New Mexico is located in the southwest and western regions of the United States.
With a population density of 16 per square mile, New Mexico is the sixth-most sparsely inhabited U.S. state, and the south of Hidalgo, where the Parhams live, one of the least populated areas within New Mexico.
The territory of New Mexico is mostly covered by mountains, high plains, and desert. The climate is generally semi-arid to arid, although New Mexico also receives winter snow in its higher elevation in the mountains.
While Billy spends a brief period of time in the neighbouring states of Arizona and Texas, most of the novel’s U.S. setting takes place in southern New Mexico.
Ranch Life in Early 1940s New Mexico
Ranchers would have lived a hard spare life at a time when America was only just beginning to recover from the Depression. It would have been even harder in southern Hidalgo Country, a region not known for nothing as the Big Empty.
New Mexico had been among the poorest states in the Union in the 1920s and it went from bad to worse with the onset of the Depression. American farms and ranches were hit particularly hard with over one million American families losing their farms between 1930 and 1934.
Southwesterners, though, have always held a reputation for being hardworking and frugal, priding themselves on a history of self reliance. New Mexicans like the Parhams would very much consider themselves heirs to a pioneering tradition.
The Parhams own a cattle ranch and daily duties would involve rounding up cattle, feeding and caring for the livestock and horses, and various other duties. They would work long hours on an often physically demanding job.
Not an easy life, then, but one Billy Parham was born to and clearly loves, making the passing of that way of life in the novel so much more poignant.
The states of Sonora and Chihuahua are located in the northwest of Mexico.
With an area of 184,934 square kilometers, Sonora is the second largest and one of the least densely populated states in Mexico. Almost all of the state is arid or semi-arid covered in desert and sparse grasslands.
Chihuahua is the largest state in Mexico by area with a mainland area of 247,455 square kilometers, and is consequently known as El Estado Grande (‘The Big State’). The state is mostly characterized by rugged mountains and wide river valleys.
Both states are divided by the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains. Much of the novel’s setting takes place along this rugged mountainous terrain, and then later within the river valley areas and prairies of north-central Chihuahua.
Tierra y Libertad - Socio-political life in northern Mexico
Almost three decades after Emiliano Zapata first issued his famous cry for land and liberty, Billy and Boyd enter a Mexico in which the common people were still struggling for their rights.
Under the reign of Porfirio Díaz, large sections of land had been confiscated from the peasantry and placed under the private ownership of the hacendados. By 1894, one out of every five acres of Mexican land was owned by a foreign interest. As a result, many of the landless peasants were forced into working on the large hacienda estates owned by wealthy families. In 1910, at the beginning of the revolution, about one half of the rural population lived and worked as virtual slaves on these privately-owned estates.
Following the Revolution, Álvaro Obregón’s presidency began to tentatively implement the goal of agrarian reform outlined in the 1917 Constitution. By 1930, though, ejidal (communal land holdings) constituted only 6.3% of national agricultural property. In 1934 the process finally gathered momentum after President Lázaro Cárdenas passed the Agrarian Code. He helped redistribute 45,000,000 acres of land - 4,000,000 acres of which were expropriated from American owned agricultural property, leading to diplomatic tension between the two countries. Cardenas made alliances with men like Socorro Rivera to implement his reforms by organizing the peasants into taking direct action in finally putting an end to the hacienda system. The wealthy landowners, both Mexican and foreign, did not relinquish their lands without a fight, however. Mercenary forces were hired to prevent, sometimes violently, the peasants taking hold of the lands that the law had rightfully made theirs.
This is the tense situation Billy and Boyd wander into in early 1940s northern Mexico, alluded to in references to the real-life Socorro Rivera and his death at the hands of Hearst’s Guardia Blanca mercenaries. A Mexico in which the revolution was not a distant memory but an ongoing struggle, and where Boyd will become an inadvertent hombre de gente (man of the people) and finally a martyr for a people fighting yet for their land and liberty.
The Crossing is a novel haunted by the past; not only in its evocative depiction of a vanishing world, but in the way it constructs historical events as a process continually effecting upon the present. For this reason, it is useful to have an understanding of some of the historical events which shape the novel.
The Mexican-American War
‘American invaders. Perhaps you know something of the history of this country.’
The catalyst for the war was when North American settlers in Texas, initially welcomed by the Mexican authorities, declared Texas independent in 1836. President Santa Anna led an army north and wiped out the defenders of an old mission called the Alamo in San Antonio, but he was routed by Texan forces on the San Jacinto River a few weeks later. Texan independence was recognised by the USA, but not by Mexico.
In 1845 the US congress voted to annex Texas, and President Polk demanded further Mexican territory. That led, in 1846, to the Mexican-American War, in which US troops captured Mexico City. At the end of the war, by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), Mexico ceded modern Texas, California, Utah, Colorado, and most of New Mexico and Arizona to the USA. The Santa Anna government sold the remaining bits of New Mexico and Arizona to the USA in 1853 for US$10 million, in the Gadsen Purchase.
The loss of one-half of Mexico’s territory and natural resources remains deeply ingrained in the Mexican psyche. As late as 1994, President Salinas, commenting on the United Nations-sponsored US intervention in Haiti, was moved to say ‘Having suffered an external intervention by the United States, in which we lost more than half of our territory, Mexico cannot accept any proposal for intervention by any nation of the region.’
The Mexican Revolution
'She said the revolution had killed off all the real men'
The seeds of the Revolution were sown during the autocratic rule of Porfirio Díaz. He came to power in 1877, brushing aside the constitution to serve six successive presidential terms, and consolidating his reign by banning all political opposition, free elections and a free press. His 33 year rule brought Mexico into the industrial age, but at great cost to the ordinary people. Many of Mexico’s resources went into foreign ownership, peasants were cheated out of their lands by new laws, workers suffered appalling conditions, and the country was kept quiet by a ruthless army. Land and wealth became concentrated with a small minority. Some hacienda owners amassed truly vast landholdings and commensurate political power. Many rural workers were tied by debt to their bosses, just like their colonial forebears.
In 1910, Francisco Madero, a wealthy liberal from Coahuila, campaigned for the presidency on the platform of electoral reform. Díaz immediately had him jailed. Released on bail, Madero escaped to the U.S. where he drafted the Plan de San Luis Potosi, calling for the nation to rise in revolution on November 12. Uprisings quickly spread across the country, and when revolutionaries under the leadership of Francisco 'Pancho' Villa took Ciudad Juarez in May 1911, Díaz resigned. Madero was elected president in November 1911.
But Madero was unable to contain the factions fighting for power throughout the country. The basic divide that would dog the whole revolution was between liberal reformers like Madero and more radical leaders, such as Emiliano Zapata, from the state of Morelos, who was fighting for the transfer of hacienda land to the peasants with the cry 'Tierra y Libertad!' ('Land and Liberty!'). Madero sent federal troops to Morelos to disband Zapata's forces, which triggered the birth of the Zapatista movement.
In November 1911 Zapata promulgated the Plan de Ayala calling for the restoration of all land to the peasants. Zapatistas won several battles against government troops in central Mexico. Other forces of varied political complexion took up local causes elsewhere. Soon all Mexico was plunged into military chaos.
In February 1913 two conservative leaders - Félix Díaz, nephew of Porfirio, and Bernardo Reyes - were sprung from prison in Mexico City and commenced a counterrevolution that brought 10 days of fierce fighting, the decena trágica, to the capital. Thousands were killed or wounded, and many buildings destroyed.
The fighting ended only after the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Henry Lane Wilson, negotiated for Madero's general, Victoriano Huerta, to switch to the rebel side and help depose Madero's government. Huerta himself became president; Madero and his vice president, José María Pino Suárez, were executed.
In March 1913 three revolutionary leaders in the north united against the unpopular Huerta under the Plan de Guadalupe: Venustiano Carranza, a Madero supporter, in Coahuila; Pancho Villa, in Chihuahua; and Álvaro Obregón, in Sonora. Zapata also took up arms against Huerta. Terror reigned in the countryside as Huerta's troops fought, pillaged and plundered. Finally he was defeated and forced to resign in July 1914.
Carranza called the victorious factions to a conference in Aguascalientes, but when he failed to unify them, war broke out again. This time Obregón and Carranza - who formed the 'Constitutionalists', - were pitted against the populist Villa and the radical Zapata. But Villa and Zapata, despite a famous meeting in Mexico City, never formed a serious alliance, and the fighting became increasingly anarchic. Villa never recovered from a defeat by Obregón in the 1915 Battle of Celaya, and Carranza eventually emerged the victor, to form a government that was recognised by the USA. A new reformist constitution, still largely in force today, was enacted in 1917.
In Morelos the Zapatistas continued to demand reforms. Carranza had Zapata assassinated at Chinameca on April 10, 1919, but the following year Obregón turned against him, and together with fellow Sonorans Adolfo de la Huerta and Plutarco Elías Calles, raised an army, chased Carranza out of office and had him assassinated.
There would be further outbreaks of violence during the Cristero Rebellion, precipitated by the anti-Catholic policies of Calles, lasting until 1929, but the Mexican Revolution is generally considered to have come to an end as Obregón came to power.
The ten years of violent civil war cost an estimated 1.5 to 2 million lives – roughly one in eight Mexicans – and shattered the economy.
Trinity and the Dawning of the Atomic Age
‘This war, the old man said. There’s no way to calculate what’s to come.’
World War II remains little more than a distant rumour for Billy, rejected as he is from joining up due to a heart irregularity. The Atomic Bomb, though, is a different matter. That false desert dawn which Billy witnesses at the close of the novel is none other than Trinity, the nuclear test carried out by the Manhattan Project at Alamogordo in preparation for the two atomic bombs which would be dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
The Trinity Test represents many things today – the spectre of nuclear annihilation which would hover over most of the remainder of the 20th century; the beginnings of the Military-Industrial Complex and America’s emergence as the world’s dominant Superpower; not least of all the deaths of some 500,000 Japanese civilians. But the most pertinent aspect in respect to the Border Trilogy is the impact upon the New Mexico area.
New Mexican farmers and ranchers had originally agreed to let out their properties to the U.S. government with the understanding that their lands would be returned when the war was over. If promises were made to the landowners they certainty weren’t kept, and many ranchers lost their properties in this way. After Trinity the White Sands Military base would seek to expand even further, issuing forced sales on other surrounding farms and ranches. In Cities of the Plains, Billy finds himself working on one such ranch which is scheduled to be taken over by the army at the end of season. That ‘alien dusk’ which Billy witnesses at the close of The Crossing marks the beginning of the end of a way of life for cowboys in that particular area of New Mexico.
Bringing McCarthy’s historical setting full circle, when the Manhattan Project’s Robert Oppenheimer famously quoted from the Bhagavad Gita (‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’) he might as easily have been quoting from Mayan or Aztec sources, whose belief in a cosmic cycle of worlds was predicated on the destruction of its predecessor.
It is yet another reminder that New Mexico was once a part of Mexico, and that, as the Yaqui Quijaida tells Billy, ‘the soul of Mexico is very old.’