Forty Acres: Cesar Chavez and the Farm Workers
The Life Story of the Mexican Immigrant
Grito!: Reies Tijerina and the New Mexico Land Grant War of 1967
The Mexican-American People, The Nation’s Second Largest Minority
So Shall Ye Reap: The Story of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Workers’ Movement
The Chicanos: Mexican American Voices
Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution
North from Mexico: The Spanish-speaking People of the United States
The Chicanos: A History of Mexican Americans
Pain and Promise: The Chicano Today
The Chicano: From Caricature to Self-Portrait
Aztlán: An Anthology of Mexican American Literature
Seventy years ago there were no “Mexican Americans.” There were people in the Southwest who were somehow both from Mexico and natives of the United States. But in the view of the regular Americans who knew them best, the transplanted Easterners, Midwesterners, Southerners, Irish, Italians, Jews, and Chinese busy Americanizing the Southwest, and the Negroes serving them, these people did not belong there as Americans. They were “Spaniards” if they were prosperous and pale, and “greasers” or “spics” or “Mexicans” if they were poor and brown.
In their own view these people did not belong in America either. The “Spaniards” deliberately performed as noble exotics in the most pretentious California cities. The “greasers” only reversed the terms of exoticism. The regular Americans were all anglos or gringos or gabachos to them, except for the negritos. As for themselves, they were tejanos, hispanos, pochos, mexicanos, cholos, la raza. Bunched in little communities scattered throughout the Southwest, Catholics whom regular American Catholics despised, speaking dialects of Spanish no longer if ever heard in Spain, Mexican provincials in their courtesies and food, they were born aliens—a conquered people who could not give in.
Until 1836 the Southwest from Texas to the Pacific had been Mexican territory. By 1848, after American subversion and invasion, it had become US territory, and the 75,000 Mexican citizens there had become US charges. The treaty ending the war had assigned them full title to their property and made all who stayed American citizens. But as regular Americans settled in the newly acquired territory, the ruthless among them freely cheated and killed the newly adopted citizens. After railroads linked the Southwest into national markets in the 1880s, regular Americans flooded into the territory, seized the land they wanted, and drove all the conquered families they needed onto the new cotton plantations and into the new copper mines. Only in New Mexico had the conquering Americans compromised, dealing with a few formidably entrenched native families to exploit the others.
The conquered protested their degradation. Some resorted to the courts, in vain. Others went against the law, like the bandits who had terrorized California in the 1850s and the Lower Rio Grande during the 1860s and 1870s. Others went beyond the law, like the cowboys who had joined the Knights of Labor in Texas in the 1880s or the sheepmen who had organized the Gorras Blancas in New Mexico to fight for the range in the 1890s.
But these protests failed. By the turn of the century, of the 100,000 souls the conquered then numbered, probably only a tenth were in families in town, surviving on little businesses and handiwork and a few years of schooling—enough people to support forty-odd Southwestern newspapers in Spanish, but all confined in every town to the wards the regular Americans called “Mextown.” The rest were not only humiliated, dispossessed, and impoverished, without skills they could sell dear, but isolated out in the sticks—on ranches lost in the South Texas chaparral, on plantations marooned on the central Texas Black Waxy, in villages hidden in the wooded hollows of northern New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, in mining camps tiered up Arizona’s bare and baking Gila Hills, on the big farms and orchards and vineyards fenced into California’s San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys, in boxcar barracks stationed along the railroad tracks, always on the wrong side, from Chicago through Kansas City to Houston and Santa Fe, from New Orleans through El Paso to Los Angeles and San Francisco. Kept apart, the conquered kept to themselves, cherishing their religion, language, manners, and tastes, the estrangements that were their consolations.
Consolidating the conquest was the Reclamation Act of 1902, which provided federal funds for irrigation in the Southwest. Bankers now began financing regular American farmers to produce fruit and vegetables for back East and up North. In Texas the lucky farmers promptly drafted local conquered families for migrant labor in their “winter gardens”; when they needed labor dirt-cheap, they had enganchistas (contractors) recruit it from across the Big River. In Golden California they became “growers” in the “agribusiness,” but reduced local conquered families to migrants and resorted to enganchistas too.
In 1910 a revolt broke out in Mexico. At first only an overthrow of seven-term President Porfirio Díaz, it soon exploded into a revolution that lasted a decade. In its course it destroyed the bonds of hundreds of thousands of peons and uprooted villagers even in remote mountains. Most joined revolutionary or counter-revolutionary armies roaming through their country. But in the northern provinces thousands every month escaped farther north, across the open frontier or past the guards at Eagle Pass, Laredo, El Paso, Nogales, and so into this amazingly foreign country, where big pinkish men laughed out loud, spat in public, and wore their hats indoors, where ladies as creamy as the Virgin were wives to such men, rode bicycles for fun, and did their own shopping, where black men and women boldly half-rendered services to them, where one never inquired after another’s family, deferred to elders, or begged permission to leave a room, and where the national saint was a furious San Afabichi.
The refugees immediately took shelter in local communities of the conquered. There they learned the ropes of the new country and how much their work would be worth here—not much, but more than at home. There they also picked up a nickname, given in sympathy and exasperation, Chicano.
From 1910 to 1920 probably 800,000 Mexicans entered the United States. During the 1920s, while Congress restricted immigration from Europe and Asia, probably 1.5 million entered the country. Many came only to hurry back to Mexico. But many stayed to work in the booms of World War I and Normalcy. Dreaming year after year of the return home, refusing to naturalize as US citizens, they forged lives out of expatriation.
By 1930 the natives of this country whom census officials then called “of Mexican race,” greatly reinforced by the Chicanos, numbered probably two million. Maybe 100,000 were off in cities like Detroit or Chicago, working in plants and mills with immigrants from other countries, becoming regular immigrants themselves, and so regular Americans. But almost all the rest were still in the Southwest, probably a tenth of them hanging on in Mextowns, but the huge majority still out in the fields and mines and on the roads, still working in gangs almost exclusively with their own kind at the lowest wages in dead-end labor, housed in camps segregated from regular Americans, “white” and “Negro,” their children begrudged a few weeks of school a year, forever on the move and forever hungry. There was then a regular joke about “the Mexican breakfast: a cigarette and a piss.”
The struggle against contempt and exploitation never died. In South Texas border towns the local notables of “Mexican race” rallied in a euphemistic League of United Latin-American Citizens (LULAC) “to develop within the members of our race the best, purest, and most perfect type of a true and loyal citizen of the United States of America.” In Southern California migrant workers organized a Confederación de Uniones Obreras Mexicanas and staged strikes in the Imperial Valley in 1928 and 1930. But the tougher the fights, the uglier the defeats—though LULAC citizened along, the Confederación was busted with tear gas and clubs.
The Great Depression was a special trial for the “Mexican race” in America. It devastated the small businesses in the Mextowns. And jobless families that went on relief infuriated their regular American neighbors, who often had officials deport them to Mexico. Officially the program was “repatriation.” It really was that, when the deportees were Chicanos. It was exile, however, for those “Mexican” by “race” but American by birth. Beginning in Los Angeles, the deportations eventually reached as far as Detroit and altogether involved probably 500,000 people, probably half of them American citizens.
Families lucky enough to hold jobs during the Depression joined unions in droves, especially in California, and contributed mightily to the strikes in the cities and on the big farms and mines throughout the West in the mid-1930s. But they lost out too—the unions retreated or were busted, the strikes were broken, and the leaders of “Mexican race,” whether or not they were US citizens, were deported. As an officer of the law in the San Joaquin Valley said, “We protect our farmers…. They are our best people. They are always with us. They keep the country going…. But the Mexicans are trash. They have no standard of living. We herd them like pigs.”
By 1940 there were 2.5 million people in the Southwest whom the census officials now defined as “Spanish-speaking.” Though they were twenty-five times as many as the conquered people at the turn of the century, they had gained nothing on regular Americans. The 150,000 congregated in Los Angeles were still in a ramshackle Mextown on the east side. The millions who remained out in the sticks were still almost all without property or valuable skills and dismally poor. Still Catholics, still speaking Spanish at home, still Mexican in their manners and tastes, they still kept intensely to themselves. Only in New Mexico, where Republican and Democratic bosses had long manipulated them, did they vote and hold office. Elsewhere they usually could not even register, or would not, for voting or for New Deal welfare, because they feared the registries might go to the Immigration Service for more deportations. The strongest political surge among them was Sinarquismo, Mexican fascism, whose apostles reminded them of “the sorrowful and magnificent…land of their ancestors,” which might be the Southwest or Mexico but was not the United States.
The first good chances for these people to get in on America opened only during World War II, which made masses of them valuable for more than common labor. And the chances had many takers, starting on December 8, 1941, when “Spanish-speaking” New Mexico National Guardsmen began defending Bataan. Some 400,000 eventually served in the army, navy, marines, and air force, in all theaters of the war. Hundreds of thousands of others streamed into California’s cities, to work in the new defense plants or in the construction, services, and vices then booming there. They too had to live in Mextowns. But they made them into barrios, neighborhoods, and sent the kids regularly to school.
Their breaks infuriated regular Californians. And after “relocating” the “Japanese,” the Sons of the Golden West took aim at the “Spanish-speaking.” Around Los Angeles they concentrated on the kids they called “zoot-suiters,” the boys in the barrios who boogied in the drapes (from Harlem), ambled like pachucos (El Paso hoods), and sported duck-tail haircuts (which they invented). And when the “zoot-suiters” began jiving downtown, tangling with the servicemen there, the reaction was what regular Angelenos called “a lesson.” For a week in June, 1943, “zoot-suiters”—and hundreds of other men and women who dutifully worked for a living, paid their bills, and prayed for the Allies, and children who dutifully attended school and pledged their allegiance, all normally dressed and most fluent in English, but all obviously “Spanish-speaking” (as well as scores of “Negroes”)—went down bloody in the streets under rampaging regular soldiers, sailors, marines, policemen, and civilians. The arrests were of the victims, the publicity by the criminals, whose incantation of “Zoot-Suit Riots” passed for the truth for years.