Two Publics in a Mexican Border City

Peer Reviewed


In the Mexican border city of Tijuana, two publics contend to represent the city as a whole. One styles itself after the classic bourgeois public sphere, showing the continued relevance of this model even in an only ambivalently Western society such as Mexico’s. The other, taking shape through genres of hearsay, significantly expands received conceptions of publicity. Ethnographic examination of the two publics together renders a picture of the public sphere as a broad range of voicings of collective subjectivity and of publics as focused clusters of these. The Mexico-US border highlights the problematic nature of these voicings; each public responds in different ways to the challenges the border poses to the articulation of a Mexican “we.” Through analysis of this conflictive and conflicted setting, the essay offers an ethnographic perspective on the dialogic, contextual, and highly contradictory processes that constitute the public sphere and “society” as a subjective whole.

About the Author

Rihan Yeh, "Rihan Yeh." October 22, 2012 via .

Rihan Yeh is a junior professor at the Centro de Estudios Antropológicos of the Colegio de Michoacán in Mexico.  She has published “A Middle-Class Public at Mexico’s Northern Border,” in The Global Middle Classes: Theorizing Through Ethnography (Heiman, Freeman, and Liechty, eds., 2012) and “‘We’re Mexican Too’: Publicity and Status at the International Line,” Public Culture 21(3):465-493. She is currently at work on a book manuscript titled Passing: An Ethnography of Status, Subjectivity and the Public in a Mexican Border City.

Additional Readings

Cody, Francis. 2011. "Publics and Politics." Annual Review of Anthropology. 40: 37-52.

Fraser, Nancy.  1992.  Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.  In Habermas and the Public Sphere.  Craig Calhoun, ed. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Gal, Susan, and Kathryn Woolard.  2001.  Constructing Languages and Publics: Authority and Representation. In Languages and Publics: The Making of Authority.  Gal and Woolard, eds. Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing.

Habermas, Jürgen.  1989.  The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society.  Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Lomnitz, Claudio.  2001.  Deep Mexico, Silent Mexico: An Anthropology of Nationalism.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Silverstein, Michael.  2000.  Whorfianism and the Linguistic Imagination of Nationality.  In Regimes of Language: Ideologies, Polities, and Identities. Paul Kroskrity, ed. Santa Fe, N.M.: School of American Research Press.

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1) What are the "two publics" that Yeh describes in her article?  How do they differ in terms of the collectivities that they articulate and their modes of articulation?

2) In what ways do the "bourgeois-type public" and the "hearsay public" reflect the tensions caused by the international US-Mexican border?

3) How do various forms of local, national, and international collectivities get constituted through the voicings of the two publics? (i.e. citizenship, nationality, migratory status, class, race)

4) What type of ethnographic and linguistic data does Yeh use to construct her argument about the existence of the "two publics"?  What are the key linguistic markers that she analyzes?

5) What is the relationship between individual actors and collectivities that Yeh theorizes in each of these publics?  Where does she find evidence of this?

6) What role does media, everyday talk, and government practice play in the discursive creation of collectivities?

Relevant Links

The following links are meant to provide a thicker sense of some of the larger institutional configurations shaping Tijuana's split public sphere.

* The main Point of Entry connecting Tijuana to the U.S.--likely the most traversed Port in the world--is currently undergoing a major rebuilding.

San Ysidro Land Port of Entry Project Overview

* The "turnkey industry" facilitates production for companies looking to relocate to Mexico.  Their advertisements show a city entirely geared to the needs of offshore industry:

El Florido: A Master Planned Community

* The following two websites have become flashpoints for the "civil society" movement in response to organized crime and Mexico's "War on Drug-Trafficking"

Blog del Narco

Nuestra Aparente Rendición


In the foreground, the 1990s fence, cut open, patched, cut open,patched again.  Beyond it, the new double-layered fence, part of the2006 initiative to seal the border.

Rihan Yeh, "Border Fence." October 22, 2012.

A working-class neighborhood, with a dirt road leading to theassembly-plants in the distance.

Rihan Yeh, "Valley View." October 22, 2012.

Marchers in one of the first demonstrations, held in 2006, in what hasbecome a movement of national scope against insecurity.

Rihan Yeh, "Marchers." October 22, 2012.

“Welcome to Tijuana,” the sign reads, “‘The Voice of the People’ Market.”

Rihan Yeh, "Welcome Sign." October 22, 2012.

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