Laura E. Gómez

Weatherhead Resident Scholar


Manifest Destinies: Law and Race in the 19th Century Southwest

The westward growth of the United States in the 19th century is often described as a “series of purchases and annexations,” such as the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. However, this version of the national story is at odds with historical accuracy. “When we think of America’s westward expansion,” says Laura E. Gómez, “we think in terms of ‘annexation’ rather than colonization, of ‘opening’ rather than conquering, and of ‘settling’ unpopulated lands rather than displacing existing populations.”

This euphemistic picture reflects what Gómez calls our “collective amnesia” about the war with Mexico, which, in addition to significantly expanding U.S. borders, resulted in the inheritance of more than 140,000 Mexicans and Indians who lived in the region. In her book Manifest Destinies: Law and Race in the 19th Century Southwest, Gómez analyzes the resulting racial dynamics and how those complex relationships ultimately changed both the racial order of the Southwest and the nation as a whole. Trained in law and sociology at Stanford University, Gómez draws also on history and anthropology in framing her interdisciplinary approach to understanding these under-explored tensions.

Manifest Destinies spans the period from 1846 through the 1890s, when New Mexico was a U.S. territory under federal control. Gómez examines how Mexican elites positioned themselves as a wedge racial group between the Euro-American minority—who controlled the government, important economic enterprises, and the legal system—and the Indians, including established Pueblo communities and nomadic tribes. While law was “a crucial tool in the American colonization of New Mexico,” she argues that the courts and other legalized sites, such as the territorial legislature, were places where Mexicans (and, to a lesser extent, Pueblo Indians) leveraged power “to shape their destinies under a new sovereign.”

Gómez observes, “New Mexico emerges as the optimal site for exploring the clash of peoples in the 19th century Southwest because it is the product of what I term a double-colonization: the American colonization of the 19th century was grafted onto the Spanish colonization of previous centuries.”

Affiliation at time of award:
Professor of Law and Sociology, University of California, Los Angeles

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