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A Special Supplement: The Chicanos

The book combines abundant statistics, observations, and accruals from previous literature on the Southwest itself, immigration from Mexico, demography, education, incomes, occupations, jobs, earnings, housing, segregation; classes, mobility, the family, ethnic relations, intermarriage, tradition, the Church, Protestant sects, and politics. It presents a diverse people strenuously and alertly contending for their parts in America. It is bound to have a strong influence on federal policy toward “Mexican Americans.” It already enjoys a reputation, which its authors invite, as the equivalent of Myrdal’s An American Dilemma.

For all the money and the work, however, the book has several serious faults. At the start the authors waffle on whether to stress the voluntary or the compulsory features of Mexican immigrant life. (Here the question is much harder than for Myrdal, who could take it for granted that “Negroes” had come as slaves, but the authors never decide even on a point of view.) The inconsistency haunts the book to the end—did Mexicans stay in the Southwest (a bad territory for them) because they did not want anything better or because they could not get anything better?

The authors also never resolve whether “Mexican Americans” are “a distinctive people,” so exceptional from regular Americans that a special study of them is legitimate, or are typical Americans, at least so close to typical that money and patience will soon render them ideally typical. (Here too the authors have it harder than Myrdal did, who could take “Negroes” as obviously distinctive; but the question becomes incomprehensible when they take it in isolation instead of knitting it into the patterns of modern American exploitation, which is how Myrdal solved his dilemma.)

Their own dilemmas arise from a confusion central to the book, inherent in its assumptions about assimilation. The authors take assimilation only abstractly, as a process. They do not take on the question of who makes the process happen, whether it is a process of assimilating or being assimilated, whether “Mexican Americans” are becoming similar (actively, intransitively, reflexively, because they will it) or are being made similar (passively, because they cannot help it). They nowhere, for instance, query “Mexican American” military experience. Nor do they ask to whom the “Mexican Americans” are becoming or being made similar. If they had, they would have seen through their assumption, because there are no “typical Americans” to be similar to, and the Americans who consider themselves the regular kind are themselves changing as they have to admit that others, whatever their apparent irregularities, are thoroughly American too. The authors reveal their trouble in their concluding sentence, where they take poverty among “Mexican Americans” as a “challenge…to create the conditions in which the Mexican-American people can become ever more active participants in our society [my emphasis]….”

Because of their central confusion, they flub the most pressing question in the book. “The schooling gap,” they write, “is a fundamental cause of the depressed economic condition of the minority.” But they cannot explain the gap. Leaning on the Coleman Report, they indicate that it might derive from “family background” (as if families were immune to a “depressed economic condition”). But then they note Bowles’s and Levin’s criticism of the report, granting that it applies especially in the “Mexican American” case. Finally they sigh that “much more research is needed….”

Most sorely missing in the book is an understanding of what the changes of the last generation have meant historically. Though the authors proudly measure many of them, they nowhere convey how fatefully the meanings of their measures have themselves changed. It was one fate to be getting in on America in the 1940s, and another in the 1950s. It was quite another in the 1960s. It will be yet another in the 1970s. This change is incalculable, but it is the heart of what Mexican and other Americans have been living through.

The UCLA work reappears handily condensed in Joan Moore’s own Mexican Americans. In her version, because she decided by herself what to write, the argument is clearer and subtler. And because she makes more of the politics of being “Mexican American,” she gives keener insights into “Mexican American” suspicions and into Chicanismo.

The grounding for all this work should have come from Southwestern histories, but it could not. Because of the vast and ominous space, the manic fantasy of dominating Nature, and the silent knowledge of the rattlesnake in the dark on the road, because so many strangers come and stay or go, because they themselves have come so recently and still yearn for benedictions from back East (North or South), the regular Americans in the Southwest have not made the absolute commitments to the region that would allow them to behold it honestly—and have therefore produced no profound history of it. For Perry Miller on New England, W.J. Cash or C. Vann Woodward on the South, Henry Nash Smith or Ray Allen Billington on the Midwest, they have only J. Frank Dobie or Paul Horgan or Robert Glass Cleland, whose best efforts have been merely entertaining.

And because of the prevailing contempt for the conquered people, and for those afterward who looked and talked and worked like them, there has been almost no history at all of the “Mexican Americans.” For years Carey McWilliams’s North from Mexico was the only general report on their past. Not until 1966 did a professional historian publish a monograph on them. Even now, though publishers and foundations are bidding high, there is only one new history, Matt S. Meier’s and Feliciano Rivera’s The Chicanos.

Without question their book is welcome—at last a professionally informed summary of the alienation and integration, coherent and readable. Its principal virtue is momentous, to focus historical controversies on the Southwest as a borderland unique in America, a region where societies have always been precarious, fluid, and intermingling; on different “Mexican American” heritages in Texas, New Mexico, and California; on the constraints that regular American rule imposed; on the continuing immigration; and on the recent involvement in America, most significantly through the armed services.

But major defects in the book indicate what misconceptions sociologists and the reading public must still expect from historians. Meier and Rivera imagine that “Mexican American history begins with the early story of man in the western hemisphere,” which is a stunning anachronism. They refloat the myth of the “Aztecs,” which is eighteenth-century Mexican creole propaganda. They see “life style” as the reason why Mexicans disgusted the regular American conquerors, which is nineteenth-century regular American propaganda. They fancy that Mexican immigration into the Southwest is “the return of the Indian Mexican to the land of his origins,” which is the daffiest current Chicano propaganda. And they put Chavez into the same league with Tijerina and Corky, which is a misrepresentation of the United Farmworkers and the Chicano movement.

Missed by sociologists and historians, the quality of “Mexican American” experiences is clearest in “Mexican American” narrations of them. The judgment required in this art has so far eluded the novelists; the most competent is John Rechy. It is also absent from the various confessions now coming out. (One nevertheless worth mentioning is Armando B. Rendon’s Chicano Manifesto, a Sacramento reporter’s rap and rant, dull on Mexico, America, and Chicanos, but laced with enticing data on la raza’s politics.) But the right timing and tone do distinguish the creations of several short-story writers. Particularly remarkable are Tomas Rivera, who has a fine story about migrants, “On the Road to Texas,” in Valdez’s and Steiner’s Aztlán; and Mario Suarez, who has produced several good vignettes of Tucson’s barrio, three of them being “Señor Garza,” in Edward Simmen’s The Chicano, and “El Hoyo” and “Las Comadres” in Aztlán.

The funniest, brightest, most moving, accomplished, and prolific “Mexican American” writer used to be Amado Muro, a veritable Isaac Babel of the Southwest; three of his many stories are in the recent anthologies, “Mala Torres” and “Maria Tepache” in Ed Ludwig’s and James Santibanez’s The Chicanos, and “Cecilia Rosas” in Simmen’s Chicano. But Muro was really an anglo, Charles Seltzer, and is now dead.*

So far the masterful “Mexican American” narrations have been memoirs, most of them tales for the family. Among the few written down are the short reminiscences that Manuel Gamio published in 1931, now out in a new edition, The Life Story of the Mexican Immigrant. Here Isidro Osorio from Guanajuato tells how he came to the United States ten years before so that “boys of my town who had been here…could not tell me stories.” Señora Ponce from Puebla laments that her husband brought her to the United States fourteen years before in a tantrum, because a priest had told him her confession that she (aged nineteen) did not love him (aged sixty-six)—in the years since she has had three children by him and been let out on the street twice. Then there is Guillermo Salorio, a Los Angeles construction worker who chummed around with Wobblies, longed for a business of his own, and was “studying many books and I now lack very little of being well convinced that God doesn’t exist.” Seventy-odd more original Chicanos recount their adventures.

With a humor just as arch, Ernesto Galarza has written a long and vivid memoir of his childhood, Barrio Boy. This original Chicano is one of the unheralded wonders of modern America. Born in 1905 in the mountains of western Mexico, uprooted with his family by the revolution, fleeing north with his mama and uncles, growing up in the Sacramento barrio, he came into his forte debating in high school. By a series of miracles he went on to a scholarship at Occidental, to Stanford for an MA in economics, to Columbia for a PhD, and to the Foreign Policy Association. First director of the Pan American Union’s Division of Labor and Social Information in 1940, a hell-raising inspector of conditions for Mexicans working in the United States during the war, he resigned in 1946 because of the government’s postwar Latin American policy.

For the next fifteen years he was the western dynamo of the NFLU and the NAWU. Though the AFL-CIO scrapped him for its own AWOC in the early 1960s, it was Galarza who was most responsible for the end of the bracero program in 1964, the key to the rise of the United Farmworkers. The author of three solid books—La Industria Eléctrica en México (his dissertation), Merchants of Labor (a study of the bracero business), and Spiders in the House and Workers in the Field (a study of congressional harassment of the NFLU and NAWU)—and of the most thoughtful essay on la raza today (“Mexicans in the Southwest,” in Edward H. Spicer and Raymond H. Thompson, eds., Plural Society in the Southwest), crusty, meticulous, passionate, he has been the brains of the Southwest Council of La Raza.

His new book is only partly personal history, to represent “the experiences of a multitude of boys like myself.” It is also to refute

psychologists, psychiatrists, social anthropologists, and other manner of “shrinks” [who] have spread the rumor that these Mexican immigrants and their offspring have lost their “self-image.” By this, of course, they mean that a Mexican doesn’t know what he is; and if by chance he is something, it isn’t any good. I, for one Mexican, never had any doubts on this score. I can’t remember a time I didn’t know who I was; and I have heard much testimony from my friends and other more detached persons to the effect that I thought too highly of what I thought I was. It seemed to me unlikely that out of six or seven million Mexicans in the United States I was the only one who felt this way.

The opening pages on Jalcocotán, his native village in the Sierra de Nayarit, are a soft and excellent evocation of how a child takes root in tradition. The section on his family’s “peregrinations” down to Tepic, the state capital, and then to Mazatlán, in the next state north, in search of peace and work, is an illuminating record of the forebodings of ordinary rural Mexicans at the beginning of the revolution. The passage on the flight north from Mexico to Nogales, Tucson, and finally Sacramento, where Uncles Gustavo and José had found work “on the track,” belongs among the choicest accounts of debarkation into America. The depiction of “life on the lower part of town,…between Fifth Street and the river from the railway yards to the Y-street levee,” jammed with Mexicans, Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Hindus, Portuguese, Italians, Poles, Slavs, Koreans, and gringos, richly portrays Northern Californians whom Joan Didion cannot sketch into her romances.

The closing pages, where the family moves out “on the far side of town where the open country began,” then Uncle Gustavo and Mama die, and the boy spends his first summer as a migrant worker, are the most personal in the book, particularly because they end with the boy daydreaming of the high school he knows he will attend in the fall, a rare chance for a Chicano then. This is the only disappointment in the book, that it does not go on for another couple of volumes to recount its author’s rare career in redefining America.

Almost twenty-five years ago Carey McWilliams predicted that when “Mexican Americans” produced “a significant autobiography,…a new chapter will be written in the history of the Southwest.” Now they have one. And through Medina, Gonzales, Tijerina, Banuelos, Chavez, Galarza, and all the other names they are making recognized as American, they are writing their chapter into the history of the entire country—its horrors, swindles, and hopes.

  1. *

    This is the word from Philip D. Ortego, short-story writer and professor of English and Chicano Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso.

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