How Native Americans, Mexican “Tejanos,” Anglo-Americans, and Mexicans From the Central High Valley Heartland of Mexico, Viewed Themselves and Each Other in a Southwest of “Shifting Borders”
Before Texas was a U.S. state, it was its own independent nation where both Mexicans and white immigrants were citizens. But during the nine years that the Republic of Texas existed, Mexicans became outsiders as white settlers made it more difficult for them to vote and hold onto their land. White settlers did this by targeting Mexicans with voting laws and taxes, suing for possession of their land and subjecting them to police violence. This presaged the way the U.S. would treat Mexicans in California and the New Mexico territory when it gained this land from Mexico in 1848—as foreigners who had less right to be there than the white settlers who’d moved in.
Traditionally, we have told the story of how nations emerged as a triumphant tale of domination exerted by a determined center over reluctant peripheries and by persuasive officials over skeptical masses. The literature depicts state formation and nation building as originating from the core outward and from top to bottom. Sitting at the apex of all political and social organizations, the state has been granted the leading role. After all, it was the state that built the infrastructure linking the center to all corners of the nation, increasing the network of communications within a territory and thus helping integrate a national market. Under the auspices of the state, a nationalist ideology was fashioned and disseminated to all prospective citizens. And it was the state bureaucracy, employing novel means of communication such as mass education, that perpetuated the nation unto subsequent generations. Whether accounts spotlight institutions or identities, the underlying theme is centralization: The national state wins out over lesser political organizations and potential challengers, and the people divest themselves of previous ethnic or local loyalties as the nation becomes their overriding identity.
The issue of race among Mexican Americans is contested in many ways. The racial heritage of Mexicans is mixed, with varying mixtures of European, Indigenous, and African ancestry. As a result, Mexicans are heterogeneous in their racial characteristics, ranging from having light to dark skin and eye color with many in the brown and mestizo middle. Outsiders tend not to see Mexicans as White or Black. Rather they are viewed through the stereotypic lens of being non-white or brown and largely indigenous-looking. Still much about the racial status of Mexicans is debated. Two issues in particular are—one is whether Mexican is a racial category and, two is whether Mexicans are white or non-white. Mexican Americans themselves often provide ambiguous responses to race questions, perhaps reflecting their own uncertainty about their race as well as ambivalence about being non-white (Gomez, 1992). Historically, Mexican Americans responded to questions about ethnic background with labels such Latin American or Spanish, as we showed with 1965 data in Generations of Exclusion (Telles & Ortiz, 2008). This reinforced European ancestry in responses about group membership and a distancing from indigenous heritage. Up to the 1960s, Mexican American leaders, such as those in the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), emphasized the Spanish/European/White heritage of Mexican Americans, in attempts to secure rights as first class citizens and despite their treatment as non-white in American society.
In essence, struggles, such as those of the Irish in Northern Ireland, Tibetans in China, and Mexicans in the United States, have had much to do with historic claims to homeland, especially around issues involving shifting borders and migration. In the US the perception of Mexicans as aliens in the Southwest derived from the Anglo-American imposition of a borderline across Mexico in 1848. In response to the dominant US view, ethnic Mexicans countered with their own image of the Southwest as Mexico's lost northern borderlands and of the border as immoral and irrelevant. By the 1960s, supporting that image, ethnic Mexicans helped develop “internal colonialism”—a theory dismissed in the 1980s, but persistent.
Gomez L. The Birth of the “Hispanic” Generation: Attitudes of Mexican-American Political Elites toward the Hispanic Label. Latin American Perspectives. 1992;19(4):45–58.
Telles E, Ortiz V. Generations of Exclusion: Mexican Americans, Assimilation, and Race. New York: Russel Sage Foundation; 2008.