- The Other California: Land, Identity, and Politics on the Mexican Borderlands by Verónica Castillo-Muñoz
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016
vii + 171 pp., $70.00 (cloth); $70.00 (ebook)
In 1880 Petra Laguna Tambo, an indigenous Cocopah woman, married Felix Portillo, a mestizo (a person of mixed race). They made a life together near the Colorado River in Baja California as she worked cultivating fruits and vegetables and he as a cowboy. Their ethnically mixed marriage represented a “rapidly changing ethnoracial landscape of a frontier region where agricultural and mining enterprises had taken hold on an unprecedented scale” (1). The Baja borderlands were shaped through Mexican land reform, migratory labor, and foreign investment from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. National governments and business interests sought to facilitate the movement of laborers even as they attempted to fix communities in particular locations. Despite these efforts, laborers altered the geography of the region as well as social relations as they intermarried across racial and ethnic difference.
At the intersection of the United States and Mexico, race and ethnicity, labor and capital, The Other California demonstrates that people transgressed multiple boundaries. The Baja peninsula became a key point of entry for US business interests’ expansion into Mexico, but it was ordinary people who brought about social change, despite business and national efforts to the contrary. In the 1800s the Mexican government demanded segregated housing for laborers toiling in the Baja area’s mining and agricultural operations, but by 1921 racial lines had been blurred significantly due to a drastic demographic shift. Despite state-sanctioned segregation, migrants to the region began to marry across race and ethnicity, so that Mexican women—mestiza and indigenous—married Asian, European, and United States men and transformed Baja California into a multicultural society. Significantly, these multicultural and mixed-race families lived in two nations and helped make the Baja California borderlands.
Castillo-Muñoz also explores how mestizos, Mexican Americans, and Asians eventually became Mexican nationals by enacting an identity as members of the nation and mobilizing to gain access to land, jobs, and wages. They did so by adopting and adapting ideas of Mexicanidad that the Mexican government used to determine who was eligible for land grants in northern Mexico. In this way ideas about race were crucial in determining who was included or excluded from land ownership, employment, and citizenship. Because land ownership was key, land reform in Mexico became a crucial site for Baja California with repercussions for the United States and other business interests that sought to make their fortunes on the backs of Mexicans.
The book builds on recent scholarship about place-making, identity, and labor, such as White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture, by Neil Foley; Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836–1986, by David Montejano; and The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction, by Linda Gordon—all of which showed how ordinary people’s actions altered notions of race and ethnicity. Many studies about land [End Page 113] reform stop early in the twentieth century, but Castillo-Muñoz analyzes the effect of these laws and the concomitant land distribution through the 1950s. By doing so she demonstrates that race and gender were critical in determining the access a person had to different kinds of land. More importantly, her work helps to illuminate how indigenous, mestizo, Mexican Americans, Asians, and others advocated for their rights. Moreover, The Other California demonstrates that anti-Chinese racism and discrimination in Mexico did not dissipate organically or due to increased financial investment. Instead, Chinese associations in Mexico fought against government repression as well as helping Chinese workers to learn Spanish and English, establish relationships in communities where they worked and lived, and even become Mexican citizens.
Castillo-Muñoz covers a lot of ground. She organized the book by following migrant workers in their travels and travails, using materials from archives in Mexico, the United States, and France. The book has six chapters including the introduction, and moves chronologically from the nineteenth to...