A Brief History of Race and the U.S.-Mexican Border: Tracing the Trajectories of Conquest


The conquest of Mexico between 1846 and 1848 has largely disappeared from public consciousness as a significant historical event with contemporary consequences. Yet this conquest resulted in the annexation by the United States of approximately one-half of former Mexico, constituting most of the current southwestern United States. In this Article, I describe the roles that race and racism played in justifying the conquest, and I explore some of the current consequences of the conquest.

One of the defining features of any conquest is the subordination of the conquered. The history of the conquered Mexicans of the Southwest demonstrates this purposeful subordination. Through careful redrafting of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the U.S. Congress reserved to itself discretion over when to admit the conquered territories as states. Congress waited until Mexicans were politically disempowered racial minorities within each territory before admitting the conquered territories as states with political representation. This happened earliest in the cases of Texas (annexed in 1845) and California, and latest in New Mexico, which was denied statehood until 1912.

The minimization of the political power of Mexicans as Mexicans emerges, then, as a prominent theme of the conquest. I believe this theme can be generalized to all Latino peoples subject to U.S. conquest. The minimization of the political power of Latinos continues today, in at least three areas. First, nearly four million U.S. citizens resident in Puerto Rico live without voting rights or political representation in the federal government, yet are subject to federal law, violating democratic theory. Second, the intentional, long-term exploitation of undocumented Latino immigrant labor maximizes agricultural profits while minimizing the potential political power of the immigrants. Lastly, attempts to curtail the use of Spanish through Official English laws and other restrictions symbolize the subordination of Spanish speakers and result in less access and use of the democratic process.

These are some of the “trajectories of conquest.” The study of this history helps explain why Latino political power always seems less significant than population numbers and demographic projections suggest it should be.

About the Author

Cone, Wagner, Nugent, Johnson, Hazouri & Roth Professor of Law, University of Florida Levin College of Law.

By uclalaw