The Documented Border Archive

A Conversation with Verónica Reyes-Escudero

Verónica Reyes-Escudero, Katheryne B. Willock Head of Special Collections, librarian, and curator of the Borderlands Collection at the University of Arizona Libraries Special Collections, talks to Choice about part of the Borderlands CollectionThe Documented Border ArchiveThe Documented Border currently focuses on the US-Mexican border in two parts: oral histories with Mexican and American journalists and human rights activists, and pencil sketches of detainees accused of illegal immigration during the Operation Streamline period in the US. These two mediums work together to provide a rich and well-documented account of the issues surrounding the US-Mexican border, whether it be centered on immigration or journalistic freedom.

Image of Verónica Reyes-Escudero
Verónica Reyes-Escudero is the Katheryne B. Willock Head of Special Collections at the University of Arizona Libraries. She most recently served as the Borderlands Curator and Instruction Coordinator for Special Collections. She works with donors, faculty, and students across disciplines in using special collections materials and engages the community through events that highlight the archive’s rich holdings on the US-Mexico borderlands. Verónica was previously the subject specialist for English Literature, French, and Italian. She has written and presented on incorporating archives-based research into the curriculum, the intersection of special collections and the digital humanities, and the archives of Mexican American literary authors. She recently coauthored the book, Latinos in Libraries, Museums, and Archives: Cultural Competence in Action! An Asset-Based Approach. She is currently chair of the Rare Books Manuscript Section for the Association of College and Research Libraries of the American Library Association.

How would you describe the collection to a perfect stranger?

The Documented Border Digital Archive is a dynamic primary source documentation archive resulting from multidisciplinary research on events and images relevant to the US-Mexico border. The archive presents the documentation in digital form, but physical materials are also donated to the institution for long-term preservation and access. The material becomes part of the Borderlands Collection of the University of Arizona Libraries Special Collections, which is meant to advance understanding of the US-Mexican border and the people affected by it. The archive is unique in that it gets in front of current research and offers a place to close the gap for underrepresented voices in the historical record.

Who is the intended audience of the Documented Border Archive? How do you envision undergraduates using the collection?

As is the case with most archives, the intended audience is students, community members, and local as well as global scholars; because the collection is online it can reach an audience on a global scale. Undergraduate students, in particular journalism students learning to report along the US-Mexico border, use the archive to listen to model interview techniques by established journalists. They also learn about the complexities of reporting along the border, self-censoring, dangers faced, and the commitment required from border journalists to work under often threatening conditions. This collection gives them the opportunity to learn about the nuances in border reporting and gain a fuller perspective about the realities of what it’s like to report in this area of the world from experts in the field.

I understand that this collection is part of the larger Borderlands Collection. How did this specific archive, focused on US-Mexican journalism, human rights issues, and US immigration policies, originate? What was the rationale or thread in putting these topics and media (oral history interviews and pencil sketches) together?

These two projects started as seed collections and timely representations of important current events. In particular, the two collections we started with, the Journalists and Operation Streamline sketches, shine a light on areas not much represented in the public consciousness, and certainly not in other archives. The intention of the archive is for it to grow and showcase primary sources that document the multifaceted borderlands for a fuller understanding of the region. Additions to the collection may include photography, literary pieces, and interviews of people on a variety of themes and topics. We received a Faculty Collaboration and Innovation Grant awarded by University of Arizona’s research institute, Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry, to fund the digital archive and some of the research and associated events.

This exhibit is unique in many ways. For one, most of the oral histories collected were spoken in Spanish with a few in English. How essential was it to conduct interviews with Mexican journalists, instead of exclusively American reporters (and American perspectives)?

Drawing: Back of detainee wearing leg cuffs, ca. 2012–2014.
Back of detainee wearing leg cuffs, ca. 2012–2014.

The US-Mexico border region is a unique place; some say it is its own culture. Part of living in this border region is living with multiple languages. Spanish is spoken by approximately 20 percent of people living in Arizona as compared to 13 percent across the nation. Without representation of journalists from both Mexico and the United States, journalism along the borderlands would not be adequately represented. One of the aims of the digital archive is to fill gaps in the historical record of underrepresented voices, people, events, and issues; furthering awareness and comprehension of the borderlands has always been our main goal. We created the archive to establish a collection that advances representation and develops a fuller picture and knowledge of our history along the border.

Celeste González de Bustamante, one of the two interviewers, conducted many of her interviews in Mexico. What was the process of choosing interviewees and meeting them to interview? What were some challenges?

The most pressing challenges for Dr. Celeste González de Bustamante and her research partner Dr. Jeannine Relly, related to issues of safety, both for the interview subjects and for the researchers. The interviews included in the Documented Border Archive were conducted between 2013 and 2014, at a time when many journalists in Mexico were working under conditions of extreme threat. Between 2000 and 2019, more than 200 journalists were killed in various states throughout the country. During that period, news coverage about organized crime diminished in northern Mexico and in some cases complete “news blackouts” resulted from threats of violence against journalists. The researchers identified and recruited journalists from a variety of news outlets, and developed lists of journalists to interview based on consultations with international and national news media organizations in Mexico and the United States. They contacted journalists who were based in six northern Mexican border states: Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas, along with their sister states in the US: California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.

Drawing: Judge addressing detainees, ca. 2012–2014.
Judge addressing detainees, ca. 2012–2014.

Specific challenges included security concerns online and in person for subjects and researchers; inability to travel to certain locations to conduct research; uncertainties about potential and recruited study participants; inability to include graduate students in field work; and university and institutional barriers to research in high risk zones. Journalists who were interviewed between 2013 and 2014 were asked for permission to include their interviews and portraits in the Documented Border Archive. Almost all interview subjects agreed. For more information on their methodology and responses from journalists, please refer to Relly and González de Bustamante, “Silencing Mexico: A Study of Influences on Journalists in the Northern States” and “Global and Domestic Networks Advancing Prospects for Institutional and Social Change: The Collective Action Response to Violence Against Journalists,” and González de Bustamante and Relly, “Professionalism Under the Threat of Violence: Journalism, Reflexivity, and the Potential for Collective Professional Autonomy.” In addition, the two are completing a book manuscript now under contract with the University of Texas Press on the subject of resistance and resilience among Mexican journalists who continue to work in the midst of extreme pressures.

Many of the interviews include stories of violence, censorship, and corruption that exists in Mexican journalism. Why is it so essential to document attacks on free speech and the press?

It is essential for archival repositories to play a role in capturing any silencing that occurs, whether deliberate or unintentional in order to maintain a more complete and comprehensible historical record. In the case of this collection, journalists are brave enough to work under these conditions even if it means resorting to self-censorship when their lives are threatened. Archives can play a role in facilitating their stories being heard (or seen) and for researchers to further bring attention to these important silences.

In addition to the interviews, the Lawrence Gipe Operation Streamline Sketches section illustrates “trials of detainees who are accused of illegal immigration into the United States as part of the Operation Streamline program.” Operation Streamline is known for its “zero-tolerance” approach to immigration. Why was it so important to capture the damaging effects of this program? Why were these pieces chosen to be pencil sketches?

Drawing: Sitting male detainee with handcuffs and interpretation headphones
Sitting male detainee with handcuffs and interpretation headphones

Videography or audio recording is not allowed in Operation Streamline proceedings. Proceedings move quickly, so Professor Gipe found a way to represent the people going through these court proceedings through sketch renderings. To date, his sketches are one way, if not the only way, other than attending the proceedings, to gain a visual understanding of the people going through the process of deportation in court.

In the spring of 2019, the Trump administration cut funding for educational and recreational activities at temporary “shelters” for migrant children. The Trump presidency has also abetted a growing distrust of news outlets. What is the significance of a collection not only centered on Mexican-US borders, but also on the state of journalism, especially in today’s political climate?

Our intention for The Documented Border is to provide access to multifaceted and interdisciplinary accounts of the border. We started the archive with two timely areas of interest that have had national or international attention. By providing the voices for those who speak for and about the press, we facilitate learning about a crucial moment in history and the impact that various factors have on freedom of the press. As immigration discussions take place on a national stage, providing illustrations of people’s lived experiences paints a more complete picture, or at least begins to do so. Our intention is to continue to expand The Documented Border by adding additional multifaceted collections that will add to the narrative of the border. Primary source documentation allows people to see or hear these lived experiences and perhaps offers a better, fuller understanding of the US-Mexico borderlands. For those studying the region, availability of primary and open-source documentation that more accurately represents the region can benefit and inspire research in areas that have previously been covered only with surface understanding.


For more on The Documented Border Digital Archive, please see: Digital Resources: The Documented Border

For a look into the interview process, please visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WrRmpVlYGXA

The interviews: http://www.azarchivesonline.org/xtf/view?docId=ead/uoa/UAMS533.xml

The Operation Streamline Sketches: http://www.azarchivesonline.org/xtf/view?docId=ead/uoa/UAMS524.xml

This interview was conducted by Sabrina Cofer. She is the digital media assistant at Choice.