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  • Recovering History, Constructing Race: The Indian, Black, and White Roots of the Mexican Americans
  • Ruben G. Mendoza
Recovering History, Constructing Race: The Indian, Black, and White Roots of the Mexican Americans. By Martha Menchaca. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.

Martha Menchaca’s Recovering History, Constructing Race is nothing short of an historical tour de force and a stunning sociopolitical exposé centered on the dynamics and consequences of Spanish colonial, Mexican, and U.S. racial policy and legislation on the evolution of the Mexican American communities of the U.S. Southwest. Menchaca, however, does not stop there and in fact succeeds in drawing together the broader historical fabric of the Mexican American experience into a narrative anchored by way of diverse ethnic histories and racialized interactions that encompass American Indian and Afromestizo communities of color. Unlike other anthropologically informed histories of North America, Menchaca presents for consideration and analysis the little known and largely unacknowledged histories of the Afromestizos or Hispanicized-African Americans who found their way into Spanish colonial and Mexican era North American settlements in the period from 1542 through 1848.

In fact, Menchaca goes well beyond Afromestizos and other culturally significant ethnic group experiences and interactions in her efforts to render an innovative methodological framework geared to the sociocultural analysis of perhaps the most critical periods of ethnic formation and identity in North America. This she accomplishes by way of the concept of racialization, or, stated differently, that process by which dominant—White or European—groups systematized the deployment of racial policies and legislation intended to keep any and all people of color in check as per their respective economic, social, political and cultural aspirations and needs. In this way, peoples of African origin and American Indians—including hybrid or Mestizo Mexican Indian populations—were deprived of due process and their most fundamental human rights well into recent times.

As noted, specific sub themes of Menchaca’s narrative center on the concept of racialization as a model for the means by which particular groups were effectively legislated out of existence through Spanish colonial and American institutional practices and protocols. Specifically, the subordination of those Mexican Americans readily identifiable as to their “colored” status by virtue of their respective ethnic, racial, and cultural characteristics specific to American Indian and Afromestizo roots, constitutes a primary theme in Menchaca’s work. Moreover, in her efforts to identify the dynamics underlying the long-term racialization of American public policy, Menchaca also succeeds in documenting the heroic struggles and contributions of Indians, Mexicans, Whites, and Blacks who individually and collectively fought the racist institutions and agendas of their day.

Menchaca similarly uses the texts of racialized public policies and military protocols from the Spanish colonial era and the American period (circa 1848–1970s) to document how the civil liberties of people of color were subverted. During the Spanish colonial period both the viceregal government and the Spanish military maintained a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward identifying the racial classification or ethnic makeup of early colonists in North America and elsewhere. Colonists not specifically of White or European origins were systematically excluded from colonial census records for many early colonial settlements. This practice serves to explain, for example, why the first census undertaken in New Mexico records an early population of some 800 colonists, of which only 200 settlers were specifically identified as of White or Spanish origin. Non-Whites were not specifically identified by name in the civil or military registries of the day. Despite this fact, Menchaca convincingly argues that the vast majority of the remaining 600 colonists of early New Mexico were of Mexican Indian, Mulatto, and Afromestizo ancestry. This latter fact, or separate reality as the case may be, was systematically excluded from the details of colonial era census records due to the non-White ethnicity and “race” of the colonists in question. Menchaca further argues that this systematized oversight of the contributions of people of color continues to fuel the elaboration of a “fantasy heritage” that promulgates the belief that the Spanish colonization of North America was a predominantly White adventure dominated by Spanish colonials of indisputable Iberian ancestry. In reality, the bulwark...

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