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Culture of Empire

Culture of Empire
American Writers, Mexico, and Mexican Immigrants, 1880-1930

In this stimulating history, Gilbert G. González traces the development of the culture of empire and its effects on U.S. attitudes and policies toward Mexican immigrants.

February 2003
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265 pages | 6 x 9 | 20 b&w photos |

A history of the Chicano community cannot be complete without taking into account the United States' domination of the Mexican economy beginning in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, writes Gilbert G. González. For that economic conquest inspired U.S. writers to create a "culture of empire" that legitimated American dominance by portraying Mexicans and Mexican immigrants as childlike "peons" in need of foreign tutelage, incapable of modernizing without Americanizing, that is, submitting to the control of U.S. capital. So powerful was and is the culture of empire that its messages about Mexicans shaped U.S. public policy, particularly in education, throughout the twentieth century and even into the twenty-first.

In this stimulating history, Gilbert G. González traces the development of the culture of empire and its effects on U.S. attitudes and policies toward Mexican immigrants. Following a discussion of the United States' economic conquest of the Mexican economy, González examines several hundred pieces of writing by American missionaries, diplomats, business people, journalists, academics, travelers, and others who together created the stereotype of the Mexican peon and the perception of a "Mexican problem." He then fully and insightfully discusses how this misinformation has shaped decades of U.S. public policy toward Mexican immigrants and the Chicano (now Latino) community, especially in terms of the way university training of school superintendents, teachers, and counselors drew on this literature in forming the educational practices that have long been applied to the Mexican immigrant community.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. The Economic Conquest and Its Social Relations
  • 2. American Writers Invade Mexico
  • 3. The Imperial Burden: The Mexican Problem and Americanization
  • 4. The Peaceful Conquest and Mexican Migration within Mexico and to the United States
  • 5. The Transnational Mexican Problem
  • 6. Empire, Domestic Policy, and the Education of Mexican Immigrants
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Gilbert G. González is Professor of Social Sciences and Director of the Labor Studies Program at the University of California, Irvine.


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This book began several decades ago, when as a graduate student I set out to write a dissertation explaining the Chicano educational experience in Los Angeles during the 1920s. The object was to explain the roots of the unequal outcomes differentiating Chicano from Anglo American students in public schools and the origins of the Chicano protest movement that accused the educational system of deliberate discrimination. That dissertation later became the foundation for a book on Chicano education during the era of de jure segregation. Again, the purpose was to review the origins of the Chicano educational experience and the causes of the discriminatory policies and unequal outcomes that formed the bookends of that experience. Both studies approached the topic by emphasizing the role that domestic capital interests played in shaping public school policies, particularly the use of racially inspired policies, and the predictable outcomes.

The prior studies are mentioned here because this book will resume the study of Chicano educational history but will follow a different approach. In my previous works the analyses remained within a national perspective, focusing on the schooling process as a strictly national question of policies that were explained as outcomes of domestic policy discourses shaped by the emerging corporate capitalist order. This study will expand that viewpoint to include a transnational perspective, but not a cultural transnational perspective, which has attracted attention in some circles. Here, the emphasis is on the American economic empire and its historical domination over the nation of Mexico. This is not to say that national policy discourses on such matters as racialized segregation, IQ testing, tracking, and vocational education should be tossed aside. However, that explanatory approach lacked a transnational component and consequently failed to fully explain the critical issues under review.

The present study adds the U.S. economic empire—the foremost element in the formation of public policy in general, and educational policy in particular, toward the Mexican immigrant community in the 1900-1930 period. The reader will notice that only one chapter (and the final chapter at that) is devoted to a discussion of the public education affecting the Mexican immigrant community. However, the necessity to foreground the U.S. economic empire and its offspring, the culture of empire, as well as its general impact on the emerging minority community, was unavoidable. Uncovering the significance of empire required an exploration into the cultural production by American writers of various stripes whose perspectives on Mexico and Mexican culture were critical to shaping U.S. domestic policy toward Mexican immigrants. This narrative explores, among other things, the rise of a culture of empire and the manner in which it constructed representations of Mexico and Mexicans. The account then examines the ways that this maturing culture of empire impacted on the Mexican migrant community and the continuity of those imperial images as they followed migrants as they crossed the northern border.

The focus is on writers who fall outside the definition of novelist and emphasizes expository writing (novelists did not take up writing on Mexico till the 1920s, long after Mexico submitted to U.S. economic domination). I also chose to emphasize the voices of these writers and allow the story to flow as much as possible in a direct line from them, as if I held a tape recorder as they spoke. Of course, I glean their key ideas, assemble and analyze them, then place them into an interpretative framework. Simultaneously, in order to focus on the ideas of the architects of the culture of empire, I have tended to restrict relevant contemporary analyses supportive of my analysis to footnotes. While this study focuses on the 1880 to 1930 period, it is a limitation taken for the sake of establishing an initial and, hopefully, provocative discussion on the American economic empire and its offspring, the culture of empire, and about the impact of the culture of empire on U.S. domestic policy and social relations.

In the same manner that my dissertation and book were limited to a national focus, most students of the Chicano experience (and of the national experience as well) tend to keep their analyses within the boundaries of the United States. Once such authors have dealt with Mexican immigrants traveling north and settling into barrios and other enclaves, they virtually ignore U.S. economic domination over Mexico. The tendency to focus from the Mexican border north while ignoring the overwhelming presence of the United States in Mexico's economy and society severely limits the ability of research to explain the Chicano experience (and now the Latino experience) in all of its aspects.

Mention should also be made of the emphasis on culture that pervades the literature in Chicano and other minority studies. Virtually all discourses on minority histories fix upon race, that is, white racism, identity, and agency, an overriding emphasis that has stripped away any opportunity or sustained interest in an effective transnational methodology. The emphasis on culture partners with an overwhelming tendency, particularly among those writing the histories of Chicanos and other Latinos, to retain the analysis within a national framework. This work veers radically away from that exclusive emphasis on race, identity (whiteness, for example), agency, and other cultural themes to examine how the American economic empire has shaped social relations among peoples living within the United States. On the other hand, those discussions concerning American authors, primarily novelists writing on themes derived from experiences in Mexico, ignore, for the most part, any connections between the literature under analysis and the imperial nature of U.S.-Mexican relations. These works generally examine and discuss literary issues—the themes, styles, and forms that novelists and other popular writers employed. International politics and economics are scarcely mentioned.

The United States Empire

Although race and identity attract much attention, empire does not unless one is speaking of past colonial experiences. There has been among contemporary academics a decided reluctance to refer to the United States as an empire in the classical sense, despite its behavior over the past century, which has been cut from a classic imperial cloth. This reluctance has predominated even among social critics. In sidestepping U.S. imperialism and focusing on European colonialism, critical studies, as Amy Kaplan has so eloquently pointed out, too often unwittingly follow the "American Exceptionalism" trend in U.S. historiography. Only a few are heard to refer to the United States as an empire, and, surprisingly, voices from the far right have taken up the banner celebrating the American empire. William Rusher, editor of the National Review and Max Boot, opinion editor at the Wall Street Journal, have recently written of the good causes that the American empire can embark upon around the world. Boot, for example, writing in the conservative Weekly Standard (edited by Bill Kristol, former aide to vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle), makes the case for "U.S. imperialism—a liberal and humanitarian imperialism, to be sure, but imperialism all the same." Rusher, on the other hand, compares the United States to the Roman and British Empires and proposes that the United States has inherited an imperial imperative that it cannot relinquish. Although both men make no excuses for their imperialist proposals, we should recognize that there is more than a grain of truth in their testimonies. Their messages would never have appeared were it not for a groundswell of opinions supportive of the United States as the "new world empire." While Rusher, Boot, and their ilk consider empire an opportunity for spreading democracy, the opposite will be and has been the consequence. All empires by their very definition are antidemocratic; the domination of one nation by another is inherently opposed to equality among nations, a fundamental principle of democracy.

Unfortunately, the term "empire" seems not to have caught on in the American historical or sociological imagination. When the expression "empire" is used, it seems that it is quite appropriate for describing the British colonial system of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries or for condemning the Soviet bloc, the "evil empire" of the late twentieth century. It was safe for the British to proudly proclaim that the sun never set on the British Empire, but Americans have been loath to use any such metaphor to describe U.S. transnational relations with its Latin American neighbors. Thus, the most powerful of all empires in the history of nation-states, the United States, goes about its imperial business practically undisturbed (and unrecognized) by historians and other academics, some of whom might, in other contexts, condemn empires on moral grounds.

Americans generally prefer to identify the United States as a nation that relates with all other nations on the basis of equality and respect for sovereignty. Certainly, the mass media make no mention of an American imperial vision or agenda, and political leadership flinches at the word. More often, euphemisms for empire—"world power," "superpower," "global power"—are preferred to describe the actions taken by the United States abroad. One former Reagan administration adviser referred to the United States as the "greatest power the world has ever known," but the term "empire" runs against the grain of American nationalism, or so it would seem. The convention of explaining empire on the basis of direct territorial control effectively relieves the United States of harboring imperial ambitions. Empire in the tradition of the Roman Empire or the British Empire, which is the active seeking of territorial domination and control over another nation, has been systematically privileged as the defining element for all empires. Consequently, in the popular and official viewpoints, since the United States has no apparent colonial possessions, the United States is therefore not an empire. Puerto Rico escapes the designation "colony," which it rightly deserves, via another euphemism: "commonwealth." And like the case of Puerto Rico, there are persuasive arguments for considering Oceania and Hawaii as colonial possessions. Despite examples of an active imperial agenda, popular belief that the United States is an imperialist power is absent and runs counter to the national political ethos in place for most of the twentieth century.

However, as this study hopes to demonstrate, U.S. foreign policy planners of the late nineteenth century seldom established territorial control as the key to empire building. In fact, in the discourse on empire taken by the world powers of that time, imperialism was never a neatly defined activity. Empire was conceived of as having many possible forms, including coaling stations, protectorates, outright territorial control, and economic domination (while nominally preserving the dominated nation's sovereignty). It will be shown that an overriding objective of U.S. foreign policy with regard to Mexico and Latin America was the establishment of economic control to satisfy the very same ambitions that the British entertained in the search for and acquisition of their colonial possessions.

The absence of empire as a prime focus of analysis in U.S. historiography evolves from the very nature of the American empire itself, which runs counter to the popular definition of all empires. More often than not, empires are identified as territorial acquisition by force of a once independent nation or territory by another nation, that is, the outright colonization of one society or nation by a foreign people. In this sense, the United States has met this definition by having taken the Philippines, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and setting a protectorate over Cuba, among other examples of imperial power wielding. Even within this narrower definition, then, the forcible separation of Panama from Colombia and building of the Panama Canal were certainly acts of territorial theft by international highwaymen. There are numerous other examples: the landing of Marines around the Caribbean at various times throughout the twentieth century comes to mind. Although these are salient examples of classic imperial domination, in the main the essence of the American empire is not territorial control but wresting of economic control from another country and dominating that nation economically. Contemporary observers of the imperial territorial expansionism undertaken by the United States at the end of the nineteenth century rarely misunderstood that policy of expansionism. In the excitement of acquiring Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, the prolific author and avowed apologist for imperialism Trumbull White wrote these candid lines:

For good or ill, the United States has entered upon a colonial policy, a policy of expansion, a policy which forces us into a position of world power, deep in the complications of international politics. . . . It is now too late to turn back. Once having reached this position, it is unnecessary to argue the importance of obtaining all the adequate knowledge available on the great questions involved. American citizens, with the welfare of the country at heart, are endeavoring to familiarize themselves with the conditions of these new dominions and in the countries adjacent to them. Without experience or precedents of our own colonial policy, we are forced into the position of creating one.

White urged the elaboration of informed policies adequate for the effective governance of the recently acquired colonies. However, voices like those of White met opposition from a variety of quarters. Defenders of U.S. expansion into the Caribbean and Pacific were challenged by a minority of objectors led by such personages as John Dewey, vice-president of the Anti-Imperialist League from 1910 to 1920. Even though large-scale U.S. capital had previously captured Mexico's railroad and mining industry and was on the cusp of dominating its oil production, effectively transforming Mexico into an economic outpost of American capital interests, that form of expansionism met little, if any, opposition. Territorial expansion into the Caribbean and Pacific, on the other hand, caused a vigorous opposition movement on grounds not necessarily anti-imperialist, from a variety of quarters. However, for the most part the "peaceful conquest" of Mexico went unnoticed by those who would take up the flag of the anti-imperialist movement. Americans tended to make the connection between colonialism or imperialism and territorial conquest, but largely ignored economic domination, which amounted to imperialism by other means.

While White and Dewey responded in their own way to the violent expansion into the Caribbean and the Pacific, a parallel albeit nonviolent policy had matured in relation to Mexico. It is in regard to this policy that the anti-imperialists, adhering to the territorial definition of empire, lost touch with events. This study will argue that in the post-Civil War period, the United States launched a concerted effort to economically dominate Mexico and subordinate that nation to the corporate interests that were then taking ascendance in economic and political affairs in the United States. By the late nineteenth century, Mexico had fallen to the economic domination of large-scale investors such as J. P. Morgan, Daniel Guggenheim, and Jay Gould, and to corporations like Phelps Dodge, American Smelting and Refining, Doheny Oil, Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe, and Union Pacific. One should not assume that this domination happened by force, as in the case of the Spanish-American War; in fact, U.S. investors launched a determined drive to capture Mexico economically—termed "peaceful conquest" by the architects of that expansionism—soon after the Civil War and realized that objective by the turn of the century.

As the twentieth century approached, United States capital steered the Mexican economy and came to dominate its most important sectors. Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department placed the peaceful conquest of Mexico's economy at the center of the nation's foreign policy objectives and pursued it with single-minded dedication. For sure, not all Americans failed to define with exactness the ongoing imperial expansion. John Kenneth Turner called attention to the political consequences of the economic domination then overwhelming Mexico through his daring critique of, as Turner called it, the "partnership of Díaz and American capital." The critic noted the imperial outcomes propelled by the transnational enterprise, contending that it "wrecked Mexico as a national entity," which simultaneously bestowed on the U.S. government a "deciding voice in Mexican affairs." Turner certainly understood, as did few of his contemporaries, the imperialist dimension of U.S. relations with Mexico.

U.S. corporate interests achieved their ambitious agenda with the cooperation of Mexico's elite landowner class led by Porfirio Díaz. Mexico adjusted its internal economic policies to the U.S. demand for an open door to foreign capital and virtually unlimited investment. Indeed, Díaz presaged the "globalization" schemes of the late twentieth century sponsored under the mantra of neoliberalism. Economic domination manifested in a billion dollars of U.S. capital, initially took the form of railroad construction; railroads then led to the domination of Mexico's mining and later Mexico's oil industry. Mining and oil production summoned more than superprofits, as valuable natural resources were extracted using cheap native labor and transported to the United States for further processing in industrial production.

The Culture of Empire

U.S. domination of key sectors of the Mexican economy set the stage for the creation of a culture of empire by American writers, who descended upon Mexico with the completion of U.S.-constructed and -owned railroads from the U.S. border into Mexico's center. As Mexico opened her doors to U.S.-inspired modernization, a cohort of writers that included professional travelers, Protestant missionaries, academics, journalists, business people, diplomats, engineers, tourists, and others descended on Mexico in increasingly large numbers. These in turn began to publish accounts of their travels or, in the case of businessmen, of their operations. A large body of literature appeared soon after 1880 and constituted a new genre in American writing. Numerous articles appeared in professional and popular journals such as Collier's, Atlantic Monthly, Survey, The Independent, and National Geographic. Indeed, the American public was treated to a virtual explosion of books and articles on Mexico, a sizable body of literature that was largely responsible for establishing a widespread view of Mexico, its culture, flora and fauna, and investment potential. Of importance for this study is the significance this literature had in explaining Mexico and Mexicans to the American audience and in legitimizing the economic domination then in process.

Mexico's economic subordination to the United States fostered the construction of colonial strategies expressed through popular writings. The imperialist Trumbull White, for example, prescribed the development of a knowledge base for effectively governing the "new possessions." In the case of Mexico, this is precisely what this body of literature did, by suggesting methods for securing economic expansion into the southern nation. Those narratives eventually provided the foundation for public policy directed at the emerging ethnic minority, the Mexican immigrant community that formed as a consequence of U.S. economic expansionism into Mexico.

The numerous authors' narratives read as if they came off an industrial production line, molded by a seemingly mystical template that guided them and controlled their pens. Their works often moved beyond words and included photographs illustrating Mexico's geography, archeology, villages, churches, holiday celebrations, women, children, work, and marketplaces. The manner in which Mexico, its culture, and its peoples were described to readers is most relevant to the question of empire. The economy generally attracted particular interest, and within the economy the importance of foreign capital, particularly American capital, to the inevitable process of modernization. Words and photographs combined to create images and draw conclusions—at best superficial and for the most part demeaning—of Mexico that the American audience would easily grasp. The works described Mexico in ways that paralleled the writing by the British of their colonial subjects. Mexicans of the poor classes, the vast majority of Mexico's population, were described as a rather uncivilized species—dirty, unkempt, immoral, diseased, lazy, unambitious—and compared at length to Orientals (then the identifier for all colonial subjects) and despised for being peons. Wealthy elites of Mexico were treated with kid gloves, although more often than not in rather unflattering terms; nonetheless, the peons and not the wealthy were treated with overwhelming disdain.

Not surprisingly, it was the poor, the derided peones, who became the workforce for the myriad of industrial activities initiated and administered by American capital. Approximately 200,000 Mexicans worked for the mines, railroads, and petroleum sites. Most of them were recruited and transported from the central regions of Mexico to the main operations along the northern border states. The social consequence of the investment of foreign capital was the removal of hundreds of thousands of Mexican peasants from their communal villages, their ancestral lands; they migrated to towns and urban centers, from which they were recruited and transported to various industrial operations. From these internal migrations generated by the actions of U.S. capital, the flow moved into the United States, where Mexican settlements appeared in large numbers in the first decade of the century. New sets of social relations marked by the segregation of nationalities were instantly injected into Mexico, with Americans on one side and Mexicans on the other. In the nearly three hundred mining camps in Mexico run by Americans, social segregation separating Mexicans from their American overseers became the norm, and in this setting a set of images and representations by American writers began to form.

It was this emerging social order that Americans witnessed and experienced as they ventured into Mexico—some to live for an extended period, others for a brief visit, time enough to write a book or article. Some writers, as the reader will see, compared the settlements where Americans administered their enterprises as a facsimile of the social relations between British overseers and their colonial subjects. Some American writers even suggested the need for a Rudyard Kipling to capture the exact sense of the relations that they observed. In many respects, as the evidence demonstrates, these social relations would be repeated across the border as Mexican immigrant settlements spread across the Southwest. Thus, the social relations that greeted Mexicans across the border replicated in many ways the social relations constructed over several decades via the peaceful conquest of the Mexican economy.

Under the imperial watch, Mexico came to be titled the Land of Mañana, and Mexicans were described as inferior beings in comparison to Americans. Mexico was defined as a huge social problem, and the term "Mexican Problem" entered into literary discourse. The sum total of the cultural and character "defects" that distinguished Mexicans from the Anglo-Saxon or American norm defined the core of the problem. The solution to the problem, according to nearly every writer, could never be accomplished by Mexicans alone; only foreign guardianship could achieve the elimination of the Mexican Problem. And this meant the Americanization of Mexico, the panacea for Mexico's cultural and biological maladies. However, when writers used the term "Americanization," they invariably meant the expansion and deepening of the U.S. economic domination then in place. For these writers, the control of Mexico's railroad, mining, and oil industries represented the principal component of an effective and long-term Americanization to bring Mexico out of its cultural backwardness. Mexico, it was said, could never save itself without outside intervention, but not just any intervention. American writers and policy makers in Washington invariably upheld a predominant American right to intervene to ensure the realization of American objectives. A culture of imperialism, one that sanctioned the expansionary policies that Trumbull White found not only acceptable but also necessary, coursed through the literature.

This brings up the matter of what this all has to do with the educational experience of Mexican immigrants in the first third of the twentieth century. Briefly, the emerging genre of studies of Mexico appearing in book, journal, and article form shaped a representation of Mexicans that captured the American imagination. Derogatory images of Mexico and Mexicans took on a life of their own and became conventional wisdom regarding qualities characteristic of the average Mexican. This body of literature did not merely sit in libraries and collect dust. On the contrary, these visions by wanna-be specialists on everything to do with Mexico became an important source of information for those searching for clues as to the kind of public policy required for America's newest immigrant peoples. The entry of these studies appeared most visibly and significantly at the highest level of education, the university. The several American writers examined in this study who relied on this literature to define the Mexican immigrant were academics, but what is more important is that the literature surfaced prominently in the social sciences and subsequently the sociological analyses of Mexican immigrants. From there, the wide-ranging publications on Mexico entered into the public policy-making arena via university training of future school administrators, who relied on the information contained in the works to shape policy proposals. Dozens of graduate students who would later become teachers, principals, and school superintendents authored many of these academic explorations.

Just as American authors who wrote on Mexico discussed the Mexican Problem at length, so American officials at the federal, state, and local levels charged with formulating and implementing educational policy for the Mexican immigrant community incorporated that same conception without question. Interestingly, public policy makers relied extensively on the works of American writers and considered them specialists and reliable authorities. However, most of the writers were no more than one-time visitors and amateurs who jotted down their impressions in a notebook and, upon returning, turned the notes into a book. To be sure, some were not overnight specialists, especially the Protestant missionaries who hoped not only to convert Mexicans to Protestantism but Americanize Mexico as well. Common to all these writers was the near total pessimism concerning Mexican culture. This pessimism traveled into the United States and entered into the public policy arena, where it played a major role in shaping the educational program applied to the Mexican community.

The reader will notice that the point of departure for this study is the late nineteenth century, and that the narrative has very little to do with the Mexican-American War and annexation. Most historical accounts of the Chicano minority contend that the community originated with the Mexican-American War and the territorial conquest of 1848. Some argue that the annexation of one-half of Mexico's territory institutionalized a set of racial practices, which established a type of social relations that endured to the late twentieth century. These accounts also place racism at the center of the discussion. However, the present study differs in substantial respects from studies that focus on the annexation of the Southwest as the chief explanatory tool for interpreting Chicano history. In this study, the U.S. economic empire and the culture inspired by that empire are centered, and, it will be argued, this imperial expression explains the formation of public policy—in particular of educational policies and practices—applied to the ethnic Mexican community.

Surely there are some readers who will contend that the representations of Mexicans referred to above were voiced in the pre- and post-1848 periods. Mexicans, it will be said, were described in many of the same terms before the bevy of writers analyzed here took up their pens, and the critic might add that perhaps these writers merely continued a tradition, rather than establishing a new one. I grant that there may be some superficial continuity; however, the voices that were raised immediately following the 1848 conflict fell silent shortly thereafter. In his classic study of writing on Mexico and the Hispanic Southwest, Cecil Robinson noted a significant decline in American interest regarding the Southwest and its Mexican population. The Civil War, Reconstruction, and the industrialization of the nation took precedence; a renaissance of writing on the Southwest surfaced but took on a romantic and nostalgic hue, like Helen Hunt Jackson's novel Ramona. The old images of the Spanish Mexican population fell out of circulation toward the latter nineteenth century; meanwhile, images of Mexico began to assume center stage in the national consciousness.

Moreover, the objective of the contentious voices appalled at the Spanish Mexican population of the postconquest Southwest was not empire. The sole objective of U.S. foreign policy and of the American settler capitalists who traveled west after 1848 was the integration of the Southwest into the institutional framework of the United States. The war was one step in the construction of the American nation, and the Spanish Mexican population was perceived as an obstacle to that construction. This meant the removal of the original Mexican settlers from their land grants, the destruction of the old Spanish landowning system and the creation upon its ashes of a new society governed by capitalist principles.

On the other hand, the sole objective of foreign policy planners and writers who welcomed and sought empire in the late nineteenth century was not annexation; in fact, they stridently opposed annexation in favor of economic conquest. The logic that they expressed was not that of permanent settlers with a determination to expand the national economic and political boundaries. In contrast to the post-1848 period, during which the rancho or hacienda was viewed as an anachronism, in the peaceful conquest American capital was content to coexist with the hacienda system and even join politically with the landed elite who gleaned their wealth from that medieval institution. Consequently, the hacienda economy was not touched by the imperial incursions; instead, it remained even stronger than before the arrival of U.S.-financed modernization. Imperial capital generated a retrogressive influence on the Mexican nation, promoting the retention of feudal forms while engendering modernization without national economic development.

Imperial capital sought to turn the nation of Mexico into an economic colony of the United States; the economic development of Mexico was not an objective unless it served U.S. capital interests. Writers who witnessed and embraced the process constructed a language that harmonized with that policy. The publications by these writers had little to do with the post-1848 Southwest and everything to do with the economic conquest of Mexico in the post-1880 period. The language of empire rose as if a single voice and by the turn of the century had captured the imagination of the northern nation. Finally, as one reads the public policy discourses, the works on Mexico written in the post-1880 period are of far greater importance than the information regarding Mexican residents remaining in the Southwest soon after 1848. The images of Mexico written in the post-1880 period, not the images of the old Mexican Southwest, took precedence in the public policy discussions between 1900 and 1930.

The key objective of this study is to illuminate one example of U.S. empire-making—the economic conquest of Mexico and the consequent migration of Mexicans to, and reception in, the United States—and to bring that example into the discourse on United States history and, in particular, into Chicano and Latino historiography. In addition, I hope to demonstrate that the U.S. empire has been central to the history of the ethnic Mexican community and that this study can be useful for those studying other immigrants, such as Central Americans, who are increasingly being forced into migratory paths within their respective nations and, as last resort, to the United States. This study will examine how the imperial, rather than merely transnational cultural, relationship that the United States developed with Mexico affected public policy, in particular educational policy affecting the Mexican immigrant community in the 1900-1930 period. The purpose here is to place the imperial domination exercised by U.S. capital over Mexico at the center of the discussion of Chicano history and of its social relations with the larger society. This study also seeks to challenge that long-standing misconception of the role of the United States on the world scene as a democratic influence by introducing the U.S. empire, a contradiction to the principle of democracy, into the discourse.

A case can be and has been made for demonstrating the continuity of the U.S. empire and of its domination over Mexico into the twenty-first century. And just as in the first three decades of the past century, empire continues to impact on the continually forming and re-forming ethnic Mexican community. However, this study will not engage in that larger project; instead, I hope to provide an invitation to further research into the interconnections between the U.S. empire and the formation and experience of the ethnic Mexican community. One might say that in twentieth-century U.S. history, empire not only matters, it stands at the center of that history.



“Providing a fresh interpretive analysis...Gilbert Gonzalez argues convincingly that the study of Mexican immigration to the United States, and the delveopment of the Chicano community, demands an understanding of the consequences of America's economic domination of Mexico, which followed the U.S. Civil War.”
Southwestern Historical Quarterly

“Amidst ongoing efforts to conceptualize the inevitable but often agonistic intersections of Latin American and Latino studies, Gilbert Gonzalez's Culture of Empire comes as a refreshing and valuable intervention.”
The Journal of Latin American Anthropology

“Culture of Empire is an intersection of intellectual history with Chicano history, labor history, and Mexican history. It is a historically rich and well-organized study that promises to confirm the author’s profile as one of the preeminent scholars of Chicano history and transborder studies.”
Zaragosa Vargas, Associate Professor of History, University of California, Santa Barbara


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