Marriage and Mestizaje, Chinese and Mexican: Constitutional Interpretation and Resistance in Sonora, 1921-1935
Law & History Review, Vol. 29, No. 2, 2011
Posted: 15 Jul 2010
Date Written: July 14, 2010
In December 1923, the state congress in Sonora, Mexico, enacted Law 31, a pointed anti-miscegenation law that prohibited marriage between Mexican women and Chinese men. Although prejudice against Chinese in Sonora was long-standing, Law 31 marked a decided uptick in the use of law and legislation to discriminate against them. Mexican Chinese couples responded in kind: they challenged Law 31 in federal court, seeking amparo – judicial relief – against its enforcement. The petitions and public reaction to them tell a complex story about constitutional interpretation, judicial process, federalism and national identity, on the one hand, and race, gender, marriage and family, on the other.
At the lower federal court level, the nearly complete success of Chinese amparo petitions against Law 31 in 1924 and 1925 represented a short span of time when a handful of federal judges made real in the lives of a despised minority the promises of equality set forth in Mexico’s 1917 Constitution. The federal judges, and Arsenio Espinosa in particular, did so by strictly applying the law and, thus, asserting the supremacy of the federal Constitution over the ordinary legislation of the state of Sonora.
In contrast, the Second Chamber of the Mexican Supreme Court decided the Law 31 appeals it heard on other grounds: the proper allocation of legal authority. In the first case, the court considered what government entity could impose fines and punishments. In the second case, the court evaluated whether and how state authorities could regulate marriage. Through its decisions, the Second Chamber ultimately legitimated Sonora’s defiance of federal law and its state-sanctioned discrimination against Chinese. Marriage equality failed and with it some of the promise of the 1917 Constitution.
Keywords: legal history, Mexico, judiciary, marriage, antimiscegenation law, Chinese, race
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