Chicano a Studies History of the Americas Term Paper

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Empire Building in the Americas:

Race, Gender, and Class

Although it is exceedingly common in modern times to imagine that the nations of the Americas as they stand today are the product of a kind of natural societal evolution, the facts are quite different. Indeed, in most of the nations of South (as well as North) America, the bedrock of the legal, economic, and social fabric of each nation is a product of specific, systematic, and deliberate methods of inclusion and exclusion based on factors of race, class, and gender. Some of the best examples of this are contained in the histories of California and Mexico where legal constructs of just what constitutes nationality served to exclude large portions of society from any significant access to power and privilege.

The concept of "nationality" is today, and has been historically, much more than an accident of birth. Indeed, it is simply not a given that anyone born in any particular nation is "allowed" or granted "native" status with all of the legal, social, and economic rights that accompany it. One has but to look at nations like Kuwait, where only a tiny percentage of its citizens are considered Kuwaiti nationals, and are considered so based on family association rather than birth -- or even that its women "nationals" are not allowed a vote to see that nationality is largely based on power rather than a given ideological or physical criteria.

Just as modern day Kuwait clearly illustrates the concept of citizenship or nationality based on membership in a privileged group (in this case based on family origin, tribal ties, gender, and class), so, too, the not-so-distant history of California and Mexico held similar standards of just who could claim nationality (i.e. membership in the powerful class), as well as benefit from that nationality socially, economically, and legally. Further, laws were specifically constructed (just as they are in modern day Kuwait), to enforce those standards and to reinforce ownership of those benefits for the privileged group -- in this case, that group being predominantly white and male.

One excellent work regarding this reality, specifically within nineteenth-century California is the article, Affirmative Action of the First Kind: Social and Legal Constructions of Whiteness and White Male Privilege in Nineteenth-Century California, by Gabriel Gutierrez. In this work, Gutierrez discusses the "preferential treatment and the institutionalization of privilege for white males in nineteenth-century California under Mexican and Euro American governments (14)." Additionally, he explains just how those in power (White males), used "social constructions of whiteness and male privilege" as jumping point from which "legislation, judicial rulings regarding the entitlement, negotiation, and transfer of property, as well as employment opportunities," were established ensuring the entitlement of the dominant group to the detriment of those who did not fall under that social construction of dominance.

Within his work, Gutierrez demonstrates that the above dynamic was prevalent both in the Spanish Mexican period in California, as well as in the following Euro American period. In the Spanish Mexican period, he illustrates such realities as societal pressure to "assimilate" into white cultural society despite actual ethnic background (15), as well as the accompanying behavior of then "exercising dominion over other 'non-whites'(15). Further, he also points out that colonial women also reinforced their (albeit lower) status over the dominated native, Indian, or "non-de razon" women (15).

Thus, Gutierrez points out that within that society, the "whites" and those who aspired to the power and privilege that belonged to the whites sought to reinforce a division between themselves and the "others," aimed at reinforcing an entitlement to the higher levels of privilege and power. He writes, "These class perceptions of individuals were often racialized and generalized into Indian and Spanish categories ....the world views of the respective populations of southern Alta California helped to establish their social position (16)." Of course, as such, the "inferior" group began to be largely socially, and economically marginalized, which only reinforced their susceptibility to legislation like the Constitution of 1812 in which blacks, castas, debtors, servants, unemployed, and those under criminal indictment were stripped of voting rights (17) (the universal representation of nationality and national inclusion and power).

Of course, this dynamic did not end with the beginning of the Euro American period in California. Instead it continued much in the same way where, "whiteness became a unifying consideration between propertied and laboring classes of white men (20)." However, Gutierrez points out that whereas the Spanish Mexican elite focused on the conception of "white" as more of a cultural construct, the Euro American elite began to implement ideas of "separateness" based on color alone (22). Further, one can clearly see that both systems of white domination personified themselves in institutionalized (and legal) measures of land distribution, ownership and transfer of land and other "property" or assets (24). This is particularly true (and well illustrated) in the practice of conquest and "settlement" of indigenous or non-white groups, aimed both at differentiating and separating the groups based upon power and privilege, as well as restricting access to the economic and political privilege of the ruling white class.

This kind of domination based on race and class is also well illustrated in Richard Warren's work, Mass Mobilization verses Social Control: Vagrancy and Political Order in Early Republican Mexico. In this work, Warren discusses the concept of "vagrancy" in the early 1800's in Mexico as a crime not surprisingly committed by individuals of non-white heritage. It also discusses the rise of the Masonic Lodge as a seat of assembly and power for the white male elite, which eventually split into an even more powerful groups (based on power gained from assembled voting practices) (44). According to Warren, these political groups which had gained political power over the capitol, sought to implement strong anti-vagrancy laws which, not surprisingly, were aimed mostly at non-white males, who were, ironically, stripped of the very opportunities (education, employment, financial resources) that would remove their vagrant status as a result of racist political and economic policies and societal practices. Thus, instead of the more obvious "white" vs. inferior non-white, the power/privilege equation shifted to "decent folk" vs. "non-decent" or vagrant criminals. Of course, it was the same issues of white or non-white that produced the non-decent vagrant, but in this way the racial division could be cloaked in a thin veil of morality and "good behavior" (47).

Finally, in Antonia I. Castaneda's work, "Sexual Violence in the Politics and Policies of Conquest: Amerindian Women and the Spanish Conquest of Alta California, the author focuses more clearly on how race and gender combined to serve as criterion barring the rights of citizenship, and subjected those without those rights to sexual violence as a result of their loss (or denial) of power. Interestingly, as Castaneda observes, the "powers that be" at the time, namely the leaders of the missions, were dismayed at this practice, not, so much due to moral outrage, but rather due to the fact that conversions and its accompanying allegiance was needed as insurance against invasion by other European would-be colonizers (19).

Interestingly, what seems to be of issue in Castaneda's piece is that although laws were enacted against the abuse of Indian women (again, perhaps for selfish reasons), the laws were almost entirely disregarded, or interpreted in favor of the white male perpetrators (25). Further, as an act of conquest, the author asserts that rape was "an act of power" aimed at reinforcing the status of the white male over the non-white Indian female. Thus both race and gender are represented in the division between the powerful white ruling class and the non-white, all the more apparent in the gender-magnified low status of non-white women -- specifically in the unfairly lax prosecution of the crime as interpreted by white judges.

In short,…[continue]

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