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The issue of race and the inequalities associated with it has been a part of American history since the beginning. America as a society was founded on different forms of domination, oppression and inequality from the creation of the American colonies to slavery. With the migration of different nationalities into the United States, race was used as a way of fostering inequality for the non white immigrants into America. One of the groups that was historically affected by this trend was the Mexicans. Race was used as a tool to discriminate Chinanos who had migrated into the United States but Chinano activists on realizing this sought to establish self determination of Chinanos as a group.
Official government classification of the Chinanos was structured in such a way that created and reflected social, political and economic inequality. Official government classification barred many Mexicans from entering the United States, from becoming citizens of the United States and from running businesses in the United States. Many Mexican immigrants were labeled ‘undocumented workers’ which meant that they could not become citizens of the United States and could therefore be exploited by white Americans. The race of Chinanos was used against them to ensure that they could only work in low paying jobs. Historically, Chinanos were not seen as a race but their classification was mostly ethnic. They were at one time classified as ‘whites with Hispanic surnames’. The fact that Chinanos were classified in ranked ethnic systems made white Americans to have beliefs about who belonged where, who deserves what and which group gets what. Classification of Chinanos under ethnic categories reinforced white Americans as the dominant group which had all the rights over Chinanos. Race construction by the government was used against Chinanos to ensure that they did not vote or run for office. This was a representation of how unequal Mexicans were to white Americans. It also ensured that Chinanos did not take part in important decision making and policy formation which in the end meant that their subordinate position was maintained. Personal race construction by white Americans about Chinanos also served the purpose of discriminating Chinanos. How individuals thought of Mexicans affected whether or not a Mexican was offered a well paying job, whether a university admitted a Mexican applicant and whether proper medical care was given to a person. Many white Americans before the 1960s perceived Chinanos as inferior to them. Mexicans were therefore offered jobs like housekeeping and other manual work. They provided cheap labor for white Americans. Many universities during those times shied away from admitting Mexicans to continue their higher education. During this time, Mexican children went to inferior schools that were separate from those of white Americans. Racial classification of Mexicans therefore helped maintain poverty among the group.
Chinano activists recognized that the fact that Mexicans were recognized along racial lines worked against them and not for them. This is because the identity of Chinanos as a race was marred with a lot of stereotypes that served to make Mexicans subordinate to white Americans. The identity of Chinanos along racial lines made them to be discriminated by white Americans.
From the 1960s, Chinano activists started advocating for a new identity that had nothing to do with race. Previously, Chinanos had been described and classified by others. Being described by others had its limitations and left Chinanos lacking a proper identity. Before 1960, most Chinanos did not know how to classify themselves as they had been given many divergent classifications. Chinanos as a group therefore did not stand out. Chinano activists from 1960 started advocating for self description and self determination of Chinanos. They wanted Chinanos and not others to come up with their own description, their own identity.
Chinano activists from the 1960s invented a new identity for Mexican Americans. They did this by not focusing on the present situation of the Chinanos but by looking at history. Chinano activists realized that the view about Mexicans was negative already and therefore they were discriminated. This negative view they figured, was caused largely by stereotypes and misconceptions about Mexicans. In order to invent a new identity, these stereotypes had to be corrected. Chinano activists therefore started looking for evidence that could help Mexicans form a new identity as a group.
The new ethos for this new identity was the historical study of the Chinanos. Chinano activists started going against the inaccurate recordings of historical facts. Previously, there had been a lot of misconceptions about Latinos and Mexican Americans. A lot of the data available was tailored to make them appear unequal to white Americans. Ignorant and inaccurate accounts of history were given in order to present Chinanos in negative light and establish white Americans as the dominant group. Chinano activists since 1960 started working towards righting this wrong by giving the accurate accounts. This was done in order to remove notions of white supremacy and reinforce the worth of Chinanos. In ‘Borderlands’, Gloria Anzaldua goes to great lengths to show how Mexicans were kept from their own lands by borderlines. She argues that what is now New Mexico, Colorado, California, Arizona and Texas were taken in 1846 from Mexicans. Chinano activists from 1960s started showing Mexicans that they need not be subordinate as history shows that they were the owners of the vast lands that were now in the hands of whites. The bad plight of Mexicans was attributed to historical injustice and not to racial inferiority. Mexicans were encouraged to be proud of the origins and to realize that there suffering has served to bring prosperity to America and they therefore had as many rights as white Americans. Chinano activists during this time started showing Mexican immigrants that they too were part of America and should not feel like outsiders. A new identity for Chinanos began to be invented from the 1960s. This new identity of Chinanos not only reinforced their own belief that they were not subordinate but also made white Americans to start recognizing Chinanos as deserving equal opportunities and rights. Gloria Anzaldua was one of those Chinano activists that endeavored to correct history. She says that “Seeing the Chicana anew in light of her history. I seek an exoneration, a seeing through the fictions of white supremacy, a seeing of ourselves in our true guises and not as the false racial personality that has been given to us and that we have given to ourselves…I seek new images of identity, new beliefs about ourselves, our humanity and worth no longer in question” (Anzaldua, p87)
The changes in the identity of Chinanos proved that racial classification can promote inequality as equally as it can undermine it. The members of the Chinano race drew from their shared identity to mobilize against the subordinate position they had been given. Chinano activists from the 1960s started repairing the damage that had been done to the Chinano identity through correction of information and what had been perceived to be facts. The doctrine of white supremacy started being questioned as new evidence was presented against this notion. The unveiling of what it truly meant to be Mexican was undertaken and whites and Chinanos alike were able to see the fallacies that had been propagated about Chinanos. It is these fallacies that had incapacitated Mexicans and made them less in the eyes of white Americans. Chinano activists were able to open people’s eyes to the errors of historical narratives thus establishing the Chinano race as equal to the white race, at least on paper.
Menchaca, Martha. Naturalizing Mexican Immigrants: A Texas History. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011. Internet resource.
Haney-López, Ian. Racism on Trial: The Chicano Fight for Justice. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003. Print.
Fregoso, Rosa L. The Bronze Screen: Chicana and Chicano Film Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. Print.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands: The New Mestiza = La Frontera. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987. Print.
Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. New York: Knopf, 2005. Print.