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A Special Supplement: The Chicanos

But inexorably chances multiplied for “Spanish-speaking” Southwesterners to break into America. The maintenance of twenty-odd military bases in the region after the war, the vigorous military recruitment there for the Korean war, the boom of the California defense plants into full-fledged cold war industries, the burgeoning of cold war industriettes in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, and the proliferation of freeways, motels, shopping centers, and housing “developments”—all this was the biggest bonanza ever in the land of bonanzas.

The cushiest new tricks went to the pinkish tycoons already on the scene or swarming in from back East. And the sweatiest and filthiest drags went to the “Negroes” and the “Spanish-speaking,” the locals and the hopeful multitudes whom the enganchistas were bringing in from Mexico’s poorest provinces, legally on permanent visas or as braceros under the new Public Law 78, illegally as mojados (wetbacks in American). But so open now were the Southwestern markets that barrio lawyers were developing into real estate brokers, and keepers of corner stores into proprietors of department stores. Such was the need for workers that pickers and packers in the agri-business were graduating to changing tires at a Sears garage or sheets at a Holiday Inn, maybe to a shift at a Ford plant or the sales staff at a J. C. Penney’s. And such was the corruption that hoods were swelling into racketeers. Anyway the “Spanish-speaking” were fast getting into regular Southwestern occupations and company. Already by 1950 the census officials had tellingly redefined them as only “Spanish-surnamed.”

The humiliations went on—police invasions of family parties, municipal swimming pools open to them only once a week (the same day as for “Negroes,” the day before the pool was cleaned), their children smacked for speaking Spanish at school and given new Christian names by the teachers (Jesús mutated into Jesse, Magdalena into Maggie). Dispossession went on as garnishments, foreclosures, attachments, and eminent-domain expropriations. Poverty remained the classic beginning, and not far from the classic end. Exclusion to Mextown continued, to the west side in San Antonio, East El Paso, South Barelas in Albuquerque, Maravilla, the Heights, Chavez Ravine, and the dozen other barrios in the now enormous colonial city of East Los Angeles. And politics still offered more frustration than relief. New Mexico kept an assortment of “Spanish surnames” in its legislature and congressional delegation. But Texas allowed only one in its legislature, and Arizona and California allowed none anywhere. And harassment from the federal government resumed in “Operation Wetback,” in effect to deport any “Spanish-surnamed” nuisance who could not immediately show US citizenship or the resources for a bribe.

Most disappointed were the veterans, who learned on their return from war that even “Spanish-surnamed” buddies killed in action could not be respectably buried in the hometown cemetery, and that their own medals, honorable discharges, and GI benefits were often not enough to get them into a regular American bar, much less into a subdivision of “prestige ranchettes on low FHA.”

But by 1960, because of the bonanza, most of the four million “Spanish-surnamed” then in the Southwest had worked their way deep into America. Through the Community Services Organization (CSO), founded in California in 1947 “to promote the general welfare in the Spanish-speaking neighborhoods,” and the GI Forum, founded in Texas in 1948 “to foster and perpetuate the principles of American democracy based on religious and political freedom for the individual and equal opportunity for all,” the vets in particular were asserting new claims on their regular compatriots. By 1960 over half the “Spanish-surnamed” families from Texas through California owned their own homes, mostly a crowded dilapidated little place, but the family’s castle; and most of them also owned a TV and a car, which in the barrios the dudes lowered, channeled, chopped, and primed into rolling sculpture. Between 1950 and 1960 the median income of “Spanish-surnamed” families in the region had risen by more than 70 percent, much faster than that of regular American families there. (Even so it was only 65 percent of the median income of the white families.)

So fast had the “Spanish-surnamed” in the region streamed into cities, or the cities expanded around them, that by 1960 almost 80 percent of them lived around “urban” centers. As Catholics, they were attracting fervent attention from newly conscientious hierarchs, priests, and nuns. The souls lost to the Church were being saved in increasing numbers in Pentacostal sects. By 1960 probably half the “Spanish-surnamed” in the region were bilingual; in California the proportion was probably three-quarters. “Mexican” no longer explained how they behaved and what they liked to eat, for probably 80 percent of the “Spanish-surnamed” in the region were native Americans. And many who could afford it were indulging in quite regular neglect of their sorrier kin, disregard of elders, and scorn for grace and care in public and private, as well as in caesar salad and roast beef instead of pozole and gorditas.

Despite frustrations, the politically inclined were mobilizing potent blocs. The Mexican American Political Association (MAPA), organized in California in 1958, yielded Viva Kennedy clubs that brought out 95 percent of the “Spanish-surnamed” vote in the state for JFK in 1960, and two years later helped elect Democrat Edward R. Roybal to Congress. The Political Association of Spanish-speaking Organizations (PASO), organized in Texas in 1960, helped Democrat Henry B. Gonzalez win a special congressional election in 1961, and three years later helped elect Democrat Eligio de la Garza to Congress too. Within a generation an alien minority had turned into what sociologists were calling an “ethnic minority,” Americans on parole.

Now, after all the recent revivals of the American conscience, the civil rights movement, and antidiscriminatory legislation and rulings, the insults and outrages still go on. A California Superior Court judge tells a “Spanish-surnamed” juvenile who has confessed to incest, “You are lower than an animal. Even animals don’t do that [sic]…. Mexican people, after thirteen years of age, it’s perfectly all right to go out and act like an animal…. You are no particular good to anybody…. We ought to send you out of the country—send you back to Mexico…. You ought to commit suicide…. You…haven’t the right to live in organized society—just miserable, lousy, rotten people…. Maybe Hitler was right. The animals in our society probably ought to be destroyed because they have no right to live among human beings.” He speaks for enough Americans to make life extraordinarily dangerous for “Mexican people” in this country.

Still stuck in the crummy jobs, an average “Spanish-surnamed” worker in the Southwest now makes only 60 cents for every dollar an average white American worker there makes. With wives and kids working, the median income of “Spanish-surnamed” families in the region remains two-thirds that of white families there, around $6,000 a year, not enough even for the family on the median to afford more than a four-room house or a rattletrap car, or both a dentist and a daily paper, both school supplies and six-packs. Of the probably seven million “Spanish-surnamed” now in the Southwest, probably three million are still miserably poor, keeping alive on beans and greens.

Yet in the last ten awful and affluent years “Spanish-surnamed” Southwesterners have been integrating into America even faster than before. So many young men have borne so well the uses made of them in the armed services, for “action” in Indochina or “intelligence” in Latin America, that by now the roster of junior commissioned officers is studded with names like Ernest L. Medina (now retired). The fortunates with cunning, connections, and capital or degrees have extended their businesses, careers, and rackets out of the barrios into the insatiable surrounding markets. And by now some thirty of the most successful have received honors from President Nixon—Sandoval (an El Paso newspaper distributor), head of the Small Business Administration; Villarreal (a Los Angeles R&D executive), head of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration; Sanchez (a Fresno County administrator), director of the Office of Economic Opportunities; Ramirez (a Whittier, California, New-Horizons superintendent), chairman of the Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for Spanish-speaking People; Banuelos (a Los Angeles Mexican-food manufacturess), Treasurer of the United States—to surname only a few.

Workers in the proper industries have passed into America too, into the UAW, the United Steelworkers, the Rubberworkers, the Teamsters. Thanks to the end of the bracero program, the courage of Cesar Chavez, and the determination of thousands of migrant families to show how valuable they were, even the farmworkers have a union. And the “Spanish-surnamed” poor in the Southwest are slowly merging into the worn ranks of the regular American poor there, the Southwestern branch of the fifth of this nation that serves as its inland pariahs, all racked in the same stupefying and crippling torment.

Most significantly, politics has been ever more popular. Though the congressmen have turned into regular savings-and-loan flag-flappers, a rising proportion of “Spanish-surnamed” Southwesterners has participated in local and national elections, most of them so far as Democrats, the largest contingent of them happy McGovernites.

This integration would be even faster except for the continuing immigration from Mexico, which has kept heavy the number of “Spanish-surnamed” who are not only poor but also really Mexican. Through the 1950s and 1960s some 750,000 Mexicans entered the United States on permanent visas. Until 1964, when Public Law 78 expired, some 200,000 to 450,000 braceros came into the United States every year on temporary contracts, and many stayed. Since then, under provisions of the McCarran-Walter Act, they have come as “greencarders” (on permanent work permits) or “bluecarders” (seventy-two-hour permits); by 1970 there were some 150,000 in the country. Depending on the season, and the weather in Mexico, there have been between one and two million mojados here illegally. Listed or not, the immigration from Mexico since World War II has probably been twice that from any other country. (Hyperbolically, it has been as if the recent “black” experience had included a large immigration of destitute Africans.)

But the trends now seem clear—that this “ethnic minority” is dissolving like the others into an “ethnic category,” which within another generation will no more than statistically and nostalgically bring together people living in different classes. “Spanish-surnamed” Southwestern notables were right on time in pressing census officials in 1970 to let respondents define themselves as “Mexican Americans.”

The most dramatic result of the integration is the new Chicano movement, to boost la raza, “the people, our kind of people.” What sparked it was the resentment of “Mexican American” politicos in the early 1960s—for their help in electing Democrats their people were getting nothing, while “Negroes” were attracting federal attention and liberal money and admiration. The movement itself began inadvertently in 1964-65, when LBJ’s warriors on poverty began dribbling federal money into the Southwestern barrios and publicizing the misery in them. As new sources of local patronage appeared, so did conflicts between local Democratic bosses and their “Spanish-surnamed” counselors and barrio captains, who now saw a chance to build their own machines.

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