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  • Racial Fluidity in the Borderlands:Intermarriages between Blacks and Mexicans in Southern Arizona, 1860–1930
  • Sal Acosta (bio)

Emmett Woodley and Leonicia Terrazas celebrated their wedding in Tucson’s St. Augustine Catholic Church on March 23, 1872.1 The bride and groom met in town, but considerably different journeys had brought them to the new Territory of Arizona. Like countless other Americans, Emmett had recently migrated west. A native of antebellum Virginia, he had served in the United States Army before settling in southern Arizona.2 Leonicia, meanwhile, had ventured north from the border state of Sonora, following a route that Mexicans had wrought for over a hundred years.3 Their working-class backgrounds and similar migrant experiences might have generated a sense of compatibility and reassurance to help them overcome their linguistic and cultural differences, but the couple still had to negotiate two potential obstacles before being able to marry, one with the Catholic Church and the other with Arizona’s miscegenation law.4 Emmett was an African American Protestant, and Leonicia was Catholic and, as an ethnic Mexican, was legally white. The Catholic Church begrudgingly condoned this type of interfaith marriage, and the Arizona Territory had prohibited marriages between blacks and whites during its first legislative session (1864–1865).5 Their plans to marry, nonetheless, proceeded uneventfully: they first obtained a marriage license from the county clerk, and the priest granted an interfaith dispensation.6 While the local church typically approved interfaith marriages—as long as the couple married in a Catholic ceremony—the consent of county clerks did not come automatically when partners belonged to different races. In fact, marriages between blacks and Euro-American whites were virtually nonexistent in Arizona during the life of the miscegenation law (1865–1962). Mexicans, however, occupied an ambiguous racial space: technically, their legal whiteness permitted their [End Page 555] marriages only to other whites, but in practice, county officials frequently sanctioned their marriages to nonwhites. Thus, Emmett and Leonicia benefited from the third socio-racial space Mexicans occupied.

This study attempts to identify and explain important facts and incongruities in the history of intermarriages in the Tucson area in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It focuses on the experiences of black-Mexican couples and their descendants to illustrate how social and cultural attitudes can undermine or contravene racialist definitions and legal directives. It argues that the existence of these relationships in light of an ostensibly strict miscegenation law, the occasional sanctioning of their marriages, and the ambiguous racial classification of multiracial people all demonstrate that race was both meaningful and meaningless in the Southwest. Race had meaning because economic, political, and social entities often used it as differentiating and discriminating factors in their decisions, views, and policies. But race frequently proved meaningless because local officials could and did ignore racially based laws or could not ascertain or agree on the racial identity of some groups, especially of people of mixed ancestry. The very meaning and significance of race also varied by location. During the second half of the nineteenth century and the first three decades of the twentieth, the American West offered migrants economic opportunities that they could not find in their places of origin, but, in addition to the obstacles all migrants encountered—such as the difficulties in travel, the threat of Indian raids, and the unbalanced sex ratios—racial discrimination added more barriers to the experiences of nonwhites. Yet, Tucson offered blacks a form of social toleration that did not exist in central and northern Arizona and in mining towns. The city did witness racial prejudice, but the relatively small size of Tucson’s black population and its settlement in ethnically diverse areas precluded the type of racial tension that existed in other parts of the West. Indeed, the city, unlike other areas, including Phoenix, did not witness the creation of distinctive black enclaves. Instead, this group, like Chinese immigrants, resided primarily in the numerous Mexican barrios that already existed and where blacks often found the opportunity to marry outside their ethnic group.7

Intermarriage in Mexican American Historiography

While historians have long underscored the existence and role of intermarriage among Mexicans...


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pp. 555-581
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