“We Were Too White to Be Black and Too Black to Be White,” Tyina L Steptoe (2016)

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Tyina L Steptoe (2016) – We Were Too White to Be Black and Too Black to Be White

 

128ff: “Letter from Chapultepec” and the question of race and skin color

  • “The tenth point of the manifesto related directly to ethnic Mexicans and the question of color. People of Mexican descent, they wrote, ‘are called “brown people,” “greasers,” et cetera and of course want to be called white.’ … The term brown people marked them as a nonwhite group, which could hurt their claims to whiteness in a place that considered anyone with African roots ‘colored.'”

149ff: “Letter from Chaptultepec” praised by and used as model by black branch of YWCA

  • “More problems arose when the African American branch of the YWCA discovered the letter and used it for their own purposes: ‘They heard about our [i.e. ethnic Mexicans’] problems and they said, “We have some problems too,”‘ said Estela Gómez of members of the black branch that contacted her. ‘”You did a great thing writing all of those things down.”‘ The African American women asked club officers Cortés and Gómez if they could publish the letter in their organization’s magazine, the Occasional Papers (“a quarterly publication for Negro [YWCA] branches”), and they agreed.’

143-146: segregation and Houston ship channel dockworkers

  • “the Mexican was a whole lot more decent man than the Negro”
  • “IF we let this union fall through our jobs will go to the Negroes”

“Town Life” in San Antonio and “The Mexicans in Texas” (Olmsted, Journey Through Texas)

Town Life.

The street-life of San Antonio is more varied than might be supposed. Hardly a day passes without some noise. If there be no personal affray to arouse talk, there is some Government train to be seen, with its hundred of mules, on its way from the coast to a fort above; or a Mexican ox-train from the coast, with an interesting supply of ice, or flour, or matches, or of whatever the shops find themselves short. A Government express clatters off, or news arrives from some exposed outpost, or from New Mexico. An Indian in his finery appears on a shaggy horse, in search of blankets, powder, and ball. Or at the least, a stage-coache with the “States,” or the Austin, mail, rolls into the plaza and discharges its load of passengers and newspapers.

The street affrays are numerous and characteristic. I have seen, for a year or more, a San Antonio weekly, and hardly a number fails to have its fight or its murder. More often than otherwise, the parties meet upon the plaza by chance, and each, on catching sight of his enemy, draws a revolver, and fires away. As the actors are under more or less excitement, their aim is not apt to be of the most careful and sure, consequently it is, not seldom, the passers-by who suffer. Sometimes it is a young man at a quiet dinner in a restaurant, who receives a ball in the head; sometimes an old negro woman, returning from market, who gets winged. After disposing of all their lead, the parties close, to try their steel, but as this species of metallic amusement is less popular, they generally contrive to be separated (“Hold me! Hold me!”) by friends before the wounds are mortal. If neither is seriously injured, they are brought to drink together on the following day, and the town waits for the next excitement.

[159] Where borderers and idle soldiers are hanging about drinking-places, and where different races mingle on unequal terms, assassinations must be expected. Murders, from avarice or revenge, are common here. Most are charged upon the Mexicans, whose passionate motives are not rare, and to whom escape over the border is easiest and most natural.

The town amusements of a less exciting character are not many. There is a permanent company of Mexican mountebanks, who give performances of agility and buffoonery two or three times a week, parading, before night, in their spangled tights with drum and trombone through the principal streets. They draw a crowd of whatever little Mexicans can get adrift, and this attracts a few sellers of whisky, tortillas, and tamaules (corn slap-jacks and hashed meat in corn-shucks), all by the light of torches making a ruddily picturesque evening group.

The more grave Americans are served with tragedy by a thin local company, who are death on horrors and despair, long rapiers, and well oiled hair, and for lack of a better place to flirt with passing officers, the city belles may sometimes be seen looking on. The national background of peanuts and yells, is not, of course, wanting.

A day or two after our arrival, there was the hanging of a Mexican. The whole population left the town to see. Family parties, including the grandmother and the little negroes, came from all the plantations and farms within reach, and little ones were held up high to get their share of warning. The Mexicans looked on imperturbable.

San Antonio, excluding Galveston,[*] is much the largest city [160] of Texas. After the Revolution, it was half deserted by its Mexican population, who did not care to come under Anglo-Saxon rule. Since then its growth has been rapid and steady. At the census of 1850, it numbered 3,500; in 1853, its population was 6,000; and in 1856, it is estimated at 10,500. Of these, about 4,000 are Mexicans, 3,000 are Germans, and 3,500 Americans. The money-capital is in the hands of the Americans, as well as the officers and the Government. Most of the mechanics and the smaller shopkeepers are German. The Mexicans appear to have almost no other business than that of carting goods. Almost the entire transportation of the country is carried on by them, with oxen and two-wheeled carts. Some of them have small shops, for the supply of their own countrymen, and some live upon the produce of farms and cattle-ranches owned in the neighborhood. Their livelihood is, for the most part, exceedingly meagre, made up chiefly of corn and beans.

The Mexicans in Texas.

We had, before we left, opportunities of visiting familiarly many of the Mexican dwellings. I have described their externals. Within, we found usually a single room, open to the roof and invariably having a floor of beaten clay a few inches below the level of the street. There was little furniture–huge beds being the universal pièce de résistance. These were used by day as sofa and table. Sometimes there were chairs and a table besides; but frequently only a bench, with a few earthen utensils for cooking, which is carried on outside. A dog or a cat appears on or under the bed, or on the clothes-chest, a saint on the wall, and frequently a game-cock fastened in a corner, supplied with dishes of corn and water.

[161] We were invariably received with the most gracious and beaming politeness and dignity. Their manner towards one another is engaging, and that of children and parents most affectionate. This we always noticed in evening walks and in the groups about the doors, which were often singing in chorus–the attitudes expressive of confident affection. In one house, we were introduced to an old lady who was supposed by her grandchildren to be over one hundred years old. She had come from Mexico, in a rough cart, to make them a visit. Her face was strikingly Indian in feature, her hair, snow white, flowing thick over the shoulders, contrasting strongly with the olive skin. The complexion of the girls is clear, and sometimes fair, usually a blushing olive. The variety of feature and color is very striking, and is naturally referred to three sources–the old Spanish, the creole Mexican, and the Indian, with sometimes a suspicion of Anglo-Saxon or Teuton. The hair is coarse, but glossy, and very luxuriant; the eye, deep, dark, liquid, and well set. Their modesty, though real, we heard, was not proof against a long courtship of flattering attentions and rich presents. The constancy of the married women was made very light of, not that their favors were purchasable, but that they are sometimes seized by a strong penchant for some other than their lord. There was testimony of this in the various shades and features of their children; in fact we thought the number of babies of European hair and feature exceeded the native olive in number. We noticed, in a group of Mexican and negro women, when an indelicate occurrence took place, that the former turned away in annoyed modesty, while the latter laughed broadly. Their constitutions, in general, are feeble, and very many of both sexes, we were informed, suffered from scrofulous disease. [162] Nevertheless, with good stimulus, the men make admirable laborers.

The common dress was loose and slight, not to say slatternly. It was frequently but a chemise, as low as possible in the neck, sometimes even lower, with a calico petticoat. On holidays they dress in expensive finery, paying special attention to the shoes, of white satin, made by a native artist.

The houses of the rich differ little form those of the poor, and the difference in their style of living must be small, owing to the want of education and of all ambition. The majority are classed as laborers. Their wages are small, usually, upon farms near San Antonio, $6 or $8 a month, with corn and beans. That of the teamsters is in proportion to their energy. On being paid off, they hurry to their family and all come out in their best to spend the earnings, frequently quite at a lost for what to exchange them. They make excellent drovers and shepherds, and in work like this, with which they are acquainted, are reliable and adroit. A horse-drover, just from the Rio Grande, with whom we conversed, called them untiring and faithful at their work, but untrustworthy in character. To his guide, he paid $24 a month, to his “right bower,” $15, and to his “left bower,” $12 a month.

Their tools are of the rudest sort. The old Mexican wheel of hewn blocks of wood is still constantly in use, though supplanted, to some extent, by Yankee wheels, sent in pairs from New York. The carts are always hewn of heavy wood, and are covered with white cotton, stretched over hoops. In these they live, on the road, as independently as in their own house. The cattle are yoked by the horns, with raw-hide thongs, of which they make a great use.

[163] They consort freely with the negroes, making no distinction from pride of race. A few, of old Spanish blood, have purchased negro servants, but most of them regard slavery with abhorrence.

The Mexicans were treated for a while after annexation like a conquered people. Ignorant of their rights, and of the new language, they allowed themselves to be imposed upon by the new comers, who seized their lands and property without shadow of claim, and drove hundreds of them homeless across the Rio Grande. They now, as they get gradually better informed, come straggling back, and often their claims give rise to litigation, usually settled by a compromise.

A friend told us, that, wishing, when he built, to square a corner of his lot, after making diligent inquiry he was unable to hear of any owner for the adjoining piece. He took the responsibility, and moved his fence over it. Not long after, he was waited upon by a Mexican woman, in a towering passion. He carried her to a Spanish acquaintance, and explained the transaction. She was immediately appeased, told him he was welcome to the land, and has since been on the most neighborly terms, calling him always her “amigo.”

Most adult Mexicans are voters by the organic law; but few take measures to make use of the right. Should they do so, they might probably, in San Antonio, have elected a government of their own. Such a step would be followed, however, by a summary revolution. They are regarded by slaveholders with great contempt and suspicion, for their intimacy with slaves, and their competition with plantation labor.

Americans, in speaking of them, constantly distinguish themselves as “white folks.” I once heard a new comer informing another American, that he had seen a Mexican with a revolver. [164] “I shouldn’t think they ought to be allowed to carry fire-arms. It might be dangerous.” “It would be difficult to prevent it,” the other replied; “Oh, they think themselves just as good as white men.”

From several counties they have been driven out altogether. At Austin, in the spring of 1853, a meeting was held, at which the citizens resolved, on the plea that Mexicans were horse-thieves, that they must quit the country. About twenty families were thus driven from their homes, and dispersed over the western counties. Deprived of their means of livelihood, and rendered furious by such wholesale injustice, it is no wonder if they should take to the very crimes with which they are charged.

A similar occurrence took place at Seguin, in 1854; and in 1855, a few families, who had returned to Austin, were again driven out.

Even at San Antonio, there had been talk of such a razzia. A Mexican, caught in an attempt to steal a horse, had been hung by a Lynching party, on the spot, for an example. His friends happened to be numerous, and were much excited, threatening violence in return. Under pretext of subduing an intended riot, the sheriff issued a call for an armed posse of 500 men, with the idea of dispersing and driving from the neighborhood a large part of the Mexican population. But the Germans, who include among them the great majority of young men suitable for such duty, did not volunteer as had been expected, and the scheme was abandoned. They were of the opinion, one of them said to me, that this was not the right and republican way. If the laws were justly and energetically administered, no other remedy would be needed. One of them, who lived on the Medina, in the vicinity of the place of the occurrence, told us he had no [165] complaint to make of the Mexicans; they never stole his property, or troubled him in any way.

The following is the most reliable estimate I can obtain of the actual Mexican population in Texas, (1856):–

San Antonio 4,000
Bexar Co. 2,000
Uvalde Co. 1,000
Laredo 1,500
El Paso, with Presidio 8,500
Lower Rio Grande Counties 3,000
Goliad and Nueces Counties 1,000
Other parts of State 1,000
Floating, say 3,000
25,000
Frederick Law Olmsted, A Journey Through Texas; or, a Saddle-Trip on the Southwestern Frontier (New York: Dix, Edwards & Co, 1857), 158-165.
  1. [*]The two towns have nearly kept pace in growth. The yellow fever, it is said, has now given San Antonio the advantage.

“That no judge naturalized a person identified as having dark skin suggests an unwillingness among the courts to find such persons White” (Haney Lopez)

??? What about Rodriguez, seems like an exception here ??? / WBL 69ff

Despite Judge Newman’s assertion in Najour that the term “white person” “refers to race, rather than to color, and fair or dark complexion should not be allowed to control” in questions of naturalization, no judge, not even Judge Newman, was particularly comfortable with this legal point. Instead, the decisions betray judicial antipathy toward allowing dark-skinned persons to naturalize as Whites, a predictable response of the times. This antipathy can be seen in the way the various courts discussed the applicants’ skin color. Consider two decisions denying petitions for citizenship issued by a federal court in South Carolina. In the first, the judge said of the petitioner, “in color, he is about that of a walnut, or somewhat darker than is the usual mulatto of one-half mixed blood between the white and negro races.”[58] In the next, the same judge described another ill-fated applicant as “darker than the usual person of white European descent, and that of tinged or sallow appearance which usually accompanies persons of descent other than purely European.”[59] Though the judge did not identify skin color as a determining factor in his decisions, that the court thought it necessary to describe the applicants’ complexions suggests that this factor contributed to the decisions to deny them naturalization. Concern over skin color also manifests itself, albeit in different form, in those decisions allowing applicants to naturalize. Courts ruling for naturalization either noted the applicants light skin color or remained silent as [69] to physical features. That no judge naturalized a person identified as having dark skin suggests an unwillingness among the courts to find such persons White. This is true even of Judge Newman. In Najour, he wrote of the applicant: “He is not particularly dark, and has none of the characteristics or appearance of the Mongolian race, but, so far as I can see and judge, has the appearance and characteristics of the Caucasian race.”[60] Similarly, another federal court admitting several Armenian applicants remarked that they were “white persons in appearance, not darker in complexion than some persons of northern European descent traceable for generations.”[61] Najour‘s holding that color was legally irrelevant to race proved highly troublesome to the courts considering prerequisite cases, both to those deciding upon the application of persons perceived as dark-skinned, and, to a lesser degree, to those finding the petitioners before them White.

Ian F. Haney López, White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 69ff.
  1. [58]Shahidsupra, 205 F. at 813.
  2. [59]Ex parte Dowsupra, 211 F. 486; In re Dowsupra, 213 F. 355.
  3. [60]Najoursupra, 174 F. at 735.
  4. [61]Halladjiansupra, 174 F. at 835.

“I should have thought he was of Spanish origin” – complexions and passing as white (Johnson)

Walter Johnson, Soul By Soul, 156.

Some slaves, however, were “too white to keep.” […] So, too, Robert, who boarded the steamboat that carried him away from slavery and new Orleans as a white man. “I should have thought he was of Spanish origin,” remembered one of his fellow passengers, “he was a man of clear skin and dark complexion.” But more than the way Robert looked, the other passengers remembered the way he acted: “he was very genteely dressed and of a very genteel deportment”; “he had more the appearance of a gentleman than a plebeian”; and, almost every witness noted, “usually seated himself at the first table, high up, and near the ladies.” Robert, it turned out, had once been a waiter, and he used the skills he had learned as a slave, the gentility and sociable palate of the server, to make his way into the confines reserved for the served. […] Robert made it as far as Memphis before being arrested and sent to the slave market in New Orleans, where he very shortly died.