Geraldo Cadava was born in Tucson but left when he was a child. Still, he returns often to visit family.

“It’s the only place I return to,” he said.

So it figures that when the assistant professor of history decided to write a book on the changing nature of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, he turned to his hometown through which to analyze and view the clashes, challenges and contradictions in our dynamic but troubled region.

In his book “Standing on Common Ground,” published last month by Harvard University Press, Cadava examines the making of a “sunbelt borderland.” The author, who is on the faculty at Northwestern University in Chicago, explores the historical links — commercial, social and political — between the neighboring states of Sonora and Arizona and then focuses on Tucson, ground zero in his study.

His personal and professional goal was to recover an understanding of the deep relationships between the two states, and how they have had, in many ways, parallel developments. He writes a counter-narrative to the current one, which insists that the border region is a war zone dominated by anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions.

In fact, Cadava said, the hyper-focus on immigration and security has distorted the reality of everyday border life and binational relationships. Border families continue their lives on both sides of the line, and an increasing amount of commerce, goods and capital cross back and forth.

The sister states didn’t lose their connections as the border was redrawn, added Cadava, who earned his doctorate from Yale in 2008.

In the aftermath of the 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., political forces increased the militarization of the border. Nativists forced a series of stringent laws that were aimed at curbing illegal immigration but adversely affected the growing Latino population. But the redrawing of the region and relationship occurred long before Sept. 11. Throughout the last century, the U.S. allowed and encouraged Mexican workers at U.S. fields, factories, mines, but forced them back during economic downturns.

After World War II, the economies of Arizona and Sonora were retooled as massive spending on defense, agriculture and industry reshaped the region. Migration to both states exploded. The corporate interests were further strengthened and workers’ interests weakened by the North American Free Trade Agreement at the close of the 20th century. Politicos, industrialists and economic boosters on both sides of the border had more in common with one another than they had with the workers and ordinary citizens in their respective states.

While the book is academic in its style, Cadava artfully uses local history to make his case. In one chapter he brings us the example of Alex Jácome, the late Tucson businessman whose successful downtown department store bearing the family name attracted scores of Mexican shoppers.

Jácome, like other entrepreneurs on both sides of the border, grew wealthy during the post-war period when Sonora and Arizona waved the flag of goodwill and warm binational relations. Jácome — like his contemporary, Ignacio Soto, a one-time Sonoran governor and industrialist — cultivated cross-border political and social relationships. Yet the Jácomes and Sotos of both states “did not bridge the inequalities and tensions that stymied U.S.-Mexico relations during the Cold War,” Cadava wrote.

Although the inequalities and tensions persist, and in some cases are aggravated in the border region, Cadava concludes that people on both sides must acknowledge the contradictions and recognize their reliance on migrant labor.

Border residents need not focus solely on black-and-white disputes over immigration and security, he wrote, but can “reorient conversations around many points of unity, division, affiliation, kinship and alienation” that are ingrained in our communal history.

My take?

It’s time to develop new and healthier political realities for our border region, which for centuries has undergone change save for one constant: We have flourished by maintaining cross-border friendships and family connections.

Ernesto Portillo Jr. is the editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. He can be contacted at or at 573-4187.