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Transnational Racialization: How Immigration Transforms Conceptions of Race in Mexico and the U.S.


The dominant paradigm of American race relations has changed dramatically in the last two decades, as the prevailing White-Black binary is challenged by mass migration from Latin America. Although immigrants arrive to the U.S. with racial ideologies and practices that originate in their countries of origin, we know little about how ideas about race "travel" with migrants across borders, and the implications of this for immigrant incorporation into the U.S.' racial structure. My dissertation examines how migration to the U.S. transforms immigrant understandings of race. Whereas the U.S. racial system has been historically characterized by the rule of hypodescent, Mexico is an indo-mestizo nation where the primary social distinction is that between indigenous peoples and the dominant mestizo population (persons of mixed Spanish and indigenous ancestry). As such, nationalist ideologies of mestizaje construct Blackness as invisible and foreign to the nation. Despite these distinctions in U.S. and Mexican racial contexts, scholars of U.S. racialization often limit their analysis to immigrant experiences with race after they have migrated. Yet, failing to examine how immigrants construct racial meaning in the sending society renders incomplete our understanding of how racial hierarchies and encounters are navigated in the receiving society.

This multi-site study draws from 75 in-depth interviews with three distinct samples of Mexican respondents: non-migrants in Guadalajara, as well as recent and long-term immigrants in Los Angeles. Findings show that the maintenance of transnational ties between immigrants and those remaining in the home country facilitate Mexicans' engagement with U.S. racial ideologies prior to migration. As immigrants gain direct exposure to the U.S. racial system, they communicate their observations and experiences with racial encounters - particularly with U.S. Blacks -, discrimination, employment and residential segregation back to Mexico, a transnational process of racial remittances. In the second part of my dissertation, I turn my analytical focus to the immigrant experience in Los Angeles. I argue that immigrants often renegotiate their pre-migration constructions of race upon settling into their lives in the host society. Residential and occupational patterns in Los Angeles, duration in the U.S., and the frequency of social encounters with Blacks, Whites, and others, influence how Mexicans make sense of racial hierarchies, including their position in the U.S. racial order. While these factors saliently shape attitudes and perceptions about race and identity, I further highlight how this process if affected by legal status. With increased exposure to anti-immigrant prejudice and blocked opportunities for upward mobility, immigrants view themselves as occupying a distinct racial status vis-�-vis Blacks and Whites, illustrating a clear departure from the U.S.' White-Black binary.

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