Soul and Salsa: Social Exclusion and Linked Fate among Afro-Mexicans and Mestizo Mexicans

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Soul and Salsa: Social Exclusion and Linked Fate among

Afro-Mexicans and Mestizo Mexicans

Jennifer A. Jones

University of California Berkeley

410 Barrows Hall

Sociology Department

Berkeley, CA 94720-1980


In this paper, I challenge the literature on closeness between Latinos and African Americans by examining racial closeness between Mexicans and African Americans in Winston-Salem. For them, it is difficult, if not illogical, for Mexicans here to engage in behaviors similar to Mary Waters’ West Indians, in which they achieve mobility by distancing themselves from US minority groups (1999). Contrary to previous studies, I find that a significant number of Afro-Mexicans and Mestizo Mexicans express closeness to African-Americans, contradicting much of the race and immigration literature, which find that Latinos and African-Americans are frequently in conflict. I suggest instead that the experience of Mexicans in a new contemporary geographical and political context is in part a consequence of restrictive immigration policies, Mexicans may move toward a more minority based consciousness and political alignment.


[Slide 1] Until the 1970s, studies of race relations have largely focused on black-white relationships. In recent decades however, massive changes in immigration patterns have shifted some of the focus to inter-group relations between minority groups. In particular, despite the fact that many scholars and activists argue that Blacks and Latinos share political and economic interests, much of the literature on black/brown relations assess relations between the two groups to be negative and in conflict [Slide 2]. (Kaufmann 2003; Marrow 2008; McClain et al. 2006; McClain et al. 2007; Mindiola, Nieman, and Rodriguez 2002).

Moreover, rather than see themselves as having interests in common, many scholars find that Latinos predominantly see themselves as closer to whites, actively distancing themselves from association with African Americans. Indeed, there are numerous structural and cultural reasons why these findings dominate the literature, including patterns of resource competition, labor market competition and intercultural stereotypes (Marrow 2008; Mc Clain et al. 2006; Waters 1999). My data examining Mexican incorporation into North Carolina uncovers a case in which cooperation and closeness with African Americans is common, and racial distancing from whites is the norm. I argue that this case of black/brown closeness is not predicted, nor well explained by the literature. [Slide 3] Therefore, I ask, why, and under what conditions does closeness between Blacks and Latinos emerge? I argue that low levels of resource competition, strained black/white race relations and increasingly repressive immigration policies at the state and municipal level can produce the conditions for a sense of shared interests among blacks and browns.


[Slide 4] This paper is based on data gathered from 85 formal and informal interviews with Afro-Mexicans, Mestizo Mexicans, and community members, as well as twelve months of ethnographic fieldwork in the Winston-Salem area of North Carolina. I also collected twenty years of newspaper reports on immigration and race relations from the local mainstream, Spanish language and African-American press.

While this study looks at both Afro-Mexicans and Mestizo Mexicans in the area, they both adopted a collective minority stance and expressed a closeness with African Americans. Therefore, I’ll discuss them for the most part in the aggregate, but would be happy to take questions on the differences between the two groups in the question and answer period. This study included 35 formal and informal interviews with Mexican migrants. None of the Mexicans in my sample were US-born. Of those 26 respondents who reported their status, only two were documented. The majority of the Mexican respondents reported having little formal education, and were primarily working poor. This contrasts significantly with the whites and African-Americans in Winston-Salem who are more middle class. This study also included 50 formal and informal interviews with African-American, white and Latino community members to make sense of community perceptions and view on integration and race relations.


[Slide 5] Split demographically with about 40 percent blacks and 60 percent whites for most of the twentieth century, demographic and political change has come slowly to Winston-Salem, a medium sized city in the northwest region of North Carolina where this study takes place (Census 2008). [Slide 6] Drawing from my research, I uncovered that for the most part, economic stability and segregation prevented political discord and open hostility. In the 1950s and 60s, major employers such as the RJ Reynolds tobacco company and Hanes hosiery stymied the growth of organized labor by providing relatively high wages and pensions to its black employees (Tursi 1994). As each racial group kept to their own side of town, flourishing more or less separately under the leadership of the Reynolds-Hanes oligarchy, there has been little competition for resources between the two groups, including for housing and employment.

As the political power of Reynolds and Hanes receded in the 1970s and 80s, the economy began to expand. In the 1980s and 1990s, Winston-Salem was still bolstered by big tobacco, but also became a hub for corporate headquarters in the financial, airline and manufacturing industries (Tursi 1994). This dramatically increased the number of white collar jobs available in the area, and as a result, many blacks.

[Slide 7]The sudden influx of Latinos has in many ways forced Winston-Salem residents to deal with issues around race, identity and community at a pace they were entirely unaccustomed to. Moreover, the distance between blacks and whites in this community means that incorporation into Winston-Salem is an either-or process. With few exceptions, one becomes part of the black community or white community, irrespective of class and potential for upward mobility. The uniqueness of these circumstances – an open labor market with little competition for resources, combined with persisting segregation and tension between blacks and whites—is essential in making sense of how newcomers are perceived and integrated into this community.


In this paper, I argue that this sense of closeness is shaped in part by the context of being new immigrants who are confronting the history and tensions of the segregated South and the discourse around race that blacks and whites engage in. This becomes particularly salient when combined with the new institutional context surrounding citizenship status, as well as the high population of Afro-descendant and undocumented populations within the area. I find that by and large, Mexicans are not distancing themselves from blacks. Rather than enacting a strategy of achieving mobility by distinguishing themselves from the perceived social and cultural defects of African Americans and/or viewing themselves in competition with blacks, many Mexican migrants are seeing themselves as close to blackness as a way to make sense of their experiences of discrimination and exclusion.

Shared Exclusion

Latinos in North Carolina are currently experiencing a severe state sponsored backlash in response to their presence. As of 2004, North Carolina was one of ten states that issued drivers licenses to applicants without verification of citizenship status. In 2005, the governor signed the Technical Corrections Act, determining that social security numbers would be the only acceptable documentation for driver’s licenses. Then, beginning in 2006, several North Carolina counties signed on to a previously unused provision of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA),1 287(g). This provision creates agreements between local governments and the ICE to deputize local law enforcement as ICE agents. As a result, local officials under 287(g) can now use this voluntary agreement to turn over minor offenders, such as those driving without a license, to ICE. Though this program is now active in 20 states, North Carolina has been one of the most enthusiastic states in its involvement, with 8 active county agreements.2 [Slide 8] A report3 by the North Carolina ACLU and the Immigration and Human Rights Policy Clinic at UNC Chapel Hill highlights:

Unfortunately, undocumented residence itself is increasingly identified as the predicate crime meriting police attention and resources. Section 287(g) is consequently utilized to purge a town of an “unwelcome” immigrant presence. In the first seven months since implementation of its MOA, Mecklenburg County [Charlotte] processed over one thousand undocumented residents for deportation. (2009: 28).
Moreover, the report argues that a majority of individuals arrested by 287(g) officers in North Carolina counties were arrested for traffic offenses (2009: 46). Other new state-wide anti-immigrant measures, such as banning undocumented students from community colleges, and participation in the Secure Communities program underscore the rapidly shifting landscape of North Carolina for Latino immigrants.

In part, this perception of being discriminated against, and therefore racialized, as well as supported by blacks, is bolstered by racialized differences within local institutions. Policies, such as 287(g) and secure communities, federal programs that are enacted locally, are promoted locally by white sheriffs and a conservative media. The voices that condemn these policies come from the Democratic members on the Winston-Salem city council, a coalition of liberal and moderate blacks and whites, as well as the African American police chief, who has been vocal in his opposition to immigration enforcement on the local level.

This pattern is repeated across counties through out the country. The National Black Police Association signed a letter to President Obama demanding an end to the 287(g) program in 2009. The 2010 executive director wrote an op-ed voicing his organization’s opposition to 287(g), Secure Communities, and Arizona’s SB1070 law in the Washington Post. Similar letters by local chapters of the organization have been submitted across the country (Hampton 2010; WESPAC 2008). Conversely, the National Sheriff’s Association, who locally, are exclusively older white men, passed a 2010 resolution in support of ICE enforcement program (Sheriff’s Association 2010). Despite the important roles played by white liberals in advocating for immigrants, it appears that the nexus of discriminatory practices are divided along racial lines. Many Mexicans perceive that whites participate in discrimination against Latinos, while blacks do not.

In many ways, the gradual dismantling of rights and services available to immigrants, particularly Latinos, over the last several years has created a general sense of distrust and betrayal among Mexicans when referring to whites. Whites are contrasted negatively as both feared and mistrusted in part because many Latinos have little to no contact with them, and in part because they see whites as the power structure that deprives undocumented migrants of the various rights and privileges they need to work and live in North Carolina. One Mestiza Mexican woman told me that Anglos learn Spanish so that they can use it against Latinos. She continued, “You have to be careful. They say they are friends, but they are really racist.” In the view of the Mexicans I’ve spoken to, few maintain that the US is an egalitarian state in which everyone succeeds with hard work. Instead, they see that African-Americans are treated as second-class citizens, and that Mexicans have no rights at all.

I argue that this perspective is shaped in part by the local context of being new immigrants who are confronting the history and tensions of the segregated South. Indeed, instead of viewing themselves in competition with blacks, many Mexican migrants are seeing themselves as close to blacks as a way to make sense of their experiences of discrimination and exclusion. Put another way, Afro-Mexicans and Mestizo Mexicans interpret their experiences to mean that they share a sense of racialized discrimination with African Americans. This has the effect of producing a sense of symbolic closeness defined by a sense of shared social, political, economic and in some cases, cultural similarities. This experience is shaped by settlement in a region that is often defined by its long-standing history of racial tension between blacks and whites, and the relatively new political attempts to strongly enforce and enact immigration laws.

Shared Space and Institutions

In an interview, I spoke with an Afro-Mexican migrant, Juan, who has been living and working in Winston-Salem for over ten years. I asked him if there were tensions between the African-Americans and the Latinos here in Winston-Salem. He said:

“I have heard this, that there is a lot of tension, but that’s not been my experience. I live in a black neighborhood, and I’ve never had any problems with my neighbors. People are very nice, and we get along well. I think some of the tensions come from the problem of language, that we don’t speak the same language, and in any place where you have two groups that are different, with different values or cultures you will have some kind of clash, but I haven’t had any problems. My children attend a mostly black school, and they don’t have any problems.”
Indeed, it is quite remarkable that many adult respondents report a relative closeness to blacks despite relatively low levels of interaction with blacks on a consistent basis.

Although the Latino community is embedded within Black neighborhoods and schools, and thus the level of contact is higher, there is another layer of segregation within these institutions. Churches are divided in to English and Spanish services, large employers segregate their teams by race, immigrant students are funneled into ESL classes, and service providers create special teams or hours for Hispanic clients. As a result, limited prolonged interaction occurs between blacks and Latinos.

Because immigrants have only moved in large numbers to Winston-Salem in the last 10 to 15 years, this is not necessarily surprising. Nonetheless, many of my respondents spoke of social, political and cultural similarities to blacks, suggesting a symbolic sense of closeness. Specifically, they point to whites consistently higher position in the social structure, their own experiences of discrimination, stereotyping and harassment, the use of laws and political institutions to instill fear and take away rights, the need for political change and a new ‘civil rights movement’ and their relative physical proximity to blacks (they live in the same neighborhoods, attend the same schools) in making this analysis. Mexicans point to African American figures from Martin Luther King to President Obama as their role models further linking to African Americans4. Moreover, this political analysis spills into the cultural realm, in which Mexicans point to the relative openness of African Americans to socialize with Mexicans compared to whites, as well as more subtle cultural behaviors, such as their relative sociability compared to whites. Many of my respondents reported that Blacks were friendlier people, more likely to greet them or talk to them than whites, and that they were more likely to know and talk to their African American neighbors than whites.

In the cases that contact does exist, it seems to be highest among Afro-Mexicans, who report the greatest cultural and social similarities with African Americans, and sometimes refer to themselves as black. Indeed, some of my respondents report a familial connection to African Americans, professing more similar social and cultural styles than with their Mestizo Mexican counterparts from the Northern part of Mexico. Jorge, an Afro-Mexican resident of Winston-Salem told me that all of his friends were African American because “that felt like home.”

Nevertheless, for the most part, it the idea of blackness in the US context, not necessarily the personal experience with them, that provides a set of symbols and meanings – the Civil Rights movement, state sanctioned exclusion, and the symbolism and expectations carried by President Obama for immigration reform– that resonate with contemporary Mexican migrants in Winston-Salem. As Eliana, a young Afro-Mexican student told me “I think—Hispanics and African Americans are more close than other races because of, African Americans were like slaves before, and then Latinos they are sometimes not treated right either, so they’re kind of more close together because of that, more than anything else.”

Shared Experiences vs. the Stranger

[Slide 9] Local organizations have specifically come forward to advocate on behalf of Latinos within the context of advocating against discrimination and for minority rights. In a speech on worker’s rights at a Black/Brown conference in the fall 2009, Mr. Phillips, a heavy set African American man and union leader, spoke of his participation in the ‘Freedom Rides’5 in which activists, church members, and community members chartered buses to Washington DC to advocate for immigration reform in 2004. Speaking in a preacher’s cadence and wearing a charcoal gray suit, he noted to the audience that the members of his union didn’t understand why he would be riding the bus with Hispanics from a nearby town. He lectured:

“Employers divide workers along race, gender and immigration status. That is the history. It bugs me when I see black folks talking about them folks. Them folks. Them folks, having benefits, riding up to the office in a Cadillac – you were in his position three years ago, don’t forget! We’re not going to let employers do that to us this time. Divide and conquer. Immigrants can’t participate. ‘Oughta just pack ‘em up and send ‘em back. Well, that’s a whole lot of packing to do, and it makes no sense…In Morristown it’s the same thing, black workers saying “the immigrants are taking our jobs, having babies.” What are you smoking and drinking? It must be good! I don’t know though, anyone who knows me know I don’t drink or smoke (he chuckles to himself). We must be a voice for immigration reform – as human beings, we need to do this. We are connected!
Mr. Phillip’s statement, in which he goes on to quote Dr. Martin Luther King, specifically admonishes blacks who don’t see the connection between the struggles of African Americans and Latino immigrants in the community. He draws on the stereotypes of black welfare recipients of the 1980s, along with pointed connections between the Civil Rights Movement and immigration reform, woven through a discourse of a common humanity. Those words resonated, as evidenced by shouts of ‘Amen!’ from the crowd and spontaneous applause. Moreover, he encouraged Latinos in the audience to stand up and tell their story. Many did, some shyly, struggling to find the English words, others holding back their emotions, all testifying to how they were being abused and manipulated on the job.

This opening for solidarity discourse was particularly pronounced in the civic heart of the community – the church. However here, in North Carolina, as in many places, religious institutions are largely segregated. Though some churches, white and black, are publicly taking a pro-immigrant stance, the discourse within white churches is distinct. Rather than building on a framework of Civil Rights as an articulation of connectedness, white churches articulated a discourse of ‘The Stranger’, asking members and church leadership to ‘welcome the stranger in their midst’.

At a meeting for various faith leaders on the issue of immigration, the pastor, a middle-aged white woman, invited the community of faith leaders (mostly white) to respond to the issue of immigration by highlighting passages from the bible. In calling for faith leaders to get involved, she noted “the bible points to people of faith as a migrating people, that we are wanders. Our story is a migration story.” She then referred to a handout she prepared with various biblical passages, and pointed out to the audience that the bible calls for compassion and hospitality in both the New Testament and the Hebrew texts, saying “to welcome the stranger is to welcome and love Jesus.”

In invoking a biblical history of migration while simultaneously reminding the faith leadership present that they are to ‘welcome the stranger’, the pastor summarized the discourse in the white churches around immigration. There are links in terms of the immigration experience, but they are deep in the past. In the present, their role is to welcome the stranger. This contrasts significantly with Mr. Phillips, who briefly points to the Bible, but then brings his social message to the present, highlighting the 1960s and 1980s, and admonishing those who have quickly forgotten the racism of their youth.

Moreover, these discourses move beyond the confines of leadership meetings and conferences via the Spanish language newspaper, which is often present at these local events, and is read throughout the community6. Additionally, churches in Winston-Salem are the civic institution. The language and discourses adopted by the faith leadership, therefore, have the potential to structure the language and discourse of the entire community. These pro-immigrant stances do not alone create the connections between migrants and the larger community. But they do reinforce them.

From the migrant perspective, while some sympathetic whites may be willing to open their doors and provide social services, African Americans are willing to ride the bus with them to Washington in support of legislating immigration reform and make statements against enforcement policies in their communities. As Eliana, the student I mentioned earlier explained: “In church, they work together. African Americans, help when like Latinos want to, I don’t know how, like I know a lot of African Americans, who want the Latinos who are here illegally to become legal, and they like try to do something to help them.” When I asked her if they received the same support from whites she demurred, noting that some do, but it’s not the same as with blacks. The separation of whites and blacks in this community reinforces these distinct perspectives, producing a set of alliances that trouble the paradigm of black/brown conflict.


[Slide 10] The experience of institutional discrimination, combined with a sense that African Americans understand that experience and support them, is key in producing connections between the two groups. In a context in which competition for resources is not an issue, it is the most salient framework in which race relations are produced. In looking at the experiences of Mexican and Afro-Mexican migrants in the Winston-Salem area of NC, the combination of an increasingly stifling regime of immigration policies throughout the state within the context of a strong history of black/white segregation and conflict means for both groups, a distancing from whites and assert sense of closeness with African Americans.

As immigration settlement patterns change throughout the country, Mexicans now find themselves in a variety of small southern and Midwestern towns and suburbs where their presence is challenging, and in many cases, not welcome. And yet, from the 2006 marches in which Spanish translations of We Shall Overcome were sung in Jackson, Mississippi (Vasquez et al 2008) to Al Sharpton’s many press conferences in Arizona in May of 2010 condemning its new anti-immigrant laws, an increasingly visible alliance between African-American leaders and Latino leaders and community members appears to be emerging. Indeed, as Latinos face greater legislative scrutiny and outright discrimination, greater contestation over citizenship and belonging appears to create a sense of a collective minority status among at least some Latinos and blacks.

At the same time, shifts in the economy have sent many migrants home, where these new racialized US identities are being appropriated and applied to the Mexican context. The growing presence of Carolina blue hats, the use of black American vernacular, and the replacement of corridos with hip-hop music throughout the Costa Chica suggests that these processes are simultaneously local and transnational forms of race making.


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287(g) Program.” Posted August 27, 2010.

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Jeffrey D. Grynaviski, Shayla C. Nunnally, Thomas J. Scotto, J. Alan Kendrick, Gerald F. Lackey, and Kendra Davenport Cotton. 2006. "Racial Distancing in a Southern City: Latino Immigrants' Views of Black Americans." The Journal of Politics 68:571-584.

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1 Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) was made law in the United States in 1996 as a result of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA). Under 287(g), ICE provides state and local law enforcement with the training and subsequent authorization to identify, process, and when appropriate, detain immigration offenders they encounter during their regular, daily law-enforcement activity (Faith Action International House 2009).

2 Only two other states have more agreements, Arizona and Virginia, both with nine.

3 As of 2008, 66 agreements between local municipalities and ICE have been entered into nationwide (Foundation 2009: 20). In July 2009, 11 new agreements were made nationwide, including one in Winston-Salem’s neighboring Guilford County (DHS, July 10, 2009), for a total of 77 agreements nationwide.

4 It should be noted that respondents were not asked any questions about Civil Rights, Black history, or were prompted with any information about Black history. They were asked what they thought of the local, state and federal governments, as well as the president, but no prompts were given.

5 He refers to the “Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride Coalition” which converged in Washington DC in October of 2004. See:

6 The paper is widely available, printed in three city editions, and is free.

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