Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Irish Orphan Abduction: A tale of race, religion and lawlessness in turn-of-the-century Southern Arizona

Such a shocking and dreadful story that speaks to the vitriolic racism of White folks living in the Clifton-Morenci area of Arizona in the early 1900s—where my grandfather, Camilo Alfredo Rios, once worked as a miner by day and a minister in the evenings and weekends in nearby Clifton in the early 1940s. He preached alternatively in Baptist and Presbyterian churches, saying that Presbyterians were "Baptists in dry country," referring to the differences in baptism, submersion in water versus Presbyterians' sprinkling or pouring of water. 
I come from a long line of Protestant, mostly Baptist, ministers that were in fact founders of the Baptist church in Mexico back when it was viewed more like a religious sect—and still is in some places. This is the part of my lineage that is Sephardic Jew, successfully evading the Spanish Inquisition in the vast Sierras of southern Mexico. It's really interesting to see all these folks in the mountains of Guerrero who have been Protestant for generations in great part because of the many seeds that were planted and sown there in the early- to mid-1800s. My grandfather's father himself, Vicente Rios Pineda, founded 15 Baptist churches in Guerrero and Michoacán, many of them operating still today.
My grandfather shared with his grandchildren stories about the wage discrimination that he experienced while working in the copper mines. It angered him that he would be required to train Anglos to do their jobs and how they would then make more money after that doing the same job for the same work right next to him. My grandfather's positionality as a minister combined with his social justice impulse that he had inherited from his own parents—found expression in his activism as a minister upon his being on the receiving end of this discrimination by Anglos in his day. He didn't understand this unequal treatment and it always angered him deeply.
In the 1950s, my grandfather was involved in the desegregation of public establishments. He single-handedly as a minister desegregated the Concho River where the children used to swim—Anglos upstream, Mexican Americans midstream, and African Americans downstream. He and his sons desegregated the municipal swimming pool. There's a lot of important detail to these stories, of course. My grandmother worked, as well, to persuade the Protestant ministers' wives in town to tell their husbands to employ Mexican Americans for their businesses so that they did not have to leave San Angelo to work on the migrant stream so that the children could remain in school and get educated. These efforts, of course, led to significant changes over time, including the bringing down of the "No Mexicans or Dogs" signs at public establishments.
Next to my parents, my grandparents were easily the most influential persons in my young life, growing up in my West Texas town of San Angelo, not very far from Austin—3 1/2 hours drive, which is a short distance by Texas standards.
My grandparents had arrived in Morenci-Clifton after this "Irish Orphan Abduction" story had already occurred. I wish my grandpa were alive so that I could talk to him about this because he would have definitely known the details surrounding this case since he was deeply involved in the community.
I encourage you to read the entire story. It provides insight into the history and complexities of race relations, including what often is an affinity between Mexicans and Irish folks. Through my maternal grandfather who was Spanish-Irish, our name is O'Hara. According to my DNA analysis, I myself am part Irish—10 percent. However, our family name is "Haro," because Mexican immigration agents couldn't say the name and "translated" it to another, more recognizable, one for Mexicans. Racial purity is such a profound, misguided myth. Race itself is a social construct—and a very powerful one, indeed.
Aside from the atrocious way that these children's attempted-adoptions-turned-abductions were handled, a deeper concern is with how these Irish children, members of an ethno-religious group, were forced to become white—and violently so.
We often think of these racial categories as fixed and unchanging when, as this story exemplifies, race is best understood as a process of "racialization" which means a coming into being. We largely assume that race is natural, like the "air that we breathe," when, in fact, it is a deeply historic and profoundly lived aspect of our existence—for minorities and majorities alike.
The best book to read on this, in my opinion, is Michael Omi & Howard Winant's, Racial Formation in the United States. They theorize a credible, well-documented framework on an historical process that they term, "racialization."
Slavery has always existed, unfortunately. But historically, one never enslaved a race. One enslaved a people who could be of any hue. So race is a modern construct and related to the colonization of this continent by settlers who in the span of time—abetted by machinations and artifice—come to see themselves as superior and entitled to their status within the extant social (racial and economic) structure of society. 

This story on Arizona screams white entitlement.
I'm not pointing fingers here. I am a teacher. I am asking what can we learn from this story?  It is an important question, lest we open the door to even darker ways of knowing and being in the world. In what world would a scenario like this ever be acceptable? I frankly don't care if it's the "lawless" Wild West. How if that were an explanation.
However casually, unknowingly, or painfully we live and experience race and racism in our lives today, it remains a social construction tied to powerful facets of our history that this story poignantly illustrates. W.I. Thomas' dictum works well here: "That which is perceived as real, is real in its consequences." 
Race is real, my friends, but not biologically. Rather it is tied to social, economic, and political forces that have given, and continue to give, rise to it. It's an everyday affair about which we all need to be more cognizant.
It had been awhile since giving thought to Linda Gordon's excellent historical account, The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction. So many lessons to take away from another great book for race relations/Ethnic Studies scholars.
Thanks to Juan Marinez for sharing. Continue reading here.
Angela Valenzuela 

Tucson Weekly

The Irish Orphan Abduction

A tale of race, religion and lawlessness in turn-of-the-century Southern Arizona


Courtesy The Copper Era At the turn of the century, Clifton was a Wild West mining town. The copper 
smelter stained the air with sulfurous emissions, and some women blamed their infertility on the pollution.

© 2017 Tucson Weekly

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