The Western Frontier and La Frontera del Norte

Article by George Sibley

Changing West – April 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

I had my first personal encounter with la frontera del norte back in the early 1980s when I was running the saw at a small mill up on Black Mesa, between Gunnison and Crawford. The mill owner brought “a wetback” to the mill one morning — his terminology (he never made much of a point of political correctness). He had contracted for this man’s services with a coyote who’d brought in a truckload of Mexicans the night before.

My employer needed someone to help reconstitute his hayfield irrigation after the winter. But it was springtime in the Rockies, and snowing too much to work in the fields. So he brought the Mexican to the mill, which freed Bill, his other regular employee, to get caught up on stacking lumber.

Neither Bill nor I spoke a word of Spanish, and the Mexican spoke no English, which limited our communication to gestures. But body language alone was enough to tell us that the Mexican was one miserable man. By gestures, he indicated that he was spooked by a cross the owner’s daughter had put up on a nearby bluff where she’d gotten married years before.

It’s possible the Mexican had never seen snow at all — certainly not as much as we got that day (on top of what we still had). But I think the de-facto “English only” environment, rather than elements in the natural environment, got to him most. The absence of people to talk to was probably more upsetting than anything else. After two days of good work, he disappeared, presumably back down to the Hotchkiss-Delta area where other Mexican illegals were working in the spring fields.

At that time, la frontera hadn’t reached quite as far up into the mountains as our mill, or the tonier resort industries even higher up. But now, a decade or so later, it’s up into the high country almost everywhere. High Country News recently carried a story about a major immigration bust on Mexicans all the way up in Jackson Hole, and people in the San Miguel, Roaring Fork and Colorado River uplands are concerned about tensions building around the major shift in the resort workforce toward Spanish-speaking people.

Carbondale’s school has gone from eight to 18 percent Hispanic students in three years. The number of students with “Limited English Proficiency” in Lake County has climbed from eleven in 1990 to 134 today. The Crested Butte Ski Area may be one of the last resorts with a work force primarily non-Hispanic white — mostly because it is able to draw on college students for its cheap labor.

When I came west to Colorado thirty years ago — and found my way to the headwaters part of the state — I came for personal reasons that, in my mind, had nothing to do with the mass migrations of cultural groups. I was looking for opportunity and freedom, and I didn’t want to have to choose; I wanted to find a place where I could have both (a very American sentiment). A back-easter in 1966, I, like my great-grandparents a hundred years before, viewed the west as the quintessential locale for opportunity and freedom.

Only the compass was different for that Mexican, and a lot of others like him — who may have been following some similar flow and ebb in their own family histories. I came west, he came north, and we met for a couple of days at that sawmill — the kind of place that had not figured in either of our dreams of opportunity and freedom.

So, like the crustal plates of the earth sliding and grinding against each other, cultural life in this region of frontier that is the “western frontier” for some of us, and la frontera del norte for others, continues to flow and ebb through this part of the United States that used to be Mexico. And someday this region of frontiers may still become something that is neither quite the United States or Mexico as we currently understand them.

“Frontiers in Southwestern American Culture” will be the focus of a series of springtime programs and activities at Western State College in Gunnison this April and May, including the college’s seventh annual Headwaters Conference.

From April 17 through May 27, the college will host a major touring exhibit by the American Library Association on “The Frontier in American Culture,” put together from Chicago’s Newberry Library collection with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The “cultural compass” for this exhibit is entirely east-to-west, juxtaposing two popular interpretations of the western frontier in United States history: historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous “frontier thesis,” and showman Buffalo Bill Cody’s “Wild West” interpretation. Noted Western historian Patricia Nelson Limerick will open that exhibition at Western with an address Friday evening, April 19. (See schedule of events for times and places.)

The Headwaters Conference will be held the next weekend, April 25-27. Titled “Where the Western Frontier meets La Frontera del Norte,” the Headwaters sessions will attempt to juxtapose the “east-to-west” cultural compass against the “south-to-north” compass of the Hispano-Chicano frontier where they come together (grind together, mix together, emulsify like oil and water) in the American Southwest — and especially in the Headwaters region with its unique set of natural challenges and opportunities.

In addition, on four consecutive Wednesdays, beginning April 23 the college will present films depicting the myths and realities that shaped both the west and el norte: El Norte, Milagro Beanfield War, Shane and Destry Rides Again.

At the heart of the “Frontiers in Southwestern American Culture” program this year is a curiosity about what — if anything, beyond the usual record of conflict, conquest and colonization — has been developing in this “cultural edge” or “ecotone.” Biologists find the “ecotones” between ecological communities and systems to be rich in a diversity and resilience not found away from the edge. And one might expect the same thing to happen in the “frontier zone” between human cultures too. But on the other hand, most plant and animal species do not lug strange gods, and conflicting economic and political systems into their edge zones.

Until well into the 20th century, Anglo-Americans who exploded west wanted to believe that they were expanding into a mostly unpopulated continent. As they saw it, the west was inhabited only by species of primitive subhumans. Like children, those natives were unable to recognize what was best for them, which was, of course, to become more like Anglo-Americans. Therefore, those primitives needed discipline.

The myth of an empty continent of “free land” was given academic imprimatur by historian Frederick Jackson Turner in the “frontier thesis” he presented to historians in 1893. And William “Buffalo Bill” Cody both romanticized and sanitized the generally nasty process of “disciplining the natives.”

But both Turner and Buffalo Bill believed that frontier life ended then — for better or for worse. To make his point, Turner cited a U.S. Census report claiming that, as of the 1890 census, the density of (white) people was two or more per square mile everywhere in the continental United States with no major empty spaces. Thus it was the end of the frontier.

Since 1890 was also the year that white prison guards shot Sitting Bull — the old chief who had, for a while, gone from the real thing to playing Cowboys and Indians with the Wild West Show — Buffalo Bill would probably also have settled for that year as the end of “the real thing” (although the show would go on). Buffalo Bill might have considered the alleged end of the frontier a more or less happy ending. Savagery had been conquered and turned into pure profit.

But Turner was not so sure. He suggested — and this is the essence of his “frontier thesis” — that most of what was truly American came out of the frontier experience. Those American assets included: “The promotion of democracy here and in Europe,” “that dominant individualism working for good and for evil,” distinctive characteristics like “coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness,” the “practical turn of mind,” “that masterful grasp of material things,” “that restless nervous energy . . . and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom” — these were all, in Turner’s analysis, products of a sequence of frontier experiences that began with the trapper and Indian trader, progressed through the pioneer land-clearing farmer and the “more steady farmer” and townbuilder, culminating finally in a fully settled industrial city-and-hinterland society.

“And now,” Turner said, “the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.”

But here in the Central Colorado mountains where the waters for about a quarter of the United States start, Turner’s analysis seems thoroughly inaccurate.

What’s most missing from Turner’s “frontier thesis” is any consideration of what was already going on in our region. Turner not only left out the “savages,” which was bad enough in a larger perspective, but he also consciously or unconsciously omitted any consideration of the extent to which the southwest had already been a European frontier for several centuries. Not taking that pre-Anglo history into account, Turner was able to declare that something had ended with the arrival of two (two?) whites per square mile.

But in reality, something was just beginning in all those places where Anglo-Americans were arriving — as becomes more and more evident today. Frontiers don’t “close”; they just keep on opening (even if sometimes it seems they’re only opening up new cans of worms).

The American Library Association exhibition delves into the extent to which Turner’s thesis and Buffalo Bill’s legend have continued to resonate in the mainstream culture. But the real story, from a headwaters perspective, is the extent to which the frontier is still an open zone of cultural interaction.

In the Roaring Fork valley, crowned by that pinnacle of Anglo capitalist culture, Aspen, the schools are struggling with a doubling of migrant el nortenos. In the eastern San Luis valley, Chicanos are pushing hard on both the “private property” and “public lands” concepts of the Anglo culture. And everywhere in the headwaters region, the current refugees from the cultural/racial wars in California are becoming a major economic and political factor.

But there are also people on both sides of these western and northern borders who are trying to work it out. They’ll be in Gunnison this spring to consider what to do with a frontier so far from closed that its ultimate destiny remains a question.

In April 1847, 150 years ago this April, the United States sent negotiators to Mexico City to begin work on what was signed a year later as the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, changing the cultural compass of the headwaters region in ways that are still being worked out. Nothing was really settled — everything was just more unsettled.

But in the long run, this mesh of cultural traditions may give our region some of the same advantages as those biological ecotones. The vitality, diversity, and resilience of our habitat might eventually lead to something more interesting and healthy than either of the mega-cultures that feed it, and feed on it, from the east and the south.

At Headwaters VII, on April 25-27 in Gunnison, participants can explore our cultural heritage with concerned writers, poets, educators, and community leaders — in the hope that a better understanding of the complexities of our cultural traditions may guide us toward vital solutions.

“The dog barks, but the caravan moves on.” — Old Moorish proverb

George Sibley, a former fighter of forest fires and patroller of ski slopes, teaches at Western State College in Gunnison.