Before social media, postcards captured moments in time treasured by tourists who visited new places all over the world. On the Mexican border, postcards became the window to how US tourists perceived and shared their perceptions of the border. As Daniel Arreola demonstrates in his new book, Postcards from the Baja California Border, photographs of landmarks, casinos, and geographic locations became part of the US imaginary of the Mexican border in the early twentieth century (4). According to Arreola, these images of the Mexican border went beyond representing places like the towns of Tijuana, Mexicali, and Tecate. They also captured photographers’ perspectives of “place and time” (4). The author has divided the book into five parts, with thirteen short chapters that allow the reader to better understand the geographic location, city landscapes, and landmarks displayed in postcards during the first half of the twentieth century.
In the book’s first half, Arreola provides a brief history of the postcards, but he also tells the readers that not all postcards were created equal. Merchants sponsored postcards to promote their business on the border, while others printed postcards of landmarks and places to sell to tourists. Most printing companies were based in the United States and along border cities such as San Diego and Calexico. These postcards became important tools of advertisement, especially during the Prohibition era (1920–33), when many Americans crossed the border to Mexico for the weekend to drink and stay at hotels in Tijuana, Tecate, and Mexicali.
What I found very useful about this book is that the author also provides a historical overview of how postcards displayed the demographic changes of the border, which is the focus of the book’s second half. Arreola closely examines the formation of the two border cities of Tijuana and Mexicali, and of the smaller towns of Tecate and Algodones by effectively using historical maps and postcards to show the evolution of these cities. He argues that the expansion of casinos and hotels in Tijuana led to an increase in population. The historical maps used by the author clearly demonstrate how the population grew from 1,000 to 8,000 residents between 1920 and 1924 (86). The postcards also show the progression of Tijuana from a rancho to a booming town with a racetrack, casinos, and a bridge at the Tijuana River that facilitated the crossing of cars from San Diego to Tijuana (84–95). Tourism continued after the end of the Prohibition era, and the population continued to grow. Arriola notes that, by 1960, Tijuana had a total population of 152,374 residents (97).
The city of Mexicali, however, grew in the early twentieth century because of the boom in the commercial cultivation of cotton (220). Arreola’s use of maps and postcards not only illustrates the evolution of Mexicali from a small town to a city but also shows how the Colorado River was central to both the town’s development and, at times, its destruction. Affected by constant floods from the Colorado River after its foundation in 1903, the town was reconfigured three years later, in 1906, to avoid the constant flooding from the river (213). A notable contribution of this book is how Arreola captures the esthetics of buildings through postcards that set border cities apart from other cities in Mexico. The postcards show that the design of plazas and government buildings did not follow the same colonial architecture of most cities where government buildings are located in the cities’ downtown. In cities like Mexicali, Tijuana in Baja California, and Ciudad Juárez in Chihuahua, the plazas, casinos, and government buildings are located near the border with the United States, next to other twin cities such as Calexico, California, and El Paso, Texas.
With thirteen chapters, Arreola’s book may be too long to use for an undergraduate class. However, it is a valuable resource for geographers, historians, and graduate students looking to learn more about the history of border towns and their close connection to the formation of cities in the US-Mexico borderlands. This book would be especially useful for lectures because of its rich materials of maps and postcard representations of Mexican border cities.