Orphans, and

Mexican Immigration and
The Future of Race in America

Gregory Rodriguez
Spain's conquest of Mexico was not a matter of Marx, nor the ecclesiastical powers of the Catholic Church, but a foretaste of Jacques Casanova ... long before his time. The conquistadores had an interest in gold, and silver, and manpower --- but apparently they were most interested in sex.

It is well reflected in the language. In what they called "New Spain," the word was "coger." In Iberia it meant "to get." In Mexico --- still --- it means "to screw." Whatever name you put on it, for the indigenous people, it meant having the women used, and used badly. It also reflected on the invaders. "The colony's high level of miscegenation challenged not only the labor system but also the Spaniards' very claim to authority ... Peninsular Spaniards already looked down on the [criollos], partly because many of the latter had some Indian ancestry."

    Widespread miscegenation "led those at the top of society ... to cling to the concept of racial purity in order to maintain their position of power and authority in society."

For the Indians, too, it all was a matter of life and death ... because of the sicknesses the Spaniards brought with them. "The navigational advances of the Renaissance," says the author, "had unified the disease pools of Europe, Africa, and Asia and unwittingly imported all to America."

    Before the conquest, central Mexico, roughly the size of France, may have had a population as high as 25 million ... By 1600, a mere 1-1/2 million survived.

"The demographic disaster that took place [throughout the Americas] after 1492 is probably without counterpart in the history of mankind."

§     §     §

Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans and Vagabonds is a crackerjack study of Mexican-American interaction, conflicts and history from the 15th Century to the present. It is crammed with facts:

  • In the 18th century, one could obtain from the King of Spain a "Certificate of Whiteness," but "Wealth began to replace race as the primary determinate of social position."
  • "By the first decade of the 19th century, non-whites made up four-fifths of New Spain's population of a little more than six million." Spanish laws in 1812 specified that all --- Indians, mestizos, criollos, and Peninsulares --- were equal under the law.
  • Unlike the United States, slavery was never tolerated in Mexico. Because of this, in the Texas Republic, Mexico and Mexicans were "viewed as threats to slavery." With independence, black slaves began to escape from there into Mexico. The famous landscaper and architect Frederick Law Olmstead accused the Mexicans of fostering slaves' sinful behavior. "They helped them in all their bad habits, married them, stole a living from them, and ran them off everyday to Mexico," he wrote.
  • Because Jim Crow laws were not easy to apply to Mexicans --- too much variation in skin color --- on this side of the border Mexican immigrants were targets of laws dealing with "vagrancy, weapon control, alcohol and drug use, and smuggling." This was, and probably still is, a key method of legal and social control.
  • Mexican-Americans were the first to use lawsuits to fight the concept of "separate but equal." "In 1930, a group of parents in Lemon Grove, California, filed the 'nation's first successful legal challenge' to segregation." The same happened in 1931 in Del Rio, Texas.
  • The successes of Mexican-Americans in the latter part of the 20th century can be attributed to two main factors. (1) The common knowledge that the market for Spanish-speaking people in the United States is enormous: "The collective buying power of Latinos grew to over $171 billion" by 1989;

      To be a consumer was to be wanted; to be wanted was to be equal; to be equal was to be an American at last;

    and, (2) the fact that population growth "was being driven more by procreation than migration."

§     §     §

Rodriguez is an impeccable writer and fact-gatherer. Some of the details are subtle. For instance, I'm interested in the words used over the centuries for what we now call the Mexican-Americans. Early on the caste system dictated words like "pardo," "mulatto," "mestizo," "morisco," and "castizo." More recently it became "coyote" (3/4 Indian, 1/4 Spanish), "pelados" (low-lifes), "pochos" (watered-down Mexicans), "zambos" (anyone with a problem walking), "Oreos" (dark outside, white inside) --- as well as the more recent "Hispanics," "Latinos," and "Chicanos." The latter is, as the author points in a fascinating disquisition on its origins, "a defiant term that identified those who adopted it as sympathetic to the downtrodden."

Obviously Rodriguez could have titled his book Pochos, Coyotes, Pelados, and Oreos. Obviously, and for good reason, he chose not to do so.

--- Carlos Amantea
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH