American Cultures: At the Border

Immigration, Economic Policy, Civil Unrest Take on Real Meaning for These 120 Students

by Marie Felde

Students in Beatriz Manz's American Cultures class, "The Southern Border," have to keep on their toes. Not only is it a fast-paced class, but current headlines seem to illuminate each week's course material, almost as if planned.

"I have never taught a class where I say something in class and it is on the front pages the next day. I tell the students we will be looking at the southern border of Mexico and the next day the Mexican army's move against the Zapatistas was all over the news," said Manz.

The course, which fulfills the American Cultures graduation requirement, focuses on the southern U.S. border as a region, a new area for Manz, an associate professor of geography and ethnic studies whose specialty is Central America.

"I thought about the class two years ago--before NAFTA, before Proposition 187, before the problems with the peso," she said.

"It has been an extraordinary experience for me. In preparing for the class, I have devoured books and books. My only problem is that the semester only lasts 16 weeks."

In the class, Manz approaches the southern border as a region, exploring in particular the California/Mexico border, the Florida entry point for Haitian and Cuban migration, and New York. "New York may seen odd, but it is the entry point for Puerto Ricans and others from the Caribbean," she said.

The timeliness of the issues is not lost on Manz or her students. She said their reaction has been "absolutely fantastic. Obviously they feel it is an important topic."

At the Feb. 22 class, Manz invited three high-powered panelists to discuss aspects of Proposition 187, the California initiative that imposes restrictions on illegal immigration.

Alan Nelson, the former commissioner of the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service and a co-author of Proposition 187, led off the discussion. He was joined by Andres Jimenez, director of the California Policy Seminar, and Stephen Rosenbaum, a Boalt Hall lecturer who provided another prospective.

Although the presentation was lively, and the atmosphere in the Dwinelle lecture hall was certainly charged, it never got out of hand, and student questions covered all aspects of the emotional topic.

"Students are respecting each other's points of view. There is a level of respect that is admirable," said Manz, adding that at any given moment, "probably 20 percent of the students may be cringing" at opinions expressed.

"Because this is an American Cultures class, I have students I would not normally have, including many in the hard sciences. For them to be dealing with something so topical is obviously interesting and they make a real contribution," she said.

At a quick glance, the 120 students enrolled seemed representative of a cross-section of Berkeley students. Manz said at the first meeting one student offering a conservative point of view began her comment with, "To play the devil's advocate..."

"I told her and the other students, 'There is no need to preface your comment that way.' We need to generate a healthy interest in all sides in this class," said Manz.

The high point of the class is yet to come. Manz and her teaching assistants are coordinating a two-day field trip to the San Diego-Tijuana border in April. "Logistically, this is a nightmare," she said with a laugh.

Students will fly to San Diego, then charter a bus to Tijuana where they will meet with local students and scholars, visit production plants and spend some time in colonias, the poorer neighborhoods where they will meet with neighborhood leaders and workers in the border assembly plants. As part of their border visit, they will tour a center for rural migrants from southern Mexico.

The next day, they'll see the border from the U.S. side. They'll meet with border patrol agents and visit the canyons where those who've recently crossed illegally hide out.

The field trip is not a required part of the class and there is no special credit, but the interest is exceptional, said Manz. "Almost the entire class wants to go, but we have only one bus.... I'm not sure what we're going to do," she said, adding a note of thanks that the university recently provided her with a $1,000 grant to help cover some costs.

Whether they go on the field trip or not, said Manz, she hopes her students come away from the class "with a sense of history, an appreciation of the complexities of migrations and what it's like to be an immigrant in the U.S." I would like the students to see that things are not as simple as we would like to see them--that we have to think more globally and have a new appreciation where they will fit in the world in the years to come."


Copyright 1995, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
Comments? E-mail