Despite a somewhat flat, repetitive narrative style, Gómez’s insights into the struggles at play in the 19th century Southwest are extremely relevant for today.
Manifest DestiniesPublisher: NYU
Subtitle: The Making of the Mexican American Race
Display Artist: Laura E. Gómez
US publication date: 2007-10
"We didn't cross the border, the border crossed us." -- Popular slogan of the Immigrants' Rights Movement
When America went to war with Mexico in 1846, the western half of what is now the US was northern Mexico, a vast territory with a porous border, populated by Mexicans, Indians, and American immigrants. After two years of war, Mexico signed a peace treaty that ceded over half of its territory to the United States, which included the 115,000 Mexicans that were living there.
Thus was born the Mexican American: a racial group that today comprises the largest minority group in the country; of the nation's 41.3 million Latinos, nearly 60 percent are Mexican American. This was a pivotal period in America's history, when its race relations, specifically with the slave trade, were shaping the country. It was in this context that the Mexican-American identity was being formed and in many ways, itself influencing American racial politics.
In Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race, Laura Gómez sets out to write “an antidote to historical amnesia about the key nineteenth-century events that produced the first Mexican Americans.” A law professor at the University of New Mexico, Gómez takes a three-pronged approach: she looks at Chicano history via sociology, history, and law, using New Mexico as a case study. At the heart of the book is the idea that Manifest Destiny was not, according to Gómez, a neutral political theory. Rather, it was a potent ideology that endowed white Americans with a sense of entitlement to the land and racial superiority over its inhabitants.
Colonialism -- and its accompanying conqueror/ conquered dynamic -- is integral to the discussion in Manifest Destinies, and Gómez emphasizes its absence from the rhetoric and historical record surrounding this period (the “frontier” is a much more common mythology, promoting the idea that western America was empty and uncivilized). Mexican Americans, in fact, occupy an extremely unique position in racial politics: They have been "doubly colonized", as subjects of the colonial aspirations of both Spaniards and Americans. Spanish colonizers brought with them a racial hierarchy that continued to affect class strata when Mexicans became Americans. The more Spanish/ European blood, the better: a hierarchy of mestizos.
The key to Gómez's approach is the idea that Mexican Americans form a race, not an ethnicity. The distinction lies in social construction: “Rather than having inherent significance, race is historically contingent and given meaning by persons, institutions, and social processes." According to Gómez, the Mexican-American identity is a result of legal definitions and social attitudes during the period after the US-Mexico War. There was, in fact, no adequate racial model for Mexicans.
She notes, “Politicians and newspaper editors publicly wondered which fate would await Mexicans: should they be treated like blacks or Indians?” This ambiguity led to a problem of categorization. Two views were adapted: the dominant view, which considered Mexican Americans as unfit for self-government because they were 'inferior'; and the progressive view, which considered them a benign presence because of their Spanish ancestry.
Either way, a Euro-centric attitude dominated the discourse. Mexicans in effect became a “wedge” group between Euro Americans and African Americans/ Indians: “legally white” (not slaves, and not allowed to serve on juries), but second-class citizens without the guarantees of full citizenship, and with popular attitudes and media proclaiming their racial inferiority.
Slavery was a crucial issue for the country at the time. Annexing the southern and western part of the continent, in fact, became a distinct catalyst for the Civil War. Lawmakers were faced with the question of whether African-American slavery would be allowed to expand into the territories. New Mexico switched from an anti-slavery stance to pro-slavery in the 1850s, likely because those with powerful interests felt it would help them gain entrance into the Union (they wouldn’t succeed until1911, nearly 63 years after becoming an American territory).
Despite the fact that Mexico abolished slavery 33 years before the US, Mexicans in New Mexico began to hold Indian slaves. This was generally encouraged by Euro Americans, who sought to divide Mexicans and Pueblo Indians in order to disrupt a potentially powerful alliance. This created a system in which Mexican elites marked themselves as economically and racially privileged by distancing themselves from their own Indian ancestry. According to Gomez, "The power of racism is ideological, achieving its apex when racially subordinated groups themselves help to reproduce racism."
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was a turning point for Mexicans in the US. Without the Chinese as cheap labor, the US turned to Mexico to fill this need. Mexican immigrants became the workforce for the agricultural and industrial sectors of the US economy. This relationship was cemented with the 1917 bill that virtually barred Asian immigration, while simultaneously creating the first exception for temporary workers from Mexico. “Actively recruited by employers and U.S. government agents, more than 400,000 Mexicans entered the United States… to work in the 1920s.” Regulations on Mexican immigration did not become institutionalized until the '40s.
The 1930 census is the first that listed “Mexican” as its own racial group. Ironically, just as Mexican Americans were becoming acknowledged as a significant entity, economic tension during the Depression was stirring anti-Mexican racism, and mass deportation began. More than 400,000 Mexicans, including many who were US citizens, were rounded up by police and deported. In New Mexico, Mexican Americans were loaded in trucks and dumped across the border.
It wasn’t until the Chicano student movement in the '70s that Mexican Americans rejected association with white identity on a public scale. Gómez calls it the first “sustained (though ultimately unsuccessful) challenge to the progressive narrative of New Mexico race relations.” During that period, Lyndon B. Johnson created the Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for Spanish-Speaking People. For the first time, Mexicans were being recognized for their untapped political potential, while they were in the process of taking ownership of their own group identity.
Despite a somewhat flat, repetitive narrative style (the point presented, then made, then summarized), Gómez’s insights into the struggles at play in the 19th century Southwest are extremely relevant for today -- a time in which identity politics are still predominant in discussions about culture. She notes: "The United States has always been a multiracial nation, even though it has become popular only in the last twenty-five years to talk about it in those terms."
With Chicanos making up the youngest racial group in America (34 percent are under the age of 18), the complicated relationship between the US and its Mexican citizens is clearly something that is going to be on the table for a long time to come. Manifest Destinies presents a portrait of the forces that were present when this group was still in its infancy.