Unspeakable Violence: Remapping U. S. and Mexican National Imaginaries


Unspeakable Violence addresses the epistemic and physical violence inflicted on racialized and gendered subjects in the U.S.–Mexico borderlands from the mid-nineteenth century through the early twentieth. Arguing that this violence was fundamental to U.S., Mexican, and Chicana/o nationalisms, Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández examines the lynching of a Mexican woman in California in 1851, the Camp Grant Indian Massacre of 1871, the racism evident in the work of the anthropologist Jovita González, and the attempted ...
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Unspeakable Violence addresses the epistemic and physical violence inflicted on racialized and gendered subjects in the U.S.–Mexico borderlands from the mid-nineteenth century through the early twentieth. Arguing that this violence was fundamental to U.S., Mexican, and Chicana/o nationalisms, Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández examines the lynching of a Mexican woman in California in 1851, the Camp Grant Indian Massacre of 1871, the racism evident in the work of the anthropologist Jovita González, and the attempted genocide, between 1876 and 1907, of the Yaqui Indians in the Arizona–Sonora borderlands. Guidotti-Hernández shows that these events have been told and retold in ways that have produced particular versions of nationhood and effaced other issues. Scrutinizing stories of victimization and resistance, and celebratory narratives of mestizaje and hybridity in Chicana/o, Latina/o, and borderlands studies, she contends that by not acknowledging the racialized violence perpetrated by Mexicans, Chicanas/os, and indigenous peoples, as well as Anglos, narratives of mestizaje and resistance inadvertently privilege certain brown bodies over others. Unspeakable Violence calls for a new, transnational feminist approach to violence, gender, sexuality, race, and citizenship in the borderlands.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Unspeakable Violence is an outstanding analysis of violence in the U.S.–Mexico borderlands. As a historian, I am most impressed by the care that Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández takes to ground her analysis in solid historical research. What I find so refreshing is her willingness to put forth courageous new arguments about what has been little discussed in Chicana/o studies, Latina/o studies, or ethnic studies more broadly. Rather than taking the standard approach of only analyzing violence when Latinas/os are the victims, Guidotti-Hernández reveals borderlands violence in all of its complexity. This is exceptional scholarship.”—George J. Sánchez, author of Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900–1945

“In this exquisite book, Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández examines little-known but critically important episodes of violence in U.S.–Mexican borderlands history. Providing a necessary, long-overdue corrective to Chicana/o and borderlands studies, she suggests that in recounting these events as instances of victimization or acts of resistance, Chicana/o feminist and nationalist scholars create tidy narratives for consolidating Chicana/o nationalist identity. In doing so, they disregard Mexican-American complicity in the very acts of violence they describe.”—María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo, author of The Revolutionary Imagination in the Americas and the Age of Development

<I> Tucson Weekly</I> - Tim Hull

“It is impossible, of course, to wrangle such a wide-ranging and intelligent study into a few easy quips, and to attempt to do so would go against the notion that Guidotti-Hernández's examples of borderland violence reveal a complexity in Arizona's and Mexico's culture and history for which many historians, let alone politicians, don't always like to account.”
Hispanic American Historical Review - Jason Oliver Chang

“Nevertheless, more work can be done to examine the interdisciplinary problems of investigating intersecting oppressions of race, class, gender, and nationality. Unspeakable Violence is a significant point of departure for this important work.”
American Literature - Richard T. Rodr�guez

Unspeakable Violence has arrived on the scene like a breath of fresh air. . . . Unspeakable Violence further exemplifies how the most effective interdisciplinary scholarship is equally indebted to theoretical rigor and historical responsibility. Refusing to pull punches with its multifaceted assessment of Chicano nationalism and its unflinching methodological strategy, Guidotti-Hernández’s volume makes clear to historians the value of literary texts by writers like Jovita González and Monserrat Fontes, whose indelible contributions to an evidential archive are necessary to a more composite record of the past.”
Bulletin of Latin American Research - Elliott Young

“Nicole Guidotti-Hernández’s Unspeakable Violence takes on a lot of sacred cows from chicano(a) nationalism to Mexican indigenismo…One of the most exciting aspects of this book is its explicitly transnational approach.” 
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822350750
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/2011
  • Series: Latin America Otherwise Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Texas, Austin.

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Read an Excerpt


By Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-5057-6

Chapter One


They could cut each other with knives—these miners—riddle enemy or friend with bullets and smile at it; they could strangle a sluice-box thief, snap the neck of a Chinaman by a twist of his pigtail, whet their appetite for breakfast by the butchery of a ranchería of natives, but injure a child, ill-treat an old man, or do violence to a woman, they could not. HUBERT HOWE BANCROFT, POPULAR TRIBUNALS

The occurrence, which was published a few days ago, as having taken place at Downieville, proves to be no fiction as several papers supposed. John S. Fowler, Esq., who witnessed the frightful scene, describes the avair as reflecting infinite disgrace upon all engaged in it. The act, for which the victim suvered, was one entirely justifiable under provocation. She stabbed a man who persisted in making a disturbance in her house, and had outraged her rights. The violent proceedings of an indignant and excited mob, led by the enemies of the unfortunate woman, are a blot upon the history of the state. Had she committed a crime of really heinous character, a real American would have revolted at such a course as was pursued towards this friendless and unprotected foreigner. We had hoped that the story was fabricated. As it is the perpetrators of the deed have shamed themselves and their race. The Mexican woman is said to have borne herself with the utmost fortitude and composure through the fearful ordeal, meeting her fate without flinching. DAILY ALTA CALIFORNIAN, "THE HANGING AT DOWNIEVILLE"

The Independence Day celebrations that took place around the newly formed state of California in 1851 marked its one-year anniversary of admission to the Union. The festivities took a violent turn in a small mining community in Yuba County called Downieville. The state senatorial candidate and future governor John B. Weller gave a speech that day. The small town erupted in riotous, drunken celebration that proceeded into the early hours of the morning. Some say that on the night of the Fourth of July, a woman variously identified as Josefa or Juanita, who was alone in her home, was awakened by a rude disturbance. A man named John Cannon had torn the door of her shack from its hinges, trespassing in her home and possibly picking up her scarf from the floor, with the intention of subduing her with it. The drunken, marauding episode apparently enraged Josefa/Juanita, as it was perhaps not the first time Cannon had accosted her. When Cannon returned the next morning to apologize and settle the damages to their home, he and José (Juanita's partner or husband, who is uniformly identified as a gambler) engaged in a verbal argument, and Josefa/Juanita was drawn into the conflict. Apparently they were speaking Spanish to each other, and in the midst of the argument Cannon called Josefa/Juanita a whore. Without hesitating, she picked up a sharp bowie knife and stabbed Cannon in the heart. He died instantly. After the stabbing, José and Josefa/Juanita fled to Craycroft's saloon. There, they were apprehended, and Josefa/Juanita was taken to the town plaza, where a pseudo-trial took place. The mob, which was made up chiefly of Irish immigrants, wanted them both lynched on the spot. Cannon was popular along the Downie River, and nativist sentiments were running high in light of the celebrations the previous day. Two men tried to defend Josefa/ Juanita: one was Dr. Aiken, a physician who claimed she was pregnant; the other, named Thayer, protested on the platform. He was ordered by the crowd to look out for his own safety and, like Aiken, was driven from the platform as Josefa/Juanita was sentenced to die. José was run out of town, and Josefa/ Juanita was told she would shortly face a lynch mob. Sometime later she was escorted to the Jersey Bridge, where she climbed a scavold, slipped the noose over her head, and walked out on a plank that was then cut out from under her. The crowd cheered in a scene of ritual male bonding as the plank was hacked off and she dropped. Her body allegedly spun and struggled for a half hour before she was removed. Weller watched the entire event and was accused of pandering to the mob to secure votes because he participated in the lynching as a spectator. Some speculate that Josefa/Juanita and Cannon were initially buried in the same grave but that their remains were later dug up to make room for a new theater.

The contemporary newspaper and eyewitness accounts express a general sense of discomfort over this violent episode as they reveal a metanarrative of Josefa/Juanita's lynching that divers dramatically from the dominant narrative. There are many accounts of what happened to Cannon, why Josefa/ Juanita stabbed him, and why she was lynched. Historians more or less agree on the facts as related above. The narratives that follow express greater ambiguity, shock, horror, and amazement about the lynching and diver on whether or not there was a threat of sexual violence by Cannon. The discursive fight over Josefa/Juanita's body in the historical documents and accounts that follow reflects the ways in which U.S. Mexicana subjects are often constructed throughout dominant histories and dominant literary narratives as having no voice and no agency except when confronted with violence against their person, as static subjects that are whole and transparent, existing outside of language and constructed by racist discourse. If individuals who exercised some agency happened to be recorded in the historical record, it was often because they were subjected to some form of brutal, gendered, and racialized violence. I track the competing discourses surrounding Josefa/Juanita's body as a larger battle over the "truthful" narrative of this woman's brutal death before a mob of some three thousand men. Josefa/Juanita's multiple narratives dispute "the gap between the real and the discursive" and raise a very important historiographic and methodological question: What does it mean for Josefa/Juanita to be inaugurated as a subject through an act of violence? In exploring this question, I analyze the various political agendas that get played out and through Josefa/Juanita's lynched body. I work with a range of primary and critical scholarly sources to show that history, literature, biography, and metanarrative have all used Josefa/Juanita to meet the desires of particular self-serving political agendas.

Maj. William Downie's (the first mayor of Downieville in 1849, and for whom the town was named) memoir has a chapter on Josefa/Juanita called "Lynching a Beauty," a version that remembers some things and intentionally forgets others, such as the Mexican "whose name has been long forgotten [José] ... who would personally never have been known save for his partner in the clay hut, a woman known as Juanita." Downie suggests that the male subject of this history, José, would not exist without the narrative of his partner, Josefa/Juanita; the roles of gendered privilege and race are shifted as José's masculinity is trumped by Josefa/Juanita's role as a historical actor. We know about Josefa/Juanita and José only because of the violence she enacted against Cannon and the violence of her lynching, but this does not mean she did not exist as a historical subject prior to the lynching. This chapter focuses on questions of desire, rage, agency, and pain as they are represented in narratives about Josefa/Juanita and presupposes that she was a subject constructed through systems of language and not just social forces. Often positioned as ancillary descriptors (rage, desire, agency, and pain), this nexus of power relations reveals the many purposes Josefa/Juanita serves in historical, cultural, and nation-building projects. Further, how her purpose and narratives are rendered and to what end can be quite seductive in the service of the resistance versus assimilation narrative that often grounds ethnic and Chicana/o studies projects. Desire, as it was enacted by Josefa/Juanita and those in her social world, as well as the desires of the critic and historian is a huge, critical piece of the puzzle. As I read the documents, I try to uncover the desires underlying the discourses and silences, for they are strategic in constructing a particular kind of narrative. When scholars desire to repeat the triumphant narrative of Josefa/Juanita's resistance, another layer of silence is created by discursive violence. Rather than being seduced by the resistance narrative that potentially emerges from this history, we need to theorize and historicize Josefa/Juanita's death to reveal how violence was a social practice. Seduction and violence, as we will see, are yoked by both the way in which the stories are told and the fact that their sensationalism, devoid of detail, has a seductive power.

My critique of sensationalism emphasizes how the emotive, extreme, affective, outlandish, and extraordinary aspects of a story such as Josefa/Juanita's draw a reader away from the intentionality behind narrative historical construction and toward an uncritical response. Whereas an uncritical response might take the form of "What an awful story," a critical one might ask, "Why is this story awful, and for whom and to what end?" The uncritical response has the power of sway and is not about truth or fiction but about the psychic and emotive power of a story. In addition, the veracity of the discourse is taken for granted, especially in this case. Working in concert, the assumed transparency of language and sensationalism seduce us into accepting a singular narrative of truth and resistance, one in which we take for granted the emotive power of a singular narrative of the lynching instead of questioning the motives behind it. When numerous Chicana/o studies scholars narrate Josefa/Juanita's utterances on the lynching platform as the narrative of a triumphant survivor who resisted Anglo domination and hegemony by talking back to the lynch mob, they reproduce resistance as the sole narrative account of what her lynching means. Furthermore, the narration of Josefa/ Juanita's resistance is often given a sensationalist slant. Sensationalism announces a set of ideas with the intention of displacing or forgetting the contradictory, the gray, and the unappealing, which is why I want to shift the discussion about Josefa/Juanita's lynching away from the seductive and exceedingly appealing resistance narrative of talking back to the colonizer to a discussion of language as radically exterior to the body but part of the processes of subject formation.

Given the triangulation of seduction, sensationalism, and desire to access or control power, I want to focus on the most unspoken, underanalyzed facet of Josefa/Juanita's lynching, namely, how her rage and honor are sensationalized and pathologized in contrast to the portrayal of the lynch mob. Certain things are intentionally unspoken in this story because they unsettle the narrative of victimization and resistance, especially within a Chicano studies and Chicano nationalist context. To sensationalize something is to empty it of meaning, to aim for violently exciting effects calculated to produce a startling but superficial impression. I want to get at the silences underneath the sensationalism, at what is articulated beyond the trivial evocation of Cannon's stabbing and Josefa/Juanita's lynching and at the multidirectional ways in which language is mobilized to cement particular ideas of a racialized subject that exists outside of language. Sensationalism, much like resistance, has a seductive quality. To the African American studies scholar Saidya Hartman, seduction implies a theory of power that demands ultimate submission. Seduction "designate[ s] the displacement and euphemization of violence, for seduction epitomizes the discursive alchemy that shrouds direct forms of violence under the veil of 'enchanted relations.'" The theoretical insights of Hartman's analysis of sexual and physical violence against slaves address the insistent masquerade of "enchanted relations"—that Josefa/Juanita and Cannon were lovers and were buried in the same grave—built into depictions of Josefa/Juanita's sexuality and rage. Miscalculations of these "enchanted relations" account for a rage so hostile and so deeply experienced in the flesh that the myth of reciprocity is replaced with an act of murder, an act to defend bodily integrity. By linking articulations of rage, honor, seduction, desire, and pain, we may better understand how radical subjectivities are produced.


Josefa/Juanita's name is unclear in the historical record, which points to a larger problem of identifying marginal subjects in traditional archival sources. Her multiple names, her multiple racial identities, and the multiple narratives about her death exemplify how subjects existing at the interstices of multiple colonial regimes are consistently transformed into racialized objects that have several names at once. Having no names and many names also signifies how we can reinterpret the narrative of Josefa/Juanita's lynching as a complex, contradictory moment in a larger discussion of subject formation and historiography. These signifiers shift us away from a solely race-based or ego-based understanding of arrangements of power and force us to focus on how language functions "like an alien body that grafts itself onto the order of the body and of nature." Something that seems easily dismissed as a transparently racist gesture of misidentification, the name of Josefa or Juanita or both in the historical record is actually something quite complex, showing how language is what makes the subject and the body.


Excerpted from UNSPEAKABLE Violence by Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


About the Series....................ix
A Note on Terminology....................xi
1. A Woman with No Names and Many Names: Lynching, Gender, Violence, and Subjectivity....................35
2. Webs of Violence: The Camp Grant Indian Massacre, Nation, and Genocidal Alliances....................81
3. Spaces of Death: Border (Anthropological) Subjects and the Problem of Racialized and Gendered Violence in Jovita González's Archive....................133
Introduction to Part Two....................173
4. Transnational Histories of Violence during the Yaqui Indian Wars in the Arizona–Sonora Borderlands: The Historiography....................177
5. Stripping the Body of Flesh and Memory: Toward a Theory of Yaqui Subjectivity....................235
Postscript On Impunidad: National Renewals of Violence in Greater Mexico and the Americas....................289
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