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New school looks at important 'lines' on map

January 19, 2011

Before Arizona and its neighbors were states, and before there was a U.S.-Mexico border, the U.S.-northern Mexico regions were linked by nationality, ecology, travel, economic and familial relationships, and social networks.  Then came the border – a line on a map that has increasingly been cast in politically contentious ways and has served to highlight human rights and citizenship complexities between the two nations.

This “line in the sand,” which has created many challenges to the well-being of the respective populations on both sides of the border, is the focus of ASU’s new School of Transborder Studies within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Notably, the border issues don’t stop at the primary cities, like Juarez, Tijuana or Naco. According to Carlos Veléz-Ibáñez, founding director of the school, “Our mission is much broader. It encompasses not just the land contiguous to the U.S.-Mexico border, but the area extending to the end of South America.”

“The School of Transborder Studies reflects ASU’s commitment to addressing global challenges from an interdisciplinary perspective,” said ASU Executive Vice President and Provost Elizabeth D. Capaldi. “The school’s faculty and programs are well suited to understanding the complexities associated with geographical and political borders and we anticipate eagerly the unit’s future contributions to both understanding and solutions.”

Established Sept. 1, 2010, the school will look at issues such as health, migration, social policy, community enhancement, media, expressive and visual culture, language, and learning.  These issues, further, are common to other borders around the globe, and thus, the school’s intellectual territory will not be limited to the U.S./Mexico border.

“This School of Transborder Studies joins other schools in the social sciences in taking up the 21st century challenge of creating new ways to address the complex social issues of everyday life,” said Linda Lederman, dean of social sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Professor Veléz-Ibáñez has been the guiding force behind the transformation of the new school.”

As its mission statement notes, the school will “generate the most cutting-edge knowledge on the development and functions of transborder regions and the utilization of that knowledge to solve the myriad issues and problems that emerge historically from nations sharing common political boundaries while engaged in regional and international economies.”

“The school also will develop and promote ‘best practices’ to secure the well being of constituent populations,” Veléz-Ibáñez said. “Our research is multidisciplinary, theoretically challenging, and methodologically rigorous.

“Our job is to focus on what our students need to know in order to deal with the realities of a transborder region and all of its contradictions of wealth and poverty, of learned languages erased, of integrated economies of two nations, of policies that do not fit the structure of production, of labor needed and discarded like commodities, of children raised following an American civil life forced to leave with their parents, and of educational systems pushing an individualistic model rather than embracing social dynamics of human interaction,” he said.

The new school is an “organic” creation, rather than one carved out of existing programs because of budget constraints, Veléz-Ibáñez said.  “It was formerly the Department of Transborder Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies, but the faculty wanted to make a change. It took us about a year to read all the literature on transborder studies, and create the plan.”  The school of transborder studies now offers a bachelor’s degree and an approved doctoral degree, and is in the process of putting together a master’s program.

The school will take a multi-pronged approach to its mission of teaching and research.  Students will be actively involved in the research, Veléz-Ibáñez said, and the school will work with parents and teachers as part of its focus on primary and secondary education.

The school’s community involvement will also be reflected in cooperative research projects with transborder, regional and local institutions, including non-government organizations and school districts.  Ultimately, these efforts will serve to enhance the transborder populations’ quality of life.

Broad in its reach, the school will support the engagement of students, especially those of Mexican and Latina/o origin to ensure their success at ASU.  The school will work with other units, particularly as it relates to the planned Interdisciplinary Program in Comparative Border Studies.  This initiative will bring major scholars and students from around the world to research and develop the “most salient theoretical and methodological ideas for the study of transborder regions,” according to Veléz-Ibáñez.

Several current faculty have recently published books on their research and have had their work featured in major venues. Veléz-Ibáñez’s newest book, published by the University of Arizona Press, “An Impossible Living in a Transborder World: Culture, Confianza and Economy of Mexican Origin Populations,” traces the development of “cundinas” or “tandas,” local savings and loan operations in the border regions, and looks at how they are part of greater transnational economies.

The University of Arizona Press also recently published “Resolana: Emerging Chicano Dialogues on Community and Globalization,” by Miguel Montiel, Tomás Atencio and E.A. “Tony” Mares. Rutgers University Press recently issued “Homecoming Queers: Desire and Difference in Chicana Latina Cultural Production,” by Marivel Danielson.

Prior to the establishment of the school, many of the faculty helped write and produce “State of Latino Arizona,” published by the Arizona Latino Research Enterprise, ASU Department of Transborder Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies and ASU Office of Public Affairs.

Veléz-Ibáñez has gathered a number of distinguished faculty for the school, including Paul Espinosa, a filmmaker specializing in documentary and dramatic films focused on the U.S.-Mexico border region.  Espinosa has won eight Emmy Awards for his work.  Recent hires include Desiree Garcia, a highly touted film critic and producer, and Matthew Garcia from Brown University, who will direct the program on comparative border studies.

Veléz-Ibáñez earned his doctoral degree in anthropology from the University of California, San Diego. He has taught and held deanship and research director's positions at the University of Arizona and the University of California, Riverside, and his research interests include migration, economic stratification, political ecology, transnational community and household formation, and applied social science.

Veléz-Ibáñez, who was born near the U.S.-Mexico border, was lured to ASU by the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create, from scratch, a School of Transborder Studies.  He is currently the Presidential Motorola Professor of Neighborhood Revitalization in the School of Transborder Studies. He has authored eight books and numerous articles, and his honors include the prestigious Bronislaw Malinowski Medal, presented by the Society for Applied Anthropology in 2003, and the 2004 Robert B. Textor and Family Prize for Excellence in Anticipatory Anthropology awarded by the American Anthropology Association. In 2010, he was honored by the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education for outstanding support of Hispanic issues in higher education.

Though many people seem to have an opinion about what “should” be done to monitor the border today, Veléz-Ibáñez said there are no simple answers in understanding the border dynamics.

“One of the fundamental misconceptions is that the border can divide the political and labor processes of this region.

“The U.S. is only 160 years old in this region following the American invasion of Mexico and the purchase of southern Arizona and New Mexico in 1853.  Mexicans were already here, so that the Mexican presence was obviously a fact of history.

“After this period and especially through the 19th century the industrial form of production including railroads, agriculture, construction, mining, and ranching required the same population and many more to fill the employment needs created by those industrial forms. This population did not have to cross an ocean – it was already present and 90 miles south from Phoenix, 60 miles from Tucson, and 2 feet from Nogales, Arizona.

“It’s a different history and quite different from the eastern Ellis Island model and premise.”

The borderlands, with their entwined histories and futures, are an important and vital area of study and development, Veléz-Ibáñez asserted, and the area south of the border richly deserves this attention. “The impact of the United States on northern Mexico has been enormous,” added Veléz-Ibáñez.