Ethnicity or race? Deconstructing the identity of Mexican Americans

By Sheryl Luna

LatinaLista — A review of the history of the Southwest reveals the impact of attitudes and treatment of early Mexican Americans that have evolved to define today’s perceptions of Hispanics.
In Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race, (NYU Press 2007) law professor and author Dr. Laura E. Gomez argues that Mexican-Americans are a race, not merely an ethnicity. She bolsters that argument by citing that “racial categories and racial difference are socially constructed… race is historically contingent and given meaning by persons, institutions, and social processes.”
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In other words, it’s in the eye of the beholder. In thoroughly reviewing historical documents, Gomez found that there were many examples to bolster her claim that race wins in the debate over ethnicity.
The book is a close historical account of institutions, colonization and violence that was, in her view, propagated based on views of Mexican-Americans as an inferior race. She supports this argument with clear researched documents that indicate American acquisition of the area was anything but peaceful.
An analysis of the U.S. Mexican War and the U.S. annexation of Texas by Gómez, finds both to be acts of war where blood was shed. In exploring further documents, Gómez found that Mexicans were viewed as a race to be subjugated and were considered a passive people. She notes that U.S. officials, including President Polk, acknowledged a racial division “between the Spaniards, who monopolize the wealth and power of the country, and the mixed Indian race, who bear[s] its burdens.”
For Gómez, all of this led to the oppression of non-white people. Hence, she argues that the colonization of the Southwest was brought about largely by deeply embedded views that Mexicans were not white and they were indeed viewed as a race.


Manifest Destinies is a fascinating and detailed scholarly account of the history of the Southwest that examines the broader ramifications of when elite Mexicans claimed to be white as a means of distancing themselves from a group at the bottom of the American racial order.
That same sense of historical disengagement manifests today in how Hispanics identify racially when they approach census questions, asserts Gómez. While some Mexican Americans today respond “white,” some respond “other” while still others reject the view of race as black and white and classify themselves as non-white.
This book is densely detailed and filled with little known historical information. To gain a better and more balanced understanding about the history of Mexican Americans in the Southwest, I highly recommended this book.
In addition to reviewing books for Latina Lista, Sheryl Luna is an award-winning poet who blogs on “Chicana Poetics”.

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