Constituting the Southwest Contesting the Southwest
Re-Inventing the Southwest


The Southwest is a distinctive place to the American mind but a somewhat blurred place on American maps, which is to say that everyone knows that there is a Southwest but that there is little agreement as to just where it is.
–D.W. Meinig, geographer (1971: 3)

Describing and identifying the characteristics of the Southwest as a cultural or conceptual region has remained a pressing quest within academic discourses for quite some time. So desirable is a definition or new understanding of the region that numerous articles and books have been given over to the task, such as D. W Meinig's seminal work Southwest: Three Peoples in Geographical Change,1600-1970. More recently, Journal of the Southwest devoted its entire Autumn 1992 issue to James W. Byrkit's monumental article "Land, Sky, and People: The Southwest Defined." And as the catalysts that partially motivated this article, both of these works stand as powerful examples of comprehensibility and ambition. Despite their high profiles, however, neither is all-encompassing or the final explication of the region.
The Southwests–I use the plural for there are so many disjunctive notions of the place–have emerged as varied spaces ranging in flavor from the poetic to the sociological, and from the scientific to the touristic. Indeed, the ongoing process of writing and thinking the region into existence has fostered a spectrum of perspectives within academia, ranging from the multicultural historic interactionism of Meinig's tome, to the multidisciplinary nativism of Byrkit's (1992) study, to a focus on the construction of tourist euphoria (Weigle 1990), to the analysis of region as a continually rewritten intertextual space (Cooper Alarcón 1992),1 or to the construction of place as the result of power relationships wrought by interethnic and class contact (this article). As we venture forth, tourist Mecca also becomes tourist trap, disenchantment and dispute are pitted against the enchanting meta-image of the region as beckoning cultural capital, and the Southwest stands before us as an expanded and contested conceptual realm. That leads to the main purpose of this article–to reconsider and counter some of the claims made for the region and to briefly present an alternative model for understanding the pilings upon which the Southwest is both constructed and held together as a place. Thus stated, I will attempt to configure the Southwest not as a normative structural whole, a distillate, but as a composition of continually contested, positioned, and linked visions of place.
As the comment by Meinig at the beginning of this article suggests, the term "the Southwest" maps out a rather unclear conceptual territory. But whereas Meinig sees a blurred spot on the map and a distinctive image in the American mind, it is just as profitable to invert that equation, so that it becomes an indistinct vision inscribed with precision onto a layer of maps (as well as postcards, architecture, and other imagery)–for there are a number of such images that clearly claim to demarcate and describe the area. As a widely used political-geographical term, in most people's minds the "Southwest" designation typically centers on the states of New Mexico and Arizona. But it might or might not also include parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California, or borderlands M6xico, depending on who is using the term and why. And beyond such officially sanctioned boundaries there are other manners by which the region can be known, such as the exportable "Southwest style" of countless furniture and clothing catalogs or the southwestern Indianesque curios that you can buy in an Idaho "trading post." Thus to Meinig's point I might add one of my own: beyond the uncertainty over where the Southwest is, nobody seems to agree as to what the Southwest is either, or even how it came to be.
Byrkit (1992) has attempted to provide a consummate answer as to the spatial extension of the region based on a comparison of physical geography, climate, history, and cultural traits, but in that he approaches our quarry from the a priori assumption that there simply is a Southwest and that it exists externally to its discursive formation. This study, on the other hand, seeks to examine the region as a sense of sociocultural space, a place governed by modes of signification defining the social topography as a contested semiotic construction negotiated and bounded by relationships of power and revealed in affect. Thus the Southwest is best construed through recourse to characteristics other than its geopolitical boundaries and rather than its climatic and physical characteristics. Indeed, we shall see that both popular and academic understandings of the region have come to rely on the cultural as an ordering principle which is malleable, relative, and continually changing.
Now, the question arises as to how one can even begin to qualitatively describe the Southwest as something as fuzzy and multifarious as a "cultural space," how to get a handle on something as elusive as what might be called the "presence" of the area. But culture can indeed be understood as a presence shaping emotional responses through their grounding in semiotic constructions. As John Frow (1991: 124) suggests, the conditions of late cultural capitalism, as manifest in such practices as tourism, engender a relationship between site and particularized forms of knowledge that both charges and preconditions the experience of place as a figural ideal. Similarly, Barbara Babcock (1990b: 401-4) has posited that in the case of the social construction of Pueblo Indian women, a system of power authorizes and authenticates certain cultural representations while disallowing others by conditioning an aestheticized and longing gaze. Drawing more broadly on the Southwest as a whole, we shall see that the social constructions governing the qualitative characteristics of presence have consistently imbued conceptions of the land with a distinctly mythical and mystical aura–the Southwest as a particular sort of romanticized space. As a destination the place becomes rooted in allure and the attraction of cultural possibility. What sort of possibility, then, does the Southwest offer as a subject?
As Werner Sollors (1986) points out, America has been ordered as a set of corporate subcultures bounded through an ideology of choice and affiliation–what he has termed the principle of "consent" governing American culture. But within this ideology of plurality, society orders cultural diversity, and in the immediate conditions of people's lives, experience becomes positioned and dependent upon specific circumstances. Paradoxically, these circumstances are often materially similar– increasingly so as American mass-culture invades and makes itself at home seemingly everywhere–even while culture is imaged so as to heighten a sense of differentness among the sameness (a.k.a. the strange combination of safety, latent threat, familiarity, and otherness which is so desirable for touristic forays). As we shall see, the Southwest relies on a linked construction of ethnicity and place as a means of providing for and driving its ability to enchant. Hence "multiculturalism" is more than a demographic actuality characteristic of the region. It also serves as a specialized means of lending regional flavor to the Southwest and in that fuels an ideological possibility capable of uniting, maintaining, and controlling the range of diversity allowed and selected for within a greater encompassing spatial and cultural order.
Through the ongoing rebuilding of the social topography as a process, culture is remade into something better fitting the needs of this cultural order: culture mass-mediated and tailored to fit a dominating hierarchy dependent upon the creation of cultural objects. A culture of touristic displacement, for example, might be understood in its relations to late cultural capitalism (or vice versa) as a means of commodifying relations to the Other (Frow 1991: 150; Babcock 1990b). Thus within the current cultural milieu culture is differentiated and arranged for our consumption through the production of various spatialized "micro worlds" re-constructed from an assembled collection of signs (Stewart 1988: 233). This mode favors the creation of a public cultural product that can also be readily controlled, promoted, manipulated, collected, and legitimized by cultural interests for their audience. As Stewart (1988: 231-32) states:
We build public space as fantasy environments to roam around in ...modeled as a postmodern village of the imagination. History is spatialized and space itself is a rationalized, universalized surface. "Historical societies" appropriate, preserve, rearrange, collect, and reproduce "history" as a symbolic enclosure embodied in handsome, well-kept buildings–a "history" exempted from the ravages, and freedoms, of history.

In the Southwest of the twentieth century, the spatialization of culture is displayed in an endemic mode of appropriation wherein ethnically derived forms are used to construct romantic nostalgias in the form of specialized histories linked to conceptions of place–histories for the vicarious experience of other places and times that we can "tourism." Thus even as we are located within local frames of reference, one of the conditions of twentieth-century life has been the increasing possibility of symbolic displacement from our cultural trap. Of particular interest to our case are two facts: (1) that place is a social construction aimed at characterizing (colorizing) and defining a sense of the culturally distinct, and (2) that it is also possible for one to venture out of these micro worlds in order to temporarily visit others. Thus the surface of culture becomes unlocked by the potential displacement of tourist visitation.
Insomuch as we have become increasingly aware of the subdivision and marking of space as differentiated and qualitatively distinct cultural zones, the Southwest seems to take a special pride in its regional–or better yet "regionalist"–identity. As the quote by Meinig (1971) has suggested, the American Southwest is repeatedly described as a space of intensive intercultural interaction and highly diverse peoples living in close and interdependent contact–the resounding meta-image of the "tricultural mix." But as culture is a means of processing and constructing meaning, it can be construed that systems of signification are actually (and actively) negotiated in a dialogic contest fraught with political implications (Voloshinov 1973 [1930]; Cottom 1989). Thus counter responses arising from positions of power located marginal to the dominating hierarchy continually challenge the superimposition of a predetermined worldview. A question then forms: Is the Southwest a case of micro worlds in collision, of unbridgeable disjunctures between constructions of reality; or one of micro worlds in collusion, with the implication that a larger organizing principle exploits an illusory diversity as a mechanism of economic control? Perhaps a third possibility exists capable of spanning the others: that even if cultural meaning exists primarily as disjunctive, broader social relations can still provide coherent linkages of experience that do not require a full understanding of the culturally specific to access, but which provide appropriate references to localized culture as a source of allure. Consumption is, after all, an ordering mechanism.
In ongoing reference to the profuse contact and interaction between Native American, Hispanic, and Euro-American peoples in the Southwest a considerable level of attention has been directed towards relations between the dominant "white" culture and various ethnic groups. This has occurred in both the popular and academic discourses and is typically rendered under the high-visibility banner and banter of "multiculturalism." Whereas the museums, governments, and cultural institutions of the Southwest have publicly exhibited relatively keen interest in issues concerning the presence and representation of ethnic minorities, at least on the surface, this attention to cultural representation must be understood in relation to the substantial economic and political benefits that have been realized through the marketing of ethnic identities as a form of cultural capital and the concomitant carpeting of the cultural landscape with alluring but shallow images of ethnic identity. Babcock (1990a), for example, has elaborated on the high-taste marketing of Southwestern style as a means of exploiting otherness and engulfing Others as a capitalist practice.
As a counterpart to the seductive attraction of this resplendent Other and its highbrow allure, there is simultaneously another Southwest–this one equally visible and equally compelling of our attention–that is also strewn with a layer of popular images of Indians and Hispanics likewise existing only as American cultural myths and essentially interchangeable living clichés. This too is a Southwest where a particular sort of cultural appropriation is endemic, only here glamour fades into kitsch as pictures of Plains Indian chiefs are painted on restaurant walls together with promises of free geodes with the purchase of a burger, "sleepy" plaster of Paris sombrero-Mexicans rest against saguaros in garden shops, and curio stores sell mass-manufactured kachina dolls and "Indian" jewelry that was made in Japan. In contrast to the idealization of ethnicity as a sort of trophy decoration aimed at lending the conditions of everyday life a privileged aesthetic status, this perspective renders ethnicity devoid of dignity or elegance and instead seeks to contain it largely as a spectacle or curiosity
Thus as a distinctive regional space the Southwest is strewn with layers of visible references to its sociocultural makeup, and these images jointly reflect class-based as well as ethnically based divisions. Even as this visual landscape both forms and informs our experiences by filling our homes, institutions, media, and lives with a thick significatory accumulation marking our regional identity, it simultaneously references and reinforces differential notions of the region dependent upon one's vantage. Furthermore, such imagery, while not solely confined to the Southwest, takes on a crucial set of connections to our sense of place by implying localized narratives, claims to cultural belonging, and habitual references to a particularized social admixture. More specifically, this cultural landscape is largely read through recourse to an ideological structure of multiculturalism resoundingly oversimplified in the tricultural mythos. Here the image of ethnicity becomes narrated as a set of ongoing stereotypes coupled with differential implications of high-taste and low-taste realms, both of which draw from an image past populated by a predetermined cast of cowboys, wild Indians, and conquistadores.
Once again, please return to consider the work of the social geographer D. W. Meinig. Meinig has characterized the Southwest based on its supposed social content-in this case, an ethnically mixed population living in close proximity to the United States-Mexico border zone (1971: viii):
As for the "three peoples" in the subtitle, it is perhaps not inappropriate at this point to assure the reader that I have tried both to show how the generality of three is in detail more nearly a dozen, and yet to suggest also how the collective terms "Indian," "Hispano," and "Anglo" have long been appropriate in certain contexts of study and, more important, increasingly represent a basic frame of reference in the minds of Southwestern people themselves.

Most important in his characterization of the region is the interplay of an internally differentiated and ever-changing but insistently "tricultural" mix that distinguishes the zone–Meinig's is a picture of a Southwest born of unique patterns of social interaction located between "Hispanics," "Anglos," and "Indians." Thus Meinig validates the popularized tricultural model as both an image and an organizing principle, while at the same time recognizing historical and cultural variance within it. 0
Sylvia Rodríguez (1989: 79) follows a related line of thought, in that she also emphasizes the linkages between cultural groups and the mapping of these relationships to physical geography, when she states that the
U.S.–Mexican Southwest as a whole [italics added] can be charactcrized as a "refuge region" . . . a rugged, isolated geographical zone where marginal ethnic enclaves persist in subordinated relation to members of the national society. Other examples are found in the southern highlands and northern deserts of Mexico or in the Andes Mountains and Amazon Basin. All these areas are marked by high proportions of enclaved ethnic minority populations whose sociocultural patterns retain a colonial, sometimes pseudoaboriginal, character. Because of their remoteness and climax ecologies, such regions are inaccessible to the kind of intensive resource exploitation and population growth that flourishes in less extreme, more hospitable, or more favorably situated environments. Thus they remain sparsely populated and isolated and become progressively underdeveloped and backward in relation to mainstream urban society.
In establishing an implied moral center such a description speaks eloquently to the plight of impoverished, discriminated against, and dominated peoples who continue to assert their presence in the region. Indirectly, however, it also speaks to the other side of the coin–to the post-World War II mass-culture Southwest and its hospitable climate, lack of isolation, profuse development, high-tech industrial base, major universities, and large-scale government nuclear research and defense projects that represent the dominant institutions and characteristics of an economic order which constructs people as cultural Others so as to consume them (or their symbolic representations) in the form of othered objects (Babcock 1990b: 403).
Thus as an entity the Southwest is built upon both the "backward" as well as the "mainstream urban society" part of its makeup, and an ironic link exists between the ongoing presence of agrarian ethnic villages as foci and the development of a large-scale tourist economy based on the allure of ethnic admixture and the desirability of the Other. As Frow (1991: 151) states:
The logic of tourism is that of a relentless extension of commodity relations and the consequent inequalities of power between center and periphery, First and Third Worlds, developed and underdeveloped regions, metropolis and countryside. Promising an explosion of modernity, it brings about structural underdevelopment, both because of its control by international capital and "because it is precisely the lack of development which makes an area attractive as a tourist goal."

Under such circumstances cultural tourism requires controlled contact as a mode of interaction not isolation per se, even while the allure underlying the construction of destination relies on a utopian mythos of unspoiled, rough wilderness which paradoxically must be replete with creature comforts and conveniences–a superimposition of an image of the "primitive" atop the material conditions of development.
Thus the Southwest can be envisioned, perhaps insists on its own portrayal, in such themes as polyethnicity, innocence, and the rugged land of the West as a vestigial frontier. If we are to continue to focus on sociocultural interaction as the defining paradigm of the Southwest as a region, as well as its mode of circumscription, we must seek out the varied constructions that such ethnicities have inscribed on the land itself. In this regard it is also possible to extend our gaze and examine the region not just as an area containing this ethnic mix, but as a zone of social construction utilizing this cultural dynamic as a means of creating specialized romanticized spaces as a way of continually reinventing the region–the Southwest as a mythology of place. It thereby becomes evident that the actions of institutions and individuals have seized upon the events of history and have played an active role in inventing the region. Once again Meinig (1971: 8) laid the groundwork for such an approach when he emphasized that popular notions of what constitutes the Southwest are crucial to any efforts aimed at its definition. As Nash (1991: 134) states, a breakthrough in Meinig's work, in focusing on region as cultural construct, was the recognition that "a region was what masses of people perceive it to be." Again the Southwest emerges as a mindset.
Babcock (1990b: 433) has noted a long-standing persistence in the romanticization of the Southwest, wherein the commodification of otherness has been linked to an uninterrupted gaze centered upon ethnicity, the symbolic removal of ethnic peoples from history, and their aestheticization. Looking backward, the groundswell of Southwestern devotion became apparent in the waning years of the nineteenth century, as travel to the region escalated with the establishment of railways and massmarketing campaigns, with the containment of Native American populations through the Indian Wars and subsequent development of the reservation system, and with the incorporation of native peoples into the American economic order. For example, Charles E Lummis (1893: 2-3) characterized the effect of the Southwest as a "spell." He also calls to mind romantic notions of "primitivism" through his comparison of the cultural practices of southwestern ethnic groups with Africa:
The brown or gray adobe hamlets of the descendants of those fiery souls who wreaked here a commonwealth before the saxon fairly knew there was a New World; the strange terraced towns of the aboriginal pioneers who out-Spaniarded the Spaniards by unknown centuries; the scant leaven of incongruous American brick–all are under the spell. And the abrupt mountains, the echoing, rock walled cañons, the sunburnt mesas, the streams bankrupt by their own shylock sands, the gaunt, brown, treeless plains, the ardent sky, all harmonize with unearthly unanimity.
"Picturesque" is a tame word for it. It is a picture, a romance, a dream, all in one. It is our one corner that is the sun's very own. Here he has had his own way, and no discrepancy mars his work. It is a land of quaint, swart faces, of Oriental dress and unspelled speech; a land where distance is lost, and the eye is a liar; a land of ineffable lights and sudden shadows; of polytheism and superstition, where the rattlesnake is a demigod, and the cigarette a means of grace, and where Christians mangle and crucify themselves–the heart of Africa beating against the ribs of the Rockies.

Thus Lummis built a Southwest characterized by intense, magical feelings–bounded and transformed by mystery and rooted in romantic notions of the land and its unique mix of "ancient" (read as indigenous) and by inference "modern" (read as Euro-American) peoples.
A partial definition of this hyper-romanticized mindset, extended to cover its contemporary legacy, may be found in Marta Weigle's (1990: 535-36) concept of "Southwesternism." In this case a clear articulation of the ongoing reinvention and manipulation of popular images of the Southwest is revealed. In her definition Southwesternism emerges as a "'discourse' that can be examined in the development of Santa Fe style and other aspects of tourism and Southwest lures. In the 1920s and 1930s Indian Detours [tourism packages offered by the Santa Fe Railway and the Fred Harvey Co.] capitalized on (for the most part) Anglo's appropriation and mystification ... of native culture."
This Southwesternism finds its beginnings in the 1920s as guided "Harveycars" transported transcontinental tourists from the rails out into Indian and Hispano villages to experience a Wild-Western adventure firsthand. This Southwesternism finds its continuation today most obviously in the thousands of wooden coyotes surrounded by silver Indian jewelry that howl for tourist dollars from practically every shop window in Santa Fe. But this Southwest also finds its history in the visions of the land: in Georgia O'Keeffe's oil-painted masses of undulating red earth, in the adobes of the Pueblos that we are endlessly reminded by tour guides are the "oldest continually inhabited structures in North America," and in the chapels and shrines that dot the Hispano villages of northern New Mexico. These too make up part of the landscape habitually captured through the lenses of tourists' cameras.
Thus Weigle's Southwesternism, modeled after Edward Said's Orientalism, is a frame of mind that in part governs intercultural relationships and the customary modes of thought that help define a region as an inscribed and encoded place.2 It is a space in part governed by the consumption and appropriation of ethnicity as one of its chief draws. Ethnicity thereby becomes an element in a mystified cultural makeup, and the potential for the displacement of vicarious ethnic experience becomes a primary component of the local color. Since to middle-class Euro-American tourist culture ethnicity often harbors a modicum of threat or distaste, as well as a potential for attraction, in order to fully utilize it as a magnet requires mechanisms of containment which tidy and restructure ethnicity as a font of attraction. Thus in the tourist industry no hostile Indians are allowed, but quite by chance we were given the reservation system and the enclaved communities of the "refuge region" as a means of political and economic control wherein the veiled threat of happy Indians and agrarian utopia is encouraged in a museum of living cultures born not of time immemorial, but of the consumer economy of the present.
There are countless potential evidences generated from within this regional discourse that also suggest definitions of, or ways of configuring, the Southwest. Since this study relies heavily upon mass-cultural images and texts as evidences, it is especially concerned with processes of mediation as mechanisms for cultural control and cultural change through the reproduction of dominant discourses and concomitant shaping of people's ideas. In this vein, one might seek other clues for defining, delimiting, or conceiving of the Southwest as a cultural space by ferreting out applicable texts among the specialists in "Southwesternism." Here I again speak of the tourism industry. Or rather, this might be better approached by borrowing from the Frankfurt School scholars and addressing it as a broader question of the "culture industry." For, as this description of Santa Fe from a 1991 College of Santa Fe brochure evidences, such Southwesternisms extend through regional culture far beyond the immediate grasp of the tourist. And here we also get a glimpse of the direct ties constructed between the art and ethnicity markets of the Southwest, and their effects on defining the character of space:
Timeless, mystical and possessed of an ancient history, Santa Fe is a city whose ambiance reflects its tri-cultural heritage. High in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, Santa Fe radiates an essential beauty amidst the blend of her gifted cultures. The high mountain desert continues to call forth artistic expression ... from the Native American artist to the emerging contemporary, their commitment to excellence has made the arts widely recognized as the "pulse" of Santa Fe.

Such evidences of Southwesternism help reveal the popular modes of thought configuring the Southwest as a place. Indeed, one cannot inhabit the region for any period of time at all, or for that matter pass through it with one's eyes open, without witnessing firsthand an onslaught of Indianesque symbols, geometric designs, curios, products, and advertisements that play upon Southwestern style, upon Southwesternism. Consider this quotation from the Southwesterny artist Fritz Scholder (1979: 4-5):
Why does a laundromat have a neon kachina on the roof? DRINK WITH REAL INDIANS, the sign says, along a New Mexican road. There are those who will still buy, as long as it is made by Indians. But the paint is peeling from the wooden wigwams. The signs are fading by the highways. 100% INDIAN and HURRY BACK have weeds and empty cans as companions. The numbers of cement tepees, giant arrows stuck in shopping center parking lots, curios, automobile ornaments, trading post murals, signs and billboards are endless.

Of course, nothing so complex and ingrained as our cultural conceptions of the Southwest sprang up overnight. Fritz Scholder's parking lot arrow is only one outcome of what has been a long development of place inscribed upon the physical features of the social landscape; Route 66 revisited stands as a steady stream of tourist traps bordering the asphalt and therein mediating the realities of the transcultural with a premise (and a promise) of seductive cultural displacement.
Such popular images of the Southwest, old and new alike, envision the place as a landscape tied to the romantic yesteryear of the American West, populated with images of cowboys and Indians, and imbued with a sense of wonder. Such a sentiment, grandchild of Lummis, remains common today, located within attempts to sell the region through its cultural milieu and its history. For example, in a 1991 Gallup Convention and Visitors' Bureau brochure, we are summoned to visit the town in northwestern New Mexico so that we may find the real "Old West" still alive. This piece of the living past happens to be marketable as Indian art, and ethnicity and art become inseparably bound with place as they melt into each other:
If you wish to find the real Old West, that long ago land of wide open spaces spliced together by a thin braid of railroad track and interspersed with dusty but valiant little towns, then your wish has come true. Amid rock strewn mesas and arroyos that run red with dirt-dyed water, sits Gallup&emdash;"in the heart of Indian Country." Sprawled over several hills, the city nurtures the varied cultures whose historic roots have helped to mold Gallup into the arts and crafts mecca it is today....
Not glamorous, not glitzy, it's true; but a crossroads of American history that brings together railroaders, wranglers and ranchers with a distinctive medley of proud Indian tribes. Gallup now celebrates its Indian heritage through arts and crafts in trading posts bursting with traditional wares and galleries displaying the finest of contemporary Native American arts. The old West is honored through rodeos and its world famous Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial.
Or once again, please consider this description from a Drexel Heritage furniture catalog, where Southwesternism becomes a partially transplantable style that you can purchase as a ready-made step toward the refinement promised by highbrow Southwesternism:
Amidst a backdrop of dense, green foliage, the home-spun, earthy quality of Southwestern flavor is right at home. Supple leather upholstered selections, in subtle shades of adobe, are jazzed up with splashes of vibrant color. White-washed finishes, complementing warm wood tones, are accented with terra cotta and antiqued iron and brass. Hand-woven Indian textiles and rustic accessories supply the finishing touches that capture the essence of Southwestern spirit.
In the twentieth-century Southwest both Indian and Hispanic identities have increasingly been appropriated into an art discourse as a means of commodifying ethnicity. Again, as given to us by the Convention and Visitors' Bureau masters, "Gallup now celebrates its Indian heritage through arts and crafts in trading posts bursting with traditional wares and galleries displaying the finest of contemporary Native American arts."
In this quest for what we are calling "Southwesternisms" another example is of particular interest here, in that it exists specifically as an attempt to draw the boundaries of the Southwest on cultural criteria. The document that I have in mind is a commercially available map entitled, aptly enough, a Guide to Indian Country, which was issued in 1983 by the Automobile Club of Southern California and the California State Automobile Association. Its preamble for visitors to the Southwest offers this introduction:
The Indian Country of the southwestern United States offers the adventurous traveler a seemingly endless array of majestic geological and archaeological wonders. In addition, the visitor has a unique opportunity to become acquainted with the history, customs and crafts of the country's largest Native American population.
As a map, Indian Country focuses on a region which is not coterminous with any political unit. Indeed, it includes portions of five states&emdash;Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and a tiny bit of Nevada&emdash;and none is represented in its entirety. Rather, its organizational theme is based solely on the preponderance of reservation-based Native American peoples, coupled with the wealth of scenic attractions and museums that exist in the area. In so doing, the map could be interpreted as suggesting a certain similarity between native cultures and natural wonders as tourist destinations.
Indian Country is also notable in that, while it references cultural makeup and history through geographic features, it does not restrict itself to such a focus. Far from it. For example, it also provides protocols to assist outsiders in what they may consider as a foreign land (such as "Obtain permit at Peach Springs before traveling on secondary roads on Indian reservation," or "The Antiquities Act of 1906 prohibits the appropriation, injury, destruction or removal from place of any object of antiquity, or the excavation, injury or destruction of any ruin on Federal land under the jurisdiction of the Secretaries of the Interior, Agriculture and Defense, except such scientific research or excavation as these Secretaries may authorize."). The map also provides thumbnail ethnographic sketches of the major Indian tribes, complete with pronunciation guidelines and a schedule of ceremonies, dances, and festivals which arc open to public visitation. More than an auto-inscription of culturally held viewpoints, in its own way it very much resembles a sort of popular, practical junior ethnography. Ethnography in the form of tour guide, that is.
Like all of our examples of how people conceptualize the Southwest, and for all that it reveals about the construction of place, Indian Country is in itself only a partial definition of the region. Most notably in terms of delimiting the Southwest, Indian Country is oblivious to the history or existence of Hispanics in the area. Yet it does reflect the fascination with Indian identity which is so deeply rooted in the Euro-American population of the Southwest and which has increasingly been controlled and managed as an attraction. Thus the Southwest is constructed differentially in accord with diverse aims and understandings. In contrast to the hegemonic Euro-American view of the region as a magical mecca, picturesque piece of the past preserved, or tourist destination&emdash;a view which has not excluded Hispanics but which has more characteristically emphasized Indians&emdash;consider this Chicano construction of the Southwest as place, as the mythological homeland Aztlan. Here again, it is the myth of the region upon which its allure and its significance is based, and it again possesses a transformative magic of its own as a particular telling of history. Unlike the dominant Euro-American mythology, however, it is voiced as a process of return and change rather than one of arrival and continuity. But once again, even as tradition is constructed, it posits familiar links of the Indian with the mystical as it invokes "the very ancient gods" (Valdez 1973: xxxiii):
We have been in America a long time. Somewhere in the twelfth century, our Aztec ancestors left their homeland of Aztlan, and migrated south to Anahuac, "the place by the waters," where they built their great city of Mexico&emdash;Tenochtitlan. It was a long journey, for as their guiding deity Huitzilopochtli had prophesied, the elders of the tribe died en route and their children grew old.Aztlan was left behind, somewhere "in the north," but it was never forgotten.
Aztlan is now the name of our Mestizo nation, existing to the north of Mexico, within the borders of the United States. Chicano poets sing of it, and their flor y canto points toward a new yet very ancient way of life and social order, toward new yet very ancient gods. The natural revolutionary turn of things is overthrowing outmoded concepts in the life of man, even as it does in nature; churning them around in the great spin of creation, merging the very ancient with the very new to create new forms.
Daniel Cooper Alarc6n (1992: 64, endnote 4) also provides what he terms the "standard" definition of this mythological place:
Aztlan was the legendary homeland of the Aztecs, a utopic spot said to exist somewhere to the north of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City). Aztlan became the rallying point of the Chicano cultural nationalist movement (1965-75), has been closely linked with the area that is today the southwestern United States, and is widely considered to be the spiritual homeland of the Chicano people.
As a narrative device, such visions of Aztlan as a mythological motherland became popular as a means of creating political unity amongst Hispanics. As John R. Chavez (1984: 1) has suggested, at least in the heyday of the Chicano movement, Chicanos had a clearer image of the South-west as "more than just their place of residence; it is their homeland, their lost homeland to be more precise, the conquered northern half of the Mexican nation." But perhaps "clearer" actually meant more "politically useful," rather than the economic utility that so often motivated the Euro-American construction of ethnicity and place in the region&emdash;no, as the region. Chavez goes on (p. 130) to state that:
In the ancient myth of Aztlan, activists found a tie between their homeland and Mexican culture that antedated the Republic of Mexico, the Spanish exploration of the borderlands, and even Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) itself. As we have seen, ancient Aztec legends, recorded in the chronicles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, recounted that before founding Tenochtitlan the Aztecs had journeyed from a wondrous place in the north called "Aztlan." Since this place of origin, according to some of the chroniclers, was located in what is now the Southwest, Chicano activists reapplied the term to the region, reclaiming the land on the basis of their Indian ancestry.
Thus Aztlan, as a symbolic construct, was resurrected from the distant past in a desire to turn away from American hegemony as a creative act of resistance. This has been characterized by Quirarte (1973: xx) on one hand as a "longing for, a feeling of, nostalgia for the ancient past." However, he also critiques the relationship between tradition and nostalgia (p. xviii):
The Mexican American has been touched by Mexico's efforts to establish a Mexican identity, which has by no means been entirely resolved. The Mexican is still searching for his roots in the pre-Columbian past while he is firmly anchored in a European frame of mind.... Artists may take pre-Columbian motifs, as Diego Rivera has done in many of his murals, but the pictorial language and conventions remain European.
A different critique, but one also touching upon the romanticization of region, has been made by Cooper Alarc6n (1992: 34-35) in noting the increasing disunity behind the meta-narrative of Aztlan. He suggests that in the wake of the 1970s the fixity of the symbol created a dilemma for many contemporary Chicanos, who have been forced to either embrace the two-dimensional rendering of the Aztec past or else reject it as false. Thus Aztlan, unlike the Southwest of American popular culture, has subsequently lost much of its vitality as an image (Cooper Alarcon 1992: 36):
As a durable, political symbol of Chicano cultural nationalism, and one which has been linked to and used to legitimate Chicano identity, Aztlan, I believe, has never been realized in its complexity, nor been adapted to recent changes in thinking about cultural identity, and thus is rapidly diminishing in its usefulness to Chicanos.
Furthermore, as an image, the Aztlin of the 1960s and 1970s lacks the apparatus of the mass culture industry to reformulate (and reinforce) its message. But like the enchanted Southwest of Euro-America, the imaging and imagining of Aztlan is a view of region not bounded so much by an ideology of geographic barriers, physical features, or objective factuality, as by one of cultural criteria imposed on a mythology of place, people, and imagery as a means of developing and referencing cultural identity through claims made on feeling. Only in this case, the espoused borders are conceived in accord with parameters of a resurgent ethnic identity rather than as a containment field for ethnic groups: "Aztlan is nowhere; it lies wherever there are Chicanos; no physical border can bound it: it affirms itself in us" (Rocard 1987: 84). Ethnicity once again becomes the expression of self-identity, constructed as spirit rather than objectification by outsiders. Nonetheless, mental borders remain borders; they remain containers of a sort. The image of Aztlan has a draw all its own, a mythical presence of such magnitude that is difficult to see beyond. But it also resembles a Southwesternism rewritten from another political and social position, decentered from the Euro-American, but nonetheless bearing a certain ironic similarity marked by the conditions of time and circumstance which place Euro-American and Chicano in a partially shared frame of reference. The two positions feed off of one another, and they cannot be fully separated. The people, the land, and the imagery together form a region born of "time immemorial" as it has been constructed within the last century or so.
So you see, in truth the parameters bounding the Southwest depend. They depend upon the context in which the term is being used and on the motivations and purposes that underlie its use. Obviously, geographic, political, and cultural definitions rely upon radically different criteria for ordering or establishing a region. But as we have also seen, what are customarily termed "cultural" definitions in themselves also rely upon diverse criteria encompassing the political to envision and inscribe the geographic. What's more, the "empirical" criteria of region cannot be separated from the cultural moorings which lend them their form. And despite the divided, perhaps oppositional differences between visions of place such as our Chicano and Euro-American examples, together they share a pattern of reference that ranges from the uniqueness of intercultural mixture, to the presence of Indians, to a mestizo population, to history, to the "uniqueness" of the land, to a magical feel. And beyond this, these constructions of the region consistently rely upon allure and nostalgia to frame their views.3
As a cultural zone the Southwest stands as a contested semiotic construction held together through relationships of power organizing both meaning as well as status. It is for this reason that people want so desperately to be included in the Southwest (such as the often ignored claims for membership by Oklahomans) or so much to exclude (such as Byrkit's desire to keep out Texas, California, Santa Fe, Taos, and other tourist destinations). But the Southwest was constructed as just that, a tourist destination. Without this past, it would be just another spot on the map, not the map's object, and it stands not just as a space of desire, but also as one of possessiveness. As a partially shared zone of inter-reference, the different configurations of the Southwest are alike in that they make habitual recourse to ethnicity, mythos, and image in order to construct and empower a sense of place.
In considering sources such as the Indian Country map as means of distinguishing the conceptual parameters of the Southwest, rather than building them up based on external objective criteria, I am in a sense following Meinig's suggestion and allowing views of inhabitants of the region itself and other interested parties to define it&emdash;in a sense, dcfinition by discourse. By so doing, I arrive at a spot where, amidst these many diverse views, the Southwest again beecomes revealed as a sociocultural space born of inter-ethnic interaction and located as a contested semiotic construction. This is not the only possible Southwest, nor is it even a unified Southwest that reconciles different cultural positionings&emdash;but it is one way of looking at the region as a culturally active zone that remains fluid and negotiable and which necessarily encompasses and binds these cultural positionings. And inasmuch as the Southwest exists as a socially shared image, we must grapple with the question of why and how there is such a region in the minds of its residents and visitors.


1. After reading this article an anonymous reviewer commented on the similarity between my notion of contested image world as a model of the Southwest and Cooper Alarcon's model of the palimpsest, with its layerings of positioned and partisan texts, as a model for Aztlian. Although I had formulated the bulk of this article some time before reading that paper, the comparison reinforces the applicability of contestation and discourse theory to the construction of place with implications that may also extend well outside the construction of the Southwest per se.
2. Barbara Babcock (1990b: 406) has also followed this line of reasoning in referring to the Southwest as "America's Orient."
3. This process of listing examples could continue for quite some time. Most obviously, as part of our comparison we could examine the variety of Native American visions of place, both in regards to the meta-narratives of pan-Indianism that have emerged in this century with their emphasis of mystical relationships to the land, as well as particular embodiments of places as sacred sites and localized histories that have increasingly become political strategies either for motivating Euro-American support, or else attacking outsiders' claims. As a jumping-off point readers might wish to consider the cases elaborated by John Bodine (1978) and Sylvia Rodriguez (1990) regarding Taos Pueblo.


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