What if Mexico Still Included California, Nevada and Texas?
ALBUQUERQUE — Mention the border with Mexico these days and dystopian images might come to mind: Agents detaining children in a holding pen, blimps hunting drones, the corpses of border crossers marking the frontier.
But even as President Trump presses ahead with his cry for a wall along the entire border — implying, yet again, that neighbors to the south threaten the richest and most powerful country on Earth — history offers other perspectives.
The photographer Tomas van Houtryve had in mind the nuanced past of what is now the American West when he set out on the border.
No, not the current one, but the long-forgotten boundary that existed before the Mexican-American War.
Mr. van Houtryve, 44, wanted to challenge what he calls the West’s “puffed-up mythology” in which Hollywood nurtured the view that the expansion of the United States spread ideas like equality, liberty and democracy in conquered lands.
“In reality, these values arrived in the West straight from Mexico City,” said Mr. van Houtryve, who was raised in California and now lives in Paris. “The main ideological import of Anglo-Americans to the West at the time was actually strident white supremacy.”
Before President James K. Polk prodded the two nations into war, Mexico was nearly twice as large and the border was some 700 miles north of where it is now. Mexico prohibited slavery; American slave owners wanted to expand the institution.
Then came the 1845 annexation of Texas, where American immigrants to what was then Mexico’s state of Coahuila y Tejas had staged their slaveholder rebellion. The Texas Revolution’s martyrs included men like the slave trader James W. Fannin.
A few years later, the United States orchestrated the war with Mexico that led to one of the most colossal land grabs in American history: territory now including Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
Using a North American map from 1839 (the same year that photography is thought to have made its debut in Europe), Mr. van Houtryve traveled along Mexico’s old northern border to meet families who have lived in the region for centuries.
His equipment in the Instagram age? A 19th-century camera he found in a Paris antique shop. He stocked up on the glass plates and pungent potions needed for the wet-collodion process, a technique invented in 1851.
Doing so, Mr. van Houtryve conjures what the West may have looked like in the Mexican era in places such as Medicine Bow Peak, in Wyoming, and the Bonneville Salt Flats in northwest Utah.
Using 19th-century technology requires meticulous planning. Instead of taking hundreds of digital photos in an hour, then sifting through the images, he takes about two in the same amount of time with the wooden camera.
“It puts your thoughts and intentions at the start of the process instead of the end,” he said.
Some of his pictures capture the scenes of forgotten atrocities like the 1847 massacre by American troops of more than 150 Indians and Hispanics in the San Gerónimo church in New Mexico’s Taos Pueblo. His work will be on display at the Photography Show presented by Aipad in New York from April 3 to April 7, and a monograph is scheduled to be published by Radius Books this fall.
Mr. van Houtryve also photographed people like Susan Calderon Belman, a descendant of Luis Manuel Quintero, a black man who was one of the original pioneers of what is now California.
As Mr. van Houtryve reminds us, most of the original colonists who founded El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angéles in 1781 had varying degrees of African ancestry, though public recognition of the city’s Afro-Mexican origins remains sparse.
Mr. van Houtryve, who previously photographed countries where communism endures in the 21st century, like Nepal and North Korea, said he embarked on this project after the 2016 election in the United States was marked by resurgent bigotry. With his pictures, he homes in on the historical amnesia that envelops not just the Mexican-American War but so much else of America’s past, effectively enabling our new era of intolerance.
This practice of remembering reminds us of the Americans whose ancestors never crossed the border with Mexico. It crossed them.