Disenfranchising Arizonenses: Citizenship and Defining the Body Politic in the Early 20th-Century US-Mexico Borderlands

Friday, January 5, 2018: 1:50 PM
Virginia Suite A (Marriott Wardman Park)
John Bezis-Selfa, Wheaton College
In 1909, Arizona’s Territorial Legislature voted to require that all voters be literate in English and overrode the governor’s veto of that bill, an act that the Las Vegas, New Mexico newspaper La Voz del Pueblo condemned as “villainy.” Territorial authorities shelved the measure to avoid torpedoing Arizona’s bid for statehood, but in 1912 the state legislature and governor immediately enacted another literacy requirement shortly after earning admission to the union. Mexican Americans in Arizona challenged the law in court and in Spanish-language newspapers. Thousands suffered disenfranchisement while many who retained the right to vote made this an issue in upcoming election campaigns. Meanwhile, their counterparts in New Mexico ensured that they would probably never confront a similar dilemma by guaranteeing Spanish-speakers’ right to vote in the state’s constitution in 1912. Anglo Arizonans who spearheaded the literacy requirement publicly cast it as a means to purify the electorate of too easily influenced voters but privately celebrated the purging of “the ignorant Mexican vote” from the state’s body politic. Mexican-American Arizonans and their Anglo allies contested this measure as a violation of their rights as US citizens under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Fourteenth Amendment, as an affront to their status as “pioneers” who built Arizona, and as a violation of the principle of “taxation without representation” that had helped to ignite the American Revolution. How and why Anglo Arizonans took the right to vote from thousands of Mexican American men and how the region’s Spanish-speakers fought to regain or preserve that right informs our understanding of how conflicting understandings of race and ethnicity have influenced what belonging and citizenship have meant historically in the southwestern borderlands and in the US.