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Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans, and Vagabonds

Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America
Published:   October 2007
ISBN: 0375421580 | 336 pages
Rodriguez examines the complex racial and ethnic heritage of Mexican Americans with a sweeping historical insight that demolishes widespread prevalent myths.

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Wide-ranging and provocative, Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans, and Vagabonds offers an unprecedented account of the long-term cultural and political influences that Mexican Americans will have on the collective character of our nation.

In considering the largest immigrant group in American history, Gregory Rodriguez examines the complexities of its heritage and of the racial and cultural synthesis -- mestizaje -- that has defined the Mexican people since the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century. Rodriguez deftly delineates the effects of mestizaje throughout the centuries, traces the northern movement of this "mongrelization," explores the emergence of a new Mexican American identity in the 1930s, and analyzes the birth and death of the Chicano movement. Vis-a-vis the present era of Mexican American confidence, he persuasively argues that the rapidly expanding Mexican American integration in to the mainstream is changing not only how Americans think about race but how we envision our nation.

Deeply informative -- as historically sound as it is anecdotally rich, brilliantly reasoned, and highly though provoking -- Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans, and Vagabonds is a major contribution to the discussion of the cultural and political future of the United States.

Praise for Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans, and Vagabonds

"In the midst of a narrow, polemical debate on immigration, Gregory Rodriguez has written a generous, sweeping, prodigiously researched, and judicious history of Mexican Americans that helps us understand their long-term influence on American society. Smart, fun, and eminently readable, Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans, and Vagabonds explores five centuries of cultural collisions and convergences, and dares us to imagine a new way of thinking about the future of America."
--Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico and former United States ambassador to the United Nations

"Rodriguez has pulled off not one but two stunning coups -- a thoroughly original history and a penetrating commentary on what race means and will mean in our era and beyond. From 1519 to the front page of today's newspaper, from the Virgin of Guadalupe to the National Council of La Raza -- the sweep alone is breathtaking. But every chapter also drills deep, and they build to an important new argument about the future of the American melting pot. By turns learned, fascinating, deeply felt (this is no academic history), completely contemporary, and, in its picture of where we're heading, as persuasive as it is provocative. A tour de force."
--Tamar Jacoby, author of Someone Else's House: America's Unfinished Struggle for Integration

"Passionately argued, thoroughly researched... Draws a far more complex portrait of Mexican Americans and Mexicans in America than is found in our media. Rodriguez's book provides a welcome interjection of sanity and complexity into a debate that so far has been largely characterized by ignorance, ideology, and hysteria."
--Eric Alterman, author of When Presidents Lie: A History of the Official Deception and Its Consequences

"Trailblazing... Rodriguez examines the complex racial and ethnic heritage of Mexican Americans with a sweeping historical insight that demolishes widespread prevalent myths... A vital contribution to understanding the role of Mexican Americans in U.S. society."
--Lou Cannon, author of President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime

"An indispensable guide to America's future--and an optimistic one, too."
--Adrian Woolridge, co-author of The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America

The Washington Post

Sunday, Nov. 4, 2007
... Despite its unappealing title, Gregory Rodriguez's Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans, and Vagabonds provides a fascinating excursion through the history of Mexican immigrants in the United States. Full of instructive revelations and forgotten facts, the book shows how the treatment and status of immigrants have always been hostage to the vicissitudes of history -- from the Gold Rush to the invasion of Iraq.

The best sections of this book by a Mexican-American columnist for the Los Angeles Times cover events that occurred long ago. But by putting the current tensions in a solid historical context, Rodriguez offers hope that they too will eventually subside and be followed by a cooler spell in which a lasting, more rational solution can prevail over the politics of fear and bigotry.

He first traces the racial history of the Spanish colonial era, when inhabitants were rigidly stratified according to their mix of Indian, black and European blood ("Spaniard and Indian beget mestizo, Mestizo and Spanish woman beget castizo . . . . Barcino and mulatto woman beget coyote" and so on). Moving into the post-independence era, he explores Mexico's northern cities like San Antonio and Los Angeles, where the mestizo populace was increasingly challenged by Anglo settlers.

The U.S. defeat of Mexico's army in 1848 was a victory for both American slavery and territorial expansion, but the war also sparked debate over "the character of the Mexicans," whom many whites viewed as a lowly "mongrel race." "Even as their nation expanded," Rodriguez writes, "Americans recoiled in horror at the thought of absorbing an alien population."

During the next century, millions of Mexicans immigrated to the United States. Some managed to rise in society, but far more remained marginalized and subject to abuse and discrimination from Anglo vigilantes, bosses and pioneers. At the same time, American dependence on cheap labor from Mexico became an enduring fact: Workers were first press-ganged to build highways or pick fruit, then brought in seasonally under the "bracero" temporary labor program. Yet American society remained ambivalent, welcoming these workers in prosperous times and turning nativist during recessions.

Today the country is full of frenzied alarm once more, and neither Fox's personal plea, Castaneda's reasoned arguments nor Rodriguez's history lesson can compete with the fear and anger of the times. But on a calmer day, such thoughtful voices may yet find an audience among concerned Americans who realize that the fate of Mexico's economy, democracy and human populace is inextricably linked with ours. --Pamela Constable ·

Los Angeles Times

Monday, Nov. 13, 2007
Gregory Rodriguez's brilliant book on Mexican and Mexican American identity, "Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans, and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America," threatens my secret dream that I am a direct descendant of some feather-clad Aztec warrior princess who ruled over a Mexica queendom circa 1500. Perhaps because I am named after a fabled Aztec royal, Lady Ixtacihuattl, I have forever suspected that my DNA positively sparkles with glorious Xicana genes that were born in ancient Aztlan: the land of Mexican milk and honey, where lived the bards, mathematicians, philosophers, acrobats, architects and knights who were put to the sword and burned by the alien germs of the infamous conquistador Hernan Cortes.

Rodriguez, with whom I have crossed paths on occasion, has written a history which tells a far different tale of Mexican and Mexican American heritage. In "Mongrels," Mexican identity is no natural-born monolith, but rather a kaleidoscope crafted through creative strategies Mexicans used to resist and adapt to the rigors of white supremacy. Starting from the 1519 Spanish conquest of Mexico, his energetic saga recounts the ways in which Mexicans ingeniously absorbed the conventions of our conquerors by marrying with whites, sampling Anglo culture and even purchasing our way out of racial segregation up until the modern era. In these practices, Rodriguez, an opinion columnist for The Times, writes, Mexican Americans "have always confounded the Anglo American racial system, [and] will ultimately destroy it, too." ...

Austin American-Statesman

Saturday, Nov. 3, 2007
Gregory Rodriguez lends a scholarly voice to the national shouting match over immigration, and anyone interested in historical context should listen to him. Context has taken a back seat to demagoguery when the topic is immigration, but our country is going to have to pay attention to both if there is to be any hope of resolution.

Provocatively titled "Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America," Rodriguez's book was released this week, and like all good history, it shows that the current furor over immigration is nothing new. The Aztecs and other tribes living in what we now call Mexico were first ambivalent about the arrival of newcomers from Spain and later became downright hostile.

Meanwhile, Spanish officers, soldiers and the priests who accompanied them started cohabitating with the Indians, and from those unions sprang a people who would forever defy racial categorization. Their descendants eventually mingled their blood with that of blacks and whites who ventured into what is now the American Southwest.

Blacks brought into Mexico as slaves — slavery was eventually outlawed in the Republic — virtually disappeared as a race after intermarrying or cohabitating with the whites and the Indians and mestizos, Rodriguez writes. He is in town today to read from his work at the Texas Book Festival.

Rodriguez, director of the California Fellows Program and an Irvine Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, contends that questions about Mexican immigration have an underlying issue of race, and that's not really new, either.

Nonetheless, Rodriguez skillfully delves into the history that made Mexicans — and Mexican Americans — a people who aren't easily categorized by blood or culture, despite mighty efforts by the courts, academia and the media. Not only does that inconvenient truth cause headaches for census takers, but mestizos — a mixture of bloodlines — have been trouble for jurists in Mexico and in the United States through the years as both court systems tried to adjudicate property disputes in the days when white meant right.

Rodriguez cites the case of Timoteo Andrade of Jalisco who petitioned for U.S. citizenship in 1935. The First Federal Circuit Court in Buffalo, N.Y., denied the petition because Andrade was a "Mexican Indian" and ineligible for citizenship. According to the U.S. Code at the time, only "free white persons" could become citizens. Following a rather contorted judicial examination of Andrade's bloodline, the court adjudged him white and he became a citizen in 1936.

The case was important because the nativists of the era insisted that Mexican blood lines were racially polluted and allowing them into this country would muddy Anglo-Saxon blood. That has a familiar ring to it.

Rodriguez takes careful aim at sacred cows found in a variety of pastures in the immigration debate and deftly pulls the trigger. He explodes the notion that immigrants won't learn English, the linguistic fiction that conveniences not only immigration opponents, but also owners of Spanish media conglomerates. The latter have a vested interest in convincing advertisers that the only way to reach Latinos is through Spanish-language advertising. Learning the language is essential to survival in the U.S.

Rodriguez also gets off a round at Chicano Studies scholars who, he says, love to portray Mexican Americans as eternal victims.

Quoting a study by former University of Texas history professor David Montejano, Rodriguez notes, "In 1930, unskilled rural land urban workers comprised two-thirds of the Texas Mexican labor force. Fifty years later, the number with unskilled jobs dropped to 29 percent with the remaining 71 percent in white collar or skilled occupations." Things have changed since the study was published in the mid-1980s, but the larger point is that the shift would not have been possible had Latinos remained monolingual.

Rodriguez also dispatches the "they won't assimilate myth" with studies and accounts of Mexican assimilation that date back to the 19th century.

My favorite: "After the 1880s, all of the Southwest — and northern Mexico as well — became increasingly Americanized, and Mexican Americans did not hesitate to adopt new consumer products, foods, fashions and recreational forms."

Rodriguez offers no easy answers to the immigration question, but neither does anyone else. His book is aimed a providing historical perspective and context to a contentious contemporary issue.

In that he succeeds and admirably. -- Arnold Garcia Jr.