The Southwest Border Area

United States Geography

The area known generally as the Southwest is one of the most widely recognized yet one of the most transitionary regions of America. It has an apparent physical uniformity that can be attributed primarily to its clear, dry climate, but, in fact, the region includes the broad flatlands of the lower Rio Grande Valley; the plateaus of New Mexico; the dramatic mesas, buttes, and deserts of Arizona; and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico.

The Southwest is made distinctive by the coexistence of Spanish-American, American Indian, and Anglo cultures, and the physical environment is almost like a stage that serves to emphasize aspects of each. The American Indian and Spanish populations coexisted in much of the region for 250 years after Spanish arrival at the end of the 16th century before Anglos began immigrating in the middle of the 19th century.

However, the tricultural border region is now preponderantly non-Spanish and non-Indian. Perhaps one person in four has a Spanish surname, and little more than 1 in 100 is an American Indian. The expectation might be that these minority populations would be engulfed by the larger and relatively homogeneous Anglo population. But both minority groups have had a major sustained impact on the region. Spanish place-names abound, especially along the Rio Grande River and in coastal California. American Indian place-names are locally important, especially on the Navajo, Hopi, and Papago reservations in Arizona. Hispanic neighborhoods are sometimes identified by the use of adobe, but more often by the use of bright colors in house painting and outside ornamentation and by yards encircled with bold fences. The distinctive hogan (a building made of logs and mud with near-vertical sides and a rounded top) can still be found on the Navajo reservation, and the pueblos of New Mexico are a striking element of that state's architecture.

The canyonlands of northern Arizona and southern Utah provided an effective barrier to Spanish expansion northward from Mexico. The Spanish moved up the Rio Grande to the broad expanse of the Rocky Mountains, north of which little Hispanic settlement developed. In Texas, most settlement remained concentrated along the Rio Grande and Nueces Rivers. The extensive cattle-grazing industry that the Spanish introduced into south Texas was ill-suited to the moist, forested lands of the eastern portion of the state. That area, left as a frontier, was largely unsettled by the Spaniards. Most migration by Spanish-Americans beyond this original settlement area has been to urban places.

The aridity of Arizona, New Mexico, and bordering areas in Utah and Colorado discouraged large-scale Anglo agricultural settlement into the 19th century, ensuring that substantial numbers of American Indians remained in the four states. The Pueblo of the upper Rio Grande Valley had developed the technologically most advanced pre-European Indian civilization in what was to become the United States, and they remain important in New Mexico. The Navajo, Hopi, and Apache, all primarily in Arizona, also survived the European wave better than most eastern tribes.


The Southwest's American Indian population is culturally diverse. The largest tribes are the Navajo in the "Four Corners" area, where the states of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico meet; several Apache tribes in Arizona and New Mexico; the various Pueblo groups in New Mexico; the Papago in southern Arizona; the Hopi in northwestern Arizona; and the Utes in southwestern Colorado.

Most American Indians are found in the major reservation areas, especially those centered on the Four Corners--where the 62,000-square-kilometer Navajo reservation has 10 times the population of any other reservation--and in California. Arizona and New Mexico together are the home for some 300,000 American Indians.

All of what is today the southwestern United States was incorporated into the Spanish Empire during the early years of the 16th century. By 1550, the Spanish had explored widely across the region. The lack of any identified, easily extractable riches, coupled with the great distance to the core of Spanish development in Mexico, minimized Spanish concern for their northern territory.

Before 1700, the only permanent Spanish settlements north of the present U.S.-Mexico border were along the valley of the upper Rio Grande in New Mexico. Santa Fe was founded in 1610, and other pueblos (civilian communities that could loosely be viewed as small towns), notably Taos and Albuquerque, soon followed.

A tentative Spanish occupation of Arizona began in 1700. The Apache Indians were a constant threat, repeatedly raiding Spanish settlements in the area. Colonization of Texas began at about the same time, with long-range results that were considerably more successful. Nacogdoches was founded in 1716, followed two years later by San Antonio. During the middle 1700s, the lower Rio Grande Valley was settled by the Spanish. Still, by the early 19th century, these and other centers of Hispanic settlement were viewed by Spanish authorities as a small, inadequate occupation compared with the large number of Americans then pushing westward toward Texas. Thus, foreigners, mostly Americans, were allowed to develop settlements there during the 1820s and 1830s.

California, the most distant of Spain's northern territories, was the last to be settled. A mission and presidio (military post) were established at San Diego in 1769. During the next two decades, a string of missions, with a few presidios and pueblos as well, was established along the coast as far as Sonoma, north of San Francisco. This thin band of coastal occupation was encouraged partly in response to a growing British and Russian interest in the West Coast.

After U.S. acquisition of Texas in 1845 and the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, the estimated Mexican population of this broad territory was 82,500. Of this number, 60,000 were in New Mexico, 14,000 in Texas, 7,500 in California, and 1,000 in Arizona.

By 1850, Mexicans in Texas and California represented less than 10 percent of the two states' total populations. There were good reasons for the rapid increase in the non-Spanish population. East Texas was the new western frontier for southern settlements, and the discovery of gold in California in 1848 was largely responsible for the influx of non-Spanish peoples into central and northern portions of the state. Only in New Mexico, southern California, and Texas south of San Antonio did the Hispanic population continue to dominate for a few more decades.

The original Hispanic population of the Southwest has been greatly increased by substantial immigration, especially during the 20th century. In 1990, persons of Spanish surname represented 18.8 percent of the population of Arizona; in California, the proportion was 26 percent; in Colorado, 13 percent; in New Mexico, 38 percent; and in Texas, 26 percent. In 1990, census figures placed the Hispanic population of the United States at 20.8 million, an increase of 34 percent over 1980. Over 60 percent of the Hispanic population is Mexican-American.

The economic gap between Anglos and Hispanics and American Indians is considerable. Differences in urbanization account for some of the variation; in the Southwest, Anglos are the most urbanized; American Indians, the least. Urban Americans tend to have higher incomes, more education, and fewer children.

Developments on the Navajo reservation, however, although not entirely typical, are indicative of altered reservation conditions. Final authority remains with the U.S. government's Bureau of Indian Affairs, but an elected tribal council makes most economic decisions for the reservation. Appropriations to the reservation have increased dramatically since 1950. All-weather roads now cross the reservation, greatly reducing isolation, and health and educational facilities have been improved. Huge reserves of fossil fuel, particularly coal, have been found on the Navajo land, and several large power plants located on the reservation serve southern California. The power companies annually move millions of dollars into the reservation economy. The reservation also has expanded greatly its tourist industry and has attracted a number of new industries with its large, available, and now better-educated labor force.

During World War I and the economic boom times of the early 1920s, large numbers of Mexicans moved across the border to fill labor needs in the United States. Again in the 1940s, the United States had a warfare-generated labor shortage, and in the next two decades, Mexican laborers could enter the United States and work as seasonal laborers in the agricultural sector.

In 1965, Mexico started the Border Industrialization Program. Its goal was to attract U.S. labor-intensive manufacturing industries to border communities in northern Mexico. Foreign companies, called maquiladoras, could import equipment and material duty free into Mexico if the manufactured products were then exported from Mexico. In 1989, that regulation was eased, and now maquiladoras can sell 50 percent of their total product in Mexico.

For Mexico, the program offered the possibility of jobs for its people. The attraction for U.S. firms was the opportunity to use low-cost labor at locations near the U.S. marketplace and sources of supply where transportation costs could be minimized. Many firms have been attracted by this cost-saving opportunity; by late 1990, an estimated 1,800 maquiladoras employed over 500,000 Mexican laborers.


The Southwest is the sunniest and driest of all the U.S. regions. Throughout the area the characteristic vegetation is bunch grass, mesquite, and cactus. Temperature conditions across the region vary widely. Southern California, Arizona, and south Texas normally have hot summers and a short mild winter; the hot summers of the upper Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico are balanced by winter conditions that can drive temperatures far below freezing.

Despite this variety, the sunny climate of the Southwest has proven to be a powerful attraction for many Americans. Arizona was the third most rapidly growing U.S. state on a percentage basis in the 1980s, following only Nevada and Alaska. In fact, all of the region's states during this period grew at a rate well above the national average. The city of Phoenix has doubled in size several times since 1950, and it is now a booming urban area, the 20th largest in the country. Greater Tucson grew from 266,000 in 1960 to 667,000 in 1990. These low-density urban areas now roll for kilometers across large expanses of former desert.

Some of the early attraction of the Southwest stemmed from the healthful effects of the dry environment for people with respiratory ailments. The warmer parts of the region today attract many thousands of retired Americans.

In addition, Arizona has attracted many industries and corporate offices. An aircraft industry developed in Phoenix during World War II, taking advantage of its proximity to the large aircraft complex in southern California, plus the promise of good flying weather. Many employers have located in southern Arizona because the environment has a strong appeal for a work force. The relative isolation of the state from most of the major national markets, once possibly significant to Arizona's growth, has lost much of its impact with the emergence of high-value, low-weight manufactured goods, especially electronics.

El Paso, Texas, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, also roughly doubled in size between 1950 and 1970, and since then have continued to grow rapidly. Both cities, and San Antonio as well, have benefited from the presence of large military bases, although they also share in the diversified growth of light industry.

Elsewhere in New Mexico and in that part of Texas included in this region, population growth has been far more spotty. Many rural counties of the lower Rio Grande Valley and most in southern Colorado and eastern New Mexico have lost population during the last few decades, sharing the fate of other strongly rural areas in America.


The rural highlands of central and northern New Mexico, the principal core of Spanish settlement in the United States, continues to show characteristics remarkably unaffected by the Anglo tide that engulfed Albuquerque and southern Arizona. Hispanics make up perhaps 70 percent of the highlands population of northern New Mexico and comprise the entire population of many small towns. American Indians, mostly Pueblos, are a much smaller but highly visible element of the region's rural non-Anglo culture.

Along the back roads north of Santa Fe, old adobe villages and public signs in Spanish dominate the cultural landscape. Along the highway near Albuquerque, as throughout the north central part of the state, are several centuries-old apartment-like Indian villages called pueblos; their ancient appearance is in striking contrast to the low, sprawling modern city. The pueblos each control substantial areas of surrounding lands that insulate them from the Anglo community. Pueblo society and traditions are vibrant and thriving. New Mexico's capital city of Santa Fe retains a Spanish flavor with its adobe architecture, open central square, and restaurants and stores offering the food and goods of northern Mexico.

The Winter Garden area of the lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas, also overwhelmingly Hispanic, is a major area of irrigated agriculture. The average growing season is longer than 280 days and supports such crops as oranges, grapefruit, and winter lettuce and tomatoes. The Hispanic population has long provided labor for this agriculture.

In Los Angeles, Hispanic enclaves may contain hundreds of thousands of inhabitants. Despite far more acculturation into Anglo society than has occurred in the upper or lower Rio Grande Valley, Hispanic traditions remain important. Spanish-language radio stations and newspapers abound, and major Mexican-American festive occasions attract huge throngs.

In the Southwest border area, then, the impact of the Hispanic and the American Indian cultures remains strong.

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Source: U.S. Department of State