Mexican-Americans

“In the borderlands, towns such as Brownsville, Corpus Christi, Laredo, San Antonio, El Paso, Tucson, Yuma, San Diego, and Los Angeles, local Latino leaders wanted to restrict the influx of immigrants, because the newcomers directly competed with resident Latinos (or Spanish-Americans) for jobs and housing and because they reinforced negative stereotypes regarding a lazy and violent lifestyle.

Some upwardly mobile families joined Protestant churches, but most remained devout, conservative Roman Catholics. From the early 1930s through the 1960s, LULAC’s political agenda focused on citizenship training and naturalization of “foreign-born Mexicans,” English-language training, active support of anti-discriminatory litigation and legislation (particularly regarding public schools), and strict control of further immigration from Mexico.

LULAC promoted the liberal rhetoric of “equality” and “rights” and the mutual obligations of republican civic duty. However, voting levels were quite low, and especially in South Texas the Latino vote was controlled by local “bosses” [concerned only with maintaining their hold on power]. There was little in the way of radical movements.

In the early years if the Great Depression in the United States, the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) adopted a policy of repatriation. Some 400,000 Mexican immigrants [not Latino citizens] and their children were given one-way tickets home in order to reduce the competition for scarce jobs for American workers. Texas used the Texas Rangers to forcibly evict Mexicans who refused to accept voluntary repatriation, while Illinois, Indiana and Michigan paid for special trains to take Mexicans home.

Upon taking office in 1933, Democrat President Franklin D. Roosevelt promoted a “good neighbor” policy that sought better relations with Mexico. In 1935 a federal judge ruled [in one case] that three Mexican immigrants were ineligible for citizenship because they were not white, as required by federal law. Mexico protested, and Roosevelt decided to circumvent the decision and make sure the federal government treated Hispanics as white.

The State Department, the Census Bureau, the Labor Department, and other government agencies therefore made sure to uniformly classify people of Mexican descent as white. This policy encouraged LULAC in its quest to minimize discrimination by asserting whiteness. LULAC, with its middle-class base aspiring to the American dream, emphasized its loyalty to the United States, its commitment to individual achievement, and free-market capitalism.

Despite the apparent cooperation between the two countries on the immigration issue, in March 1938, through the Mexican government’s oil expropriation initiative, private U.S.  and  Anglo-Dutch oil companies were nationalized – essentially stolen from the (predominantly American) developers of Mexico’s oil industry – to create the state-owned (read – for the financial benefit of Mexico’s elite politicians) Pemex oil company. [This internationally illegal act has never been rectified or adjudicated.]

World War II was a watershed for all the Latin-American groups. Enthusiasm for the war was high.  Some 500,000 Latin-American men were drafted or volunteered; even larger numbers of women and older men worked in high-paying munitions plants, ending the hardship years of the Depression and inspiring demands for upward mobility and political rights. LULAC and El Congreso de Pueblos de Habla Espanola (the Spanish-Speaking Peoples’ Congress), founded before the war, expanded their membership and more successfully demanded full integration for their middle-class constituents. LULAC expanded from its Texas base into New Mexico.

In Arizona, community organizations were very active in patriotic efforts to support American troops abroad, and made efforts to support the war effort materially and to provide moral support for the young American men fighting the war, especially the young Mexican-American men from local communities.

Some of the community projects were cooperative ventures in which members of both the Mexican-American and Anglo communities participated. Most efforts made in the Mexican-American community, however, represented localized American home front activities that were separate from the activities of the American community at large.

Spanish-American women organized to assist their servicemen and the war effort. An underlying goal of the Spanish-American Mothers and Wives Association was the reinforcement of the woman’s role in Spanish-Mexican culture. The organization raised thousands of dollars, wrote letters, and joined in numerous celebrations of their culture and their support for Spanish/Mexican-American servicemen. Membership reached over 300 during the war and eventually ended its existence in 1976.

Labor unions opened their membership rolls and Luisa Moreno became the first Latina to hold a national union office, as vice-president of the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA), and affiliate of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

Teenagers developed their own music, language and dress. For the men, the style was to wear a zoot-suit – a flamboyant long coat with baggy pegged pants, a pork pie hat, a long key chain and shoes with thick soles. They called themselves “Pachucos.” Trouble broke out in Los Angeles and several smaller cities, where servicemen in uniform, who had never seen a Mexican-American Pachuco, took umbrage at well-paid teenagers taking their leisure. Skirmishes and mini-riots erupted in 1943, but the servicemen moved out, no one was killed, and there were few long-term reverberations.

Spanish/Mexican Americans had learned new trades and organizational skills in the service, and many civilian men and women had taken well-paid jobs in war industries. The veterans were fully eligible for the GI Bill, which financed 52 weeks of unemployment insurance as well as very low-cost home mortgages and free high school and college educations, and free medical care at VA hospitals.

However, the [Latino] community felt it did not gain the full measure of economic and political equality it had earned on the battlefield and that disappointment led to a new level of activism, [under the influence of La Raza] and a cultural identity more closely linked to Mexico than to any Spanish heritage.

When the U.S. entered the war, it turned to Mexico to address wartime labor shortages. In August 1942, the Bracero Program was launched for the importation of temporary contract laborers from Mexico. By the time it ended in 1964 more than 4 million Mexican farm-workers arrived in the U.S. under this guest worker program, most of them destined for the cotton-fields and orchards of California’s central valley and the Pacific Northwest, and the ranches and sugar beet farms of the Midwest.

Texas chose to opt out of the Bracero program and hire farm-workers directly from Mexico. At its height, over 437,000 guest-workers entered the U.S. annually. The invention of mechanical cotton harvesters reduced labor needs, and scandals over the exploitation of guest workers led the Department of Labor officials overseeing the program to denounce it as ‘legalized slavery’.

According to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, between 250,000 and 500,000 Hispanic-Americans served in the armed forces during WWII. Thus, Hispanic-Americans comprised about 2.5 – 5% of the military. The exact number, however is unknown as, at the time, Hispanics were classified as whites. Generally Mexican-American World War II servicemen were integrated into regular military units. However, many Mexican-American war veterans were discriminated against and even denied medical services by the Department of Veterans Affairs when they arrived home. [Some things never change, although now, the VA discriminates against all veterans.]

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 set strict quotas on the number of persons who could legally enter the U.S. from Latin-American nations, and most new Mexican migration to the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s was temporary and short-term. Since then, Mexican illegal-immigration has increased dramatically. This pattern of political avoidance continued into the 1980s. In 1986, when the United States passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), activists [amazingly] complained that there was no Mexican government voice in the process.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 granted amnesty to illegal immigrants who had resided in the U.S. before 1982, while imposing penalties on employers who hired illegal immigrants. It has been ineffectual because it has not been enforced. Several factors led to an increase in Mexican immigration to the U.S. The Latin-American debt crisis of the 1980s led to high rates of unemployment in Mexico and destroyed the savings of a large portion of the middle-class, as did the 1994 Mexican Peso Crisis.

In 1991, Mexican President Carlos Salinas dismantled the communally-owned ejidos, one of the most important legacies of the Mexican Revolution, and the enactment of NAFTA  (North American Free Trade Agreement) brought a flood of subsidized U.S. corn into the Mexican market, driving down grain prices and forcing hundreds of thousands of people from rural areas to migrate in search of better economic opportunities across the border – once again demonstrating the law of unintended consequences.

The passage of the IRCA set the stage, many observers believe, for the enormous and entrenched problem of illegal Mexican immigrants that exists today in America. Ironically, while the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 heralded a new level of economic integration between Mexico and the United States, the question of labor migration remained off the table.

In 2000, a year in which both countries elected new presidents, Mexico finally took the initiative to launch discussions on immigration. The 2000 Census showed that the foreign-born population of the U.S. increased by 11.3 million people in the 1990s, and Mexican immigrants accounted for 43% of that growth. President George W. Bush seemed open to a policy along the lines of the Bracero agreement but the Mexicans overreached. They wanted to deal with everything, including the status of Mexicans already here [the PLDC’s famous “comprehensive immigration reform”]. The United States said no, and after 9/11, the Bush administration lost interest.

Mexican-American workers formed unions of their own and joined integrated unions throughout the 20th Century. The communist supported Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), also known as the ‘Wobblies’ was particularly active in organizing Mexican-American farm workers and hard-rock miners the first three decades of that century, in Arizona and elsewhere.

The IWW is an international, radical labor union that was formed in 1905. The union combines general unionism with industrial unionism, being a general union itself whose members are further organized within the industry of their employment. The philosophy and tactics of the IWW are described as “revolutionary industrial unionism,” with ties to both socialist, communist and anarchist labor movements.  In 1917, many of them were expelled in the Bisbee Deportation.

The first recorded strike led by Mexican-Americans was at the start of the 20th Century in Southern California. There, a small group of Mexican farm laborers, along with some Japanese-Americans, organized strikes in 1905 near Oxnard, California  but were not successful in meeting demands for better wages and working conditions.

From about 1902 to 1914, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) attempted to organize coal miners in Colorado. In 1927, Mexican-American coal miners participated in a bloody coal strike in Colorado, walking out under the banner of the IWW. Mexican-Americans in the southeastern part of the state, particularly from the Walsenburg, Pueblo and Trinidad areas, took leadership roles in the 1927 strike.

Numerous workers from Mexico were in the mines. As many as 60 percent of all these wage earners had come to Colorado after further labor troubles at Colorado Fuel and Iron (CF&I) properties in 1919 and 1921. As the IWW agitation increased in 1926-27, mine owners refused to hire Mexicans, blaming them for the labor unrest.

The UMWA returned to northern Colorado in 1928, just weeks after a machine-gun massacre of strikers, when Josephine Roche, president of the Rocky, invited the AFL-affiliated organization to take the place of the more radical IWW.

The Communist Party affiliated Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union led a massive strike of cotton pickers in California in 1933; that strike was defeated after mass arrests and the murder of several strikers. The movie Salt of the Earth depicts another strike, waged by the mostly Mexican-American members of the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers; the movie itself became an important document in the later Chicano movement.

The most significant union struggle involving Mexican-Americans was the United Farm Workers’ long strike and boycott aimed at grape growers in the San Joaquin and Coachella Valleys of California in the late 1960s, followed by campaigns to organize lettuce workers in California and Arizona, farm workers in Texas, and orange grove workers in Florida.

While the union suffered severe setbacks in California in 1973 and never established a strong union presence in other States, its struggle propelled Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta into national prominence, while providing the foot soldiers who helped increase the visibility of Mexican-Americans within the Democrat Party in California and elect a number of Mexican-American candidates in the 1970s and 1980s.

The movement to overturn the many forms of state-sponsored discrimination directed at Hispanic-Americans was strongest in Texas during the first fifty years of the 20th Century. The movement picked up steam after World War II, when groups such as the American G.I. Forum, formed by returning veterans, joined in the efforts of organizations such as LULAC to demand an end to segregated schools and denial of the right to vote.

In 1948, war veteran Dr. Hector P. Garcia founded the American G.I. Forum to address the concerns of Mexican-American veterans who were being discriminated against. The AGIF’s first campaign was on the behalf of Felix Longoria, a Mexican-American private who was killed in the Philippines in the line of duty. Upon the return of his body to his hometown, he was denied funeral services because he was Mexican-American.

Hispanic Americans brought several legal cases against school segregation in San Antonio and Corpus Christi, Texas in the 1940s and similar battles in San Diego and Orange County, California. In the post-war McCarthy era, the Justice Department launched [unbelievably]  Operation Wetback, which deported over 70,000 illegal immigrants and resulted in over 700,000 leaving voluntarily.

Mexican-American school children were subject to racial segregation in the States’ public school systems. They were forced to attend “Mexican schools” in California. In 1947, the Mendez v. Westminster ruling declared that segregating children of “Mexican and Latin descent” in Orange County and the State of California was unconstitutional. This ruling helped lay the foundation for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case which ended racial segregation in all public school systems.

In many counties in the Southwestern United States, Mexican-Americans were not selected as jurors in court cases which involved a Mexican-American defendant. In 1954, Pete Hernandez, an agricultural worker, was indicted for murder by an all-Anglo jury in Jackson County, Texas. Hernandez believed that the jury could not be impartial unless members of other races were allowed on the jury-selecting committees, seeing that a Mexican-American had not been on a jury for more than 25 years in that particular county.

Hernandez and his lawyers decided to take the case to the Supreme Court. The resulting Hernandez v. Texas Supreme Court ruling declared that Mexican-Americans and other racial groups in the United States were entitled to equal protection under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

The Chicano movement blossomed in the 1960s. The movement had roots in the civil rights struggles that had preceded it, adding to it the cultural and generational politics of the era. Until then, most Mexican-Americans lived within a few hundred miles of the border, although some resettled along rail lines from the Southwest to the Midwest.

More recently, Mexican-Americans have diffused throughout the U.S., especially in the Midwest and Southeast, with the largest numbers in California, New York and Texas. They remain concentrated in low-wage jobs in agriculture, hotels and restaurants, construction, landscaping, and meat packing. Mexican-American identity has also changed markedly throughout these years.

In the past one hundred years, Mexican-Americans have campaigned for voting rights, stood against educational, employment, and ethnic discrimination and stood for economic and social advancement. At the same time many Mexican-Americans have struggled with defining and maintaining their community’s identity.

In the 1960s and 1970s, some Hispanic student groups flirted with nationalism and differences over the proper name for members of the community of  Chicano/Chicana, Latino/Latina, Mexican-Americans, Hispanics, or simply La Raza, became tied up with deeper disagreements over whether to integrate into or remain separate from Anglo  society (an option no previous immigrant group had ever entertained), as well as divisions between those Mexican-Americans whose families had lived in the United States for two or more generations and more recent immigrants.

The early proponents of the movement – Rodolfo Gonzales in Denver, Colorado and Reies Tijerino in New Mexico – adopted a historical account of the preceding hundred and twenty-five years that obscured much of Mexican-American history. Gonzales and Tijerina embraced a form of nationalism that was based on the failure of the United States government to live up to the promises that it had made in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo [in 1848].

Under the terms of the Treaty, negotiated by the federal governments in the late 1840s after Mexico had lost the Mexican-American War, Mexican property holders were to retain full enjoyment and protection of their property as if they were citizens of the United States. Furthermore, where there existed any doubt as to whether property was validly owned or not, the laws under which these grants of land were made were to control.

Thus, where there was an issue concerning the title to real property, Spanish or Mexican title should have been sufficient to prove ownership, according to the terms of the Treaty. However, as claims began to arise citing the protection of the Treaty, the United States government and judiciary continually managed to deny these claims through a combination of legislation and judicial decisions.

The problem was [impaired] by the fact that most land title issues are STATE issues and the federal government never took that fact, or the [sovereignty of the] States, into account during the negotiations. This is not to say that the outcome would have been any different if the States (and territories) had been party, since the United States held all of the strategic cards, having militarily beaten the weaker Mexico into submission [but, the States, more sensitive to the concerns of their citizens and to the potential for economic growth in their communities, probably would have negotiated to have that provision omitted from the treaty].

That version of the past did not, on the other hand, take into account the history of those Mexicans who had immigrated to the United States. It also gave little attention to the rights of illegal immigrants in the United States in the 1960s – not surprising, since immigration did not have the political significance it was to acquire in the years to come. It was only a decade later when native activists embraced the rights of illegal immigrants and helped broaden the focus to include their rights.

Instead, when the movement dealt with practical problems most activists focused on the most immediate issues confronting Mexican-Americans: unequal educational and employment opportunities, political disenfranchisement and [alleged] police brutality. In the heady days of the late 1960s, when the student movement was active around the globe, the Chicano movement brought about more or less spontaneous actions, such as the mass walkouts by high school students in Denver and East Los Angeles in 1968 and the Chicano Moratorium in Los Angeles in 1970.

The movement was particularly strong at the college level, now becoming overrun with progressive/liberal faculty, where activists formed MEChA, el Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (Aztlán, of course, being the Mexican name given to all of the lands lost in the Mexican-American War in the 1840s) which promoted Chicano Studies programs and a generalized Mexican-nationalist agenda.

The student movement produced a generation of future political leaders. Some women who worked within the Chicano movement felt that participants were more worried about other issues, such as immigration, than solving problems that affected women. This led Chicanas to form the Comison Femenil Mexicana Nacional in 1970.

A major focus of the Chicano movement has been to advance the representation of Chicanos in all American mainstream media. Criticism of the American mainstream news media and U.S. educational institutions by Chicano activists has been particularly harsh in recent years subsequent to the massive displays of support for immigrant rights such as that seen during La Gran Marcha – The (self-styled) “Great March” – on March 25, 2006 in Los Angeles. ”

The Mexican nationals’ migratory worker’s history in southwest America was initially regarded as a necessary part of the bustling harvest season. The need for U.S. employers to import foreign manual labor was heightened first by the expansion of cattle ranches in the Southwest, and by the increase of fruit production in California in 1850 and 1880. Before Mexican workers supported American agriculture, it was the Chinese who filled the labor role. Nearly 200,000 Chinese were legally contracted to cultivate California fields, until the Chinese Exclusion Act. Then it was the Japanese who replaced the Chinese as field hands.

Between 1850 and 1880, 55,000 Mexican workers immigrated to the United States to become field hands in regions that had, until very recently, belonged to Mexico. The institution of Mexican workers in the United States was well established at this time in commercial agriculture, the mining industry, light industry and the railroad. The working conditions and salaries of the Mexicans, as with other laboring groups, were poor.

The presence of Mexican workers in the American labor scene started with the construction of the railroad between Mexico and the U.S. That presence grew between 1880 and 1890. As much as 60 percent of the railway working crews were Mexican. Historians point out that the initial flood of migrant workers to the United States were mainly skilled miners, work hands from cattle ranches in Mexico, indentured servants fleeing Mexican farms, small independent producers who were forced north by natural disasters or tribal raids and workers affected by the War of Secession.

In the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, the Mexican government was unable to improve the lives of its citizens [because of widespread and deeply imbedded official incompetence and corruption]. By the late 1930s, the crop fields in Mexico were harvesting smaller and smaller bounties, and employment became scarce. The Mexican peasant needed to look elsewhere for survival.

World War I also stoked the fire of Mexican immigration, since Mexican workers performed well in the industry and service fields, working in trades such as machinists, mechanics, painters and plumbers. These years were ripe with employment opportunities for Mexicans because much of the skilled U.S. labor force was overseas fighting the war. Agencies in Mexico recruited for the railway and agriculture industries in the United States.

Mexican workers’ complaints about the abuse of their labor rights eventually led the Mexican government to action. Led by Venustiano Carranza in 1920, the Mexican government composed a model contract that guaranteed Mexican workers certain rights named in the Mexican Political Constitution. The contract demanded that U.S. ranchers allow workers to bring their families along during the period of the contract. No worker was allowed to leave for the United States without a contract, signed by an immigration official, which stated the rate of pay, work schedule, place of employment and other similar conditions. Thus, this became the first de facto Bracero (unskilled laborer) Program between the two countries.

In 1924, the U.S. Border Patrol was created, an event which would have a significant impact on the lives of Mexican workers. Though the public did not immediately view Mexicans as “illegal aliens,” the law now stated that undocumented workers were fugitives. With the advent of the Border Patrol, the definition “illegal alien” was born, and many American citizens of Mexican heritage north of the border were unfortunately but, understandably, subject to much suspicion [especially if they did not speak fairly fluent English – indicative of some degree of assimilation].

It seemed whenever the United States found a reason to close the door on Mexican immigration, a historic event would force them to reopen that door. Such was the case when the United States entered World War II. In 1941, the United States was heading to war with the fascist powers of Europe. Labor was siphoned from all areas of United States industry and poured into those which supported the war efforts.

In 1942, the United States signed the Bracero Treaty which reopened the floodgates for legal immigration of Mexican laborers. Between the period of 1942 and 1964, millions of Mexicans were legally imported into the U.S. as “braceros” under the Bracero Program to work temporarily under contract to United States growers and ranchers – the key fact in the entire illegal alien controversy.

Under the Bracero Program, more than 4 million Mexican farm workers came to work the fields of the United States. Impoverished Mexicans fled their rural communities and traveled north to work as braceros. The braceros were principally experienced farm workers who hailed from regions such as Coahuila, “la Comarca Lagunera,” and other crucial agricultural regions in Mexico. They left their own lands and families chasing a rumor of economic boom in the United States.

Large groups of Bracero applicants came via train to the northern border. Their arrival altered the social and economic environments of many border towns. Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, became a hotbed of recruitment and a main gathering point for the agricultural labor force.

The Bracero Program contracts were controlled by independent farmer associations and the “Farm Bureau,” and were written in English and, since Mexico did not provide translators for their people, many braceros would sign them without understanding the rights they were giving away or the terms of the employment. The braceros were allowed to return to their native lands only in case of emergency, and required written permission from their employer [reminiscent of the “don-peon” relationship in the pre-Mexican-American War era]. When the contracts expired, the braceros were mandated to hand over their permits and return to Mexico.

At the end of World War II, Mexican workers [and many American women, as represented by “Rosie the riveter”] were replaced in the jobs by workers coming out of wartime industries and by returning servicemen. By 1947, the Emergency Farm Labor Service was working on decreasing the amount of Mexican labor imported. By the 1960s, an overflow of “illegal” agricultural workers along with the invention of the mechanical cotton harvester diminished the practicality and appeal of the Bracero program and brought it to an end during the Johnson administration in 1964.

Next: The Mexican-American Identity Crisis.

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