Sanctioning Matrimony: Western Expansion and Interethnic Marriage in the Arizona Borderlands by Sal Acosta
As the United States expanded westward following the annexation of Texas (1845) and the conclusion of its war with Mexico (1848), government officials and elites employed the concept of Manifest Destiny to justify the nation’s expropriation of land, to affirm that the Anglo-Saxon race had the right to redeem the backward peoples of the West, and to proclaim that American men would favor unions with Anglo women. Despite such assertions, Sal Acosta’s fascinating case studies from Tucson reveals the inconsistencies between these claims and local practices regarding interracial and interethnic marriages between Mexican women and primarily Caucasian men in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Although the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed Mexicans, “the same citizenship enjoyed by Euro-Americans and the equal protection of their rights” (23), thus bestowing upon them legal whiteness, Acosta argues that discriminatory convictions relegated them to a “racial underclass” (5). Nonetheless, in chapter three, Acosta maintains that interethnic marriages persisted since “geographic proximity frequently involved class parallelism and promoted familiarity and marriage” (90). Thus, men and women married according to their class—not race. Acosta employs quantitative evidence using census and county records to assert that intermarriage consistently increased in number and accounted for a significant percentage of all marriages in Pima County until 1930. Acosta contends that scholars have hitherto misinterpreted the demographic data [End Page 260] of the Southwest by failing to account for the fact that, “white men began migrating as members of families . . . but no longer primarily [as] bachelors” (93). After Acosta separates white immigrants into the categories of married (thereby precluded from any type of legal union) and marriageable, he finds that intermarriage rates rose from 39 percent to 51 percent in 1880 and 23 percent to 34 percent in 1900, consequently revealing the perseverance of interethnic coupling.
While Acosta emphasizes gender inequalities among working-class interethnic marriages and argues that the men in these unions, “sought to exert power over women they viewed and treated as their inferiors” (156), his focus on the correlation between socioeconomic status and geographic proximity leads him to conclude that “no evidence suggests that these men viewed the race or culture of their wives as inferior” (158), thereby leaving it to others to extricate race from class in studies of Tucson.
In chapter five, Acosta intriguingly reveals the agency of working-class Mexican women in Arizona. He shows that despite the legal and social disadvantages they faced in the region such as an English-language legal system, Mexican women, due to their local networks and kinship ties, successfully called on friends and relatives to testify on their behalf and, failing that, harnessed the porosity of the political border between the U.S. and Mexico to relocate permanently when circumstances in the United States conspired against them. Hence, Acosta’s captivating read highlights the social mobility of the working class in Arizona and provides ample thought for scholars researching gender and ethnicity in the Southwest.