The Borderlands of Race: Mexican Segregation in a South Texas Town by Jennifer R. Nájera
by Jennifer R. Nájera
University of Texas Press. 2015.
183 pages. hardcover $45, paper $21.95.
The Spanish- and English-language words of La Feria's Mexican and Mexican American residents populate the pages of Jennifer R. Nájera's illuminating book The Borderlands of Race with inflections that place her work of historical anthropology concretely at the crossroads of oral history and critical race studies. Nájera's study of the ambiguities and contradictions of race and segregation in La Feria, Texas, from 1915 through the 1980s, dissects the major social institutions where exclusion—legal and extralegal—was bred. She covers the geography, where a person of Mexican ancestry might live (on the north side of town almost exclusively), the segregated schools and church pews, and the exclusion found even in death, with burial permitted only in the Mexican cemetery. This town, located less than thirty miles from Brownsville and the Mexican border, currently has a population of approximately seven thousand, but the stories the Mexican-descended residents tell resonate with the experiences of many Mexican Americans throughout southwestern Texas. For a cultural anthropologist looking to study the racialization of Mexicans in Texas, La Feria presented a rich Petri dish of data for analysis. Primarily, however, it is Nájera's application of historical anthropology and ethnography that enabled the lived experience of racism and segregation to become embodied in the historical record.
Nájera's methodology relied on extensive use of archival materials, including school board minutes, city commissioner records, yearbooks, local newspapers, and property records. Perhaps not surprisingly, she found these were largely bereft of [End Page 67] clues about the Mexican and Mexican American population of La Feria. Reviewing these materials reinforced the extent to which Mexican townspeople were marginalized in the town, Nájera concluded. To recover the lost story of Mexican residents, Nájera drew on twenty-eight oral history interviews she had conducted with community members who had lived in La Feria their entire lives. Indeed, this book underscores the extent to which oral history is an imperative for any scholar who aims to uncover hidden history. Nájera's work successfully counters the symbolic annihilation of the marginalized Mexican revealed in the Anglo-authored official records and gives voice to those who by ethnicity and class would otherwise be voiceless. Although some might argue that the Mexican American perspective is purely anecdotal and reliant on public memory, this dismissal of Mexican oral testimony unduly privileges the dominant Anglo perspective that virtually alone in La Feria had the means and opportunity to be preserved in documents. Nájera also provides evidence that buttresses her interviewees' statements, such as, for example, reviewing yearbook photos of the cheerleading squad to establish that, in fact, Mexican Americans were not included among its members.
By plumbing the archival material first, Nájera was able to frame questions that offered residents a chance to challenge or provide additional context to the prevailing narrative of life in segregated La Feria. While Nájera often uses block quotes to illustrate points, she also skillfully excises pertinent sentences from her oral interviews and weaves them seamlessly into the text to effectively underscore central ideas. For instance, in chapter 4, the author describes the disproportionate impact the Bracero program had in el pueblo mexicano (Mexican community). Nájera quotes from her interview with Luz Perez, whose father owned a Mexican grocery store. In part, Perez stated: "Era mucho porque ya era el tiempo de los braceros by then y teníamos mucho, mucho [trabajo]" (87) (It was a lot of [work] because it was the time of the braceros and we had a lot, a lot of work). Perez went on to say that the store didn't sometimes close until 1:00 a.m.
From the oral historian's perspective, this work's shortcoming lies in the dearth of detail concerning selection of interview subjects beyond their obvious ability and willingness to offer on-the-record reminiscences of their life in segregated La Feria. There is also no mention of the placement of recorded interviews in a publicly accessible archive or the availability of transcripts, field notes, and release forms. That said, Nájera is a cultural anthropologist, not an oral historian per se, meaning that Nájera, who spent a decade conducting research in La Feria, had much more of a lived-experience connection with her ethnographic subjects than does the typical oral historian. Nájera, in fact, begins her book with an encounter in the "white, wood-framed home" of an eighty-year-old interviewee living in el pueblo mexicano on La Feria's north side. Meeting her interviewees in their own terrain where they might be more comfortable and better positioned to reflect their culture demonstrates best [End Page 68] oral history practices. That said, the analysis of Nájera's rich findings would have been enhanced with some engagement with the literature of memory studies. Doing so would have enabled her to better sift through potentially deeper meanings of their recollections. Nonetheless, Borderlands of Race is engaging and informative, and deepens our understanding of the struggles of Mexican Americans.