The early twentieth century brought transformative Mexican migrations to places from Texas to Alaska, Michigan to California, and the South was no exception. Examining the case of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the South from 1908 to 1939, this essay shows how international migration, in this case between the United States and Mexico, has shaped the racial ideologies of nations and societies at both ends of migration streams. It traces the arrival of Mexican immigrants to two Southern locations, New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta, and discusses their initial experiences of race and class there. It then focuses on the middle- and upper-class community surrounding Mexico’s New Orleans consulate, as well as the self-appointed leadership among poor Mexican sharecroppers in Gunnison, Mississippi, to illuminate the distinctly Mexican strategies which Mexicans of all social classes pursued in their quest to attain and retain white status in the U.S. South.
In the early twentieth century U.S. South, there were no Mexican Americans who could call upon U.S. citizenship or claims to be “Caucasian” under the law, nor organizers drawing Mexicans into class-based politics. There, Mexicans’ sole cultural and political claims took the form of Mexico-directed activism, through which the racial ideologies of both immigrants and Mexican government bureaucrats had a discernible impact upon the color line’s shape and foundations. Conversely, it was in the South that Mexican government representatives most directly confronted the black-white eugenic binary of U.S. white supremacy, and did so without the support of U.S.-based institutions or groups. This article argues that during the decade following the Mexican revolution, Mexican immigrants and bureaucrats in the South emphasized Mexico’s pre-revolutionary tradition of cultural whitening, avoiding the official post-revolutionary celebration of race-mixing, or mestizaje. In so doing, they successfully elided questions of eugenic race in their negotiation of the color line. They eventually secured Mexicans’ acceptance as white, a trajectory more closely mirroring national trends for European, rather than Mexican immigrants in the same period.