- The Borderlands of Race: Mexican Segregation in a South Texas Town by Jennifer R. Nájera
In the rush to discuss the larger themes of racism, race relations, and civil rights activism, historians can take for granted the daily social reality of racial segregation. In The Borderlands of Race: Mexican Segregation in a South Texas Town, Jennifer R. Nájera of the University of California, Riverside, a cultural anthropologist by training, offers a sophisticated microhistory of Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans in the South Texas border town of La Feria. This study uncovers the everyday reality of racial segregation, the ways its victims experienced it, and how they have come to interpret it.
Nájera argues that in La Feria racial segregation was established in the 1910s as a precise system of social distance and labor control. By the 1940s it had evolved into a somewhat “accommodated form,” as segregationists, grudgingly and under some external pressure, adopted token exceptions to the system of racial segregation, which “enabled the blurring of certain racial boundaries” (p. 104). By the 1970s and 1980s, after the arrival of the Chicano movement, the formal system of racial segregation unraveled significantly. In several topical chapters Nájera analyzes school policy, the Mexican American middle class, the teaching profession, and the Roman Catholic Church. The author holds that “de jure Mexican segregation was at odds with de facto practices of segregation” (p. 17). While this concept is neither new nor especially profound, The Borderlands of Race successfully complicates segregation as it is most commonly understood. Such nuances mattered a great deal since, as the author notes, “The contradictions in the structure of [End Page 727] Mexican segregation actually made processes of desegregation all the more difficult” (p. 3).
The Borderlands of Race, a slim book, would have benefited from a deeper engagement with the existing historical literature on Mexican American education, civic organizations, and civil rights. This is its only limitation, however. One of the book’s strengths is the use of copious oral interviews to flesh out the lived social reality of racial segregation. One Mexican American, for example, painfully described the moment in the early 1990s when she finally realized just how enmeshed in the Jim Crow era the parish she had attended her entire life was regarding everything from entering, sitting, and exiting the church to administering the sacraments and clerical contact. This realization occurred to her when, inspired by the Second Vatican Council and liberation theology, Mexican Americans within her parish advocated for their cultural and spiritual concerns to be better reflected in the construction of a new church, upending the “normalized set of racial rules” of the past (p. 150). Nájera also captures how Mexican American activism over integration captured the interests of the broader community through the strategic and creative deployment of cultural capital. These activist groups, though their memberships may have been small, widely influenced the larger community. Internal class divisions among Mexicans and Mexican Americans are a special point of focus in The Borderlands of Race. The author is highly attentive to the class position of her interview subjects and explicitly guides the reader through their positioning within the community.
The Borderlands of Race is instructive, stimulating, and compelling. It is a textured social history of real people and their lived experiences with racial segregation, demonstrating the growing richness and diversity of Mexican American history as a field and its potential to further our understanding of the oftentimes hidden meaning of race in U.S. history.