Sunday, March 22, 2009

Why Is Big Tex a White Cowboy?: Race, Gender and the "Other Texans" (a rough draft, Part 3)

The French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault once observed that, “there are no relations of power without resistance.” Mexican Americans, caught betwixt and between the racial polarities of black and white, sought to maintain their own cultural identity while avoiding disenfranchisement. Powerful Anglos may have set the ground rules for racial discourse, but Mexican Americans and other marginalized groups waged an occasionally successful campaign to redefine terms such as “Mexican” and “brown” and “white.” Richard A. Garcia, in his landmark study "Rise of the Mexican Middle Class: San Antonio, 1929-1941" (1991), saw national identity rather than racial identity shaping the politics of the Mexican American community. In essence, Garcia questioned the stability of national identities. He saw deep divides along generational lines within the Tejano community. Garcia depicted Tejano identity politics as, to a large degree, a story of assimilation similar to the experience of other immigrants. “In many ways,” Garcia writes, “this search for identity, educational opportunities, and political efficacy was not very different from the stories of the Irish in Boston, the Italians in Chicago, the blacks in the South, or the Jews in New York.” What differentiated Mexican immigrants, Garcia suggested, is Mexico’s proximity to the United States, which allowed a continuous and at times massive population surge from the home country.

According to Garcia, “Spanish” elites claiming little or no Indian heritage dominated San Antonio until Reconstruction. These elites related more to the “Americano” dominant class than to the “Mexicano” working class and poor. As white immigration to San Antonio increased after the Civil War, marriage between the Spanish elites and wealthy Anglos declined. With urbanization, segregation between the Mexican and Anglo community deepened. At the same time incomes in the Mexican neighborhoods of San Antonio declined. These factors led to an intensified “Mexican” identity in the community, an identity that only deepened as San Antonio industrialized through the first half of the twentieth century and drew increasing number of blue collar workers from south of the Rio Grande. The number of “white Spanish” elites disappeared to the vanishing point as Anglos racialized almost the entire Mexican community. “For the Mexicans geographical and cultural separation contributed to a heightened sense of ethnicity, since they continued to perceive themselves as others constantly identified them – as Mexicans,” Garcia said.

Unlike Foley, Garcia saw racial identity as a super-structure built upon a foundation of class politics within the Mexican American community in San Antonio and between the Mexican American and Anglo populations. The continued immigration of poor Mexicans to San Antonio, even during the mass deportations of Mexican immigrants the Great Depression, moved many Anglos to associate Mexican identity with poverty, filth, crime, and illiteracy. Urbanization and industrialization, however, had created a Mexican middle class horrified by the image of their community in the eyes of their Anglo peers. Worried about their status, the Mexican middle class consciously distanced itself from the Mexican poor and began calling themselves “Latin Americans” or “Americans of Latin descent.” The middle class, Garcia suggests, embraced this identity for economic and political reasons. Rather than searching for whiteness, as Foley suggests, the Latin American middle class, sought acceptance as a distinct ethnic group valuable to the city’s economy. While some whiteness scholars detected anti-black racism shaping Mexican identity politics, Garcia suggested that the middle class Mexican Americans who formed groups like the League of United Latin American Citizens (or LULAC) were motivated by a genuine attraction to American society coupled with a pragmatic awareness that a separate racial identity from whites represented a handicap in the United States. “The ideology of this ‘new consciousness’ was clear: be proud of being Mexican in culture, but be American in politics, and most of all be industrious, efficient and productive,” Garcia writes. The middle class, Garcia argues, eased the community’s transition from being Mexican to Mexican American to Americans of Mexican extraction.

Perhaps because Chicano historians experienced the scarring generational battles over social justice and the Vietnam War in the 1960s, Garcia’s approach, with its emphasis on shifting identities tied to age groups, anticipated much Tejano historiography since 1991. For instance, Guadalupe San Miguel extends Garcia’s argument in "Brown, Not White: School Integration and the Chicano Movement in Houston" (2001.) San Miguel adds a twist: Mexican American identity goes full-circle. Influenced by the black liberation struggle and its fascination with Afro-centrism, San Miguel argues, young Mexican Americans in the 1960s and 1970s embraced the brown “Chicano” identity many of their grandparents brought with them from Mexico and which their “Mexican American” parents had rejected. This choice of identity with clear racial overtones, according to San Miguel, resulted in part as a reaction against a dominant Anglo society seen by Chicanos as racist and militaristic. San Miguel argues that the Chicanos’ Mexican American elders ironically also re-defined themselves as brown once they realized that anti-discrimination laws passed under President Lyndon Johnson provided economic and educational opportunities for the Latino community if they forged a non-white identity.

Post-modern scholars generally decry the racism of workers who embraced white identity, since that choice derives from negative assumptions about African Americans. Yet, while Chicanismo rejects whiteness and all its racist baggage, this ideology at its extremes substituted white power politics with a racialist Chicano supremacism. Chicanismo, like whiteness, essentialized and still rested on the idea that racial categories reflected real biological differences and that members of racial groups shared certain innate characteristics. San Miguel does not explore this important shortcoming in Chicano ideology. Also, while post-modernism emphasizes the fluidity of identity, San Miguel, Garcia, Ignacio Garcia, and other historians utilizing the generational approach to Tejano history portrayed the identity of the first “Mexican” generation in America as relatively static, a major flaw in this scholarship.

While Richard Garcia discussed class conflict between ricos and pobres in San Antonio, he did not explore in much detail the ideas of race Mexican immigrants of all classes brought with them to the United States. San Miguel noted the influence the Mexican Revolution ideology of “la raza,” the idea that Latinos represented the best traits of white, Native American and African peoples, had on the Chicano movement. He ignored, however, the older Mexican concept of blanqueamiento, the idea that Mexicanos can advance only to the degree by which people of Northern and Western European heritage can be incorporated into Mexican society. This concept divided indios, mestizos and crillos in Mexico. Did these conflicts within the immigrant community survive in an American setting? Did Mexican indios share the same view of race as their mestizo peers? Were Mayans and Yaquis in the United States ever Mexicans, Mexican Americans or Chicanos, or did they become Native Americans? Using post-modern theory, one might argue that racial identity among Mexican Americans were fluid not just between generations but also within generations. However, these questions are never answered clearly by historians using the generational approach to Tejano history.

In the 2001 edition of "Ethnicity in the Sunbelt: Mexican Americans in Houston," Arnoldo de León argued that several racial identities – “Mexican,” “Mexican American,” “Chicano” and “Hispanic” exist side-by-side in the Bayou City. De León suggested that, following the 1910 Mexican Revolution a wave of immigrants joined the already established barrios in proudly preserving a Mexican identity. Like other historians of the Tejano community, de León suggested that the “Mexican American” second generation sought to retain their distinct culture while being accepted as a white ethnicity, as opposed to a separate racial group. De León, however, did not see the Mexican American generation as seeking whiteness. Referring to the Mexican American organization LULAC, De León noted that members of that group have “come under attack for advocating assimilation. This they did, but never at the expense of renouncing ‘lo mexicano.’ Politically the LULACers were Americans, but they took pride in their cultural past.” Even as Mexican Americans fiercely battled attempts by the Department of Public Safety and other institutions to classify them as non-whites, they named their clubs and their institutions with reference to their Aztec heritage or to Mexican heroes like Benito Juarez with the same zest as later Chicanos. De León’s research suggests that Houston’s Mexican American community juggled several national identities at the same time. In the past two decades, however, middle and upper class Mexican Americans in particular experienced greater social interaction with other racial group. This resulted in increased intermarriage with their Anglo peers. The multi-cultural environment Houston “Hispanics” experienced lead to a moderate, more accommodating political approach to civil rights and a more full embrace of “whiteness.”

De León observes “Americanization” co-existed in the barrio with “lo mexicano.” Andrés Reséndez, in "Changing National Identities at the Frontier: Texas and New Mexico, 1800-1850" (2005) , demonstrates why such questions of national identity are important for race scholarship. He documents the extreme fluidity of national identities among Mexicans, Anglos and Native Americans in the borderlands before Mexican independence and in the early national period. These national identities held clear racial implications. Two competing forces, the building of the Mexican state and the penetration of the American marketplace, pulled the population in Texas and New Mexico from 1800 to 1850 in opposite directions. Inhabitants of this volatile region traded national, and in some cases racial, identities with ease. Any number of alternative historical outcomes could have changed the later racial categorization of borderland inhabitants. Anglo residents could have been pulled closer politically to Mexico City, thereby making their “Mexican” identities more than a matter of convenience. Anglos could have found Tejanos useful allies in wars against Native Americans and, perhaps, this affiliation might have paved a road to whiteness for Tejanos. On the other hand, Anglos may have found in local natives welcome allies in the struggle against Mexican domination, thus transforming the perception whites had of Indians.

Tejano historians like De León, and Mexican American historians like Vicki L. Ruiz in "From Out of the Shadow: Mexican Women in Twentieth Century America" (1998), argue that the Mexican community in the early 20th century Southwest forged a self-consciously multi-racial self-image, expressed in the community’s music. As noted below, this racial self-definition resembles similar approaches taken by Comanches in Texas. Did Mexican immigrants and Tejanos redefine “Mexicaness” as time went by? Reséndez and Ruiz’s research suggests that national and racial identities are slippery, and that an individual’s self-identification as a “Mexican” or a “Mexican American” or a “Chicano” raises as many questions as it answers. Historians like Richard Garcia and San Miguel, for all the brilliance of their work, should more closely interrogate those terms.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

2 comments:

Xmandyu said...
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Xmandyu said...

Hi, my name is Cöelis (CHAY-lees) Mendoza and I am a sophomore at Ithaca College, in upstate New York, but am originally from San Antonio. I found the arguments presented on these books fascinating and I fully intend on reading them myself very soon. BUt my main reason for commenting is because I am currently writing a 10 page research paper on Mexican-American youths' transculturation/racialization/urbanization in San Antonio through music and was wondering if you had any specific suggestions of books, or chapters in books etc. that would be helpful to this topic?