Louisiana ultimately fell to Union forces early during the conflict when in 1862 Union admiral David G. Farragut, himself of Spanish ancestry, led the USS Hartford past the Chalmette batteries and took the port city of New Orleans by securing control of the Mississippi River, thereby effectively capturing the state for the Union. Economic recovery was slow in Louisiana after the Civil War, as slavery and the dependence on the plantation system were replaced with farm tenancy and sharecropping. The importance of the Mississippi River as a steamer commercial route was also diminished because of the emergence of railroad construction and related industries. Reconstruction in Louisiana, as in much of the South, was overseen by military governors who attempted to ensure, with limited success, that slaves would be freed and given suffrage, but literacy and poll tax laws aimed at former slaves disenfranchised them from the promise of political participation and cultural enfranchisement. Literacy laws, however, disenfranchised not only freed blacks but also Latinos. Recent arrivals to the region as well as established native-born Latinos who had found Louisiana’s multilingual and ethnic diversity ideal for the maintenance of heritage traditions soon experienced how legalized discrimination prevented them from maintaining or achieving political relevance in the region.
The landmark Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which legally permitted segregation under the doctrine of separate but equalâ originated as a case in Louisiana, where the plaintiff was not allowed to sit in a whiteâ rail car because he was, in the parlance of the era, an octoroonâ; that is, a person who is one-eighth black. Ironically, common racial systems in Latin America such as the casta divisions that created hierarchies based on race and ethnicity in Mexico and Peru found their way into Louisiana law. To this day Louisiana is the only state that maintains earlier legal structures based on Spanish and Napoleonic code law as opposed to English common law, which forms the basis of the rest of the United States’ legal system. Discrimination in Louisiana, as in much of the South, was systemic at the turn of the twentieth century.
Like blacks, Latinos fell victim to lynching mobs in Louisiana, though this fact has been largely elided in the history of lynching in the United States. The solidification of a rigid black and white binary in the post-Reconstruction imagination often meant that Latinos would be counted as white in the popular press in descriptions of lynching, often for reasons that had more to do with diminishing the onus of the South’s lynching of blacks (as opposed to blacks and whites who were meted justiceâ) by collapsing other racial and ethnic distinctions.
Such was the case on October 7, 1909, when a certain Mike Rodrigauez [sic] of Vernon Parish was lynched for an alleged robbery at the hands of persons unknown.â Indeed, the transliteration from Rodriguez to Rodrigauezâ is instructive of how English-language hegemony began to supplant multilingual Louisiana. In the process, Latinos became increasingly erased from the historical record, not only literally as in the case of lynchings, but symbolically, as the once multiracial, multiethnic, and plurilinguistic Louisiana began to be divided along black and white lines of racial affiliation under one language.
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