On Friday I presented on another panel, talking about the little known history of the lynching of Mexicans in the United States. Between the late 19th- and early 20th centuries, countless Mexicans were lynched by Anglo mobs and officials, in some areas at rates comparable to or surpassing those of African American victims. Yet the victimization of Mexicans living in the U.S. during this period usually goes unnoted, even though such acts of terrorism proved a crucial component of Manifest Destiny and imperial expansion. In addition, I suggest that the erasure of these tragedies implicitly reinforces the naturalized impression of the Black/white binary under which United-Statesian logics operate, obfuscating the processes by which racialization occurs, oversimplifying historical race relations, and thereby making the work of social redress about resolving polarities rather than dismantling a complex, hierarchical juridico-ontological system of organization. In that presentation, I argued that the lynching of Mexicans and their subsequent dismemberment for souvenir purposes provided physical and ideological means to deal with Mexicans’ racial ambiguity. At a time when scientific and colonial discourses not only supported one another but maintained a shared teleology—the assertion of white supremacy—Mexicans did not fit into racial categories established to organize peoples into a global system of classification. Viewed by turns as neighbors and allies or mixed-blood “mongrels” needing to be civilized by whites (Alonso 462), Mexicans experienced a distinctive vulnerability marked by ambivalence. Anglo settlers used the threat of vigilante violence to evict them so that their lands could be seized, or they might be incorporated into the community through marriage and political alliance but always under rubrics of white order.
This presentation focuses on the latter circumstance to focus on the unique kind of symbolic and physical colonization that Mexican women faced as a result of their racial ambiguity: because they were perceived as white/non-white, Anglo settlers could marry them and gain access to their lands and resources. It’s important to understand how these two practices worked together, lynching and sanctioned intermarriage, as they were both prompted by colonial discourses that could not quite categorize Mexican-ness, and because together they formed a dyadic gendered scheme of racial organization that helped to reify for white settlers all-too-unstable boundaries between races and nations. While lynching reinforced impressions of “mongrel” Mexicans as less than fully human and in need of domestication by settler colonization, its victims were predominantly male. As was the case with African American women and some poor whites, a Mexican woman’s class status could render her especially vulnerable to mob violence, but by and large, lynching was seen as a punishment reserved for suspected thieves and murders (who were typically male) and women whose lack of status framed them as “un-womanly.” In contrast, the rhetoric of “mongrelization” served to sanction intermarriage between Anglo men and elite Mexican women while reinforcing the superiority of whites over Mexicans. Mexican women’s bodies were rendered fungible with the land symbolically because they allowed their spouses access to titles and deeds, but also physically because they, too, were framed as requiring association with white civilization in order to achieve their ultimate racial(ized) entelechy.
White United-Statesians settlers exercised consubstantiality in contrast to Mexicans, framing themselves as a separate, superior race known as Anglo-Saxons (Rodriguez 96). This process occurred post-Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War with annexation of half of Mexico’s territory by the U.S. and the U.S.’s incorporation of an estimated 50,000 Mexicans and other Native peoples whom Mexico had considered citizens (Jiménez 6). General resentment stemming from conquest and colonization meant that the racial classification of Mexicans took on a special importance: as the ideological basis of empire. Within the newly ceded lands, Anglo settlers found themselves vastly outnumbered and in competition for resources with people who had been there for generations; meanwhile, in Washington, Congress debated whether Mexicans should be disqualified from citizenship on racial grounds. However, in a most problematic manner, Mexicans did not fit neatly into any of the four racial categories originally set forth by Linnaeus [Systema Naturae (1735), Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, and American] (McGregor 7), or Blumenbach’s revised taxonomy that upped the number to five [On the Natural Variety of Mankind (1775), the European, or white race; the Asiatic, or yellow; the African, or black; the American, or red; and the Malay] (Blumenbach 56). To further complicate matters, “whether an individual of Mexican descent was considered white or nonwhite could also vary by an individual’s generational status, skin color, or class” (Fox and Guglielmo 335).
Speaking to this, Cybelle Fox and Thomas A. Guglielmo write, “Mexicans might be considered white in one town and not in another, white in Santa Barbara in 1880 but not in the same city in 1920, white for the purposes of naturalization law but not for the school board, or white for the 1920 census but not for the 1930 one” (ibid.). Certainly this vacillation still holds today; however, during the period between 1850 and 1930, as the process of incorporation of lands seized during the war took place, racial classification took on a unique significance and Mexicans’ racial ambiguity was legally and scientifically deliberated in order to determine their political and biological status, indeed, their very ontology. For Mexican women, this uncertainty took on a specialized violence marked by ambivalence. Deborah R. Vargas writes that “representations of Latina/o masculinities and femininities in popular culture genres and venues are constituted by racialized discourses of conquest, imperialism, and colonization, consistently represented as either deviantly hypersexual or inhumanly desexual” (119).
The late 19th- and early 20th centuries were marked by extreme political, geographical, and ideological upheaval, and during such times these two stereotypes have been deployed to “reif[y] dominant notions of ostensibly American subjectivity, citizenship, and family” because, as Vargas argues, “notions of country, homeland, region, locality, and ethnicity are constructed through the racialization, sexualization, and genderization of female corporeality” (121). We can perceive how historically, this dichotomy breaks down along class and colorism lines. Like Mexican men, poor Mexican women were frequently targets of violence, at times even lynched for defending themselves against the advances of Anglo men. For example, in 1851, Josefa Segovia of Downieville, California, was hanged for the murder of Frederick Canon, who broke into her home and tried to assault her. William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb contend that “[h]ad Josefa been an Anglo woman, she would have been praised for defending her honor. However, her degraded racial status ensured that she was seen as the criminal aggressor” (421). Through a reading of cultural differences regarding gender vis-à-vis Anglo notions of domestic virtue, Latinas were depicted as “hotblooded and excessive,” signifying their peoples’ innate depravity in contrast to the “good morals” of whites and United-Statesians in general (Vargas 121).
Because Mexican women were regarded as licentious and lewd, women like Josefa could be blamed for inflaming male desire rather than viewed as victims of assault. This stereotype, like that of the desexualized good mother, was built along divisions of class and color. Carrigan and Webb note that the stereotype of the Mexican prostitute took hold in California during the Gold Rush when Mexican women were accused of turning to prostitution not because of economic hardship but because they were moral degenerates; furthermore, these denigrated women tended to be described as “tawny visaged creatures,” little better than animals, as when one prospector wrote home to say that the local Mexican women were “just about half as good-looking as cows and just about as neat…” (Carrigan and Webb 421). These women were dark, dirty, and corrupt, the antithesis of the angel of the house who was supposed to serve as the moral center of the white home.
In contrast, when Anglo men sought to marry landed Mexican women in order to gain political power and/or control of the land and its resources, they deemed their spouses the descendants of Spanish conquistadores who shared their cultural and biological status and were therefore owed the attendant privileges of whiteness. Laura Gómez notes, “[S]ome evidence suggests that persons living in Mexico’s northern territories…were much more indigenous and African than Spanish in their origins—precisely because such mestizo settlers had more to gain from the comparably looser racial order on Mexico’s frontier” (Gómez 90). However, European colonization had already introduced colorism into Mexican society as an organizational framework of racial hierarchy, one that continues to tie skin color to women’s perceived desirability to this day, corroborating Fanon’s claim that the final stage of colonization projects includes the establishment of race-based caste systems that guarantee the advancement of white interests as an ongoing, self-sustaining operation (Stephans and Fernández 79). Hence, due to colorism and gentrified notions of marriage, many of those elite Mexican women who were deemed politically white by Anglo potential suitors were likely phenotypically white, or at the very least fairer-skinned than many of their less economically advantaged sisters, although the Anglo system preferred quantum to color as a framework of organization.
Popular accounts of the period speak of elite Mexican women in similar terms as Anglo women. These elite women were described as “uncommonly beautiful, graceful, and sophisticated,” and men who married into these families, like a certain Alfred Robinson, who married into a Californio family, claimed that “perhaps there are few places in the world where, in proportion to the number of inhabitants, can be found more chastity, industrious habits, and correct deportment, than among the women of this place” (Carrigan and Webb 421). Hence, the “racialized discourses of conquest, imperialism, and colonization” of the late 19th- and early 20th centuries functioned to authorize settler colonialism precisely by claiming for Mexican women a European lineage that effectively erased the Indigenous ancestry that connected them ethically to the land; erasing the African ancestry that might put Mexicans’ political at odds with white supremacy; and implicitly establishing a new system of racial hierarchization that elevated the status of Anglos.
These discourses implicitly bolstered the “scientific” rhetorics of racial supremacy that equated whiteness with increased natural refinement and even wealth, since popular philosophies such as those sustaining Manifest Destiny posited that whites were entitled to the land because they best knew how to develop its economic potential. They also simultaneously framed Nature as an alterior contruct, classifying the Other races under the rubric of alterity since they were part of nature, and meaning that the land resources, and others were available for exploitation. David Spurr explains, “The concept of ‘nature’ has been for colonial discourse the occasion for a fundamental equivocation. On one hand, nature is opposed to culture and civilization: primitive peoples live in a state of nature. On the other, nature, or ‘natural law,’ is also that which grants dominion over the earth to more advanced peoples…Colonial discourse thus naturalizes the process of domination…” (156). The concept of Nature cannot exist as an peripheral object rather than as an embodied ecology that includes human beings unless subjectivity is ideologically extricated from its ethical, material, and rhetorical accountability to the world that it inhabits. Such an ideation is fundamentally racist and sexist, predicated on the deliberate dislocation of whiteness and maleness from their material and contexts, since white (men) were classified as outside of Nature rather than ruled by its influences like other races, especially the Native. According to Spurr, “Colonial discourse may be said to naturalize in both of these senses: while it identifies a colonized or primitive people as part of the natural world, it also presents this identification as entirely “natural,” as a simple state of what is, rather than a theory based in interest” (Spurr 157). Not coincidentally, Nature was depicted as female and feminine, and as an accommodating figure who was not only receptive to the doctrine of Manifest Destiny but who also desired it.
In directly tying access to the land and resources to Mexican women’s bodies, colonial discourses naturalized settler colonialism because it was framed as a natural process, meaning not only that it was the inevitable result of destiny but that it happened through the most “natural” of functions. That is, dominion over the land was not necessarily a strategic endeavor but was simply the to-be-expected result of social and physical intercourse among the races—though strangely enough, the gender dynamics of such sanctioned intermarriages tended to stress the feminine position of the Mexican partner. Substantiating this arrangement were those 19th century discourses that framed Mexican men as effeminate compared to “traditionally masculine” Anglo men. By denying Mexican men’s realization of traditional masculinity, Anglo stereotypes also denied them virtues typically associated with masculinity. Mexican men were seem as “unprincipled, conniving, and treacherous” whereas Anglo men were honorable, honest, and loyal (Carrigan and Webb 420). The source of such ignoble traits was, of course, their Native ancestry. Since the inception of European colonization of the Americas, colonial discourses framed Native peoples as inherently godless and prone to idleness, since they failed to exploit all of Nature’s wealth, and these attributes justified their dispossession of the land (Takaki 38). In contrast, Anglo masculinity was fundamentally predicated on God-given rights to the land and on the willingness and ability to tame the frontier.
Mexican men were also accused of such things as tending to cheat at cards and commit “cowardly” acts of murder, which “diminished their sexual menace to whites” (Carrigan and Webb 420). Effeminization ties directly to threats of lynching I mentioned before because murder and stealing were the two crimes for which people were often lynched. Thus, in addition to eliminating the Mexican problem through killing—via lynching, or what the Texas Rangers deemed “evaporation”—and through forced or self- expulsion, Anglos could also get rid of their rival settlers by literally breeding (with) them out of existence since only they were “men enough” to deserve both land and lady. Sociopolitical vulnerability corresponds culturally to a female or feminized corporeality, in which defenselessness is supposedly reified in a body burdened by apertures under constant threat of invasion. For this reason, “allegorization of colonized nations in terms of the female figure (bodily, rhetorical) has [long] been a cliché of colonial history” (Spurr 171); and, not surprisingly, in the nineteenth century during the peak of global colonial activity, sexuality became a potent metaphorical wellspring (Law 975). A poem dating from the Mexican-American War equates Anglo-American masculinity with testosterone and triumph, asserting that the “Spanish maid…awaits our Yankee chivalry/ Whose purer blood and valiant arms,/ Are fit to clasp her budding charms” because the Mexican men are “sunk in sloth,” nap “some dozen times by day,” and are “somber and sad, and never gay” (Takaki 177). Here Mexican men’s feminized corporeality signifies points of weaknesses in other cultures that may be exploited for Anglo gain. Framed as both effeminate and lazy, or should I say, perhaps because these two traits were seen as the same thing, the Mexican male’s aberrance substantiated Manifest Destiny by suggesting that whiteness would conquer the continent through all available means because it was only a natural outcome.
Additional themes to be considered:
VISIBILITY/BODIES AND PROOF (see S. Chinn)
TRI-RACIAL SYSTEM (see E. Bonilla-Silva)
In conclusion, I contend that it is crucial to understand settler colonialism’s intersectional but highly gendered tactics with regard to Mexicans living in the U.S. Southwest during the late 19th and early twentieth centuries. Sometimes they faced overt and extreme violence; sometimes a slow hegemonic transformation took place, facilitated through social interaction and presented as a natural phenomenon through various modes of colonial discourse. These diverse experiences form an interrelated system of rhetorics of embodiment that sought to establish the right kinds of bodies that could inhabit certain places—whether towns or histories, since these matters are still ignored by the dominant culture narratives—or inhabit certain spaces—as in having the agency to speak or react to the violence against their communities. This knowledge is needed because, as Spurr writes, “The elements of naturalization as a rhetorical mode applied to the representation of non-Western peoples are to be found not only in overtly imperialist ideology, but even in the writing of those, like Rousseau and John Stuart Mill, who have contributed to modern Western ideals of liberty and justice” (Spurr 157). Only by deconstructing how notions of justice that we still live with today are sustained by intolerant ideologies can we begin to strive toward composing new ones.
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