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Latino/a Mobility in California History

Genevieve Carpio, Javier Cienfuegos, Ivonne Gonzalez, Karen Lazcano, Katherine Lee Berry, Joshua Mandell, Christofer Rodelo, Alfonso Toro, Authors
Kate Berry, page 3 of 4

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The State of Mexicanidad in the US Racial Hierarchy By: Kate Berry and Karen Lazcano

September 30, 2014

Media Summary:

Jamelle Bouie, "Will Today's Hispanics be Tomorrow's Whites?", Slate, April 15, 2014

In this Slate article, Jamelle Bouie provides an insight into the Latino answer to the question “Who is white?”. Bouie begins his analysis with the debate that resulted from racially labeling George Zimmerman, after the Trayvon Martin shooting. Zimmerman is half-Peruvian but was labeled as white-Hispanic, which conservative news outlets claim was used to maintain the issue as race-based. This incident leads into Bouie’s greater point, where he questions who gets to identify as white in today’s shifting demographics and where Latinos stand when answering that question.

Findings from the Pew Research Center show changing demographics in America, where it is projected only 47 percent of Americans will identify as white by 2050. Latinos will grow to be 28 percent of the American population and will be the driving force behind the “demographic makeover.”

The policing of racial lines has shifted since the 19th century. Bouie argues that whiteness has changed into from being Anglo-Saxon exclusive to offering an opening for minority groups. This option is opening up for the Latinos in America, but does not offer a place for all those that identify as Latino. As Bouie points out, there are many different ethnicities that fall into this group, and not all can or will be able to identify as white. As seen in past inclusion of migrant groups into whiteness, their dark-skinned counterparts are not offered the same.

Bouie’s piece conveys questions of the racialization of Latinos in America and what that means in terms of identity for future generations.

Reading Summary:

Kelly Lytle Hernandez, Migra! (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2010), 125-234

There was a ton going on in this week’s reading! While Karen and I are going to focus mainly on the portion concerning Mexican Americans (their attitude toward Border Control, the immigrants, and themselves, as well as how they were treated and perceived by others), here is a brief-(ish!) rundown of some of the other main points of this second chunk of Migra!

  • Border control tactics shifting from overt violence to a more passive “power to let die”(p132), through the construction of fences strategically planned to end in the roughest terrains of the border.
  • Border Control officers beginning to view undocumented migrants working for American agribusiness-men as analogous to slaves, and typing them all as “Josés(p138): rural, poor, unskilled, abused men. Officers saw deportation as their way of “liberating” these “Josés”. Later, as the focus of America shifted to law and order, BCOs stopped viewing Mexican migrants as Josés and instead cast them all as criminals.
  • Operation Wetback ’54: A comprehensive and aggressive attempt to deport all undocumented Mexican workers. Supported by Mexican Americans in hopes that less illegal workers (at the mercy of their employers) would mean more opportunities for them, and rebelled against by American agribusiness-men (such as the Fletcher family (p153-55)) who resented losing cheap labor and continual property raids.
    • Required Mexican Americans to submit to their own harassment, as Mexican-appearance was the main/only ground upon which citizenship was questioned. During this time as well Mexican Americans were seeking “whiteness”, and divorcing themselves from the migrants even more strongly.
  • The Bracero Program (’42-64) offered selective legality to able-bodied men. The details of Bracero contracts caused a host of issues:
    • The exclusion of women and children led to an increased flow of these undocumented parties over the border as they tried to join their husbands/fathers as well as find work for themselves. This led to gendered deportation (deporting women and children entailed more guilt and was thus carried out less aggressively, a practice of which migrants took advantage)
    • Agribusiness-men north of the border used exclusively undocumented labor before Operation Wetback, but afterwards, a new method of identification and review (I-100 cards(p188) as well as lax enforcement of program details allowed farmers to continue to mistreat and underpay their Braceros.
  • Structural Changes in Border Control methods: airlifts into central Mexico, busses dropping immigrants into unfamiliar communities from whom they would be less able to get help to cross back over the border (after Operation Wetback these structural shifts remained in place, and along with the Border Control training school in El Paso, centralized the idea of “Border Control” at the US-Mexico Border)


We decided to put this Slate article in conversation with the Migra! reading because we felt that the theme of race demarcation (how it’s decided, what it entails, and how it is propagated), is as prevalent now as it was

for the Mexican Americans fighting for “whiteness” in the mid 20th century. In our reading, we saw Mexican Americans intensely, and sometimes forcibly, separating themselves from the Mexican immigrants flowing across the border, and, because citizenship in America was unofficially equated with white skin, seeking to relocate themselves into that privileged group. Are the Hispanics of today, the Slate article wonders, in a similar position? It posits that as a country we are approaching a crossroads where we can either embrace multiculturalism as a reality, or we can continue to sift ethnic groups into one side or the other of the black-white binary.

In considering these options, we must also keep in mind the accessibility of whiteness for different ethnic groups, especially when it comes to Latinos in America. Will Latinos face a divide between those identifying as white, those that choose not to, and those that are not offered a choice? In Migra!, the fight for whiteness created a divide within Mexicanidad between those that were Mexican-American and could choose to identify as white, and undocumented Mexican migrants who could not do the same. The wide range of ethnicities that make up the current Latino demographic in the United States tells us that the answer is more complicated today. Along with the diversifying Latino demographic, there has been a shift in perception with identifying as white. 

Additionally, the migration demographic at the southern US border today has shifted from Mexican migrants to Salvadorian, Honduran, and other groups of Central American migrants, and reasons for migrating north have also changed (gang violence vs. economic survival). Lytle Hernandez tells us about measures taken by the US (supported by Mexican Americans at the time) that zealously sought to exclude foreigners from gaining citizenship during the 1900s, and the Slate article reminds us of measures like Proposition 187, which just recently attempted to diminish the status of an entire group of people living in America by denying social services to undocumented immigrants in California.

Discussion Questions:

Compare the historical reaction of Mexican Americans to the influx of undocumented Mexicans in the 1900s, to the attitude of “white-hispanics” and other groups today towards the current surge of Central American immigrants.

In Migra! we see time and time again Mexican-Americans fighting to have the option to identify as white. Bouie’s piece brings up identifying as white as an available choice for future Latinos. How has the accessibility  of  “whiteness” changed for Latinos in the United States? What are the factors behind “whiteness” as an identity for Latinos?

In considering future racial hierarchies in the United States, do you think we moving towards multiculturalism, or are we still dividing everyone into the black-white binary? Will Latinos choose to identify as white and how will this choice be determined?

Join this page's discussion (6 comments)

Discussion of "The State of Mexicanidad in the US Racial Hierarchy By: Kate Berry and Karen Lazcano"

Situating "Multiculturalism"

In response to your dual analysis of the Bouie article and the second half of Lytle-Hernandez's book, I was intrigued by the use of the term "multiculturalism" as a conceit of the Slate piece. Multiculturalism resonates a generative lens to think through race relations in the multiple temporal contexts of this week's readings. More specifically, we can be more critical of what multiculturalism is-- whether as a necessary celebration of difference or as a topical appreciation that fails to recognize the discrete nuances of ethno-racial formations. Thinking through what we mean about multiculturalism, and its applications in the 20th century Border Patrol politics and contemporary renditions of the black-white binary, would provide ample space to discuss the two texts synergistically and independently.

Posted on 1 October 2014, 11:20 am by Christofer Rodelo  |  Permalink

Border Patrol and Prison System

I really appreciate the relevance of Bouie's essay to our discussion after reading MIGRA's epilogue. It is clear that exploring the place of Mexican-Americans in the U.S. racial spectrum over time is a central goal of her research. Lytle-Hernandez says that the increasing number of Mexican immigrants in federal prisons indicates that for Mexicans, "the story of race has tipped away form whiteness and towards blackness." I'm interested in hearing your opinions on this!

Posted on 1 October 2014, 2:15 pm by Joshua Mandell  |  Permalink

21st century American identity

I find it interesting to see how whiteness has always been something that needed policing due to its glorification, when in reality, whiteness has a very dark history of colonization in America. Secondly, is being at the top of the racial hierarchies related with population numbers or what are other factors that play in? I’m also curious to see how the census continues to identify people with Spanish ancestry or Latin America ancestry. Often times, identification forms like these force people into boxes that do not allow much room to truly explore ones personal identity. What is 21st century American identity and who are we proving this to?

Posted on 1 October 2014, 5:37 pm by Alfonso Toro  |  Permalink

Check all that apply: Changing Classifications of Latinidad

Throughout history, Latinos have struggled to determine where they fit in relation to the black and white binary. I think the Slate article, in bringing in immigration history, points to the ways that Mexicans as an ethnic group were socially constructed in the United States as "not white", and how some Mexicans did in fact fight to make a claim to whiteness. Because there have been several waves of Mexican/Central American migration, however, Mexican and/or Latino identity is impossible to fixate. Unlike other groups (e.g. Irish) that did not experience recurring waves of migration, ethnic Mexicans and Central Americans' racial status in the United States becomes unassimilable. There is an ongoing stratification of Latinidad, and racial hierarchy within Latino identity that makes it difficult to treat the group as a whole. In the future, then, it's possible that Latino, or even Mexican as an ethnic identity will no longer be a monolith. Is it possible that the future might hold a legal/formal hierarchy of Latinidad that distinguishes between Latinos whose families have been in the U.S. for generations and those who just arrived recently?

Posted on 1 October 2014, 10:01 pm by Ivonne Gonzalez  |  Permalink

Whiteness in the History of Latinidad

While Migra's earlier chapters dealt with Border Patrol agents that called themselves "Spanish" and shunned their Mexicanness in favor of a European narrative, the Slate article seems to ignore historical notions of Latinos as white. It's interesting that the author would go so far as to cite a historical book on whiteness without ever engaging with the possibility that at some point in time, Latinos may have been considered white. In fact, the author doesn't even really mention the fact that in current demographics data, Latinos are for all intents and purposes considered a kind of white. Sure, non-hispanic white is considered a separate demographic category, but the demarcation asking Latinos to choose black or white is still very much a part of statistical and demographic analysis in contemporary America. As for racial hierarchies being complex in the nineteenth century, we've done a fair bit of discussing as to how that worked in California, but in other parts of the country it really was that black and white, and Latinos could have been considered white. All in all a fascinating article, but with that strange historical gap.

Posted on 2 October 2014, 10:15 am by Javier Cienfuegos  |  Permalink

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