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Mexican Postcards And Contemporary Photos Tell Two Different Tales Of Mexico.

By Margaret Regan

AUGUST 17, 1998:  A POCKMARKED METAL gate stretches across the railroad tracks in Nogales. One end is hooked to a building, the other to a corrugated metal fence. It's all part of a barrier that stretches in a 1,000-mile scar along the border between the United States and Mexico. Photographed by Will Monaghan, the stark image is at Galvez Gallery, in a show of matter-of-fact contemporary photos of Nogales.

Things were different at the turn of the century. Then, the border was no big deal--if we're to believe the postcards on view at another show in town, at the Arizona Historical Society.

Curious Americans could simply stroll across a street in Douglas, Arizona, and find themselves south of the border, in a foreign country. In an old Douglas photographic card, the only barrier separating El Norte from El Sur is a dusty lane. And a Nogales postcard dating from Prohibition shows thirsty Yanks wending their way across a similar pathway in los dos Nogales. The U.S. side was dry, and the Mexican side wet, very wet. Just in case tourists didn't get the point, the postcard merchant stenciled in those words on the picture on either side of the street, "dry" on the Anglo, "wet" on the Mexican.

These easygoing early pictures, with towns casually split between two nations, demonstrate how arbitrary the border really is. With the Rio Grande and the Tijuana rivers the only real geographic boundaries, la frontera is a political line drawn on a map. Yet the postcards document the immense cultural divide that was believed to separate the two nations.

Lines Drawn in Sand and Water: Postcards from the Mexican-American Border features about 125 vintage postcards, dating from about 1900 to possibly the 1950s. (The cards, unfortunately, are undated.) The postcards, as postcards do, romanticize and stereotype their subject. By contrast, the contemporary photographs in Three Visions of Nogales, at Galvez, provide a clear-eyed view of that divided town. Monaghan, a Nogales resident, and Tucson photographers Amy Zuckerman and José Galvez exhibit about 40 untitled black-and-white pictures. Galvez captures residents on the American side shopping, sitting, celebrating; Monaghan goes in for dramatically composed architectural subjects; while Zuckerman records the poverty on the Mexican hills, where the maquiladora workers live in shacks.

These pictures are doubtless more authentic, but the postcards are more interesting. Unbridled and prejudiced, the postcards provide a brisk mini-history, not of Mexico, but of Americans' ideas about Mexico. Sketched or photographed, black-and-white or tinted, the quaint cards fan out across the walls of the Historical Society as though they've tumbled from a piñata full of stereotypes.

First and foremost, the cards depict Mexico the Exotic, with beautiful black-haired women and sensuous Spanish churches, rainbow-striped serapes and sombreros as far as the eye can see. Mexico the Forbidden is conjured in scenes of gringos drinking in free-flowing bars, in pictures of cockfights and of racetracks.

Revolutionaries lying dead in the streets are shorthand for Mexico the Dangerous. Horrifying scenes from the revolution of 1910 to 1920 were a popular curio item for Americans, who regarded their neighbors' war as a "blood sport" for their amusement, curator Melissa Giffords notes in the informative wall text. One postcard photographer even snapped the burghers of El Paso lined up on their side of the line, enthusiastically viewing the nearby battle at Juarez.

Mexico the Stupid, Poor and Lazy turns up in cartoons of indolent drunks snoozing away in siestas and in Sambo-like drawings of dark-skinned Indians with big lips. (It's a startling case of one-size-fits-all prejudice: These images of Mexicans look a lot like the shuffling Negro that used to figure in the funny papers.) The ubiquitous burros stand in for rural poverty, according to Giffords. A couple of cards explicitly contrast the industrious Americans with lazy Mexicans: In one, Douglas is represented by sturdy smokestacks, while a flock of unruly musical notes stands in for Agua Prieta. The legend reads: "Douglas Sunshine, Agua Prieta Moonshine."

The sine qua non of postcards from anywhere, of course, is unreality. They're shaped by a vacationland mentality that has more to do with a tourist economy than with anybody's real life. These postcards served as cheap souvenirs and as portable ads meant to lure Americans to spend their dollars down Mexican Way. (The bloody Revolutionary cards are an exception, and they're a puzzle until we remember that Americans a generation or two earlier bought grisly photographs of their own Civil War dead.)

Hardest to grasp are those tranquil scenes of the border itself, accustomed as we've grown to the idea of the border as armed camp. In between joyous scenes of Edwardian tourists crossing the Tijuana River in horse-drawn buggies, and eager tipplers hightailing it to the Nogales cantinas, there's only one military image: An early black-and-white photo from Douglas poses a U.S. soldier next to his Mexican counterpoint, a faint line drawn between them. But this innocuous card doesn't even begin to hint at today's massing of armed U.S.

Border Patrol guards.

How we got from then to now is another short history, this time of 20th-century international relations. Border fences began to go up during the Revolution, when Americans feared Mexican violence, and the custom houses were constructed as immigration rules gradually tightened. It's only in the last decade that the New World iron curtain seen in Monaghan's photo went up, called into being by alarm over drug smuggling and immigration.

The carefree postcards don't recount this more sinister history, but they help provide at least a partial explanation for it. It's no longer polite to trade in the hateful images that once were casually reprinted on thousands of postcards: the lazy Mexican drunks and stupid burros and even revolutionaries with bullets crisscrossed over their chests. But these shadowy stereotypes haven't gone away. They lurk in the American consciousness still, and they're part of what makes us build the barricades along the border longer and stronger every day.


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