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Mexicanos in New Orleans: back to the 19th century

There is some fabulous new research coming out now on the histories of Latinxs in the U.S. South. For example, I just read, “Brokering Modernity: The World’s Fair, Mexico’s Eighth Cavalry Band, and the Borderlands of New Orleans Music, 1884-1910.” This dissertation by Valerie Jiménez, who receives her Ph.D. this week from Northwestern University, explores the ways that Mexican and New Orleans elites negotiated the tensions between their countries and cultures while trying to reap mutual economic benefit from their relationship. Corazón de Dixie discusses the Europeanized image of Mexicanos in New Orleans in the interwar period; well, Jiménez has shown us where that image comes from and how it came to be in the first place.

Earlier in the nineteenth century, as Southern soldiers mobilized to fight Mexico in the war of 1846-8, New Orleans was a center of open hostility towards Mexico. In her research, however, Jiménez found that the 1884 World’s Fair in New Orleans, which featured Mexico’s Eighth Cavalry Band as a prominent act, marked a turning point. Elites on both sides wanted to repair the wounds of the Mexican War to forge closer commercial relations between Mexico and New Orleans. The fair and the band provided an opportunity for such a rapprochement. During and after the fair, the Mexican band became enormously popular and had a significant influence on the New Orleans music scene, including both white and African American jazz musicians. Underlying tensions between Mexicans and white New Orleaneans continued to surface at particular flash points. Nevertheless, a significant change, at least at the elite level, had taken place—and it happened in large part through music and popular culture.

Thanks to Jiménez’s research, perhaps we can now delineate the period of 1884-2005 as the period of Mexicanos’ provisional whiteness in New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina then swept in a new Latinx workforce, and with it, an anti-Latinx reaction in the city that continues to this day.