Aguantar is a Spanish word that means "to endure one's fate bravely and with a certain style." There has long been a tendency to assume that Mexican Americans adopted a tragic view of life, suffernig disappointments and reversals with passive acceptance. But far from being fatalistic in the face of prejudice and discrimination, late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Mexican Americans created a wide range of organizations to preserve their cultural and religious traditions and to better their economic condition.
As late as the early 1900s, people of Mexican origin were being lynched in the lower Rio Grande Valley. They also faced a dual-wage system that paid lower "Mexican wages" to Spanish-speaking employees. But through self-help organizations and labor activism, Mexican Americans directly addressed the problems they confronted.
1 / Community Institutions
Faced with discrimination and worsening economic circumstances, Mexican Americans in the Southwest looked to one another, and to Mexico and their ethnic heritage. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, they built a wide range of self-help organizations.
Among the earliest were mutualistas--fraternal and mutual aid societies, which provided members with services that included credit, low-cost sickness and death benefits, and social and educational activities. Some organized libraries or provided lectures on Mexican culture and history. Often named for the Virgin of Guadalupe or other symbols of their ethnic heritage, the mutualistas frequently functioned as labor unions, providing economic support during labor disputes. Most mutualistas were organized locally, though the Alianza Hispano-Americana, founded in Arizona in 1894, had ten thousand members in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas by 1930.
In the 1920s came civic clubs and regional organizations oriented to politics. The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), one of the largest, most influential, and most long-lasting Mexican American organizations, was formed in Corpus Christi in 1929 out of the merger of three earlier Texas organizations: La Orden de Hijos de America, the Knights of America, and the League of Latin American Citizens. Drawing its support largely from the urban middle class, it sought to bring Mexican Americans into the main current of American society and combat discrimination in education, jobs, wages, and political representation. Strongly rooted in local communities, it promoted the learning of English, improvements in schools, and political power through voting.
Today, LULAC has 250,000 members in six hundred chapters nationwide. It had a major effect in desegregating schools, winning the right of Mexican Americans to serve on juries. It also opened up many public swimming pools, restrooms, and lunch counters to Hispanics. It helped create the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund; formed SER-Jobs for Progress, the country's largest worker training program; and founded the "Little School of 400," which served as the model and inspiration for the Head Start early childhood education program.
The Aims and Purposes of This Organization Shall Be:
1. To develop within the members of our race the best, purest and most perfect type of a true and loyal citizen of the United States of America.
2. To eradicate from our body politic all intents and tendencies to establish discriminations among our fellow citizens on account of race, religion, or social position as being contrary to the true spirit of Democracy, our Constitution and Laws.
3. To use all the legal means at our command to the end that all citizens in our country may enjoy equal rights, the equal protection of the laws of the land and equal opportunities and privileges.
4. The acquisition of the English language, which is the official language of our country, being necessary for the enjoyment of our rights and privileges, we declare it to be the official language of this organization, and we pledge ourselves to learn and speak and teach same to our children.
5. To define with absolute and unmistakable clearness our unquestionable loyalty to the ideals, principles, and citizenship of the United States of America.
6. To assume complete responsibility for the education of our children as to their rights and duties and the language and customs of this country; the latter, in so far as they may be good customs.
7. We solemnly declare once for all to maintain a sincere and respectful reverence for our racial origin of which we are proud.
8. Secretly and openly, by all lawful means at our command, we shall assist in the education and guidance of Latin‑Americans and we shall protect and defend their lives and interest whenever necessary.
9. We shall destroy any attempt to create racial prejudices against our people, and any infamous stigma which may be cast upon them, and we shall demand for them the respect and prerogatives which the Constitution grants to us all.
10. Each of us considers himself with equal responsibilities in our organization, to which we voluntarily swear subordination and obedience.
11. We shall create a fund for our mutual protection, for the defense of those of us who may be unjustly persecuted and for the education and culture of our people.
12. This organization is not a political club, but as citizens we shall participate in all local, state, and national political contests. However, in doing so we shall ever bear in mind the general welfare of our people, and we disregard and abjure once for all any personal obligation which is not in harmony with these principles.
13. With our vote and influence we shall endeavor to place in public office men who show by their deeds, respect and consideration for our people.
14. We shall select as our leaders those among us who demonstrate, by their integrity and culture, that they are capable of guiding and directing us properly.
15. We shall maintain publicity means for the diffusion of these principles and for the expansion and consolidation of this organization.
16. We shall pay our poll tax as well as that of members of our families in order that we may enjoy our rights fully.
17. We shall diffuse our ideals by means of the press, lectures, and pamphlets.
18. We shall oppose any radical and violent demonstration which may tend to create conflicts and disturb the peace and tranquility of our country.
19. We shall have mutual respect for our religious views and we shall never refer to them in our institutions.
20. We shall encourage the creation of educational institutions for Latin‑Americans and we shall lend our support to those already in existence.
21. We shall endeavor to secure equal representation for our people on juries and in the administration of governmental affairs.
22. We shall denounce every act of peonage and mistreatment as well as the employment of our minor children of scholastic age.
23. We shall resist and attack energetically all machinations tending to prevent our social and political unification.
24. We shall oppose any tendency to separate our children in the schools of this country.
25. We shall maintain statistics which will guide our people with respect to working and living conditions and agricultural and commercial activities in the various parts of our country.
Source: "The League of United Latin-American Citizens: A Texas-Mexican Civic Organization," by O. Douglas Weeks, in Southwestern Political and Social Science Quarterly, December 1929.
2 / Labor Activism
In July 1917, shortly after the United States entered World War I, armed men in Cochise County, Arizona, under the direction of a local sheriff, rounded up 1,186 strikers at the Phelps Dodge copper mine. These workers, many of whom were Mexican Americans, the possee forced at gunpoint into boxcars without food or water and railroaded them into the New Mexico desert, 180 miles away. The Los Angeles Times editorialized: "The citizens of Cochise County have written a lesson that the whole of America would do well to copy."
For many years, there was a pervasive misbelief about the passivity of Mexican American workers. Mexican American workers have a long history of labor activism in the face of indifference or hostility from the Anglo labor movement.
Among the earliest efforts were those of stevedores in the port of Galveston who attempted to unionize immediately following the Civil War; and employees of central Texas cattle companies who tried to organize in the early 1880s. A Mexican American version of the Knights of Labor was known as the Caballeros de Labor. The mining industry was another early focus of Mexican American labor activity. The expansion of mining in southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico, and southern Colorado during the late 1880s led in 1896 to the formation of a number of Mexican unions.
Mexican Americans were at the forefront of efforts to improve wages and working conditions for migrant farm workers. As early as 1903, more than a thousand Mexican and Japanese sugar beet workers carried out a successful strike in Ventura, California. The Mexican Protective Association, founded in 1911 in Texas, was one of the earliest agricultural unions. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Mexican Americans had a leading role in the establishment of some forty agricultural unions in California.
Workers of Mexican descent could be found on opposite sides in labor disputes. Employers sometimes recruited Mexican Americans as strikebreakers, which led many union leaders to refuse Mexicans as members and to lobby for immigration restrictions.
In California's Imperial Valley in 1928, Mexican and Mexican American farm workers staged a strike against cantaloupe growers. The excerpt here from a state fact-finding commission discusses the conditions that gave rise to the strike.
Governor C.C. Young's Fact-Finding Committee
In compliance with your instructions, I visited the Imperial Valley to investigate the causes and conditions of employment which led to the strike of the cantaloupe pickers and to ascertain the facts surrounding the arrests of many Mexican laborers....
The picking of cantaloupes in the Imperial Valley begins early in May and lasts about eight weeks. Approximately between forty-five hundred and five thousand male workers are engaged in the harvesting of this crop. The preponderant majority of these men are Mexicans, but Filipinos and other Orientals are also working on some ranches....
Before the season's picking begins, the grower of the melons, who in most cases leases the land from an absentee landlord, enters into a picking agreement with a labor contractor. This contractor is usually a Mexican, but there are also Japanese, Filipino, and Hindu contractors....
The grower obligates himself to make weekly payments to the labor contractor...for all crates of melons accepted by the distributor, less 25 percent of the total amount of money.... This percentage is retained by the grower until the completion of the contract as a guarantee of the fulfillment of its conditions.... The contract further provides that the contractor, not the grower, must comply with the requirements of the Workmen's Compensation Act....
The difficulties with the contract usually start toward the end of the season. Sometimes the contractor absconds with the last payment he receives from the grower and leaves his workers stranded without the wages for their last week's work and minus the 25 percent withheld from the season's wages. If the contractor is honest enough and willing to pay his workers, his intentions are sometimes checkmated by the failure of the grower to make the last payment to the contractor. The growers are often financed by other persons, and a bad market, poor management, or an unsuccessful crop leaves them without funds before the season is over....
These defalcations are not infrequent, and the Mexican laborers in the Imperial Valley have suffered considerably on account of them.... Where the contractor absconds with the last payment received from the grower, it is almost next to impossible to do anything for the laborers affected. The grower cannot be held responsible because it was the contractor, not the grower, who hired them and who was supposed to pay them their wages. If a crop failure, a bad market, or poor management is responsible for the financial reverses of the grower and the contractor does not get paid, the workers are deprived not only of their last week's pay but also of the 25 percent of the season's wages. The perennial defalcations of the contractors or of the growers have resulted in genuine dissatisfaction with the contract system on the part of Mexican laborers. Not only do they complain that they often do not get their wages at the end of the season but they also claim that the contractor often shorts them and pays them for less crates than they pick.
Although the labor contractor is not a new phenomenon in the Imperial Valley, at least one of the provisions of the picking agreement, and of similar agreements, is probably illegal. It is very doubtful whether the contractor who hires the picker on a piece-work basis may legally withhold 25 percent of every week's wages.
Source: Report of Governor C.C. Young's Fact-Finding Committee, Mexicans in California (San Francisco, 1930).
One of the largest farmworkers' strikes took place in California's San Joaquín Valley, where thousands of Mexican and Mexican American cotton pickers demanded higher wages and better working and living conditions. In this selection, Frank C. McDonald, California's state labor commissioner, describes the conflict between workers and growers.
Frank C. McDonald
On...Sunday, September 17, 1933, representatives of the cotton pickers in the San Joaquín Valley announced that the cotton pickers had decided that they would pick cotton for $1 per hundred pounds....
On September 19, 1933...it was decided that cotton growers would pay 60 cents per hundred pounds for the picking of cotton....
On Wednesday, October 4, 1933, an extensive strike in which some ten thousand cotton pickers were involved was declared....
On Saturday, October 7, 1933...the growers notified the strikers that they would not permit any further public meetings.
Then the growers went in automobiles throughout the surrounding highway and took away from the pickets their banners and signs and notified the strikers to leave the district within twenty-four hours.
On October 9, 1933, the following paid advertisement was published in the issue of the Tulare Daily Advance Register:
Notice to the Citizens of Tulare
We, the Farmers of Your Community, Whom You Are Dependent Upon For Support, Feel That You Have Nursed Too Long the Viper That Is at Our Door.
These Communist Agitators Must Be Driven From Town By You, and Your Harboring Them Further Will Prove to Us Your Non-Cooperation With Us, and Make It Necessary for Us to Give Our Support and Trade to Another Town That Will Support and Cooperate With Us.
Farmer's Protective Association
On the evening of October 10, 1933, press dispatches stated that two strikers had been killed and eight wounded in front of the cotton pickers' strike headquarters in Pixley, Tulare County. Subsequently, eight cotton growers were indicted by the Tulare County Grand Jury for the murder of the two striking cotton pickers. Press dispatches of the same date also stated that one striker had been killed and a number of strikers and cotton growers had been injured during a fight at the E.O. Mitchell Ranch in Kern County. As a result of this fight, seven strikers were arrested on a charge of rioting....
During the strike, the strikers had continuously used what is known as "mass-picketing tactics." On October 23, 1933, a large number of striking pickets, principally Mexican men and women, proceeded along the highway until they came to the Guiberson Ranch near Corcoran, where they found strikebreakers at work, picking cotton. The strikers invaded the ranch, and in the fight which ensued between the strikers and strikebreakers, a number of persons were struck with clubs and fists. It is also reported that the sacks containing cotton were slashed and ripped open.
On that same day...your Fact Finding Commission announced the following decision.
...It is judgment of [the] Commission that upon evidence presented growers can pay for picking at [a] rate of seventy-five cents per hundred pounds and your Commission begs leave, therefore, to advise this rate of payment be established. Without question civil rights of strikers have been violated. We appeal to constituted authorities to see that strikers are protected in rights conferred upon them by laws of State and by Federal and State Constitutions.
Source: Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Education and Labor, U.S. Senate, 76th Congress, 3rd session. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1940.
3 / Roman Catholic Church
Willa Cather's bestselling 1927 novel Death Comes for the Archbishop presents a highly sympathetic portrait of Jean Baptiste Lamy (1814-1888), the French archbishop who reorganized the Catholic Church in the Southwest. It depicts Archbishop Lamy as a man of patience and piety, who was forced to excommunicate corrupt clergymen and to suppress superstitious religious rites. In recent years, the history of the Catholic Church in the Southwest has undergone close scrutiny and revision.
The early southwestern church suffered from a severe shortage of priests, and in the late eighteenth century, a Catholic lay order emerged known as Penitentes, which was responsible for preserving religious life and traditions. The Penitentes acted as ministers. They supervised wakes and funerals, performed charitable works, and organized religious ceremonies, including reenactments of the suffering of Christ. The Penitentes were vilified in the mid-nineteenth century by Anglo Protestants and some Catholics, who were appalled by their practice of flagellation. Anglo-Americans also charged that the Penitentes, perhaps instigated by the Mexican priests, took part in a revolt against rule by the United States that took the life of the governor, Charles Bent.
Following the conquest of the Southwest by the United States, Lamy became the first bishop of Santa Fe. Finding only nine priests in New Mexico when he arrived in Santa Fe in the early 1850s, he brought in a large number of priests from France and other European countries. Unappreciative of Mexican and Mexican American culture, he quickly came into conflict with the small number of Mexican clergy in his diocese. He eventually excommunicated five Spanish-speaking clergymen, ostensibly for concubinage, and attempted to suppress the Penitentes. Lamy also suppressed the santos, carved saints and icons that are now prized as southwestern folk art.
Before the 1850s, Padre Antonio José Martínez de Taos had been the ecclesiastical leader of northern New Mexico. His bishop was in Durango in Mexico, six hundred miles to the south. In Willa Cather's bestseller, Martínez is portrayed as cruel and corrupt, whose mouth was "the very assertion of violent uncurbed passions and tyrannical self-will," a debauched man who fathers numerous illegitimate children, steals the land of peasants, and foments armed rebellion against the Anglos. In recent years, Padre Martínez's defenders have depicted him in a far more favorable light, as a deeply religious protector of the poor who resisted Bishop Lamy's threat to withhold the sacraments from church members who refused to tithe, giving the church ten percent of their income.
Bishop Lamy succeeded in driving the Penitentes underground. In 1947, the brotherhood was embraced by the Catholic Church. Today there about forty communities of the brotherhood in New Mexico and southern Colorado.
Even though Mexican Americans make up about two-thirds of the Southwest's Roman Catholic population, there is a sense that the Church did not begin adequately to address their needs until quite recently. Between 1850 and 1970, only one Mexican American bishop was appointed. As recently as the late 1970s Hispanics, who constituted twenty-seven percent of the nation's Catholics, made up only about one percent of priests in the United States.
In the report here, Archbishop Lamy describes the state of Catholicism in the Southwest in 1866.
In New Mexico we have only the most rigorously necessary things for our existence, as bread and meat. There are no factories of any kind here. The majority of the inhabitants raise sheep and cattle and horses, but they get very little profit out of it. It may be for lack of a market or on account of the savage Indians who steal the flocks, kill the shepherds or take them prisoner.... New Mexico is the most populated of the three territories that to this day comprise the Diocese of Santa Fe; we have 110,000 Mexicans and 15,000 Catholic Indians. Colorado has 10,000 Catholics in a settlement of 40,000 souls. Arizona has 8,000 Catholics. The present number of our Priests in missions is 41, five in charge of Colorado, three in Arizona, the rest in New Mexico. I have made three pastoral visits into Colorado, and only one into Arizona, but this took me six months, from the 1st of November 1863 to the 1st of May 1864. I traveled over a thousand leagues on horseback. In some places we had to sleep under the moon and to travel spaces from 20 to 25 leagues without a drop of water, walking to rest my horse. But we find ourselves rewarded for all this hardship, at finding such faithful souls. Not having seen a priest for many years, they take advantage of the visits of the missionary to receive the Sacraments with fervor and gratitude....
Until now, communication between New Mexico and the rest of the United States is difficult and transportation very costly. But railroads are building in the west in California; and from the east in Missouri and Texas. As soon as these are established, the working of the mines, the raising of the flocks, the cultivation of vineyards, will change entirely the condition of things. We will be able to employ laborers at more reasonable wages, construct houses and churches as in the east. We may probably see factories established in this country, where wool is to be obtained in great abundance. In this general increase of resources, this mission will without doubt find extension and a way of sustaining the great, heavy loads, which are always found in new undertakings. Providence will never abandon us, and the Order of the Propagation of the Faith, will, as we hope, continue to help us as heretofore, since the beginning of this See in Santa Fe, of which despite our personal unworthiness we have the honor to be the first Bishop.
Source: Louis H. Warner, Archbishop Lamy: An Epoch Maker, Santa Fe, 1936, Chap. 14.
Archbishop Lamy had a fellow cleric, Father Joseph B. Macheboeuf, remove José Manuel Gallegos from his position of parish pastor. In this selection, Father Macheboeuf describes his actions.
Father Joseph B. Macheboeuf
My position was sufficiently delicate and difficult, for he [José Manuel Gallegos] was very popular in his set. I took advantage of his temporary absence in Old Mexico to take possession of the church and to announce from the pulpit the sentence of the Bishop, suspending him from the exercise of any priestly function. Some time later, when I was visiting some Indian parishes in the mountains, about seventy‑five miles from Albuquerque, I heard that the Padre had returned and was going to dispute the possession of the church with me the next Sunday. This did not alarm me, but I thought it best to be prepared.... On Sunday morning I went to the church an hour earlier than usual in order to be on the ground and ready for anything that might happen. What was my astonishment upon arriving here to find the Padre in the pulpit and the church filled with people whom I knew to be his particular friends. These he had quietly gathered together, and now he was inciting them to revolt, or at least to resistance. I tried to enter the church through the sacristy, but this communicated with the presbytery, which he still occupied, and I found the doors locked. Going then to the main door of the church I entered, and assuming an air of boldness I commanded the crowd to stand aside and make room for me to pass. Then, as one having authority, I forced my way through the crowd and passed up by the pulpit just as the Padre pronounced the Bishop's name and mine in connection with the most atrocious accusations and insulting reflections. I went on until I reached the highest step of the sanctuary, and then turning I stood listening quietly till he had finished. Then all the people turned to me as if expecting an answer. I replied, and in the clearest manner refuted all his accusations, and I showed, moreover, that he was guilty of the scandals which had brought on his punishment....
From that moment the Padre lost all hope of driving me away, and, abandoning the Church, he went into politics. There was no doubt about his talents, and he used them to good effect in his new field, for through them he worked every kind of scheme until he succeeded in getting himself elected to the Congress of the United States as Delegate from the Territory of New Mexico.
Source: Ralph Emerson Twitchell, ed., The Leading Facts of New Mexican History. Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1912, II: 832-34.
North from Mexico
At the end of the Mexican War relatively few Mexicans lived in what had become the southwestern United States. Outside of New Mexico, there were probably no more than fifteen thousand Mexican Americans in 1848. In the second half of the nineteenth century, however, migration from Mexico increased sharply. This massive movement of people was a product of economic dislocation and civil unrest in Mexico and booming demand for cheap unskilled and semi-skilled labor in the Southwest, resulting from the growth of commercial agriculture, mining, transportation, stockraising, and lumbering. Western railroads, construction companies, steel mills, mines and canneries recruited Mexicans as manual laborers. So, too, did large commercial farms in Arizona's Salt River Valley, Texas's lower Rio Grande Valley, and California's Imperial and San Joaquín valleys. By 1890, more than 75,000 Mexicans had migrated to the United States. By 1900, the Mexican and Mexican American population in the United States--including immigrants and the native born--totalled between 381,000 and 562,000. Since then, Mexican American history has been shaped by surges of mass immigration from Mexico, punctuated by recurrent efforts at deportation.
Between 1910 and 1920, at least 219,000 Mexican immigrants entered the United States, doubling the Hispanic population in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, and quadrupling California's. Mass migration was the product of push and pull. The Mexican Revolution and the expansion of haciendas threw many Mexicans off the land, while the rapid growth of jobs in mining, smelting, railroads, and irrigated agriculture in the Southwest created intense demand for low-wage physical labor. Railroad lines integrated the economy of northern Mexico with that of the southwestern United States and made it easier for Mexican migrants to travel northward.
The economic recession that followed World War I produced a backlash against Mexican immigration. Between 1920 and 1921, nearly 100,000 Mexicans were shipped across the border or left voluntarily. The mid-1920s brought another wave of large-scale migration: half a million Mexicans entered the United States on permanent visas--one-ninth of total U.S. immigration. This migration was stimulated partly by another revolution in Mexico, the Cristero Revolution fought from 1926 to 1929, and in part by the Southwest's ongoing demand for low-wage labor. Much of the migration from 1910 through the 1920s came from the economically depressed central Mexican states of Jalisco, Guanajuato, and Michoacan. By the late twenties, Mexicans and Mexican Americans made up three-quarters of Texas's construction workers and four-fifths of the state's migrant farmworkers. In California, Mexican immigrants comprised three-quarters of the agricultural workforce. By 1930, the 100,000 Mexicans and Mexican Americans who lived in Los Angeles comprised the largest Mexican American population.
Depression-era unemployment reduced immigration to less than thirty-three thousand during the 1930s. The United States and Mexico sponsored a repatriation program that returned half a million people to Mexico, about half of whom were United States citizens. Although the program was supposed to be voluntary, many were pressured to leave.
Demand for Mexican American labor resumed during World War II. In 1942, the United States and Mexico instituted the Bracero Program, which allowed Mexican contract laborers to work in the United States in seasonal agriculture and other sectors of the economy. Following the war, however, a new deportation effort sought to expel resident Mexicans who lacked United States citizenship.
1 / Mexican Americans and Southwestern Growth
Americans are familiar with the huge industrial complexes that arose in the late nineteenth-century Northeast and Midwest: the Carnegie Steel Company or the Pullman. Far less attention is paid to parallel developments in the Southwest. During the late nineteenth century, the southwestern economy underwent a series of wrenching transformations in mining, smelting, transportation, and agriculture. Especially after passage of the Newlands Act (the Reclamation Act of 1902), which promoted development of large scale irrigation projects, southwestern agriculture shifted from a ranch-based economy to seasonal commercial agriculture using migratory workers. The rapid growth of mining, railroads, and large-scale commercial agriculture in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the Southwest could not have occurred without low-cost labor from Mexico.
The nature of employment in the Southwest--in commercial agriculture, mining, and railroads--carried profound consequences for the lives of Mexican immigrants. Many lived in isolated mining towns or worked as migratory farm laborers or railroad construction workers. Even in cities, they tended to live in segregated neighborhoods. Distinctive words describe these many communities. Rural communities called colonias were located near agricultural or railroad work camps; barrios, segregated urban neighborhoods, were to be found near factories or packinghouses.
More than any other ethnic group, Mexican Americans were able to maintain a high degree of cultural continuity. Within segregated communities Mexicans and Mexican Americans were able to maintain distinctive social, cultural, and family customs, as well as fluency in Spanish. They were also able to develop an internal economy of restaurants, funeral homes, grocery stores, barbershops, tailorships, and other services catering to other members of the community.
In a 1912 article in the Progressive Era journal The Survey, Samuel Bryan analyzes the growth in Mexican migration, the conditions in which the migrants lived, and the discrimination they faced.
Previous to 1900 the influx of Mexicans was comparatively unimportant. It was confined almost exclusively to those portions of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California which are near the boundary line between Mexico and the United States. Since these states were formerly Mexican territory and have always possessed a considerable Mexican population, a limited migration back and forth across the border was a perfectly natural result of the existing blood relationship. During the period from 1880 to 1900 the Mexican‑born population of these border states increased from 66,312 to 99,969‑-a gain of 33,657 in twenty years. This increase was not sufficient to keep pace with the growth of the total population of the states. Since 1900, however, there has been a rapid increase in the volume of Mexican immigration, and also some change in its geographical distribution....
...In 1908, it was estimated that from 60,000 to 100,000 Mexicans entered the United States each year. This estimate, however, should be modified by the well‑known fact that each year a considerable number of Mexicans return to Mexico. Approximately 50 percent of those Mexicans who find employment as section hands upon the railroads claim the free transportation back to El Paso which is furnished by the railroad companies to those who have been in their employ six months or a year. Making allowance for this fact, it would be conservative to place the yearly accretion of population by Mexican immigration at from 35,000 to 70,000. It is probable, therefore, that the Mexican‑born population of the United States has trebled since the census of 1900 was taken.
This rapid increase within the last decade has resulted from the expansion of industry both in Mexico and in the United States. In this country the industrial development of the Southwest has opened up wider fields of employment for unskilled laborers in transportation, agriculture, mining, and smelting. A similar expansion in northern Mexico has drawn many Mexican laborers from the farms of other sections of the country farther removed from the border, and it is an easy matter to go from the mines and section gangs of northern Mexico to the more remunerative employment to be had in similar industries of the southwestern United States. Thus the movement from the more remote districts of Mexico to the newly developed industries of the North has become largely a stage in a more general movement to the United States. Entrance into this country is not difficult, for employment agencies in normal times have stood ready to advance board, lodging, and transportation to a place where work was to be had, and the immigration officials have usually deemed no Mexican likely to become a public charge so long as this was the case. This was especially true before 1908....
Most of the Mexican immigrants have at one time been employed as railroad laborers. At present they are used chiefly as section hands and as members of construction gangs, but a number are also to be found working as common laborers about the shops and powerhouses. Although a considerable number are employed as helpers. Few have risen above unskilled labor in any branch of the railroad service. As section hands on the two more important systems they were paid a uniform wage of $1.00 per day from their first employment in 1902 until 1909, except for a period of about one year previous to the financial stringency of 1907, when they were paid $1.25 per day. In 1909 the wages of all Mexican section hands employed upon the Santa Fe lines were again raised to $1.25 per day. The significant feature is, however, that as a general rule they have earned less than the members of any other race similarly employed. For example, of the 2,455 Mexican section hands from whom data were secured by the Immigration Commission in 1908 and 1909, 2,111 or 85.9 percent, were earning less than $1.25 per day, while the majority of the Greeks, Italians, and Japanese earned more than $1.25 and a considerable number more than $1.50 per day.
In the arid regions of the border states where they have always been employed and where the majority of them still live, the Mexicans come into little direct competition with other races, and no problems of importance result from their presence. But within the last decade their area of employment has expanded greatly. They are now used as section hands as far east as Chicago and as far north as Wyoming. Moreover, they are now employed to a considerable extent in the coal mines of Colorado and New Mexico, in the ore mines of Colorado and Arizona, in the smelters of Arizona, in the cement factories of Colorado and California, in the beet sugar industry of the last mentioned states, and in fruit growing and canning in California. In these localities they have at many points come into direct competition with other races, and their low standards have acted as a check upon the progress of the more assertive of these.
Where they are employed in other industries, the same wage discrimination against them as was noted in the case of railroad employees is generally apparent where the work is done on an hour basis, but no discrimination exists in the matter of rates for piecework. As pieceworkers in the fruit canneries and in the sugar beet industry the proverbial sluggishness of the Mexicans prevents them from earning as much as the members of other races. In the citrus fruit industry their treatment varies with the locality. In some instances they are paid the same as the "whites," in others the same as the Japanese, according to the class with which they share the field of employment. The data gathered by the Immigration Commission show that although the earnings of Mexicans employed in the other industries are somewhat higher than those of the Mexican section hands, they are with few exceptions noticeably lower than the earnings of Japanese, Italians, and members of the various Slavic races who are similarly employed. This is true in the case of smelting, ore mining, coal mining, and sugar refining. Specific instances of the use of Mexicans to curb the demands of other races are found in the sugar beet industry of central California, where they were introduced for the purpose of showing the Japanese laborers that they were not indispensable, and in the same industry in Colorado, where they were used in a similar way against the German‑Russians. Moreover, Mexicans have been employed as strikebreakers in the coal mines of Colorado and New Mexico, and in one instance in the shops of one important railroad system.
Socially and politically the presence of large numbers of Mexicans in this country gives rise to serious problems. The reports of the Immigration Commissions show that they lack ambition, are to a very large extent illiterate in their native language, are slow to learn English, and most cases show no political interest. In some instances, however, they have been organized to serve the purposes of political bosses, as for example in Phoenix, Arizona. Although more of them are married and have their families with them than is the case among the south European immigrants, they are unsettled as a class, move readily from place to place, and do not acquire or lease land to any extent. But their most unfavorable characteristic is their inclination to form colonies and live in a clannish manner. Wherever a considerable group of Mexicans are employed, they live together, if possible, and associate very little with members of other races. In the mining towns and other small industrial communities they live ordinarily in rude adobe huts outside of the town limits. As section hands they of course live as the members of the other races have done, in freight cars fitted with windows and bunks, or in rough shacks along the line of the railroad. In the cities their colonization has become a menace
In Los Angeles the housing problem centers largely in the cleaning up or demolition of the Mexican "house courts," which have become the breeding ground of disease and crime, and which have now attracted a considerable population of immigrants of other races. It is estimated that approximately 2,000 Mexicans are living in these "house courts." Some 15,000 persons of this race are residents of Los Angeles and vicinity. Conditions of life among the immigrants of the city, which are molded to a certain extent by Mexican standards, have been materially improved by the work of the Los Angeles Housing Commission.... However, the Mexican quarter continues to offer a serious social problem to the community....
In conclusion it should be recognized that although the Mexicans have proved to be efficient laborers in certain industries, and have afforded a cheap and elastic labor supply for the southwestern United States, the evils to the community at large which their presence in large numbers almost invariably brings may more than overbalance their desirable qualities. Their low standards of living and of morals, their illiteracy, their utter lack of proper political interest, the retarding effect of their employment upon the wage scale of the more progressive races, and finally their tendency to colonize in urban centers, with evil results, combine to stamp them as a rather undesirable class of residents.
Source: Samuel Bryan, "Mexican Immigrants in the United States," The Survey, 20, no. 23 (September 1912).
2 / Immigration Restriction
The United States and Mexico share one of the longest international borders in the world--1,951 miles in length. The history of Mexican migration to the United States involves sharp shifts between periods of labor shortages, when employers aggressively recruited cheap Mexican labor, and periods of intense anti-Mexican sentiment, when many Mexicans and even Mexican Americans were deported or pressured to leave the country.
Until the 1920s, the Mexican border was basically open. Mexicans were specifically excluded from the immigration quotas of 1921 and 1924 that radically reduced immigration from southern and eastern Europe. Convinced that cheap Mexican laborers were indispensable to southwestern agriculture, Congress imposed no limit on immigration from the Western Hemisphere, though it did establish a patrol along the Mexican border and imposed an eight dollar head tax and a ten dollar visa fee. In 1929, the federal government required Mexicans to obtain visas in order to enter the United States. During the late 1920s, professional labor contractors and border-crossing experts helped immigrants avoid the head tax and the expense of a visa and bureaucratic delays at the border.
During the Great Depression, when dust bowl farmers from Texas and Oklahoma poured into California, Mexicans were unneeded. Between 1929 and 1935, more than 415,000 Mexicans were expelled and thousands more left voluntarily. The legal pretext for deportation was that many Mexicans lacked proof of legal residency (even though no visa had been necessary prior to 1929).
World War II created another labor shortage. The Mexican and United States governments established the Bracero Program, a system of labor permits for temporary workers, which lasted until 1964. In the early 1950s, however, rising unemployment led to mass roundups and deportations. This wave of "repatriation," known as Operation Wetback, sent more than one million Mexicans to Mexico in 1954. The Immigration Act of 1965, which established immigration quotas for the countries of the Western Hemisphere, had the ironic effect of encouraging undocumented entry into the United States. Bitter over the demise of the Bracero Program in 1964, the Mexican government refused to restrict emigration. In addition, the quotas for Mexicans were far lower than the demand for Mexican immigrants in agriculture, construction, manufacturing, and service industries.
During the 1980s, the United States responded to public anger about undocumented immigration by adopting the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (the Simpson-Mazoli Act), which prohibited the hiring of undocumented aliens and proclaimed an amnesty for those who had been in the country continuously since 1982.
In this speech delivered in the House of Representatives in 1928, Congressman John Box calls for restrictions on Mexican immigration.
Every reason which calls for the exclusion of the most wretched, ignorant, dirty, diseased, and degraded people of Europe or Asia demands that the illiterate, unclean, peonized masses moving this way from Mexico be stopped at the border....
The admission of a large and increasing number of Mexican peons to engage in all kinds of work is at variance with the American purpose to protect the wages of its working people and maintain their standard of living. Mexican labor is not free; it is not well paid; its standard of living is low. The yearly admission of several scores of thousands from just across the Mexican border tends constantly to lower the wages and conditions of men and women of America who labor with their hands in industry, in transportation, and in agriculture. One who has been in Mexico or in Mexican sections of cities and towns of the southwestern United States enough to make general observation needs no evidence or argument to convince him of the truth of the statement that Mexican peon labor is poorly paid and lives miserably in the midst of want, dirt, and disease.
In industry and transportation they displace great numbers of Americans who are left without employment and drift into poverty, even vagrancy, unable to maintain families or to help sustain American communities....
The importers of such Mexican laborers as go to farms all want them to increase farm production, not by the labor of American farmers, for the sustenance of families and the support of American farm life, but by serf labor working mainly for absentee landlords on millions of acres of semiarid lands. Many of these lands have heretofore been profitably used for grazing cattle, sheep, and goats. Many of them are held by speculative owners.
A great part of these areas can not be cultivated until the Government has spent vast sums in reclaiming them.... Their occupation and cultivation by serfs should not be encouraged....
Another purpose of the immigration laws is the protection of American racial stock from further degradation or change through mongrelization. The Mexican peon is a mixture of mediterranean-blooded Spanish peasant with low-grade Indians who did not fight to extinction but submitted and multiplied as serfs. Into that was fused much Negro slave blood. This blend of low-grade Spaniard, peonized Indian, and Negro slave mixes with Negroes, mulattoes, and other mongrels, and some sorry whites, already here. The prevention of such mongrelization and the degradation it causes is one of the purposes of our laws which the admission of these people will tend to defeat....
To keep out the illiterate and the diseased is another essential part of the Nation's immigration policy. The Mexican peons are illiterate and ignorant. Because of their unsanitary habits and living conditions and their vices they are especially subject to smallpox, venereal diseases, tuberculosis, and other dangerous contagions. Their admission is inconsistent with this phase of our policy.
The protection of American society against the importation of crime and pauperism is yet another object of these laws. Few, if any, other immigrants have brought us so large a proportion of criminals and paupers as have the Mexican peons.
Responding to demands that Mexican migration be shut off, Ernesto Galarza, a Mexican American scholar, describes the problems that Mexican Americans face.
...Something must be done in the way of social and economic amelioration for those Mexicans who have already settled in the United States and whose problem is that of finding adjustment. Thus far in the discussion the Mexicans who have settled more or less permanently here have been taken into account negatively....
For the moment...everyone has presented his side of the case except the Mexican worker himself.... I speak to you today as one of these immigrants....
First, as to unemployment. The Mexican is the first to suffer from depression in industrial and agricultural enterprises.... I flatly disagree with those who maintain that there is enough work for these people but that they refuse to work, preferring to live on charity. On the contrary, it is widely felt by the Mexicans that there are more men than there are jobs.... The precariousness of the job in the face of so much competition has brought home to the Mexican time and again his absolute weakness as a bargainer for employment....
He has also something to say as to the wage scale.... The Mexican...recognizes his absolute inability to force his wage upward and by dint of necessity he shuffles along with a standard of living which the American worker regards with contempt and alarm....
The distribution of the labor supply is felt by the Mexican to be inadequate. At present he has to rely mainly on hearsay or on the information of unscrupulous contractors who overcharge him for transportation....
...The Mexican immigrant still feels the burden of old prejudices. Only when there are threats to limit immigration from Mexico is it that a few in America sing the praises of the peon.... At other times the sentiments which seem to be deeply rooted in the American mind are that he is unclean, improvident, indolent, and innately dull. Add to this the suspicion that he constitutes a peril to the American worker's wage scale and you have a situation with which no average Mexican can cope....
...I would ask for recognition of the Mexican's contribution to the agricultural and industrial expansion of western United States.... From Denver to Los Angeles and from the Imperial Valley to Portland, it is said, an empire has been created largely by the brawn of the humble Mexican, who laid the rails and topped the beets and poured the cubic miles of cement.... If it is true that the Mexican has brought to you arms that have fastened a civilization on the Pacific slope, then give him his due. If you give him his earned wage and he proves improvident teach him otherwise; if he is tuberculous, cure him; if he falls into indigence, raise him. He has built you an empire!
Source: Ernesto Galarza, "Life in the United States for Mexican People: Out of the Experience of a Mexican" from Proceedings of the National Conference of Social Work, 56th Annual Session, University of Chicago Press, 1929.
3 / Americanization
The history of Mexican Americans during the twentieth century can be understood, at least partly, by a succession of generations, each with a distinctive identity, outlook, culture, employment profile, and set of social institutions.
Migrants in the very early part of this century tended to think of themselves as Mexican and abhorred what they considered lax moral and religious standards in the United States. By the 1920s and 1930s, many Mexican Americans expressed a growing sense of themselves as at once Mexican and of the United States. But many early twentieth-century educators and social workers pressed for campaigns of assimilation. As early as 1909, a Stanford University professor called for a "breakup of these groups...to implant in their children...the Anglo-Saxon conception of righteous, law and order...." Progressive reformers visited Mexican American homes and encouraged families to eat bread instead of tortillas. Few Mexican Americans, however, were willing to abandon their identity, language, or cultural traditions. The Mexican government meanwhile was afraid that Mexican Americans were losing their Mexican heritage and took steps to reverse this process. During the 1920s, the Mexican government instituted a program to set up schools in California, foster patriotism for Mexico, and encourage migrants to return. But Mexican Americans tended to resist this program much as they resisted efforts at "Americanization."
By the late 1920s, a new Mexican American generation had begun to claim its rightful place in society. This self-image can be seen in the establishment of organizations that emphasized not only communal self-help, preserving cultural traditions, or promoting assimilation, but political activism. During the 1930s and 1940s, a distinct Mexican American youth culture emerged, with its own styles of dress and behavior. "Pachucos" or "zoot suiters" were suspended between two worlds. They were disaffected from their parents' rigid social code but not accepted by mainstream culture. A distinctive music--jump blues--became the anthem of the defiant zoot suit-clad pachuco. It fused swing, rumba, and jazz, and the lyrics were sung in Calo, the Spanish hipster dialect.
In this article, an educator, writing in 1931, describes the Americanization program in San Bernardino County, California.
Merton E. Hill
One of the most momentous problems confronting the great Southwest today, is the assimilation of the Spanish‑speaking peoples that are coming in ever increasing numbers into that land formerly owned by Mexico and since 1848 owned by the United States....
The program to be presented . . . sets up those activities that will bring about the acceptance by aliens of American ideals, customs, methods of living, skills, and knowledge that will make them Americans in fact....
...The problem of Americanization involves not only the adults, but their children; . . . any program neglecting a full consideration of the educational needs of the foreign children is destined to fall short of complete success.... These and other problems can be wholly or partially solved; special classrooms adapted to the needs of the foreign element must be provided in the high school plant, in the elementary school buildings, in Mexican camps, and in central buildings within certain camps; a travelling school room on a bus chassis has been provided; teachers must be trained for Americanization work; lessons must be prepared to meet the needs of both children and adults; budgetary provisions must secure sufficient amounts of money;... the public must be aroused to a realization of the great and immediate need of making provision for educational, vocational, and sanitation programs that will result in...promoting the use of the English language, the right American customs, and the best possible standards of American life.
...As the average Mexican adult has had no training in the "home‑owning virtues," it will be necessary to develop lessons regarding thrift, saving, and the value of keeping the money in the banks. As the Mexicans show considerable aptitude for hand work of any kind, courses should be developed that will aid them in becoming skilled workers with their hands. Girls should be trained to become domestic servants, and to do various kinds of handwork for which they can be paid adequately after they leave school.
...Finally, there should be established in the county...an intensive program of adult education. Funds should be provided...to teach every Mexican the English language, to teach every mother the care of infants, cleanliness, house sanitation, and economical house management including lessons in sewing, cooking, and thrift. The men should be trained in thrift, in gardening, and in the principles of the American government. In order to bring all the Mexican groups up to a higher level, parents and other adults must be taught as well as their children.... Class instruction... must exist for everyone; none should be allowed to escape the educational campaign.
Source: Merton E. Hill, "The Development of an Americanization Program." The Survey 66, no. 3 (May 1931).
4 / Repatriados
In February 1930 in San Antonio, Texas, five thousand Mexicans and Mexican Americans gathered at the city's railroad station to depart from the United States for resettlement in Mexico. In August, a special train carried another two thousand to central Mexico. Most Americans are familiar with the forced relocation in 1942 of 112,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast to internment camps. Far fewer are aware that during the Great Depression, the Federal Bureau of Immigration (after 1933, the Immigration and Naturalization Service) and local authorities rounded up Mexican immigrants and naturalized Mexican American citizens and shipped them to Mexico to reduce relief roles. In a shameful episode in the nation's history, more than 400,000 repatriados, many of them citizens of the United States by birth, were sent across the U.S.-Mexico border from Arizona, California, and Texas. Texas's Mexican-born population was reduced by a third. Los Angeles lost a third of its Mexican population. In Los Angeles, the only Mexican American student at Occidental College sang a painful farewell song, "Las Golondrinas," to serenade departing Mexicans.
Even before the stock market crash, there had been intense pressure from the American Federation of Labor and municipal governments to reduce the number of Mexican immigrants. Opposition from local chambers of commerce, economic development associations, and state farm bureaus stymied efforts to impose an immigration quota, but rigid enforcement of existing laws slowed legal entry. In 1928, United States consulates in Mexico began to apply with unprecedented rigor the literacy test legislated in 1917.
After President Herbert Hoover appointed William N. Doak as secretary of labor in 1930, the Bureau of Immigration launched intensive raids to identify aliens liable for deportation. The secretary of labor believed that removal of illegal aliens would reduce relief expenditures and free jobs for native-born citizens. Altogether, 82,400 were involuntarily deported by the federal government. Federal efforts were accompanied by city and county pressure to repatriate destitute Mexican American families. In January 1931, the Los Angeles County welfare director asked federal immigration officials to send a team to the city to supervise the deportation of Mexicans. The presence of federal agents, he said, would "have a tendency to scare many thousands of alien deportables out of this district, which is the intended result." In one raid in February 1931, police surrounded a downtown park popular with Mexicans and Mexican Americans and held some four hundred adults and children captive for over an hour. The threat of unemployment, deportation, and loss of relief payments led hundreds of thousands of others to leave.
In this selection, a letter distributed to San Diego's Mexican and Mexican American population in August 1932, the Mexican Consulate invites these people to take advantage of an offer to repatriate in Mexico.
The Government of Mexico, with the cooperation and aid of the Welfare Committee of this County, will effect the repatriation of all Mexicans who currently reside in this County and who might wish to return to their country....
Those persons who are repatriated will be able to choose among the States of Sonora, Sinaloa, Nayarit, Jalisco, Michoacán, and Guanajuato as the place of their final destination, with the understanding that the Government of Mexico will provide them with lands for agricultural cultivation...and will aid them in the best manner possible so that they might settle in the country.
Those persons who take part in this movement of repatriation may count on free transportation from San Diego to the place where they are going to settle, and they will be permitted to bring with them their furniture, household utensils, agricultural implements, and whatever other objects for personal use they might possess.
Since the organization and execution of a movement of repatriation of this nature implies great expenditures, this Consulate encourages you...to take advantage of this special opportunity being offered to you for returning to Mexico at no cost whatever and so that...you might dedicate all your energies to your personal improvement, that of your family, and that of our country.
If you wish to take advantage of this opportunity, please return this letter...with the understanding that, barring notice to the contrary from this Consulate, you should present yourself with your family and your luggage on the municipal dock of this port on the 23rd of this month before noon.
Source: Mexico City, Archivo de la Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores, IV-360-38.
In the following selection, Carey McWilliams, a journalist who played an critical role in bringing the plight of Mexican farmworkers to the public's attention, condemns efforts to rid the Southwestern United States of Mexicans and Mexican Americans.
In 1930 a fact‑finding committee reported to the Governor of California that, as a result of the passage of the Immigration Acts of 1921 and 1924, Mexicans were being used on a large scale in the Southwest to replace the supply of cheap labor that had been formerly recruited in Southeastern Europe. The report revealed a concentration of this new immigration in Texas, Arizona, and California, with an ever increasing number of Mexicans giving California as the State of their "intended future permanent residence." It was also discovered that, within the State, this new population was concentrated in ten southern counties.
For a long time Mexicans had regarded Southern California, more particularly Los Angeles, with favor, and during the decade from 1919 to 1929 the facts justified this view. At that time there was a scarcity of cheap labor in the region, and Mexicans were made welcome. When cautious observers pointed out some of the consequences that might reasonably be expected to follow from a rash encouragement of this immigration, they were shouted down by the wise men of the Chamber of Commerce. Mexican labor was eulogized as cheap, plentiful, and docile. Even so late as 1930 little effort had been made to unionize it. The Los Angeles shopkeepers joined with the industrialists in denouncing, as a union labor conspiracy, the agitation to place Mexican immigration on a quota basis....
During this period, academic circles in Southern California exuded a wondrous solicitude for the Mexican immigrant. Teachers of sociology, social service workers, and other subsidized sympathizers were deeply concerned about his welfare. Was he capable of assimilating American idealism? What anti‑social traits did he possess? Wasn't he made morose by his native diet? What could be done to make him relish spinach and Brussels sprouts? What was the percentage of this and that disease, or this and that crime, in the Mexican population of Los Angeles? How many Mexican mothers fed their youngsters according to the diet schedules promulgated by manufacturers of American infant foods? In short, the do-gooders subjected the Mexican population to a relentless barrage of surveys, investigations, and clinical conferences.
But a marked change has occurred since 1930. When it became apparent last year that the programme for the relief of the unemployed would assume huge proportions in the Mexican quarter, the community swung to a determination to oust the Mexicans. Thanks to the rapacity of his overlords, he had not been able to accumulate any savings. He was in default in his rent. He was a burden to the taxpayer. At this juncture, an ingenious social worker suggested the desirability of a wholesale deportation. But when the Federal authorities were consulted they could promise but slight assistance, since many of the younger Mexicans in Southern California were American citizens, being the American‑born children of immigrants. Moreover, the Federal officials insisted, in cases of illegal entry, upon a public hearing and a formal order of deportation. This procedure involved delay and expense, and, moreover, it could not be used to advantage in ousting any large number.
A better scheme was soon devised. Social workers reported that many of the Mexicans who were receiving charity had signified their "willingness" to return to Mexico. Negotiations were at once opened with the social‑minded officials of the Southern Pacific Railroad. It was discovered that, in wholesale lots, the Mexicans could be shipped to Mexico City for $14.70 per capita. This sum represented less than the cost of a week's board and lodging. And so, about February, 1931, the first trainload was dispatched, and shipments at the rate of about one a month have continued ever since. A shipment, consisting of three special trains, left Los Angeles on December 8. The loading commenced at about six o'clock in the morning and continued for hours. More than twenty‑five such special trains had left the Southern Pacific station before last April.
No one seems to know precisely how many Mexicans have been "repatriated" in this manner to date. The Los Angeles Times of November 18 gave an estimate of 11,000 for the year 1932. The monthly shipments of late have ranged from 1,300 to 6,000. The Times reported last April that altogether more than 200,000 repatriados had left the United States in the twelve months immediately preceding, of which it estimated that from 50,000 to 75,000 were from California, and over 35,000 from Los Angeles county. Of those from Los Angeles county, a large number were charity deportations.
The repatriation programme is regarded locally as a piece of consummate statecraft. The average per family cost of executing it is S71.14, including food and transportation. It cost Los Angeles county $77,249.29 to repatriate one shipment of 6,024. It would have cost $424,933.70 to provide this number with such charitable assistance as they would have been entitled to had they remained‑-a saving of $347,468.41.
One wonders what has happened to all the Americanization programmes of yesteryear. The Chamber of Commerce has been forced to issue a statement assuring the Mexican authorities that the community is in no sense unfriendly to Mexican labor and that repatriation is a policy designed solely for the relief of the destitute even, presumably, in cases where invalids are removed from the County Hospital in Los Angeles and carted across the line. But those who once agitated for Mexican exclusion are no longer regarded as the puppets of union labor.
What of the Mexican himself? The repatriation programme apparently, is a matter of indifference to this amiable ax‑American. He never objected to exploitation while he was welcome, and now he acquiesces in repatriation. He doubtless enjoys the free train ride home. Probably he has had his fill of bootleg liquor and of the mirage created by pay‑checks that never seemed to buy as much as they should. Considering the anti‑social character commonly attributed to him by the sociological myth‑makers, he has cooperated nicely with the authorities. Thousands have departed of their own volition. In battered Fords, carrying two and three families and all their worldly possessions, they are drifting back to el terenaso--the big land. They have been shunted back and forth across the border for so many years by war, revolution, and the law of supply and demand, that it would seem that neither expatriation or repatriation held any more terror for them.
The Los Angeles industrialists confidently predict that the Mexican can be lured back, "whenever we need him." But I am not so sure of this. He may be placed on a quota basis in the meantime, or possibly he will no longer look north to Los Angeles as the goal of his dreams. At present he is probably delighted to abandon an empty paradise. But it is difficult for his children. A friend of mine, who was recently in Mazatlan, found a young Mexican girl on one of the southbound trains crying because she had to leave Belmont High‑School. Such an abrupt severance of the Americanization programme is a contingency that the professors of sociology did not anticipate.
Source: American Mercury, March 1933.
5 / Mexican Americans and the New Deal
The plight of Mexican Americans during the Great Depression was bleak. In Crystal City, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, the average family income was $506 a year--at a time when authorities considered a subsistence income between $2,000 and $2,500. Less than one Mexican American child in five completed five years of school.
The New Deal did little for Mexicans and Mexican Americans who lived in rural areas or worked in agriculture. This was the case despite the efforts of the Farm Security Administration to improve the lot of farmworkers; it drafted and persuaded Congress to adopt laws outlawing child labor and setting minimum wages and maximum hours for adult workers. The National Labor Relations Act did not extent to farmworkers its guarantees of the right to organize unions, and the Social Security Act excluded them from its programs of unemployment compensation and old age insurance. Landlords took advantage of New Deal farm policies to evict tenants and sharecroppers from the farms they were working and replace them with mechanical cotton pickers and other equipment.
6 / The Bracero Program and Undocumented Workers
Initiated in 1942 by an executive agreement between Mexico and the United States, the program provided for Mexican braceros (laborers) to enter the United States as short-term contract workers, primarily in agriculture and transportation. Before the program ended in 1947, an estimated 200,000 braceros worked in twenty-one states, about half of them in California. The program was resurrected by Congress in 1951, largely because of agricultural shortages created by the Korean War. It continued until 1964, peaking in 1959 when nearly 450,000 braceros entered the United States. In 1960 they formed twenty-six percent of the nation's seasonal agricultural labor force. Even after the program's termination, Mexican workers could enter the U.S. by green cards that permit temporary employment.
In practice, neither legal immigration nor the Bracero Program met the need for labor in agriculture, construction, or domestic service. The desire to escape poverty and underemployment in Mexico and the attraction of higher wages and greater economic opportunities in the United States led an increasing number of undocumented workers to enter the United States--workers who had to avoid government border patrols and live under the constant threat of deportation.
In 1951 a presidential commission on migratory farm labor discussed the plight of undocumented agricultural workers.
President's Commission on Migratory Labor
Before 1944, the illegal traffic on the Mexican border, though always going on, was never overwhelming in numbers. Apprehensions by immigration officials leading to deportations or voluntary departures before 1944 were fairly stable and under ten thousand per year....
The magnitude of the wetback traffic has reached entirely new levels in the past seven years. The number of deportations and voluntary departures has continuously mounted each year, from twenty-nine thousand in 1944 to 565,000 in 1950. In its newly achieved proportions, it is virtually an invasion. It is estimated that at least 400,000 of our migratory farm labor force of 1 million in 1949 were wetbacks....
Farmers in the northern areas of Mexico require seasonal labor for the cotton harvest just as do the farmers on our side of the Rio Grande. There is, accordingly, an internal northward migration for this employment. American farm employers in need of seasonal labor encourage northward migratory movements within Mexico.
This rapid economic development in the areas immediately south of the border has accelerated the wetback traffic in several ways. An official in Matamoros estimates that twenty-five thousand transient cotton pickers were needed in the 1950 season, whereas the number coming from interior Mexico was estimated at sixty thousand. It is to be expected that many Mexican workers coming north with the anticipation of working in northern Mexico do not find employment there and ultimately spill over the border and become wetbacks....
Although smuggling of wetbacks is widespread, the majority of wetbacks apparently enter alone or in small groups without a smuggler's assistance. In a group moving without the aid of a smuggler, there usually is one who has made the trip before and who is willing to show the way. Not infrequently the same individual knows the farm to which the group intends to go and sometimes he has made advance arrangements with the farm employer to return at an appointed date with his group. Such wetbacks stream into the United States by the thousands through the deserts near El Paso and Calexico or across the Rio Grande between Rio Grande City and Brownsville....
Well-established practices to facilitate and encourage the entrance of wetbacks...range from spreading news of employment in the plazas [of Mexican towns and cities] and over the radio to the withholding from wages of what is called a "deposit" which is intended to urge, if not guarantee, the return to the same farm as quickly as possible of a wetback employee who may be apprehended and taken back to Mexico.
The term "deposit" requires some explanation. Members of this commission personally interviewed wetback workers apprehended by immigration officers in the lower Rio Grande Valley. These workers had been paid for the cotton they had picked during the preceding two or three weeks. However, there employers had withheld $10 to $15 from their pay. Such sums, we discovered, are known as deposits. To redeem this deposit, the wetback was required to re-enter illegally and to reappear on the farm employer's premises within ten days.
Once on the United States side of the border and on the farm, numerous devices are employed to keep the wetback on the job. Basic to all these devices is the fact that the wetback is a person of legal disability who is under jeopardy of immediate deportation if caught. He is told that if he leaves the farm, he will be reported to the Immigration Service or that, equally unfortunate to him, the Immigration Service will surely find him if he ventures into town or out onto the roads. To assure that he will stay until his services are no longer needed, his pay, or some portion thereof, frequently is held back. Sometimes, he is deliberately kept indebted to the farmer's store or commissary until the end of the season, at which time he may be given enough to buy shoes or clothing and encouraged to return the following season.
When the work is done, neither the farmer nor the community wants the wetback around. The number of apprehensions and deportations tends to rise very rapidly at the close of the seasonal work period. This can be interpreted not alone to mean that the immigration officer suddenly goes about his work with renewed zeal and vigor, but rather that at this time of the year "cooperation" in law enforcement by farm employers and townspeople undergoes considerable improvement....
Wages for common hand labor in the lower Rio Grande Valley, according to the testimony, were as low as 15 to 25 cents per hour.
Source: Migratory Labor in American Agriculture: Report of the President's Commission on Migratory Labor. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1951.
In 1951 and 1952, migratory farmworkers testified before Congress. An excerpt from the testimony follows. The consequence of such testimony was to encourage a massive effort to deport undocumented Mexican workers, known as Operation Wetback.
Testimony Before Congress
Q. Where is your home in Texas?
A. Weslaco, Tex. (Lower Rio Grande Valley).
Q. Why don't you stay down around Weslaco and work down there?
A. Well, I don't stay there because I can't make any money over there in that town.
Q. What is the reason you can't make any money there?
A. Well, because there is a lot of laborers in that town and they can't get any work. This year they promised to pay 75 cents an hour. You can go anywhere to look for a job and you can't find any job....
Q. Who promised you 75 centers?
A. Well, on the radio, I listen to the radio, and they took all the Nationals back to Mexico and so want to raise the price for us, but I and my brothers, my two brothers, was looking for a job all the way around the town and they couldn't find any, and myself started to work about 20 days after I got there, and I got started to get some people to get ready to come to Montana with me.
Q. I want to ask Mr. F---- about these Mexican Nationals in Texas. you say that you couldn't make any money there and wages were too low, there weren't any jobs because there was an abundance of other workers?
Q. Were those other workers Mexican Nationals that came across the river?
A. Yes, sir; they crossed the river, and they worked for 3 or 4 days, dollar a day, two dollars and a half, and there is the reason we can't get jobs.
Q. You mean they paid them two dollars or two and a half?
A. Two and a half or three dollars.
Q. For how many hours?
A. Ten hours.
Q. They are getting about 25 cents an hour?
Q. You spoke about Mexican Nationals. Do you happen to know whether those are wetback Mexicans, or were those contract Mexicans that were brought in under the Government program? Which of those two was it that took most of the work around Weslaco?
A. Well, it is Mexicans that is from Mexico. They just crossed the river, and that is the reason they got a lot of laborers there in that town, and they don't get any jobs for us on farm labor.
Source: Migratory Labor. Hearings before Subcommittee on Labor and Labor-Management Relations. 82nd Congress, 2nd Session.
7 / Operation Wetback
Between 1950 and 1955, the federal government launched a massive effort to round up and deport undocumented workers, termed "wetbacks" or "mojados" because many had crossed the Rio Grande River to reach the United States. During the period, the federal government carried out 3.8 million expulsions (some Mexicans may have been expelled more than once). Attorney General Herbert Brownell, Jr. claimed that the operation was to prevent the entrance of subversives. Highly publicized in advance, Operation Wetback was meant to encourage undocumented aliens to leave voluntarily as well as to deport them. In 1954, a million undocumented workers were returned to Mexico. Many were shipped across the border without recourse to due process. A symbol of the new attitude toward Mexican immigration was the construction of a barbed wire fence along the border during the 1950s. The Asociacion Nacional Mexico-Americana was established in 1950 to prevent the separation of family members and the expulsion of people who had lived in the United States for many years.
In these selections, native-born farmworkers complain about competition from foreign laborers in 1952 Congressional hearings. The first piece of testimony comes from George Stith, an agricultural worker on a Gould, Arkansas, cotton plantation.
The importation of Mexican nationals into Arkansas did not begin until the fall of 1949. Cotton-picking wages in my section were good. We were getting $4 per 100 pounds for picking. As soon as the Mexicans were brought in the wages started falling. Wages were cut to $3.25 and $3 per 100 pounds. In many cases local farm workers could not get jobs at all.... I think there were about 25,000 Mexican nationals hired in 1949. In 1950 there was a small crop of cotton but more Mexicans were brought in to pick cotton and it was all picked out before the end of October. The cotton plantation owners kept the Mexicans at work and would not employ Negro and white pickers.
Source: Migratory Labor. Hearings before Subcommittee on Labor and Labor-Management Relations. 82nd Congress, 2nd Session.
Juanita Garcia, a migratory farmworker in California's Imperial Valley offered this testimony to Congress.
I work in the field and in the packing sheds. I lost my job in a packing shed about two weeks ago. I was fired because I belonged to the National Farm Labor Union. Every summer our family goes north to work. We pick figs and cotton. My father, my brothers and sisters also work on farms. For poor people like us who are field laborers, making a living has always been hard. Why? Because the ranchers and companies have always taken over.
When I was a small kid my dad had a small farm but he lost it. All of us used to help him. But dad got older and worn out with worries every day. Lots of us kids could not go to school much. Our parents could not afford the expenses. This happened to all kids like us. Difficulties appear here and there every day. Taxes, food, clothing, and everything go up. We all have to eat. Sometimes we sleep under a leaky roof. We have to cover up and keep warm the best way we can in the cold weather.
In the Imperial Valley we have a hard time. It so happens that the local people who are American citizens cannot get work. Many days we don't work. Some days we work 1 hour. The wetbacks and nationals from Mexico have the whole Imperial Valley. They have invaded not only the Imperial Valley but all the United States. The nationals and wetbacks take any wages the ranchers offer to pay them. The wages get worse every year. Last year most local people got little work. Sometimes they make only $5 a week. That is not enough to live on, so many people cannot send their children to school.
Many people have lost their homes since 1942 when the nationals and wetbacks started coming. Local people work better but wetbacks and nationals are hired anyway.
Last year they fired some people from the shed because they had nationals to take their jobs. There was a strike. We got all the strikers out at 4:30 in the morning. The cops were on the streets escorting the nationals and wetbacks to the fields. The cops had guns. The ranchers had guns, too. They took the wetbacks in their brand-new cars through our picket line. They took the nationals from the camps to break our strike. They had 5,000 scabs that were nationals. We told the Mexican consul about this. We told the Labor Department. They were supposed to take the nationals out of the strike. They never did take them away.
It looks like the big companies in agriculture are running the United States. All of us local people went on strike. The whole valley was hungry because nobody worked at all. The melons rotted in the fields. We went out and arrested the wetbacks who were living in caves and on the ditches and we took them to the border patrol. But the national scabs kept working. Isn't the Government supposed to help us poor people? Can't it act fast in cases like this?
Source: Migratory Labor. Hearings before Subcommittee on Labor and Labor-Management Relations. 82nd Congress, 2nd Session.
Approximately 350,000 Mexican Americans had served in World War II. They suffered casualties far above their proportion in the population. They were among the country's most decorated ethnic group (as they were during World War I, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War), winning seventeen medals of honor.
During the war, the Spanish-Speaking People's Division of the federal Office of Inter-American Affairs developed programs to instill cultural pride among Mexican American children. School districts established vocational training classes to prepare graduates for jobs in wartime industry. Under intense government pressure, Mexican Americans secured jobs previously denied them, as in Texas's growing petroleum industry.
The Second World War marked a major turning point in Mexican American history. It ignited a heightened political consciousness within the Mexican American community. The new activist mood could be seen in Los Angeles during the war. It was also apparent in the establishment of two important political organizations in 1947: the G.I. Forum in Texas and the Community Service Organization in California.
There was much to be activist about. A volume published in 1947 described Mexican Americans as the nation's "step-children." The facts were stark. In San Antonio, the number of infant deaths was three times that of Anglos. Of seventy thousand migrant agricultural workers in Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming, sixty thousand had no toilets, ten thousand used ditch water for drinking, and thirty-three thousand had no bathing facilities.
1 / Sleepy Lagoon
Sleepy Lagoon was an eastside Los Angeles reservoir. It was also a swimming hole and recreation center for Mexican Americans forbidden from swimming at segregated public pools. In 1942, it became a synonym of injustice and racial hatred and a starting point in the Mexican American struggle for equal justice.
On August 1, 1942, a party at Sleepy Lagoon turned violent. Fighting broke out and twenty-one year-old José Diaz was beaten to death. The local press launched a campaign against Mexican American youth.
The early 1940s in Los Angeles was the era of the "pachuco," Latino men who favored the long coats, wide pants, and long watch chains of the zoot suit. The press did a series of articles on pachuco gangs. As public outrage about the pachucos grew, sheriff's officials conducted a sweep through the city's barrios, arresting more than six hundred young men in the Sleepy Lagoon case. A grand jury eventually indicted twenty-four for murder, making the court proceedings one of the largest mass trials in American history. The defendants were referred to in the press as "The Sleepy Lagooners," and then simply as "goons." In the courtroom they were demonized as bloodthirsty hoodlums.
Access to justice was a central issue in the Sleepy Lagoon case. Only two of the defendants had attorneys and the defendants were placed in a separate "prisoners' box." Openly biased testimony was admitted into the trial record. One Sheriff's Department expert testified that "total disregard for human life has always been universal throughout the Americas among the Indian population. And this Mexican element feels...a desire...to kill, or at least draw blood." At the trial, none of the witnesses ever testified that they saw anyone strike the victim. Some of the defendants couldn't be placed at the murder scene.
An appeals court later overturned all the convictions and severely reprimanded Judge Charles W. Fricke for displaying prejudice and hostility toward the defendants. After two years in jail and prison, the Sleepy Lagoon defendants were set free.
Strong support for the defendants came from the Citizens' Committee for the Defense of Mexican‑American Youth. Excerpts from their report on the case follow.
Citizens' Committee for the Defense of Mexican‑American Youth
On the night of August 2nd, 1942, one José Diaz left a...party at the Sleepy Lagoon ranch near Los Angeles, and sometime...that night he died. It seems clear that Diaz was drinking heavily and fell into a roadway and was run over by a car. Whether or not he was also in a brawl before he was run over is not clear.
On January 13th, fifteen American‑born boys of Mexican descent and two boys born in Mexico stood up to hear the verdict of a Los Angeles court. Twelve of them were found guilty of having conspired to murder Diaz, five were convicted of assault. Their sentences ranged from a few months to life imprisonment.
The lawyers say there is good reason to believe the seventeen boys were innocent, and no evidence at all to show even that they were present at the time that Diaz was involved in a brawl, assuming that he actually was in a brawl, let alone that they "conspired" to murder José Diaz. Two other boys whose lawyers demanded a separate trial after the seventeen had been convicted, were acquitted on the same evidence....
What was the basis for this mass "prosecution"? Was it a necessary measure against a sudden, terrifying wave of juvenile delinquency? No. A report by Karl Holton of the Los Angeles Probation Department conclusively proves that "there is no wave of lawlessness among Mexican children.". . . Says Mr. Holton, we must not "lose our sense of proportion. The great majority of Mexican children are not involved in these delinquent activities." . . . He points out with factual clarity, the small war‑time increase in delinquency among Mexican boys was much less than the increase in the total for all racial groups....
"Seventeen for one!" thundered the Los Angeles District Attorney and the Los Angeles press.... It became clear that...the ...boys were not standing alone at the bar of "justice."
It wasn't only seventeen boys who were on trial.
It was the whole Mexican people, and their children and their grandchildren....
The weak evidence upon which the conviction was obtained consisted largely of statements given by these boys after they had been manhandled and threatened with beatings or been actually beaten...to give any statement desired by the police, in order to avoid further beating. The judge and the prosecuting attorneys worked as a...team to bring about the convictions. The newspapers continued to blast their stories about the "zoos suit gangsters" and with a jury with no Mexican member....
It began to be that kind of a trial.... The Los Angeles papers started it by building for a "crime wave" even before there was a crime. "MEXICAN GOON SQUADS." "ZOOT SUIT GANGS. "PACHUCO KILLERS. "JUVENILE GANG WAR LAID TO YOUTHS' DESIRE TO THRILL." Those were...the headlines building for August 3rd.
On August 3rd the death of José Diaz was scarehead news. And the stories were of Mexican boys "prowling in wolf‑packs," armed with clubs and knives and automobile tools and tire irons, invading peaceful homes....
On August 3rd every Mexican kid in Los Angeles was under suspicion as a "zoos‑suit" killer. Cops lined up outside of dance halls, armed with pokers to which sharp razor blades were attached, and they ripped the peg‑top trousers and "zootsuits" of the boys as they came out.
Mexican boys were beaten, jailed. "Zoos‑suits" and "Pachuco" hair cuts were crimes. It was a crime to be born in the U.S.A.‑of a Spanish‑speaking father or mother....
After the grand jury . . . returned an indictment and before the trial...began, Mr. Ed. Duran Ayres...of the Sheriff's Office, filed a statement.
That statement is the key to the Sleepy Lagoon case.
It isn't nice reading, but you will have to read . . . it to understand why Sleepy Lagoon challenges every victory‑minded person in the United States, Jew or Protestant or Catholic, Spanish‑speaking or Mayflower descendant, immigrant or native‑born.
"The biological basis," said Mr. Ayres, "is the main basis to work from"...:
When the Spaniards conquered Mexico they found an organized society composed of many tribes of Indians ruled over by the Aztecs who were given over to human sacrifice. Historians record that as many as 30,000 Indians were sacrificed . . . in one day, their bodies ... opened by stone knives and their hearts torn out.... This total disregard for human life has always been universal throughout the Americas among the Indian population, which of course is well known to everyone.... This Mexican element ... knows and feels ... a desire to use a knife or some lethal weapon.... His desire is to kill. or at least let blood....
We are at war. We are at war not only with the armies of the Axis powers, but with...Hitler and with his theories of race supremacy....
We are at war with the premise on which seventeen boys were tried and convicted in Los Angeles, sentenced to ... prison terms on January 13th.... We are at war with the Nazi logic...set forth by Mr. Ed. Duran Ayres, the logic which guided the judge and jury and dictated the verdict and the sentence.
And because this global war is everywhere a people's war,...all of us together take up the challenge of Sleepy Lagoon.
Source: The Sleepy Lagoon Case, prepared by the Citizens' Committee for the Defense of Mexican‑American Youth, Los Angeles, 1942.
2 / The Zoot Suit Riots
At the end of the three-month Sleepy Lagoon trial, a public campaign against Mexican American youth intensified. Over a two-week period in May and June 1943, police stood by while several thousand servicemen and civilizations beat up Mexican American youth, stripping them of their draped jackets and pegged pants. The Los Angeles City Council banned zoot suits within the city. The "zoot-suit riots" have become a symbol of wartime prejudice and ethnic strife.
California's Governor, Earl Warren, formed a committee to investigate the causes of the "Zoot Suit" riots. Excerpts from the report follow.
Governor's Citizen's Committee Report on Los Angeles Riots
There are approximately 250,000 persons of Mexican descent in Los Angeles County. Living conditions among the majority of these people are far below the general level of the community. Housing is inadequate; sanitation is bad and is made worse by congestion. Recreational facilities for children are very poor; and there is insufficient supervision of the playgrounds, swimming pools and other youth centers. Such conditions are breeding places for juvenile delinquency....
Mass arrests, dragnet raids, and other wholesale classifications of groups of people are based on false premises and tend merely to aggravate the situation. Any American citizen suspected of crime is entitled to be treated as an individual, to be indicted as such, and to be tried, both at law and in the forum of public opinion, on his merits or errors, regardless of race, color, creed, or the kind of clothes he wears.
Group accusations foster race prejudice, the entire group accused want revenge and vindication. The public is led to believe that every person in the accused group is guilty of crime.
It is significant that most of the persons mistreated during the recent incidents in Los Angeles were either persons of Mexican descent or Negroes. In undertaking to deal with the cause of these outbreaks, the existence of race prejudice cannot be ignored....
On Monday evening, June seventh, thousands of Angelenos, in response to twelve hours' advance notice in the press, turned out for a mass lynching. Marching through the streets of downtown Los Angeles, a mob of several thousand soldiers, sailors, and civilians, proceeded to beat up every zoot‑suiter they could find. Pushing its way into the important motion picture theaters, the mob ordered the management to turn on the house lights and then ranged up and down the aisles dragging Mexicans out of their seats. Street cars were halted while Mexicans, and some Filipinos and Negroes, were jerked out of their seats, pushed into the streets, and beaten with sadistic frenzy. If the victims wore zoot‑suits, they were stripped of their clothing and left naked or half‑naked on the streets, bleeding and bruised. Proceeding down Main Street from First to Twelfth, the mob stopped on the edge of the Negro district. Learning that the Negroes planned a warm reception for them, the mobsters turned back and marched through the Mexican cast side spreading panic and terror.
Throughout the night the Mexican communities were in the wildest possible turmoil. Scores of Mexican mothers were trying to locate their youngsters and several hundred Mexicans milled around each of the police substations and the Central Jail trying to get word of missing members of their families. Boys came into the police stations saying: "Charge me with vagrancy or anything, but don't send me out there!" pointing to the streets where other boys, as young as twelve and thirteen years of age, were being beaten and stripped of their clothes... not more than half of the victims were actually wearing zoot‑suits. A Negro defense worker, wearing a defense‑plant identification badge on his workclothes, was taken from a street car and one of his eyes was gouged out with a knife. Huge half-page photographs, showing Mexican boys stripped of their clothes, cowering on the pavement, often bleeding profusely, surrounded by jeering mobs of men and women, appeared in all the Los Angeles newspapers....
At midnight on June seventh, the military authorities decided that the local police were completely unable or unwilling to handle the situation, despite the fact that a thousand reserve officers had been called up. The entire downtown area of Los Angeles was then declared "out of bounds" for military personnel. This order immediately slowed down the pace of the rioting. The moment the Military Police and Shore Patrol went into action, the rioting quieted down.
Source: Governor's Citizen's Committee Report on Los Angeles Riots, 1943.
3 / Discrimination Against Mexican Americans in War Industries
In the spring of 1941, after the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called for 150,000 people to march on Washington to protest racial discrimination in defense industries, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order prohibiting discrimination in war industries and created the Fair Employment Practice Commission (FEPC) to investigate complaints. With a tiny staff, the FEPC lacked the resources to force contractors to end discriminatory practices. Here, Carlos E. Castañeda a special assistant on Latin-American Problems to the FEPC, testifies before a Senate committee on behalf of a bill to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, creed, color, national origin, or ancestry. The bill was defeated.
Carlos E. Castañeda
Our Spanish‑speaking population in the Southwest...are ill‑dressed, ill‑fed, ill-cared for medically, and ill‑educated...because of the low economic standard to which they have been relegated as the result of...restricting their employment...to the lowest paid, least desirable, and most exacting jobs.... Not only have they been restricted to the lowest bracket jobs, but even in these jobs they have been paid wages below the minimum...in all the...industries in which they have been employed....
...Out of the 315,000 persons of Mexican extraction, only 10,000 were being employed in the Southern California shipyards, 2,000 in the San Diego aircraft industry, and 7,500 in the Los Angeles aircraft industry, making a total of 19,500 employed in essential war industries in the area included between Los Angeles and San Diego. Much better utilization was being made of Mexican labor in the San Francisco area where, with a...population of ...30,000 persons of Mexican extraction, 8,000 were engaged in basic war industries.... 22% of the Mexican Americans were being employed in San Francisco, while only 6% had found employment in basic war industries in the Los Angeles and San Diego area....
Texas, with a population of 6,414,824, has approximately 1,000,000 Mexican Americans.... Less than 5%...are employed...in war...industries. Such industries...have restricted them to common or unskilled labor jobs...regardless of their ability, training, or qualifications. In the oil, aircraft and mining industries, in the numerous military installations, in the munitions factories and shipyards, and in the public utility corporations,...their employment has been limited and their opportunities for advancement restricted.
The prevalent...belief among employers for the various industries, personnel managers, officials of military installations, and...government agencies in the Southwest is that the Mexican‑American is incapable of doing other than manual, physical labor; that he is unfit for the...skilled labor required by industry and the crafts....
Mexican‑Americans have generously responded to their responsibility in the present world struggle for the victory of the democracies. They have unstintingly made the last sacrifice on a world‑wide battle front in order that all peoples may enjoy the blessings of freedom and peace. Equal economic opportunities, the right to work and earn a decent living on a par with all other persons regardless of race, creed, color, national origin or ancestry, is a basic principle of American democracy.
Source: Fair Employment Practices Act Hearings, Subcommittee of the Committee on Education and Labor, U.S. Senate, 79th Congress, 1st Session, March 12-14, 1945.
4 / The Méndez Case: Brown v. Board of Education for Mexican Americans
As late as World War II, it was common practice in the Southwest to segregate Mexican Americans in schools. In every California community with a sizable Mexican population, schools were segregated. Sometimes there was just a Mexican room, but many districts identified a separate Mexican school.
Gonzalo Méndez, a tenant farmer, and a group of Mexican American World War II veterans in California's Orange County, demanded that their children attend the same schools as Anglos. They filed a lawsuit in federal court against four Orange County school districts seeking an injunction that would order their schools' integration.
Two years later, in 1947, the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that school districts could not segregate on the basis of national origin or Mexican descent. California Governor Earl Warren persuaded the legislature to repeal laws that segregated Asian and Native American schoolchildren. Warren went on to write the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that ruled that racial segregation was unconstitutional. Excerpts from the 1946 Méndez et al. v. Westminster School District decision follow.
Méndez et al. v. Westminster School District
That all children or persons of Mexican or Latin descent or extraction, though Citizens of the United States of America...have been and are now excluded from attending, using, enjoying and receiving the benefits of the education, health and recreation facilities of certain schools within their respective Districts and Systems....
In the Westminister, Garden Grove and El Modeno school districts the respective boards of trustees had taken official action, declaring that there be no segregation of pupils on a racial basis but that non‑English‑speaking children...be required to attend schools designated by the boards separate and apart from English‑speaking pupils; that such group should attend such schools until they had acquired some proficiency in the English language.
The petitioners contend that such official action evinces a covert attempt by the school authorities in such school districts to produce an arbitrary discrimination against school children of Mexican extraction or descent and that such illegal result has been established in such school districts respectively....
The ultimate question for decision may be thus stated: Does such official action of defendant district school agencies and the usages and practices pursued by the respective school authorities as shown by the evidence operate to deny or deprive the so‑called non‑English‑speaking school children of Mexican ancestry or descent within such school districts of the equal protection of the laws?...
We think they are....
We think the pattern of public education promulgated in the Constitution of California and effectuated by provisions of the Education Code of the State prohibits segregation of the pupils of Mexican ancestry in the elementary schools from the rest of the school children.
...The common segregation attitudes and practices of the school authorities in the defendant school districts in Orange County pertain solely to children of Mexican ancestry and parentage. They are singled out as a class for segregation. Not only is such method of public school administration contrary to the general requirements of the school laws of the State, but we think it indicates an official school policy that is antagonistic in principle to...the Education Code of the State....
We perceive in the laws relating to the public educational system in the State of California a clear purpose to avoid and forbid distinctions among pupils based upon race or ancestry except in specific situations not pertinent to this action. Distinctions of that kind have recently been declared by the highest judicial authority of the United States "by their very nature odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality." They are said to be "utterly inconsistent with American traditions and ideals."...
The evidence clearly shows that Spanish‑speaking children are retarded in learning English by lack of exposure to its use because of segregation, and that commingling of the entire student body instills and develops a common cultural attitude among the school children which is imperative for the perpetuation of American institutions and ideals. It is also established by the record that the methods of segregation prevalent in the defendant school districts foster antagonisms in the children and suggest inferiority among them where none exists....
Source: Civil Action No. 4292. District Court, San Diego, Calif., Central Division, Feb. 18, 1946. Federal Supplements, Vol 64, 1946, 544-51.
5 / Recommendations on the Bracero Program
In 1949, the remains of Army Private Felix Longoria were returned from the Philippines to his hometown of Three Rivers, Texas. A local funeral home refused to accept the body because Longoria was Mexican American. Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson ultimately intervened and Longoria was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
At the end of World War II, the poll tax, boss rule, and primaries open only to Anglos kept Mexican Americans in Texas from public office. In 1948, Mexican American veterans in Texas formed the American GI Forum to win the rights that they had fought for in wartime but lacked in peacetime. Led by its founder, Dr. Hector P. Garcia, and its national organizer, Molly Galvan, one of the first Chicanas to achieve political prominence, the GI Forum battled to desegregate South Texas schools and hospitals and ensure that juries were representative of the community. In 1984, Garcia received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and in 1998, two years after his death from stomach cancer, his image appeared on a series of U.S. Saving Bonds.
In the decades since the GI Forum was founded, the civil rights issues facing Mexican Americans have changed greatly. Central now are questions of bilingual education and an equal shares in school funding. In this selection, the American GI Forum argues that the Bracero program depressed wages among migrant farmworkers.
American GI Forum of Texas and Texas State Federation of Labor
First of all, we want to emphasize that we are opposed to the Bracero Program whenever the braceros brought into the United States displace American citizen workers. We believe that U.S. citizens, if offered comparable wages to those paid braceros, together with the other contract guarantees, will supply a much greater proportion of the agricultural labor needed than at present. But we agree, that where a genuine labor shortage does exist, braceros may be used rather than lose the crop.
But we, the public, must learn not to become infected with the panic that grips the farmer the moment his product is ready to harvest. When his cotton is open, it is almost impossible for him to have too many pickers available. He would like to have it picked immediately, and...it costs no more to pick it with one thousand workers than it does with twenty. Until his harvest is out of the field, he is apt to consider that he has a labor shortage, regardless of the number of hands already in his fields. The same holds true in crops other than cotton.... We must remember that his "critical labor shortage" does not necessarily mean that there are not enough laborers to harvest his crop but may only mean that there are not enough to harvest it as cheaply or as quickly as he would like....
Any employer who offers American citizens only 25 cents an hour is going to be faced with a labor shortage....
Labor shortages must not be certified unless domestic labor has been given a genuine offer of employment under terms, wages and conditions of employment at least equal to those offered foreign workers. If the offer concerns wages only, then the wage should be increased a reasonable amount to compensate for the additional guarantees in the bracero contract....
With a patronizing air, many a self‑styled expert on American citizens of Mexican extraction (and many who may have just finished paying off a wetback crew at the rate of 25 cents an hour) has explained that "these Mexicans (meaning American citizens of Mexican extraction) are too lazy to do field work" or that "all they want to do is travel" or that "you can't trust them to do a job right."
What he really means is that American citizens‑living in the U.S., paying taxes in the U.S., raising their families in the U.S.=‑can't work for 25 cents an hour and manage to survive.
Source: American GI Forum of Texas and Texas State Federation of Labor (AFL), What Price Wetbacks? Austin, Texas, 1953, pp. 1‑59.
6 / Salt of the Earth
In 1951, at the height of the anti-Communist McCarthy era, a militant union in New Mexico staged a fifteen-month strike against a zinc mining company. In 1954, the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers sponsored a militantly political film version of the strike, cast with non-professional actors. Denounced by a congressman as inspired by Communists and "designed to inflame racial hatred," the film appeared in just thirteen of the nation's thirteen thousand theaters. Now regarded as a classic union strike film, Salt of the Earth is credited as one of the first pictures to deal directly with the experience of Mexican American workers and their families.
The film recounts wage discrimination against Mexican Americans and their segregation in separate facilities. It shows dangerous conditions in the mines, strikers' abused by local police, and squalid miners' shacks. It also portrays women in a way that was uncommon at the time. When mine owners invoked a provision of the Taft-Hartley Act during the strike prohibiting the miners from picketing the mine, the miners' wives took over the picket line. This action led many of these women to begin to view their lives in new ways.
A California congressman vilified the film as a "new weapon for Russia," and local vigilantes set fire to the union's headquarters in Silver City, New Mexico. The lead actress, Rosaura Revueltas, who portrayed a miner's wife, was arrested by immigration officials and deported to Mexico--which forced filmmakers to use a double for the remainder of the film. Once in Mexico, she was banned from acting there, and never acted again. The film's director (Herbert J. Biberman), producer (Paul Jarrico), and screenwriter (Michael Wilson who also wrote "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Bridge on the River Kwai") were all blacklisted.
In 1960, the statistics for Mexican Americans were bleak. A third of all Mexican American families subsisted on an income of less than $3,000 a year, the federal poverty line. The median income of a Mexican American family was just sixty-two percent of that of the general population. Unemployment was twice the rate of that for non-Hispanic whites. Four-fifths of all Mexican American workers were concentrated in unskilled or semi-skilled jobs, a third of these in agriculture. Most were employed as agricultural stoop laborers and unskilled household, service, construction, or factory workers. As recently as 1970, just a quarter of men with Spanish surnames held a white collar job, compared to more than half of Anglo men. Educational opportunities lagged far behind those of other Americans. Most Mexican Americans attended predominantly Mexican‑American schools, less well staffed and supplied than other American schools, with few Hispanic or Spanish‑speaking teachers. Three-quarters dropped out before finishing high school. In 1970, Mexican Americans averaged less than nine years of school. Gerrymandered election districts and restrictive voting legislation resulted in the political underrepresentation of Mexican‑Americans. It was not until 1957, when Raymond L. Telles was elected mayor of El Paso, that a Mexican American was elected mayor of a major city. Mexican Americans were underrepresented or excluded from juries by requirements that jurors be able to speak and understand English. Even in religion, Mexican Americans faced unequal treatment. In 1970, there were no Spanish-surnamed bishops in the Southwest.
During the 1960s, a new Chicano movement suddenly burst into politics. Young activists adopted the term Chicano--previously a term of derision that came from the Spanish word meaning "the poorest of the poor"--to express a militant ethnic nationalism.
In 1962, César Chavez and Dolores Huerta began to organize California farmworkers, and three years later, in Delano, California, their union led its first strike. At the same time, Reies López Tijerina fought to win compensation for the descendants of families whose lands had been seized illegally. In Denver, Rodolfo ("Corky") Gonzales formed the Crusade for Justice in 1965 to protest school discrimination; provide legal, medical, and financial services and jobs for Chicanos; and foster the Mexican‑American cultural heritage. In a number of small towns with large Mexican American populations, La Raza Unida political parties arose. Between 1967 and 1970, more than seventy colleges and universities launched Mexican American studies programs. In 1968, fifteen thousand students in East Los Angeles protested against inferior schools and biased counseling. Student organizations--including the Mexican American Youth Organization, United Mexican American Students, Movimiento Estudantil Chicano de Aztlan, and the Brown Berets--emphasized cultural nationalism and self-determination. Epic struggles arose across the Southwest to register voters, organize farmworkers, and regain stolen lands.
1 / César Chavez
In early April 1962, a thirty-five year-old community organizer named César Estrada Chavez set out single-handedly to organize impoverished migrant farm laborers in the California grape fields. He, his wife, and their eight children packed their belongings into a dilapidated nine-year-old station wagon, and moved to Delano, California, a town of twelve thousand, which was the center of the nation's table grape industry. Over the next two years, Chavez spent his entire lifetime savings of $1,200 creating a small social service organization for Delano's field laborers, which offered immigration counseling, citizenship classes, funeral benefits, credit to buy cars and homes, assistance with voter registration, and a cooperative to buy tires and gasoline. As the emblem of his new organization, the National Farm Workers Association, Chavez chose a black Aztec eagle inside a white circle on a red background.
Chavez's sympathy for the plight of migrant farmworkers came naturally. He was born in Yuma, Arizona, in 1927, one of five children of Mexican immigrants. When he was ten years old, his parents lost their small farm; he, his brothers and sisters, and his parents hoed beets, picked grapes, and harvested peaches and figs in Arizona and California. There were times when the family had to sleep in its car or camp under bridges. When young César was able to attend school (he attended more than thirty), he was often shunted into special classrooms set aside for Mexican-American children.
In 1944, when he was 17, Chavez joined the navy. He served for two years on a destroyer escort in the Pacific. After World War II was over, he married and spent two-and-a-half years as a sharecropper raising strawberries. That was followed by work in apricot and prune orchards and in a lumber camp. Then in 1952 his life took a fateful turn. He joined the Community Service Organization (CSO), which wanted to educate and organize the poor so that they could solve their own social and economic problems. After founding CSO chapters in Madera, Bakersfield, and Hanford, California, Chavez became the organization's general director in 1958. Four years later, he broke with the organization when it rejected his proposal to establish a farmworkers' union.
Most labor leaders considered Chavez's goal of creating the first successful union of farm workers in U.S. history an impossible dream. Farm laborers suffered from high rates of illiteracy and poverty (average family earnings were just $2,000 in 1965), they also experienced persistently high rates of unemployment (traditionally around nineteen percent) and were divided into a variety of ethnic groups: Mexican, Arab, Filipino, and Puerto Rican. That farmworkers rarely remained in one locality for very long also hindered unionism, as did the ease which which employers could replace them with inexpensive Mexican day laborers, known as braceros, who were trucked into California and the Southwest at harvest time. Farmworkers were specifically excluded from the protection of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Unlike other American workers, farmworkers were not guaranteed the right to organize, had no guarantee of a minimum wage, and had no federally guaranteed standards of work in the fields. State laws requiring toilets, rest periods, and drinking water in the fields were largely ignored.
In September 1965, Chavez was drawn into his first important labor controversy. The Filipino grape pickers went on strike. "All right, Chavez," asked one of the Filipino grape pickers' leaders, "are you going to stand beside us, or are you going to scab against us?" Despite his fear that the National Farm Workers Association was not sufficiently well organized to support a strike--it had less than $100 in its strike fund--he assured the Filipino workers that members of his association would not go into the field as strikebreakers. Huelga!--the Spanish word for strike--became the grape pickers' battle cry.
Within weeks, the labor strike began to attract national attention. Unions, church groups, and civil rights organizations offered financial support for La Causa, as the farm workers' movement became known. In March 1966, Chavez led a 250-mile Easter march from Delano to Sacramento to dramatize the plight of migrant farm laborers. That same year, Chavez's National Farm Workers Association merged with an AFL-CIO affiliate to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee.
A staunch apostle of nonviolence, Chavez was deeply troubled by violent incidents that marred the strike. Some growers raced tractors along the roadside, covering the strikers with dirt and dust. Others drove spraying machines along the edges of their fields, spraying insecticide and fertilizer on the picketers. Local police officers arrested a minister for reading Jack London's definition of a scab ("a two-legged animal with a corkscrew soul, a water-logged brain, and a combination backbone made of jelly and glue"). Some strikers, in turn, intimidated strikebreakers by pelting them with marbles fired from slingshots and by setting fire to packing crates. One striker tried to drive a car into a group of growers.
In an effort to quell the escalating violence and to atone for the militancy of some union members, Chavez began to fast on February 14, 1968. For five days he kept the fast a secret. Then, in an hour-long speech to striking workers, he explained that continued violence would destroy everything the union stood for. The "truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness," he said, "is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice." For twenty-one days he fasted; he lost thirty-five pounds and his doctor began to fear for his health. He finally agreed to take a small amount of bouillon and grapefruit juice and medication. On March 11, he ended his fast by taking communion and breaking bread with Senator Robert F. Kennedy.
The strike dragged on for three years. To heighten public awareness of the farm workers' cause, Chavez in 1968 initiated a boycott of table grapes. It was the boycott that pressured many of the growers into settling the strike. An estimated 17 million American consumers went without grapes in support of the farmworkers bargaining position. By mid-1970, two thirds of California grapes were grown under contract with Chavez's union.
In the years following its 1970 victory, Chavez's union has been beset by problems from within and without. Union membership dwindled from more than 60,000 in 1972 to a low of 5,000 in 1974. (It has since climbed back to around 30,000). Meanwhile, public concern for the plight of migrant farmworkers declined.
Following his death at the age of sixty-six in 1993, twenty-five thousand people marched for more than two-and-a-half hours to the spot where Chavez founded the United Farm Workers Union. There, the mourners recalled his extraordinary legacy. As a result of his efforts, the most backbreaking tool used by farmworkers, the short hoe, was eliminated, and the use of many dangerous pesticides in the grape fields was prohibited. His labors also brought about a seventy percent increase in real wages form 1964 to 1980, and establishment of health care benefits, disability insurance, pension plans, and standardized grievance procedures for farmworkers. He helped secure passage in California in 1975 of the nation's first agricultural labor relations act, which prohibited growers from firing striking workers or engaging in bad-faith bargaining. Thanks to his efforts, migrant farm laborers won a right held by all other American workers: the right to bargain collectively.
In this selection, Chavez discusses government complicity in undermining farmworkers' unions.
Mr. Chavez. After 3 months of striking in 1979 we have come to the conclusion very little progress has been made in the last 40 years.
In the 1930's when the farmworkers tried to organize a strike, they were looked upon and treated by the local power structures in the rural communities as un-American, as subversive, and as some sort of criminal element. We today are looked upon pretty much the same way.
Just as in the 1930s, when a strike occurred, they were called criminal whether they be in Salinas, Calexico, Monterey County, Imperial County, or in Delano and Bakersfield, Calif. When a union strikes, it becomes then not simply a labor-management dispute as you see in other cases, but in our experience it becomes then on one side the workers, on the other side agribusiness and all of the local institutions, political and social, organize then to break the strike--the police, the sheriffs, the courts, the schools, the boards of supervisors, city councils. Not only that, but the State or Federal agencies that reside within those rural areas, are also greatly influenced by this overwhelming political power. The agribusiness industry wields the political power and uses it to break our strikes and destroy the union.
They have two standards of conduct against Mexicans and against unions. As long as we, Mexican farmworkers, keep our place and do our work we are tolerated, but if the Mexican worker joins a union, if he stands up for justice and if he dares to strike, then all the local institutions feel duty-bound to defend what they consider to be their ideal of the American way of life. These communities, then, do not know what to do with us and they don't know what to do without us....
For so many years we have been involved in agricultural strikes; organizing almost 30 years as a worker, as an organizer, and as president of the union--and for all these almost 30 years it is apparent that when the farm workers strike and their strike is successful, the employers go to Mexico and have unlimited, unrestricted use of illegal alien strikebreakers to break the strike. And, for over 30 years, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has looked the other way and assisted in the strikebreaking.
I do not remember one single instance in 30 years where the Immigration service has removed strikebreakers.... The employers use professional smugglers to recruit and transport human contraband across the Mexican border for the specific act of strikebreaking....
We have observed all these years the Immigration Service has a policy as it has been related to us, that they will not take sides in any agricultural labor dispute.... They have not taken sides means permitting the growers to have unrestricted use of illegal aliens as strikebreakers, and if that isn't taking sides, I don't know what taking sides means.
The growers have armed their foremen. They have looked to professional agencies to provide them unlimited numbers of armed guards recruited from the streets, young men who are not trained, many of them members of the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazi Party...who are given a gun and a club and a badge and a canister of tear gas and the authority and permission to go and beat our people up, frighten them, maim them, and try to break the strike by using this unchecked raw power against our people....
Source: Hearings Before the Committee on Labor and Human Resources, U.S. Senate, 96th Congress, 1st Session, 1997
2 / Dolores Huerta
Although women have stood at the forefront of many reform movements in American history, their contributions have often been slighted or forgotten. Few know the name of Lucy Gonzalez Parsons, who was born in Texas of African and Mexican heritage and was an important figure in the early twentieth century labor movement and an activist for working women's rights. Many who have heard of César Chavez do not know the name of Dolores Huerta, the co-founder of the United Farm Workers, who led the grape boycott while raising eleven children.
Born in a small New Mexico mining town, Huerta grew up in Stockton in California's San Joaquín Valley. She quit her teaching job in 1962 in order to join Chavez in forming the United Farm Workers. "I couldn't stand seeing kids come to class hungry and needing shoes," she later said. "I thought I could do more by organizing farm workers than by trying to teach their hungry children."
In Spanish, Dolores means "sorrow" and Huerta "orchard"--appropriate names for an organizer of farmworkers. Twenty times she was jailed for her part in union protests. While Chavez spent time with workers in the fields, she did much of the negotiation and legislative lobbying. She also organized voter registration drives and taught citizenship classes. Among her successes was the repeal of a California law that required citizenship for public assistance and passage of a law that extended disability and unemployment insurance to farmworkers. She also organized the successful 1970 and 1975 grape boycotts. The proclamation announcing the grape boycott in 1969 follows.
Proclamation of the Delano Grape Workers
We, the striking grape workers of California, join on this International Boycott Day with the consumers across the continent in planning the steps that lie ahead on the road to our liberation. As we plan, we recall the footsteps that brought us to this day and the events of this day. The historic road of our pilgrimage to Sacramento later branched out, spreading like the unpruned vines in struck fields, until it led us to willing exile in cities across this land. There, far from the earth we tilled for generations, we have cultivated the strange soil of public understanding, sowing the seed of our truth and our cause in the minds and hearts of men.
We have been farm workers for hundreds of years and pioneers for seven. Mexicans, Filipinos, Africans and others, our ancestors were among those who founded this land and tamed its natural wilderness. But we are still pilgrims on this land, and we are pioneers who blaze a trail out of the wilderness of hunger and deprivation that we have suffered even as our ancestors did. We are conscious today of the significance of our present quest. If this road we chart leads to the rights and reforms we demand, if it leads to just wages, humane working conditions, protection from the misuse of pesticides, and to the fundamental right of collective bargaining, if it changes the social order that relegates us to the bottom reaches of society, then in our wake will follow thousands of American farm workers. Our example will make them free. But if our road does not bring us to victory and social change, it will not be because our direction is mistaken or our resolve too weak, but only because our bodies are mortal and our journey hard. For we are in the midst of a great social movement, and we will not stop struggling 'til we die, or win!
We have been farm workers for hundreds of years and strikers for four. It was four years ago that we threw down our plowshares and pruning hooks. These Biblical symbols of peace and tranquility to us represent too many lifetimes of unprotesting submission to a degrading social system that allows us no dignity, no comfort, no peace. We mean to have our peace, and to win it without violence, for it is violence we would overcome‑the subtle spiritual and mental violence of oppression, the violence subhuman toil does to the human body. So we went and stood tall outside the vineyards where we had stooped for years. But the tailors of national labor legislation had left us naked. Thus exposed, our picket lines were crippled by injunctions and harassed by growers; our strike was broken by imported scabs; our overtures to our employers were ignored. Yet we knew the day must come when they would talk to us, as equals.
We have been farm workers for hundreds of years and boycotters for two. We did not choose the grape boycott, but we had chosen to leave our peonage, poverty and despair behind. Though our first bid for freedom, the strike, was weakened, we would not turn back. The boycott was the only way forward the growers left to us. We called upon our fellow men and were answered by consumers who said‑-as all men of conscience must‑-that they would no longer allow their tables to be subsidized by our sweat and our sorrow: They shunned the grapes, fruit of our affliction.
We marched alone at the beginning, but today we count men of all creeds, nationalities, and occupations in our number. Between us and the justice we seek now stand the large and powerful grocers who, in continuing to buy table grapes, betray the boycott their own customers have built. These stores treat their patrons' demands to remove the grapes the same way the growers treat our demands for union recognition‑by ignoring them. The consumers who rally behind our cause are responding as we do to such treatment‑with a boycott! They pledge to withhold their patronage from stores that handle grapes during the boycott, just as we withhold our labor from the growers until our dispute is resolved.
Grapes must remain an unenjoyed luxury for all as long as the barest human needs and basic human rights are still luxuries for farm workers. The grapes grow sweet and heavy on the vines, but they will have to wait while we reach out first for our freedom. The time is ripe for our liberation.
Source: Proclamation of the Delano Grape Workers for International Boycott Day, May 10, 1969.
3 / A New Militancy
The statistics were bleak. In the mid-1960s, half of all Mexican Americans had less than eight years of education. A third lived in poverty. Only four Mexican Americans had ever served in Congress. The average life expectancy of a Mexican American farmworker was just forty-nine years. Mexican Americans made up twelve percent of the U.S. population and suffered twenty percent of the Vietnam War's casualties. In Los Angeles, just one out of four Mexican American schoolchildren graduated from high school.
The civil rights struggle does not belong to a single group. It has been a quest made by every ethnic minority group that has suffered prejudice, institutionalized discrimination, and persistent poverty. During the 1960s, Mexican Americans waged a struggle not for cultural assimilation, but for economic justice, political power, and equal opportunity under the law. A new generation of activists felt that they could no longer rely on an old guard to defend and promote their special concerns. Banners proclaimed "Brown is beautiful."
It has been argued that the Chicano movement was partly a generational response to the cultural, social, and political alienation many Mexican Americans felt in the 1960s and early 1970s. Their parents, who had experienced periodic waves of anti-Mexican prejudice, had been reluctant to teach them Spanish or publicly express pride in their ethnicity. The goal of the parents' generation had been assimilation. Ties to Mexico were weak. Chicano activism was among the movements of the 1960s that looked to cultural nationalism. Chicano students sought to learn the history and the language they had never been taught--and reaffirm an identity that had been withheld from them. Strengthened by the newfound cultural identity, the Chicano movement brought dramatic and radical tactics to the struggle for political and social change. In urban areas, more radical Chicano groups, such as the Brown Berets in Los Angeles, stressed militant self-defense and also sponsored health clinics and breakfast programs for schoolchildren.
All of these efforts placed Chicano concerns on the national agenda for the first time. Here, Representative Henry B. Gonzalez expresses doubts about the vocabulary and passions that attend political militancy.
Henry B. Gonzalez
I, and many other residents of my part of Texas and other Southwestern States‑-happen to be what is commonly referred to as a Mexican American.... What is he to be? Mexican? American? Both? How can he choose? Should he have pride and joy in his heritage, or bear it as a shame and sorrow? Should he live in one world or another, or attempt to bridge them both?
There is comfort in remaining in the closed walls of a minority society, but this means making certain sacrifices; but it sometimes seems disloyal to abandon old ideas and old friends; you never know whether you will be accepted or rejected in the larger world, or whether your old friends will despise you for making a wrong choice. For a member of this minority, like any other, life begins with making hard choices about personal identity. These lonely conflicts are magnified in the social crises so clearly evident all over the Southwest today. There are some groups who demand brown power, some who display a curious chauvinism, and some who affect the other extreme. There is furious debate about what one should be and what one should do.... I understand all this, but I am profoundly distressed by what I see happening today.... Mr. Speaker, the issue at hand in this minority group today is hate, and my purpose in addressing the House is to state where I stand: I am against hate and against the spreaders of hate; I am for justice, and for honest tactics in obtaining justice.
The question facing the Mexican‑American people today is what do we want, and how do we get it?
What I want is justice. By justice I mean decent work at decent wages for all who want work; decent support for those who cannot support themselves; full and equal opportunity in employment, in education, in schools; I mean by justice the full, fair, and impartial protection of the law for every man; I mean by justice decent homes; adequate streets and public services....
I do not believe that justice comes only to those who want it; I am not so foolish as to believe that good will alone achieves good works. I believe that justice requires work and vigilance, and I am willing to do that work and maintain that vigilance....
It may well be that I agree with the goals stated by militants; but whether I agree or disagree, I do not now, nor have I ever believed that the end justifies the means, and I condemn those who do. I cannot accept the belief that racism in reverse is the answer for racism and discrimination; I cannot accept the belief that simple, blind, and stupid hatred is an adequate response to simple, blind, and stupid hatred; I cannot accept the belief that playing at revolution produces anything beyond an excited imagination; and I cannot accept the belief that imitation leadership is a substitute for the real thing. Developments over the past few months indicate that there are those who believe that the best answer for hate is hate in reverse, and that the best leadership is that which is loudest and most arrogant; but my observation is that arrogance is no cure for emptiness.
All over the Southwest new organizations are springing up; some promote pride in heritage, which is good, but others promote chauvinism, which is not; some promote community organization, which is good, but some promote race tension and hatred, which is not good; some seek redress of just grievances, which is good, but others seek only opportunities for self aggrandizement, which is not good....
Unfortunately it seems that in the face of rising hopes and expectations among Mexican Americans there are more leaders with political ambitions at heart than there are with the interests of the poor at heart; they do not care what is accomplished in fact, as long as they can create and ride the winds of protest as far as possible. Thus we have those who play at revolution, those who make speeches but do not work, and those who imitate what they have seen others do, but lack the initiative and imagination to set forth actual programs for progress....
Not long after the Southwest Council of La Raza opened for business, it gave $110,000 to the Mexican‑American Unity Council of San Antonio; this group was apparently invented for the purpose of receiving the grant. Whatever the purposes of this group may be, thus far it has not given any assistance that I know of to bring anybody together; rather it has freely dispensed funds to people who promote the rather odd and I might say generally unaccepted and unpopular views of its directors. The Mexican‑American Unity Council appears to specialize in creating still other organizations and equipping them with quarters, mimeograph machines and other essentials of life. Thus, the "unity council" has created a parents' association in a poor school district, a neighborhood council, a group known as the barrios unidos‑-or roughly, united neighborhoods-‑a committee on voter registration and has given funds to the militant Mexican‑American Youth Organization‑MAYO; it has also created a vague entity known as the "Universidad de los Barrios" which is a local gang operation. Now assuredly all these efforts may be well intended; however it is questionable to my mind that a very young and inexperienced man can prescribe the social and political organizations of a complex and troubled community; there is no reason whatever to believe that for all the money this group has spent, there is any understanding of what it is actually being spent for, except to employ friends of the director and advance his preconceived notions. The people who are to be united apparently don't get much say in what the "unity council" is up to....
Militant groups like MAYO regularly distribute literature that I can only describe as hate sheets, designed to inflame passions and reinforce old wounds or open new ones; these sheets spew forth racism and hatred designed to do no man good. The practice is defended as one that will build race pride, but I never heard of pride being built on spleen....
Source: Henry B. Gonzalez, April 22, 1969, Congressional Record, 91 Congress, 1st Session. April 22, 1969.
4 / The "Sleeping Giant" Awakes
On election day, 1963, hundreds of Mexican Americans in Crystal City, Texas, the "spinach capital of the world," gathered near a statue of Popeye the Sailor to do something that most had never done before: vote. Although Mexican Americans outnumbered Anglos two to one, Anglos controlled all five seats on the Crystal City city council. While over eighty-five percent of the 10,000 inhabitants of this south Texas town were Mexican or Mexican American, Anglos owned virtually all the businesses and wielded virtually all civic, economic, and political power. Mexican Americans owned only five percent of the neighboring farms. For three years, organizers had struggled to register Mexican American voters, including many migrant workers. When the election was over, Mexican Americans had won control of the city council. "We have done the impossible," declared Albert Fuentes, who led the voter registration campaign. "If we can do it in Crystal City, we can do it all over Texas. We can awaken the sleeping giant."
The Crystal City election marked the beginning of a new era of Mexican American political power and influence. It was the culmination of a political consciousness that had gotten such earlier expressions as the formation in 1959 of the Mexican American Political Association in Fresno, California, to defend Mexican American interests; identify, endorse, and help finance Chicano candidates; register voters; and lobby for judicial appointments.
The growth of Mexican American political clout can be seen as the most recent version of an old American story, of immigrant groups, including Irish Americans and Italian Americans, that in time gain electoral power. But Mexican Americans had been less involved in electoral politics than other ethnic groups. Subject to harassment and poll taxes, excluded from primaries limited to whites, Mexican Americans had faced obstacles of their own: the uncertain citizenship status of many U.S. residents, and ballots printed only in English.
5 / La Raza Unida Party
The idea of forming an independent Mexican American political party has arisen repeatedly since the late nineteenth century. In 1890, Hispanos in New Mexico organized El Partido del Pueblo Unido in association with the Populist Party. The Partido Liberal Mexicano operated in the Southwest during the Mexican Revolution of 1910. In 1968, the Alianza Federal de Pueblos Libres formed the Peoples Constitutional Party and ran candidates in New Mexico. It was disbanded in 1971. But perhaps the most important effort began in south Texas in 1970.
In that year, Crystal City became the launch pad for a movement to increase Chicano political power. At the time, many of the town's residents made a living as migrant farm laborers, and the average per capita income was just $1,616 a year. Led by José Angel Gutiérrez, a native of Crystal City, some 300 Chicanos organized La Raza Unida, an independent Mexican American political Party. The party's name came from a phrase coined by Juan Nepomuceno Cortina in 1848, which meant "the United People." The party called for bilingual education in public schools, improved public services in Chicano neighborhoods, the education of migrant children, hiring bilingual government employees, and an end to job discrimination. When state courts denied the party access to the ballot, the party conducted write-in campaigns that elected candidates in Arizona, California, Colorado, and Texas. In Texas, La Raza Unida split the Democratic Party, and a Republican candidate won the governorship for the first time in 104 years.
Wracked by infighting, the party disintegrated in the late 1970s, and many of its candidates joined the Democratic Party. Nevertheless, the party became a crucial symbol of Chicano power and of the shifts in demography, voting, and mentality that have transformed politics in the Southwest.
6 / Recovering Lost Lands
In 1987, a highly unconventional Hollywood film appeared. The Milagro Beanfield War had little action, violence, or sex. It told the story of working-class Mexican-Americans battling an Anglo land developer in rural New Mexico. Trouble arises when a Chicano handyman diverted water earmarked for a resort development and begins to grow beans in a field that had belonged to his dead father. Local farmers were bitterly divided over the development. Some favor the project because they think it will bring jobs to the area, while others worry that it bring higher taxes, which will force them to sell their land.
The Milagro Beanfield War was part populist fable and part political allegory. The beanfield symbolically represents the restoration of the town's Chicano roots. But like many fables it is rooted in reality. During the 1960s, a growing number of northern New Mexico farmers, led by the Chicano activist Reies López Tijerina, began to stand up to developers who threatened to destroy their farmland and their way of life. Explosive battles erupted over water rights and land claims.
A sharecropper's son who began working as a migratory farmworker at the age of seven, Tijerina knew firsthand the plight of Chicanos in rural New Mexico. As a child, he was educated in more than twenty segregated schools as his family moved in search of farm work. He briefly served as a Pentacostal minister before he found his life calling: to restore the Spanish and Mexican land grants of New Mexico's Chicanos.
In 1963, he established the Alianza Federal de Mercedes (The Federal Alliance of Grants). By 1965, when his group had gained support from small ranchers and farmers whose use of national forest lands had been reduced, the Alianza claimed a membership of 20,000. The movement gained national attention when the Alianza occupied an amphitheater in Kit Carson National Forest and subsequently staged a raid on a county courthouse. In 1969, Tijerina was convicted of attempting a "citizen's arrest" of New Mexico's governor and the Chief Justice of the United States, Warren Burger. His larger goal was to create an "Indo-Hispano" movement, which would unite peoples of Indian and Mexican heritage.
While the Alianza declined, the effort to protect the land claims of Mexican Americans did not end. In 1975 Senator Joseph Montoya and Representative Manuel Lujan of New Mexico called for a study of violations of property rights guaranteed in the treaty and restitution for those whose rights had been violated, but the bills died in committee.
7 / Cinco de Mayo
The struggle for equality is not simply political; it also involves retaining and recovering a culture. During the 1960s, a group of Mexican American students at California State University, Los Angeles, held the first Cinco de Mayo celebration in the United States. Cinco de Mayo commemorates Mexico's Battle of Pueblo fought on May 5, 1862. On that day, outnumbered indigenous forces successfully defended the strategic Mexican town from a French invasion. Concerned about the lack of distinctive Chicano holidays, the students were eager to recapture their history and identity. Cinco de Mayo is a day when Mexican Americans reaffirm their roots and celebrate with sights and sounds of Mexico.
The decades following the Mexican War were for Mexico a time of economic crisis. Mexican President Benito Juarez announced that the nation would suspend debt repayments to England, France, and Spain. The English and Spanish backed off, but the French began an occupation of Mexico. Despite their defeat at the Battle of Pueblo, the French eventually captured the city, marched to Mexico City, and ruled until 1867. Nevertheless, the battle demonstrated that Mexico could defeat a European power. It instilled national pride and discouraged further European interventions in Mexico. It has become a crucial symbol of Mexican--and Mexican American--cultural pride and self-determination.
8 / The National Chicano Moratorium
On August 29, 1970 more than twenty thousand Mexican Americans marched in East Los Angeles to protest the war in Vietnam and the disproportionately high casualty rate of Chicano troops. Among American soldiers from the Southwest, nearly twenty percent of the casualties were among Mexican Americans, almost twice their proportion of the population. Demonstrators also protested against the denial of equal rights at home. At rally at Laguna Park was disrupted when 1,500 police officers shot tear-gas canisters into the crowd. Three Mexican Americans were killed; more than four hundred were arrested. Among the dead was a Los Angeles Times columnist, Rúben Salazar, who was killed by a tear-gas projectile.
This incident had far-reaching consequences. It led many Mexican American activists to focus on the issue of police brutality and unequal justice.
In this selection, Rubén Salazar explains to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights why many Mexican Americans distrust law enforcement.
Justice is the most important word in race relations. Yet too many Mexican Americans in the Southwest feel with David Sanchez, Los Angeles Brown Beret leaders, that "to Anglos justice means 'just us.'"
La Ley or the Law, as Mexican Americans call the administration of justice, takes forms that anglos--and even Negroes--never have to experience. A Mexican American, though a third-generation American, for instance, may have to prove with documents that he is an American citizen at border crossings, while a blue-eyed blond German immigrant, for example, can cross by merely saying "American."
Besides the usual complaints made by racial minorities about police brutality and harassment, Mexican Americans have an added problem: sometimes they literally cannot communicate with the police....
One of the many reasons a Mexican American cannot relate well to la Ley is that he doesn't see many of his own in positions of authority serving on agencies which administer justice. The 1960 census indicated that Mexican Americans represent about 12 percent of the Southwest's population. In 1968, only 7.4 percent of the total uniformed personnel in law-enforcement agencies in the Southwest were Mexican Americans.... Only ten law-enforcement agencies are headed by Mexican Americans and eight of these are in communities of less than ten thousand in population.
(A commission study of the grand-jury system of twenty-two California counties concluded that discrimination against Mexican Americans in juror selection is "as severe--sometimes more severe--as discrimination against Negroes in grand juries in the South.")...
A commission staff report said that "one of the most common complaints (throughout the Southwest) was that Anglo juvenile offenders were released to the custody of their parents and no charges are brought, while Mexican American youths are charged with offenses, held in custody, and sent to a reformatory."...
The commission's report further stated that it is felt throughout the Southwest that "the most serious police harassment involves interference with attempts by Mexican Americans to organize themselves in order to assert their collective power."
To the advocates of brown or Chicano power, the Texas Rangers, or Los Rinches, are symbols of this repression.... At the time of the hearing, there were sixty-two Texas Rangers, none of them Mexican Americans....
Farm workers, labor organizers, and civil-rights workers testified before the commission that the Texas Rangers break agricultural-worker strikes in the Rio Grande Valley through force and intimidation. The unionization of farm workers is seen as a holy war in Texas, where farm hands get no workmen's compensation, no state minimum wage, no unemployment and disability insurance, and where there are no mandatory standards in farm-worker housing. (In contrast, California requires by law all of these things.)...
Pete Tijerina, executive director of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, had noted that the U.S. Attorney General had intervened on behalf of Negro cases throughout the South, but that "not once, not once, has the Attorney General...intervened in any Mexican American case."...
Source: Strangers in One's Land, Publication No. 19. U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Clearinghouse. May 1970.
Mexican Americans in American Popular Culture
In American popular culture, the cowboy looks like Gary Cooper, John Wayne, or Clint Eastwood. In fact, at least a fifth of the nation's forty thousand cowboys between 1865 and 1880 were Mexican American.
Much more than mere entertainment, popular culture teaches audiences about groups that they have little personal contact with. Film and television have been crucial to shaping the prevailing images of ethnic groups and popular understanding of history. Because popular culture works through visual shorthands, it often promotes stereotypes. During the twentieth century, Anglo-Americans received their deepest, subliminal images of Mexican Americans through film. These images tended to degrade Mexican Americans and to undermine cultural pride.
In recent years, Mexican Americans have become much more active in shaping their own image. Especially influential are such writers as Sandra Cisneros and Richard Rodriguez and such film directors as Gregory Nava and Luis Valdez. But for more than a century, the Spanish language and Mexican culture were regarded as badges of separateness and inferiority. Today, Mexican Americans seek to overcome discrimination while preserving a distinctive heritage, culture, and identity.
1 / Distorted Images
The bandit. The thief. The dashing caballero. The mustachioed revolutionary. The sombrero-hatted paisano. The sultry temptress. The woman in the cantina with a flower over her ear. These have been recurrent images of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the movies. To be sure, a small number of Europeanized "Spanish" characters were portrayed as educated, cultured, and sophisticated. But the dominant imagery has emphasized characters who are violent, tempestuous, and vengeful, or so romantically picturesque as to seem of another and not very serious world. These caricatures and stereotypes have shaped prevailing attitudes toward Mexican Americans and have done as much damage as any act of physical violence.
Drawing on the convention of western "dime novels," the earliest westerns--such as The Greaser's Gauntlet (1908) or The Greaser's Revenge (1914)--cast Mexicans as dissolute, violent, and contemptible. The Mexican bandit in his formulaic villainy was typically played by an Anglo. These highly derogatory images declined after the Mexican government in 1922 threatened to prohibit the import of films that portrayed Mexicans unfavorably. A side effect was greatly to reduce the number of Mexican and Mexican American characters appearing on the screen. For a decade and a half, Mexican Americans were largely rendered invisible.
The number of films with Hispanic characters, locales, and themes increased sharply after 1939. The number of Latin stars also rose. These included the hot-blooded, hip-swaying Dolores Del Rio and the Mexican spitfire, Lupe Velez. Partly a response to the government's desire to maintain hemispheric unity, Hollywood's Good Neighbor Policy had an added advantage: at a time when European revenues were declining, Central and South America offered a lucrative market.
The period after World War II brought a cycle of social problem films. Border Incident (1949) and The Lawless (1950) dealt with the plight of undocumented Mexican workers. A Medal for Benny (1945) and Trial (1955) addressed the issue of prejudice against Mexican Americans. During the 1960s and 1970s, the more extreme caricatures of the past died a very slow death. Yet they remained, especially the emphasis on male violence and brutality. The Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah revived the images of the Mexican or Mexican American bandit. Cartoons, advertisements, and comedy have been among the most important instruments of racial and ethnic caricature since they have shaped impressionable minds and taught the young to view the subjects of stereotypes as funny. The Frito bandido, Speedy Gonzalez, and the television show Chico and the Man reinforced many cultural stereotypes.
The Chicano civil rights movement brought derogatory representations of Mexican Americans to public attention. The distorted images of the past rang hollow in contrast to realities of discrimination. Realistic and dramatic images began to appear during the 1970s in films made by independent filmmakers such as Robert M. Young's The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez and Luis Valdez's Zoot Suit. Not until the late 1980s did Hollywood itself begin to produce films depicting the Chicano experience, including La Bamba, Born in East L.A., The Milagro Beanfield War, The Old Gringo, and Stand and Deliver. But the process of change has been slow and uneven.
2 / Selena
She was the undisputed queen of Tejano, the music of the Texas-Mexico border. She was the latest in a long line of Latin divas--including Edie Gorme, Vikki Carr, Linda Ronstadt, and Gloria Estefan--but with a crucial difference. With her dark brown skin, long jet black hair, full lips, and prominent Indian features, Selena became a validating symbol of Mexican American identity, a culturally authentic entertainer who never abandoned her roots.
Her music epitomized the complexity and blendings of border culture. Tejano music originated in the nineteenth century, when European immigrants introduced the accordion to the Texas-Mexican border. A fast-paced blend of Latin pop, Germanic polka, and country rhythms, it had roots both in the oompah music of European settles in Texas and in Mexican cumbias and rancheras. As Selena herself put it: "It's got polka in it, a little bit of country, a little bit of jazz. Fuse all those types of music together. I think that's where you get Tejano." Selena updated Tejano music for a new generation, fusing Mexican dance rhythms with MTV-era technology, and incorporating Mexican ballads, touches of rock and hip-hop, and rhythms from the Caribbean. At one point in 1995, five of her CDs were on Billboard's pop charts at the same time, a feat accomplished only by Garth Brooks and the Beatles.
Unlike many earlier Latina personalities, like Rita Hayworth and Raquel Welch, who gained their fame only after changing their names, discarding their Hispanic background, and projecting an exotic and sexy image, Selena never deviated from her Mexican American identity. In upper-class neighborhoods of Mexico City, she was at first derided as "naco," an ethnic and class slur meaning coarse or vulgar, because of her mestizo, mixed European and Indian features, which put her in marked contrast to the typically fair-skinned and light-haired soap opera stars. She was also criticized for her racy stage image, and also because of her fondness for glittery bustiers, a bare midriff, and tight pants. Yet she was also a Jehovah's Witness who preached clean living and family devotion.
Born in Lake Jackson, near Houston, in 1971, she had begun singing with her father's band at age three. She taught herself Spanish. The family later moved to Corpus Christi where she lived, until her death, in the working class Molina barrio. Selena Quintanilla Perez was just twenty-three years old when she was slain in a Corpus Christi hotel by the founder of her fan club and the manager of her boutiques.
Selena rose to stardom at a time when Mexican Americans had reached a "choque"--a confrontation--in values between the immigration generation and its children. Even after her death, she continues to serve as a symbol of pride in the Mexican American musical heritage, a woman who made it to the top of a musical form dominated by men.
The Struggle Continues
Today, there are over eighteen million Mexican Americans--an increase by a third over the number in 1990, which makes Mexican Americans the country's fastest growing minority group. Mexican Americans are also the youngest Americans. The average age is nine years less than the national average. Immigrants actually raise the average age of the Mexican American population; the average age of Mexican Americans born in the United States is under sixteen.
In a span of half a century, the Mexican American population has been utterly transformed. In 1940, Mexican Americans were the most rural ethnic group in the United States. Today, they are among the most urban. In 1940, nine in ten Mexican Americans lived in the Southwest. Now Chicanos live in all parts of the country. Massive immigration from Mexico, has made Chicanos, for the first time since the 1920s, largely a foreign-born group.
But for all the gains that Mexican Americans have made, profound challenges remain. In income, education, and home ownership Mexican Americans are less well off than other Americans. They are twice as likely to be poor as non-Hispanics and are concentrated in low paying jobs in factories, warehouses, construction, and the service sector. A smaller percentage of Mexican Americans than of any other ethnic group has health insurance. All this makes essential the question of key question is whether Mexican Americans will translate growing numbers into political and economic power.
1 / Political Power
In 1974, two Mexican Americans were elected to governorships--Jerry Apodaca in New Mexico and Raul Castro in Arizona. They were the first Mexican Americans governors since the early years of New Mexico statehood. Since the mid-1970s, Mexican Americans have made impressive political gains. What does the future hold?
Even though age or citizenship status makes a large share of its population ineligible to vote, Mexican Americans account for the margin of victory in many states with large numbers of electoral votes. In 2000, Hispanics (mainly Mexican Americans) comprise thirty-one percent of the voting population in California and twenty-eight percent in Texas.
Yet in politicla power, Mexican Americans fall far behind their numbers. Mexican Americans tend to be younger, poorer, and more politically detached than many other Americans. They are less likely to register than non-Hispanics and less likely actually to vote. Voter turnout rates continue to lag ten to fifteen percent behind that for other groups. But the prospects look bright. Between 1994 and 1998 the Latino voting in nationwide midterm elections jumped twenty-seven percent, while overall voter turnout fell thirteen percent.
Although the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited literacy tests and other restrictions on voting rights, many Mexican Americans in the Southwest were still denied the ballot. In the testimony here before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1975, Vilma S. Martínez of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund describes the techniques used to deprive Mexican Americans of the vote in a south Texas county.
Vilma S. Martínez
...Throughout the Southwest, Mexican Americans have not been able adequately to make their weight felt at any level of government. In Texas, where Mexican Americans comprise 18% of the population only 6.2% of the 4,770 elective offices‑298 of them‑are held by Chicanos. California is worse. There, Mexican Americans comprise 18.8% of the total population. Yet, in 1970, of the 15,650 major elected and appointed positions at all levels of government‑federal, state and local‑only 310 or 1.98% were held by Mexican Americans.
This result is no mere coincidence. It is the result of manifold discriminatory practices which have the design or effect of excluding Mexican Americans from participation in their own government and maintaining the status quo.
Now, Mr. Chairman, the United States Commission on Civil Rights is charged with informing the congress and the nation about such discriminatory practices on the part of state and local officials. I would like to review with the Committee what the Commission found in Uvalde County, Texas. What the Commission found in Uvalde, Mr. Chairman, exists all across the State of Texas. The pattern of abuse in Uvalde County is strikingly reminiscent of the Deep South of the early 1960's. The Civil Rights Commission study documents that duly registered Chicano voters are not being placed on the voting lists; that election judges are selectively and deliberately invalidating ballots cast by minority voters; that election judges are refusing to aid minority voters who are illiterate in English; that the Tax Assessor Collector of Uvalde County...refuses to name members of minority groups as deputy registrars;..."runs out" of registration application cards when minority voter applicants ask for them;...refuses to register voter applicants based on the technicality that the application was filed on a printed card bearing a previous year's date.
Other abuses were uncovered...[including] widespread gerrymandering with the purpose of diluting minority voting strength; systematic drawing of at‑large electoral districts with this same purpose and design; maintenance of polling places exclusively in areas inaccessible to minority voters; excessive filing fees required in order to run for political office; numbered paper ballots which need to be signed by the voter, thus making it possible to discover for whom an individual cast his ballot....
Source: Testimony of Vilma S. Martínez (San Francisco: Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, 1975), 1-14.
2 / Immigration
In 1994, nearly sixty percent of California's voters approved Proposition 187, which would have prevented illegal immigrants from attending public schools and receiving social services and subsidized health care. The proposition would also have required law enforcement authroties, school administrators, and social service and public health workers to turn in suspected illegal immigrants to federal and state authorities. Court rulings, however, prohibited implementation of the proposition and in July 1999, California decided not to appeal a federal court ruling that most provisions of the measure were unconstitutional. All that remains are laws that make it a crime to make or use false documents to conceal illegal immigration status. (A 1982 Supreme Court decision, Plyler v. Doe, had guaranteed illegal immigrant children the right to a public education. One reason why courts invalidated Proposition 187 is that immigration is regarded largely as a federal responsibility.)
During the mid-1990s, Proposition 187 was a national symbol of public anger about illegal immigration. It helped inspire Congress to include many bans on immigrant aid in the 1996 federal welfare overhaul. But the proposition increased political activity among Latinos and led a record number of immigrants to become citizens and register to vote.
Today, immigration to the United States is at its highest level since the early twentieth century. Some ten million legal and undocumented immigrants entered the country during the 1980s, exceeding the previous peak of nine million between 1900 and 1910.
As recently as the 1950s, two-thirds of all immigrants to the United States came from Europe or Canada. Today, more than eighty percent are Latin American or Asian. As a result of massive immigration, the United States is becoming the first truly multi-racial advanced industrial society in which every resident will be a member of a minority group. California has become the first state in which no single ethnic group or race makes up half of the population.
Mexico has been the single largest contributor to American immigration. During the 1980s, the number of people of Mexican origin in this country grew at five times the rate of the population as a whole. This surge was fueled by two factors: a high birthrate and the largest immigrant influx by any national group in American history. At least four million Mexicans immigrated to the United States in the 1980s--forty-five percent of the nine million immigrants who entered the country. Today, one out of every five immigrants now living in this country is Mexican born. Immigration was propelled by the rapid growth of Mexico's population--which tripled in 50 years; by the wages to be found in the United States--at least six times higher than those in Mexico; and it benefited from the unwillingness of the Mexican government to control immigration after the demise of the Bracero Program in 1964.
Work has been the great magnet pulling Mexican migrants to the United States. Historically, immigrants tackled menial jobs that native-born Americans avoided, such as digging canals, building railroads, or working in steel mills and garment factories. Today, the United States has a ravenous appetite for service workers, non-unionized manufacturing workers, farmworkers, and skilled artisans. Mexican workers have met those needs. Fear of detection and expulsion keeps many immigrant workers from taking advantage of social welfare programs and makes them highly vulnerable to exploitation by employers.
Each wave of immigrants has also sparked a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment. Since the first wave of mass immigration from Germany and Ireland in the 1840s, nativists have expressed fear that immigrants depress wages, displace workers, and threaten the nation's cultural values and security. Although Americans celebrate the United States as a melting pot of cultures and nationalities, they have not been eager to embrace immigrants who prefer not to surrender their native identities, language, or traditions. The most recent upsurge in nativism arose during the economic recession of the early and mid-1990s, when California's voters passed Proposition 187.
Nineteenth-century nativists charged that Catholic immigrants were subservient to a foreign leader, the Pope; later xenophobes who accused immigrants of carrying subversive ideologies. Today's critics are more concerned about immigration's economic costs and the erosion of what they see as the nation's traditional culture. Many fear that newcomers make use of services like welfare or unemployment benefits more frequently than natives. Some argue that the new wave of immigrants is less skilled than its predecessors and is therefore more likely to become a burden on the government. There are concerns that the society is being split into separate and unequal societies divided by skin color, ethnic background, language, and culture. Belief that immigrants are attracted to the United States by welfare benefits, led Congress in 1996 to restrict the access of non-citizens to social services.
Yet other welcome the increasing population diversity, cherishing the extraordinary variety of their country's people.
3 / Educational Inequality
A six-volume report issued by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights during the 1970s documented a pattern of unequal treatment in the education of Mexican Americans. The study showed that Chicanos were disproportionately assigned to classes for the mentally retarded and tracked into vocational rather than college preparatory programs. It also found that less money was spent on Mexican American students, that their school buildings were physically inferior, and that Chicanos were poorly represented among teachers, accounting for just four percent in the Southwest during the decade.
A quarter century later, educational inequalities remain. Today, third generation Mexican Americans average just eleven years of schooling, two years fewer than the rest of the population. Mexican Americans are three times less likely to complete college than non-Hispanics. Mexican American teenagers are more likely to drop out of high school, many of them to help their families during periods of economic distress.
Mexican Americans have brought suit to equalize school funding. In the landmark case of Serrano v. Priest, a Mexican American sued on the grounds that his son received an inferior education in East Los Angeles because schools were financed by local property taxes. In 1988 the California Supreme Court ruled that financing through local property taxes failed to provide equal protection of the laws. Since then, state income taxes have been used to reduce disparities in school funding.
Another strategy to promote academic achievement is to establish bilingual education. In 1968, Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Title VII mandated that children from diverse language backgrounds be instructed in two languages and that teachers be trained, materials developed, and research conducted to help these children move as rapidly as possible from bilingual education to classrooms using only English. The first bilingual education programs to receive federal funding were established in Dade County Florida in 1963 and in San Antonio in 1964. In 1974, in the case of Lau v. Nichols, the Supreme Court held that in failing to provide a program to deal with his language problem, the San Francisco school district was discriminating against a student who did not speak English. This decision guaranteed the right of such students to educational programs that meet their needs, creating a presumption in favor of bilingual education.
4 / Dual Citizenship
José Chapa was seventy-eight years old when he achieved his lifelong dream. After migrating to the United States from Mexico half a century before, and becoming a broadcaster in Chicago, he headed a campaign to change Mexico's citizenship laws to allow people born in Mexico to retain Mexican nationality after gaining United States citizenship. In 1996, with strong support from Mexican Americans, he won this battle.
Members of ethnic group has been accused of harboring "dual loyalities." Jews, for example, have been criticized for their political links with Israel, Irish Americans for their support of naitonalist movements in Ireland. Theodore Roosevelt called dual citizenship a "self-evident absurdity." Many critics contend that dual nationality violates the oath of allegiance of new citizens, which requires naturalized Americans to swear "absolutely and entirely [to] renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty." But the federal government has not challenged dual nationality. Countries that allow dual nationality are Canada, Columbia, the Dominican Republic, France, Ireland, and Poland.
Mexican immigrants have been less likely than other immigrants to become American citizens. They have waited an average of twenty-one years, compared to about seven years for other immigrants. This reluctance was owing in part to Mexican law holding that no Mexican who became a naturalized citizen elsewhere could own property on or near the Mexican coast or the border with the Untied States, and limited the right of such people to work or invest in Mexico. While the new Mexican law does not include a right to vote in Mexican elections, it eases these restrictions. The hesitancy of Mexican immigrants to seek United States citizenship has had damaging political consequences, keeping them from acquiring the power of the ballot.
Mexican immigrants are suspended like tightrope walkers between two nations and two cultures. Mexican immigrants face many of the same problems as earlier immigrant groups. These include generational conflicts and inter-group prejudice. But today's Mexican Americans have a better chance than earlier groups to preserve their cultural heritage. They live in a society where the older "melting pot" ideal has been challenged. Both the Spanish language and the influence of Mexican culture are replenished by new arrivals from Mexico.
5 / Assimilation, Separation, or a Third Way?
Mexican Americans are twice as likely as non-Hispanics to be poor. The median income of a Chicano family is only sixty percent of that earned by white families nationally and twenty-eight percent live below the poverty line. In part, the figures on low earnings and educational levels are skewed by the high number of recent, Mexican-born immigrants. But they also reflect discrimination in schooling, job training programs, employment, housing, and access to social services. They are also the product of vast changes in the nation's labor market, as it shifts from a blue-collar, manufacturing base to high-technology, service, and information industries. The new jobs, many of them in the service sector, do not have the wages, benefits, security, or chances of advancement the old manufacturing fields offered.
For most European ethnic groups, ethnic background ceased by the third generation to be an important factor in social or economic standing. Will the same be true of Mexican Americans? Will Mexican Americans advance socially, economically, and politically like earlier European immigrants or will racism and discrimination consign many to an economic underclass? Will Mexican Americans follow the European immigrant path of movement out of distinct urban enclaves and intermarriage? Or will they follow a different path, and sustain a distinct identity and cultural heritage?
The current evidence is mixed. Intermarriage is the most impressive indicator of Mexican American social assimilation. Mexican Americans have married outside the group at rates comparable to that of European immigrants earlier this century.
Yet despite the existence of strong Mexican American networks, upward mobility seems to be faltering. The ready availability of service jobs, however low their wages, might seem promising. Yet in enticing many Mexican American teenagers to drop out of school, often to help support their families, the service industries could also be a hindrance to advancement. There is reason to believe that the Mexican experience will be fundamentally different from that of other groups, such as Italian Americans, who shared with Mexican Americans' a rural background, a deeply religious Catholic faith, and large and supportive extended families. Mexico's proximity, a continuous influx of new arrivals, and concentration in predominantly Mexican barrios and colonias, enable Mexican Americans to maintain ties with their ancestral culture to a degree not possible for other ethnic groups. An estimated forty percent of all Hispanics (of which Mexican Americans make up almost two-thirds) are immigrants and another thirty percent are the children of immigrants. Today, half of all Mexican Americans speak Spanish at home. Mexican Americans, more than any other immigrant group, have evolved a bilingual, bicultural identity.