Racial Baggage
Mexican Immigrants and Race Across the Border
Sylvia Zamora


Contents and Abstracts
Introduction: Immigration and Racial Transformation in America
chapter abstract

Here, I introduce my theoretical contribution, transnational racialization—the notion that racial ideologies are not bound by geopolitical borders but have long traveled across them—to suggest that immigrants begin to engage with the U.S. racial landscape long before they cross the border, and that this has far-reaching consequences for how immigrants navigate race in the U.S. The Introduction also details the research data, methodology, and settings, briefly describing my two field sites in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, and Los Angeles, California. Ultimately, the Introduction makes the case that race is not static but rather an evolving social phenomenon that is forever altered by transnational migration. It also asserts that the way in which immigrants come to see their place in the U.S. racial hierarchy is critical to understanding the future of race in the United States.

1 Race in Mexico: Mestizo Privilege
chapter abstract

Chapter 1 takes the reader "back to Mexico" by reviewing the historical origins of racial thinking in Mexico. Drawing on interviews with migrants and non-migrants, I show that on-the-ground understandings of race, ethnicity, and discrimination in central-western Mexico reflect dominant nationalist ideologies of mestizaje that praise White European elements, marginalize the Indigenous, and situate Blackness as foreign to the nation. I argue that this nationalist ideology of race shapes the way ordinary Mexicans make sense of social inequality and ethnoracial discrimination in their origin society—and that it is distinct from how they imagine race in the U.S. Ultimately, this chapter establishes a fuller understanding of the racial lens through which Mexicans view race in their origin country, thereby laying the foundation for understanding how they "see" and potentially challenge racial hierarchies in the U.S.

2 Racial Border Crossings
chapter abstract

This chapter shows how global U.S. media and social ties with immigrants in the U.S. play a central role in exposing would-be migrants in Mexico to distinctly American racial narratives about discrimination, White-on-Black racism, and the precariousness of illegality and anti-immigrant hostility more broadly. By highlighting how a combination of racial ideologies and practices originating in Mexico and the U.S. shapes Mexicans' preconceptions about U.S. racial dynamics, Chapters 1 and 2 challenge the notion that racial ideas are bound by national boundaries, and argue that Mexicans' preconceptions of racial life in el norte are crucial to understanding broader subsequent experiences of migration and incorporation into U.S. society. Thus, any consideration of how transnational lives impact immigrant incorporation into the U.S. must take these racial remittances seriously.

3 First Encounters with Race in El Norte
chapter abstract

Chapter 3 describes the racial landscape of Los Angeles through the eyes of an immigrant newcomer. I argue that crossing the border into U.S. territory marks the end of mestizo privilege and the beginning of a distinctly American racial journey—one rife with hard lessons about living as a marginalized racial minority with precarious legal status in an anti-immigrant society. I highlight the role of established immigrants who engage in race brokering—the "schooling" of newcomers about the rules of race in the U.S. in shaping newcomers' racial attitudes and, in some cases, helping to reinforce the anti-Black racial baggage they bring from Mexico. These early observations and encounters with the U.S. racial system set the tone for how immigrants navigate subsequent interactions with racial "others," ultimately shaping how newcomers come to view their own place in U.S. society.

4 Settling In: Illegality and the U.S. Color Line
chapter abstract

Chapter 4 takes a deeper look at the racialization experiences of established immigrants and unveils how over time these experiences can cement perceptions of their group's position on the bottom rungs of the U.S. socioracial hierarchy. When viewed through a transnational lens, it is clear that the racialization of the "illegal" immigrant is a distinctly U.S. brand of racialization that, although nonexistent in understandings of inequality in the sending society, features prominently in the transnational racial journey of immigrants—even those who have lived in the U.S. for decades. I argue that this profoundly affects how Mexican immigrants view their status vis-à-vis other groups, particularly U.S.-born Latinos and Black Americans, who come to be reviewed as comparably privileged due to their birthright American citizenship.

Conclusion: From Mestizo to Minority
chapter abstract

In the concluding chapter, I revisit my theoretical contributions and main findings, arguing that immigrants are not clean slates when they arrive in the U.S. Rather, they travel with racial baggage that has implications for how they come to see their racial position in their host society. I further explore the theoretical implications of this study for the possibility of racial alliances between Mexican immigrants (and Latinos more generally) and African Americans. Lastly, I discuss the merits of a transnational approach to race for theorizing how different immigrant groups of color will navigate their unique racialized position in an increasingly diverse America, and what this means for how global migration is reconfiguring race in contemporary U.S. and Mexican societies.