First-hand Witness: The Borderlands Collection

Oct. 11, 2011

What do you do when you want to make a movie about the U.S-Mexico border that is original, in depth, historically accurate and captivating, all at the same time? It’s a tall order, but according to Luis Coronado-Guel, Ph.D. student in Latin American History and lead researcher for the film Another Side of the Border,  you go to Special Collections in the University of Arizona Libraries, where the Borderlands Collection reside.

In the fall of 2010, Coronado-Guel and fellow students in a journalism class, “Reporting in the US-Mexico Borderland” were given the assignment to portray the Arizona/Mexico border from a new and unexpected angle. Coronado-Guel says that the team he worked with wanted to “put on the screen the positive aspects of the border rarely covered by ordinary news media… We wanted to highlight the social and historical conformation of Arizona-Sonora.”  He found himself spending quite a bit of time in Special Collections.

University of Arizona Libraries Special Collections is home to one of the nation's finest collections of printed texts on Arizona and the borderlands of the Southwest. Verónica Reyes-Escudero, curator of the collection, emphasizes the richness and complexity that resides here.  “Our border society isn’t linear with clearly defined social structures,” she says. “Our Borderlands Collection is comprised of a variety of materials. We have collections that represent families, individuals, organizations, politicians, authors, photographers, film makers.” One of the more sought after items is the handwritten diary of Father Eusebio Kino describing his exploration of southeastern Arizona during 1699. In addition to his missionary work, Father Kino’s writings detail the geography and natural world he encountered.

The publications of the Industrial Workers of the World is also housed with the Borderlands Collection. The Industrial Workers of the World organized mine workers in 1917, but their efforts were met with harrowing retribution: 1,185 men were herded into boxcars by an armed vigilante force and abandoned across the New Mexico border. The Bisbee Deportation of 1917 is a pivotal event in Arizona's labor history and one that influenced labor movements throughout the country.  The collection’s materials are accessed by school-aged children learning about primary resources but also academic scholars and historians trying to piece together how the past effects our present. 

Coronado-Guel and his cohorts put together three short films as part of “Another Side of the Border,” which examines border issues from different perspectives.  One of the short films looks at border issues from the perspective of the Tohono O’odham Nation. Their land is directly affected by border issues between Mexico and the United States. The two other films focus on trade along the border and the unique challenges of water and water rights between Mexico and the United States.

Reyes-Escudero says that during instruction sessions with students her goal is to have them engage with the materials in ways that create more inquiry-based learning. In other words, she wants them walking out the door with more questions than when they came in. The extensive collection makes that fairly easy to do, given that its volumes touch on everything from the arts to the humanities to the social sciences to the sciences. It includes fiction by Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Native Americans; extensive materials on Sonora and Chihuahua, Mexico; state and local documents covering southern Arizona; Western pulp fiction; juvenile fiction; and a large pamphlet and ephemera collection documenting the region. What Reyes-Escudero really likes about the Borderlands Collection is that users can become what she describes as “first-hand witnesses by reading diaries, letters, examining photographs and other documents.“

Some of the materials have profound historical importance, such as those on the Mexican revolution of 1910. Equally important are those items that document the rich daily life of our historical family; an exploration of the collection can yield everything from family ledgers of household costs to a portrait of a 19th century family in their Sunday best taken shortly after the invention of the camera.

As Luis Coronado-Guel sums it up, “The Borderlands Collection is a great source not only for professional researchers, but for journalists, artists, students, families and general public. It is a great way to be in contact with the history and culture of the Arizona-Sonora border region because many of the items are unique and only housed at University of Arizona.”

Coronado-Guel stresses the importance of the professional staff, “Every member of the staff is very professional and kind… All of them take their job very seriously and they know the importance of preserving this material for future generations.”

Visit the University of Arizona Libraries Special Collections online.
Expand your perspective watching "Another Side of the Border" online.