Despite the ubiquity of the term “Mexican” in US West studies, there has been very little critical pressure on it. Nor on “Mexican American,” for that matter. Critics’ interests typically have leaned more toward “borderlands.” Treating “Mexican” as a keyword thus makes visible how the term has evolved in important tension with, first, regional understandings (the Texas War of Independence in 1836 remapped multiple borders) and, second, national understandings (the US–Mexican War in 1848 added massive territory). It makes visible, moreover, that “Mexican” has been implicated across major transformations of identities, ideologies, territorial holdings, and politics. While the origins of the term belong to the republic of Mexico, simultaneously, “Mexican” must be delinked from exclusive ties to those national origins in order to recognize its construction, and the reasons for that construction, in the United States. The murky terrain between “Mexican” and “Mexican-American” notwithstanding, it is clear that the former is deployed as a disqualifier for the latter, rendering the hyphenated term practically unsuitable to denote US citizenship.1
As a keyword, “Mexican” functions as an underestimated index for comprehending competing Spanish / Mexican / Anglo settler colonialisms in pre-and post-1836 North America. It is also one of the more sly markers for race, racism, and white nation building. In a place like Texas, for example, where Anglo-Texan nationalism is typified by a monument like the Alamo, the circulation of the term “Mexican” ironically holds down the ground for an Anglo settler colonial identity that continues a coloniality of power into the present. “Mexican” is co-opted, even when rhetorically absent—build a wall on the border for “national security” purposes instead of declaring [End Page 49] a desire to “keep Mexicans out”—so as to forward a particular ideological and racialized political class as the true inheritors of the Texas state.2
By contrast, to those of Mexican origin in Texas and in the nation, the keyword is ever present, overdetermining, in real and symbolic ways. For some, it is worn phenotypically, on the body, in hair, skin, eyes; for others it revolves around an accented English. For many it is a crisis of identity, of belonging neither here (in the United States) nor there (in Mexico). The keyword weaves itself painfully into mixed-status families, the documented and the undocumented. Can one ever be “Mexican” enough? Or is “Mexican” a postcard from cousins in Mexico (as it was for Mitt Romney in 2012)? The social effects of this phenomenon are vulnerability, ambivalence, and alertness to potential attack. It can come anytime, even to the powerful: think of the consternation US District Judge Gonzalo Paul Curiel endured during the 2016 presidential campaign for being an accomplished public figure of Mexican heritage.
Why is “Mexican” so malleable, prone to manipulation and distortion? Why is the keyword simultaneously such an inescapable feature for Mexican Americans of social life in the United States? The heart of the matter lies with the history of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on questions of citizenship.3 Mexican Americans are not conventionally understood to be a stateless people. But in the immediate aftermath of the US–Mexican War, the US Senate, in treaty revisions, eliminated the provision that granted citizenship after one year to those Mexicans who elected to remain in the newly conquered territories of the United States. At the moment of invention of the possible category of Mexican American, the Senate disallowed the category. Disregarding the agreements made by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the Senate instead wrestled power back to itself. Only Congress had the authority to render decisions about how, when, and where people of Mexican descent could claim citizenship. It is precisely in relation to embattled questions of citizenship that the term “Mexican,” in US legal history, was initially constituted. By withholding a recognized status under US law, “Mexican” could only articulate a status of statelessness.
Until the Civil Rights period, in practice, all people of Mexican [End Page 50] descent, even US-born, were thought of as “Mexicans.” Jim Crow laws were erected to obstruct or completely prevent people of Mexican descent from voting or performing other civic duties such as...