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Becoming Japanese and Mexican: A Trans-Pacific Social History of Race, Mestizaje, and Resistance across Five Generations.



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Fernandez De Lara Harada, Jessica 


This thesis develops a socio-historical understanding of encoded systems of race, racialised violence and resistances by foregrounding the historical experiences of Mexican descendants of Japanese immigrants over five generations in Mexico. Despite having a genealogy that reaches to the 16th century, these ethno-racial groups are erased from dominant academic, government and popular discourses of national, racial and cultural identity in Mexico. These discourses are informed by mestizaje defined in this thesis as a Euro-American settler colonial system that is embodied, organises social relations between indigeneity, asianness, and blackness, and frames practices of appropriation, dispossession and elimination in Mexico. Addressing this gap, this thesis elaborates ‘writing mestizaje in reverse’ as a decolonial method to challenge the coloniality of mestizaje, undo its epistemic violence and unlock alternative narratives that challenge its racist underpinnings. Building on critical studies of race, ethnicity and resistance, it documents and analyses the dominant notions, structures and operation of mestizaje, in relation to the experiences of Mexicans of Japanese descent from the Mexican Cultural Revolution (1920-1946) to the present. To capture the enduring, yet evolving mestizo system, it attends to geopolitical continuities and shifts in this period, which were informed by the mestizo racial system as a genocidal project.

This thesis builds an intergenerational approach of ‘family histories’ to investigate the meanings of race, ethnicity and social status that arise in systems of relations shaped by the erasure of mestizaje. Based on extended family life history interviews and archival sources with five generations of Mexicans of Japanese descent, gathered over a one-year period of fieldwork research across the US, Japan and the main 23 cities of settlement of Japanese immigrants and their descendants in Mexico, it indicates how Mexicans of Japanese descent have been consistently positioned outside the national project. It argues that Mexicans of Japanese descent have experienced genocide, various degrees of racialised violence and exclusion based on the nullification of their citizenship, on the suppression of their political subjectivity, and on their being subjected to controlling images of non-personhood, and that they resist the mestizo system to gain a sense of inclusion, however conditional, to national spaces. Across chapters that sequentially focus on different generations, I examine how Mexicans of Japanese descent experience, make sense of, and respond to mestizaje, which entails an analysis of the varied and evolving ways they lived through and fought against structural, institutional, and everyday racism.

To begin these inquiries, this thesis elaborates ‘transpacific crossings’ as a critical methodology to chart and scrutinise the symbolic and material effects of racism and the mestizo system on people’s everyday lives. I show how more inconspicuous forms of racialisation of bodily, cultural and other markers of difference, previously ignored in the literature on race and ethnicity, have shaped the experiences of all generations. These experiences were varied, depending crucially on how groups and individuals could leverage their positioning, but followed some main patterns. In this vein, I contend that Issei (first generation Japanese immigrants) were positioned by the Mexican state as non-citizen disposable labour; Nisei (second generation descendants of Japanese immigrants) as national enemies; Sansei (third generation) as ambivalent others for whom association to Japan was less socially desirable; and Yonsei and Gosei (fourth and fifth generations) as multiply situated individuals whose exclusion and conditional inclusion as familiar foreigners depended on perceived racial purity and mixtures deemed desirable to mestizaje. Through this in-depth analysis of the unfolding experiences of five generations of Mexicans of Japanese descent, this thesis contributes to our understanding of mestizaje as a structural system that regulates the ethno-racial exclusion and inclusion of Asians/Japanese in relation to other groups in Latin America, and as a site of negotiations whereby cultural repertoires of resistance can be mobilised by Mexicans of Japanese descent to resist their exclusion and negotiate spaces of recognition and belonging.





Mendes Loureiro, Pedro
Gelsthorpe, Loraine


Asia, Latin America, Iberian Empires, Asian slavery, Anglo-American Hegemony, Transpacific Crossings, Japan, Mexico, Coerced Labour, Racism, Inequalities, Repress-entations, Mobility Controls, Racial Mixture Systems, State Violence, Genocide, Ethnocide, Citizenship, Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Class, Sexuality, Generations, Family Life Histories, Lived Experiences, Strategies of Resistance, Memories, Cultural Repertoires, Homogenous Nation Myths, Racial triangulations, Transnationalism, Nation-State Formation


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Gates Cambridge International Scholarship