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Cultural Diversity, Breaking Barriers, & Racist Micro Aggressions
Ironically, the Mexican-Americans who first encountered prejudice in the Southwest were not latecomers; they were descendants of the region’s first European settlers. In 1598, the Spanish explorer Don Juan de Oñate led a band of four hundred men, women, and children across the Rio Grande into a territory he called New Mexico. (Today this region is made up of the states of Texas, California, New Mexico, and Arizona as well as parts of Colorado, Utah, and Nevada.) Descendants of this group and other Spanish-speaking settlers farmed and ranched undisturbed in the area for more than two hundred years before English-speaking settlers from the United States arrived.
Anti-Mexican feelings in the United States were fueled by incidents such as the siege of the Alamo, in which Americans were killed defending a fort in Texas, which had declared itself independent from Mexico. After the United States annexed Texas, border disputes led to the Mexican War, fought from 1846 to 1848, and wartime patriotic feeling in the United States further hardened anti-Mexican attitudes. At the end of the war, a defeated Mexico signed the vast region over to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The treaty guaranteed the people of the former Mexican territory United States citizenship, property rights, and religious freedom.
But the Mexicans were soon overwhelmed by advancing tides of English-speaking settlers, who arrived in California during the gold rush of the 1850s and elsewhere in the Southwest after the building of the transcontinental railway in the 1860s. The Mexicans became a barely tolerated minority, and bit by bit they lost their rights. Through threats, legal trickery, and outright theft, they also lost their land.
Mexicans largely retreated to small mountain villages, where they lived in poverty and held on to their traditional language and customs. They might have remained a small and nearly forgotten minority were it not for events of the early twentieth century. From 1900 to about 1920, Mexico was torn by social and political strife. Hundreds of thousands of its people fled north, crossing the border legally or illegally to search for a better life in the United States. By this time, agriculture in the Southwest had expanded to the point where large numbers of ranch hands and field workers were required. The railroads were also expanding and needed unskilled laborers to lay track.
Like the Asian immigrants, Mexicans took work as low-paid contract laborers, moving from job to job. Some returned to Mexico during slow periods when work was hard to find and then re-crossed the border when jobs were available again. Eventually, many settled in cities in the United States, especially Los Angeles, where they lived in slum areas called barrios. From California and the Southwest, they gradually moved into the Midwest and other areas of the country, taking jobs in factories, construction, and other fields.
This vast influx led to a rising tide of anti-Mexican feeling, and the stereotype of the dirty, lazy, irresponsible Mexican began to arise. The effects of the prejudice were devastating for immigrants. Contractors often thought nothing of cheating them out of their wages. Violence broke out in Texas and other areas of the West and Southwest where “Anglos” (English speaking people) feared the immigrants would undermine society. One of the hottest points of controversy was education.
Many Anglos felt that Mexican children should be separated from white children or perhaps not be educated at all. As one farmer put it, “Mexicans. . . don’t want responsibility, they want just to float along, sing songs, smoke cigarettes. Education doesn’t make them any happier. . . . It only makes them dissatisfied.”
Meanwhile, Mexicans were slow to adopt American ways, for several reasons. Their homeland was nearby, and most kept in contact with relatives there. Many crossed and re-crossed the border repeatedly. All of these things made it easy for them to maintain their traditional language and customs. But these differences only fed the prejudice they encountered.
By the late 1920s, growing feeling against the Mexicans led some people to press for tighter restrictions on immigration. Illegal entry was made a criminal offense, and a border patrol was established to check the flow of “wetbacks” (so named because they waded across the Rio Grande). But Congress did not limit or halt legal Mexican immigration, in large part because farmers who testified to their need for cheap labor managed to block the move. Many farmers said they preferred Mexican labor. According to one, “A nigger is unappreciative. A Mexican is just like a dog; slap him and he’ll lick your hand.” Said another, “I do not want to see the condition arise again when white men who are reared and educated in our schools have got to bend their backs and skin their fingers” doing field work.
When the Great Depression of the l930s began, Mexicans were at the bottom of society in terms of jobs and income. When jobs became scarce, competition for them got fierce, and it was usually the Mexicans who lost out. Employers adopted new policies, hiring only white workers. Thus many Mexicans were forced to go on welfare. And to cut its welfare costs and reduce the number of surplus workers, the United States government began an exportation program, shipping Mexican workers indiscriminately back to their home villages. The situation was no better there—Mexico also suffered a depression.
Mexican-Americans who remained in the
United States' continued to be treated as foreigners, even though they were
first was the Sleepy Lagoon incident of 1942, in which a Mexican youth was beaten
to death by unknown assailants in Los Angeles. A group of Mexicans was arrested
for the crime, and at the group’s trial the prosecution leaned heavily on
the idea that Mexicans generally had an uncontrollable desire to kill, stemming
from their Aztec Indian blood. The argument convinced the jury, and the Mexicans
were convicted on circumstantial evidence. Their conviction was later overturned,
but the following year riots broke out between bands of Mexican-American youths
and Anglos. Called the “zoot-suit riots” (for the outlandish suits
popular among tough adolescents in the 1940s), these incidents whipped up anti-Mexican
Underpaid and surrounded by prejudice and antipathy, Mexican-Americans began to organize labor unions and social-action groups. When the bra cero program ended in the l960s, they began to demand the pay white workers would receive. The result was strikes, including the grape-pickers strike in 1965 led by labor leader Cesar Chavez. Riding the wave of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, other Mexican-Americans began to press claims for lost land and to seek an end to discrimination. Their struggle became known as the Chicano movement (an alteration of the Spanish word mejicano, meaning Mexican).
These civil rights efforts met with mixed success. Despite some initial victories, for example, the farm workers’ movement failed to take firm root. Nevertheless, Mexican-Americans gradually found more opportunities in education and employment, and they advanced in business, politics, and professions such as law and medicine.
Meanwhile, the number of Mexican-Americans in the United States increased dramatically, from more than eight million in 1980 to more than thirteen million in 1990. The increase was greatest in the cities of the Southwest. The Latino population of the Dallas—Fort Worth area doubled during the decade, while that of Los Angeles grew by nearly 75 percent. The increase was due to several factors, including a tradition of large families with many children and a wave of new immigrants who entered the country both legally and illegally Figures compiled by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service showed that nearly 1.7 million legal immigrants arrived from Mexico during the 1980s, at least triple the number of immigrants from any other country Two-thirds of them actually entered the country illegally but were granted legal status under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.
growth in the Mexican-American population came at a time when the U.S. economy
was flagging; California was hit especially hard, and many people were either
out of work or worried about keeping their jobs. That contributed to resentment
of new Mexican immigrants, who were seen as taking jobs away, and also made it
more difficult for Mexican-Americans to advance in terms of income. It’s
difficult to compare statistics on Mexican-American incomes with statistics for
the total population of the United States because, as a group, Mexican Americans
are younger than average and would therefore be expected to earn less. Many are
also first- or second-generation immigrants who are struggling to get established.
On the whole, though, Mexican-Americans earn less than whites and, therefore,
continue to face a disadvantage.
Mexican Americans: A Brief Look at their History
- Nava, J. (n.d.). Mexican Americans: A Brief Look at their History. Washington, D.C.: Office of Education, Department of Health, Education & Welfare. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED040134.pdf
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