Passing the Line

Who was Guillermo Eliseo?

Such was the question that any number of people asked themselves during the Gilded Age as this enigmatic figure flitted in and out of an astonishing array of the era’s most noteworthy events—scandalous trials, unexpected disappearances, diplomatic controversies. To many, the answer was obvious. The tall, exquisitely dressed figure with the carefully coifed mustache, was an upper-class Mexican—in fact “the wealthiest resident of the City of Mexico” and “a prominent Mexican politician.”

Guillermo Eliseo
Eliseo at the turn of the century
For confirmation, one needed to look no farther than his elegant appearance and his frequent journeys south of the border. Indeed, based on his connections with Latin America, he was widely believed to be, if not a Mexican, than a “Spaniard” or “a Cuban gentleman of high degree.” At least a few observers, however, ventured a quite different answer: despite the widespread acceptance of Eliseo’s “Latin-American extraction,” he was not of Hispanic descent at all. Rather, he was just “an ordinary American mulatto” named William (or W.H.) Ellis, who had managed to play an elaborate game of racial passing.

The answers to such questions about Eliseo’s background mattered, especially at a time when the United States, in the aftermath of emancipation, was endeavoring to draw clear lines between the races through a flurry of segregation measures. Through the alchemy of race and class, the upper-class Mexican Guillermo Eliseo was able to travel in first-class train berths, stay in the finest hotels, and eat in leading restaurants—all venues closed to anyone with a known African-American background, like the “ordinary mulatto” William Ellis.

My current project explores the mysteries of what contemporaries termed Eliseo’s “fairytale” life as a way to discuss some of the largest challenges in the historical enterprise: How are we to address silences in the archives? What is the place of microhistory, biography, or geneology in understanding the past? How can we write a history that unites the Mexican and American pasts? Because of his prominent role in passing across a rich array of borders during the turn of the last century, Eliseo represents an ideal entry point into many of these issues, one that weaves together an unlikely tale spanning the small, isolated frontier town of Victoria along the Texas-Mexico border, the haciendas of northern Mexico, Chicago, New York, Mexico City, London, and eventually even Ethiopia.

Eventually, my research will result in the publication of a book (tentatively entitled Passing the Line: A Trickster’s Tale from the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands and to be released by W.W. Norton). The goal of this website is to serve as a place to open up the usually solitary process of book-writing, previewing some of my findings while simultaneously modeling a new, more inclusive way of conducting historical research. The worldwide web possesses the flexibility to allow one to expand the discussions that normally take place between scholars in the preparatory phase of any project to include interested parties anywhere in the world, from academics to community members. In regular posts, I will share documents that I have uncovered, discuss challenges, float preliminary interpretations, and ask for suggestions or help.

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