American? Citizenship and Identity in the 20th-Century United States

AHA Session 260
Sunday, January 10, 2016: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Salon A (Hilton Atlanta, Second Floor)
John Nieto-Phillips, Indiana University Bloomington
Rosina Lozano, Princeton University

Session Abstract

The upcoming meeting entitled Global Migrations: Empires, Nations, and Neighbors,encourages the history field to explore concepts of citizenship and belonging, as such studies problematize the mainstream narrative of U.S. history.  The confluence of increased migration and the imperial expansion of the United States at the start of the twentieth century created communities that exemplify the nuances of citizenship and belonging.  This panel gathers works that explore how different minorities negotiated their ideas of identity, citizenship and belonging within the context of the U.S. twentieth century, demonstrating how these concepts featured in their culture and labor relations. 

From the perspective of culture, panelists Ghislain Potriquet and Joanna Camacho explore the intersection of belonging and language during the first half of the twentieth century within two U.S. territories, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.  Potriquet and Camacho agree that at the turn of the twentieth century, U.S. Americans regarded the English language as a fundamental attribute of their identity and a prerequisite to citizenship.  The paper presented by Potriquet will study the different discourses that either legitimized or contested Hawaii’s language policy from 1920 to 1927. The official discourse justified the 1920 language act that restricted other languages in schools, however other sources unveil a complex interplay of many arguments suggesting that the Japanese community created a space for the advent of several cultural and civic American identities.  While, Camacho explores post World War II Puerto Rico, focusing on the process in which the Puerto Rican government and elites in the island constructed an identity that separated their political identity (U.S. citizens) and their cultural identity in contrast to U.S. American notions of citizenship through the Operación Serenidad.  This initiative sought to accommodate American and Puerto Rican values, while significantly resisting other important element of the Americanization process, such as prioritizing the teaching of Spanish over English, resulting in the preservation the colonial relationship through present day. 

Panelists Stephanie Weiss and Nora Salas explore how labor defined ideas of citizenship and belonging in the lives of African Americans women and migrant agricultural workers.  Weiss builds upon previous scholarship on race and labor to examine the political and economic impression beauty industry mogul Madam C. J. Walker made upon the everyday lives of black working women near World War I.  This paper argues that this company provided a lucrative alternative to domestic labor and agricultural work, and suggests that financial independence facilitated the cultivation of a strong political voice among these professional women.  Meanwhile, Salas studies how Mexican-Americans through the 1960s pressured the state to protect migrant workers’ rights through non-partisan organizations like Latin American United for Political Action, the American G.I. Forum and the Catholic Church. These organizations defined migrants as American workers and citizens. However, slow change for migrants incited a decline of such worker-citizen identity that Latin American organizations promoted.  Instead former Mexican-Americans increasingly adopted a rhetoric of difference in the language of la raza, which regard this labor as part of the U.S. colonial system as argued by Chicanos activists.

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