Professor Laura E. Gómez' "Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race" (NYU Press) shows that race in America is as much a social and political construct as it is a biological one. Focusing on the territory of New Mexico between the end of the Mexican-American War and the recognition of New Mexico as the 47th state, Gómez — the first Latina to become a tenured faculty member at UCLA School of Law and a founder of the school's Critical Race Studies Program — details the legal and social forces that forged a single identity for Mexican Americans, a people whose ethnic origins are complex and varied. Gómez recently answered several questions about the book, published in a second edition in February 2018, as well as the state of racial identity in America.
What inspired you to pursue this subject?
I was a co-founder of the Critical Race Studies program here at UCLA School of Law, and early on in that program I was teaching a course called Comparative Racialization in the United States. The objective was to introduce students to the idea that Native Americans, African Americans, immigrants from East Asia and Latinos had different experiences with discrimination and with using the legal system to redress that discrimination.
Teaching that course led me to think about how the experience of Mexican-Americans and other Latinos fit into the 19th Century history of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction. How did what was happening in the Southwest compare to what was happening in the South? This book is meant to answer that question.
Why a second edition 10 years after the first?
The book at its core is about 19th and early 20th century history, but it also has great relevance for the present. I felt strongly that there were significant events between the publication of the first edition and today that warranted additional conversation and context.
When Barack Obama was elected president, that was a moment when people said, 'Well, we're done with racism, we're now a post-racial society.' But if you fast-forward to today, we now know that is so not the case. In fact, we've seen the rise of white power movements and the rise of anti-Semitism and racism. The book's new preface and a new postscript address those issues.
Why choose New Mexico as the place to study "the making of the Mexican American race?"
New Mexico is the center of the story because of the way the Mexican population was distributed across what is known as the Mexican cession at the end of the U.S. war with Mexico. By the 1830s, Texas was already majority Euro-American. In California, as soon as the gold rush hit, miners came from the Midwest and the East Coast and all over the world. Mexicans were already a minority when Congress granted California statehood.
New Mexico did not offer the same kind of economic draw for Euro-American immigrants, so Mexicans and Mexican-Americans continued to dominate the politics of the region.
What laws or events were key to creating the Mexican-American identity?
There are several important moments in the legal history. One is in 1848, when the Senate gives American citizenship to former Mexican citizens in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, although New Mexico was and would long remain a territory, not a state. At that time, only whites could become American citizens. So that put Mexican-Americans in this special class of being treated legally as white, as opposed to immigrants from East Asia and black immigrants from anywhere, who couldn't choose to become American citizens.
Another critical moment is Romine v. the Territory of New Mexico. In this case a white miner was convicted of murder, and he challenged the conviction because the jurors who convicted him did not speak English. This was very typical for the time, because in many parts of New Mexico if you were going to get a jury at all it is likely they were going to speak only Spanish, they were going to deliberate in Spanish, and the trial would be conducted with a translator. The Supreme Court of the Territory of New Mexico could have gone the way Texas courts had and decided that if you can't speak English, you can't serve on a jury. The court went the other way and upheld the right of Spanish-speakers to play a pivotal role in the justice system.
But it is a complicated and nuanced story. In 1848 the Senate debated and rejected a portion of the treaty that would have strengthened the rights of residents of the former Mexican territory. And for generations, until statehood in 1912, people in New Mexico were in this colonial status, like Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia are today. No representation in Congress, and no rights as citizens of a state.
So while the law bestowed formal rights on Mexican-Americans, there were other ways those rights were undermined.
The new postscript explores the impact of the U.S. Census in defining race. What does the census tell us about race as a social construct?
There has only been one time when the U.S. Census specifically sought to count quote-unquote Mexicans, and that was in 1930. That isn't coincidence. That was because of the Great Depression and the sense that Mexicans were taking the jobs of Americans. Many Mexican-American leaders at the time felt that Mexicans were counted only in order to be discriminated against.
Then, it is not until 1980 that we have any count of Hispanics/Latinos, partly because there is this notion that Latinos were not a national population. The thought was, Mexican-Americans are only in the Southwest, Puerto Ricans are only in New York, Cubans are only in Florida, and these groups have nothing to do with one another. That's perhaps not unreasonable, but that's not the approach we take toward blacks, who might be African immigrants, or the descendants of slaves, or Caribbean-Americans.
After census takers answer the Latino/Hispanic question about their ethnicity, another question asks, What is your race? In this question, you could answer that you are white or black or Native American, or multi-ethnic. But you don't have a way of saying you are Hispanic/Latino.
What I argue has happened over the last 30 years is that that Hispanics or Latinos have come to think of ourselves as a distinctive racial group. And non-Latinos have come to see Hispanics/Latinos as a distinctive racial group.
Our ideas change about these things, just as they did when Italian immigrants came here in very large numbers. There was lynching of Italians in the South, and there was severe discrimination against Irish and Italian immigrants. But over time, it has become very clear to us that Irish immigrants and Italian immigrants are white.
In addition, the census is not just a reflection of how the American population has changed longitudinally. Census data is used for many purposes, and in particular in a number of legal areas: Enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, Congressional redistricting, federal appropriations to school districts and so forth.
One recent idea was to put Hispanic/Latino in the race category, and another was to add Middle Eastern as a race category. Earlier this year, the Trump administration announced it would not add those categories in the 2020 census. Yet an idea put on the table by the Trump Administration is to add a question about citizenship.
So not only might we ignore the kind of questions that might more accurately reveal how society is evolving — and could ensure government resources are used equitably and wisely — we might add a question that would make people reluctant to participate in the census. That would be a step backward.
Professor Laura E. Gómez at a book talk sponsored by the UCLA School of Law Critical Races Studies Program on March 6, 2018.