Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

25 Nov 2009, 1:02 a.m.


Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2009 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

I recently read Linda Gordon's The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction (Harvard University Press, 1999). It's an edifying and engrossing read. Let me quote the publisher's blurb:

In 1904, New York nuns brought 40 Irish orphans to a remote Arizona mining camp, to be placed with Mexican Catholic families. Soon the town's Anglos, furious at this 'interracial' transgression, formed a vigilante squad that kidnapped the children and nearly lynched the nuns and the local priest. The Catholic Church sued to get its wards back, but all the courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, ruled in favor of the vigilantes. In resurecting this shocking tale of the American West, Linda Gordon brilliantly recreates and dissects the tangled intersection of family and racial values, in a gripping story that resonates with today's conflicts over the "best interests of the child."

Here's a biting excerpt from Chapter 5, "The Anglo Mothers and the Company Town."

These clubs were exclusively Anglo, and included Jews, Irishmen, Slavs, and Germans. As always in Clifton-Morenci, the line grew fuzzy as you moved further south in Europe. Some Italians were in. Spaniards usually were not. The first Mexican got into the Elks in the 1950s. The Catholic Church was not unhappy with this particular form of anti-Mexican discrimination, as it detested and feared the attraction of these orders, all of them, in its view, tainted by Freemasonry. Father Mandin described the Anglos in Clifton as either Protestants or Freemasons. (The Mexican Church had long experience with Freemasonry, a germinator of anticlericalism, so some Clifton-Morenci Mexicans would have been familiar with the movement. Mexican Masonry was not a working-class movement, but some of Clifton-Morenci's Mexican businessmen might well have liked to join.) Many fraternal orders today flirt with racial ambivalence and attraction to the exotic, such as the Shriners with their Muslim names and imagery. In 1904 Arizona, the Improved Order of Red Men insinuated, not at all subtly, the temptations of the forbidden: Dedicated to preserving the customs, legends, and names of the Indians, the lodges were called tribes, met on a lunar schedules, in wigwams, where they lit council fires, referred to money in their treasury as wampum, and named every "paleface" member for a bird, animal, or other natural organism. Their ritual consisted of stagings of imagined American Indian rites. Claiming to be the largest fraternity of purely American origin, its bylaws provided that the "Americanism of the order is the true American spirit which ... stands for equal rights for all." Red Men were required to be white.
pp. 188-189

There's a great chapter musing on vigilantism, lynchings, militias, and American political theory and values; I wish I could quote the whole thing. Overall, Gordon is thorough and thought-provoking on the intersections of geography, race, class, religion, and gender. Gordon's discursions on theory of history, her footnotes (Las Gorras Blancas? I'd never heard of them), and her narrative style are accessible and intelligent. Thanks for the recommendations, Crooked Timber thread.


25 Nov 2009, 6:04 a.m.

Sounds like an amazing book, but how can Jews and Slavs be "Anglo"?

25 Nov 2009, 11:27 a.m.

Camille: Ah, maybe I should have prefaced the excerpt with an explanation there. When describing attitudes and practices in the West in that period (which she does in detail), she uses "Anglo" (as the contemporaries did) and explains that "Anglo" was a changing term that always meant "non-Mexican, non-Chinese". Sometimes light-skinned people of various ethnic or religious groups counted as Anglo for certain purposes.<br/>

<br/>From p. 104, in Ch. 3, "The Priest in the Mexican Camp" (the French immigrant Catholic priest didn't make the same racial assumptions as the town's powers did):<br/>

<br/>Even African Americans were not definitively nonwhite. Not a single mining camp in Arizona ever banned blacks, while most prohibited Chinese and many excluded Mexicans. In some places in the U.S. Southwest, blacks were white and Mexicans were not. Making the southwestern mines into "white man's camps" at the turn of the century meant keeping out Asians, souther and eastern Europeans, and Mexicans, while blacks were sometimes accepted as miners. James Young, a black man at the Contention mine in nearby Tombstone, remarked, "Si White and I were the first white men in Tombstone after Gird and Schieffelin."<br><br/>p. 104

<br/>This is part of how the orphanage got tripped up. In New York City in 1904, these orphans were Irish, not white; there, "white" didn't include the Irish. But out West, they were Anglo, so other Anglos got freaked out that Mexican families were adopting them.