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Review: Borderlands Archives Cartography

A review of Borderlands Archives Cartography, a digital mapping project of U.S.-Mexico border periodicals, directed by Maira E. Álvarez and Sylvia A. Fernández

Published onMay 02, 2020
Review: Borderlands Archives Cartography

Borderlands Archives Cartography

Project Director
Maira E. Álvarez, University of Houston
Sylvia A. Fernández, University of Kansas

Project URL

Project Reviewer
Nike Nivar Ortiz, University of Southern California

Project Overview

Maira E. Álvarez and Sylvia A. Fernández

Borderlands Archives Cartography (BAC) is a personal commitment to border communities. This digital mapping project conceptualizes founders Maira E. Álvarez and Sylvia A. Fernández’s fronteriza/transfronteriza knowledge from the U.S.-Mexico region, as well as their academic background in border, literary, and archival studies at the intersection of digital technologies. The project was founded in 2017 by then-graduate students Álvarez and Fernández as an independent, non-funded, and non-institutional project. As a transborderlands digital humanities project, BAC is dedicated to locating, mapping, and facilitating access to 19th and mid-20th century newspapers from 1808 to the 1930s. BAC visualizes and deepens the understanding of the region, its communities, and histories through primary sources incorporated in a digital map.

The data collected demarcates the border region through three periods according to the following protocols: One (Colonial), 1808 to 1846; Two (Mexican-American War), 1847 to 1854; and Three (current division line), 1855 to 1930. Accordingly, BAC locates and maps 19th-century newspapers from all states in Mexico and the U.S., while those from the mid-20th century concentrate in cities along the current division line. Additionally, BAC includes periodicals from pre-colonial times, with plans to expand beyond the mid-20th century. The newspapers identified are in digital, microfilm, and/or paper format and are distributed in various archival collections on both sides of the border. Currently, BAC maps the digitized newspapers, while documenting the rest of the periodicals.

Through a digital map, BAC’s transborder digital archive unites local, national, and bi-national histories in a territory that has faced various geopolitical transitions. The project thus serves as an alternative conceptual tool for presenting the notion of a fluid region and challenges established nationalistic narratives. The project uses Carto, a geographic information system (GIS) tool, to visualize and engage with its transnational data in multiple search forms. Through a meticulous search process, Álvarez and Fernández generated coordinates according to information provided in the newspapers. For addresses that no longer exist, they consulted current and old maps. The incorporation of the addresses is crucial since it contributes to maintaining a historical record of the periodical establishments and printing press locations in the borderlands. BAC’s data is plotted on a base map without geographical borders to maintain a visual record of the historical presence of the broad newspaper production in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. The map allows users to interact with the geopolitical transitions/movements of the region and encourages them to understand and question the borderlands newspapers in different ways: geographically, historically, politically, socially and culturally.

BAC’s multiple audiences range from local museums to scholars from the humanities and social sciences across the Global North and South. The project has contributed to the development of further research across disciplines and has generated pedagogical material and workshops for institutional and community purposes. The project has led to scholarly publications, such as “Language and translation practices of Spanish-language newspapers published in the U.S. borderlands between 1808 and 1930” and the forthcoming article, “Borderlands Archives Cartography: Bridging Personal, Political, and Geographical Borderlands,” in Global Debates in the Digital Humanities, which highlights the importance of preserving and giving access to borderlands newspaper archives.

Works Cited

Álvarez, Maira E. and Sylvia A. Fernández. “Borderlands Archives Cartography: Bridging Personal, Political, and Geographical Borderlands.” In Global Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Domenico Fiormonte, Sukanta Chaudhuri, and Paola Ricaurte. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming.

Jiménez, Laura Gasca, Maira E. Álvarez, and Sylvia A. Fernández. “Language and Translation Practices of Spanish-language Newspapers Published in the U.S. Borderlands Between 1808 and 1930.” Translation and Interpreting Studies 14.2 (2019): 218-242.

Project Review

Nike Nivar Ortiz

Borderlands Archive Cartography (BAC) is a website dedicated to locating, mapping, and facilitating access to newspapers from 1808 to the 1930s across the U.S.-Mexico border region. It was founded in 2017 by Maira E. Álvarez, now Research Director of the Houston Office Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Houston, and Sylvia Fernández, currently Public & Digital Humanities Postdoc Research Fellow at the University of Kansas, as a self-funded and non-institutionally supported project. An exceptional feat, digital projects of this ilk take considerable time, labor, and resources that often make institutional support essential. The primary source materials that BAC has provided could prove useful for both border researchers and educators; the newspapers could be used for activities in Spanish-language classrooms and border studies and cultural history courses, as well as for scholarly research projects.

BAC brings together 285 newspaper titles, searchable across 265 categories — such as title, language, date, and editor. This facilitates many entryways into the data, which diversifies the type of work that can emerge from this archive and increases its pedagogical value. The newspapers collected, spanning digital, microfilm, and/or paper-based formats, are found across archival collections on both sides of the border. The archive is presented through a map interface, built using Carto, that locates the newspapers and demonstrates their proximity and distance to each other. The map is dotted with clickable icons that expand to show a newspaper’s identifying information, as well as link to the archive where it is held. While some entries are freely accessed online, others require varying levels of subscription, which is a common obstacle to digital archival work. Dependent on the newspaper — as well the type of institutional access one has — access to the resource varies. Overall, the map interface provides visual interest to the data set and instills a sense of familiarity that makes navigation easier.  

Álvarez and Fernández categorize the data in the BAC dataset into three distinct historical border periods: 1) Colonial, 1808 to 1846; 2) Mexican-American War, 1847 to 1854; 3) current division line, 1855 to 1930. This historical framework considerably expands the current geography of the borderlands, which is essential for thinking about the longer history of U.S.-Mexico relations. The use of a base map without national boundaries, in which the U.S. and Mexico are not discrete entities, is a thoughtful proposition that supports BAC’s mission of presenting a “transborderlands” space that exceeds political boundaries. As the project develops, these cartographic elements could be tweaked to improve engagement and functionality. For example, while there is a map key that shows the three historical periods, newspapers from the three distinct periods are not color-coded and are all represented by the same orange location icon. There is also no visualization of how the geopolitical border changed across the three historical periods, which means that we cannot see the physical relation of these newspapers to the ever-changing political border. While political boundaries are not the focus of this project, the demarcation of these three historical periods necessitates better visual clarification within the map interface to assist with user interpretation. 

Beyond the map interface, the BAC website includes resources that make it a useful digital space for border researchers and educators. The project website provides spotlights on individual newspapers and exhibits with activities for the classroom, direct links to the larger archives that underpin the project, a repository of scholarly work that has emerged out of the project, and links to a wide-range of other digital projects that resonate with BAC’s mission and the larger field of border studies. These additional elements position BAC as a digital network of people and resources — and not just a passive repository of information.

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