7: Mexican-Americans and Chicanos
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Will the Mexican-American community eventually be much like those of Irish, German,
Polish, and Italian nationalities? That is, largely assimilated and little interested in
the old homeland, or very important to the latter? No one knows; but assimilation has
certainly proceeded more slowly for Mexicans than for Europeans. Mexican immigrants have
met more prejudice and discrimination and have been slower to adopt English. Unlike other
immigrant groups, the Mexican-American still receives large additions from the homeland,
thus slowing assimilation. It is probable that the Chicano movement that began in the
1960s speeded assimilation, despite assertions that bilingualism and cultural
distinctiveness were non-negotiable alms. Most likely, the next-door position of Mexico
will not bolster "chicanismo" unless other Americans refuse to admit
Mexican-Americans to full equality. The Chicano movement helped make Mexican-Americans
more assertive politically. How many more Mexican-American citizens will be assimilated to
the melting pot is as much a matter for speculation as the idea that Chicanos can serve
the U.S. as a "bridge" with Mexico or with all of Spanish America.
Rejection and Assimilation
Rejection of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans has long been the predominant attitude of
an Anglo community that wanted cheap maids, railway workers, lettuce choppers, and busboys
of Mexican heritage rather than friends and fellow citizens. "Greasers" have met
more prejudice and discrimination than "hunkies," "squareheads," and
Mexicans have met not only the old English-American prejudice against Latins in general
and Spaniards in particular, but also disdainful attitudes toward Indians and toward
"racial mixtures." Such attitudes are uninhibited by an embarrassing lack of
knowledge about the qualities of Latins or Indians, or the nature of race, or the effects
of racial mixture. Prejudice, of course, also grew out of jealousy and fear of economic,
social, and political competition.
Mexican-Americans have confronted prejudice and discrimination in bars, hotels, cafes,
barbershops, swimming pools, trains, courts of justice, real estate offices, and on a
thousand other obnoxious occasions. The darker the skin of the Mexican-American, the more
likely he or she is treated as an inferior creature. One of the authors of this book
remembers as a boy in Banning, California, the special section of the little cinema
designated for "Mexes."
Mexico's consuls in the Southwest have often protested discrimination against
Mexican-Americans, one source of animosity between the two countries. It was especially
infuriating that while many Mexican-Americans fought valiantly in World War II, the Sleepy
Lagoon case in Los Angeles revealed the ugly depths of Anglo prejudice. Seventeen
Mexican-American youths were convicted, on circumstantial evidence, of beating to death a
young Mexican-American. The press declared the "innate" depravity of the
Mexican-American character, but a higher court later found the youths innocent. Anglo
servicemen provoked the notorious "pachuco" or "Zoot Suit" race riots
by attacking Mexican-Americans while the police looked the other way, and the press
applauded. Another nasty instance of prejudice came to national attention in 1948 when the
body of Felix Longoria, killed in battle in the Philippines, was returned to Texas for
burial. The only mortician in Longoria's hometown would not let his chapel be used. It was
only marginally comforting that a national outcry led to Longoria's burial in Arlington
Americans outside the Southwest have been much more familiar with prejudice against
blacks than against browns. The systematic humiliation of Mexican-Americans came to
general attention, however, when the novel Giant was made into a
movie in 1956 and handsome Rock Hudson was sneered at by Anglo Texans as the offspring of
Mexican-Americans. The fact that he became a physician presumably reflected discredit on
the medical profession.
There is an old argument as to whether race or culture or both comprise
"Mexican-Americanness." The Bureau of the Census solved its part of the problem
in 1950 by turning to the use of the classification, "white persons with Spanish
surnames." That put Mexican-Americans into the larger group of Hispanics and
eliminated any official question of race. Some spokesmen of the Chicano movement, however,
have insisted that Indian race and culture were essential components of
"chicanismo"; yet some Mexican-Americans ignore their Indian heritage, strongly
preferring to be known as Latinos, Mexican-Americans, Spaniards, or Hispanos.
Estimates of the number of people in the United States of Mexican origin generally run
between six and seven million, although pro-Mexican-American .parties claim up to fifteen
million. Mexican-American families have more children than the national average, but the
differential has declined in the 1960s and 1970s. The bulk of the Mexican-American
population in the late 1970s has remained in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico,
and Texas, although a tendency to move outward has persisted. Mexican-Americans,
originally a rural people, joined the rest of the American population in moving to town,
and by the late 1960s were nearly 80 percent urban. In some urban and rural areas of the
Southwest, Mexican-Americans outnumber Anglos--as Chicano publicists became fond of
The despised Mexican-Americans have endured, as have the "Paddies" of the
"No Irish Need Apply" era, the poor Jews from eastern Europe, illiterate
peasants from Sicily, and the "Pollocks" of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. They
have been a "disadvantaged" group; society has obstructed the development of
their talents and their access to opportunities for advancement. The natural result has
been the alienation of many Mexican-Americans from Anglo society. A poor social and
economic situation generally has made escape from the ghetto difficult and created
Some Mexican-Americans have moved easily into the general society, and many youngsters
born in the United States retain only shreds of the old speech and culture. But
recognition of partial assimilation has been obscured by imprecise statistics and by the
emotionalism of the Chicano movement. Many Chicano leaders object to Anglo insistence on
assimilation into the dominant and supposedly superior culture. Some Anglos claim that
Mexican-Americans are fundamentally less assimilable than other immigrant groups, while
highly respected Anglo scholars say that the evidence does not support such a notion. But
evidence is irrelevant to bigotry towards inferior "races" or enthusiasm for
resisting the "cultural imperialism" of Anglos.
The Chicano Movement--La Raza
The Chicano movement that began in the mid-1960s has its roots in a million slights,
and in a conviction that fair treatment depends on an end to docility. This new
self-assertiveness has rested on an accumulation of statistics on the disadvantaged status
of the Mexican-American at work, school, in segregated housing, and in unfair--sometimes
brutal-- treatment by public authorities. It has been aided by the movement of
Mexican-Americans to cities, where discussion and organization are easier there than in
migrant labor camps or isolated farms. It received impetus after World War II from the
assertiveness of Mexican-American veterans who had a splendid combat record. In the 1960s
and 1970s militant Chicanos said, "Count our Congressional Medals of Honor!"
The civil rights movement of the 1950s and thereafter also stimulated Mexican-American
action, following court decisions against school segregation and unfair electoral
practices. In addition, the big new antipoverty programs pointed to an enlarged public
receptivity to correction of past abuses. Finally, improvement in the conditions of life
of some Mexican-Americans contributed to outrage at the continuing excess of prejudice and
Chicano leaders and groups are diverse and disagree on aims and tactics. There are
major concentrations of interest on cultural and spiritual matters, labor problems, and on
political participation. Leaders agree in condemning the exploitation of Mexican-Americans
and that a spirit of chicanismo can somehow be used to help end it. Yet there is much
disagreement as to the content of chicanismo, or even as to the use of that term of
obscure origins that conservative Mexican-Americans often dislike. Some Mexican-Americans
have wanted to work within the system, as Congressman Henry González, who in April
1969 attacked Chicano militants and what he called their program of hate. Militant
Chicanos have, in turn, called men like the congressman "coconuts"-brown
outside, white inside. Some even adopt the black epithet "Uncle Tom," inveighing
against the collaborating " Tío Tomás."
There has been much disagreement within and without the Chicano movement as to how to
aid Mexican-Americans. When President Lyndon Johnson in June 1967 created the Inter-Agency
Committee on Mexican-American Affairs, it at once fell into disorder over how to proceed.
Despite these disagreements, there is no question but that several dynamic leaders have
been important to the explosive birth of the movement. César Chávez, leader of poor
migrant farm workers, provided the initial spark. Born in California not far from the
Mexican border in 1928, he shared with his parents the life of migrant laborers during the
Great Depression that followed. He was fortunate to achieve even eighth-grade schooling.
In the later 1950s and early 1960s he overcame with great difficulty some of the apathy
and suspicion of the migrant workers and slowly enrolled some in his United Farm Workers
(UFW). Chávez in 1965 issued the "Delano Proclamation," calling for a
"social movement" and justice, with which "we will overcome!" He
achieved national renown in 1965 with strikes of workers on California vineyards and rose
plantations. "Viva La Huelga"--Hurrah for the Strike!--chanted the strikers, and
college students echoed them.
Chávez' appeal rested on his courageous personality, on the justice of the cause of
the underpaid and badly treated workers, on the civil rights enthusiasm of the time. He
seemed to many observers--and he achieved much more coverage in the media--a good and
dedicated man, opposed to violence, industrious, personally abstemious, apparently not
ambitious for himself, a man of strong religious feeling, willing to fast to publicize the
needs of the workers. His cause and his personality appealed powerfully to militant or
idealistic university students. A workers' song of the time prayed "long live Chávez
and the Virgin who guides him."
Reies López Tijerina became
a folk hero to poor Mexican-American villagers and farmers in New Mexico, an inspiration
to the Chicano movement, and a bogeyman to the Anglo establishment. He claims that much of
the land of New Mexico belonged to the villagers, some of whose ancestors had lived in the
area long before the Spaniards came.
López Tijerina, born in 1927, like Chávez is the son of migrant farm workers and
received little schooling. While still in his teens he became a preacher in the
fundamentalist Assembly of God Church. In 1962 he founded the Alianza Federal de Mercedes
(land grants) to "recover" the lands of the villagers. This later became the
Alianza Federal de los pueblos Libres (Federal Alliance of Free Towns), which proclaimed
its right to self-government and a separate "nationalism." López Tijerina and
his people "arrested" some Forest Rangers (supposedly trespassing on village
lands) in 1965 and in 1967 engaged in a gun battle in the process of trying to arrest a
district attorney. For Chicanos "El Tigre"--The Tiger--was born. Some Anglos
thought that bloody revolution-possibly inspired by Fidel Castro-impended. La Causa of
López Tijerina was a fiery call to action, and that was what the Chicano movement wanted.
Rodolfo "Corky" González is a city boy (Denver) who showed that he could make it as a boxer,
businessman, and Democratic party politician. He was the coordinator of the "Viva
Kennedy campaign in Colorado in 1960. Then he decided that the Democratic programs for the
disadvantaged were merely cosmetic, so he withdrew from mainstream politics, founding in
1965 La Cruzada Para Justicia (The Crusade for Justice). It did useful work in such fields
as education and legal aid. He advocated Chicano "nationalism" to help
"liberation," by "revolutionary" means, stating that Anglos only
respected power. He spoke of the "communalism" of Chicanos and glorified La
Raza. He also advocated "machismo" (courage and daring) in pursuing alms, one of
which was the "Spiritual Plan of Aztlán," to revive the ancient spirit of the
Aztecs. The five-day Chicano Youth Liberation Conference he sponsored in Denver in 1969,
with delegates coming from many states, enthusiastically received Corky's blend of history
and confrontation with the gringos.
Race often was invoked; sometimes to deny Indian inferiority, sometimes to proclaim La
Raza as a Mexican-American community with its own especially meritorious history and
culture. There was a search for roots outside the majority American community, as in the
black movement. Although some Mexican-Americans had little enthusiasm for identification
with the bloody ancient Aztecs, to say so was not convenient when such enthusiasts as Luis
Valdés were declaring that "La Raza ... is the Mexican people" and that
assimilated Mexican-Americans were "ex-raza."
The ambiguity of the term La Raza did not detract from its value as a rallying cry. But
some Chicanos were carried away to the point where La Raza became a tie to all sorts of
popular causes, even ecology. Stan Steiner claimed to have found a villager who declared,
"I love to be poor," and interpreted that to mean that poverty symbolized the
villager's "acquiescence to nature." That scarcely reflected the attitudes of
poor farmers known to social workers and social scientists. Some Chicano ideologues
romanticized villages and said that they would and must endure. Sociologists found no
reason to believe that many of them would endure.
It was a common Chicano argument that their culture was being altered or threatened by
Anglos, and required defense. It was argued that the Chicano culture was needed to improve
the social position of Chicanos, a suggestion easier to state than to prove. There was
much talk, in the fashion of the times, about cultural castration and genocide. There
certainly could be little argument with the claim that Anglos were usually ignorant of
Mexican and Latin civilization, or that their parading of a few such features as fiestas,
rodeos, and regional dances was scarcely testimony to the contrary. There was an
exceptionally active campaign to preserve the Spanish language.
It became a common stance of Chicano leaders and their supporters in the Anglo
community that "cultural pluralism" was valuable. It proved much easier to state
a general argument for that proposition than to posit specific gains to be expected.
Furthermore, history suggested that it was difficult to achieve true cultural pluralism
and that its values were difficult to measure. These were unpopular suggestions in the
intellectual world, no doubt in part because they were difficult to refute and because
intellectuals found vulgar the of pluralism.
Chicano leaders who used confrontation tactics offended or frightened not only Anglos
but some of the older generation of Mexican-Americans. Some leaders talked of revolution,
though it was not clear what they meant by it, even when demonstrators chanted solidarity
with a long-dead Che Guevera. And although the Brown Berets of East Los Angeles, and the
serape-clad members of MAYO (Mexican-American Youth Organization) in San Antonio, with
their upraised clenched fists, provoked some fears of militarized chicanismo, they came to
nothing. It could only be hysteria that led to some trepidation at the sight of
high-school Chicanos occasionally draped in the crossed cartridge belts of the Mexican
Revolution of 1910-1917.
Chicano poets, novelists, journalists, and playwrights have given spirit to the
movement, as when Philip Ortega in a story in 1968 told of a leader whose words
"straighten the spines of the forgotten people." And there has been much
celebration of Chicano culture, but it usually has not been clearly defined. Some of the
Chicano literature is as much a reaction against discrimination and poverty, or an
expression of current intellectual and artistic trends, as it is specifically
Mexican-American. That is the case with praise of Hispanic "collaborative
action" being considered superior to Anglo individualism, a notion without historical
foundation. Or the story by Génaro González ( 1970) that found a "natural
freedom" that was superior to the "castrate freedom of societies," a
romantic notion that far antedated, chicanismo. It is trendy to sneer at the bourgeoisie,
especially new Chicano entrants, who have moved to the suburbs and called themselves
The impact of the Chicano movement has been considerable in civil rights, literary,
artistic, entertainment, and journalistic circles; in some churches; and among
academicians. But many Anglos have given only grudging attention; possibly a majority have
given none at all. This is in line with the long-time Mexican-American complaint that
they've received too little publicity and have been "hidden" from the public;
and the movement has improved public attention. It has helped get more aid from government
as well as public support against police brutality. It has helped get more teaching jobs
for Mexican-Americans and introduced Chicano studies programs in universities. At the
least it has publicized the problems of Mexican-Americans; at best it has urged these
people to work more effectively in their own behalf.
Work and Labor Unions
Fury often runs deep with regard to the status of disadvantaged labor. Leaders of such
groups, and their sympathizers, find it infuriating when people are optimistic about
progress. On the other hand, "outsiders" are exasperated by unwillingness to
acknowledge improvements as significant. It is the old story of the bottle being at once
half empty for the pessimist and half full for the optimist. And the constant addition of
immigrants makes the measurement of progress a matter for debate.
Average income levels for Chicano families are lower than for Anglos but higher than
for blacks. In 1960 Mexican-Americans annually earned less than one-half the Anglo figure.
In 1970 the median income of Mexican-American families was $7,120, which was 30 percent
less than the income of all white families (including Mexican-Americans), and 13 percent
more than black families. Chicano earnings varied much by region, with income
conspicuously low in Texas and high in California. Father Theodore Hesburgh, of the U.S.
Commission on Civil Rights, in 1968 said that workers in the lower Rio Grande Valley were
treated like peons or slaves.
Chicanos find it especially difficult to become owners of enterprises, except at a
petty level. They lack capital, good connections with monied Anglos, and they meet the
view that they are bad risks for loans. Yet they did make enough progress so that the
first Annual National Symposium on Hispanic Business Enterprise could be held in 1978,
sponsored by the Department of Commerce.
While Chicanos welcome such attention and new investment aids from government and the
private sector, they want faster action. They naturally take the view that the bottle is
half empty. Low income obviously is damaging to the home life, education, and general
social status of Chicanos. The movement is not interested in comparisons with incomes in
Mexico or Bangladesh, or with their own position of a few years earlier. Nearly everyone
is passionately interested in income; that will endure when Chicano poetry is forgotten.
Chicano workers are heavily represented in low-paying and lowly regarded occupations.
Despite an increase in the number of Chicanos moving to jobs demanding more skills and
offering more pay, the less desirable jobs have found many recruits from unskilled
Chicanos and the continuing stream of migrants from Mexico. Mexican-Americans increasingly
have perceived illegal immigration from Mexico as being especially damaging to themselves,
and a factor that offset some of the new aid given in the 1960s and 1970s. Many
Mexican-Americans cannot or will not compete with the immigrants. An IRS survey found in
1975 that two-thirds of the 48,000 illegally employed Mexicans interviewed earned less
than the $2.50 an hour, at a time when the average hourly wage in the United States was
more than $4.50.
Furthermore, although fewer than 10 percent of Chicanos were in farm work by the late
1970s, that was much higher than for Anglos or blacks; and the income and other working
conditions of rural workers were especially poor. Federal minimum wages were only extended
to agriculture in 1966, and more than a decade later those wages are still less than for
non-farm work. By 1976 the agricultural minimum wage was $2, which even with full-time
employment did not give enough annual income to keep the employee above the federally
designated poverty threshold. In addition, much farm labor is seasonal rather than
full-time, and it is difficult to police widely scattered farm operations,
Chicano movement to better work has been slowed by continuing deficiencies in education
and by discrimination in favor of Anglos for the better jobs. Also, differential wages are
sometimes still paid for the same work, damaging not only to income and all who depend on
it but a degrading badge of supposed inferiority. None of this has been much improved by
urbanization. Indeed, not only is unemployment higher for Chicanos than for Anglos in
town, but it is an especial source of concern that young Chicano suffer very high rates of
un- and under-employment.
In the face of such formidable problems, the Chicanos--especially farm workers--have
run into a barrier that has shattered the efforts of earlier immigrant groups; a lack of
effective labor unions. Employer opposition to Chicano unions became especially
frustrating in the 1930s and thereafter, when the labor movement in the United States
generally became quite effective. The antilabor stance by employers of Chicanos and
Mexican emigrants--especially in agriculture--increasingly seemed a glaring example of
In addition, Chicanos have suffered discrimination from American unions. Some of it has
been traditional labor objection to immigrant competition; some of it has been part of the
effort to restrict membership in craft unions. In 1946 the "Brotherhood" of
Railway Carmen only allowed Chicanos to work as common laborers on the Union Pacific. Some
unions, it is true, were more enlightened; the International Ladies Garment Workers Union
(ILGWU) in Los Angeles was an example, building on an enlightened tradition in the East
regarding immigrant workers.
After World II, Mexican-Americans elevated their complaints against such a condition
and the Chicano movement began in important measure as a demand for effective labor
organization and an end to exploitation. That was based not only on a sense of justice,
but on the Chicano's, belief that he was a harder worker than the Anglo. That was a jolt
for older Americans, who thought they had the original patent on the work ethic. Chicano
efforts could be discounted as "coolie" labor, but that did not explain why they
were so eager to move to skilled jobs and entrepreneurial activity.
So far as most job opportunities are concerned, significant of Mexican-American pay and
access has depended mostly upon their acculturation and assimilation. The civil rights
movement of the 1960s and 1970s gave them some assistance in legislation, court action,
and support by special groups and the public generally. Job discrimination was punished to
some extent; jobs given to disadvantaged minorities were valuable to employers either in
subsidies, in good will, or in government favor.
There was no evidence, however--nor could it be expected--that Chicanos improving their
occupational and pay status would use it primarily to support chicanismo. Nor would the
upwardly mobile Chicano form or join special chicano labor unions in competition with the
giants of the AFL-CIO or the Teamsters.
Chicanos in farm work were an exception. They often were immigrants, their work
seasonal. They did need special unions, because none existed. The farm workers were a
concentration of ill-paid persons, diffident and fearful, seldom more than feebly
acculturated to North America society, and were little able or willing to change their
status through acculturation.
They lacked support in American society, unlike the members craft and industrial
unions. It was a tougher situation than that faced by Chicanos wishing to join the
affiliates of the AFL-CIO. The problem of unionization of Mexican and Mexican-American
farm labor thus has come to stand for many Americans as the heart of the total Chicano
problem, which was far from the case.
Mexican-American farm unions, had an unsuccessful history for more than half a century
before the 1960s. But organizational costs were high since workers were scattered and
often migratory. Low wages contributed to a vicious circle of inability to contribute to
union funds and union inability to work effectively because of poverty. In addition, there
were many potential strikebreakers in a poor population, either in the United States or in
nearby Mexico. Labor solidarity could not be expected under such conditions unless some
overwhelming spiritual inducement could be found--possibly in inspired leadership.
Furthermore, anti-union sentiment was strong in the Southwest, where labor organization
generally proceeded more slowly than elsewhere. Law enforcement agencies listened to the
employers, so that even association with union organizers was dangerous. The press
generally was ignorant or biased against the farm workers of the Southwest. Even the
provisions of federal labor law militated against successful organization among the farm
laborers, who were excluded from coverage under the great labor reform legislation of the
1930s that set up the National Labor Relations Board. The result was that farmers were not
required to recognize unions as bargaining agents, and only feeble instruments existed to
use against farmers who engaged in unfair labor practices.
Organization of Mexican-American farm labor became more feasible in the 1960s for all
of the reasons that led to the birth of the general Chicano movement then. In addition,
agriculture was less important than before to the industrializing Southwest, so that farm
pressure on government was somewhat lessened. The new labor movement captured the
imagination of many Americans because Chávez, its most prominent figure, had that
charisma then a staple of journalistic interpretation. Still, it often met with violence.
In the late 1960s strikers were even arrested for praying in public!
In Chávez's grape workers strike in 1965, most of the big wine companies, owning huge
vineyards, soon came to terms with the United Farm Workers; but the producers of table
grapes did not. The boycott of the consumption of table grapes became a popular move in
some civil rights and intellectual circles. Such sympathy was encouraged by the fact that
then-California governor Ronald Reagan was a prominent conservative, so that to some
observers the treatment of the UFW was part of a reactionary offensive on the West Coast.
The California media often were quite unfair to the UFW in their treatment of the strike;
but the movement did have press partisans in that state and elsewhere. The usual charges
appeared that the UFW was "communist-inspired" or "-connected." That
reinforced the view of some persons that a "McCarthyite" conspiracy existed
against the UFW.
When the table-grape growers signed with the UFW in 1970, union members and supporters
overestimated the effect on farm labor generally. The UFW received much aid from the
AFL-CIO, but before long it faced a serious threat from the ambitious International
Brotherhood of Teamsters, which had broken from the AFL-CIO. The Teamsters set out to
capture control of the farm laborers, and Chávez spent years trying to hold together a
part of the UFW against the giant Teamster organization. He eventually succeeded, and in
the later 1970s the Teamsters abandoned their efforts.
By that time, however, the Chávez activity had diminished against the background of
the much wider Chicano and civil rights movements. The 30,000 members of the UFW, plus
their families, represented but a fraction of the Mexican-American community. Chávez set
out to improve the efficiency of the UFW and to expand his operations. The temper of the
times seemed favorable. Even "undocumented" Mexicans in the United States were
becoming more militant. Many of the members of the UFW in the lettuce fields of the torrid
Imperial Valley of California, near the Mexican border, were aliens-some commuting
residents of Mexico-when on January 15, 1979 Chávez struck the lettuce fields.
It was the peak of the harvest season, so Chávez judged that a strike against eight
(later eleven) of the twenty-eight major growers would force some to give in. That had
happened in other strikes. It did not happen in this case. Chávez asked various sorts of
compensation improvements of 40 percent and more; the owners offered 11 percent. Lettuce
growers hired what they called "replacement workers," and the UFW called
strikebreakers. The UFW members on the seventeen farms not declared closed by the union
continued to work. The 4,300 UFW members on the strike naturally tried to prevent the use
of the new workers. The owners tried to get the lettuce out, and some of them predictably
hinted that a "revolution" was being planned by the UFW. There was no sign of
that in Chávez's past record or in his present effort to raise the basic hourly wage of
$3.70 for stoop labor.
Tension mounted, there was threat of violence, and finally on February 10, a UFW
member, a citizen of Mexicali, Mexico, was fatally shot in a clash over replacement
workers. Although law enforcement personnel were increased after that, the growers failed
in their effort to get California governor Jerry Brown to send in the National Guard.
So the immediate strike was "lost," and the price of a head of lettuce went
over one dollar to the consumer, a small matter compared with the price inflation for many
items more critical and expensive. The growers, not the workers, gained.
The strike once again demonstrated the fact that foreign labor was being used in the
country regularly and that it was available for strikebreaking. (By this time, some labor
unions were cooperating with the Border Patrol in trying to control illegal immigration
from Mexico.) A little calculation also indicated that a Mexican commuter might make on
the order of $1,000 in a month or six weeks of labor in the lettuce fields of the Imperial
Valley, a return immensely greater than could be gained for comparable (or most other)
labor in Mexico. That dramatically indicated the difficulty of preventing illegal
If it could not be prevented, what served the growth of agricultural unions? At least,
illegal immigration was more nearly a national issue than previously; possibly that would
force a new approach to the problem.
One sign of the new importance of agriculture in California and national politics came
in December 1979. The United Farm Workers union reached its first agreement with a grower
that month after an eleven-month strike, with the state governor's office aiding in the
process. Governor Jerry Brown was, at the time, a candidate for the Democratic party's
School and Culture
Mexican-Americans have been badly disadvantaged in terms of education. The Coleman
report of 1966 found achievement levels of Mexican-American children more than three grade
levels below whites of the urban northeast. They had poor schools, equipment, and
teaching. The pupils suffered various physical and psychological problems due to poverty,
prejudice, and discrimination and had to study what was essentially for many a foreign
language. And Mexican-Americans were poorly prepared to meet such challenges. They came
from a folk culture of illiterates in rural Mexico, so that home life and tradition urged
schooling somewhat less strongly than with many Europeans. Chicano children, furthermore,
often were needed as workers and were kept from school for that reason.
Much of the educational deficiency was due, however, to school segregation. As with
blacks, Chicanos were segregated in schools for various reasons. This segregation went
hand-in-hand with inferior facilities, partly a matter of penny-pinching by Anglos; but
the latter also said that Chicano kids were stupid and would hold back and contaminate
Anglos. Mexican-Americans and civil rights advocates in general opposed this segregation
both for pedagogical reasons and because of the social effects of the practice. Some court
rulings following World War II chipped at the practice. A great victory occurred in 1970
when a court held in Texas that Chicanos were a class covered by the famous Brown v.
Board of Education of Topeka ruling (1954), which dealt with segregation of
black children and held that such segregation by race, color, origin, or ethnic
characteristics was prohibited. A court decision did not end segregated Mexican-American
schools overnight, just as it had not done so with black schools.
Many Chicano children have had trouble with schooling in English, because Spanish has
persisted more than most tongues brought by immigrants--partly because Mexican-Americans
lived so much in isolation, partly because continuing immigration kept their numbers high.
The large demand for Spanish language facilities is indicated by the existence of dozens
of Spanish-language radio stations in the border states of the United States and by
Spanish-language programs on TV in the Southwest. By 1978 Mexican-Americans in the Los
Angeles school system outnumbered either Anglos or blacks, and half the kindergarten
children spoke Spanish as their first language.
A pungent story illustrates the difficulties faced in the long Anglo effort to suppress
Spanish in the schools. A little Chicano boy, as the story goes, asked the teacher in
Spanish for permission to go to the toilet. The teacher insisted that he ask in English,
and he kept squirming with his need and persisting in Spanish. Finally he said, "If
you don't let me go, maybe I piss on your shoes."
So bilingualism was offered as a solution to the problem. It is claimed it would
improve the general knowledge of Anglos and Chicanos, and teach a second language to both
groups, valuable to individuals and to the nation. But there is argument over the idea.
One group thinks it would be divisive and weakening to the nation, citing the nearby
example of Quebec province , where the French-language issue has been entangled in
arguments as to the political and economic relationship of the province with the rest of
Canada. Another group wants bilingual schooling primarily to preserve Spanish, thus
providing a Hispanic cultural enclave in the United States--exactly what some people fear.
The middle ground is occupied by those who say bilingual education would enrich the
general culture, promote cultural pluralism, aid in the social adjustment of
Spanish-speaking children, stop the penalization of Chicano children on IQ tests because
such tests are given in a "foreign language," eliminate school dropouts due to
lack of English, and help Chicanos in their search for employment. But the heart of the
moderate argument is that bilingual education would aid in the learning process of all
subjects, including English. The New York Times in a March 1978 editorial put it
somewhat differently by stating that the intended purpose of bilingual education was
"to hasten the transition from a foreign language to mastery of English." That,
of course, raised the hackles of Chicanos who objected to Anglo cultural imperialism.
Some suggestions damage the idea of bilingualism. The most damaging asserts the
possibility of more than one official language. The obvious difficulty is that people
resist the idea in all countries, and it seldom has worked even moderately well when
tried. There also is resistance to praise of "Pocho"--a mixture of Spanish and
English--on the same grounds as rejection of praise for the spread of the black ghetto
dialect as a "real language." There is little encouragement in vague Chicano
claims that they were creating "our language," with influence from "the
natural habitat." Nor can people take seriously the view that a Spanish accent in
English is as acceptable as, for example, Senator Edward Kennedy's New England accent. One
wonders what the Spanish Academy would think of that principle applied to Spanish. .
In 1967 there were only a few bilingual programs in the United States, but by 1969
federal money was going to some 300, teaching Spanish to English speakers and English to
Spanish speakers. The government budgeted $150 million for 1979 for 564 bilingual
education projects, enrolling 253,000 students, mostly Spanish speakers. Bilingual classes
in Dade County (Miami), Florida, had considerable success, expressed in high school
graduations and college enrollment. By the early 1970s the Los Angeles Police Department
required police cadets to study Spanish. New York City and other municipalities have had
similar programs affecting specialized personnel. It also has become common in some areas
to post important signs and other public notices in both languages.
Critics have said that many of the bilingual programs are poorly conceived and badly
executed. The evidence available merely suggests that the programs are not an automatic
and universal panacea. The U.S. Office of Education, using 1975-1976 data, in 1979 found
the programs of doubtful use. Supporters of the programs have said that it is too early to
judge. Intuitively, it does seem reasonable that a reduction of language difficulty-if it
is achieved-should improve learning. In any event, no public program of such size, and
directed to the needs of the disadvantaged poor, will disappear in a flash. And even if
its service to learning has proved modest, it has probably lifted the morale of Spanish
speakers and led to better performance in English eventually. Surely, it has broadened the
horizons of the English-speaking children who became involved. Experiment with bilingual
education continued, as did controversy as to its justice and value. Even some Hispanic
immigrants considered it the wrong way to attack the problem.
Many special training programs have been created to improve the learning and skills of
Chicanos. Chávez gave training to his organizers. The Salinas, California, school board
in the later 1970s supported a program, "English on Wheels," to teach farm
workers better English for specific practical purposes. All sorts of student organizations
were set up, with cultural and social programs with a Mexican-American orientation. The
enthusiasm of Chicano youth for this development was expressed in March 1968 when some Los
Angeles high school students struck for a larger Chicano content in the curriculum.
Misguided arrests of student leaders for "conspiracy" to impede the educational
process scarcely accomplished more than an increase in demands for "community
control" of the schools.
Universities have scoured the country for Chicano (and black and female) students and
faculty, also founding Chicano studies programs, with the mixture of useful and dubious
results noted of Black Studies programs. There certainly is support for a balanced view of
the cultural heritage students and of the United States, but how to define it? Regional
peculiarities in the teaching of history, for example, have long been evident. There has
been complaint that Chicano studies do not lead to jobs, but partisans believe it more
important to foster pride in Chicanos and to sensitize the American public to their
heritage. Attacks on the programs, therefore, have been ascribed to prejudice, as when Dr.
Jesús Chavarría, founder at the University of California (Santa Barbara) of the first
Chicano studies program in the country, was denied tenure in 1976.
The growth and new self-assertiveness of the Mexican-American community even seems to
have affected the Roman Catholic Church. When in 1972 the First Encuentro of Hispanic
Catholics in the United States was held, there was only one Hispanic bishop in the
country; when the Second Encuentro was held in 1977, there were eight. Some groups in the
church in the United States have fostered improvements in the lives of Mexican-Americans,
and individual churchmen have even promoted chicanismo. But it does not seem likely that
Mexican-American ideas or tactics will be much affected by the church.
Home and Social Life
Although Chicano militants have asserted the fundamental differences between the social
life of their community and that of Anglos, there is some doubt about specifics. That
Mexican- Americans are family-oriented is an old staple of discussion. Such an orientation
is based partly on peasant tradition, promoted by rural isolation and the usefulness of
children as workers. Family orientation also is promoted by the life of alienation and
oppression Mexican-Americans lead in the United States. But the size of Chicano families
has declined in the United States with urbanization and acculturation.
Chicano writers have also found proof of strong family affection in extended families
living under the same roof. But it gradually has become clear that such combinations often
were merely the result of poverty, because prosperous--and some not so
prosperous--Chicanos prefer one-family residence units. Even marriage ties outside the
group have become more common than some Chicano literature allows. Naturally, such
marriages most often occur with those culturally assimilated into the general society.
Segregated slum residence is a badge of the disadvantaged--sheds and tents in migrant
farm camps, shacks in the villages and on the Anglo commercial farms, ramshackle
apartments and huts in the barrios of Los Angeles and El Paso. A mountain of reports
describe the dirt, lack of hot water, outdoor privies, and mounds of garbage. A Chicano
writer has described the barrios as "pockets of poverty, tin-can alleys, and rat
nests." A University of Texas study in 1968 pointed out that half of the houses in
the lower Rio Grande Valley lacked plumbing or hot water-that is, they were like the
shacks just across the river in Mexico. The Chicano movement echoed the strictures of
earlier ghetto reformers against high rents for such slums.
Housing segregation is due not merely to poverty, but is imposed by Anglo determination
to keep the Chicanos away, except when working (sometimes) or when spending money in
certain types of Anglo business establishments. The usual rationalizations are offered:
Mexican-Americans prefer to live apart; they are poor because they are lazy, ill-educated,
and improvident; and besides, their lack of culture, bad habits, and dirt and disease must
not be allowed to contaminate the children and women of decent folk. .
But there is more to housing segregation than that. There sometimes is segregation
between foreign-born and American-born Mexican-Americans. And segregation between
Mexican-Americans and Anglos is not as great as that between Anglos and blacks.
Furthermore, segregation is based more on income level and social class than on an ethnic
So Mexican-Americans live in the barrios; those of Los Angeles by the end of the 1970s
contained 1.5 million people, possibly larger than any city In Mexico but the capital. In
Mexico, barrio has been a neutral name for city section; rich barrio, or poor; barrio
rico, barrio pobre. But in the United States it stood first for home, then meant
ghetto, and with the Chicano movement sometimes became "my turf, you bastards."
Mexican-Americans long have not drunk, worshiped, or danced with Anglos. Often they
could not eat in an Anglo cafe or buy cigarettes there. The civil rights movement weakened
but did not eradicate that type of segregation. Another type of segregation--in clubs and
associations--has weakened with acculturation and Mexican-American self-assertion.
Mexican-Americans long have had their own social, business, and religious associations.
But recently there has been some shift of Mexican-American from exclusively
Mexican-American to general American organized groups.
As with income improvement, pessimists see social integration far from being achieved,
and they are right; and optimists see it as having come a considerable way, and they are
Law Enforcement Agencies and Mexican-Americans
Unfair, sometimes brutal treatment by public authority is a major Mexican-American
complaint. The worst offenders are law enforcement officers, but they are backed by Anglo
judicial and other authority and public opinion. One abuse is preferential attention and
harassment: "What'r doin' here, bub?" The apprehension of illegal migrants is
constantly conducted in a heavy-handed way, interfering with the rights of
Mexican-Americans, who too often are harassed or illegally arrested. Labor conflicts often
bring a rush of attention from local and state police, sheriffs, and an assortment of
enthusiastic deputies. Attempts at labor organization in the Imperial Valley in the 1930s
brought violence. Mexican-Americans then, and on many other occasions, suffered arbitrary
arrests for the old standbys of police and judicial harassment: vagrancy, trespass,
disturbing the peace, loitering, resisting arrest. Employers and other supporters in the
Anglo community not only gave orders to the police but attempted some vigilante work of
their own, some of it through American Legion posts.
This ugly history was summed up in 1968 by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission as
"evidence of wide-spread patterns of police misconduct against Mexican-Americans in
the Southwest." That report, and the rest of the civil rights movement, did something
to correct the abuse; but it was far from eliminated.
Many sad cases occurred thereafter. In September 1975 Police Chief Frank Hayes of
Castroville, Texas, arrested twenty-six-old Richard Morales, a Chicano, on suspicion of
possessing stolen property. He took Morales to an isolated spot and shot him, by accident,
Hayes claimed. A jury of eleven whites and one black found Hayes guilty of aggravated
assault. He was sentenced to ten years, eligible for parole after twenty months. His wife,
accused of burying the body 400 miles from the crime, pleaded no contest to a charge of
tampering with evidence and was placed on probation for a year.
The Morales family lawyer said the case showed racial bias. In February 1977 the
Justice Department in Washington ordered an inquiry, which seemed to change the
department's practice of not prosecuting individuals for offenses already tried in a state
or local court, "unless the reasons are compelling." Up to 1977 they seldom had
been found compelling. But in September 1977, Hayes, his wife, and sister-in-law, were
convicted by a federal court of violating the victim's rights, the only charge the federal
government could make even though murder had occurred.
Joe Campos Torres, twenty-three, in 1978 was taken to a police station in Houston after
being beaten by police at an isolated spot. The sergeant refused to book Torres and
ordered him taken to a hospital. But he was later found drowned where he had been beaten.
Two of the police officers were convicted of negligent homicide--one-year sentence
suspended! The Justice Department in Washington said the sentence was inappropriately
mild. That by itself would do little to protect Mexican-Americans.
Mexican-Americans and Politics
It has always been obvious that the best road to improvement of Mexican-American life
was through politics. But to blast through the roadblocks erected by Anglos has required
self-assertion, organization, and courage. Such roadblocks included gerrymandering,
registration chicanery, intimidation at the polls, interference with meetings, and control
of the press. Those problems could not be handled by the early voluntary associations of
Mexican-Americans, which seldom had a political orientation before World War II.
Mexican-Americans lacked money to back political action, and they lacked influence in
economic and social life. In addition, Mexican-American strength was badly fragmented,
sometimes scarcely organized beyond the neighborhood. Mexican-Americans only became
evident as a national political factor during their 1960 "Viva Kennedy!" effort
and even then were not an impressive factor.
Many things have led eventually to a workable combination of the qualities needed for
movement of Mexican-Americans into politics: the civil rights movement, better education,
the Chicano movement, a better position in organized labor, and assimilation-all of which
have provided men and women of Mexican origins, some of them lawyers, who are capable of
dealing with Anglos on their own ground. Political activity also has been promoted
indirectly by President Carter's emphasis on international human rights, because it was
possible to point out contradictions between his human rights position and the treatment
of America's own "internal colony" of Mexican-Americans.
The results of Chicano political action have often been so poor as to be embarrassing,
and it has had to be explained that many Mexican-Americans are not citizens, or that many
are too young; but it is clear that many simply do not want to get involved. The problems
are not felt uniformly in all areas, so that generalization is difficult. But the increase
in citizenship and number of voters is bound to make it progressively more difficult for
Anglo politicians to ignore Mexican-Americans.
Many Mexican-American groups have played some role in American politics. The United
League of Latin American Citizens (LULAC) was founded in Texas in 1929 to defend itself
against Ku Klux Klan violence, emphasizing loyalty to the United States. After World War
II it enlarged its aims to include equality for Mexican-Americans, and it became a civil
rights organization; but it was not politically militant. In California, the
Mexican-American Political Association (MAPA), founded in 1958 to endorse candidates for
office, among other functions, had considerable influence. MECHA (Chicano Student Movement
of La Raza) engaged in some political action in several states. The Political Association
of Spanish-Speaking Organizations (PASSO) in the early 1960s elected a city government in
Crystal City, Texas, by joining with other groups, including the Teamsters Union and the
Bishops Committee for the Spanish-Speaking; but the Anglos soon regained control.
The Chávez United Farm Work in the 1970s mounted useful registration drives. A
promising organization was the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, based
in San Francisco. In 1973 Vilma Martínez, a law graduate (1967) of Columbia University,
became president and general counsel of the organization. She was a well-known
Mexican-American in the civil rights movement. Ms. Martinez took the view that with time
and education the influence of Mexican-Americans in politics was bound to rise. She
believed in working within the system, but not with humility.
La Raza Unida, of Texas, possibly the best-known Chicano political group, had limited
success in getting Mexican-Americans elected; but it helped politicize them. It got
control of Crystal City, Texas, and gained considerable publicity in 1977 when Crystal
City became the only community in the state to refuse outright to pay state-sanctioned
price increases for natural gas.
Some other potentially significant political groups drifted into blind alleys. Corky
González of Denver wanted power for his people, but there was no reason to suppose his
so-called "nation" of Aztlán ever would exist in a meaningful way. Nor did the
future seem promising for López Tejerina of New Mexico and his idea of "free
towns." It was not helpful to his chances for political influence in the United
States when the Mexican leftist magazine Proceso stated (February 6, 1978) that
López Tejerina called the "frontier of the United States a future war zone" in
the independence movement.
The small crops of electoral offices reaped disappointed Mexican-American political
leaders. In California, for example, the large Mexican-American population could not win a
state office for their candidates, while blacks, fewer in number, could. But all blacks
are citizens, while many Mexican-Americans are not; and many more Mexican-Americans than
blacks are too young to vote.
Mexican-Americans elected their first member to the Los Angeles City Council in 1949
but in 1979 had no members on that body. In 1964 they elected their first mayor in the
state, and in 1973 their first state senator. The possibilities of local action were seen
when the city council of little Parlier, California, refused to appoint a Chicano police
chief in 1971, whereupon aroused Chicanos won control of the city council the next year.
Less publicized but indicative of grass-roots progress was the fact that Mexican-Americans
elected their first member of a school board in California in 1953 and by 1978 had 120
seats on California school boards.
Mexican-Americans have traditionally comprised a larger percentage of the population in
New Mexico than in California. There were two Mexican-American national senators from New
Mexico, one in the 1930s and 1940s and one in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1970s the first
Mexican-American in half a century was elected governor of New Mexico. At the same time,
another was elected governor of Arizona. Also revealing of changing conditions was the
election of five Mexican-Americans to the eleven-member San Antonio, Texas, city council
Since the Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that at-large representatives (as opposed to
single-member districts) in states, cities, and school districts discriminated against
minorities, a quiet revolution has been going on in various places. In parts of Texas it
has meant the election of much larger numbers of Mexican-Americans and blacks.
Although such victories were far from giving Mexican-Americans their proportionate
share of office, they showed that there was no reason to despair. The new day seemed
especially marked by the appointment in 1977 of Leonel J. Castillo as the first
Mexican-American chief of the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service, an agency
long disliked by many Mexican-Americans.
These gains may prove to be short-lived, however, for, in April 1980, a U.S. Supreme
Court decision overturned a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that at-large elections were an
unconstitutional barrier to black political participation. This Supreme Court decision was
at once widely interpreted to permit a return to at-large elections where district
elections had been substituted under court order.
Mexican-Americans as a Bridge
Can Mexican-Americans serve as a bridge to Mexico, or even to Spanish America
generally? Some of them claim that their cultural background fits them for such a role. A
group of nine Mexican-American leaders apparently had something a bit different in mind
when they met with Mexico's President López Portillo in January 1978 and offered to lobby
for Mexico against President Carter's proposal to control illegal Mexican immigration.
López Portillo praised the Mexican-American movement but declined to interfere in the
internal affairs of the United States. A member of the delegation reportedly said on that
occasion that Mexico should "use us as Israel uses American Jews," and as
"Italy uses Italian-Americans."
That suggested a problem of divided loyalties. Even more damaging to the bridge idea,
however, was the historical record of immigrant groups in the United States: with few
exceptions, they had not been a vital factor as bridge homelands. Neither strategic nor
economic decisions usually have been much affected by ethnic group pressures, although
much ostentatious attention has been paid to their opinions
A less ambitious "bridge" notion is that a more prosperous, better educated,
and more influential Mexican-American community would improve the Mexican--and Spanish
American--view of the United States. No one can guess how much--if any--affect that will
have on great affairs of state.
Another claim is that the influence of a better-treated Mexican-American community on
United States culture would improve American ability to understand the Hispanic world. The
results of that also are difficult to estimate.
What led Governor Jerry Brown of California in the late 1970s to declare his
understanding that Mexico and the United States were "inextricably linked" and
that disasters to one had to be felt by the other? Some role must be assigned the fact
that he has had a large Mexican-American constituency. It also appears that he had high
hopes of siphoning Mexican oil into California. Critics point out that he seemed to be
encroaching on the foreign relations field reserved to the federal government. Other
commentators say that the governor apparently was willing to move from the state to the
federal sphere of activity.
One outcome is certainly conceivable: if Mexican immigration continues at a high rate
and assimilation slows appreciably, the Mexican-American community might become a bridge
carrying serious discontent between the countries. If that happens, they would be part of
a "special relation" or "bridge" that no sensible person wants to
1997: Anti-immigration sentiment increased during the 1980s and 1990s, fueled in part
by economic difficulties in the United States and in Mexico and by right-wing governments
in the United States. Mexican-American views of this phenomenon can be found through the Immigration Section of the Azteca
Web Page.. In particular, see "Despite High Levels of
Poverty, Latino Immigrants Less Likely to use Welfare."
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