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Sweet Home Arizona
BY JoAnn Wypijewski

The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction • By Linda Gordon
Harvard University Press • 416 pp • $29.95 • November 1999

It seemed an ordinary enough journey given its extraordinary purpose. It began September 25, 1904, with a train gleaming as it left Grand Central Station, becoming progressively sooty as it crossed farms and plains onward to the bleached Southwestern desert, carrying through that curious, harsh territory three Sisters of Charity from the New York Foundling Hospital, four nurses, one male agent/protector, and fifty-seven orphans destined for Arizona and the foster families awaiting them.

The orphans were mostly the sons and daughters of Irish immigrants, the majority of whom weren't dead at all, only too poor or too young--often both--to care for their children. The foundling hospital was a last-chance depository, where women left their babies, sometimes wordlessly, sometimes with a note pinned to a smock: "This is little Augusta, born January 30, 1870. O Crule Poverty."

That particular message preceded by a generation the birth of these Arizona-bound children, but the sentiment, and the conditions of life, had not much changed. The Irish were the biggest immigrant group in New York City, among the most powerful but also the poorest. They dominated the Democratic Party and the Roman Catholic Church; also the servant class, right down to street level, where Irish women constituted the largest group of prostitutes. Among the city's elite, the Irish were caricatured as drunken and loose, and even among the Irish themselves, striving for recognition and status, the foundlings were an embarrassment, symbols of an improvident "race." The train crossing was therefore a dramatic pivot, a passage that, writes Linda Gordon in The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction, not only "transported [the children] from orphanhood to son- and daughterhood" but also "transformed them from Irish to white." You see, the women preparing to embrace the children in the twin copper-mining towns of Clifton and Morenci were Mexican, and they never could be "white."

Writing contemporaneously with the events at the heart of Gordon's fascinating, almost cinematic book, John R. Commons in his Races and Immigrants in America observed, "The children of all the races of the temperate zones are eligible to the highest American civilization, and it only needs that they be 'caught' young enough." By "caught," Commons, in 1907 a professor at the University of Wisconsin (Gordon's academic home), meant enmeshed in "American" institutions and acclimated, if possible, by "American" families, all toward the advancement of "American" democracy. It's doubtful that this republican-minded, if liberally bigoted, intellectual would have counseled the Anglos of Clifton-Morenci to go so far in the civilizing mission as to form vigilante squads, kidnap the children from their new Mexican families, threaten the Sisters, their agent, and the local priest with tar, feathers and lead; but it amounted to the same.

With women taking the initiative, the Anglos of the towns did all of those things, submerging their class and social differences to thwart this family "race mixing," which they regarded as child abuse. Women who worked in their husbands' saloons took orphans for themselves and denounced the Mexicans as drunkards and libertines. Mine supervisors who had opposed Mexican workers' demands for raises and showers now ridiculed the same workers as poor and dirty. The Sisters themselves conceded that there had been a mistake: The local priest, a Frenchman who'd chosen the Mexican families for their piety (few Anglos were Catholic, and fewer attended church), wasn't sufficiently sensitive to notice that the prospective mothers weren't "fair" enough for the children.

Back in New York, the foundling hospital ultimately didn't challenge the kidnapping or the race hate or even the presumption of Protestants to claim Catholic children but sued only for the return of its infant property. And all the way up to the Supreme Court, the guardians of the nation's written and unwritten race laws validated Arizona's ruling that "the child in question is a white, Caucasian child" and the Mexican is, "by reason of his race, mode of living, habits and education, unfit to have the custody, care and education of the child." In Commons's terms, being "caught" by a Mexican would consign the formerly Irish street urchin forever to a state of beastliness.


Rootsweb maintains a directory of Arizona historical and genealogical resources, and Yahoo has a directory of Whiteness Studies resources: both useful in making sense of what happened in Clifton-Morenci.

Those interested in John R. Commons can read a biography of him available at the Wisconsin State Bar's web site, or try to join the University of Wisconsin's Economics graduate student group named in his honor.

Gordon tells this story in nine narrative chapters that suspensefully reconstruct a few days in 1904 and 1905. Spliced between those chapters are explorations of copper mining and company towns, borderlands and the construction of apartheid in the Southwest, miraculous faith and religious structure, migration and its shaping of womanhood, "orphan trains," family dynamics, vigilantism and labor militancy as expressed in the great strike of 1903. Now, almost a hundred years after the "orphan abduction," its principals are dead and the memory of it distorted. A Federal Writers' Project oral history recounted the Anglos' tale of child abuse; Mexican accounts were not preserved. So Gordon has brilliantly retrieved history, in the process providing a vivid, complex addition to the growing scholarship on "whiteness."

Her purpose is at least twofold, though: to illustrate how the toxic "race contract" of Americanism trumped all; and to trace the ways women used their passionate attachment to maternity to express defiance and expand their social authority. She succeeds better in the first of those aims--perhaps because the historical record that exists about the women is limited to their public actions, leaving private motives to conjecture, perhaps because the orphan taking was not fundamentally about children or motherhood at all.

To say that impels one to want to take it back almost immediately. As Gordon's work shows so well, history is like a fine, tangled chain. Pull on a single strand and you get nowhere. Work away at the mass of strands, following the trail of their entanglement, and you recover the whole. Certainly, the frenzy over the children in Clifton-Morenci was not just about color or national chauvinism. It was also about class status--an opportunity for common Anglo laborers to act as one with merchants and mine supervisors (here Gordon's chapter on vigilantism, Anglo and Mexican, is wonderful) and another means of solidifying the two-tier pay scale in the mines. The Mexican wage, it was argued, disqualified Mexicans from orphan adoption but was deemed adequate to support Mexican children; that disqualification, along with social proscriptions against intermarriage, hindered Mexican families in their own quest for higher status via fairer skin.

Because women took in the children, and women instigated the kidnapping, the orphan incident also involved sex-role expectations. In Anglo society, the women's claim to superior knowledge of child welfare gave them standing to set the orphan "rescue" in motion (it's doubtful that without their insistence the Anglo men would have taken much interest), just as it credentialed them to advocate for education, sanitation, and charitable works. Their claim to virtue gave them standing to judge Mexican morality. And it was only through such womanly concerns that they had power to shape civic life. But it's a leap from there to assert, as Gordon does, that "one component of the Anglo women's sense of racial superiority was their desire to advance women." Or that "their own restiveness against male dominance led Anglo women to even greater disregard for another group of women." Or that the "women's clash could be called a tragic encounter because both groups were motivated in large part by the truly charitable impulse to mother an orphan, an impulse defiled by racism but visible nevertheless."

All of this may be true, but there's little evidence for it. The Anglo women vilified Mexican men as violent and domineering--could not the same be said of their husbands?--but they did not act to relieve pressure on Mexican families, did not approve of Mexican women who chose Anglo men, and could not conceive that education for Mexican girls might extend beyond training to be servants. Their improving mission certainly gave Anglo women a slim escape from the home, but who's to say that its vehemence in this case had to do with defiance rather than with that sense of racial superiority? And except for a few oohs and ahs over the children on first sight at the train station, it's not at all clear that these women were driven by maternal passions. They sanctioned the kidnapping, after all--at gunpoint, in the night, in the rain. (One child later died, perhaps as a result of this exposure.) They sanctioned the terrorizing of the nuns and of the children whom the vigilantes had not succeeded in wresting away. And once they had a collection of orphans under their control, they picked over them as if over merchandise, selecting for characteristics they judged most desirable.

It's hard to imagine that the Anglo women so warmed by the children's appearance would have developed fevered desires for them if the women waiting to claim the tots in the church had been white. They may have sincerely feared child abuse, but there seems no reason to believe that at the core of that fear were maternal feelings, just as ninety years later the panic over "ritual abuse" in day-care centers had almost nothing to do with child welfare and everything to do with fears about family fragility, fears about sex, feelings of powerlessness--and plain old crowd pathology. (As Gordon masterfully dissected in a 1989 article for Against the Current.)

Gordon's discussion of the women's realities is never facile, but it seems that only a wishful faith in sisterhood under the skin could have prompted her to lament its absence here, to speak of the orphan story as "a tragedy generated from silence, created because two groups of women could not speak to each other." The assumption here of women's natural unity parallels another argument, made by the venerable professor Commons and by prominent academics today (though not by Gordon): that class fellowship should supersede racial conflict once workers find common cause in unions, that the tragedy of working-class racism lies in workers' inability to see how divisions are manipulated from capitalist high command.

Certainly, they are manipulated, but organized labor's continued confrontation with racism indicates there's more to the story. Similarly, Gordon compellingly shows how the poisonously creative, ever- shifting boundaries of race made any expectations of sorority impossible. Not proximity or class interest or even a shared status of exclusion had a prayer of matching "race" power. Where Gordon is so interesting, and where the book haunts the reader afterward, is in the way her narrative tracks the subtle, persistent, untidy presence of that poisonous creativity.

So, as she relays, American soldiers (white and black) considered the Apaches savages and killed them. Mexicans called the Apaches indios bárbaros, considering them brave but wild, and killed them, too. Mexicans called themselves gente de razón, people of reason, and were themselves called wild, backward, and stupid by the Anglos, who also spoke of "the wild Irish." With live Indians annihilated, the white men of the town mimed their traditions and invoked "the true American spirit" in establishing the whites-only Improved Order of Red Men. In listing his parishioners, the priest who had assigned the orphans followed U.S. Census categories. Among "family heads (white)," he counted 7 Americans, 4 Italians, 12 Spaniards, 156 Mexicans. Among "family heads (nonwhite)," he counted no one. The majority of Anglos slotted Italians and Spaniards into a racial netherworld, but then rallied to the cries of one Louisa Gotti, who demanded Whites for the Whites in the orphan matter.

And that's not the half of it. A generation earlier, Mexicans had joined Anglos in expelling Chinese from the mines. Meanwhile, "white man's camps" barred Chinese, Mexicans, southern and eastern Europeans but not blacks: As Gordon recounts, "James Young, a black man at the Contention mine in nearby Tombstone, remarked 'Si White and I were the first white men in Tombstone after Gird and Schieffelin.'" Both Anglos and Mexicans reveled in minstrel shows, whether in segregated or integrated theaters. The socialist Western Federation of Miners excluded Mexicans, fanned anti-Mexican bigotry, and, even while supporting a "Mexican strike" in Clifton-Morenci in 1915--1916, lobbied for laws to deprive Mexicans of jobs and the vote.

Toward the end of her book, Gordon writes, "Part of the tenaciousness and adaptability of the idea of race is that it harmonizes so well with the emotional secret gardens we construct around family relations." She is explaining why children particularly should have evoked such extreme reactions as occurred in Arizona in 1904. She could equally well be talking about the way racism is reproduced in the emotional secret gardens every person holds within, the existential hideouts that must be visited and revisited, until all that's sown by poison is named and uprooted.

JoAnn Wypijewski is a senior editor of The Nation. Her book, Painting by Numbers: Komar and Melamid's Scientific Guide to Art, was recently published in paperback by the University of California Press.

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