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Recovering History, Constructing Race

Recovering History, Constructing Race
The Indian, Black, and White Roots of Mexican Americans

Asserting the centrality of race in Mexican American history, Martha Menchaca here offers the first interpretive racial history of Mexican Americans, focusing on racial foundations and race relations from prehispanic times to the present.

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture

January 2002
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392 pages | 6 x 9 | 50 b&w illus., 4 maps |

The history of Mexican Americans is a history of the intermingling of races—Indian, White, and Black. This racial history underlies a legacy of racial discrimination against Mexican Americans and their Mexican ancestors that stretches from the Spanish conquest to current battles over ending affirmative action and other assistance programs for ethnic minorities. Asserting the centrality of race in Mexican American history, Martha Menchaca here offers the first interpretive racial history of Mexican Americans, focusing on racial foundations and race relations from prehispanic times to the present.

Menchaca uses the concept of racialization to describe the process through which Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. authorities constructed racial status hierarchies that marginalized Mexicans of color and restricted their rights of land ownership. She traces this process from the Spanish colonial period and the introduction of slavery through racial laws affecting Mexican Americans into the late twentieth-century. This re-viewing of familiar history through the lens of race recovers Blacks as important historical actors, links Indians and the mission system in the Southwest to the Mexican American present, and reveals the legal and illegal means by which Mexican Americans lost their land grants.


A Choice Outstanding Academic Book, 2002Annual List of Outstanding Academic Titles SelectionsChoice

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Racial Foundations
  • 2. Racial Formation: Spain's Racial Order
  • 3. The Move North: The Gran Chichimeca and New Mexico
  • 4. The Spanish Settlement of Texas and Arizona
  • 5. The Settlement of California and the Twilight of the Spanish Period
  • 6. Liberal Racial Legislation during the Mexican Period, 1821-1848
  • 7. Land, Race, and War, 1821-1848
  • 8. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Racialization of the Mexican Population
  • 9. Racial Segregation and Liberal Policies Then and Now
  • Epilogue: Auto/ethnographic Observations of Race and History
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Martha Menchaca is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin.


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In this book it is my intent to write about the Mexican American people's Indian, White, and Black racial history. In doing so, I offer an interpretive historical analysis of the experiences of the Mexican Americans'ancestors in Mexico and the United States. This analysis begins with the Mexican Americans'prehistoric foundations and continues into the late twentieth century. My focus, however, is on exploring the legacy of racial discrimination that was established in the aftermath of the Spanish conquest and was later intensified by the United States government when, in 1848, it conquered northern Mexico (presently the U.S. Southwest) and annexed it to the United States (Menchaca 1999:3). The central period of study ranges from 1570 to 1898.

Though my interpretive history revisits many well-known events, it differs from previous histories on Mexican Americans and on the American Southwest because the central thread of my analysis is race relations, an area of study that is often accorded only secondary significance and generally subsumed under economic or nation-based interpretations. It also differs because I include Blacks as important historical actors, rather than denying their presence in the history of the Mexican Americans. Finally, as part of this analysis I demonstrate that racial status hierarchies are often structured upon the ability of one racial group to deny those who are racially different access to owning land. This process leads to the low social prestige and impoverishment of the marginalized. I close my analysis with commentaries on contemporary United States race relations and auto/ethnographic observations of Mexican American indigenism. Auto/ethnography is used as a method to illustrate how historical events influence racial identity.

This form of intellectual inquiry emerged from my conversations with archaeologist Fred Valdez. In 1986 Fred and I were both hired as assistant professors in the Anthropology Department at the University of Texas at Austin. It was the first time that I had met a Mexican American archaeologist. We were both fascinated by the ethnohistory of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and shared the unconventional view that Mexican Americans were part of the indigenous peoples of the American Southwest. Following endless conversations on the indigenous heritage of the Mexican Americans, we decided to study the indigenous groups of the Southwest that had been conquered by Spain and Mexico. Our objective was to identify the groups that had become subjects of Spain and, later, citizens of Mexico. This research was used to prepare an undergraduate class on the "Indigenous Heritage of the Mexican Americans." We were pleasantly surprised that our class became very popular, as evidenced by the large enrollments. In general, students were interested in knowing about their heritage, while many others were interested in seeking specific information about the mission Indians from whom they were descended.

For me, this academic endeavor converged with the publication of Michael Omi and Howard Winant's classic book Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s (1986). Their work influenced me to reassess the significance of studying the racial heritage of the Mexican Americans, given that my interest until that point had been solely to outline their indigenous ancestry. According to Omi and Winant, the significance of studying race is not to analyze the biological aspect of a people's heritage, but rather to understand the politics and processes of racial categorization. They urgently call upon social scientists to study race as a central source of societal organization, because in multiracial societies race has been used historically by those in power to share social and economic privileges with only those people who are racially similar to themselves. Omi and Winant do not urge scholars to explore the origins or psychology of this inclusive-exclusive behavior, but rather to provide a historical context, showing how those in power use race to rationalize the distribution of wealth.

I also found Omi and Winant's discussion on racial ideology very insightful and useful in understanding the dynamics of historical shifts in the area of national racial policy. Though they offer a macroanalysis of state systems, their interpretation is dynamic. They propose that in most multiracial countries only one racial group ascends to power. When the state encodes racial policies, the views of the dominant racial group are converted from ideology into practice. Such racial policies are legislated to order and regulate racial interaction. Although those in power control the legislation of racial policies, Omi and Winant propose that each generation adopts a new racial ideology that is reflected in legislation. Generational views about race are premised upon the meaning and value people ascribe to bodily characteristics (e.g., color, physical features). Over a generation, some racial attitudes may be reproduced, while others may be discarded. In sum, Omi and Winant propose that changes in racial ideologies are manifested in policy that can intensify or diminish racial boundaries and status hierarchies. Though they argue that the dominant racial group prescribes racial policy—which they label "racial dictatorship"—they also propose that racial minorities and dissenting dominant group members can spark ideological changes by initiating social movements. When this happens, the state is forced to change its racial legislation.

Notwithstanding the dynamic theoretical framework proffered by Omi and Winant, they concur with Pierre Bourdieu that major institutional changes are difficult to implement. Bourdieu (1992) posits that shifts in social policy can be promoted either by groups or by individuals. Because individuals are a product of society, however, they are habituated to internalizing externality. This leads to a social outlook that promotes the maintenance of the status quo. Indeed, this notion of institutional stability is a pessimistic interpretation of historical change. It nonetheless persuasively explicates the reproduction of racial and class strata and outlines why those who are dominated remain in subaltern positions for generations. I must also add that my research on Mexican Americans verified Bourdieu's historical reproduction thesis: I found that over time the legal system has been the most effective method of reproducing institutional stability and indoctrinating people to accept their prescribed racial roles. Under the governments of Spain and the United States, the reproduction of racial inequality was instituted through a legal process I call "racialization." Spain and the United States used their legal systems to confer social and economic privileges upon Whites and to discriminate against people of color. Racial characteristics were effectively used to categorize people into groups meriting privilege, while dissimilar groups were deemed unworthy and instead were expected to serve the meritorious. Racial meritocracy was founded upon real and presumed racial differences.

In part my interest in writing this book was prompted by personal inquiries, in particular exploring the Mexican Americans' Black history. Throughout my life I had observed that many Mexican Americans had facial features that markedly or faintly resembled those of Black Americans. When I moved to Texas to begin my professorship, I noticed that Black facial characteristics were more common among Mexican Americans there than I had observed elsewhere. This obviously was a result of intermarriage. When this blending took place I had no idea or hypothesis. These observations caused me to reflect upon my own family history. As a child I recall asking my mother why my father's hair and nose resembled those of Black Americans. My father, Lauro Menchaca, had faintly Black facial characteristics, yet his skin was White, with a rosy pigment. My mother, Isabel Esparza Menchaca, responded that my father's distinct nose was a marker of our Roman heritage and his curly black hair a characteristic inherited from Spaniards of mixed Arabic blood.

I was satisfied with my mother's response, as her explanation was combined with mythological accounts of how our family descended from Chichimec Indian royalty and Spanish conquistadores (conquerors). I did not question her account because we had gone to Mexico many times and stopped each time to visit the pyramids in Chicomoztoc, Zacatecas, where my mother related stories of our royal Chichimec lineage. During our visits, however, I could not understand why we did not visit one of my father's brothers, Uncle José, who lived a short distance by car from Chicomoztoc. I finally met my uncle when he came to visit my father in Santa Paula, California. When I met Uncle José I began to doubt my mother's stories about our Spanish-Indian heritage, since by U.S. conventions my uncle and one of his sons were clearly Black. I finally realized that my mother was omitting part of my history. My suspicions were confirmed when I traveled to Mexico as a young adult and stopped to visit my father's side of the family in the state of Zacatecas. During my visit to Jerez I discovered that many of my relatives were fair-skinned afromestizos of White, Indian, and Black ancestry. Some had only faintly Black features like my father, while others were moriscos (three-quarters White and one-quarter Black) or coyotes (half Indian, one-quarter White, one-quarter Black). When I returned home and asked my mother if this was true, she responded that my father was not of Black descent, but that Uncle José had married into a Black family. I did not doubt her explanation, as his wife was a mulatta (half White and half Black), but I also knew that her story was incomplete.

When I asked my father about his afromestizo relatives, he knew very little because his parents had divorced when he was about five. His father, Lauro, moved to Texas or Chihuahua and no longer had contact with his family. My father did not recall what Lauro senior looked like because he had seldom seen him. After my father was born in 19II, one year after the Mexican Revolution started, Lauro senior joined the revolutionary forces. When the major battles had been fought (by 1914) and the process of disarming the victorious army began, my grandfather did not settle down and instead remained in Pancho Villa's army; consequently he did not live with my grandmother, Delfina Robles. My grandmother's family, considering her a disgraced and abandoned woman, forced her to seek a divorce. Soon afterward my grandmother died in an epidemic in Zacatecas; or at least that was the story my father was told.

My father believed his Black ancestry came from his father's side of the family and not from his mother's. To illustrate his story, he showed me photographs of his family. Although he did not have pictures of his parents, he had photographs of his father's sisters and mother's brother, Eulalio Robles, the man who had raised him. In one photograph his aunts are well dressed; two of them are very good looking women who appear to be of mixed Indian and Black descent (see Photograph 1). The other photograph is of his uncle Eulalio, a White man (see Photograph 2).

Though my father acknowledged that he was of partially Black descent, he like my mother emphasized that our family's heritage was Indian and White (see Photograph 3). He did not know family accounts of our Indian heritage, however. The only stories he knew well were those about the Mexican Revolution and about his uncle Eulalio's ability to remain neutral when the revolutionaries and the government soldiers passed through their home in Zacatecas, Zacatecas. Apparently Eulalio gave the soldiers anything they wanted, and they left his family alone. Unlike my father, my mother knew countless stories about our family's past. She was proud of having listened attentively to her grandparents' oral histories. My mother's stories about Indians and pyramids eventually inspired me to love history and become an anthropologist, in particular her stories about Chicomoztoc, Zacatecas.

My mother's parents also died during the Mexican Revolution, when typhoid spread throughout the state of Zacatecas. My mother was raised by her grandparents. On her grandmother's side of the family our relatives came from Spain: my mother's grandmother, Doña Hermeñita, was born there. Doña Hermeñita immigrated to Mexico with her parents, an aunt, and an uncle. Her grandmother's family settled in Monte Escobedo, Zacatecas, where Doña Hermeñita met her husband, Don Domingo. On my mother's side of the family our Spanish and indigenous fusion took place when Doña Hermeñita married Don Domingo, who was part of Monte Escobedo's landed elite. When I was a child I traveled to Monte Escobedo and stayed on the estates of my mother's relatives. Don Domingo told my mother that he was a full-blooded Indian and a native of Monte Escobedo. His family had owned thousands of acres in Monte Escobedo for generations. Don Domingo claimed that his ancestors were Chichimec Indians from Chicomoztoc, Zacatecas. He told my mother that hundreds of years ago his tribe had left Chicomoztoc and spread throughout the state of Zacatecas. Don Domingo's clan finally settled in the mountains of Monte Escobedo to work the land. One of his ancestors became the village cacique (regional political boss), and the political governance of Monte Escobedo remained in his family's lineage until Don Domingo's death. Monte Escobedo is located approximately four hours by car from Chicomoztoc.

My mother recalled that when she was a young child Don Domingo took her to Chicomoztoc and told her the same stories he had been told. Interestingly, this oral tradition was kept alive by my mother as she repeated the same accounts to my brothers and sisters. Chicomoztoc is located in the municipal district of Villa Nueva, near the Hacienda de la Quemada. Archaeologists propose that Chicomoztoc was founded around A.D. 1164 by Chichimec Indians (Rodríguez Flores 1976:46). It is considered to be the first city of the people of Zacatecas. A few years after Chicomoztoc was established, many of its inhabitants dispersed throughout Zacatecas and San Luis Potosí. Other groups migrated to the Atlantic coast of Mexico. Historian Emilio Rodríguez Flores proposes that the people from Chicomoztoc came from Aztlán, a homeland north of the Gila River and west of the Colorado River, in what is today California. During one of my childhood visits to Chicomoztoc, as my mother and I walked through the ruins she pointed to rooms situated on the high platforms and claimed that our ancestors must have lived there (see Photograph 4). These were the sites archaeologists identified as the quarters of the indigenous elite. These remarks caused my brothers to laugh and tease my mother by saying, "If we are the descendants of indigenous royalty we must have come from the royal line of barredores [street sweepers]. "

Over the years, after my mother repeated her stories I commonly asked: "Mamá, if we came from Mexico's landed elite, why did we leave Mexico and migrate to the United States?" My question saddened her, and she always apologized for having been unable to pass down the property she had inherited from her grandfather. When she reached adulthood, her grandfather gave her two ranches, and throughout her youth she led an affluent lifestyle. When she was twenty-six, her first husband died during an epidemic. She was left widowed with six children. To support her family, my mother sold most of her property, yet she did not lose all of her investments. Seven years after becoming a widow, she met and married my father. Together they invested their money in two bakery stores and a theater. The bakeries did well, yet the expenses in maintaining the theater eventually led the family to bankruptcy.

My father decided to move to the United States until we weathered the storm. Within six months of announcing his plan we obtained immigration papers for our entire family, and in 1962 we arrived in Santa Paula, California. I was five years old at that time. My father alleged that our family had quickly obtained immigration visas because unlike most Mexican immigrants we were financially stable. We had come to the United States to start a business and not to work in the fields. Though our financial stability no doubt was an important factor in helping us meet U.S. immigration requirements, my interpretation of this event differs. At this time, the U.S. government practically had an open door policy toward Mexican immigrants because agribusiness needed farm workers (Galarza 1964). In any case, my family lost the property, and when this occurred my father had to find a job. Since there were plenty of jobs available in the United States, we moved in search of a better life and in an attempt to remain part of the middle class.

As I have shared with you, my intent in writing this book was partly academic (embarking on a historical project) and partly personal (finding out about my racial background). I was also motivated, however, by my interest in exploring my husband's family history. Unlike myself, my husband and my twin sons descend from California American Indians. My husband, Richard Valencia, identifies himself as a Mexican American of Chumash descent. On his mother's side they are Chumash, and on his father's side they are Mexican. My husband's parents divorced, and he lost contact with his father's side of the family. Verónica Ruiz, my husband's mother, was at least three-quarters Chumash, from the Barbareño subdivision (Santa Barbara). Richard's family, though dispersed throughout the United States, remains closely knit. They do not share the same ethnic or racial identity, however. Some identify themselves as Chicano mestizos (Spanish and Indian descent) of Chumash descent, while others identify as Chumash Indians of partial Mexican descent. Furthermore, some live on the Santa Inés reservation, while others live in ranches near the reservation, and most relatives live in Santa Barbara. Their family's racial history is discussed in the Epilogue, which illustrates how racial and ethnic identities are conditioned by historical events.

In narrating the racial history of the Mexican Americans, I use the first-person voice, because this is also my history, a positioned history. It is an interpretive history that revisits many events previously described by borderland historians Herbert E. Bolton, Hubert H. Bancroft, and David Weber, yet departs from this tradition because my focus is on understanding the politics of race relations and not on the growth of the Spanish Empire in the Southwest. My quest is to shed light on the economic and political factors pushing conquered mestizos, afromestizos, and Indians to join forces with their Spanish colonizers against the Indians of the Southwest—a conquest that culminated in the integration of thousands of southwestern Indian villages into Spanish and later Mexican society.

My account also differs because I do not focus on the achievements of Spaniards and Anglo Americans in the making of their nations; instead I examine how their nations legislated unfair racial laws to ensure that people of color would remain subservient subjects or second-class citizens. Specifically, because I position my discourse as one that privileges racial politics as the central focus of analysis and I disclose that this history is as much about myself as it is about Mexican Americans, I acknowledge that my narrative is situated, because it examines historical events from the position of the subaltern. To historicize is to interpret events; when scholars interpret, their voice is situated, because their analysis cannot be separated from their positions in society as members of a racial group, a social class, and a gender. Being situated does not nullify historical objectivity; it merely stresses that the author stages what s/he perceives to be the main events (see White 1992). In my case I offer a history of those people who lost the Mexican American War of 1846-1848 and became incorporated as U.S. racial minorities. Though my account of major events will not differ greatly from those of mainstream historians, it will be more inclusive of unpleasant happenings, because conflict takes center stage when the focus is on race.

I must also emphasize that my narrative is about Mexican Americans and not exclusively about the American Indian experience. Though both peoples' histories are interrelated, my analysis focuses on those indigenous groups who were conquered by the governments of Spain and later by the United States. I do not intend to insult anyone by using the term "Indian" rather than "Native American." I am aware that anthropologists prefer the label "Native American" as a means of stressing the Indians' antiquity in the United States. This label is inappropriate here, however, because the term "Native American" is an ethnic identifier for the indigenous peoples of the United States and does not apply to groups from Latin America. I must also add that my analysis of the interrelations between Indians and afromestizos is incomplete, for this history has largely been ignored by historians. This silence has led to devaluing the accomplishments of Black people in Mexico and the U.S. Southwest and erased a heritage shared by many. Though I offer just an outline, it is the most comprehensive analysis to date of the experiences of afromestizos in the Southwest. This history is also dialogic: I am aware that the interpretations of many of these undisclosed events that I have found in library archives can be reinscribed from multiple positions. I introduce only one interpretation that I have carefully analyzed and proffer an overview so that such events will no longer lie unrevealed.

My account begins with the Mexican Americans' Indian, White, and Black racial foundations. The second chapter examines the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the introduction of Black slaves from Africa. My focus is on how Mexico's racial order, la casta was rationalized and institutionalized. The third and fourth chapters examine the northward migration of Indians, mestizos, and afromestizos into the Southwest, drawn by promises of a relaxed racial order where people of color would be given some of the economic opportunities only enjoyed by Whites in the interior of Mexico. These chapters also outline the privileged legal positions of Whites and examine how Indians, mestizos, and afromestizos reacted to this unfairness. As part of these discussions, I explore the conquest of many indigenous groups of the Southwest and their conversion to Christianity.

Chapter 5 discusses the settlement of California and the end of the Spanish period. The Mexican War of Independence was a central event in ending Spain's racial order; it was not solely a revolution about the formation of a modern nation—it was also a racial revolution.

Chapter 6 examines how the newly formed Mexican Republic adopted the United States' constitutional structure and moved a step further by giving citizenship to people irrespective of race. This liberal idea, though philosophically ahead of its time, resulted in the forced acculturation of many Indians of the Southwest. This chapter also delineates the migration of Anglo-American immigrants into the Southwest and examines how Mexico's land and antislavery policies sparked revolutionary movements in Texas. I argue that the Texas War for Independence was largely a struggle over slavery.

Chapter 7 analyzes the Mexican government's attempt to dismantle Spain's racial order and improve the economic position of its citizens of color in the Southwest. Converting them into property owners was one of the main policies used to empower them, but this process adversely affected the Christian Indians. This chapter also examines the events leading to the U.S. government's taking possession of the Southwest.

Chapter 8 discusses the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which brought closure to the Mexican American War of 1846 to 1848, and the racial laws instituted by the U.S. government. Mexicans of color returned to a racial order where they had few civil rights, and most were denied citizenship. Under the U.S. legal system Mexicans were distinguished on the basis of race and were ascribed the legal rights accorded to their respective racial group. Matters were worse in Texas, as slavery had been reinstituted. This chapter also delineates how U.S. racial laws were used by government officials to determine which types of Mexicans were eligible to retain their Spanish and Mexican land grants. In particular, the U.S. government denied Mexican Indians property rights if they continued to practice tribal customs, coercing them into adopting a Mexican public identity as a means of escaping the reservation policies of the period. Under U.S. law, Mexicans who were identifiably afromestizo were legally differentiated and were subjected to the laws applied to Blacks.

Chapter 9 brings us to the present, with an overview of the racial laws affecting Mexican Americans into the late twentieth century (e.g., marriage, citizenship, de jure segregation, affirmative action) and the common struggles facing Mexican Americans, African Americans, and other people of color. This section is based upon my previous publications in American Ethnologist and the Harvard Educational Review. My historical analysis ends with an overview of current social movements which are attempting to repeal the liberal legislation of the 1960s, in particular the civil rights laws extending to racial minorities many of the legal rights enjoyed by Whites. In the Epilogue I employ auto/ethnographic methods, offering my husband's family history as a concluding reflection on the influence that historical events have had on peoples' racial identities.

My historical analysis is based on primary and secondary sources. The primary sources include Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. government documents such as court cases, naturalization documents, property and census records, archival documents on Texas civic government, U.S. congressional legislation, international treaties, constitutional legislation, photographs, state and national racial laws, and ethnographic interviews. The secondary sources include historical writings on the exploration, conquest, and colonial settlement of Mexico and the American Southwest as well as literature on the institutionalization and breakdown of social segregation in the United States. I hope that this book provides a comprehensive analysis of the Mexican Americans' racial history and an outline of the influence afromestizos have had in the Southwest. My ultimate goal is to historicize for the purpose of contextualizing the present: I believe race does matter and has mattered throughout history.


“Menchaca has accomplished an unprecedented tour de force in this sweeping historical overview and interpretation of the racial formation and racial history of Mexican Americans.”
Antonia I. Castañeda, Associate Professor of History, St. Mary's University


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