North American Countertopographies

Through Mexican, Central American, and Chicanx cultural production, this course examines the uneven reconfiguration of the U.S.-Mexico borderland in the era of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Drawing from critical geography, migration and border studies, and the environmental humanities, we consider how different cultural artifacts have imagined, projected, and challenged the political and socioeconomic boundaries of the Americas. Likewise, we consider how trans-border bodies, spaces and species can help us interrogate the history of the nation-state as well as the social, emotional, and economic toll experienced on both sides of the border from the early 1990s onward.

Interdisciplinary in methods and scope, this course strives to develop an understanding of how cultural production responds to and, at the same time, participates in the process of the production of social space. Particularly, we consider how the production of the desert and border as sites of socio-ecological struggle prefigures a new paradigm in the relationship between the environment, migration, and the global circulation of capital. Special attention is given to demographic trends and new patterns of international forced migration that arose in the aftermath of the so-called Mexican “War on Drugs.”


Assignments include presentations, discussion facilitation, and a seminar paper. Alongside readings and class discussions, students will work as a group on a digital timeline/story map using a platform of their choosing (StoryMapJS, ArcGIS StoryMaps, etc.) The goal is to create an annotated cartography of North America’s recent history. The class is structured around four units, each referred to a particular concept that specifies the relation between spatial literary studies and the regional integration of North America:

  • North. Focusing on the entanglements between industrial agriculture and the rise of the maquila industry, we ask how labor and labor relations across the U.S.-Mexico border evolved throughout the last decade of the twentieth century. We consider how urbanization and patterns of residential differentiation affected populations on both sides of the border, while allowing for the consolidation of Northern Mexican and Chicanx identities.
  • Desert. Moving beyond the city as a spatial referent, we consider how the representation of the desert in contemporary Mexican and Central American narratives refracts the increased use of violence as a stabilizing agent for capital accumulation. We consider the novel’s ecological imagination and the valences of form to think through the ecological crisis associated with the urban climateric.
  • Border. Studying how neoextractivism intersects with new patterns of international forced migration, we analyze changes in public space, gender, and ethnic identities derived from the contemporary proliferation of borders (political, economic, geographical). We consider the role cultural production plays in the changing border and migration regimes across the Americas.
  • Countertopographies. Finally, we study how memorialization, nostalgia, and loss in contemporary Mexican, Central American, and Chicanx cultural production become spatial vectors that extend the sense of belonging in geographical form. We consider how literary form delineates a countertopography in opposition to NAFTA’s ideal of globalization.