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Reviewed by:
  • Mexicans in the Making of America by Neil Foley
  • Mark Overmyer-Velázquez
Mexicans in the Making of America, by Neil Foley. Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014. ix, 368 pp. $29.95 US (cloth).

In Mexicans in the Making of America, Neil Foley tells a familiar story of North Americans’ love-hate relationship with Mexican immigrants and their US-born relatives. Although in Foley’s intricate and readable book “love” is really “tolerate” due to a persistent and urgent need for cheap Mexican labour in the United States, and “hate” manifests itself from explicit and violent racist acts, to institutionalized discrimination couched as “protecting” the homeland from foreign contagion. Yet at the core of this tale is the vital role Mexicans themselves have played in “making” the United States and their integral part in that country’s history. Foley begins and ends his study with the oft stated demographic that by some impending decade, one in three US residents will be of Latin American and Caribbean heritage comprised overwhelmingly by those of Mexican origin. That numerical fact becomes a convincing argument for why we need to better understand the United States’ southern neighbors, why they keep coming, and what they do once they arrive in the US. Foley has [End Page 646] a salubrious take on this historical dynamic: “Whether one is optimistic or pessimistic about the rapid changes wrought by unprecedented immigration from Mexico and other Latin-American countries, Latinos will be central to ensuring the future health and well-being of the nation” (p. 224). Of course, not everyone would agree. In addition to the successes achieved by Mexican labourers, activists, consumers, soldiers, educators, politicians, and others, there has always been a deep seeded fear that Mexicans — like other non-white immigrants — will contaminate and forever disrupt the US’s dominant narrative and power.

Organized in a recognizable chronological order, Mexicans in the Making of America relates a broad narrative from the precolonial era to the present, synthesizing many of the key historical junctures and punctuated by detailed, original case studies used to illustrate important themes in the Mexican-American experience.

The first chapter establishes a recurring motif in the book: the encounter between peoples in varying colonial and postcolonial contexts and the ensuing construction of racialized forms of power and privilege. Just as Spanish colonists cast indigenous and African inhabitants into subordinate positions in their imperial hierarchy, so did “pioneers” claiming space in Northern Mexico, which they recast as the “West.” In this context, Foley writes, “Anglo Americans thus reproduced the Spanish colonial practice of allowing certain light-skinned mestizos to become español, or white, and erased the mixed-race reality of Indian and mestizo Mexicans” (p. 37).

The volume moves quickly to the nineteenth century when, following the Invasión norteamericana (1846–48), the two young countries went their separate ways and established a relationship of deep inequality that persists until today. World Wars, labour demands, economic depressions, and immigration legislation all impacted the flow of Mexican workers to and from the US. Foley’s work is at its best when it takes a break from the fast-paced chronology to closely examine how an ever emerging Mexican American population negotiated, for example, their blunt categorization in the US census as alternatingly “white” and “non-white” subjects. Like his outstanding work in The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture (Berkeley, 1999), Foley places the story of Mexican Americans in a broader history of race in the US.

Throughout World War II, Mexico and Mexican Americans were relieved of their subordinate position in relation to the United States, as the latter country faced the problem of labour shortages. The situation led to an extended series of guest worker contracts popularly known as the Bracero period (1942–1964). In its early years, combined with decent behavior from the Good Neighbor Policy, US officials negotiated with their Mexican counterparts and were careful not to aggravate their allies in a precarious time of war. However, once the war was over and the flow [End Page 647] of Mexican labour had become permanently established, US employers continued...


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