Revisiting history allows for the possibility of achieving a fuller understanding of one’s roots. Also, such an undertaking allows for the possibility of looking at history from different angles and from different lenses. With such a view in mind, Martha Menchaca’s work, entitled Recovering History, Constructing Race: The Indian, Black and White Roots of Mexican Americans is an attempt to arrive at a fuller understanding of the shared history of a people; that is, Mexican Americans, by carefully looking at the concept of race relations; how it shaped the course of history for these people. For the most part, Menchaca’s interpretive history revolves around this very important concept. Such being the case, this essay seeks to explicate the crucial role of race relations in the marginalization of Mexican Americans by discussing three topics presented in Menchaca’s book. These topics are as follows: (1) Land, Race, and War, 1821-1848, (2) The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Racialization of the Mexican Population, and (3) Racial Segregation and Liberal Policies Then and Now.
Land, as an immovable resource, remains as one of the main sources of conflict in the history of human civilization. The process of land reorganization, in the Mexican Americans’ context, proves to be both tedious and thorny because of the fact that even the United States is interested in the expansion of its southern border even at the cost of war (Menchaca 187). Land acquisition and land reorganization then, is heavily characterized by the interplay between and among different systems of power and power relations competing against a resource of utmost political, cultural, economic value. Mindful of the difficulties that are involved in the process of land reorganization, a law has been enacted. With regards to the general aim of the law, which is essentially, in the spirit of affirmative action, and the difficulties which ensnared in later on, Menchaca writes:
The aim of the Law of 1824 was to undo the effects of the Spanish land grant system, which had overwhelmingly favored Whites and military officers. Though many commoners obtained property deeds and many Indian villages evolved into Mexican towns, the federal government’s color-blind legislation did not work as expected. People struggled for land, and some individuals were better equipped to validate their claims. (187)
In theory, the Law of 1824 is coherent. However, the supposedly color-blind legislation of the federal government and the existing disparity in terms of different individuals’ and groups’ (i.e. Indians, Blacks, etc.) capability in validating claims to land ownership proves to be problematic in practice.
The problems which surround the Law of 1824 led to the racialization of the Mexican people. In point of fact, race relations heavily characterize the land reorganization process in particular aspect. Land disputes continue to emerge and those in the position of power take an unfair advantage over other sectors of the population via legal means or force. During this period, one’s race became crucial to one’s right to land ownership. To further this point, after the declaration of Texas’ independence, Blacks and Indians suffered the same fate; they lost their properties and homes and were either forced out or exterminated (Menchaca 240). Although the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo somehow put Mexicans in a better position than Indians and Blacks, many Mexicans later on shared their fate because many of them opted to sell their land titles and grants to Anglo Americans in the fear of losing their cases in court (Menchaca 242). Such fears of eventually losing their lands in court are not unfounded. Even tribal communities like the Tiwa Indians of Ysleta eventually lost their case with the court siding on the trustees of the Pacific Railway Company and a few Anglo Americans with close connections to the legislature (Menchaca 241). As one may have noticed at this point, racialization became the means in and through which a person or a group’s legitimate claim to a piece of land was decided. Such being the case, the atmosphere during this period is generally characterized by race relations.
Racial segregation is an offshoot of the earlier racialization experienced by Blacks, Indians and Mexicans which culminated in the various Civil Rights Movements in the United States. Racialization allowed for the categorization of people under racial categories. Racial segregation is an extension of the aforementioned because it makes explicit the aforementioned categories even in the public life of individuals/groups. This is to say that legal mechanisms were created in the form of segregationist laws which legitimizes racial discrimination. Menchaca writes:
In the 1883 the landmark segregationist ruling in Robinson and Wife v. Memphis and Charleston Railroad Company legally allowed the exclusion of racial minorities from hotels, restaurants, parks, public conveyances, and public amusement parks. This ruling also upheld the right of business owners to provide segregated services for racial minorities or to refuse them services. (286)
Although there have been developments in the realm of the law in the advent of the Civil Rights Movements in the United States, including several court rulings and the enactment of laws in favor of women in the 1970’s, it is still difficult to say that racial discrimination in the United States is merely a thing of the past.
Menchaca’s identification of race relations as crucial in understanding history is vindicated in the work of Bell Hooks and Amelia Mesa-Bains entitled Homegrown: Engaged Cultural Criticism. The 9/11 tragedy as Hooks and Mesa-Bains claim, present us with a reality which is difficult to ignore; that racism within the United States persists. Such being the case, there is a need for us to revisit our theories about postcoloniality (Hooks and Mesa-Bains 132). Hooks and Mesa-Bains write:
… we’re not ‘over’ colonialism. Just think about the undocumented workers who died on 9/11; their names were never added to any lists, and their families were never given any reparation. (132)
The aforementioned passage points out that there are still racist elements in the United States as proven by the apparent neglect on the government’s part on the undocumented workers, especially immigrant workers and their families. This is to say that within the American population, there are still people who are indifferent to immigrant workers in the country. A certain kind of otherness is still felt by these immigrant workers.
In the final analysis, Menchaca’s identification of the concept of race relations provides us with an alternative and a wider interpretation of history. By looking at the Mexican Americans shared experiences in the process of colonization and land reorganization, it is important to look at the different systems of power and power relations which underlie the entire process. Racism is a difficulty that must be overcome if we are to achieve cultural pluralism. Following Hooks and Mesa-Bains, one may say that now, more than ever, there is a need for us to decolonize ourselves and overcome the problem of the color-line. In these authors’ works, one finds a common thread which binds their ideas together: the need to revisit and perhaps, rewrite history.
Hooks, Bell and Amalia Mesa-Bains. Homegrown: Engaged Cultural Criticism. Boston, MA: South End Press, 2005.
Menchaca, Martha. Recovering History, Constructing Race: The Indian, Black and White Roots of Mexican Americans. Texas: University Press, 2001.