Racial, Sexual, and Geographic Boundaries in the Unruly Borderlands

Endorsed by the Immigration and Ethnic History Society (IEHS) and Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600–2000

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Borderlands; Gender and Sexuality; Immigration and Internal Migration; Latino/a; Oral History; Race; West; Women's History


The borderland is an unruly place where nations, peoples, cultures, and histories overlap and where boundaries are not quite clear. This panel draws on the unruly potential of the borderland to explore moments where Mexican Americans and Native Americans turn to disreputable cultural expressions and sexual practices in their pursuit of control over their everyday lived experiences. Focusing on sites in Nevada, California, and Texas in the early 20th century, this panel explores inter-racial and intra-racial cultural dynamics between and amongst these groups as well as the roles gender and sexuality play in maintaining racial boundaries. Panelists push the geographic and temporal boundaries of borderlands scholarship through studies that explore the relationship between race, gender, and sex. Jedediah Kuhn explores the intertwined discourses of race and sex in a 1920 court case in which two Mexican American men were accused of trafficking two Native American young women. Gerardo Licón examines Pachuco culture in San Antonio, challenging the geographic and temporal boundaries of existing scholarship.

Papers Presented

Transgressing the Racial-Sexual Line: Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and the White Slave Traffic Act

Historians of race in the United States have increasingly examined the roles sex and gender play in the formation and maintenance of racial boundaries. What scholars have left largely unexamined, however, is the role sex plays in relations between minoritized groups as a site where people both reaffirm and transgress racial boundaries. My paper examines the racial-sexual line with a focus on Native American and Mexican American communities in Nevada and California in the early 20th century. Specifically, I examine a 1920 court case in which two Mexican American men were convicted under the White Slave Traffic Act for transporting two Native American young women, recent runaways from Stewart Indian School, across state lines for suspected illicit purposes. By reading court documents, official correspondence, and newspaper accounts through an intersectional lens, my analysis reveals this case to be a dense site where multiple gendered, sexualized notions of race intersect. I argue that examining moments of Native-Mexican American intimacy sheds new light on the sexualized nature of each group’s racialization; specifically, white authorities constructed Native women as sexually naïve and in need of paternalistic protection while constructing Mexican American men as predatory. In conclusion, my case study demonstrates how moments of connection between minoritized groups, moments often ignored in histories focusing on members of a single racial community, reveal new facets of the sexualized nature of racialization.

Presented By
Jedediah H. Kuhn, University of Toronto

Pachucos de San Anto: Pachuco Culture in San Antonio, Texas, 1930–1960

The historiography of Latinx zoot suiters has focused on Los Angeles, California during World War II. My conference presentation broadens the geographical scope of the topic by comparing and contrasting youth culture in San Antonio Texas with the more extensive historical scholarship on Los Angeles. This presentation also broadens the temporal scope of this topic by investigating the cultural subcultures and identities that both preceded and followed pachuco culture in the 1940s. A broadened geographical and temporal scope reveals cross-border influences, distinct manifestations, and evolution of the culture. I argue for a less essentialized, more nuanced, conceptualization of pachuco culture by putting the topic into discussion with the concepts of tirilis, tarzanes, and kalifas which preceded and followed WWII.

Presented By
Gerardo Licón, University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire

Chicana Militant Motherhood: Alicia Escalante and the Multiracial Struggle for Human Dignity

Advocating for the human dignity of poor people was central to Alicia Escalante’s activism as the founder of the East Los Angeles Welfare Rights Organization, one of the first Spanish speaking affiliates of the National Welfare Rights Organization in 1967. Escalante and countless other poor single mothers and families across the country were subject to injustices and social control via the welfare, educational, and justice systems. In the mid to late 1960s she decided to fight back against the multiple structures of oppression that robbed her and her children of their dignity. Her militant identity, militant dignity politics, and militant motherhood is the focus of my paper. Spanning her activism in the Chicano, welfare rights, and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s my paper traces Alicia Escalante’s dignity work at the nexus of these social movements. I argue that Escalante and others she was engaged with politically, practiced and were committed to what I call Dignity Work, which encompassed advocating for the recognition of the human dignity of single poor women and poor people by organizing for their basic human needs and rights at the local and national level. This dignity work included the difficult task of building coalitions across race, class, and gender. Further, it included the practice of a militant dignity politics that centered poor people’s human dignity and often-included strategies of resistance such as direct-action tactics, building bridges across difference, and exercising solidarity with others on the margins of society. Dignity work was also constituted by the daily activities of Escalante and the East Los Angeles Welfare Rights Organization, which included conducting informative community meetings about welfare recipient rights and policies. Moreover, dignity work was also characterized by what some would consider to be mundane and often unacknowledged labor, mothering. Historically women of color have not enjoyed the same privilege as their white sisters when it came to being able to mother their children at home and not work outside for a wage. Further, it was often poor women of color who were the target of social control by means of forced sterilization. Given this reality, I contend that Escalante and women of color who engaged in struggles for economic justice and human dignity practiced a militant motherhood. That is, they militantly advocated for their ability to have and mother their children with access to basic human needs, such as adequate housing, healthcare, nutrition, and education. These militant mothers wanted their labor in the home to be recognized and autonomy over their lives by being able to choose if they would labor in the home or outside of it for a wage. I assert that Escalante and many of the women of color that she was engaged with were at the forefront of early struggles for reproductive justice. As we continue the struggle for the recognition of the human dignity of single mothers and their children within the U.S. the history of Escalante’s dignity work and vision of a different world are more pertinent than ever.

Presented By
Rosie C. Bermudez, University of California, Los Angeles

Deportation as Exile? Latinx Removal and the U.S. Nation-State in the Twenty-First Century

What happens after deportation? What happens after an undocumented Mexican immigrant decides to return to their birth country? As the United States continues to remove an increasing number of undocumented immigrants, communities and people across borders are experiencing the effects of repatriation in a myriad of ways. Drawing from in-depth interviews, this paper seeks to understand what happens to different kinds of people after repatriationthose who are deported by the nation-state and those who are forced to leave the U.S. and those who chose to return to their birth country. Although there are some historical antecedents, particularly the Mexican repatriation campaign of the 1930s, today’s border enforcement and criminalization of undocumented immigrants stands in contrast to earlier time periods. I posit that we cannot understand deportation and return migration independently from one another nor as homogenous processes. Instead, the fault lines that existed in the United States are often reproduced in Mexico. Moreover, national policies in the U.S. and Mexico help to define the kinds of success people accomplish upon their return to Mexico as well as the emotional and psychic ramifications people have to deal with. In this way, the carceral landscape might extend into Mexico as deportees are “exiled” to their birth country and banned for decades from seeing their families in person and living in the country where they grew up.

Presented By
Perla M. Guerrero, Latinx History

Session Participants

Presenter: Rosie C. Bermudez, University of California, Los Angeles
Rosie Cano Bermudez is a Chicana from Southeast Los Angeles and the first in her family to attain a higher education. Her journey through the academy began at East Los Angeles College. She is a UC President’s Postdoc at the University of California, Los Angeles in the department of History. She received her PhD in Chicana and Chicano Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her dissertation “Doing Dignity Work: Alicia Escalante and the East Los Angeles Welfare Rights Organization, 1967-1974,” focuses on the human dignity struggles waged by single Chicana welfare mothers in the 1960s and 1970s. She is currently working on her book manuscript, Dignity Warriors: Alicia Escalante and the Multiracial Coalition for Economic Justice and Human Dignity.

Presenter: Perla M. Guerrero, Latinx History
Perla M. Guerrero is Associate Professor of American Studies and U.S. Latina/o Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of Nuevo South: Latinas/os, Asians, and the Remaking of Place. Her research and teaching interests include race and ethnicity, space and place, immigration, labor, U.S. history, and the U.S. South and has been supported by the Smithsonian Institution and the Ford Foundation. Her second book will be about deportees and returnees in Mexico City and Puebla.

Presenter: Jedediah H. Kuhn, University of Toronto
Dr. Jedediah Kuhn is a limited-term Assistant Professor in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Toronto Mississauga where he teaches in the History and Women and Gender Studies programs. His interdisciplinary historical work examines relationships between Mexican Americans and the Indigenous peoples of California and the Great Basin in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Presenter: Gerardo Licón, University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire
Dr. Gerardo Licón is a historian and a tenured professor in the Latin American Studies program at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. He teaches courses about Latin America, history of Latinos in the United States, and music and dance of Latin America. His research focus is Pachuca/os and Mexican American Youth Culture in the Southwest as well as United States, Mexican, Southwestern, Latina/o, and Cultural History. He has presented papers at the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies, the American Historical Association, the Latin American Studies Association, and the North Central Council of Latin Americanists. Most recently, he published an online article for KCET, which is the Los Angeles version of Public Broadcasting Services (PBS).