Obfuscating the State Line: Land Conflict and State Formation on Oaxaca's Frontier, 1856–1912

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Officials in Oaxaca, Mexico, attempted to formalize the state's borders in cooperation with the surrounding federations of Guerrero, Puebla, and Veracruz throughout the period 1856–1912. These efforts, which were aimed at rationalizing rural property to facilitate more effective government, in large part failed due to the persistence of ongoing, intervillage conflicts on the frontier that routinely worked to disrupt these campaigns. Drawing on cartographic and spatial history as well as classic works on state formation and resistance, this article explores how frontier residents simultaneously defended, created, and strategically transformed a vernacular, local landscape around the village of Zapotitlan Lagunas during this period. By manipulating the legal system to their own purposes, carrying out surveys, boundary markings, and occasionally land invasions—even by allegedly fabricating novel evidence of contradictory boundaries—border residents successfully obfuscated the state line's whereabouts in defiance of state aims. Ultimately, these strategies frustrated the state and federal governments' efforts to implement and enforce a permanent boundary and enabled residents to retain considerable local autonomy in the decades prior to the 1910 revolution.