Drawing Boundaries of Belonging: Race, Ethnicity, National Affiliation, and Alienation in US-Mexico Borderlands in the 19th and 20th Centuries

AHA Session 113
Friday, January 5, 2018: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Virginia Suite A (Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level)
Linda Noel, Morgan State University
Katherine A. Benton-Cohen, Georgetown University

Session Abstract

Scholars of the Americas have come to pay significantly more attention to political borders and to the roles that nation-states have played in creating them and in defining the peoples who live near them. In their 1999 American Historical Review article Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron posited this process as one in which “borderlanders became ‘ethnics’—minorities distinguished by phenotype or language from the ‘national’ majority.” A few years later Samuel Truett and Elliott Young challenged this view by casting the US-Mexico borderlands as a “crossroads” where we can “discover overlapping and competing histories not only of Mexicans and Anglo-Americans but also of Californios, Tejanos, Sonorenses, native peoples, African Americans, Asian Americans, and European Americans.”

Our panel will reveal some of these overlapping and competing histories and blur the boundaries between them. We tie them to borderland residents’ struggles to claim a sense of belonging to their nations, often to confront efforts to alienate them by casting them as racially different. We find that borderland residents strategically drew from nationalist ideas and global intellectual movements to challenge initiatives to affix racial or ethnic identifications on them that they did not choose and that aimed to exclude them from full citizenship. How did transnational flows of people and ideas shape understandings of race and ethnicity, of nationality, citizenship, and belonging, in a rapidly-changing region once claimed and contested by two nation-states?

We will offer some answers to this question by exploring and explaining political and intellectual developments during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in areas of Mexico that would fall within the borders of the US as a result of the annexation of the Lone Star Republic, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and the Gadsden Purchase. Sarah Rodriguez will present on Anglo American migration during the 1820s and 1830s to Tejas, those migrants’ support for Mexican nation-building, why Mexican leaders encouraged them to come, and their reactions to the migrants. John Bezís-Selfa will address the campaign to disenfranchise thousands of Mexican-Americans by imposing an English-language literacy test around the time that Arizona became a state and on how Mexican-Americans challenged this effort. John Nieto-Phillips will link long-standing controversies concerning the meanings of hispanidad (Spanishness) in New Mexico to a global movement known as Hispanism that emerged in the early twentieth century. Linda Noel, an expert on the relationship between ideas of race and migration and the struggles of Arizona and New Mexico to attain statehood, will chair our session. Katherine Benton-Cohen, a historian of the Southwest and of the Progressive Era whose work now centers on the history of race and immigration reform, will comment.

We anticipate that our session will particularly appeal to students of the US-Mexico borderlands and the ways that region’s dynamics have shaped understandings of race, ethnicity, and nation in the US and Mexico. Our session’s attention to language, ideology, transnational migration, global discourse, politics, policy-making, and the roles that these have played in mapping the contours of citizenship, should appeal to an even wider audience.

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