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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Color of Development : Racial Capitalism and Land Conflict in Southern California's Imperial County

  • Author(s): Ruiz, Stevie R.
  • et al.
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"The Color of Development: Racial Capitalism and Land Conflict in Southern California's Imperial County" complicates our understanding of the history of property ownership and capitalist development by analyzing conflicts over land among white pioneers, Asian growers, Mexican immigrants, and Native-Americans in what is now Imperial County. American westward expansion is typically conceived as a conquest over uncivilized land and peoples, leading to greater political and economic freedom for English-speaking settlers, a process that reached its peak with the U.S.-Mexico war (1846) and ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo (1848), when the U.S. seized the northern territory of Mexico and Native American lands. Claims of land loss have sparked debates among Chicana/o Studies and Native-American Studies scholars. While the former debate rights to ancestral lands, the latter deny any break among settlement, colonialism, and rise of the state. My work focuses on these struggles in a little-studied yet significant geographical region---the rural West---an approach that allows us to understand the full impact of American expansionism. My exploration of rural political economies in Imperial County uncovers the centrality of land subsidy programs to supporting and expanding Manifest Destiny as practiced at the U.S.-Mexico border in the twentieth century. Under racial capitalism, I argue, Japanese and South Asians were successful in renting land and owning property, despite efforts to undermine Asian property ownership with California's Alien Land Laws of 1913 and 1920. I argue that conflicts between whites and Asians persisted because of competing views over what land meant to each community. For white growers, land was associated with property, while Asians viewed land and labor management as part of assimilating into normative standards of U.S. citizenship. I demonstrate that conflicts over commerce and trade between Asians and whites had negative consequences for their 90 percent ethnic Mexican labor force. I argue that the inability to own property within this context made Mexicans and Native- Americans vulnerable to a society that viewed them as cheap labor that could be exploited to transform the Imperial County into a robust center for agribusiness. With rigorous archival research, I prove that the colonial underpinnings of land confiscation that were apparent in the early twentieth century structured growers' attitudes and were used to discriminate against ethnic Mexicans and Native-Americans

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This item is under embargo until June 1, 2023.