restricted access 33 Mexican-Americans and Whiteness
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33 Mexican-Americans and Whiteness GEORGE A. MARTINEZ During slavery, the racial divide between black and white became a line of protection from the threat of commodification: whiteness protected one against being an object of property. Even after slavery ended, the status of being white continued to be a valuable asset, carrying with it a set of assumptions, privileges and benefits. Given this, it is hardly surprising that minorities have often sought to "pass" as white-i.e., present themselves as white persons. They did so because they thought that becoming white insured greater economic, political and social security. Becoming white, they thought, meant gaining access to a panoply of public and private privileges, while it insured that one would avoid being the object of others' domination. In light of the privileged status of whiteness, it is instructive to examine how legal actors -courts and others-constructed the race of Mexican-Americans.! In Inland Steel Co. v. Barcelona,2 an Indiana appellate court addressed the question of whether Mexicans were white. The court noted that the Encyclopaedia Britannica stated that approximately onefifth of the inhabitants of Mexico are whites, approximately two-fifths Indians and the balance made up of mixed bloods, blacks, Japanese and Chinese. Given this, the court held that a "Mexican" should not necessarily be found to be a white person.3 The Texas courts also considered the same question. In In re Rodriguez,4 a Texas federal court addressed whether Mexicans were white for purposes of immigration. At that time, the federal naturalization laws required that an alien be white in order to become a citizen of the United States. The court stated that Mexicans would probably be considered non-white from an anthropological perspective,S but went on to note that the United States had entered into certain treaties with Mexico. Those treaties expressly allowed Mexicans to become citizens of the United States. Thus, the court held that Congress must have intended that Mexicans were white within the meaning of the naturalization laws. In re Rodriguez reveals how racial categories can be constructed through the political process. Through the give and take of treaty making, Mexicans became "white." Other cases show how politics operated to turn persons of mixed blood into whites or the opposite. In immigration cases, mixed race applicants often failed to establish their whiteness. For example, in In re Camille,6 the court held that the son of a white Canadian father and an Indian mother was non-white, and therefore was denied the right of naturalization . Similarly, in In re Young,? the son of a German father and a Japanese mother was not a white person within the meaning of the immigration laws.s If these cases stand Copyright © 1996 by George A. Martinez. Reprinted by permission. Publication forthcoming in the Harvard Latino Law Review. Copyrighted Material Mexican-Americans and Whiteness 211 for the proposition that mixed race persons were not white, Mexicans-a mixture of Spanish and Indian-should not have counted as white. The treaties nevertheless operated to turn them into whites. The issue of the race of Mexican-Americans also arose in connection with school segregation . In Independent School District v. Salvatierra,9 plaintiffs sought to enjoin segregation of Mexican-Americans in the city of Del Rio, Texas. There, the court treated Mexican -Americans as white, holding that Mexican-Americans could not be segregated from children of "other white races, merely or solely because they are Mexicans."lo Significantly , the court did permit segregation of Mexican-Americans on the basis of linguistic difficulties and migrant farming patterns. Mexican-American jury participation and exclusion also show how the race of MexicanAmericans is constructed. For example, in Hernandez v. State, a Mexican-American had been convicted of murder. He sought to reverse his conviction on the ground that Mexican -Americans had been excluded from the grand jury and the petit jury. He relied on cases holding that exclusion of blacks from jury service violated due process and equal protection . The court recognized only two classes as falling within the guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment: the white race and the black race. It went on to hold that MexicanAmericans are white for purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court reasoned that to say that the members of the various groups comprising the white race must be represented on grand and petit juries would destroy the jury systemll Since the juries that indicted and convicted the defendant were composed of members of his...