Today we welcome a guest blog post from Karen R. Roybal, author of Archives of Dispossession: Recovering the Testimonios of Mexican American Herederas, 1848–1960, on the upcoming 170th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
One method of American territory expansion in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands was the denial of property rights to Mexican landowners, which led to dispossession. Many historical accounts overlook this colonial impact on Indigenous and Mexican peoples, and existing studies that do tackle this subject tend to privilege the male experience. In Archives of Dispossession, Karen R. Roybal recenters the focus of dispossession on women, arguing that gender, sometimes more than race, dictated legal concepts of property ownership and individual autonomy. Drawing on a diverse source base—legal land records, personal letters, and literature—Roybal locates voices of Mexican American women in the Southwest to show how they fought against the erasure of their rights, both as women and as landowners. Woven throughout Roybal’s analysis are these women’s testimonios—their stories focusing on inheritance, property rights, and shifts in power. Roybal positions these testimonios as an alternate archive that illustrates the myriad ways in which multiple layers of dispossession—and the changes of property ownership in Mexican law—affected the formation of Mexicana identity.
Archives of Dispossession is available now in both print and e-book editions.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: A Dark U.S. Herencia (Inheritance)
February 2, 2018 will mark the 170th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, a legal agreement between the United States and Mexican governments intended to end the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). The Treaty is the oldest in the nation’s history. Comprised of 23 articles, it details the rights to be afforded to those who elected to become U.S. citizens once Mexico ceded more than 500,000 acres of its land to the U.S. The Treaty is a historical marker of one of the most significant contributions to international law in the nineteenth century that continues to impact peoples of Mexican and Indigenous descent today.
While the document has served as a significant symbol of negotiation between Mexico and the U.S., the path to its signing was anything but simple. With the influx of peoples moving westward in pursuit of a new life and new land in the name of Manifest Destiny, the (South)western U.S. was a contested region throughout much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The idea of individual property ownership that guides our capital-driven market today is what also prompted many Anglo American settlers to seek land they thought would bring them economic success. This conception of property countered the ways in which the local populations of the region understood the intended uses of their land as communal. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo now serves as a symbol of the ways in which the U.S. government reneged its responsibilities for federal protection of Mexican Americans’ political rights and constructed an empire based on a racial hierarchy that placed Native, African, and Mexican Americans at its lowest rungs. As I argue in Archives of Dispossession, the U.S. government used this racial hierarchy to expand its ever-growing empire through the genocide and displacement of Native Americans. This history of settler colonialism is a violent one and should call our attention to the darker herencias, or inheritances, upon which our nation is built.
Archives of Dispossession acknowledges the importance of understanding this darker history; however, the book focuses specifically on Mexican American history, gender, and land adjudication just before and after the Mexican-American War. After the signing of the Treaty in 1848, Mexican Americans were consigned to second-class citizenship and the U.S. government denied Mexican American property rights when it removed Article X, which had validated all Mexican land grants in the Southwest. This process was advanced through the conversion from a Mexican to a U.S. legal system in an effort to establish a political economy that privileged Anglo Americans.
Today, we are only left to imagine what would have happened had the 1847 U.S peace commissioner, Nicholas Trist, heeded President Polk’s order to cease his meeting with Mexican officials to discuss Treaty negotiations. Rather than proceed with the negotiations, President Polk asked Trist to return to Washington, D.C. Trist did not return. Instead, he met with Mexico’s interim president, Manuel de la Peña y Peña. The rest, as they say, is history. While opposition to the Treaty materialized in Mexico and in the U.S., its signing signaled an end to a war and the beginning of an extensive debate over issues of citizenship, property ownership, borders, and slavery; many of these issues still resonate in today’s political climate. Since at least 1848, Mexican Americans have struggled to achieve and maintain their social, economic, and political position within the U.S. nation state.
Karen R. Roybal is assistant professor of Southwest studies at Colorado College.