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The Americas 61.2 (2004) 306-307

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Racial Frontiers: Africans, Chinese, and Mexicans in Western America, 1848-1890. By Arnoldo de León. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002. Pp. ix, 150. Tables. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $21.95 paper.

This synthetic work brings together thirty years of scholarship on the histories of Africans, Chinese and Mexicans in the United States West. Its broad strokes and brevity give us a bird's-eye view of these communities and their relationships with white America, making it particularly appropriate for undergraduate classes. Arnoldo de León focuses his book on what he calls the "racial frontier," a place where Africans, Chinese and Mexicans "crossed paths, competed with each other, and interacted with white Americans and U.S. institutions" (p. 2). Since Turner's frontier thesis in 1893, scholars have tried to understand the meaning of the frontier for white people. De León, following in the distinguished path of New Western history, tries to explain what the frontier meant for non-white communities. The time frame of his study, 1848-1890, however, keeps us squarely within the Turnerian frontier era, a chronology that subsequent scholars have questioned. As a result, other non-white groups—Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, and others—who arrived in the twentieth century are not represented in the narrative, and native Americans are, strangely enough, also missing, even though they were clearly significant players in the nineteenth-century racial frontier.

The book recounts the specific histories of each group, and the intra-group class and gender conflicts, at the same time as it explores the similarities and differences between them. The recurrent theme throughout, unsurprisingly, is one of white domination and non-white resistance. However, the specific cases that de León cites bring the range of resistance to life, showing how each of these groups attempted to use official legal and political channels for redress, as well as resorting to extra-legal means—as in the case of New Mexico's proto-guerrilla group, Las Gorras Blancas. The ways in which whites segmented the labor market, assigning the lowest and least paying jobs to non-whites, explains the difficulties minorities had in moving up the social ladder on the frontier. As de León succinctly puts it, Africans, Mexicans and Chinese "were unable to rise above their relegation to second-class citizenship" (p. 46). While whites were virtually always on top in relation to non-whites, de León does not explore in any depth the class conflicts within the white community. He notes that white unions kept non-whites out to prevent competition and to maintain their privileged place in the labor hierarchy, and then concludes, "it was in the majority's interest not to have colored minorities become potential competitors" (p. 66). However, it is just as reasonable to argue that it would be very much in the interest of white capitalists to use colored minorities as competitors to bring down the wages of white workers; non-white scabs were in fact used to break white union strikes on more than one occasion. In other words, preventing competition with minorities may help white workers but not their white bosses.

De León weaves gender issues throughout the book, and to his credit does not relegate gender or women to a specific chapter. He presents women as more than [End Page 306] victims, as exemplified by his account of Ah Toy an entrepreneurial Chinese prostitute based in San Francisco who "enticed and manipulated men" (p. 78). While her thriving brothels came under fire from local authorities and other Chinese competitors ultimately pushing her out of business, Ah Toy exemplifies a woman who "had for a moment defied the customs of her homeland and perhaps those of the Trans-Mississipi West" (p. 78). The conclusion de León draws from this multicultural history of the West is that while Western people of color "accepted tenets of other cultures, . . . their loyalty generally remained with the way of life that nourished them in segregated areas and defined them...


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