Academic journal article Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies

The Erotics of Racialization: Gender and Sexuality in the Making of California

Academic journal article Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies

The Erotics of Racialization: Gender and Sexuality in the Making of California

Article excerpt

Indigenous people understand that there is no difference between the
telling and the material. They understand how we all, in fact, live
inside and through the narratives we tell and that the importance in
telling stories is inseparable from the identity, community, and history
they compose and the spiritual, economic and political realities on
which they depend and which they subvert or preserve.
joannemariebarker and Teresia Teaiwa, "Native InFormation" (1)

The metaphoric use of the female body in white men's conquests and wars is a global phenomenon as old as Portuguese navigation. Women as symbols--particularly women as sex objects--have been a cornerstone of Orientalist ideology and, hence, essential to the entire colonial undertaking. (2) In the Americas, sixteenth-century engravings depicting the encounter between the Old World and the New represented the recently "discovered" continent, "America," as a naked woman awakened from savagery by a European man with cross and compass in hand. In this dichotomous portrayal of New World savagery and European civilization, the lascivious image of America alluded to the voracious and erotic Amerindian women pervasive in New World accounts. With the invention of the printing press in the sixteenth century, these feminized representations of the New World became widely available. (3) Significantly, the sexualized representations of Amerindian women were an integral part of the very first writings introducing the newly discovered world and its Others to Europeans.

The symbolic use of women in colonization projects involves imagining the land about to be colonized as female and repeatedly constructing Native women in ways that justify not only the violence and the destruction of the conquest but also the subsequent marginalization of the colonized. For example, in the Southwest, the U.S. invasion in the early 1800s was a gendered enterprise in which "Spanish" women symbolized the desirable part of the country about to be conquered, and dichotomous constructs of morally and racially inferior Mexicanos justified expansion and war. (4) In Presidarias y Pobladoras: Spanish-Mexican Women in Frontier Monterey, Alta California, 1770-1821, Antonia Castaneda examines the narratives of the first Euro-Americans to write about California; she finds that negative stereotypes of Native women and lower-class Mexicanas combined with romanticized stereotypes of upper-class Spanish women constituted a politics of sex central to the ideology of Manifest Destiny. (5) In the context of emerging Social Darwinism, the denigrating portrayals of Native and Mexicana women served the inaccurate judgment of the character of Southwestern peoples. Meanwhile, upper-class Californianas became highly sexualized targets of Euro-American chivalric missions that were used to justify territorial conquest and war. (6) Yet how did the symbolic use of Native, Mexicana, and Californiana women evolve from the period of Western territorial conquest to the turn of the twentieth century, when racialization processes began to be justified and legitimated through romance and nostalgia? Indeed, how did the politics of sex essential to the ideology of Manifest Destiny evolve to better serve the hegemonic needs of a newly racialized California?

This essay traces the symbolic use of Southwestern women in California's popular culture from the early 1800s to the turn of the twentieth century. In the late 1800s, as the United States shifted its imperial gaze abroad, the Spanish-heritage movement emerged as a regional manifestation of much broader national movements to secure hegemonic dominance at home. My discussion of the movement's most important novel, Ramona, and of other cultural manifestations promoting the state's Spanish heritage shows how the discursive dimensions of the racial order emerging in late nineteenth-century California were grounded in a gendered and sexually charged Manifest Destiny ideology regenerated through the romanticization of the state's Spanish past. …

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