BHIP: 19th Century Borderlands Scholars and the Rise of Trump

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Dr. Raúl Ramos

There is no greater irony than celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday on Monday and bearing witness to Donald Trump’s inauguration as our 45th president on Friday.  If King’s name is synonymous to justice and equality, Trump’s name is its antonym.  The Borderlands History blog has yet to make a formal statement on the recent election. As we thought of what to say, everything seemed trite.  So we decided to leave it to others to share their thoughts on the election through a special BHIP series we’ve titled: 19th Century Borderlands Scholars and the Rise of Trump.  We’ve interviewed two well-respected historians that will contextualize and historicize the “Mexican Problem” and it origins in the 19th century, as well as how we can teach against Trump’s policies and continue a long legacy of resistance within the historical profession.

While the president-elect has left no stone unturned, attacking through his vitriolic rhetoric various racial and ethnic groups, women and the LGBTQI community, as a borderlands historian I am deeply concerned by his statements about this region.  The U.S.-Mexico border played a significant role in the presidential campaign, and Trump relied on an imagined national figure: the vicious, unlawful alien crawling across porous our southern border in search of American jobs. But as I sat down with Raúl Ramos and Deena Gonzalez just a week after the presidential election in November 2016, we examined how Trump was merely tapping into a long history of using ethnic Mexicans as scapegoats for a failing economy and crumbling infrastructure.  Social ills have been attributed to this so-called “problematic population” since the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, particularly in the American Southwest, and Trump capitalized on every imagined racist stereotype to win.

We’ve split the series in two. First we’ll hear from Raúl Ramos, Associate Professor of History at the University of Houston, and his take on Trump, the history of ethnic Mexicans in Texas, and teaching against racism in the present and future.  Ramos received his A.B. in History and Latin American Studies from Princeton University in 1989 and his Ph.D. in History from Yale University in 1999.  He is author of Beyond the Alamo: Forging Mexican Ethnicity in San Antonio, 1821-1861 with the University of North Carolina Press, 2008. The following year, his manuscript received the T.R. Fehrenbach Award from the Texas Historical Commission. He is co-editor with Monica Perales of Recovering the Hispanic History of Texas with Arte Público Press, 2010, and his most recent article “Chicano/a Challenges to Nineteenth-Century History,” was published in November 2013 in the Pacific Historical Review.  Ramos was a Fellow at the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University from 2000-2001.

We spoke at length about his last book, Beyond the Alamo, and how identity formation in this frontier area and the convergence of various empires and nation-states in the nineteenth century, help us understand the political positions of ethnic Mexicans and even Native communities today. “We are at a particularly exciting time, because once we take these local, regional, and national histories seriously, we see that they have the ability and the power to rewrite the larger narrative: the larger narrative of American history, in particular,” Ramos explained.  We talked about the power of nineteenth century history and its connections to racial formation in the borderlands. While some historians have described a hardening of racial categories in this time period, Ramos described the malleability of these categories in the borderlands.  However, Ramos explained that histories like his, those that focus on a particular locality and the creation of identity, will become increasingly important as we face political struggles now.  The construction of race at the intersections of class, gender, and sexuality, Ramos suggested “was a much more iterative process [in the borderlands] and its one where the way American colonialism and expansion to this region took place in the nineteenth century did set up structures and a way of relating to each other that we are still dealing with. Its legacy is still around us.” Although racial identification was pliable, the edifices created by the American empire to govern the region in the nineteenth century continue to enforce a racial hierarchy, particularly in regards to ethnic Mexicans and Native peoples in states like Texas, today.

This historical analysis guides Ramos’s approach to teaching and the larger questions asked in his courses. For instance, “Every year when I teach my Chicano history class, which focuses on Chicano history up to 1910, the question that dominates that class is: Is Mexican a race?”  Ramos continued, “We ask that question not in order to get a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, but in asking that question itself we get a better understanding of the way race operates, what power if has, the ways it structures relationships, and the way it becomes imbedded and hidden in other categories.”  The borderlands offers a distinct space to view American racial history.  It complicates the black/white binary of the standard historical narrative, but also expands our knowledge of racial formation in this period by viewing the relational forces that impacted other socially constructed categories of identity in the nineteenth century.  Ramos concludes, “Of course every generation is struggling with that question and what they see is going on in that time, but we also see the power in how that question is addressed and how that question is answered. And that’s what the nineteenth century allows you to do, we can point to it in much more stark relief, so whether you are looking at Laura Gomez’s work in New Mexico in the nineteenth century, she lays out a racial classification system that helps us understand the ways a nation can expand this region, this territory and incorporate new racial subjects.”

The conversation quickly moved to present connections between the creations of nineteenth century racial systems to the ways in which these systems infuse racist actions against ethnic Mexicans today.  In what Ramos called “barely coded language” recent chants of “Build the Wall” shouted by teenagers at football games against schools of predominantly ethnic Mexican students, Ramos declared “here we have that instance where the border itself is a stand-in for racial difference.” Thus, Ramos reflects on the power of nineteenth century borderlands history in the twenty-first and the ways in which historians must make these links between the past and the present.  However, we also talked about the lessons history teaches us about the ability to resist these oppressive racial systems, how historical actors, negotiated, but also vehemently resisted racial categorization. Ramos stated, “It is important to find, and identify, and support alternative networks of power. Not only does that remind you of the power that does exist, but it also points out the ways that the rhetorical force that is looking to disempower people is overplaying that hand as well.”

There is so much more that we spoke about as Ramos effortlessly wove the current despair over Trump’s electoral-college win with politics and identity formation in the nineteenth century borderlands.  I should say that while I was in deep mourning Raul Ramos’s talk along with Deena Gonzalez’s conversation, which you will hear next week, filled me with enthusiasm. We’ve been fighting these battles for centuries and still we thrive. We must be careful, as Ramos warns, not to let the powers that be delineate our ability to resist.

Please tune-in next week for the second part of our series dedicated to understanding the Age of Trump from the perspective of nineteenth century Chicana/o historians of the borderlands. Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Be sure to check out our new Borderlands History Channel on Youtube where we’ll be adding all of our BHIP interviews!!

Note to listeners: With deep disappointment, I must warn our listeners that our recording software was corrupted and that various parts of this audio interview are difficult to listen to due to loud peeping sounds and static (they begin at around minute 50:00).  Also, there are times when our voices overlap, another side-effect of this software issue. We thank you for your patience and hope to continue to bring you good audio quality interviews in the months to come.

Special thanks to Marko Morales for his audio technical editing and Mike Bess for his efforts in uploading our first interview to YouTube!

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