Drawn by Law: Mexicans, Sex, and the American Legal System in the Early Twentieth Century

Thursday, January 5, 2012: 3:40 PM
Chicago Ballroom B (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Pablo R. Mitchell, Oberlin College
The early twentieth century was a period of both heightened Mexican immigration to the United States and increasing attacks on ethnic Mexican communities across the nation.  Calls for immigration restriction amplified racial differences and fueled arguments against Mexican fitness for American citizenship.  Mexican communities, of course, were hardly passive in the face of such attacks, turning to a range of strategies to proclaim their rights and membership in the nation.

In the American Southwest, courtrooms often served as especially illuminating sites in such struggles over Mexican inclusion and exclusion.  This paper focuses on the involvement of Mexicans in one type of criminal case, sex crimes, and draws from nearly one thousand cases appealed to higher courts by Spanish-surnamed defendants between 1900 and 1930 in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.  I will highlight three cases in particular: a 1926 sodomy case from Laredo, Texas, a California rape case from 1905, and a seduction case from northern New Mexico in the 1920s. 

In legal settings where discussions of sexual norms and aberrance were prominent, such as trials for crimes like rape, prostitution, seduction, and sodomy, Anglo trial participants frequently portrayed Mexicans as different from, and inferior to, Anglos.  Mexican trial participants, on the other hand, often actively opposed such characterizations.  On the witness stand and in court documents, in the presence of powerful and often hostile Anglo court officials (judges, lawyers, jury members, police officers), Mexican men and
women asserted themselves as respectable, hard-working, sexually-normal members of good families and communities.  At the core of the paper, therefore, is this critical tension in talk of sex in the West: sexual discourses could function both to maintain and to challenge Mexican social inequality.

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