Racial Baggage
Mexican Immigrants and Race Across the Border
Sylvia Zamora



I was born and raised and still live in South Gate, a working-class Latino immigrant community one block from Watts. This was the 1980s and early 1990s, when Watts was predominantly Black and being ravaged by the crack epidemic and ensuing violence, drug addiction, poverty, and hyper police surveillance—a landscape famously depicted in classic films like Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society. Even though our neighborhoods were physically close to each other, they were a world apart socially. The messages I received from my Latino friends and family growing up were clear: do not cross the intersection. It all began to change in the 1990s, when immigrants from Mexico and Central America began arriving in large numbers and settling in Watts and the surrounding areas, eventually turning South L.A. majority Latino.

It was during this demographic transition, when I was in high school, that I got to know Watts more intimately and came to see the similarities between our communities. I visited often with a friend, a fellow Mexican American whose family had been living in Watts for two years. They were one of the only Latino families on her block. We would spend hours on her front porch watching passersby and occasionally walking to the corner liquor store to buy candy. During that time, I took a Chicano/a Studies course (it was the first time being offered in my public high school) and began to develop the language and tools to observe the parallels with my own community: underfunded schools, overcrowded housing, heavy police surveillance, vacant and graffitied storefronts, more liquor stores than healthy food options, and a lot of Black and Brown people struggling to make ends meet. Sure, in Watts I witnessed the occasional conflict between longtime African American residents and Latino immigrant newcomers, but I wondered why such a racial divide existed when, to my budding sociological eye, it seemed as if our social conditions were more similar than different.

One October day, my childhood best friend, Jessica, asked if I wanted to go to a police brutality march in downtown L.A. Wanting to make an adventure of taking public transit on our own, I decided to join her. We left school early—unbeknownst to our parents—and arrived to join a large gathering of protesters. Family members of those unjustly killed at the hands of police held posters displaying photos of their loved ones, chanting, “No justice, no peace!” I couldn’t help but notice that all of the faces on the posters were Black and Brown, and mostly young. I was moved by the collective expression of rage and noticed it bubbling up in me too. I was also inspired by the powerful act of Black and Brown solidarity that I was witnessing.

This was the turning point in my political development.

I have since become fascinated by Black and Brown solidarity movements across time and place. In graduate school, I explored this very topic in my first research study, which examined African American and Latino grassroots coalition-building within a South L.A. nonprofit community organization. I wanted to understand why and how these groups—who always seemed to be pitted against each other in popular discourse—could create and sustain cross-racial coalitions. I found that the framing strategies deployed by coalition leaders were critical to fostering a strong sense of collective identity based on race and place. But in the process of interviewing coalition members, I also discovered that African Americans and Latinos alike held unconscious biases toward each other. Both groups believed these prejudices needed to be dealt with head-on, not despite racial solidarity but for the sake of it.

That same year, news reports of so-called race wars between African Americans and Latinos began to make national headlines. One Los Angeles Times article addressed an incident involving a Latino gang shooting of a fourteen-year-old African American girl in Highland Park, an L.A. neighborhood undergoing dramatic demographic change. The author, a law professor at a prestigious university, went so far as to refer to the shooting as “a manifestation of an increasingly common trend: Latino ethnic cleansing of African Americans from multiracial neighborhoods.” It was a sweeping generalization of Latinos’ racial attitudes toward African Americans. Through my involvement with Black and Brown coalition-building, I knew this characterization was misleading and ran the danger of pandering to White audiences who might come to believe that people of color can be equally racist, thereby absolving themselves of any accountability for dismantling White supremacy.

I knew that if I wanted to understand the complexity and nuances of African American and Latino relations, I would need to take immigrant racial attitudes—and their origins—seriously. I enrolled in courses on race, ethnicity, and immigration and delved into sociological literature on race relations to better understand what I was seeing on the ground in South L.A. The traditional frameworks and theories I came across, such as racial threat theory, which centers Black-White relations, did not apply to immigrant attitudes toward groups who also experience racial marginalization. As I thought about the ways that Mexican immigrants learn about the U.S. racial stratification system, I realized that I needed to first go back to the roots of their racial thinking: Mexico. That was when this book was born.

Racial attitudes are messy, especially when they involve people of color who carry the weight of European colonialism and U.S. imperialism. More often than not, our views and opinions about different racial and ethnic groups run the spectrum from favorable to unfavorable and everything in between. Our racial perceptions can change over time and can be contradictory. As the daughter of Mexican immigrants, I was attuned to the anti-Black narratives that run rampant in our communities. I observed how much family members and others in my immigrant community coveted light skin and eyes. The ideology of blanqueamiento (Whitening) is embedded deep in our psyches. My own mother, who has beautiful dark skin, full lips, and thick wavy hair, would warn me to stay out of the sun lest I turn “negra.” Even as a kid, I thought that these warnings didn’t sit well. When I made my way from predominantly Brown South Gate to predominantly White Smith College, my resistance against Whiteness was amplified: I deliberately got as much sun as possible, to see just how dark my skin could get. (I get pretty dark, it turns out!).

When I started this research a decade ago, I was specifically interested in Mexican immigrants’ racial perceptions of African Americans. As I engaged more deeply with this book project, it became clear that I could not disentangle Mexicans’ constructions of Blackness from hegemonic ideologies of Whiteness, mestizaje, Indigeneity, and race more broadly. Nor could I treat racial formation in the Mexican context as analytically distinct from racial formations in the U.S. To this end, I drew great insight from the conceptual and empirical work of scholars who pioneered comparative social science research on race across the Americas—Jorge Duany, Jose Itzigsohn, and Anani Dzidzienyo; and including my own mentors, Ginetta Candelario, Edward E. Telles, and the late Mark Q. Sawyer, among others—who shaped my own theorization of Mexican transnational experiences of race. In the end, I learned that the immigration experience itself transforms how migrants come to see race, identity, and their group position within overlapping and evolving U.S. and Mexican racial hierarchies. This is the personal, political, and intellectual point of departure from which my book Racial Baggage begins.