By Blanca Garcia-Barron, Doctoral student, Department of History, University of Texas at El Paso
This week at Borderlands History Blog we’re excited to be featuring posts celebrating the career and scholarship of Dr. Laura Gómez whose book, Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race celebrates ten years. We asked Blanca Garcia-Barron to write about Dr. Gómez’s recent talk at UTEP’s Department of History. Later this week, on Thursday, we’ll be publishing Lina’s interview with Dr. Gómez as the next episode of the Borderlands History Interview Project!
Reading to a packed classroom of students, faculty, and community members at the University of Texas at El Paso, Dr. Laura Gómez focused on the overarching themes of Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race. She spoke of traditional interpretations of New Mexico history as exceptional, much like U.S. history, and her book pushes back against this idea. New Mexico serves as a microcosm of the trajectory of the history of race in the U.S. Its racial dynamics established much of the legal trajectory of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the United States later in the twentieth century. She also discussed how occupying multiple spaces is embodied in the idea of “double colonization.” Indigenous and native Mexicans first experienced colonization by the Spanish and then a second colonial experience in what became “the Southwest” by white colonial settlers. Dr. Gómez asked us to reconsider American racial ideology of the nineteenth century. She went on to say that the extensive racism in the American Southwest intersects with that of the racist ideology of the North and South. These ideologies should not be treated separately, but rather as converging ideas working together that continue to shape racism in the U.S.
Another point that Dr. Gómez emphasized is that Manifest Destinies reached audiences beyond academia. She spoke about federal judge Jack B. Weinstein citing her book in a case where a Latina mother sued on behalf of her son over lead poisoning, where he ruled that her son’s constitutional rights were violated. She credits the success of her book in part to Albuquerque’s high schools adding it to their reading lists. She believes that this is much a cause to the expanding audiences that are demanding Latino/Hispanic histories. Due to the shifting demographics of Latinos, where Mexicans account for the majority, demand for books like Manifest Destinies is not only part of her success, but accounts for the growing number of programs dedicated to Critical Race Theory and Chicana/Latina Studies. Dr. Gómez credits the younger generation of Latina/o and Mexican American students for putting pressure on universities for the inclusion of these programs.
Ten years ago, she wrote this book at a seminal point in Modern U.S. History. Her work highlighted the history of nineteenth century Mexicans in New Mexico as simultaneously occupying the legal designation of white while socially treated as non-white. Mexicans after 1848 engaged and negotiated between two different spaces. At the time, in 2008, the election of Barack Obama coupled with the growing political power of Latino-Americans gave credence to the idea that the U.S. inched towards a post-racial society. This ideal of a truly diverse society moving forward from hundreds of years of social and political oppression towards racial minorities seemed to culminate in that election cycle. However, Obama’s banner of progressive “Hope” slowly emboldened those that yearned for an American past where non-whites did not threaten white homogeneity so explicitly as today.
Now that Manifest Destinies is out in its second edition this year, Dr. Gómez’s work comes at another critical time in US history with the Trump presidency. Specifically, the transition of power to the Trump administration asks us to reconsider what the construction and history of race in the U.S. means in today’s society. These themes were precisely on Dr. Gómez’s mind as she gave her talk on campus this month. She emphasized how younger generations of activists, students and scholars of color are changing the face of academia and this point was not lost to those of us who joined her for coffee before her talk. It was incredibly clear that she values the experiences of struggling graduate students. She took the time to listen to our various projects and research interests that were very different from one another, but that she still ultimately connected between race and law. Both the coffee talk and her lecture were a testament to the strong force that Dr. Gómez represents as a Latina scholar working to disrupt not just exceptional narratives of U.S. history, but also to remind Latina/o and Chicana/o graduate students that we belong in academia.