Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2021
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
New York University
The Limits of Freedom: The Politics of Labor and Race on Mexico’s Imperial Borderlands (1810-1908)

When Mexican elites abolished slavery in 1829, they were among the first in the Americas to explicitly construct a national identity on the liberal values of abolition and racial equality. Yet Mexico became notoriously involved in various forms of forced labor of non-white Mexicans, often along its imperial borderlands that became rapidly integrated into the world market through commodity production. I bring my training as an historically grounded literary scholar together with methodologies in visual studies to make an original argument about how photographic, legal, and print archives justified forced labor and racial hierarchy within Mexico’s official framework of liberalism and racial inclusion from independence in 1821 until 1910. Canonical literature and history written by liberals in Mexico City construct a national identity grounded in abolition and racial inclusion. Yet other archives reveal practices that blurred the conceptual boundaries between slavery and freedom and the physical boundaries between nations, arising along what I call Mexico’s “imperial borderlands” in Tejas, Yucatán, and Chiapas-Guatemala. I show that the tensions between these different archives reveal compromises and contradictions that arose in Mexican liberals’ nation-building project as racial hierarchy and the immense profitability of agricultural commodity production exposed the limits of freedom and equality. Labor contracts and newspaper debates demonstrate how the rhetoric of freedom and consent was used to condemn the evils of African slavery even as it justified the forced indenture and trafficking of blacks and Indigenous persons. Photographic archives advertised narratives of modernization that subsumed local histories of Indigenous dispossession, enslavement, and resistance under a narrative of national progress. As liberals and revolutionaries throughout the Atlantic world created new definitions of freedom, interpreting sources outside of Mexico’s canonical literature and art shows how racial hierarchy and intensification of market relations limited one of the most ambitious projects of liberty and equality.