LIFE Summer Fellowship Reflections: Black, White, and Brown? Complicating the Racial Dichotomy through an Analysis of Latinx Racialization

This is the final blog post in a series written by the 2021 recipients of the Duke University Libraries Summer Research Fellowship for LIFE Students. Gabriela Fonseca is a senior majoring in History and Cultural Anthropology with a focus on race and ethnicity and a minor in Inequality Studies. You can find the other posts here, here, and here.

Throughout my time at Duke, I have grounded myself in the study of race and racism. But class after class, I found myself being the voice at the back of the room asking about Latinx populations. Constantly pushing back against the idea that the story of race and racism is strictly Black-White, when it came time to finally decide what I would write my thesis on (something I knew would happen before I even decided to come to Duke), I figured since I have been doing this work for three years, I might as well make it official in my last year here. And so came my summer research project that I used to step into this mystical world that would become my history thesis.

When I began this project, I wanted to do so much, I still do. I have to stop and recenter myself every time I open a book or enter the Reading Room at the Rubenstein or begin a new chapter in my thesis. I didn’t quite know exactly what I wanted to research, but I knew I wanted to somehow dive into the black-white racial dichotomy we exist in as a nation and how, or if, Latinx individuals are affected by it. But essentially, I knew three things. I knew I was going to talk about North Carolina, that I was going to historicize the present (and if not the present, something really close to it), and that I was going to write about the Latinx experience. As a Latina from North Carolina, I wanted to talk about something that was a bit more personal because I knew it would lend me a unique perspective as I attempted to historicize the Latinx experience more broadly. I also just really love modern history; I think it is very important to think about where we are and how we got here and to acknowledge that history is happening now, and it is not just something to learn or read about 50 years later. Through the months now that I have spent on this project, I have continued to focus it as much as I can so I can tell as clear a story as possible. It is way harder than I thought it would be, but with two out of three chapters at least partially written, I have forced myself into focusing on a specific topic.

In a class I took my sophomore year, “The America Borderlands” with Professor Diane Nelson (who I will shamelessly plug any chance I get), I learned about a program that allowed American growers the opportunity to utilize foreign labor on their farms, the H-2A guest worker program. It was the first time I had ever heard of it, the closest thing I knew was about the Bracero Program in the mid 20th century because a great-grandparent of mine participated in it. The knowledge that the United States was granting work visas to the same people who were villainized for taking the jobs of American workers, was incomprehensible. It didn’t make sense, sometimes it still doesn’t. I thought there was no way that the H-2A program still existed. And yet, it is still very much alive today and North Carolina, and more specifically the North Carolina Grower’s Association, is one of its largest beneficiaries. So, while all of these thoughts were rolling around in my mind, I continued to search for my topic. H-2A fascinates me, it has sense I learned about it, but it felt like something was missing from the narrative.

In 2006, Mecklenburg County (my western neighbor) became home to a pilot program for a new ICE initiative: 287(g), essentially deputizing local law enforcement officers as partial immigration officials. Of course, at the time I was blissfully unaware that any of this was happening. It wasn’t really until 2018 that I even learned about 287(g) as a program, the rhetoric and fear that I was aware of was ICE-centric. Warnings of ICE raids and sightings filled my social media and text chains for days at a time. But I didn’t really know anything; the fear I held was for friends and their families, at times it was even for my father who I still fear will be targeted because of what he looks like. The popular discourse always centered around being undocumented, that you’d be fine so long as you had the proper papers. I never really had to worry about myself. And then, within my first month of being an official Duke student, there were ICE sightings near campus that had gotten so much attention that multiple people reached out to me to see if I was okay. Of course, I was okay, why wouldn’t I be? And I think that was the first time I ever really questioned what it meant to be Latinx, especially in North Carolina. Not until I was reminded that my last name kind of stands out, it’s a little different. And that I had no way to identify myself aside from my DukeCard because I didn’t have a drivers license, a passport, or my social security card. And that is when it finally clicked, that having the proper papers means very little when the goal is to find the illegals.

When I finally sat down to think about what all I had learned and experienced things began to make sense. Systems of racism and labor are much more complex than we often like to think, and I think ultimately my goal is to present a new way of thinking about these systems. I want to complicate the narrative of racism by including a Latinx perspective. We are living in an incredibly diverse nation, and yet our conversations are heavily bound. Why? What is this doing? In a black-white state, what is the role of Latinx people? What does it mean for Latinx individuals to exist in a state that both imports their labor and polices their bodies? This is what I am after. By bringing together H-2A and 287(g), I hope to complicate the black-white dichotomy we have created by telling the story of Latinx racialization in North Carolina. It is an arduous process but one that I am deeply excited to continue as I enter my third and final chapter.

As I expected when I entered this project, the research never seems to end. From reading and rereading related books -like Hannah Gill’s The Latino Migration Experience in North Carolina or Mae Ngai’s Impossible Subjects– to spending hours in the reading room digging through different collections -like the Joan Preiss Papers or boxes from the Southern Poverty Law Center- new discoveries are waiting on every page. I can go from feeling hopeful as I review the activism of Joan Preiss in the pursuit of the rights for farm workers to suddenly feeling extremely vulnerable as I peruse newsletters from organizations the SPLC stamped as “klan watch.” At every turn, good or bad, I learn more about the Latinx experience in North Carolina. And with every new piece of information, my belief in this project grows. At times I doubt my own ability to be successful in this endeavor, but there is so much to be learned, explored, and shared. If I can create something that teaches myself and others even just a part of what it means to be Latinx in North Carolina, all the long hours and sleepless nights will be worth it.

If I can, I would like to offer some advice to anyone thinking about doing research of this kind: do it! This is a roller coaster ride of emotions, but it is also a time to learn more about yourself and something you are passionate about. But always keep in mind that you do not have to go on this journey alone. Whether it be through the aid of a faculty mentor or a librarian, using the resources available to you will only make your project stronger and that much more meaningful. I know I couldn’t have done this work and wouldn’t be able to continue if it wasn’t from the support I have received, and still receive, from my mentors and the various librarians I have had the privilege of working with.




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