Lines and Lineage

Lines and Lineage imagines what the history of the Mexican-American border might have looked like at the time of the area’s Mexican Administration. It questions the role that photographs—both present and missing—have played in shaping the identity of the West. In addition to creating new representations of the U.S. Mexico border, Tomas worked with CatchLight and the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting to create and distribute an open source curriculum for middle school and high school students throughout the United States. 

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We often forget that the boundary between Mexico and the United States was not always where it is today. It used to be 1100 kilometers farther north, following what is now the state line between Oregon and California and running east to Wyoming before zagging southeast to Louisiana. Originally home to the indigenous peoples of the region, much of this land was Spanish and then Mexican territory for centuries before becoming what we now think of as the American West.

Spanish colonists and missionaries settled here beginning in 1598. In 1821, Mexico won independence from Spain, and by the middle of the century, it was in some ways far more advanced than its neighbor to the northeast. It abolished slavery shortly after independence; black Mexicans soon gained prominent positions, including the governorship of California. Indigenous people were given the right to vote. All this came to an end in 1848, when the United States attacked Mexico, seized half its land, and created the border that we know today.

At the time, the war on Mexico was emphatically opposed by prominent Americans, including Abraham Lincoln and John Quincy Adams. Henry David Thoreau penned his groundbreaking essay on Civil Disobedience after his arrest for nonpayment of taxes, an act of defiance of what he called an “unjust” war that aimed to “expand the slave territory.”

Mexican administration was cut short before photographic technology, revealed in Paris in 1839, arrived in the region. The well-known visual record of the American West—dominated by photos of cowboys and white settlers, the Gold Rush and the arrival of the railroads—was created after 1848. Images from the Mexican era, on the other hand, were never fixed in our memory. Using glass plates and a nineteenth-century camera to photograph landscapes along the original border and create portraits of descendants of early inhabitants, this project imagines what that history might look like. It questions the role that photographs—both present and missing—have played in shaping the identity of the West.

Impact & Resources

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Tomas presented his CatchLight project to 170 students at three Santa Clara, California middle and high schools in November 2017. He visited more classrooms in January 2018, reaching 113 students in four public and public charter schools in Washington, DC. The teachers used a lesson from an open access curriculum created in partnership with the Pulitzer Center education team to support deeper student engagement with the project.

When they see similarities and differences in the larger picture they have more equipment to make better choices and decisions of the larger perspective of their world issues.
— Rebecca Palmer, Visual Arts Teacher at Mount Pleasant High School