- Debating American Identity: Southwestern Statehood and Mexican Immigration by Linda C. Noel
Linda Noel’s Debating American Identity is a comparative study that brings to light the fluid and highly complex strategies of political and cultural identity formation in New Mexico and Arizona during the first third of the twentieth century. Noel focuses on four national immigration debates of exclusion, assimilation, pluralism, and marginalization that erupted after the United States’ expansionist wars of the nineteenth century. National political leaders and anti-immigration groups voiced their reluctance in admitting New Mexico and Arizona into statehood due to their ethnic Mexican and American Indian populations and cultural differences. People of Mexican descent and their mixed heritage disrupted the nativist concept of a homogenous Anglo-Saxon citizenry unified through the English language and customs. As Noel points out, New Mexico and Arizona’s political and social elite formulated differing strategies, pluralism and marginalization respectively, in seeking statehood. The evolving nature of their political strategies and cultural identities is outlined in three parts that follow a trajectory of accommodation and assimilation as political, economic, and social landscapes shifted in the early decades of the twentieth century.
New Mexicans and Arizonians were concerned that their territorial status would lump them with the island territories acquired after the Spanish-American War and delay their admittance into statehood since exclusionists adamantly wanted to preserve national homogeneity and unity. The principal strategies of exclusion and assimilation were argued at the national level forcing the former Mexican territories to adapt or risk prolonging their territorial status. New Mexico’s political elite adopted a pluralistic strategy of inclusion that would demonstrate the better [End Page 331] qualities of Americanism, such as European ancestry and class, while allowing New Mexicans to preserve key cultural qualities, such as the Spanish language. On the other hand, Arizona adopted a marginalization approach that reflected the political and economic base dominated by Anglo transplants into the territory.
Debating American Identity effectively contrasts the political strategies by Arizona and New Mexico. The political, economic, and social context of each territory yielded to the differing approaches of pluralism by New Mexico and marginalization by Arizona. New Mexico had a bigger and much more politically active Hispano population that was economically versatile. The conflation of middle-class status and an emphasis on Spanish ancestry projected an acceptable image of prosperity and modernity sufficient for statehood. In contrast, Arizona did not house a large Mexican population and Anglos almost exclusively dominated its territorial politics. Marginalization served as a more effective approach towards statehood. In other words, an effectively controlled and marginalized Mexican community coincided with national ideas of Anglo-Saxon homogeneity and unity.
Noel effectively portrays the differing political strategies by New Mexico and Arizona seeking statehood. On the other hand, a closer review of the political debate in Washington could shed light on the effectiveness of the differing strategies. Noel does offer some insight to the consequences of marginalization and pluralism after 1912, but it should be understood that these concepts of identity and culture are highly politicized. Nevertheless, Noel offers a keen analysis of demographic change in both states in the 1920s and 1930s and its effect on the ideas of Spanish heritage and class difference. Overall, Noel tackles an incredibly difficult and complex history with great nuance and clarity.
Defining American Identity contributes to the ongoing scholarly discussion of the fluidity and potency of political and cultural identity. Readers are privy to a better understanding of the heterogeneity of the American Southwest by reviewing New Mexico and Arizona’s respective political strategies to obtain statehood and their approach to identity formation. Defining American Identity makes a significant contribution to the studies of identity, race, southwestern history, and Mexican American history.