Racial Baggage
Mexican Immigrants and Race Across the Border
Sylvia Zamora



Immigration and Racial Transformation in America

MARTIN, A FIFTY-TWO-YEAR-OLD Mexican immigrant with thirty-two years of experience living in Los Angeles, recounts a life in Mexico where racism, according to him, did not exist. “Racism in Mexico? Personally, I don’t think so,” he retorted to my question about whether he had ever felt discriminated against in his home country. “Racism is when you don’t like somebody because they’re Black or White or from another country. But why wouldn’t you be friends with everyone [in Mexico]? We are all Mexican.”

In stark contrast to Martin’s description of Mexico as a country free of racial conflict is American society, which he came to see as rife with racism. Growing up in a small town on the outskirts of Guadalajara, Mexico, Martin was fascinated by the stories of the United States that his padrino (godfather), Jose, would tell. Now in his seventies, Jose left Mexico as a young boy to start a new life in San Bernardino, California, when Martin was just a baby. During one of his padrino’s many visits to Jalisco, Martin overheard him talking with his compadre about the rigid racial divide in 1960s Jim Crow America:

He [Jose] would say that there are major differences between the races. There are Mexicans, African Americans, and Anglos. Back in those days, they [Anglos] didn’t want the races to mix. Not even on buses, restaurants, or anywhere. They would even designate separate spaces for themselves. On the bus, half was for them and the other half for everyone else. African Americans couldn’t go into the nice restaurants, much less us Mexicans. There was a lot of racism.

Over the years, Martin’s padrino would relay countless stories of the American race system. Racial segregation and the idea that race determined where people could live or dine especially intrigued Martin. Back then, he had not yet ventured outside his racially homogenous town, as he saw it, much less crossed the border to el norte. “These stories,” he remembered, “planted a seed [in me]. They never left me.”

The United States Martin encountered in 1982 was in the midst of dramatic racial and political transformation. Economic restructuring, growing unemployment, gang violence, and heavy police surveillance made life in Los Angeles particularly challenging for new arrivals.

When I first got here . . . I would just sleep and go to work and back. There were lots of Black people in the neighborhood. My uncle would tell me, “Be careful with the [Black] neighbors. It’s best if you keep your head down and avoid any problems.” I didn’t want to bring any attention to myself because I didn’t have papers and was afraid of getting pulled over by the police, so I did what he told me and avoided contact with Black people. . . . When my uncle told me to watch out for the Mexican neighbors, I didn’t understand. I would ask him, “But why, tio? They’re the same race as us.” Yeah, they were Mexican, but they were born here, and in those days there were lots of gangs. Instead of helping us out, gang members would try to mess with anybody who had just arrived from Mexico.

Martin is one of the seventy-five Mexicans I interviewed who, over the course of their lives and migration experiences, learned to navigate race, identity, and illegality within a transnational social space. Given that Mexican immigrants—one of the oldest and largest streams of migrants to the U.S.—have long maintained strong transnational ties, this book explores how the immigration experience changes not only immigrants themselves but also those who remain in Mexico. Or, to put it another way, how does migration to the U.S.—a nation long defined by chattel slavery, Jim Crow segregation, anti-immigrant nativist xenophobia, and race riots—transform Mexicans’ understanding of race and inequality in both home and host countries? How are immigrants influenced by U.S. racial ideologies even before they migrate? And what are the implications of the racial baggage they bring with them to the U.S. for evolving race relations in their communities of settlement? Based on the experiences and perspectives of Mexicans in Guadalajara, Jalisco, and Los Angeles, California, this book brings attention to a transnational theorization of race that considers how racial ideas and practices travel across geopolitical borders to influence the racial thinking and practices of individuals “here and there” and, in the process, generate new experiences of racial difference, belonging, and citizenship for those who migrate. In doing so, it aims to counter the “methodological nationalism”—that is, the idea that the nation-state is the natural container of analysis—that permeates much of the American sociological literature on race and immigration (Wimmer and Glick-Schiller 2002, 302).

In our highly globalized world, people, capital, and technologies move across borders with unprecedented ease, but so do sociocultural values, ideas, and customs—all of which are highly racialized. American notions of race regularly make their way into millions of Mexican households via Hollywood film and television and depictions of life in America as portrayed by immigrants during phone calls and social media messaging. Racial Baggage is a story of cross-border movement not only in terms of individuals’ physical migration but also of racial migration—that is, the back-and-forth of racial ideologies, images, discourses, and practices across time and place. My interviews with Mexican non-migrants in Guadalajara and Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles reveal that they are regularly exposed to dominant U.S. racial ideologies in Mexico long before they migrate. As such, this book reflects the understanding that migrants’ “racial baggage” affects how they navigate the American racial system and come to understand their place within it.

Mexico and the United States have been profoundly intertwined economically, politically, and socially for more than a century. Mexican transnational migration, as well as return migration, precedes the existence of a physical border, giving way to a long-established and rich transnational connection. Many immigrants who settle across the U.S. maintain strong ties to hometown associations and churches, sending economic remittances to loved ones and returning to visit their homelands for annual fiestas. While we know that these transnational endeavors have a powerful impact on the economic, political, and social landscape of the communities the migrants leave behind (see, for example, Duquette-Rury 2019), we know less about how migrants’ social ties to home facilitate racial remittances and, in the process, refashion the meaning of race in the sending community. We know even less about how the racial baggage that immigrant newcomers bring with them to the U.S. affects how Mexicans perceive racial “others” in their new society and their own place within the country’s racialized stratification system. Throughout this book, I argue that any consideration of immigrants’ transnational lives must take seriously the way this racial baggage may shape how they see their place in the U.S. socioracial hierarchy.

Race in Mexico and the U.S. has manifested itself quite differently in policies and everyday life, yet most Americans know little about race in Mexico and even less about how Mexican immigrant newcomers reconcile the vastly different racial contexts of their home and host countries upon migration to the U.S. (Moreno Figueroa 2008; Moreno Figueroa and Saldívar Tanaka 2016). The U.S. is historically defined by its long-standing Black-White color line rooted in a racial ideology of hypodescent, or the one-drop rule, in which the White category was deemed pure and racially mixed individuals were relegated to a lesser status. In contrast, Mexican society is dominated by mestizaje ideology and social practices that hail a particular racial mixture and work to mask racial difference and discrimination. Simply put, to many Mexicans, the U.S. epitomizes a racist nation, while Mexico is (falsely) seen as a nation free of racism.

When Mexicans leave their country for the U.S., they leave behind their mestizo privilege, one defined by a strong sense of national belonging rooted in their citizenship and racial embodiment of the “ideal” Mexican. Upon arrival, newcomers undergo a uniquely American process of racialization. Those who arrived in Los Angeles, where my fieldwork took place, found that their Mexicanness instantly cast them as simultaneously a racialized minority and legal outcast. Relegated to the bottom rungs of the racial hierarchy, migrants encountered a newly subordinated status they did not contend with in Mexico. Indeed, it is precisely their mestizaje—that which conferred privilege in the Mexican context—that has historically deemed them an inferior “mongrel” race in America (Gómez 2015). They are criminalized as “illegal” and are subject to devastating effects of legal violence and political exclusion (Menjívar and Abrego 2012). Almost overnight, Mexican newcomers arguably become among the most vulnerable and exploitable underclass in their new society (Massey 2014). The Mexico-U.S. border, then, effectively becomes the site where, upon entry, newcomers take on this newfound racialized subjectivity.

Over time, immigrants attempt to make sense of how their new society sees them and, in turn, how they see themselves. The Mexican migrants I spoke with came to understand their “new” racial and legal status in relation not only to White Americans but to other subordinated groups, like Black Americans and U.S.-born Latinos, whom they come into greater contact with in their neighborhoods and workplaces. In this book, I argue that immigrant newcomers learn to define race in a way distinct from both the color-conscious hierarchy of Mexican society and the Black-White binary prevalent for much of U.S. history. In the process, their stories demonstrate that race is not static but rather an evolving social phenomenon forever altered by immigration.