Internal Colonialism and the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands: Reflections from a Panel at LASA 2017 in Lima

In his recent groundbreaking book, journalist Chris Hayes characterizes the erratic U.S. criminal justice system as “a colony in a nation,” adding a highly original new voice to the growing body of literature on the modern carceral state.[1] Hayes argues that the system consists of “two distinct regimes…[one] (the Nation) is the kind of policing regime you expect in a democracy; the other (the Colony) is the kind you expect in an occupied land.”[2] As such, the criminal justice system, for Hayes, exists largely as a mechanism created by the state through democratic means in order to control a large portion of the U.S. population—in this case, African Americans, in particular.

This idea that African Americans are a colonized people in the United States is not necessarily a new one. Famed sociologist W.E.B. DuBois wrote of African Americans as a “nation within a nation” as early as 1935; even Richard M. Nixon noted in his 1968 Republican National Convention speech that African Americans “don’t want to be a colony in a nation.”[3] Nonetheless, in casting the criminal justice system as a colony existing inside the borders of the United States, Hayes revives a long-dismissed idea that holds significance on multiple levels, including—as I will suggest here—the relationship between the United States and its border with Mexico as well as the Hispanic population that traces its roots to the North American Southwest.

The idea that ethnic minorities could be colonized, oftentimes in native homelands that exist inside the borders of modern nation-states—which, essentially, is the fundamental essence of internal colonial theory—first gained purchase during the 1960s. One of the first scholars to apply this idea to interethnic relations was the Mexican sociologist Pablo González-Casanova, who focused on the abuses that Indians suffered at the hands of Spaniards and criollos in Mexico. One of the first scholars to apply internal colonialism in an effort to explain the oppression of Mexican Americans was the sociologist Joan Moore in a 1970 article; two years later, another sociologist, Robert Blauner, utilized the framework in order to explain the oppression of ethnic minorities in the United States more broadly. Finally, famed Chicano historian Rodolfo Acuña used internal colonialism in the first edition of his now-classic survey text, Occupied America.[4]

Internal colonialism’s popularity among sociologists as well as historians, however, quickly faded. Part of this stemmed from more empirically based critiques of the idea, such as that of Gilbert G. González, who in a 1974 article argued that Chicanos did not constitute a nation given that they held no contiguous territory and lacked a national economy; thus, they could not exist as a colonized people. More recently, social historians’ desires to represent the lived agency of oppressed groups has also contributed to a shift away from finding any widespread utility in internal colonialism.[5]

Nonetheless, a small but seemingly growing number of scholars is once again utilizing internal colonialism with particular regard to the relationship between the United States, the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, and the millions of ethnic Mexicans who call that region home. Leading this group is historian John Chávez of Southern Methodist University, who has written widely on the subject and who also recently assembled a panel of historians to promote the utility of internal colonialism for understanding borderlands history at the 2017 Latin American Studies Association in Lima, Peru.[6] The rest of this post will provide a summary analysis of the panelists’ discussion in order to provide a window on how internal colonialism might be useful in raising questions about U.S.-Mexico borderlands history, not to mention some of the latest applications of the model as reflected by three works-in-progress.[7]

John Chávez’s paper, “Ethnic Mexicans, Indigeneity, and Internal Colonialism in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands” offers some innovative perspectives on internal colonialism. Chávez grounds his analysis of internal colonialism in the borderlands by emphasizing the concept of “homeland,” which, for ethnic Mexicans, stretches up from modern-day Mexico to include much of the U.S. Southwest, or, the territory lost by the Mexican state at the conclusion of the U.S.-Mexico War in 1848. Chávez argues that this homeland—as well as ethnic homelands, in general—are often imprecise due to their inclusion of ethnic settlements as well as the geographic demarcations of national politics or even the complex subtleties of international diplomacy. Mexican Americans, in particular, are native to the North American Southwest due to historical ties with American Indians as well as Spaniards dating back to the colonial period.

For Chávez, casting the North American Southwest as a colonized space inside of U.S. borders is helpful because it complicates oftentimes oversimplified arguments that Mexicans do not have proper claims to residency or citizenship in the United States. Chávez utilizes the place of his mother’s birth, California, to prove this as well as to show the complex nature of internal colonialism. Mission Indians in California intermixed with Spaniards to produce a detribalized mestizo class, who became the majority citizens in California after Mexico achieved its independence from Spain in 1821. A second cycle of colonialism occurred when the United States invaded California during the U.S.-Mexico War, leading to the eventual domination of the natives and mixed groups in yet another new social hierarchy.

Ultimately, the importance of all of this for Chávez is rather personal: he and his mother are related to the native Tongva of California, meaning that they “belong to a mestizo people constantly regarded as foreign in the U.S.” Given that the media as well as the U.S. educational system generally cast ethnic Mexicans as recent immigrants to the United States—more so than their European-immigrant counterparts—Chávez concludes his analysis by demonstrating that the tracking of mitochondrial DNA demonstrates not only their indigeneity to the region but also the status of ethnic Mexicans in the North American Southwest as people having long been colonized in their own homeland.

My own paper, “Agricultural South Texas as an Internal Colony of the United States,” argues two things: first, that the stretches of South Texas between the Nueces River and the Río Grande that are devoted to agriculture—primarily, the Lower Río Grande Valley—became colonized by Euroamericans after the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848; and second, that the Valley itself is still an internal colony of the United States today.

My purpose in presenting these arguments was simply to explore what I consider to be the persistence of internal colonialism in the Valley during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries as opposed to simply exploring its historical antecedents, which I have written on elsewhere. The nexus of expansion, U.S. imperialism, border controls, wealth polarization, and racial hierarchy led to Euroamericans colonizing this border space during the late 1800s and early 1900s, transfiguring large portions of it from being a space dominated by Tejano ranchers into what I call an “Iowa on the border.” This process accelerated during the first three decades of the twentieth century when land agents promoted the region as an agricultural empire by bombarding farmers in other parts of the United States with pamphlets and other promotional literature, showing that the Valley had one primary exploitable “natural resource”—that of human capital. The resulting dehumanization of ethnic Mexicans in the minds of the new Euroamerican South Texans can be seen through the later establishment of Jim Crow regulations, voter suppression, debt peonage, and a host of other wrongs committed against ethnic Mexicans in the region through the middle of the century.

Although the arrival of the Chicano Movement—with its emphasis on civil rights as well as a sense of the region being a small part of Aztlán, or, the ethnic-Mexican homeland—dismantled much of the repressive colonial mechanisms in the Valley, a case could be made that the region remains an internal colony of the United States. Although the region’s inhabitants enjoy a wide variety of material improvements as well degrees of upward social mobility not known to past generations, the region still ranks among one of the more economically depressed in the United States. President Donald Trump’s calls for a bigger border wall, combined with numerous border checkpoints miles north of the Río Grande, indicate the region’s bureaucratic as well as political, social, and cultural “apartness” from the rest of the United States. Increased numbers of deportations under Presidents Obama and Trump along with some state agents’ suspicious sidelong glances at the corporeal belonging in the United States of any ethnic Mexicans indicate a belief that, for millions of Americans, undocumented immigrants and ethnic Mexicans might not even belong in the Southwestern United States at all.

Finally, historian John Weber has written that the exploitive “South Texas model of labor relations” as seen in the Valley became copied nationwide over the course of the twentieth century;[8] one might also suggest that the neoliberal economic policies that have allowed U.S. corporations to cross the border during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in order to take advantage of cheap Mexican labor serve as an extension of the United States’s longstanding colonial relationship with ethnic Mexicans and Mexico, itself. Human capital remains an exploitable “natural resource” on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border in the early twenty-first century.

Culture, of course, cannot be ignored. Mary Lee Grant’s paper, “Reiterating the Metaphor of the Conqueror: Internal Colonialism in the Art of 20th Century Mexican-American Women,” explores how internal colonialism is reflected by the works of borderlands singer and actress Rosita Fernández and visual artist Consuelo “Chelo” González-Amezcua. These women, argues Grant, lived in an intellectual, spiritual, and creative borderland in which cultural hybridity led to inventive new means of expression. Both women launched their careers before the Chicano Era of the 1960s and 70s; as such, what Grant refers to as “the devaluing lenses of both Spanish and Anglo-American culture” brought themselves to bear in a time period before ethnic-Mexican women could gain anything even remotely close to widespread acceptance in the realms of performance or visual art.

Women like Fernández and González-Amezcua thus had to break loose from a wide variety of stereotypes in order to have voices as artists. In fact, both women used such stereotypes to their advantage. Fernández’s performances in San Antonio during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s stand out as bold and in direct defiance of the ubiquitous mechanisms of state-based colonialism. With her china poblana costume and her dark hair pulled back in a chignon, Fernández boldly proclaimed her Mexicanness during a time of mass deportations, increased border policing, and even pressure from Mexican Americans to demonstrate a sense of belonging by adapting to middle-class Anglo-American culture.

González-Amezcua stood out as a creation of the borderlands, identifying as both Texan and Mexican equally. Only educated through the sixth grade, González-Amezcua produced poetry as well as drawings that she exhibited widely in Texas and Mexico. Despite her success—her art was later accentuated thanks to the Chicano Movement—she struggled throughout life as a candy seller and later as a department store clerk in Del Rio, oftentimes unable to afford to purchase the necessary materials to produce her art. Grant rightly poses the question of whether or not an Anglo woman from the same time period would have had a better chance than González-Amezcua to succeed as an artist. “Perhaps not,” Grant concludes, but she also rightly adds that an Anglo woman would have at least had access to education in a language that she understood while also not having to face endemic ethnic discrimination. Indeed, the creative works of both González-Amezcua as well as Fernández cannot be separated from their status as colonized women, caught in between a variety of worlds and pressures in a borderlands space.

None of the abovementioned papers should be considered the last word on their respective subjects. Indeed, all represent various works in-progress that have not yet faced the rigors of peer review; nonetheless, they all have the same fundamental goal—promoting internal colonialism as a valuable intellectual tool for understanding the recent past in U.S.-Mexico borderlands history. Hopefully other scholars will see the utility of internal colonialism and join the small but growing chorus of scholars in interrogating the many and complicated histories of the borderlands by applying this theoretical model in their own works. Time will tell.


[1] Chris Hayes, A Colony in a Nation (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2017). For some examples of the growing scholarly literature on the carceral state, see, for example, Kelly Lytle Hernández, Khalil Gibran Muhammed, and Heather Ann Thompson, “Introduction: Constructing the Carceral State,” Journal of American History 102:1 (June 2015): 18-24; and, Kelly Lytle Hernández, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771-1965 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

[2] Hayes, A Colony in a Nation, 32.

[3] Ibid., 30, 31.

[4] Pablo González-Casanova, “Sociedad plural, colonialismo interno y desarrollo,” América Latina 6:3 (1963): 15-32; Joan W. Moore, “Colonialism: The Case of the Mexican Americans,” Social Problems 17 (1963): 463-472; Robert Blauner, Racial Oppression in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1972); Rodolfo Acuña, Occupied America: The Chicano Struggle Toward Liberation (New York: Harper and Row, 1972).

[5] John R. Chávez, “Aliens in their Native Lands: The Persistence of Internal Colonial Theory,” Journal of World History 22 (December 2011): 790-791, 795; Gilbert G. González, “A Critique of the Internal Colonial Model,” Latin American Perspectives 1 (Spring 1974): 154-161. For further criticisms of internal colonialism, see, Robert J. Hind, “The Internal Colonial Concept,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 26 (July 1984): 543-568.

[6] John R. Chávez is the leading historian who is working toward promoting internal colonialism’s usefulness to historians. For examples of his work, see, Chávez, “Aliens in their Native Lands;” Chávez, “When Borders Cross Peoples: The Internal Colonial Challenge to Borderlands Theory,” Journal of Borderlands Studies 28:1 (2013): 33-46; and, Chávez, Beyond Nations: Evolving Homelands in the North Atlantic World, 1400-2000 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 163, 164-165, 166. For a few additional recent examples, see, Steven Sabol, “Comparing American and Russian Internal Colonialism: The ‘Touch of Civilization’ on the Sioux and Kazakhs,” Western Historical Quarterly 43:2 (Spring 2012): 29-51; and, Sabol, “The Touch of Civilization: Comparing American and Russian Internal Colonization” (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2017).

[7] Readers will please note that the following papers are all in-progress works that should not be cited.

[8] For more, see, John Weber, From South Texas to the Nation: The Exploitation of Mexican Labor in the Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

Categories: conferences, Essay Series, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

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