Mexican Americans and the Question of Race

[ Latino/a Studies ]

Mexican Americans and the Question of Race

By Julie A. Dowling

This groundbreaking and timely study explores how Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants develop their racial ideologies and identifications and how they choose to present them to others.

March 2014


33% website discount price


6 x 9 | 184 pp. | 3 charts, 1 maps, 1 tables

ISBN: 978-0-292-75401-0

With Mexican Americans constituting a large and growing segment of U.S. society, their assimilation trajectory has become a constant source of debate. Some believe Mexican Americans are following the path of European immigrants toward full assimilation into whiteness, while others argue that they remain racialized as nonwhite. Drawing on extensive interviews with Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants in Texas, Dowling’s research challenges common assumptions about what informs racial labeling for this population. Her interviews demonstrate that for Mexican Americans, racial ideology is key to how they assert their identities as either in or outside the bounds of whiteness. Emphasizing the link between racial ideology and racial identification, Dowling offers an insightful narrative that highlights the complex and highly contingent nature of racial identity.


Chapter 1. The Question of Race

Chapter 2. “I’m white ‘cause I’m an American, right?”: The Meanings of Whiteness for Mexican Americans

Chapter 3. “We were never white”: Mexican Americans Identifying Outside the Bounds of Whiteness

Chapter 4. “In Mexico I was . . .”: Translating Racial Identities Across the Border

Chapter 5. “That’s what we call ourselves here”: Mexican Americans and Mexican Immigrants Negotiating Racial Labeling in Daily Life

Chapter 6. Re-envisioning Our Understanding of Latino Racial Identity

Appendix: Notes on Methodology




Chapter 1

The Question of Race

Miguel Gonzalez grew up in an impoverished colonia on the outskirts of Mission, just across the border from Mexico in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. As a child, Miguel worked the fields with his family, migrating seasonally to pick crops in other states. He vividly recalls the discrimination they faced, including once being asked to leave a restaurant that was for “whites only.” He said, “A lot of people, they wouldn’t like us because we were migrants. . . . Back then it was like if you don’t have this or that, then you’re nobody.” At forty-five years old, Miguel still lives in Mission and now works as a janitor. He has a dark-brown complexion and says there is no question that when others see him, they see a “Mexican.” In fact, he is often mistaken for an immigrant. Yet, despite Miguel’s experiences with being classified and treated as nonwhite, he selected “white” for his race on the U.S. Census form, explaining, “‘cause I’m an American, right?” His question belies ambivalence about whether this identity really belongs to him. Miguel admitted he could not think of any situation outside the context of the census where he would use the word “white” to describe himself. His formal assertion of whiteness expresses a desire to be seen as fully American.

Like Miguel, Eduardo “Eddie” Martinez spent his childhood working alongside his family in the fields. His great-grandparents migrated to Texas from northern Mexico, and he was born and raised in the barrio of San Felipe in Del Rio, Texas, located on the Mexican border directly west of San Antonio. After college, Eddie returned to teach in his hometown. During the course of his subsequent career as an educator, he witnessed a great deal of change, including the 1971 court-mandated consolidation of Del Rio’s separate Anglo and Mexican school districts. Decades earlier, Del Rio was the location of the first-ever school desegregation case involving Mexican Americans. In 1930, Mexican American parents went to court to argue that because Mexicans were racially white, they should not be segregated from Anglo students. Their efforts reflected a common strategy of this time period that relied on public articulations of whiteness to combat segregation. The court did rule that Mexicans could not be “arbitrarily segregated” from “other white races,” but it was not a victory for Del Rio’s Mexican American community because the district was still allowed to continue segregation based on alleged linguistic and cultural needs (Foley 2006). While the case took place before Eddie was born, its legacy informs his racial identification today. Eddie checked “white” for his race, citing the court decision. Yet, like Miguel, Eddie would never describe himself as “white” in any other setting. When discussing his choice, he said, “That doesn’t change who I am. I’m still a Mexican.”

Juliana Sanchez, a retired teacher’s assistant in Fort Worth, Texas, is also the child of migrant workers. Her father was born in Mexico, and her mother was third-generation Mexican American. She remembers attending separate “Mexican” schools and “knowing there were many places Mexicans were not allowed to go.” But her approach to the census race question was different from that of Miguel and Eddie. While Juliana’s skin color is the lightest of the three, she says she would never identify as white in any context. That is simply not how she sees herself, nor how others have classified her. Instead, Juliana marked “other race” and wrote, “Mexican,” explaining, “I’m very proud of my race.”

Juliana grew up in a working-class neighborhood with a mixture of Mexicans and African Americans who lived “all poor, all together.” She credits African Americans with “helping to open a lot of doors” for Mexican Americans, and she comments on the similarities between these two “racial” groups. Juliana worked in bilingual education for many years and also feels strongly about the plight of undocumented immigrants. Thus, she is often frustrated with Mexican Americans who discriminate against both African Americans and Mexican immigrants, explaining, “Our situation is just like the blacks, like them we have struggled against discrimination. We should work with them and with immigrants, all of us together.” Juliana chose to self-identify as “Mexican” on the census, both expressing her solidarity with Mexican immigrants and defining Mexican Americans as a “racial” group in the United States.

I present the stories of Miguel, Eddie, and Juliana here precisely because they share so many similarities. All three are children of migrant workers, experienced economic hardships, and endured overt forms of racial discrimination. All three speak Spanish and English fluently, currently live in majority-Mexican neighborhoods, have primarily Mexican-origin friends, and married Mexican Americans. Yet despite their commonalities, they each approach the question of race differently. What is it that leads to their divergent racial responses? It is easy to understand how Juliana’s strong attachment to her culture, association with African Americans, and her experiences with racial discrimination would steer her to identify as racially “other,” but why do Miguel and Eddie select a racial category that does not resonate with their experiences? Moreover, as neither of these men would identify as white outside the census context, how does their racial self-identification vary based on audience? In what settings do Mexican Americans use labels such as “white,” “Hispanic,” “Mexican,” or “Mexican American,” and what are the meanings they attach to these terms? Moreover, what do the uses of these labels reveal about the racial experiences of Mexican Americans? Mexican Americans and the Question of Race is an exploration of what shapes racial labeling practices for Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants, with particular attention to the disconnect between public and private articulations of race and the role of racial ideology in the process of racial identification.

The Racial Place of Latinos

With the increasing presence of Latinos in the United States, the demographics of the country’s future will be shaped in large part by the assimilation and racial identification patterns of this group. Indeed, according to the 2010 Census, Latinos now constitute 16% of the U.S. population and account for over half of the nation’s growth over the past ten years. Much of this reflects an expanding Mexican-origin population, as nearly two-thirds of all Latinos in the United States are of Mexican ancestry (Ennis et al. 2011). Perspectives on the racial identification and assimilation trajectory of Latinos have been and continue to be a constant source of debate. Indeed, the media tend to portray the growing Latino population as a threat to the economic and cultural fabric of the nation (Chavez 2008). Much of this scrutiny is based on the assumption that Latinos fracture American society by maintaining identities that counter the dominant Anglo culture (Huntington 2004; Buchanan 2007). Among scholars there is considerable disagreement regarding these issues, but while perspectives on the assimilation patterns of Latinos vary considerably, there are three main arguments.

First, some scholars believe that Latinos are not assimilating into the dominant white majority, either by choice or as a result of exclusion. At one extreme of this perspective, political scientist Samuel Huntington argues that Mexican Americans and other Latinos refuse to learn English and acclimate to U.S. society, a choice he says threatens to wreak havoc on the nation, both culturally and financially (Huntington 2004). Numerous studies, however, show that Latino English-language acquisition rates are in fact comparable to those of earlier waves of European immigrants (Alba 2006; Citrin et al. 2007). Moreover, scholars further challenge Huntington’s hypothesis of voluntary refusal, pointing out that experiences with racial discrimination from the majority group foster and maintain racial and ethnic boundaries. Thus, continued discrimination against Latinos may counter desired integration (Telles and Ortiz 2008).

A second position regarding the assimilation trajectory of Latinos is that both individual and group characteristics may lead some Latinos to be accepted as white, while others remain racialized as nonwhite. The result is a multi-tiered racial system in which some Latinos are classified as white, others as black, and still others as somewhere in between (Bonilla-Silva 2004; Golash-Boza 2006; Golash-Boza and Darity 2008; Frank et al. 2010). Golash-Boza and Darity (2008) suggest that individual Latinos may adopt identities as white, Latino, or black based on skin color and experiences with discrimination. Bonilla-Silva (2004) posits a trichotomous racial classification system in which, based on skin color and socioeconomic status, some Latino groups may become accepted as “white” and others “honorary whites,” while the majority will become a part of the “collective black” alongside African Americans.

The third argument posits that most Latinos are following in the footsteps of European immigrants on the path toward full assimilation into the white majority (Patterson 2001; Yancey 2003; Lee and Bean 2004). Specifically, Yancey (2003) cites the significant proportion of Latinos who identify as “white” on the census as evidence that they are currently accepted as white. Moreover, drawing on quantitative analysis of survey data, he argues that both Latinos and Asian Americans more closely resemble European Americans than they do African Americans in some key racial attitudes. In particular, he notes that Latinos “are even less supportive of talking about race than European Americans.” He argues that this is indicative of their adoption of “color-blind” racial ideology, an ideological framework that involves the deliberate nonrecognition of race and racial privilege. For Yancey, this is yet another indicator that Latinos are becoming racially white. Speaking of both Latinos and Asian Americans, he writes (2003: 117), “. . . minority identity is breaking down as these nonblack minorities begin to accept the social attitudes that reflect the values of color blindness and individualism--hallmarks of a white racial identity.”

But, do Latinos identify as “white” and eschew conversations about race for the same reasons as European Americans? And are Latinos who claim whiteness indeed accepted as racially white by others? Until now there has been very little qualitative investigation into the meanings Latinos themselves ascribe to formal assertions of whiteness. Sociological research in this area often draws on quantitative analysis of national surveys, specifically focusing on the degree to which Latinos identify as white on either the census or questionnaires using similar racial and ethnic options (Patterson 2001; Yancey 2003; Tafoya 2004; Frank et al. 2010). According to the U.S. Census, Latino/Hispanic is a “panethnic” category composed of persons of Spanish-speaking origin who may be of any “race.”4 Persons are first asked to indicate whether they are of Hispanic origin and are then asked to answer a question on racial identification that includes options for white, black, Native American, multiple Asian-origin groups, and an “other race” category. Like Juliana, many Latinos choose to mark “other race” and write in a Latino identifier such as Hispanic or Mexican American. However, for three decades now, approximately half of the Latino population has selected “white” for their race.

The first goal of this book is to examine exactly what these public assertions of “whiteness” and racial “otherness” on the census mean to Mexican Americans. While some suggest that white identification may signify lighter skin color (Denton and Massey 1989), assimilation (Yancey 2003), or greater feelings of inclusion in U.S. society (Tafoya 2004), my findings directly counter these claims. Drawing on interviews with Mexican Americans in Texas, I find that choosing whiteness vs. racial “otherness” does not typically reflect such differences in color or cultural assimilation. Most “white” Mexican Americans in the study speak Spanish, identify strongly with their cultural heritage, report incidents of discrimination, and are not lighter skinned than those who label as “other race.” Moreover, like Miguel and Eddie, the overwhelming majority of “white” Mexican American respondents would never use the term “white” as a self-referent outside the context of the census form.

Contradicting prevalent assumptions, I find the difference between “white” and “other race” Mexican Americans lies not in how they have been racialized but in how they interpret and express their experiences with racialization through various discursive strategies.

I develop a theoretical framework to explain this process, arguing that where respondents are situated on a racial ideology continuum is highly influential in determining what race they choose on the census. On one end of the continuum, mirroring the dominant discourse of American meritocracy, “white” Mexican Americans frequently employ a discursive framework that can be described as “color and power evasive”8 (Frankenberg 1993), espousing what is commonly referred to as “color-blind racial ideology.” As Yancey (2003) notes, this ideology has been found primarily in studies of European Americans who discount race as an important factor in determining life chances, often not acknowledging their own racial identities as whites and the privileges attached to whiteness (Bonilla-Silva 2001; Yancey 2003). “White” Mexican American respondents often similarly minimize or deflect the role of race in their lives. However, I argue their reasons for doing so are fundamentally different from those of European Americans in that their color-blind rhetoric and claims to whiteness operate as a defensive strategy. As targets of racism, Mexican Americans in the study are actually very aware of race, and their own stories of discrimination continually contradict the racial ideology that discounts it. Throughout my interview with Miguel, for example, he discussed multiple instances of discrimination he has faced, and yet, in line with color-blind ideology, he downplayed these experiences. Instead, Miguel adheres to a philosophy that everyone can get ahead if they work hard. His motto is: “Always think positive. Leave the past in the back . . . leave the bad aside.”

On the other end of the continuum, “other race” respondents often speak more candidly about the impact of race in their lives, and some even articulate strong anti-racist ideologies or counter-frames. Juliana, for example, acknowledges racism in her own life and forges alliances with African Americans and immigrants. However, not all Mexican Americans fit neatly into the categories of explicitly “color-blind” or “anti.racist” in their views on race. The racial ideology continuum I develop helps to capture the remarks of respondents like Eddie, who oscillated during the interview between talking about his experiences in highly racialized ways (including discussions of his participation in Chicano civil rights organizations as a youth) and yet still chose to align himself with whiteness as part of a legacy of resisting racial “othering.” I argue that it is crucial to understand this phenomenon of resisting racial “othering” through a historical lens. The strategy of asserting whiteness to combat discrimination has a long history in Mexican American communities (Foley 1998; Gómez 2007), and as Eddie’s comments reveal, it continues to exert influence today.

Overall, I find that Mexican Americans identify as “white” on the census not because they are accepted as white or even because they see themselves as white. Rather, by reframing the borders of whiteness to include them, Mexican Americans resist racial “othering,” in an effort to be accepted as fully American. Yet, despite their efforts to fit within the boundaries of whiteness, continued experiences with racial profiling and discrimination reinforce their status as racial “others.” Most Mexican Americans in the study, including those who identified as white, detailed accounts of racial stereotyping and differential treatment. These findings corroborate research on the persistence of racialization in the lives of Mexican Americans (Telles and Ortiz 2008; Vasquez 2011) and challenge arguments that identification with whiteness on the census is an indication that Latinos are becoming accepted into the white majority (Yancey 2003).

A substantial proportion of the Mexican-origin population in the United States is foreign born, making the racial experiences and identities of Mexican immigrants key to the investigation of Latino identity. Hence, the second goal of the book is to examine Mexican immigrants’ labeling practices and the ways in which both Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants navigate racial and ethnic identification in their daily encounters. While there are some similarities between these groups, the process of racial identity construction for immigrants differs substantially from their U.S.-born co-ethnics, as they rely on an understanding of race derived from Mexico. The dominant racial discourse in Mexico emphasizes an understanding of Mexicans as a mestizo people composed of a melding of the Spanish with the Indian (Doremus 2001; Sue 2013). Immigrants in the study typically wrote in their race (raza) as “Mexicano/a” or “Hispanic,” either asserting their raza in terms of national origin or identifying with a category assigned to them in a U.S. context. A few Mexican immigrants also relied on perceived social standing in Mexico prior to arrival in the United States in their decisions to identify racially as “white” or “other race.” Finally, some immigrants who have spent more time in the United States asserted racial identities in ways that resembled U.S.-born Mexican Americans, relying on experiences with racial classification in the United States, positioning themselves relative to African Americans, or doing both.

Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans further construct their racial identities in dialogue with and often in opposition to each other. I explore how context and audience shape racial and ethnic labeling for both groups in their interactions with each other and with other racial groups. Overall, racial labeling among my respondents is shaped by multiple factors, including to whom one is speaking and in what language, and whether the goal of the interaction is to express sameness or difference. Racial ideology also influences this process of identity assertions, as it informs with whom respondents wish to align themselves in a given interaction.

Guided theoretically by an identity constructionist framework, I argue that my respondents’ racial and ethnic identities are the result of an ongoing dialogue between “external” assigned identities from others and “internal” asserted identities. As a result of this dialectical process, racial identities are not fixed or static but dynamic and highly contingent (Nagel 1994; Cornell and Hartmann 1997). I integrate scholarship on Latino racial identity formation with theories of whiteness and racial ideology, including the “white racial frame” (Feagin 2010), and the concepts of “color and power evasive” (Frankenberg 1993) and “color-blind” (Bonilla-Silva 2001) racial ideologies. Drawing from these multiple perspectives, I create a conceptual model that highlights the connection between racial ideology and both public and personal articulations of race.

While most studies focus either on formal racial labeling on surveys or on ways in which respondents label themselves in daily life, Mexican Americans and the Question of Race provides a more comprehensive study that explores both these aspects of identification. Research on Latino racial and ethnic identification tends to focus on personal traits (physical appearance and surname), cultural attributes (Spanish language ability and cultural competency), social dimensions (friends, dating, and marriage), and encounters with racial discrimination. Rarely do such studies incorporate analysis of the discursive frameworks that Latinos use to talk about their racial experiences as an important predictor of racial identification. Focusing on the understudied link between racial ideology and contemporary racial labeling among Mexican Americans, this book contributes both theoretically and empirically to our understanding of how Latinos navigate racial identification.

In the wake of the recent census demographics, there has been an upsurge of headlines across the country focusing on how an increasing presence of Latinos will shape the “new” face of America. However, while Mexican Americans and other Latinos are frequently cast in both the media and some scholarly publications as a new and emerging group in the United States, this portrayal elides a lengthy history of colonization and racialization experienced by Mexican Americans in this country (Gómez 2007; Murguía 1975). Understanding the contemporary racial position of Mexican Americans requires an examination of their complex racial history and the ways in which this history has contributed to the development of divergent and contradictory frameworks for articulating racial identities both in and outside the bounds of whiteness (Gómez 2007).

Mexican Americans: A Dual History of Racialization and Courting Whiteness

Are Mexican Americans a racial group? Sociologists commonly define race as a social construction of a group based on perceived biological difference, and ethnicity as a set of cultural attributes shared by a group with a common ancestry (Omi and Winant 1994; Cornell and Hartman 1997). Cornell and Hartmann further argue that while these concepts share certain characteristics, race often operates as an assigned category that is both externally imposed and less flexible than ethnicity. They note (1997: 27), “Race has been first and foremost a way of describing ‘others,’ of making it clear that ‘they’ are not ‘us’.”

Historically in the United States, groups have been assigned racial identities in relation to whiteness. That is, racial identities have served the purpose of delineating who is white and therefore who reaps the benefits of citizenship, electoral participation, and access to educational and employment opportunities (Takaki 1993; Haney-Lopez 1996; Menchaca 2001). However, while racial assignment by others plays a crucial role in the development of racial identities, groups also assert racial identities that may or may not correspond to how others view and categorize them. Cornell and Hartmann (1997: 80) write:

The world around us may “tell” us we are racially distinct, or our experiences at the hands of circumstances may “tell” us we constitute a group, but our identity is also the product of the claims we make. These claims may build on the messages we receive from the world around us or may depart from them, rejecting them, adding to them, or refining them.

Thus, identity construction involves a dynamic process whereby persons both receive messages about race from others and also actively interpret these experiences and create their own claims regarding their identity. How a group comes to make identity claims, and how successful they are in having those claims accepted by others, depends largely on structural and political circumstances, including especially the degree to which the group has been racialized (Cornell and Hartmann 1997).

For Mexican Americans, the roots of racialization in the United States can be traced to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, when the current U.S. Southwest was acquired from Mexico. The United States promised citizenship to those Mexicans living in the colonized lands at a time when citizenship and legal rights were still contingent upon whiteness. Thus, through the treaty, Mexican Americans were afforded the legal rights of whites. However, as Laura Gómez (2007: 4) notes, “The central paradox was the legal construction of Mexicans as racially ‘white’ alongside the social construction of Mexicans as non.white and as racially inferior.” Mexican Americans, who were often of racially mixed ancestry (European, Indigenous, and African), found themselves in an ambiguous category between the white and black races. Neil Foley (1997: 5) describes the historical situation of Mexican Americans in Texas:

As a racially mixed group, Mexicans, like Indians and Asians, lived in a black-and-white nation that regarded them neither as black nor as white. Although small numbers of Mexican Americans--usually light-skinned, middle-class Mexican Americans--claimed to be white, the overwhelming majority of Texas whites regarded Mexicans as a “mongrelized” race of Indian, African, and Spanish ancestry. In Texas, unlike other parts of the South, whiteness meant not only not black but also not Mexican.

The identification of Mexican-ancestry persons as nonwhite served to keep Mexican Americans segregated and relegated to lower-wage employment, poor housing, and inferior resources. Throughout the Southwest, this segregation also meant the exclusion of Mexican Americans from many restaurants, movie theaters, and public pools, and the creation of separate “Mexican” schools (Montejano 1987; Almaguer 1994; Foley 1997; Menchaca 2001; Gómez 2007).

Mexican Americans fought this discrimination on multiple fronts. Initiating legal challenges, they demanded the rights of full citizenship and an end to segregation. One of the central tactics employed in these cases was the argument that Mexican Americans are racially white, a cultural or ethnic group that should not be viewed as a separate race. In some instances, they were able to persuade the courts with their claims that Mexicans were white or at least should be treated as if they were white, based on the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (Foley 1998). While Mexican Americans were certainly not the only group to use this strategy of combating racial discrimination with claims of whiteness, a combination of the legal loophole created by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the ability of Mexican Americans to evoke Spanish or other European ancestry made them more successful at these attempts than other racialized groups (Haney-Lopez 1996; Foley 1998). However, having been defined as white in some court cases did not equal being accepted as white by the general public, and in some ways this legal whiteness made it more difficult to combat racial discrimination. It is tricky to claim racial discrimination, for example, in a case where a Mexican is convicted by an all-white jury, if Mexicans are themselves legally white (Gross 2003; Sheridan 2003).

One organization known for utilizing this strategy of claiming whiteness to fight discrimination is the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) that formed in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1929. At the time, the largely middle-class, U.S.-born Mexican American members of this group often distanced themselves from both African Americans and Mexican immigrants in their efforts to mark themselves as white.11 Not wanting to be racialized by the government, LULAC fought successfully to remove the racial category “Mexican” from the census, where it appeared for the first and only time in 1930 (Foley 1998).

Simultaneously, other efforts by Mexican American activists and organizations asserted a nonwhite identity, promoted Mexican Americans as a “race,” and emphasized the population’s indigenous roots. While this rhetoric was used in specific organizing efforts long before the 1960s and 1970s, it was during this time that embracing a “brown” or “mestizo/a” identity became the signature of many civil rights organizations. Groups such as the United Farmworkers of America and La Raza Unida political party formed, encouraging Mexican Americans to embrace their cultural heritage, working-class status, and racial identities in the struggle for social equality (J. García 1996; Marquez 2003). Thus, the history of Mexican Americans involves political mobilization against discrimination, utilizing divergent strategies of either claiming whiteness or asserting racialized identities (Marquez 2003).

Gómez (2007) questions whether the current identification with whiteness among Mexican Americans on the census might be similarly “defensive” in nature, reflecting a desire to resist racialization. However, no contemporary studies have examined the reasons Mexican Americans identify as “white” on these surveys, and in the absence of research on the topic, the dominant explanatory narrative remains that whiteness indicates assimilation and integration. Mexican Americans and the Question of Race challenges this interpretation, demonstrating the ways in which the strategic use of whiteness in Mexican American communities converges with contemporary color-blind discourse to produce racial ideologies that evade asserting racial difference.

Survey Says: Latinos and the Census

As social scientists, we often rely on survey research, including the U.S. Census, to provide information about the racial demographics of the nation. These data assist us in gauging racial disparities and assessing the progress made toward ameliorating these differences. But while the census is currently used as a tool for assessing needs, allocating resources, and ensuring representation, the history of the federal measurement of race is far from benign. Indeed, the census does not merely reflect societal race relations but is inextricably linked with the construction of racial identities for various political ends. Identities based on African blood quantum (octoroon, quadroon, and mulatto) and “free or slave” categories for blacks reinforced racial identities based on biology and slave status (Anderson 1988; Lee 1993; Nobles 2000). The creation of categories for “Chinese,” “Japanese,” and “Mexican” were in part the result of increasing xenophobia and a desire to restrict immigration (Anderson 1988). In this way, formal racial and ethnic identities are created and reinforced in dialogue with the political context and power relations of a given time. Because political climates change, and minority groups actively create and resist labels, these identities are mutable, constructed and reconstructed for particular political ends (Padilla 1984; Espiritu 1992; Nagel 1994).

For over a century, the U.S. Census has grappled with appropriate strategies for enumerating the Latino population. Questions regarding foreign birth or foreign parentage were introduced in 1850, followed by a question concerning foreign-language usage that was instituted in 1890 (Chapa 2000). A “Mexican” racial group was added in the 1930 Census. However, as mentioned above, it was soon abolished due to vigorous opposition from LULAC, as well as protest from the Mexican government (Foley 1998). In 1950, a question regarding Spanish surname was added to the census for households in the Southwest. And in 1970, a Hispanic-origin question, separate from the race question, was introduced on the census “long form,” an extended questionnaire distributed to select households. Since 1980, this question concerning “Hispanic/Latino” origin has been listed on all census questionnaires, and Latino responses to a separate race question largely reflect a split between those who identify as racially “white” and those who write in a response under the “other race” option (Rodríguez 1992, 2000; Tafoya 2004; Ennis et al. 2011).

Latino racial responses on the census have been interpreted a number of different ways. Some scholars have read them as a reflection of phenotype, assuming that light-skinned Latinos may identify as “white,” while dark-skinned Latinos label as “other race” or as “black” (Denton and Massey 1989).

Others have argued that the history of racial mixing in Latin America, preferences for identification with national origin, or both lead Latinos to opt out of U.S. racial categories, marking “other race” (Tienda and Mitchell 2006). As previously noted, many others have suggested differences in racial self-identification may be indicative of levels of assimilation or inclusion in U.S. society (Yancey 2003; Tafoya 2004).

Analysis of national-level census data from both 1990 (Rodríguez 2000) and 2000 (Tafoya 2004) have found differences between Latinos who label as “white” and those who label as “other race” in terms of age, education, income, nativity, and language use. “White” Latinos are older, have higher socioeconomic status, and are more likely to be born in the United States and speak English (Rodríguez 2000; Tafoya 2004). However, Clara Rodríguez (2000) emphasizes that even among college graduates, those with higher incomes, and those born in the United States, a substantial number of Latinos still identify as “other race.” Interviewing Latinos on the east coast, Rodríguez further explored the meaning of Latino racial “otherness” on the census (Rodríguez 2000). Her interviews with a mostly Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Ecuadorian sample reveal an understanding of race as a “cultural, social, and/or political concept” that differs from the largely biological mainstream U.S. conception of race, in which skin color is the primary determinant (Rodríguez 1992, 2000). Rodríguez suggests that this difference in the way in which Latinos see race leads many to mark “other race” and indicate Latino/Hispanic or their specific national origin on the census. The racial identities of her respondents did not always match their skin color but rather reflected this cultural identification and/or how they felt they were classified in the United States (Rodríguez 2000).

Roth (2010) reported similar results in her study of Dominican and Puerto Rican immigrants in New York, finding that these migrants’ racial identities on the census did not match their phenotype or experiences with discrimination. Rather, her respondents struggled with competing definitions of race both from their home countries and the United States, often identifying in ways that conflicted with how they were seen and treated by others. Overall, both of these east coast-based qualitative explorations highlight that formal racial identification may have less to do with physical features and more with differing definitions of race. Both Rodríguez and Roth caution scholars not to interpret Latino racial responses as a direct reflection of skin color (Rodríguez 2000; Roth 2010).

However, other research utilizing national surveys that employ a racial question similar to the census has found that Latinos with lighter skin are more likely to label as “white” (Golash-Boza and Darity 2008; Frank et al. 2010). Golash-Boza and Darity (2008) further argue that skin color and experiences with differential treatment inform the process of racial labeling for Latinos. In their study, those with darker skin and those who reported experiences with discrimination were more likely to label as “black” or “Latino/Hispanic.” Moreover, relying on these surveys, Golash-Boza (2006) reports that Latinos who are darker skinned and those who report discrimination are also less likely to identify as “American.”

There are a few explanations for these conflicting findings. First, research suggests a great deal of regional variation in factors influencing racial labeling. Texas, for example, has the largest percentage of Mexican Americans who identify as racially “white” on the census (two-thirds, compared with roughly half at the national level). In my research using 2000 census data, I found that whereas a national analysis of census data for Mexican Americans showed higher income to be associated with self-labeling as “white,” Texas Mexican Americans in the lowest income groups were most likely to do so (Dowling 2004). Moreover, while Spanish language use has been linked to identification as racially “other” (Tafoya 2004), Texas Mexican Americans who spoke Spanish at home were about as likely to label as “white” as those who did not, at 63 and 65% respectively (Dowling 2004).

Telles and Ortiz (2008) find further evidence of the importance of context. Using a racial question similar to the census, they report that Mexican Americans in San Antonio are over five times more likely to identify as white than their counterparts in Los Angeles. In fact, it is not skin color or experiences with discrimination but residence in Texas that is the only significant predictor of labeling as “white” in the study. Their findings also show that the influence of skin color itself in the process of socioeconomic assimilation is also highly context specific. While previous research utilizing national-level data has shown skin color to be correlated with income and educational differences among Mexican Americans (Telles and Murguía 1990; Murguía and Telles 1996), Telles and Ortiz (2008) do not find this to be the case. They argue that other cues such as surname and neighborhood of residence may be enough to signify racial group membership in areas like San Antonio and Los Angeles that have such large Mexican populations, making skin color less predictive of socioeconomic outcomes.

A second factor that may account for the differences in findings regarding the relationship between skin color, experiences with discrimination, and formal racial labeling is the context of the question itself. Identifying one’s race on a census form that is mandated by the U.S. government may be perceived very differently by respondents than answering any other survey: The question becomes about how they would like the government to see them rather than which label they personally prefer. Recall, for example, that Eddie Martinez felt obligated to answer “white” based on a legal definition of Mexican Americans as racially white. If he were asked for his preferred racial label during any other survey, he might have responded quite differently.

Also related to methodology, differences in how respondents define and report discrimination in surveys may further explain these divergent findings. For example, I find that Mexican Americans in Texas who strongly wish for others to view them as “Americans” identify as racially “white” and downplay their experiences with discrimination using color-blind discursive strategies. Individuals who detailed extreme episodes of racial prejudice earlier in the interview would later tell me that “No,” they had not experienced discrimination. Hence, an important question emerges: Do Latinos who experience less discrimination identify more as “American” (Golash-Boza 2006), or do those who assert their “American” identities minimize their experiences with racism in line with their desire to project this American and/or “white” identity? It is likely that both statements hold true for individuals dependent upon a number of factors. To date, however, there has been very little research that explores exactly how Latinos define and talk about their experiences with discrimination and how this may impact racial labeling.

Research has examined multiple contextual variables as they relate to racial “otherness,” but few studies incorporate any discussion of Latino whiteness (O’Brien 2008). Moreover, scholarship in this area has focused primarily on Caribbean and South American Latinos on the east coast (Rodríguez 2000; Roth 2010). Mexican Americans constitute nearly two-thirds of Latinos in the United States, and both the racial discourse in Mexico and Mexican Americans’ history of racial classification in the United States differ substantially from that of Caribbeans and South Americans. Thus, Mexican Americans and the Question of Race helps to fill a significant void in research on Latino racial labeling both by exploring the meanings of whiteness and racial “otherness” among Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants from multiple communities and by linking their racial responses to the strategies or frameworks they use to talk about their racial experiences.

Research Design

This book draws on in-depth interviews with eighty-six Mexican-origin respondents from three very different locations in Texas: the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex (DFW), Del Rio, and Mission/McAllen. Examining racial labeling practices in three communities further illuminates how multiple contextual factors, including local histories, racial demographics, and geographies, contribute to the formation of racial identities. For example, while there are many places where Mexican Americans are racially profiled as “foreign,” the U.S.–Mexico border is a site where the boundaries between “Americans” and “Mexicans” are policed in very concrete and systematic ways (Goldsmith et al. 2009). This seems to contribute to a heightened need to assert “American” identity. In the context of Del Rio and Mission/McAllen, both on the U.S.–Mexico border, citizenship becomes key in how Mexican Americans situate themselves on the racial ideology continuum, as “white/American” in opposition to “other/foreign.”

Mapping Latino racial identification on the census by county, I find over 80% of Latinos in most Texas border counties identify as racially “white,” a finding that no other study has documented. Figure 1.1 uses county-level data for Texas from the most recent 2010 Census. The darker areas are places where a higher proportion of the Latino population identified as “other” race, and lighter areas are locations where more Latinos selected “white.” According to the census, the specific percentages of Latinos identifying as “white” in each of my three research sites are 54% (DFW), 84% (Del Rio), and 88% (Mission/McAllen). My results clearly show a pattern whereby Latinos along the U.S.–Mexico border are more likely to identify as white than in other parts of the state. This map reveals how even state-level analysis can obscure important variations, further highlighting the need for analysis of multiple locations.

I chose these three sites as they allow the examination of racial identification within very different local contexts. While all three areas have long-standing and overwhelmingly Mexican-origin Latino communities, they vary in population size, racial composition, specific community histories, and geographic proximity to the Mexican border. The DFW Metroplex is a large, racially diverse urban area in North Texas with a current population of over 4 million, including a sizeable number of Latinos (34%), non-Hispanic whites (Anglos) (42%), African Americans (19%), and a smaller percentage of Asians (5%). DFW includes a range of small cities and subdivisions that span from Fort Worth to Dallas, including neighborhoods that are predominately white, black, Mexican origin, and Asian, as well as many racially mixed areas. The substantial proportion of African Americans in particular informs how Mexican-origin DFW residents define their racial identities, as they must negotiate their racial position relative to this highly racialized group. DFW is a crucial research site not only because of this racial diversity but also because it contains one of the largest Mexican American populations in the country. Indeed, nearly one out of every five persons of Mexican ancestry in the state of Texas lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

The drive from DFW to my second field site, the South Texas towns of Mission and McAllen, requires approximately nine hours and spans more than 530 miles. The cities of Mission and McAllen are located just across the border from Reynosa, Mexico, in the lower Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. The valley is a four-county, largely Mexican-origin area along the southern tip of Texas. Both cities are located in Hidalgo County, which is composed primarily of Latinos (90%), with a smaller percentage of non-Hispanic whites (9%), and very minimal African American presence (.4%). Hidalgo County is also one of the largest home bases for Mexican migrant workers. Racial and ethnic distinctions in these border towns are primarily focused on the differentiation between Mexican immigrants, more established Mexican American families, and Anglos (Richardson 1999). Such close proximity to the border emphasizes the distinction between “American” and “Mexican” identities for residents in these communities.

Del Rio is also located on the Texas-Mexico border, but it is over 320 miles northwest and approximately a six-hour drive from the Mission/McAllen area. Del Rio is about 180 miles directly west of San Antonio and just across from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico. The total population is 33,867 persons, 80% of whom are Latino, and 18% are non-Hispanic white. Like most border towns in South Texas, the area is overwhelmingly Mexican origin and Anglo. However, Del Rio has a military base that draws in other populations, including African Americans and Asians. While the percentages of these groups are still quite small, 1% and .4% respectively, the town is more diverse than most along the South Texas border. The presence of a small, but notable, African American community, as well as the town’s location on the Mexican border, makes Del Rio a particularly interesting place to examine the contours of Mexican American and Mexican immigrant racial identification. Additionally, as mentioned earlier in the chapter, Del Rio is a historically important place in discussions of Mexican American racial identity, as the location of the first-ever school desegregation case involving Mexican Americans.

Study Participants

From 2002 to 2007 I interviewed 26 people from Mission/McAllen, 30 from Del Rio, and 30 from the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The interviews were conducted in English or Spanish, whichever language was most comfortable for the respondent. Most used predominantly English with some Spanish words or phrases; fifteen of the interviews were conducted completely in Spanish. The interviews were recorded for transcription, and pseudonyms were given to ensure anonymity. My respondents were gathered from several sources: community organizations and events, churches, and local gathering places. I also asked respondents for referrals. Thus, it is a “snowball” sample that includes both those who participate in community and public events and those who do not.

The study includes 42 men and 44 women, ranging in age from 18 to 81 and reflecting a diversity of educational and occupational characteristics. Some work in lower-level employment sectors, including construction, food service, housekeeping, manufacturing, and utility repair, while others are in sales, secretarial jobs, and managerial positions. Still others work as police officers, teachers, nurses, and business owners. I interviewed both immigrants and native-born Mexican Americans, including persons from a range of generational backgrounds. Overall, about one-quarter of respondents are immigrants, just over 40% are second generation, and one-third are third generation or beyond.

Aware that the background of the interviewer may influence responses, I identified myself before each interview as of Mexican ancestry, born and raised in Texas. I wanted to mark myself as an insider, a member of the community, but did not want to influence their responses by using a label such as “Mexican American” or “Chicana.” Respondents were shown 2000 Census forms (which included racial options identical to those of the most recent 2010 census). They were directed to questions for Hispanic origin and race and asked what they would answer and why. I asked not only for their own response but also how they would answer for other family members in the household. I further inquired about the labels they prefer to use in their day-to-day lives, what they would normally use to identify themselves, and whether this corresponded with their census form choice. I also asked about any associations they had with a variety of terms used to describe persons of Mexican ancestry (Mexican, Mexicano, Mexican American, Chicano, Hispanic, Latino, Tejano) and in what context, if any, they would use these labels.

The interviews averaged from 1 to 1.5 hours and included basic questions of demographics and family/personal migration history, as well as open-ended questions about family/social networks, Spanish-language use, political involvement, positive and negative associations with one’s heritage, and relationships with other racial groups. I took notes on physical appearance, including skin color, and the presence of other cues such as accents. I also asked detailed questions about how they were perceived and categorized by others, what their experiences and strategies were for dealing with discrimination, and what costs and benefits they associated with their Mexican ancestry. For a more detailed discussion of the methodology and a table summarizing the demographics of the respondents, see the Appendix.

Outline of the Book

In Chapter Two, I introduce my theoretical framework, the racial ideology continuum. The continuum ranges from “color.blind” discursive frameworks in which respondents minimize race, to strong anti-racist ideologies, with multiple nuanced positions between these poles. In the chapter, I focus on those persons on the “color-blind” side of the continuum. These Mexican Americans identify as “white” on the census and distance themselves from African Americans and immigrants in their desire to project an American identity. “White” Mexican Americans often detail painful stories of racial discrimination and at the same time minimize these experiences. I argue that while utilizing similar narratives, these respondents espouse a color-blind ideology that is fundamentally different from that of European Americans. While the latter group uses this ideology to justify their racial privilege and higher social position, most Mexican Americans in the study use it as a defensive strategy to cope with discrimination.

Chapter Three focuses on Mexican Americans who fall on the other side of the continuum, identifying as “other race.” As discussed earlier, Clara Rodríguez argues that many Latinos see race as a “cultural, social and/or political concept” that differs from the more biological definition of race in mainstream U.S. culture. “Other race” Mexican Americans in the study did make cultural assertions of race, but they often expressed a racial self-understanding based more on differential treatment. Rather than aligning themselves with whiteness, they asserted pride in their cultural heritage, which often served as a “counter-frame,” or a way of resisting the dominant “white racial frame” (Feagin 2010). Moreover, “other race” Mexican Americans were more likely to align themselves with immigrants and situate themselves alongside African Americans. Finally, whereas the overwhelming majority of “white” respondents did not label in a way that corresponded to how others saw them, nor how they asserted themselves in daily life, most “other race” respondents wrote in a label that did reflect these realities. These findings reveal the key importance of external classification and the persistence of discrimination in shaping Mexican American racial identity.

Chapter Four focuses on Mexican immigrants’ racial identification. The national discourse of race in Mexico relies on an understanding of Mexicans as a mestizo people composed of a mixture of Spanish and Indian ancestry (Doremus 2001; Sue 2013). Immigrants in the study typically identified their race as “Mexicano/a” first and foremost. However, some adopted “Hispanic,” a category they understood to be assigned to them in United States. A few Mexican immigrants also relied on their prior social standing in Mexico in their decisions to identify racially as “white” or “other race.” Finally, some immigrants who spent more time in this country relied on U.S. racial constructs, positioning themselves relative to African Americans and/or drawing on experiences with racial classification in the United States.

Chapter Five explores the contextual ways in which both Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants identify themselves in daily interactions. I asked respondents how they identify most frequently, and then asked about various labels (Mexican, Mexicano/a, Mexican American, Hispanic, etc.), what were their associations with these labels, and if they would use them in any or every context. Overall, most U.S.-born interviewees identify primarily with the terms “Hispanic” and “Mexican American,” while immigrants typically prefer “Mexicano/a,” and sometimes adopt “Hispanic.” However, these labels shift, dependent upon to whom they are speaking and in what language. Racial ideology further influences this process of identity assertions, as it informs with whom respondents wish to align themselves. My findings highlight both the contextual nature of racial and ethnic labeling and reveal the ways in which the “panethnic” terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” vary in their meanings regionally and even based on nativity within the same national-origin group.

I conclude in Chapter Six by expanding on the implications of this research for understanding Latino racial and ethnic identities. I emphasize the central role of racial discrimination in contributing not only to identification with racial “otherness” but also to how and why people assert white identities. My findings demonstrate the ways in which the local history of a strategic use of whiteness in Mexican American communities converges with contemporary discourses of color.blind racial ideology to minimize the importance of racial discrimination. I argue that while the color-blind discursive frameworks used by my Mexican American respondents are fundamentally different from those of European Americans, the effect of these strategies can be similarly detrimental in undermining efforts to organize against racial injustice.


By Julie A. Dowling

Julie A. Dowling is Associate Professor of Latina/Latino Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She coedited Governing Immigration Through Crime: A Reader.