Baseball is America’s national pastime, but Mexico also has a long history with the sport.
In the mid-19th century, American soldiers in the Mexican-American War introduced Mexicans to the game in the various regions in which they were stationed.
This meshing of cultures was once strikingly evident on the U.S.-Mexico border.
“People talk about playing baseball where home plate was in the U.S. and outfield was in Mexico,” said Aaron Bobrow-Strain, professor of politics at Whitman College. “This might be an apocryphal story, but it captures the spirit of a life lived across the border. It’s a really functional, not scary, but dynamic, beautiful way of living.”
Back when the border was less strictly patrolled, Mexicans crossed one way to shop, work or visit family and friends, while American tourists crossed in the other direction to roam the curio shops. This lax border-crossing policy came to a halt in 1994, when then-President Bill Clinton established a “prevention through deterrence” security strategy that concentrated Border Patrol enforcement resources on major entry corridors.
Bobrow-Strain documents this new, stricter era on the U.S.-Mexico border in his latest book, “The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez” (Farrar, Straus and Ghiroux, 2019).
Bobrow-Strain first went to the U.S.-Mexico border in 1993, shortly after earning his master’s at Stanford University in California. Working for the binational organization BorderLinks, he guided groups from all over the United States that had come to the border to try to understand the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the new militarized immigration border control policy.
“It was a really formative time for me, personally, intellectually and politically, just being surrounded by this cross-border community of educators and activists,” he said. “Being drawn to the border, there’s a kind of creativity and resilience of life in the borderlands, a beauty that gets lost in the contemporary reporting about crises. That really reached out to me.”
Bobrow-Strain’s ties to Latin America run deep. After finishing his undergraduate degree at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, he earned a master’s in Latin American studies at Stanford University and studied abroad in Ecuador doing social sciences fieldwork. He went to graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1997 to 2003, and did the research for his doctorate in human geography while living in Mexico City and Chiapas, Mexico. His first book, “Intimate Enemies: Landowners, Power, and Violence in Chiapas,” is based on the research he conducted during 16 months living in Chiapas. Over the years, he has spent time in Mexico with his family during sabbatical.
Since joining Whitman’s faculty in the fall of 2004, Bobrow-Strain has returned to the border several times, as an educator and researcher.
“I knew when I got to Whitman that the border would be an important part of my pedagogy,” he said.
In 2005, he led the first of several summer trips as part of the college’s U.S.-Mexico Border Program. He guides students during two weeks of intensive, academically rigorous experiential education aimed at exposing participants to a wide range of perspectives on key border issues. Days are packed with meetings on both sides of the Arizona-Sonora border with government officials, community organizers, immigrant rights activists, business owners, immigration attorneys and migrants themselves.
“Whether it’s economic globalization, inequality, racial nationalism — all of these things have been lived out on the border for a very long time,” he said. “By understanding the border, it also helps [students] understand their own home communities.”
In early 2014, the idea for “The Life and Death of Aida Hernandez” started to coalesce in Bobrow-Strain’s mind.
“The book started to percolate during those conversations with students and community members during the border trips,” he said. “It was the culmination of being able to talk with people from across the political spectrum — from U.S. Border Patrol agents to migrants to community organizers and business leaders — and then do that repeatedly over the years and see how the border was changing. The book really grew out of that.”
Some students who went on the border trip have assisted with research for the book.
“During the border trips we met many of the people who became important to the book. Some students went on to do thesis research. Students have always done thesis work as a result of the border program, but in specific as a result of the trips,” he said.
Politics major Andrea Berg ’16 participated on the 2013 border trip and based her senior thesis research project on women in immigration detention centers in Washington state.
“My thesis got accepted to be presented at the American Studies Association National Conference in Denver. Aaron supported me then in taking my very long, Whitman-focused undergrad thesis and paring it down to an academic article for general consumption. That absolutely set me up for my current career,” said Berg, who now works as development director with Voz (Voice), a Latinx community organization in Portland, Oregon, that works with immigrant day laborers.
Berg traced her trajectory from the border trip to where she is today.
“I hadn’t declared politics as my major yet, but I was definitely leaning in that direction. The trip was truly a life-changing experience for me. It took me from a general sense of outrage and, ‘I want to get involved in politics but I’m not really sure how,’ to diving deep into the issue of immigrant rights and militarization of the border.”
The deep engagement she experienced at the border led her to become more involved in immigrant rights on campus and in the Walla Walla community. She participated in Whitman’s “State of the State for Washington Latinos” community-based research project and helped organize the BAM Club (Borders as Method), for which Bobrow-Strain serves as advisor.
Berg also helped organize Immigration Week, a week of educational events that brought local and national activists and leaders in the immigration rights movement to Whitman to educate students about how immigration issues affect the region and nation.
She became directly involved in Bobrow-Strain’s nascent book project during her junior year. Much of her thesis research heavily informed the section of the book detailing the central character’s detention.
“I was looking to get more into academia, so I originally asked Aaron if he needed help transcribing, and that evolved into being one of the main research assistants on the book,” Berg said.
Over the next two years, she went back and forth from Walla Walla to Tacoma to interview Latinas about their experiences in the Northwest Detention Center — one of the largest, privately owned facilities, housing over 1,500 detainees.
“I took a very ethnographic approach: What is the power dynamic between the guards and detainees? Between other detainees? Were they doing any organizing?” Berg explained.
She also delved into the intersection of domestic violence against women and immigration policies, which became a major undercurrent of the book.
“Aida’s experience mirrored the experience of the women I interviewed in Tacoma. I think that’s why the book is so powerful. Aaron used her narrative to tell a story that is largely based in her actual experience and weaving in composite aspects of the general issue and larger bird’s-eye view of the political landscape. It’s a really effective way to educate people by giving them a strong character narrative to build an attachment to and know how Aida’s story ends, while delving really deep into all the critical factors that are forging her path,” Berg said.
“It was an incredible experience. I felt very empowered in working with Aaron. He did not assign me tasks to complete for him. There was a lot of independent research I was able to do on my own, and that’s one of his strengths as a mentor — he really empowers students to feel that their contributions to the project are valuable and their insight and interpretation of things,” Berg said.
Berg’s experience testifies to the impact the border trip has had on student and educator alike.
“Students tell me it shaped their decision to become immigration attorneys, public health physicians, go into politics, or have gotten involved in community organizing and immigrant rights — and it’s had a big impact on me. It’s been really important for me to connect my classroom teaching with the community engagement side.”
The impact of the U.S.-Mexico border trips on students inspired Bobrow-Strain to extend the opportunity to others. In 2017, he worked with Associate Professor Leena Knight, the Office of Off-Campus Studies and the Off-Campus Studies Committee to establish Crossroads. The summer program allows students to spend three to six weeks studying abroad with a group of Whitman students. Led by Whitman faculty, the trips focus on areas of faculty expertise.
“These kinds of short-term, off-campus programs help put the classroom experience and all the theorizing, historical and conceptual work we do into conversation with folks in communities outside the classroom — one informs the other,” he said. “For me, the best thing is when a student’s classroom learning is being shaped by experiences in the community, but also when they’re drawing on what they learn in the classroom, the different theories and perspectives, in order to understand and interpret and act in the world.”
With Bobrow-Strain’s encouragement and assistance, politics major Danielle Alvarado ’07 participated in a similar study-abroad program administered in collaboration with the Mexico Solidarity Network in 2006.
“Aaron went above and beyond for me to do something that resonated with me as a person and student. The focus of the trip was social movements in Mexico: I met with community organizations and learned about indigenous autonomy, land displacement and rates of femicide — many of the factors that are driving migration. It was an immersive introduction to Mexican history and its politics and economy, as seen through the lens of social justice,” Alvarado said.
During her senior year, Alvarado went on the U.S.-Mexico border trip, which directly shaped her life after Whitman and career trajectory. After graduating, she returned to the border to work with No More Deaths (No Más Muertes), an Arizona-based nonprofit that provides aid to migrants crossing the desert and advocates for humane border policies. During her four years there, she documented abuse and interviewed deportees. She is now an immigration attorney with the Fair Work Center, a workers’ rights organization in Seattle.
“I would not be where I am now if it hadn’t been for Aaron,” Alvarado said.
She returned the favor by serving as a sounding board for many of the central ideas and themes in Bobrow-Strain’s new book.
“There’s a lot of immigration law in the book that Aaron explains for the lay reader — how Aida comes to be deported and why she is turned away from the port of entry, what happens to someone when she shows up at the border saying she is a U.S. citizen, and how that would play out in her later immigration case,” Alvarado explained.
“It’s come very full circle for me. To go from being a recent graduate to helping him tell the story of a woman who is representative of the type of people I represent currently. Aida is such a special person, and her story is not that unique. The book helps lift up a set of experiences: that while the specifics may not happen to everybody, it’s a common experience for so many people,” Alvarado said.
In the classroom, Bobrow-Strain has developed courses on the politics of Mexico and U.S.-Mexico relations, and he is currently developing a new class on the global politics of migration.
“Focusing on non-North American cases, the class looks at Europe and other parts of the world. The thing that’s driving global migrations right now is massive unchecked global inequality, and inequality in and among countries,” he said. “As we’ve seen since the ’80s and ’90s, as far as immigration, inequalities of various kinds are skyrocketing due to the legacies of past colonial regimes, globalization and other dynamics. As inequality grows, the forces that drive migration grow.”
The curriculum of another new class he’s teaching, Political Ecology, incorporates creative nonfiction — the literary style he adopted for his new book.
“It’s interesting to work with students who are challenging the borders of what counts as academic writing,” he said.
While his new book is grounded in rigorous research and heavily theorized using academic scholarship, Bobrow-Strain wrote it for a popular audience.
“This book is novelistic nonfiction. My desire to do this kind of writing is shaped by the experience of teaching at a liberal arts college, where you’re communicating to students who are math and biology majors as well as politics,” he said.
“That’s been one of the cool things about being at a place like Whitman — to be in that triangle of teacher-scholar-community engagement. Whitman values and supports scholarship, excellent teaching and the kind of community work that I’ve done — that’s what I’ve really liked about my time at Whitman. It nurtures those things.”
*Top photo: Art on the Mexico side of the border between Agua Prieta and Nogales. Photo by Sean McNulty ’14