Border citizens : race, labor, and identity in south-central Arizona, 1910-1965

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Meeks, Eric Vaughn

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This dissertation explores the relationship between race, ethnic identity, and state formation as south-central Arizona (encompassing Maricopa, Pima, Pinal, and Santa Cruz counties) was incorporated into the national political economy between 1910 and 1965. In 1910, the opening of the Roosevelt Dam – the first major federal project under the National Reclamation Act of 1902 – began the dramatic transformation of this sparsely settled mining and agricultural frontier into the most important center of industrial agriculture in the desert Southwest. Over the following decades, federal agencies such as the Indian Bureau and the Labor Department helped to recruit local Indians, Mexican immigrants, Mexican Americans, and, beginning in the 1930s, Euro-Americans from the south-central states to work on the region’s industrial farms. This dissertation explores how, in this context, race became a justification for the denial of full citizenship to Indian and Mexican workers, and how it thus served to reconcile contradictions between employers’ insatiable demands for cheap labor and the nation-state’s concern with maintaining cultural and racial homogeneity. At the same time, it explores how the workers themselves attempted to shape their own positions within the political economy. The Tohono O’odham, for example, retained relatively autonomous cultural spaces by moving seasonally between their desert villages and the cotton fields; Mexicans and Mexican Americans joined mutualistas and labor unions, or simultaneously demanded acceptance as both “white” American citizens and members of la raza; and Yaqui Indians, who were immigrants from Mexico, challenged the racial categories of “Indian” and “Mexican” by seeking federal recognition as an American Indian tribe. Finally, the dissertation explores how Indian and Mexican workers, through the shared experience of wage work on commercial farms and gradual incorporation into multi-ethnic barrios, formulated new identities that served as the foundation for cultural resistance and political mobilization. As each of these groups negotiated the shifting contours of the regional political economy, they redefined the meaning of citizenship and thus played an integral role in the very process of state formation.




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