Sylvia Zamora’s Pub Night: What You Missed

Today’s post was written by library student assistant Lia Chen.

At the March Faculty Pub Night, Sylvia Zamora discussed her book Racial Baggage: Mexican Immigrants and Race Across the Border, published in 2022. As a sociologist, she focuses on race and immigration, specifically of Latino and African American perceptions and experiences. She centered her book on the following question: “How does migration facilitate the ‘travel’ of racial ideologies and attitudes across national boundaries?” She interviewed recent migrants that had arrived to Los Angeles as well as people living in Guadalajara, Mexico. In LA, she chose to interview those classified as working class with “less than college” education in order to most similarly and laterally compare her interview results in both locations.

Using comparative racial models, Zamora explained that in the United States, there is a rigid black-white binary with a rigid racial categorization. However, this is currently being challenged with the “browning” of America in which the Latino population continues to grow. In fact, they are the largest immigrant group in the U.S., comprising 30%, while the second highest is Filipinos, only comprising 5%. This statistic that Zamora shared exemplified how Latinos are the largest minority group in the U.S., which creates a messier reality to the binary racial categorization that has deep roots in America. She compared this American rigidity to the fluidity of Latin America’s racial continuum. An example of racial paradigms varying across Latin America is the acknowledgment of blackness that is present in Cuba and Brazil, but ignored in Mexico.

To show the denial of African ancestry in Mexico, Zamora presented a popular comic named Memín, which is well-known and watched across the country. He is a poor, mischievous boy who is animated as a monkey, a dehumanization of Black people. In an interview conducted in Guadalajara, Zamora asked a woman named Carmen about the race of Memín. Carmen responded with “It seems like he was Mexican, I don’t know. I never thought about it but logically, well you think he’s Cuban or American.” She displays the common Mexican perception that being Mexican and Black are mutually exclusive.

These racial attitudes in Mexico in combination with the lack of news coverage and films of Black Mexicans results in the invisibility of Blackness in Mexico. Thus, when Mexicans migrate to the U.S., they bring these anti-Black attitudes with them and avoid these groups due to the messages they had internalized prior to migrating. However, Zamora argues that this brings about various implications regarding racial justice in the U.S. As Latinos have surpassed African Americans to be the largest minority group, she argues the importance of these two minority groups recognizing and seeing each other as political allies.

Since all migration is transforming how race and inequality is conceptualized and experienced, Zamora believes that the collective work across racial minorities will be the key to making progress on racial justice. Although it is difficult to say exactly how to bridge these groups to have trust and familiarity, Zamora suggested the importance of education and physical proximity. On a greater scale, Zamora concluded that the framework of her book can also be applied to the experience of migrants anywhere because regardless of where one is from, each nation has its own racial paradigms and ways of thinking about race and ethnicity.