Between the years 1848 and 1930, thousands of Mexican and Mexican American men and women were lynched by Anglo mobs in displays of vigilante justice and by Anglo law enforcement officials seeking to appease agitated settlers (Carrigan and Webb, 2003; Delgado, 2009). In addition to being beaten and hanged in brutal public spectacles, many of the victims were dismembered so that their body parts could be distributed among the crowd as souvenirs. White popular media and perpetrators themselves justified this kind of violence by arguing that it was necessary in order to control the threat posed to Anglo settlers by Mexicans, who were framed as predisposed to criminality and savagery. Racialized as “mongrels” (Villanueva 2011; McPherson, 2006), Mexicans epitomized the geographical and ontological borders of a humanity defined through the lens of white nationalism, a mix of various inferior races with cultural and political ties to more than one nation. In contrast to the purity of whiteness, Mexican-ness epitomized for United-Statesians the dangers of biological and ideological instability.
I argue that lynching as a violent symbolic and physical act connects directly to the racial categorization of Mexicans as “mongrels” by enacting at the physical level the fragmentation and dissociation processes that colonial discourse sought to perform at the rhetorical level. Lynching and subsequent dismemberment dis-integrated the person materially and metaphorically. It rendered a person corporeal fragments that together did not make a whole person while dissociating the victim (or their memory) from white notions of civility, as lynching was viewed as a punishment reserved for the uncivilized savage. The dismemberment that attended lynching permitted spectators to deconstruct the individual at the physical, local level and at the symbolic, nationalistic level, reinforcing Anglo settlers’ identification as the legitimate and authoritative community against all abject Others. In the case of Mexicans, the Other sometimes proved not Other enough. Even as period writers deployed the term “mongrel” to signify the ontological inferiority of Mexicans, its use revealed an anxiety over racial ambiguity that proved useful to Anglo settlers who nonetheless needed to distinguish themselves from the ostensibly inferior but all-too-proximate racial Other. Thus, I suggest that lynching served another rhetorical purpose, not only denoting white supremacist claims to land and law but becoming a means to contend with the instability of racial categories upon which white supremacy based its claims.
In The Rhetoric of Empire, David Spurr delineates 12 features of 19th- and early 20th-century colonial discourse that provide the dehumanizing frameworks used to justify colonization and naturalize said framing as objective proof of colonized people’s inferiority. While they all work together in different capacities in different contexts, in the interest of time I focus here on just one, which he terms “classification.” Spurr explains classification as a process that entails setting up “a single standard of economic and political organization to which all nations must aspire” and then assessing the success or failure of all nations based on their adherence to that standard as though cultural distinctions do not or should not affect social organization (62). Such ostensible success or failure is then used to determine an arrangement of civilizations, with those at the top framed as more evolved or “modern,” and those at the bottom framed as being in need of saving through physical and ideological colonization. Nineteenth-century colonial discourse relied heavily on Eurowestern scientific rhetorics, especially eugenicist-based views of a global racial hierarchy. Frederick Lugard, a British colonial administrator in Africa, classified native Africans based on whether they were “primitive,” “advanced,” or “Europeanized” (Spurr 68). Although this presentation deals with settler colonialism happening at that time in territories along the U.S-Mexico border, it is important to note how racial hierarchization based on Eurowestern systems of classification typically bore out, centering European schemes of knowledge and organization and demanding that the colonized Other correspond to meticulously delineated categories, with “each category of native requir[ing] its own administrative tactic” (69). Lynching was one such un/official tactic for dealing with Mexicans as a population that could not be clearly sorted.
Coloniality’s delineation of humanness vis-à-vis a gradated, hierarchical scheme reveals the phenomenon of race as an unfixed, always already unstable foundation of ontological taxonomy. Apparent are the performative aspects of race despite and in addition to scientific arguments that posited race as established by empirically determined phenotypes, of which those pertaining to the white peoples objectively ascertained their superiority. Furthermore, we can see that the classification feature of colonial discourse served a dual, paradoxical purpose: it presented a seemingly static, implicitly biological racial organization that legitimized white supremacy while simultaneously indicating a racial fluidity that induced members of Othered races to strive for whiteness and its privileges. Especially underscored is the porous quality of racial categories. Presumably, members of so-called inferior races could evolve to a certain level of whiteness; yet contemporaneous anxieties over “tainted whiteness” and racial degeneration imply that whites could easily devolve to the level of inferiors unless the boundaries of whiteness were carefully and constantly regulated (Stubblefield 2007; Jacobson 2000) to prevent contamination from Other races.
The racial liminality of Mexicans exacerbated these fears, since biologically and culturally their Otherness defied distinct classification. In certain economic contexts, as when Anglos sought to marry landed Mexican women, they were framed as the white descendants of Europeans, but in other political contexts, as when Anglos sought to drive them out of certain areas, they were characterized as bestial progeny of Europeans and Indians. Such ambiguity was concretized by legal rhetoric, putting Mexicans in a uniquely precarious position. Rubén G. Rumbaut explains that “in 1849, the California State Constitutional Convention deemed Mexicans to be ‘white’ for legal purposes…[and they] were exempted from miscegenation laws that applied to other minorities. But that did not prevent California from passing an anti-loitering law in 1855, known as the ‘Greaser Act,’ which applied to ‘all persons who are commonly known as ‘Greasers’ or the issue of Spanish and Indian blood…who go armed and are not peaceable or quiet persons” (22). In other words, Mexicans were biologically and politically white enough to expedite the aims of white nationalism and settler colonialism; they were also Native enough that they could be subjugated and killed, if not enough so that they could be exterminated outright. Lynching reinforced impressions of Mexicans, like other Native peoples, as less than human and wild like the wilderness that could only, and would only, be domesticated by settler colonization. Their bodies equated with the land, Mexicans both represented those undesirable aspects of nature that needed to be excised so that proper order could be imposed and they embodied those undesirable elements, as Mexican settlers had to be expelled so that the rightful (Anglo) colonists could lay claim to the land.
Consequently, the lynching of Latinxs provided means to regulate the boundaries of whiteness by establishing Latinxs as squarely within an Other category, dissociating them from whiteness, and symbolically fragmenting the mongrel so that whiteness was separated from the other races at the most essential corporeal level. In a letter dating from 1853, California gold miner John Eagle writes to his wife, Margaret, revealing a typical perspective on the need for vigilante justice in the so-called frontier. He writes, “I am opposed to Capital Punishment in communities when they have prisons to keep murderers secure for life, but in new settlements, and new countries, like California where there is little or no protection from the hands of such monsters in human shape, it becomes necessary to dispose of them by the shortest mode, for the safety of the community” (Forgotten Dead 24). Two years later, as a result of the 1855 Rancheria tragedy—in which four white men, one white woman, and one Native person were killed by bandits that included Latinos—eight to 16 Mexicans were killed without trial. Even after the guilty parties were found and hanged, every “Spanish” home in the area was burned down and a resolution was passed that no Mexican could ever after live in the area. Any Mexican found in violation of this order was to receive 150 lashes. Every Latinx family left, including those who were not Mexican as the law and the mob made no distinction (Gonzales-Day 36).
Eagle’s letter and the events following the Rancheria tragedy illustrate the all too superficial distinction between symbolic and physical violence that prove(d) a constant threat for Latinxs. Carrigan and Webb note that mob violence often resulted from the alienation and sense of precarity experienced by Anglos who settled Mexican lands, as they were outnumbered and did not speak the established language. Rather than cite such positions of vulnerability, vigilantes instead blamed local law enforcement as weak on crime, taking matters into their own violent hands and rationalizing lynching and other forms of mob violence as unavoidable. Hence, Eagle’s seemingly pleonastic description of California as a “new settlement” and a “new country” can be read not as rhetorical redundancy but as a classification of the recently incorporated state as a liminal space which simultaneously demanded white United-Statesian law and more violent regulation. Deeming California a “new country,” Eagle exhibits a typical view of the “frontier” as unoccupied, rhetorically erasing several centuries of Spanish, then Mexican settlement and countless centuries of Native inhabitation altogether. Such reasoning justified brutality and reinforced the settler colonial view of the borderlands and areas newly open to Anglo settlement as wild and needing to be tamed even though various peoples already inhabited these areas. The aftermath of events at Rancheria show that the land was not only already inhabited but that Mexicans had lived there in apparent peace with Anglo settlers. Therefore, lynching provided an occasion for white settlers to retroactively demonize all Mexicans and enact their rhetorical and physical dissociation from their white neighbors.
Furthermore, Eagle’s justification of vigilante violence against those “monsters in human shape” reveals an anxiety at the crux of biology and ideology. Monsters are “category errors [that] contradict standing cultural concepts,” “interstitial figures…that blend, blur, or conjoin disparate categories,” or “incomplete realizations of standing cultural categories…[that] constitute our stereotypes” (Carroll 91). Mexicans proved monstrous because they defied biological classification, undermining the seeming fixity of racial categories. In a case surrounding ownership of a mule, related by Major Horace Bell in 1881’s Reminiscences of a Ranger, two Latinos were not permitted to testify against a white man unless physiologists could ascertain whether Latinos were indeed white. The court sought to determine differences between “a person of pure white blood and a mongrel” (qtd. in Gonzales-Day 199) based on the evidence provided by examination of their salivary glands, their punctalachrimalia (or openings of the tear ducts), and the growth of their wisdom teeth. The witnesses fled but this case tells us that the racial classification of Mexicans remained unsettled. Such ambiguity proved a major concern. Authors claimed that white America was becoming “racially degraded by historic and often familial ties to Indians and Africans” and as a warning, they pointed to the problematic nature of Mexicans, who were “a constant reminder of the frontier’s potential for ‘unfit amalgamation’ of Europeans and Indians” (Warren 1154). So-called monstrous “deviation from our norms of the human” (Carroll 91) reveals the manufactured quality of categories that organize the world and privilege those claiming the authority to do so. The mongrel status of Mexicans required regulation precisely because a defiance of classification revealed the illusions of racial hierarchy.
Thus, lynching served as an explicit warning to Mexicans that they must adhere to white settler notions of justice and authority while emphasizing the alleged superiority of Anglo Americans that allowed them to impose order in colonized areas where they often proved the minority. Lynching also implicitly bolstered white coloniality’s license to establish the ontological terms of the human, signifying and enabling white coloniality’s right to distinguish white racial integrity from the teratological inferiority of Mexicans. The structural results of such classification, set out rhetorically and reified in the flesh of living beings, remain with us today just as, and because, coloniality remains.
Carrigan, William D., and Clive Webb. Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence against Mexicans in the United States, 1848-1928. Oxford UP, 2013
---. “The Lynching of Persons of Mexican Origin or Descent in the United States, 1848 to 1928.” Journal of Social History 37.2 (2003): 411-438.
Carroll, Noël. Engaging the Moving Image. Yale UP, 2003.
Delgado, Richard. “The Law of the Noose: A History of Latino Lynching.” Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review (CR-CL) 44 (2009): 297-312.
Gonzales-Day, Ken. Lynching in the West, 1850-1935. Duke UP, 2006.
Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917. Hill and Wang, 2000.
McPherson, Alan L. Intimate Ties, Bitter Struggles: The United States and Latin America since 1945. Potomac Books, 2006.
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Stubblefield, Anna. “‘Beyond the Pale”: Tainted Whiteness, Cognitive Disability, and Eugenic Sterilization.” Hypatia 22.2 (2007): 162-181.
Villanueva, Victor. “Of Ideologies, Economies, and Cultures: Three Meditations on the Arizona Border.” Present Tense 1.2 (2011): n.p.
Warren, Louis S. “Buffalo Bill Meets Dracula: William F. Cody, Bram Stoker, and the Frontiers of Racial Decay.” The American Historical Review 107.4 (2002): 1124-1157.