My Project

My research explores the U.S.-Mexico borderlands as a transnational site of racial identity construction in the early nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In my dissertation, “By Land and by Sea,” I show that Indigenous sovereignty sometimes held sway over Spanish, Mexican, and American colonialism. These discreet power arrangements, I argue, had profound repercussions for identity configuration among Indigenous, Mexican, and Chicanx people. Through this perspective, my research seeks to recast the meaning of the borderlands as a place where Indigenous control over waterways, what I term “water sovereignty,” helps us better understand the interactions of indigeneity and race as they configured borderlands Mexican and Chicanx identities. 

In my dissertation, I read race as a historically legible, cross-border category intersected by questions of water sovereignty and power. Indigenous authority over water sources often meant control over daily life in the decisions to settle and create families and where to forage for food in times of challenge and through successive conquests. Water and power were also central to how Indigenous persons viewed themselves, in what scholars understand as “identity.” Indigenous communities accumulated knowledge and adapted to Baja California’s shifting waterscapes at the same moment their communities grappled with non-native encroachment of ancestral lands. The adaptive semi-nomadic Indigenous customs made it difficult for colonial and national bodies to incorporate the region and its Indigenous peoples as subjects. Semi-nomadism also made visible how late-imperial attempts to create new racial categories of mestizos furthered the erasure of indigeneity. And, while the region’s colonization could not yet be anchored in a distinct mestizo working class, a blueprint of mestizaje was inscribed for future racialization projects. When the Mexican state used the discourse of indigenismo (indigeneity) to erase and dispossess native peoples from their ancestral lands and to marginalize Indigenous Mexicans further, the United States used the explicit language of racial exclusion to establish strict hierarchies marking Indigenous border people as foreigners in their own land. 

The consequences of this new racial regime in the United States drew legal and geographical distinctions between transnational Indigenous peoples and Mexican-origin communities. For example, Indigenous Mexicans—treated as a mobile working-class or an immigrant group by the US government–were denied Indigenous standing to make land claims in the American Southwest despite blood and kin ties to these regions. In Mexico, the reverse was the case. Categories of indigeneity did not exist, and therefore Mexicans had no special ethnic-racial or historical bases for rights claims. In the eyes of the Mexican state, all of its people were Mexican subjects held to the same standard of treatment as Indigenous persons, including in the forced removal of Mexicans from their land to accommodate national and transnational irrigation projects and treaties. As Indigenous and Chicanx relationships to water changed into the twentieth century from a distinct maritime space to an agricultural center, so did institutional definitions of Indigenous and Chicanx identity. The US and Mexican states tried to cleave the Indigenous and Chicanx identities. Still, borderland mestizo communities like Tucson, Arizona, demonstrated how legal restrictions and institutional categorization could influence individual choices, but they did not define them.