could think about, you know, miscegenation laws or anti miscegenation laws, or if you want to think about sodomy laws, or if you want to think about how prostitutes, particularly Mexican women, were actually using their sex on the border, but then they became enemies of the state and then started to become deported, even if they were US citizens, they became deported to, to Mexico because of the pathology of their racialized sex that they were having. And so for me, racialized sexuality is very much attached to any type of law, legality, or jurists, like your duty or code that we want to talk about, that doesn't necessarily affect all people, but only affects some people because of their race. And so, you know, white prostitutes weren't being deported back to Mexico. It was only the Mexican prostitutes that were being deported, like I said, even if they were from the United States. And so that really was the kind of crux of what I was trying to really weave out of my book is thinking about how these laws really affect the way that heteronormativity is really violently kind of placed onto women of color. So they have no, they have no rhyme or reason, they have no other option than to be heteronormative and in empire, to produce and produce and produce and produce, but also how their sex is also used for capital gain for all of these different ways to gain capital for the nation state. And that wasn't necessarily something that was happening for white women who were upholding the domestic space. Right. And so that's how I really am trying to think about racialized sexuality.

Kelly Therese Pollock  24:55  
Yeah. And so then you talk and you mentioned earlier that you'd been trained as a Marxist. And so that that's something that's informing the way that you're looking at this. But certainly you have a critique of Marx, in here in the the importance that he does not place on, you know, anything having to do with women really, but, you know, on on sex and sexuality. And so I want to talk a little bit about that, and kind of what that idea of sexual capital in the way that you're using it and how that sort of leads to this capitalist transformation over time of this region.

Bernadine Hernandez  25:35  
Yeah, Marx missed a lot, poor Marx. We're always on his case. I know. But he really, I mean, what a what a amazing thinker beyond his time. But he did miss quite a lot in terms of what was happening in the Americas. And so I think that the term sexual capital, I found it within kind of the academy, but it was being talked about within sociology, and so I make a rather different intervention than sociologists who have conventionally theorized sexual capital. So I really do take cues from Lisa Lowe, Cedric Robinson and Iyko Day, who are really, you know, working on what kind of racial capitalism means in this time period. And so when I was coining the term sexual capital, I had to figure out what it wasn't what it was not first. And so I read all of Marx's stuff, and I wanted to see how he was talking about sex. And he really wasn't talking about sex at all, but he does talk about sex in relation to the prostitute in the economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844. And here, he so he talks about the prostitute in two different ways. He says, in one instance, he states that the prostitute becomes a piece of communal and common property. So this the, you know, she becomes a piece of property that everybody utilizes kind of like a smart car, right? You go and you get the car, and then you park it, and then you leave. But then in a footnote right below when he says that, he states that prostitution is only a specific expression of the general prostitution of the labor, and since it's a relationship in which one falls on not the prostitute of loan, but the one who prostitutes and the latter's abomination is still greater. And so he really is talking about the prostitute here as a degraded person as as degraded as a laborer. And so I was trying to think, Oh, what the hell is he saying right about, about sex. And so in one instance, he's saying that the woman's body is not owned by herself, it's owned by the communal property, and so her labor really can't, her sexual labor really can't be of any value. In another instance, he's saying that she's as degraded as the laborer but she still owns her body, and she still owns her sex, but she's still degraded. And basically, what I gathered from what Marx is saying about sex, is he saying that, that sex is an exception to the labor theory of value. So he says that sex doesn't really do anything in a society. It's just sex. He really doesn't like sex. He doesn't talk about it. But the more that I started looking at all of these cases, or these case studies in my book, the more that I looked at these women, the more that I looked at the economic systems that were happening in the up on the borderlands, I realized that sex is not an exception to the labor theory of value, but it's essential to it. So the way that capital is able to enjoy itself and to multiply itself, right. So I think that in this book, sexual capital is a way to think about how capital how sex is actually very central into the way that capitalism is able to unveil itself throughout empire and the nation. And it was not necessarily an easy thing to think through, because, you know, or the Orthodox Marxism will say, something completely different. And then Marxist feminists will say, Well, we've already kind of done that work to think through what reproductive labor and productive labor is doing in a society. But I was asking the question, well, what is what about race? Where does race fit into this? And I think that that's how I was able to come up with this definition of sexual capital, which is really three pronged in the book, if you think about it, and if you look and you read it. I really do define it in three different ways in the introduction.

Kelly Therese Pollock  29:40  
So you mentioned sort of reading between the silences earlier, and that's something we've certainly talked about on this podcast before because that's very common in the the kinds of historical actors that people are looking at, but you you sort of really specifically bring that out in your third chapter where you're talking about the present absence. And so you talk about Chipita Rodriguez. And and so you're talking about her present absence in the archive. So I wonder if you could sort of talk about what you mean by that, and sort of how that plays out in her chapter, but really, throughout the book.

Bernadine Hernandez  30:19  
Yeah, that chapter was so fun to write, so hard, like emotionally just to be have to go through that entire scenario, what actually happened to Chipita; but it was super hard to find any archival material that was actually that remained on her because a bunch of the archival material had either been lost in a fire or had been lost in a flood, or had just not been preserved correctly, had not been taken care of. And so that says a lot about the importance of this figure anyways, right about how archival materials are actually preserved during this during, you know, this whole kind of like, 100 years since since she lived. But there are so many cultural artifacts of her, so plays, operas, different poetry pieces, different short stories, different narratives. And I wondered how she could be such a presence, if her actual history is so absent, and what that means for us to talk about her only through the language of violence. So we didn't, we don't know it. Well, I kind of was able to put her life together through all kinds of different sources and talking to a bunch of different people in South Texas. But why don't we know more about her actual life? And why do we only know about the gruesome hanging that happened? So I thought that that was really interesting to think about what literary history is doing there that they have so much kind of, they have so much written on Chipita, but they don't really know a lot about her. And so it took a long time to be able to kind of get all of the information that did remain from her trial. And I was able to get that from from the court systems. And it was really interesting to read. But I really am trying to kind of ask the question, "Why are all of these women, particularly poor, Mexicana women on the borderlands only visible through violence and sexual violence in this type of way? So that's one of the interventions that I'm making in this chapter, or in chapter three. And the other intervention is really, you know, what does femininity mean on the borderlands? And there's some pictures in this chapter, if if your listeners wanted to take a look at the chapter, but all of the pictures of Chipita are really masculine based, and they draw her kind of with like a five o'clock shadow, they draw her very masculine presenting. And I take this as a cue to think about her hanging and what it means that she's hung in such a violent way, but also a way that is usually reserved for men. And I also kind of make the argument that women of color are basically open for any type of violence during this time period on the borderlands. And it doesn't matter if they're masculine or feminine, or if they're male or female, they're going to be open for any type of violence. And so that chapter really dives into what was lost in the archive and what we can reclaim through her presence in all of these cultural artifacts that are left behind, but also the kind of historical story that we have of her.

Kelly Therese Pollock  33:47  
Yeah. So that ties to the story you tell to sort of open and close the book is a more recent instance. So it's from 2009, that there were bodies, skeletons found of 11 women who had been somehow violently killed here. So I wanted to ask a little bit about why why you start and end the book there, and what this sort of tie then is to the present, because we're talking about the 19th century or early 20th century. But there is a very clear through line to the present, and certainly the present moment.

Bernadine Hernandez  34:24  
Yeah. So when I first started the book, I wanted it to be a sexual history of the US Mexico borderlands. And I did a workshop in Northern California at Berkeley, and a bunch of senior Latino scholars came and gave me such great advice. They were so generous, and they really tried to get me to get out of that kind of thought process of there's this like through line that doesn't really change, right. And so I started to think about this book as case studies of how violence actually occurs on the border through sex and through gender. And so the book isn't necessarily trying to say that, that this has not changed or that this is the same type of violence that happens throughout history; but just to say that these histories exist and regardless of what type of imperial or colonial power that's actually happening, there's something about the US Mexico borderlands that is not like the US Canada borderlands or not like any other type of border, right? So there's something specifically about these borderlands that make it violent for women of color. And so that's what I try and really suss out is not trying to make a through line, but trying to say that these case studies are very much connected to each other in a certain type of way. So I start with the West Mesa murders, because I'm from Albuquerque, and I heard about them. I lived through them, you know, in 2009. And I always had questions about why they were being the women who had been found were being talked about as overly sexual, and prostitutes. I even in 2009, you know, 20 years ago, I was not even in grad school yet. And I was still wondering, what did that have to do with them being murdered? What did that have to do with them, not being able to feel safe or be safe in our community. And so that's something that really scared me because it was so close to home. And so I start with these 11 murders, because the women's bones were found on KB Home's lot. So KB Home actually owned the lot that these women's bones were, were found on before they sold it sold some of it to the city to make the memorial park that they have there now. And before they started to build these kind of cookie cutter homes that are over there now that go for 130,000 to 150,000. And I was really interested in the discourse that was happening around these women, but also where they were found, they're found on the top, you know, three, KB Home is the top third grossing construction home construction site in the nation, and these women's bones are being found, and nothing is really being done about it. It was very interesting to, for me to think about how these women were being tied through capital, not necessarily to capital, but through capital. And I start with these examples, because I am thinking about the discourse of what is revolving around these women. So they're prostitutes, or drug dealers or drug users, they don't really have jobs. And so the kind of discourse that is surrounding them is that they are, you know, not really producing anything for the US nation state. They're only really producing stuff for themselves or being selfish in the way that they're only gathering money from sex for themselves. And so you know, they don't have a W-9. They don't get a paycheck at the end of the day. And I thought it was really interesting, because it almost made them disposable at that time, because they weren't producing-women, for the US nation state. Couple that with them being found on the top third grossing housing, construction site or system in the nation, it just made a lot of sense to think about how sex and capital are linked in really obvious ways, but also not obvious ways; because it really takes a lot of work to break down why these women are connected through capital in this way. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  38:41  
Finally, I want to ask a little bit about your public facing and public interacting scholarship and the the other sort of types of things you do with the community with creative activism. So I wonder if you could just speak a little bit to that, and the importance to that for you of being sort of a well rounded scholar?

Bernadine Hernandez  39:03  
Yeah. So I found that the academy wasn't necessarily allowing me to reach communities that I wanted to reach. So I'm pretty sure that "Border Bodies" is not going to be read by, you know, like fifth graders in El Paso or Juarez, which is completely fine. I don't expect it to be, but I also wanted to have some sort of reach to my community as well. And so I started organizing with the group Fronteristas in 2018. And it was me and my colleague, Szu Han Ho, who was an artist at the University of New Mexico as well. And we just kind of were organizing in response to all of the immigration policy that was happening on the border. We got together about nine artists at that time who were doing work on the border and talking about these issues, and we installed the show in San Diego, and it was kind of a teaching tool for students in San Diego as well, that looked at all of the different ways that people cross the border, why they cross the border? What are the myths and facts about the border? And it really started off as a collective of artists who were interested in thinking about immigration at that time. And so the further we got into the project and organizing, we realized that we really couldn't talk about the border or even detention without talking about the prison industrial complex. And so at that point, we kind of changed our mission. And now we're a group of artists and writers that are organizing to disband and dismantle the prison industrial complex and the detention complex. So we really went to a larger scope around 2020, and 2020, as we all know, was when onset of COVID happened. And we really started organizing around people who were in jail and prisons and detention and how they were being treated in regards to COVID, because it wasn't being we weren't, the officials weren't being transparent with us. And so we knew that a lot of people were getting COVID in those settings, because they're so close together, and they were dying, and then they weren't being reported to us. And so we organized a bunch of sit-ins, really in front of the jails, where we took a bunch of textiles that said "free me," and we did pictures in front of the jail, the metro jail in Bernalillo. And we did it in front of the courthouses. And we did it in front of the state capitol in Santa Fe, where we just kind of sat there and we just had our signs up and we put them up on Facebook, we disseminated them kind of throughout all of the the media that was here, locally. And it was really surprising to hear that the governor then signed an executive order to allow people who were in jail for, quote unquote, non violent crimes to be let out because of this because of the danger of COVID. And so we felt like we had done something at that point, we felt that people were listening, and we thought that we could continue organizing in this way of art disturbance. So we've been doing it ever since. We've done probably around 15 projects. One of the biggest one was to get the teachers to divest or to get the New Mexico Educational Retirement Board, which funds teachers' retirements to divest from private prisons, because New Mexico is the state with the largest amount of private prisons in the nation. And we couldn't understand like, why are our salaries, half of our retirements were going into funding these private prisons. So that was we organized kind of a bunch of visual stuff around that divestment campaign. And we were able to get the board to divest from private prisons, which was a big win for us. And so we've continued to do local things throughout the community, because Albuquerque is ranked, I think, number two or three in police brutality and police killings. And so we've been organizing with a ton of different grassroot organizations throughout Albuquerque, New Mexico, for you know, the past five or six years, and we do a lot of public education. Because we are artists and writers, we are able to publish all of the things that we write, and that we draw and paint and all of that. And so we have a pretty big social media following who really just kind of follow us to get some sort of education on what the prison industrial complex is, the history of immigration, what abolition is, and so we are able to publish all of that. We did a four part zine, where we're disseminating those into prisons and jails, for free so that prisoners could get some public education as well. And we yeah, we're just trying to continue to really think about how transformative justice and restorative justice could actually function in a community and what that looks like.

Kelly Therese Pollock  44:14  
Yeah. Oh, that's excellent. I'll put links to those things in the show notes so people can find those too.  So tell everybody how they can get "Border Bodies."

Bernadine Hernandez  44:24  
So you could get "Border Bodies" by going to the University of North Carolina Press website, and it is And you could just search for "Border Bodies" and you are able to purchase it there. You can purchase it on Amazon, but I probably would recommend going smaller and local if you can.

Kelly Therese Pollock  44:44  
Yes, excellent. I'll put that in the show notes as well. And listeners probably know I love the University of North Carolina Press. And I love all the great authors that they're able to bring in.

Bernadine Hernandez  44:56  
Yeah, they're doing a lot of cool stuff.

Kelly Therese Pollock  44:58  
Yeah, they really are. So was there anything else that you wanted to make sure we talked about?

Bernadine Hernandez  45:03  
I think I do just want to mention that I've been getting a lot of requests to speak on Roe v. Wade, because of this book, which really was interesting to me. Like, I didn't understand the connection really just because I wasn't doing any work on abortion. But I started to kind of have the script that I wrote, because I've been, like I said, I've been getting a lot of requests to do talks on it. And I really did find a connection between the way that women of color's bodies had been utilized for the nation state, and how that is not necessarily an anomaly during this time period. And so, you know, I had, I think "Border Bodies" came out on June 7, and then the overturning of Roe v. Wade was on June 24. And it really aligned in some kind of, you know, horrible way. But I guess the question that a lot of people have been asking me is, as women of color, Black women, indigenous women, trans and gender non conforming women or people, did we ever have complete bodily autonomy over ourselves to begin with? And the answer really is no. And I think that "Border Bodies" really exemplifies how women of color do not have control over their bodies through their sex in this really, really early time in the 19th century. And we just see that continuing to happen to this, you know, horrible overturning of Roe v. Wade now. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  46:33  
Yeah. Well, Bernadine, thank you so much for speaking with me. This was a really great conversation. I enjoyed it. And I just I really appreciate the the work that you do.

Bernadine Hernandez  46:44  
Thank you so much. I am looking forward to hearing the episode and yeah, thank you for getting in touch with me.

Teddy  46:49  
Thanks for listening to Unsung History. You can find the sources used for this episode To the best of our knowledge, all audio and images used by Unsung History are in the public domain or are used with permission. You can find us on Twitter, or Instagram @Unsung__History, or on Facebook @UnsungHistorypodcast. To contact us with questions or episode suggestions, please email If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate and review and tell your friends.


Bernadine HernandezProfile Photo

Bernadine Hernandez

Dr. Bernadine Hernández is an Associate professor of American Literary History at the University of New Mexico. She specializes in transnational feminism and sexual economies of the US-Mexico borderlands, along with American Literary Studies/Empire, border and migration history and theory, and Chicana/Latina Literature and Sexualities. Her forthcoming book with UNC press is titled Border Bodies: Racialized Sexuality, Sexual Capital, and Violence in the Nineteenth Century Borderlands, which is the first book length study that focuses on sexual capital and gender and sexual violence in the borderlands in the nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries through recovered archival work. She is also the co-editor of the first edited collection on Ana Castillo titled New Transnational Latinx Perspectives on Ana Castillo, published with University of Pittsburg Press in Spring 2021. Her other publications appear in Comparative Literature and Culture, Transgender Studies Quarterly, Women’s Studies Quarterly, among others. She is also a public facing scholar and works with the artist and writer collective fronteristxs, a collective of artists and writers in New Mexico working to end migrant detention and abolish the prison industrial complex through creative activism. She sits on the City of Albuquerque Public Arts Board and is launching a Border Literacy Project with the fronteristxs. Her forthcoming community engaged scholarship is a five-year project titled The South Valley Solidarity Economies Development Network, which is a collaborative project to create solidarity economies in the South Valley of Albuquerque, New Mexico through youth programming, ages 5-25.