Reading Response: Becoming Mexican American… by George Sanchez

Considering the title, Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945, one would assume that George Sanchez’s book would be a history about the growth and development of a unique Chicano culture in Los Angeles between 1900 and 1945. However, the scope of the book becomes increasingly far-flung as the narrative progresses, much to the detriment of the author’s stated intention of examining cultural change in Los Angeles. Instead, Sanchez’s book shallowly covers multiple topics and areas, from labor history to radio programming, from rural villages in central and northern Mexico to El Paso, TX and points beyond, leaving the reader with the impression that much ground has been covered, but not in detail on any given subject. Despite the wide range of topics covered, Sanchez uses a variety of records and information from numerous fields of research to support his arguments, including Mexican consular documents, American government records, transcripts of oral testimonies from Mexican immigrants, and letters to provide a broad understanding of the factors that impacted Mexican immigrants to Los Angeles and their descendants.

One of the areas where Sanchez’s work excels is in his depiction of the social and economic interconnectedness of Mexico and the southwestern United States as a result of pre-existing Mexican communities in the area as well as through labor migration that led to cyclical and, eventually, additional permanent settlement. Part I of Becoming Mexican American… describes this process and is, in effect, a transnational historical narrative. Sanchez states that he wants to show that the culture that immigrants brought with them to the United States was not stagnant, but was rather a vibrant, complicated amalgamation of rural and urban mores that developed in Mexican villages in in the second half of the 19th century. However, this does not come through clearly in his writing. For one, the implication is that rural laborers somehow came to possess urban culture while migrating along rail lines for work. Additionally, it implies that laborers arrived in Los Angeles with a fully formed and static culture. It seems more reasonable to say that the process of cultural change that took place in Los Angeles was a continuation of what began in small rural villages in central and northern Mexico.

Sanchez’s comparison of labor migration within Mexico and the United States builds on the idea of regional interconnectedness. He demonstrates this primarily through his discussion of the Mexican rail system that connected northern Mexico more fully to the U.S. than it did to the rest of the country. The opportunities for labor created by the rail system pulled manual laborers away from their homes to travel and work on the rails. As they reached areas closer to the border with the U.S., they saw opportunities to perform the same labor for higher wages. However, this discussion, along with the highly detailed habits of border checkpoint guards, does not seem highly relevant to the topic of the development of a unique Chicano culture in Los Angeles.

Certainly, the openness of the border led to continued migration into the U.S., part of which created the community in Los Angeles, but why was a third of the narrative devoted to what feels like only partially relevant background information. It would have been more useful if the author had provided a brief overview of this topic and then spent more time explaining what the culture of Mexicans in Los Angeles was and how it developed over time. For example, Sanchez devotes an entire chapter to religion, but never goes further than saying the immigrants practiced what Catholic priests in the U.S. considered “folk Catholicism”. What is folk Catholicism? Exactly what were their beliefs and how did they contrast to mainstream Catholicism? Similarly, why did Sanchez spend so much time describing propaganda to encourage Anglos to move to Los Angeles? Why should we care what a Mexican intellectual who is not a resident of Los Angeles thinks about racial homogeneity in relation to the topic of this work? Also, why does Sanchez treat buying a radio as a special sign of cultural development? Is it not normal for people to be interested in purchasing devices that make their lives more comfortable, like the sewing machines he notes were prominent in rural Mexican households in Mexico?

While Sanchez’s book clearly has a lot to offer in terms of in-depth research about regional migration and labor history, most of what he presents is only coincidentally relevant to the community in Los Angeles and how their view of themselves and their position in relation to other inhabitants in the city changed over time. One is left with the feeling that certain sections of the book were originally meant to be stand-alone articles and that an original, cohesive text was supplemented by partially relevant, sometimes dense, textbook-style prose that was book-ended with an argument to attempt to tie everything together.

Reading Response: Development of Modern American Federal Immigration Control

The authors for this week’s readings have focused on detailing and expanding our understanding of the development of modern immigration control. Erika Lee positions the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act as the primary force driving the creation of federal immigration controls and ideology, politics, and the law of “gatekeeping.” Beth Lew-Williams builds on Lee’s position by discussing the difference between restriction and exclusion, presenting 1888 as the most significant year of change in immigration policy. Hidetaka Hirota shifts the conversation to one with a national perspective by placing the conversation about immigration controls in the context of preexisting state policies and by showing how those policies influenced, created and implemented federal immigration policies. Anna Law, in turn, builds on Hirota’s analysis by showing that pre-antebellum states had directed and meaningful policies regarding migration and freedom of movement, disputing the “open borders” trope she states is common in American immigration literature.

In “The Chinese Exclusion Example: Race, Immigration, and American Gatekeeping, 1882-1924,” Erika Lee focuses narrowly on the West Coast and describes the process of public fears regarding Chinese labor migration. In her analysis, she describes the exclusion of certain groups of Chinese based on economic circumstances. She brings up the idea of “whiteness,” and while she does not elaborate, race seems less relevant here than labor concerns. Chinese migrants were primarily cyclical, returning to China with earned income rather than intending to settle in the U.S. While public concerns on the West Coast did expand to include other Asian immigrants who did intend to settle, the fears that people on the West Coast are shown to have mostly mirror those that Hidetaka Hirota describes in his article, “”The Great Entrepot for Mendicants:” Foreign Poverty and Immigration Control in New York State to 1882,” in which he describes the frustrations Northeasterners felt as they were inundated with European paupers. The desire to exclude those paupers was not based on race, but on the fact that they were not economically self-sufficient.

So, on the one hand, people on the West Coast were facing labor competition, and on the other, people on the East Coast were facing a potential financial crisis resulting from an overflow of poor migrants that would have to rely on state and private aid. The arguments that Beth Lew-Williams presents in “Before Restriction Became Exclusion: America’s Experiment in Diplomatic Immigration Control” support this argument. While her primary purpose is to draw a distinction between a temporary restriction of Chinese labor immigration in 1882 and the actual exclusion of all Chinese immigration after 1888, her analysis supports the focus of public attention on the West Coast on economic, rather than racial, concerns.

In his previously mentioned article as well as in “The Moment of Transition: State Officials, the Federal Government, and the Formation of American Immigration Policy,” Hirota makes the important point that federal immigration law did not appear out of a vacuum. It was not the major break from tradition that Lee and Lew-Williams so heavily emphasized. Hirota’s focus on the role of the New York and Massachusetts in defining what would become federal immigration law and their roles in subsequently enforcing those laws creates a continuity that was previously lacking. His choice in focusing on New York City was reasonable, given that for the time period covered, that was the port of entry for the majority of migrants. Hirota recognizes that West Coast, as well as Northeastern concerns, played a role in shaping federal immigration policies, but he fails to address the impact this has on southern states if any. As Anna Law mentions in “Lunatics, Idiots, Paupers, and Negro Seamen—Immigration Federalism and the Early American State,” the North and South had different economic concerns regarding immigration and free movement of peoples. This was, however, somewhat beyond the scope of what he intended to focus on and would likely have been more detrimental than helpful to the point he was trying to prove.

 

Reading Response: Historiography of “Whiteness” and race in the United States

“Irish-American Workers and White Racial Formation in the Antebellum United States,” which is chapter 7 of The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, by David Roediger, “Whiteness, Racism, and Identity,” by Barbara Fields and “Whiteness Studies: The New History of Race in America,” by Peter Kolchin all address the development of ideas of racial identity in the United States. Fields’ work incorporates ideas from Roediger’s earlier book, while Kolchin in turn incorporates their ideas, along with those of Matthew Frye Jacobson into his critique of whiteness studies up to that point. The works reviewed were all written in period covering roughly 10 years, between 1991 and 2002, and are, according to Kolchin, representative of the first decade of a new type of literature addressing the concept of whiteness in American history.

The chapter from David Roediger’s book focuses on the Irish immigrant experience and the racism that they faced. Roediger argues that the Irish were not seen as white and implies that they were considered black. He couches this argument in terms of class conflict and attempts to establish that the Irish differentiated themselves from blacks by pushing blacks out of the labor markets they occupied while simultaneously trying to add respectability to those positions by changing the terminology used. It seems as if Roediger was arguing that the Irish were primarily responsible for their inclusion in the idea of “whiteness”. Roediger also falls into the trap of racial essentialism by claiming that the Irish were predisposed to racist attitudes because of their adherence to Catholicism and their dislike for the British.

Barbara Fields challenges Roediger’s idea by stating that it is impossible for a group that is being subjected to racism to negotiate that racism; they can only challenge it and attempt to navigate the obstacles that are created as a result of the construction of a racist idea about who and what they are. In other words, Fields sees whiteness and race as a cover for racism, because it defines categories and places people in them regardless of their personal identity and in spite of their agency. A portion of Roediger’s work actually supports Fields’ later argument, because he notes the role of the Democratic party in redefining the role of the Irish in American society. The Democratic party recognized the Irish population as an important voting bloc that they could use to maintain power. While the Irish had positioned themselves to be more easily accepted as being on par with native American whites, it wasn’t until they were seen as useful politically that they were granted an equal status.

Further, Roediger seems to premise his work on the idea that the Irish were not seen as white. However, as Peter Kolchin later points out, this is not the case. The Irish were admitted into the country as “whites” and, while the Irish were looked down on, it isn’t necessarily because their color was in question. Kolchin believes that there were other factors that were more important, like the perceived conflict between Irish Catholicism and Protestant American Republicanism. It would also be reasonable to believe that Irish immigrants, coming from a preindustrial lifestyle, and admittedly being called savages, were considered educationally and technologically inferior. They had no skilled labor to speak of and, according to Roediger, performed the most menial work available. It is as if an informal caste system had developed, in which black Americans and the Irish were vying for the bottom rung.

Roediger asks a related question that is somewhat odd, in that the answer should be evident. Why did the Irish identify blacks as the group they should compete against rather than other white ethnic groups? Fields states that whiteness equals white supremacy and European immigrants become white by adopting white supremacy, which results in material rewards. So, the Irish would have attempted to become white by adopting white supremacy. Roediger’s work shows that the Irish did proactively adopt racist rhetoric at the least. However, this contradicts Fields’ own argument about people not having any agency at all in their racial designation. An easier explanation might be that water takes the path of least resistance. Not only were black Americans easy targets who could be attacked with little fear of repercussion, they were directly competing with the Irish for jobs.

Sexual relations are a topic that comes up frequently in Roediger’s reading. He focuses heavily on the fact that biracial sexual relations were looked down on and came up frequently as a “danger” of racial equality, but he does not go into detail (in the chapter reviewed, at least) as to why these sexual encounters were thought to pose such a great risk to American society. The answer becomes clear in Kolchin’s work, where Lincoln indicates that, while blacks should be entitled to the fruit of their labor, he felt that they were inherently inferior. This idea remains prevalent in some segments of society today, which is ironic given the myth of the United States as a “melting pot.” How does a pot of varied ingredients melt together without mixing?

Of the works covered, Kolchin’s raises the most important points in terms of how whiteness and race in general should be addressed in the future. Should race as a category be abolished, or should whiteness be redefined, or should white as a category be abolished and what would that mean for those people that traditionally identify that way? Would abolishing white as a category just create space for another category with the same meaning to take its place? And how does one modify the attitudes of just one group of people? An interesting path of research would be to look at what it meant to be “white” at specific periods of American history and see if those ideas match up with what people thought it meant to be American.

Reading Response: Kathleen Conzen et al., “The Invention of Ethnicity…”

Kathleen Neils Conzen et al, “The Invention of Ethnicity: A Perspective from the U.S.A.”

In “The Invention of Ethnicity: A Perspective from the U.S.A.,” Conzen and her colleagues are attempting to construct a new conceptual framework for understanding ethnicity that builds off of the earlier work of Werner Sollors. Sollors believes that ethnicity is a “collective fiction” that is essentially invented. Conzen and her colleagues agree with Sollors that ethnicity is constructed, but not that it is complete fiction. Rather, they see ethnicity as a product of “communal solidarities, cultural attributes, and historical memories” (Conzen, et al., 4-5).

In order to prove their point, the authors use three case studies to demonstrate support for their theory that ethnicity is constantly reconstructed. The authors successfully show that there is nothing primordial, in the sense that they are unchangeable, about ethnicities. They are malleable and new expressions of ethnicity, at least in the American context as presented by the authors, are consistently reconstructed in reaction to external pressures or events. In doing so, Conzen and her colleagues demonstrate that expressions of ethnicity in the United States, while sometimes assuming symbols from their homelands, are uniquely American.

The authors also show that immigrant ethnicities have consistently emulated each other or presented their best imagined attributes in order to become respected in society. An interesting problem in the article, though not necessarily with the authors’ work, is that ethnic posturing of supposed positive contributions to society seems to have less to do with the successful integration into American society than the acquisition of wealth and political power does. This becomes apparent when the authors note that the Italian community was able to reposition itself in society, by demanding the establishment of Columbus Day as a Federal holiday and pressuring media outlets to stop referring to Italians as gangsters, only after they had become financially and politically powerful in American society (Conzen, et al., 31).

One of the most important contributions of Conzen and her colleagues’ article is the fact that they present the whole history of American society as being engaged in this process of constant ethnic redefinition. They show that after the revolution against Britain, an Anglo-Saxon Protestant identity was defined in order to maintain a functional society across States with different cultural and national backgrounds. This reinforces the authors’ point that ethnicity is built, fades and is rebuilt in order to meet peoples’ needs, not just by immigrants, but by the supposedly dominant cultural element in the country as well. There is no monolithic American culture that immigrants must emulate in order to become American. The authors show that ethnicities trade values and ideals and are constantly defining themselves and each other.

By complicated an overly simplistic narrative about ethnicities and assimilation into American society, the authors have opened the possibility for a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be an American. Viewing immigration and belonging in America through the lens of ethnic identities that are constantly being redefined clears away the mythology of a monolithic Anglo-Saxon super-ethnicity that immigrant ethnic groups must join. We are left with new questions, as well. Are there essential qualities or ideals that one must subscribe to in order to be American, or is what it means to be American a constantly shifting definition? Another avenue that could be explored using the concept of ethnicity presented by the authors is the fluidity, or lack thereof, of traveling between ethnic groups. This is touched on by the authors, but they focus their analysis on the behavior of ethnic groups as a whole, rather than the transition of a person from one group to another.

The Great Nanjing Massacre, Zi Jian Li, 1992

Reading Response re: The Nanjing Massacre

Image (above): The Great Nanjing Massacre, Zi Jian Li, 1992

 

Mitter, China’s War with Japan: 119-140.

Primary Source: “The Rape of Nanking: Bearing Witness, The Nanjing ‘Murder Race,’” in The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection (1999): 324-30.

Mark Eykholt, “Aggression, Victimization, and Chinese Historiography of the Nanjing Massacre,” in The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography (2000): 11-69.

Takashi Yoshida, “A Battle over History: The Nanjing Massacre in Japan,” in The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography (2000): 70-132.

 

The readings for this week center on the events that happened in Nanjing in 1937-1938 when the Japanese Army took control of the city. The Rape of Nanjing, or Nanjing Massacre, was an exceptional event in the war between Japan and China, not only because of the scope of death, destruction and trauma inflicted on the population, but also because of the impact the event has had on the national memories of both China and Japan. The event has become a symbol more than a real event, a tool used to express feelings of victimization and growing strength or, on the other side, a key battlefield in the definition of post-war Japanese identity.

One of the most interesting debates regarding Nanjing is why it happened in the first place, and this is unfortunately one of the debates that has received the least attention. Mitter presents some possible reasons, but they reveal an assumption that the Japanese military was out of control. This plays on the idea that there was a break down in control of the military by the civilian administration. The introduction to the primary source, on the other hand, posits the massacre as a preplanned and deliberate military policy. Eykholt somewhat supports this by stating that the idea of the military being out of control isn’t supported by the facts. The nature of the reported killings and the organized lootings speak to coordinated action. This seems like a more reasonable approach to the situation.

This, however, brings up the problem of responsibility. Who is responsible for what happened? Was blame placed where it should have been? The War Crimes trials, according to Eykholt, focused on American interests in the Pacific and some of the evidence may or may not have been accurate. It seems to have become a symbol for the entire conflict between the two nations and, like Eykholt and Takashi both argue, guilt and blame have dominated the discussion, preventing a real analysis of the events.