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“Scientifically, there is nothing meaningfully different about people in different racial groups,” says Laura E. Gómez, professor of law at the University of New Mexico. “Race is socially constructed; it’s not rooted in biology. Race is important because of the particular history we have in this country — we had an institution of slavery based on the color of people’s skin. In 1780, Congress passed one of the very first major laws — that only white people could become naturalized citizens of the United States. That left out the Chinese, Mexicans, and anyone else that wasn’t white.”

On Wednesday, March 19, Gómez will discuss her book Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race at D.G. Wills Books in La Jolla. “For 160 years, Mexicans have been part of the United States. Sometimes the law has defined Mexican Americans as white, yet, socially, Mexican Americans have been defined as nonwhite.”

On the 2000 census, the categories for race consisted of White, Black, African American or Negro, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Native Hawaiian, Guamanian or Chamorro, Samoan, and Other. According to the Office of Management and Budget’s definition of race, as explained on census.gov, “People who identify their origin as Spanish, Hispanic, or Latino may be of any race.” The question preceding the one about race asks whether the citizen is Spanish, Hispanic, or Latino. Therefore, in the eyes of the government, the terms Hispanic and Latino refer not to race but ethnicity. According to Gómez, this is a good thing.

“In the 1930 census, Mexicans were counted as a separate race. That coincided with a period of economic depression. If you think back to the Depression, there was tremendous labor competition between the Mexican-American and white workers. So it was, like, let’s count them and push them out. In that decade, half a million [people of Mexican descent] were deported to Mexico, including U.S. citizens.”

Ignacio Piña, a U.S.-born citizen, recounted the experience to Wendy Koch for USA Today in 2006: “They came in with guns and told us to get out.” This was in 1931; Piña was six years old. “They didn’t let us take anything.” According to Koch, “The family was thrown into a jail for ten days before being sent by train to Mexico,” and it took 16 years to acquire the papers necessary to return to the U.S. “It’s not like the data was really good,” says Gómez. “A lot of people, like Cruz Reynoso [the first Mexican American to serve on the California Supreme Court] — his family were U.S. citizens, were deported to Mexico and then came back later.”

Gómez has determined that two-thirds of Latinos in the country are of Mexican origin. “If we look at how Mexican Americans fill out that census question, about half of them say that they’re white. But more than 40 percent of them say they’re not any of the races listed or they choose a category of some other race. I think this has to do with the history — we know that we’re not white, but sometimes people [answer] strategically because you’re going to be discriminated against if you don’t say you’re white, like in the 1930s’ experience. Ninety-nine percent of non-Hispanics have no problem choosing a race.”

After the deportations of the 1930s, Hispanic was deleted from the census as an option for race. “The Mexican-American leaders at that time fought and said, ‘Hey, come hell or high water, that 1940 census, we want it back the way it was, because being identified as Mexican was not good for our people,’” says Gómez. An additional question allowing for Hispanic and Latino origin was added in 1980 as a result of similar lobbying by Mexican-American civil rights leaders. This allowed Mexican Americans to have the option to choose white as their race and indicate their ethnic heritage in a separate question.

In 1848, with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the end of the the Mexican-American War, 115,000 Mexicans became U.S. citizens. “Nobody thought Mexicans were white — a term used at that time was ‘mongrels.’ It was clear that they were an inferior group in the eyes of Congress, but, ‘wink, wink,’ we’ll bring them in and not talk about it. In a sense, we’re getting all that land and California and access to Asian markets. It’s little cost to pay, getting these 115,000 Mexican citizens. I call those people the first Mexican Americans.”

Gómez hopes that, through an accurate depiction of history, Americans will learn from past mistakes. “It’s almost eerie to think of some of the contemporary debates on immigration. For the first 60 years of the border there was no enforcement. You don’t see the same kind of concern for terrorism at the northern border for Canada, even though there are larger numbers of Muslims in Canada. We’re in a moment of change with how we think about race in the United States.”

— Barbarella

Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race
book discussion
Wednesday, March 19
7 p.m.
D.G. Wills Books
7461 Girard Avenue
La Jolla
Cost: Free
Info: 858-456-1800 or www.dgwillsbooks.com

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