4: Mexican Immigration Before World War II
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During the 1840s, observers thought that Yankees would flow from Texas to the Valley of
Mexico and the Isthmus of Tehuántepec and beyond. They were wrong; instead, the tide
moved in the other direction, at first slowly, then with increasing force. This movement
from Mexico was scarcely noticeable until the beginning of the twentieth century. By the
1920s the number of Mexican immigrants--legal and illegal-- alarmed restrictionists, who
had just stopped the great flow of Europeans to America. The Great Depression apparently
put an end to the movement from Mexico, but World War II created pressures to begin it
again. Many employers wanted Mexican labor, though the idea was opposed by organized labor
and by people who thought Mexicans both unassimilable and culturally and
"racially" inferior. But at the beginning of World War II neither the size of
the Mexican-American community nor the likelihood of more heavy immigration much concerned
the United States.
Early Mistreatment of Mexican-Americans
In 1848, even with the treaty cessions, fewer than one-half of one percent of Americans
were of Mexican ancestry--80,000 in a total of more than 20 million. Most of the
Mexican-Americans were in Texas, and nearly all the rest in the border areas of
California, New Mexico, and Arizona. The treaty gave them citizenship unless they took
steps to reject it, which few did. They could not afford a move to Mexico, and the new
U.S. Southwest held, for many, deep family roots, some older than those of the Mayflower's
The new Mexican-Americans soon learned that treaty and law were not enough to guard
their rights. They, with Negroes, were outside the American tradition of equality. They
were "greasers," "half-breeds," or "Mexicans," all meaning
an inferior caste. That was an Anglo view made up of bigotry, ignorance, greed, plus a
potpourri of convictions "dignified" with spiritual or patriotic terms. It was a
view that included, also, the common human distaste for foreign ways and faces.
These views had been evident in the English colonies. Puritans were notably intolerant.
Much later, an upswelling of such passion occurred in the 1840s and 1850s as Germans and
Irish, often Roman Catholics, poured into the Protestant United States. Nativism spawned
rancor against the newcomers. The American Republican party, created in New York in 1843,
became the Native American party. The movement slowed during the Mexican War and the hot
slavery debate that led to the Compromise of 1850. Then in the early 1850s nativism flared
again, festering in secret societies-- like the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner--that
combined prejudice and fear with political ambition. Since members denied knowledge of the
societies, they were called Know-Nothings. They wanted only native Americans (not
including Indians, of course) elected to office, and naturalization made more difficult
for immigrants--who tended to vote for Democratic party opponents of Know-Nothings. The
movement became the American party in 1855, then disintegrated in the passion of the
slavery debate, many of its members going into the new Republican party.
Nativism and racism long were rife among Anglos in Texas and found new voice in a
delegate to its constitutional convention of 1845:
I shall welcome the Norwegian and the Spaniard....It is not
these I fear....But hordes of Mexican Indians may come...
who, though able to speak the Spanish language, are but
the descendants of that degraded and despicable race which
There spoke centuries of English prejudice against Indians, and it was joined by a
conviction that Spanish-American ways were corrupt and inferior. John Adams and Thomas
Jefferson were two of the founding fathers who thought the cultures of Spanish and English
America too different to make relations between them easy. Such attitudes killed the cry
for annexation of all Mexico during the war of 1846-1848. A New York newspaper declared in
October 1847 that the United States should "liberate and ennoble" the Mexicans.
Others doubted the possibility of "Americanizing" Mexicans. That view prevailed.
With ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the All-Mexico movement quickly
Further annexations were also made difficult by the slavery debate. The Wilmot
Proviso--that territory received Mexico should never allow from slavery--was first
presented to Congress in August 1846. It was presented many times thereafter for
consideration of the increasingly antagonistic sections. But the assimilation issue was at
least as important in the rejection of the All-Mexico cry, as was to be true of the
Philippine issue many years later.
Anti-Mexican actions multiplied in the new border states. The hundred-thousand Anglos
who rushed for California's gold in 1848-1850 moved to oust "californios" and
foreigners from mine ownership: vigilantes threw californios off mine sites, the first
California Assembly asked Congress to bar californios and foreigners from mine ownership,
and Anglos tried to keep californios out of skilled jobs. Anglos violated the provision of
the California Constitution of 1849 that all legislation be written in Spanish and
English. They gave equally short shrift to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo articles that
recognized Spanish and Mexican land titles. Both the substance and the procedures of the
two legal systems were different. Between that problem and Anglo prejudice and greed,
Mexicans found it difficult to defend in Anglo-Saxon courts the titles that had been
written under Mexican Roman-based law.
Thus it was that in 1848 in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, an Indian was
considered to be a dog, a mestizo (mixture of Indian and Spaniard) not much better, and
most Mexicans thought to be one or the other. Indians in California from 1848 to 1900
declined from about 100,000 to 15,000, partly because of policies of extermination and
abuse. Many Mexican-Americans in the border states were heavily Indian in ancestry, so
Mexicans in the United States had a thin time of it. But poverty kept them there, and a
few others came from Mexico. Most of the growth of the Mexican-American community,
however, was for many years after 1848 due to natural increase, not to immigration.
Prejudice in Mexico
Anglos were not alone in their prejudice against Indians and mestizos. Upper-class
Mexicans also despised their own common folk. For three centuries the Spanish system in
Mexico rested on socio-racial distinction, status, and privilege. An indio
("Indian") was by law and custom treated as a childlike creature at best, and an
animal at worst. Indians were not gente de razón ("fully rational
humans"). They received special protection--as minors in ability and sense of
responsibility--and were loaded with special burdens. Indians paid a head tax-the tributa
("tribute")--which was a badge of their dependent status. An Indian's legal
testimony was worth less than that of a white man. Indians often were compelled to work
for the upper class for pitifully small compensation. They found it virtually impossible
to accumulate property, gain office outside the Indian village, obtain education, or enter
the priesthood. Alienated and apathetic, they sullenly or stoically endured their inferior
status, earning the reputation of being spiritless.
They did sometimes riot against abuse, but such tumults were easily crushed. Major
rebellion was rare. Although such Indians as the Apache, Yuma, and Comanche were intrepid
warriors, Spaniards and upper-class Mexicans declined to connect that valor with the
stolid Indians in the settled parts of Mexico. Thus, unpacified and subdued Indians could
be despised for different reasons, which was convenient for the egos of the ruling class.
Spaniards and Mexicans also disdained mestizos. In Mexico's colonial era, mestizos
lived as closely to the Spanish mode as poverty permitted; and above all they spoke
Spanish, though not well, for few were educated. They were considered gente de
razón, but not gente decente ("socially acceptable"). Although
mestizos often worked for Spaniards or upper-class Mexicans (creoles) as foremen, cowboys,
clerks, and in other occupations, only rarely did they climb into the upper class, become españoles
("Spanish") of the creole version. To be sure, most upper-class Mexicans had
some Indian ancestry, but the fiction of their Spanishness, or whiteness, was of no value
to the great mass of mestizos. Alexander Humboldt, the great German scientist resident in
Mexico just before the country's independence, wrote that everyone there was fascinated
with "the fractions of European blood which belong to the various castes."
Although the new nation after 1821 abolished legal class lines, Indians and mestizos
remained economically, socially, and politically an under-class. Indians, especially,
still were abused. Republicanism in Mexico, nevertheless, did slightly open doors for the
lower class. A few plebians rose as military leaders in a new political environment. The
Spanish imperial restraint was gone, and now bullets often determined power and profit. A
brave and talented Indian or mestizo could engage in that competition. Also, gradually,
schools, elections, and newspapers offered opportunities. Benito Juárez, an orphaned
Zapotec Indian boy of twelve who spoke no Spanish, left his shepherding in 1818, moved to
the little town of Oaxaca, and went to school. Over the years he became a teacher, lawyer,
and officeholder. When he was inaugurated governor of the state of Oaxaca in 1847, Indians
came down from the mountains with a petition saying, "You know what we need and you
will give it to us, for you are good and will not forget that you are one of us."
But Juárez could do little because the state was poor and there was no support among
the politically active creoles for aid for Indians. Juárez later became a major spokesman
for reform and justice, president of the republic, and heart of the national resistance to
the invading French in the 1860s. The Indian Juárez, with his dark skin and high cheek
bones, became the greatest name of Mexican history. But it was not easy, partly because of
prejudice. [See his notes on his early life.] When he
fled in 1858 before the victorious Conservatives during the War of the Reform, a witness
in Ouerétaro recorded that "an Indian by the name of Juárez, who calls himself
President of Mexico, has arrived in this city." He fled on to the coast and to exile
in the United States, later returning to fight conservatives and French invaders and
becoming president again.
Among his rivals for power was Porfirio Diaz, a mestizo from Oaxaca, born in 1830. He
had studied under Juárez but was chiefly a soldier-politician, common in Mexico at the
time. From an early age Díaz fought in the wars of his unfortunate country--against the
caudillo Santa Anna, against the
Conservatives in the War of the Reform, as a general in 1863-1867 against the invading
French and their puppet Emperor Maximilian of Habsburg.
Now Díaz complained that the system provided neither order nor prosperity--nor the
presidency for himself. After several conspiracies and revolts, in 1876 he achieved
office, after Juárez's death; and from then to 1911 he built a system of dictatorial
control, known as pan o palo ("bread or the club")--collaborate or go
under. He also built a system of economic development with foreign investment and
concessions that made Mexico the "mother of foreigners and the stepmother of
Some of Díaz's collaborators were well-educated nation-builders, who thought him
ignorant and crude, and themselves a technical and intellectual elite. Known as científicos,
some of their views came from the positivism of sociologist Auguste Comte, which included
a disdain for "old fashioned" liberal and parliamentary ideas, in favor of a
"scientific"--what we would call a technocratic--social design. Their god was
the idea of "progress," comparable to our notion of "modernization."
Progress required that Mexico be Europeanized. The científicos thought Indians
poor material for that, and so wanted Europeans to help build a brave new Mexico. The
difficulty was that Europeans did not want to go to Mexico and compete with Indians and
So Mexico remained Indian and mestizo. The Díaz government, however, helped keep the
peons and other laborers docile and on the land or in mines and workshops. Or it took
their land and forced them into slavery, as in the case of the Yaquis of the northwest.
When the Yaquis tried to defend their fertile lands in the 1880s, the government subdued
most of them by a savage war and the tactics of starvation. Many Yaquis were sold to
plantations in far-off Yucatan, to the profit of the governor of Sonora and his cronies.
Thus, Mexican and American policies were equally blind to the possibility that Indians had
rights and needs of any significance.
As opportunities grew slightly in the 1880s and 1890s, a small stream of temporary and
permanent Mexican workers crossed the open border, working for mine operators, railroads,
and farmers in the Southwest. New arrivals from Mexico in the growing Southwest were much
fewer, however, than those moving from the rest of the United States; so no one feared
that the region was being Mexicanized. The 1900 census counted some 300,000 persons of
Mexican ancestry, mostly in the border area. Only 103,000 were of Mexican birth, showing
that much of the growth of the Mexican-American community was due to the natural increase
of the 80,000 Mexicans in the United States in 1848.
The United States had done little to restrict any immigration. Acts in the 1880s and
1890s and 1903 excluded such special classes as convicts, idiots, and anarchists. The
Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and later extensions had a narrow effect, as did the 1907
"Gentlemen's Agreement" by which Japan agreed not to permit emigration. Bureau
of Immigration personnel on the border were more concerned with stopping Europeans and
Orientals from entering the United States than Mexicans.
Then, during the years 1900-20, Mexican movement to the United States quickened, with
about 200,000 entering legally and more than that illegally. According to the census, the
Mexican-born rose from the 103,000 in 1900 to 221,415 in 1910, and 486,408 in 1920. The
Mexican influence increased also as the second-generation population grew, together with
the daily and intermittent commuters in the Mexican border areas who worked in the United
States and returned to Mexico at night or every few days.
Larger immigration resulted partly from economic development in the Southwest. From
1900 to 1920 California orange output rose more than 400 percent. Southwestern lettuce,
cotton, and other crops increased fabulously. Just clearing the brush and trees for new
fields took much rough labor. Demand for labor was so high that employers and their agents
went to border towns to hire immigrants and also sent notices into the interior of Mexico.
More employers realized how nearly ideal Mexicans were for their needs. They were close
by, worked hard, accepted low, wages and poor working conditions, and would take seasonal
employment and move on when it terminated. The seasonal workers who left after planting
and harvesting seasons relieved strains on the purse and conscience of Anglo employers .
The low wages early in the twentieth century often meant about one dollar a day, usually
less than that paid to any group for similar labor. But that was more pay than in Mexico
and was often supplemented by the toil of wife and children as well. Furthermore, living
costs were little more than in Mexico.
Western mines, railroads, and construction projects also depended heavily on Mexicans,
who supplied over 70 percent of western railroad labor between 1900 and 1920. The
railroads sowed Mexican communities throughout the West and Midwest, as workers settled
along the lines they built or maintained. Mexican-American communities expanded in Los
Angeles, San Antonio, and other towns not far from the border; but they also were formed
or enlarged in the far interior--in Kansas City, St. Louis, and Chicago, where
slaughterhouse, iron mill, and factory operators found that Mexicans worked as well as
Mexicans also emigrated because of worsening conditions at home. The last years of the
long Díaz dictatorship saw a decline in the average person's income. Then came the
Revolution of 1910-1917, with northern Mexico a principal site of combat, suffering much
destruction, dislocation, and flight before marauding bands and armies. At the same time
the hold of great estate owners on their workers was reduced or ended.
Although both Washington and Mexico City generally were willing to ensure the
southwestern labor supply, problems arose during World War I. The 1917 Immigration and
Nationality Law was America's first general restrictive measure, requiring that immigrants
be literate (in some language) and that they pay an eight-dollar head tax. It caused a
slowdown of Mexican immigration, but the Labor Department found ways to ignore or weaken
its provisions. Temporary workers were permitted--73,000 entered legally from Mexico
between 1917 and 1923. Simultaneously, southwestern employers let immigration officials
know that they preferred an open border policy to lessen even the minor supervision of
border crossings that was customary. So, inspections were not rigorous.
The Mexican government consented to allow its citizens to emigrate, though it could not
get assurances from Washington that Mexicans would be treated fairly. Mexico was driven to
this policy by the great financial losses of the Revolution and by the fact that some
income from Mexican labor in the United States made its way back to Mexico. In fact, the
government even aided the movement; President Carranza (1917-1920) offered free rail
transportation for emigrant workers. For different reasons, the Mexican and American
governments approved written contracts between employers and braceros (strong
arms) that obligated workers to make daily deposits in a U.S. Postal Savings Bank to a
total of fifty dollars. Only when the bracero returned to Mexico, could he take principal
and interest back with him-and it bought much more than it would today.
Immigration in the 1920s
Given such stimuli, Mexican emigration soared. Almost 225,000 legal entrants to the
United States were recorded during the 1920s and at least as many came illegally.
Immigration officials, sympathetic to both immigrant and employer, did not enforce the law
strictly. Another aid to immigration was completion of the railway from Guadalajara in
west central Mexico to Nogales on the Arizona border. It funneled Mexicans into Arizona
and especially into California. In the 1920s California rivaled Texas as a magnet for the
Mexican-born, and no other state had more than a small fraction of the total.
All this accelerated movement faltered when the Immigration Act of 1924 required a visa
costing $10. That, with the eight dollar head tax of the 1917 law, was too much for
Mexicans (although American employers sometimes paid it for them). But the barrier was an
illusion, because Mexicans merely resorted more to illegal entry. The border position
offered Mexicans an advantage not available to Italians and Slavs. The porousness of the
border was well known in Washington, where lack of interest in tight control left the
Immigration Bureau with only a few dozen men on the border. Responding fractionally to
pressure, Congress in 1924 established a 450-man border patrol for both the Canadian and
Mexican frontiers! Using all 450 men to patrol the two thousand miles of border from
Brownsville to San Diego would still have been ludicrously inadequate. But, of course,
western employers and their congressmen wanted it to be inadequate.
The agribusiness of western America had become gigantic, feeding an industrial and
urban nation . Such crops as lettuce and tomatoes took more labor than wheat, and the
prosperous United States no longer was satisfied with bread, meat, and potatoes. Salad and
citrus now graced tables that previously scarcely had seen them at Christmas. Western
farmers, contemplating this lovely market, commanded cheap Mexican labor by enticement,
inducement, advertising, political pressure, vagrancy laws, and recruitment offices. The
workers came because miserable though wages, labor conditions, and living arrangements
were, prospects looked worse in the slums of Los Angeles, the shacks of agricultural
Texas, or throughout most of the Republic of Mexico.
The result was that of the 200,000 farm laborers in California in the 1920s, some 75
percent were of Mexican ancestry, many Mexican-born. They moved up and down the state and
into adjacent states, stooping or stretching to harvest the crops and doing other rough
labor. They lived in burlap tents, canvas and waste-lumber lean-to's, and brush and
palm-leaf huts. Water often was insufficient and impure, ditches and holes were used for
garbage and human waste, and over everything hung clouds of files and the sour smells of
malnutrition, dysentery, and despair. But the permanent communities through which they
passed could almost pretend that the migrants did not exist. One of the authors can
remember that as a boy in the 1920s in Banning, California, he watched at night the fires
of the almond and fruit pickers down by the Southern Pacific tracks but was not allowed to
go too near. So Anglo boys not only accepted the Mexican servitude--as Tom Sawyer did
Negro slavery--but had little of the intimate contact with and affection for the under
class that Tom had.
Most Americans knew nothing of all this. Nor did they realize that total entries from
Mexico to the United States between 1900 and 1930 were on the order of three-quarters of a
million. The growing immigration, though, was small in relation to the total 18.63 million
immigrants who entered the United States during the same period. Americans were not much
aware of people of Mexican ancestry, even though more of them moved into the Midwest.
Chicago had only 1,224 persons of Mexican ancestry in 1920, and even the great rise to
19,362 in 1930 left it a small minority in a big city. They came to Chicago in various
ways, but always in response to opportunity. Some merely followed the seasonal work in
sugar beet fields in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan. Many were recruited in the border
towns by railway and steel companies. As news of northern jobs increased in the border
areas and as new arrivals from Mexico put pressure on the labor market of the frontier,
more men began to work their way north, doing railway maintenance work or odd jobs. Mostly
they came from Texas, the Texans trying, ineffectually, to prevent the outflow of their
cheap labor. Those leaving were mostly young men, and that caused social problems for the
Mexican community in Chicago in the early days. At the same time as the early movement to
Chicago, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were in other places joining the rush to the
cities that changed so much in America. By 1930 possibly 20 percent of workers of Mexican
ancestry were doing at least part-time industrial work.
But changes in the numbers, residence, and occupation of people of Mexican ancestry
were not striking enough to catch much attention, because the immigration
"problem" for Americans was restriction of the enormous flow from Europe. That
was first done by a law of 1921, as part of a quota system based on national origins. The
system, adjusted in 1924 and not fully applicable until 1929, ended the ready supply of
cheap European labor and, as some people thought, the undesirable effects of cultural
pluralism. The quota system of the 1920s remained basic U.S. law until 1952. Its bias in
favor of immigration from western and northern, as opposed to southern and eastern, Europe
sparked much of the emotionalism of the immigration debate. The European stream, at any
rate, narrowed drastically after 1930, and everyone hailed it--happily or in sorrow--as
the end of a historic process.
The nations of the Western Hemisphere, however, were not included in the quota system,
although there was support for that. Throughout the 1920s there were sporadic cries
against immigration from Latin America, especially Mexico. The old ignorant claims about
mixed blood and racial inferiority were aired. Even western supporters of Mexican
immigration sometimes at least tacitly agreed but claimed that since Mexicans could easily
be deported, they were the "safest" non-white group to let in, and cheap. The
argument still went on in 1930 when a House bill called for Western Hemisphere quotas that
discriminated against Mexico. Its sponsor spoke against the admission of "serf,
slave, and peon types," a complex social question one may be sure he knew little
about. Also in 1930, the Census Bureau, in an odd fashion, applied racism to Mexico.
Heretofore the bureau had listed Mexicans with whites, but now it created a special
"Mexican" category that listed 1.42 million for that year. The guide for
enumerators in 1930 included such scientific gems as the statement that "the racial
mixture" of most Mexicans is "difficult to classify," so that first- or
second-generation Mexicans should be listed as "Mexican" if they were not
"definitely white, Negro, Indian, Chinese, or Japanese."
The U.S. State Department in the 1920s also spoke against inclusion of the Western
Hemisphere in the quota system, arguing that relations with Latin America were in a
delicate state and would be damaged by inclusion in the quota scheme. The delicate state
referred to was largely the result of American armed interventions in Caribbean and
Central American countries. The remedy for that scarcely lay along the border with Mexico,
and presumably the connection asserted impressed few persons of intelligence. What did
impress congressmen and others was the pressure by powerful economic groups to include the
Western Hemisphere--meaning chiefly Mexico--in the quota system. Many jewels of reasoning
have come down to us on the indispensability of Mexican labor, especially in the
Southwest, but none can have been more persuasive than the simple statement of the
influential Congressman John Garner of Texas in 1926 that conditions in that state did not
permit profitable farming without Mexican laborers.
So the new legislation left the issue of Mexican movement across the border to U.S.
consuls in Mexico, who could control the number of visas issued; to the thin ranks of U.S.
immigration personnel at the border; and to whatever bilateral agreements the two
countries might care to make. Either the first or the third devices could be frustrated if
the border remained as porous as it always had been.
Immigration in the 1930s
Unexpectedly, that porosity declined in the 1930s but not because of restrictive
legislation. The change came because the Great Depression dried up the need for labor,
especially labor from Mexico. There were many Anglos out of work and willing to do
anything because the economy was in agony, and men sold apples on street corners; and
because drought and "dustbowls" in the Great Plains drove "Okies" from
Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri to California. John Steinbeck immortalized in the Grapes
of Wrath the tribulation of those Anglo-Americans; but no one dramatized the needs of
Mexican-Americans, and those needs now multiplied. There were objections everywhere to
giving jobs to aliens, even to Mexican-American citizens. In addition, public officials
and taxpayers worried about the pressure of foreigners on public assistance agencies while
the revenues of the latter were falling. Inevitably, such conditions stimulated nativism
and prejudice not only in the Southwest but in other parts of the United States.
Thus, in the Southwest in the 1930s people of the Mexican community often were driven
out of jobs. Visas were refused to new immigrants lest they become public charges. Then
the movement went further, beginning in 1931, with deportation drives to locate and eject
from the country "illegal" Mexicans. Southern California was a major focus of
this xenophobia. It became hysterical and vicious, making little effort at times to
distinguish between illegals, on the one hand, and citizens and permanent resident aliens
on the other. Trainloads of the repatriated carried some 13,000 from Los Angeles during
the years 1931-1934.
How many U.S. citizens were illegally deported or terrorized into leaving cannot be
known, since the bureaucrats involved rarely bothered to count or classify the emigrés.
Public officials boasted of the reduction of the Mexican population in the United States.
Not surprisingly, few illegal migrants crossed the border in the 1930s and legal Mexican
immigration fell to a mere 22,319 in the decade. It appeared that a combination of
surveillance, abuse, deportation, and economic depression could sharply decrease the
porousness of the long border. It was thought that under such conditions, the 1.5 million
persons of Mexican ancestry in the United States at the end of the 1930s would possibly
not be much augmented by new arrivals.(2)
World War II and Immigration
The conditions, however, endured only briefly. At the end of the 1930s the American
economy revived as democratic governments abroad sent orders for arms and other wares,
finally recognizing that militant fascism could not be appeased. Even Congress, early in
1938, agreed to more expenditures for defense. The beginning of World War II in 1939
raised demand of all sorts in the United States. It went higher in 1940 as the democracies
battled to survive and the Roosevelt administration helped them. American rearmament
continued, and Selective Service was adopted in September 1940. By the time of Pearl
Harbor in December 1941, there was an economic boom in the United States, and many men and
some women had left the labor force for the armed forces. Mexican immigrants became
desirable again, so employers invited and welcomed them.
They began pouring across the border, often illegally, and there was no machinery for
stopping them, even if the will to do so had existed. Both governments, however, had some
interest either in regulating the flow, or in showing their constituents that they wanted
to do so. Mexico declined to agree to export of its citizens without guarantees that they
could be protected from abuse. Increasing Mexican nationalism and past
experience--deportations, prejudice, discrimination--made this a political issue in
Mexico, which wanted, especially, to keep migrants out of Texas, where anti-Mexican views
and acts had a virulent history.
Although illegal entrants were welcomed by American employers, they wanted a more
secure system, preferably unlimited Mexican immigration. In 1941 farmers contended that
they needed legal regularized imports of Mexican workers for the next season or some crops
would not be harvested. Railways and other employers also wanted Mexican workers. Since
employers were unable to get unlimited immigration, a temporary system seemed better than
nothing. To get the agreement, Washington accepted the Mexican demand that the American
federal government be the employer and handle all business and problems, including
prevailing wages paid other workers and other protective measures. Mexico agreed to
recruit workers and transport them to the border, where they were placed under the charge
of the Farm Security Administration. The "temporary" measure went into effect in
August 1942 and under one agreement or another lasted more than two decades. Since the
measure was supposed to be temporary and much of the labor was supposed to return to
Mexico between seasons, organized labor and nativists made only minimal objections.
The most revealing part of the agreement process, although not appreciated at the time,
was the nationalism of Mexican government and press. Mexico was increasingly stable,
prosperous, and confident. Leaders were less willing to permit citizens to be abused
abroad. This was due to accumulated successes since the Revolution ended in 1917,
especially during the administration of Lázaro Cárdenas from 1934 to 1940. Cárdenas
strengthened the official party, established economic development agencies, and by greatly
accelerating the communal (ejidal) farm program tied the peasants more firmly to
the governing party and improved its reputation as a reforming and innovating force.
Another change in Mexican attitudes that had been occurring since the great Revolution
of 1910-1917 was dissolution of the ancient disdain for Indians and mestizos. The official
creed now was that in the Estados Unidos Mexicanos all were equally Mexicans. More, the
contemporary Indian was dignified as the descendant of great civilizations of the past.
Archeology became a passion. The great pyramids and exotic murals of the Maya, Tenocha,
Zapotec, Mexica, and others were revealed in all their splendor--great treasures of human
history and proof of the talent and achievement of the ancestors of modern Mexicans. The
great Mexican revolutionary muralists celebrated Indian culture--and white depravity--on
acres of walls in Mexico and, in the 1930s, at such conservative Yankee centers as
Dartmouth College and Rockefeller Center Music Hall.
Nationalism and pride in the Indian heritage also were promoted by expansion of the
school system, for literacy permitted more complex appeals to national sentiment. The
national party and the Ministry of Education made sure that materials stressed Mexican
nationalism and hopes of a greater future. The drawings in primers taught the ABCs with
figures of Indian mothers making tortillas and Indian boys tending goats.
At the same time, Mexico's swelling industrial plans called for more capital, and
laborers in the United States could send some back and sometimes learn useful skills as
well. Finally, the peace and improved living conditions of Mexico were resulting in faster
population growth in a country that already had a large number of un- and underemployed
persons. Some of the pressure could be relieved by work in the United States. All of these
factors played a role in Mexico's attitudes toward the "bracero"
agreement of 1942.
Also important was the great boost Cárdenas gave to Mexican nationalism in 1938 by
expropriating the foreign petroleum properties.
1. Paul S. Taylor, An American-Mexican Frontier (Chapel
Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1934).
2. Statistics on Mexican-Americans in the United States are a
thicket of difficulties. Enumeration, classification and publication standards vary over
time. Poor people avoid and often lie to enumerators. Not all enumerators can effectively
communicate with Spanish-speakers. Persons of Mexican ancestry sometimes are
"hidden" in figures accumulated simply on "Spanish-speakers." Some
figures are based on persons with Spanish surnames that may not be Mexican; and they
include some Anglo wives but omit many more women of Hispanic ancestry married to men with
Anglo surnames. Labor camps and rural huts often are overlooked, sometimes because local
people try to hide them from enumerators, knowing that illegal aliens will be detected.
The Immigration Service keeps only spotty records on green-card (legal) commuters who live
in Mexico and work in the United States, or on seventy-two-hour (legal) pass holders who
are not supposed to leave the border area of the United States. A 1933 spot-check by
Immigration showed 52,511 intermittent and ,29,963 regular commuters from Mexico to the
United States. Over the years, a group of that size, furnishing people who illegally
remain in the United States, could considerably influence the size of the Mexican
community. This hints at a final, critical difficulty: the United States does not subject
residents to stringent documentary checks on the model of many European and other
countries, so that illegal Mexican aliens in the United States easily escape detection.
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