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.
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.
For a while, in spite of the example of Watts, the conflicts were on the inside. Then the Delano grape strike revealed a “Spanish-surnamed” organizer who was openly defying all the lords of California’s agribusiness. And from the ancient New Mexico land grant suits, Reies Lopez Tijerina emerged loudly challenging the very powers of state. Thus inspired, fifty “Spanish-surnamed” notables staged a walkout at an Equal Employment Opportunities Commission Conference in Albuquerque in March, 1966. By 1967, while Chavez’s grape boycott and Tijerina’s courthouse raid were catching most “Spanish-surnamed” notice nationally, gangs in the East LA barrios were outfitting as Brown Berets, and students in universities throughout the Southwest were forming aggressive associations. At Berkeley young “Spanish-surnamed” professors were preparing to publish El Grito, the first “journal of contemporary Mexican-American thought.” After the Black Power Conference on the East Coast that July, the thought in many “Mexican American” circles was, why not a Brown Power Conference on the West Coast?
That October the new federal Inter-Agency Committee on Mexican-American Affairs held hearings in El Paso to control the agitation. (Chavez refused his invitation; Tijerina never received one.) But the show was stolen by the “Mexican American” guests who lambasted the federal government and staged a rival Raza Unida Conference in El Paso’s slummiest barrio, where the banners read, “Mañana is here!” They shied away from Brown Power, but they did “affirm the magnificence of La Raza, the greatness of our heritage, our history, our language, our traditions, our contributions to humanity, and our culture.”
The response from back East was conciliatory—the Bilingual Education Act and healthy Ford Foundation grants to a Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and a Southwest Council of La Raza (“for the development of the barrio through the organization and encouragement of local cooperative community groups”). But by spring, 1968, the spirit of protest was even upon the kids. In March, 15,000 in East LA staged “blowouts” from their high schools, demanding transfers of racist teachers, revised curricula (“to show Mexican contributions to our country”), no punishments for speaking Spanish, unlocked toilets, unfenced campuses, and so on. While riots and rebellions exploded around the world that spring and summer, “blowouts” hit the San Antonio and Denver barrio schools too.
Five years after it began, vibrant now with the nation’s terrific tensions, the movement produced its professionals at a Youth Liberation Conference in Denver. The host for the 1,500 delegates assembled there on Palm Sunday, 1969, was Rodolfo Gonzales, already locally famous as “Corky.” A native of the city’s barrio, ex-slaughter-house-worker, ex-NBA-listed feather-weight, ex-bailbondsman, ex-coordinator of Viva Kennedy clubs, ex-general agent for Summit Fidelity and Surety in Colorado, and ex-chairman of the board of Denver’s War on Poverty, now at forty the father of eight, a poet, a playwright, director of the Crusade for Justice (a lively barrio services center), and probably the most blatantly macho public figure in America, redolent of mod Elvis Presleyism and raving about emasculation, Corky managed the conference like a fiesta.
During its proceedings he pulled three strokes of genius. The first was to establish a name for the new militants, Chicanos. Its original meaning forgotten, the name cut the clumsiness of “Spanish-speaking,” “Spanish-surnamed,” and “Mexican Americans” (hyphenated or not) to announce a distinct people, once suppressed but now reclaiming their integrity. Corky’s second stroke was to establish a militant lingo, barrio slang, pochismos. A swinging syntax of Southwestern American English and Northern Mexican Spanish, pocho talk suddenly became the Chicano language.
Third was Corky’s divulging that the Southwest was Aztlán, the mythical fatherland of the mythical Aztecs, who, he said, had erected the great civilization of ancient Mexico, of which, he said, Chicanos were descendants. Lifted from the sappiest pages of romantic historiography (Mexican and American), garbling recent scholarship, this exegesis allowed an image of the Southwest as la raza’s by right of lineage. With a people, a language, and a homeland, the delegates proclaimed their Plan Espiritual de Aztlán—“the call of our blood is our power, our responsibility, and our inevitable destiny…. We are a nation…. Por La Raza todo, Fuera de La Raza nada.”
Implied then and elaborated later were all the old contradictions of nationalism. Devotion to la raza is not racism, for la raza is only one kind of mankind, except that it has good traits galore and the other kinds have none. (In one Chicano’s translation the Plan de Aztlán concludes, “To hell with the nothing race. All power for our people.”) And within la raza the rule is one for all and all for one, except that the carnales (brothers) who want to liberate la raza cannot control the Malinches and vendidos (sellouts) and Tíos Tacos (Uncle Toms); and macho as the carnales are, they can no longer intimidate the Chicanas blowing out of the bedroom and the kitchen.
At the call of the blood, the goal of liberation itself has shifted between “cultural and economic independence” and an independent state. And strategy has wavered between “defense of the community” and “armed revolutionary struggle.”
Chicanismo has left many in the movement cold, like those on the Southwest Council, who gladly call themselves Chicanos but reckon that a new alienation would ruin la raza. And it has scandalized the LULACs, GI Forumites, MAPAs, and PASOs, who now have their investments in “Mexican Americanism.” Since their first encounter with him the nationalists have repelled Chavez, who is committed far beyond Aztlán to building solidarity among farmworkers of every complexion. Lately they have even lost Tijerina, who is committed after all to the sad hispanos of the Sangre de Cristos, and is now evangelizing against nations and states everywhere.
Most galling to the professionals, who expected to take off like the blacks, has been their manifest failure to touch many white consciences. As ignorant of the East as the East has been of them, they did not understand in 1969 that the special reservoirs of white guilt the blacks could tap would never open to them—and that outside the South precious little guilt was open even to blacks. Only slowly some have learned that they can make gains only by their muscle.
Within these limits Chicano nationalism has been flourishing. Brown Berets who “hate Amerika” are now active in barrios throughout the Southwest. Chicano “cultural groups” have hatched in the penitentiaries. Several major student associations have allied into the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán, or MECHA (which means “fuse,” and in rural slang “down home stuffing”). Young academics have proclaimed their Plan de Santa Barbara, the blueprint for Chicano Studies departments and programs now available in scores of Southwestern universities. Two quarterlies have appeared, Aztlán (“Chicano Journal of the Social Sciences and the Arts”) and Con Safos (“Reflections of Life in the Barrio”), as well as at least a dozen Chicano newspapers, varying from El Grito del Norte, published in Española, New Mexico, to ¡Basta Ya! in San Francisco. Repeated “blowouts” have put the fear of a Brown God in Southwestern high-school principals. There have been Chicano conferences in Albuquerque, Houston, Kansas City, and South Bend, annual rejuvenations in Denver, and last spring the first joint Chicano-Boricua (Puerto Rican) Conference, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Even politically the nationalists have been thriving. In 1970 they organized a Raza Unida Party in South Texas “as a unifying force in our struggle for self-determination,” and won control of the school board in the Zavala County seat, Crystal City, which brought on a local social revolution. They also organized a Raza Unida Party in Denver, where Corky ran for mayor, and in Oakland and Los Angeles. In 1971 the Texas party won city council elections in Crystal City and in the neighboring county seats of Carrizo Springs and Cotulla, in the heart of the Winter Gardens. Last April the National Chicano Political Conference in San Jose spurned McGovern, endorsed the California party’s drive to get on the ballot this fall, and voted to build a Raza Unida Party throughout the country. By now the Texas party is operating seriously in more than twenty of the state’s southern and central counties, where most of the population is “Spanish-surnamed,” and it has its own candidate for governor on the ballot.
Meanwhile the amateurs of the movement have been carrying on their own campaigns to boost la raza within America, to seat Chicano delegates at the Democratic Convention, elect candidates indebted to them, stop defamatory advertising, prevent job discrimination, halt freeway construction through barrios, sue state legislatures for fair reapportionments, recruit more kids into college, correct the history books, etc. Their version of the movement has off and on attracted many “Mexican Americans,” young and old, integrated and still alien, loaded, hustling, and strapped. It is where their sympathies go when they too are sure that their kind has suffered more than any other kind of people in America, when they yearn to know that they are as good as the other kinds (maybe better than the blacks), that only prejudice keeps them from getting more out of the country, and that they should not have to sacrifice their most consoling sense of themselves to get it.
It attracts them especially when the offenses against their kind are most flagrant—20,000 from throughout the Southwest were Chicanos at least for a day in August, 1970, when they marched in the East LA Moratorium against the Vietnam war, and probably fifty times 20,000 throughout the country were Chicanos for weeks after the Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies willfully destroyed the demonstration and three “Mexican American” lives.
So altogether the Chicano movement is only another ethnic movement, at its bitterest a threat not to integrate which cannot stop the integration but which can wrest some reparations for the loss of old certainties. Eventually it will win for its surviving professional and amateur chiefs their quota of revenge and power in America, and for its winter and summer members a little better deal than they would otherwise have had for the stakes in their class.
From the beginning this has been a curious history. Never a melting into an American pot, or an assimilation to an American archetype, or an acculturation to an American civilization, or a preservation within America of a separate culture, it has become an ethnic history—like the histories of the Old Stocks, the Early Immigrants, the New Immigrants, the Blacks, the Indians, the Orientals, the French Canadians, the Puerto Ricans, and the Cubans here, like all American histories. But it remains as different from them as they have been from each other. And after fifty years of study, its peculiar character is still obscure. The reason is fear, of Mexico and America.
In quiet dread of discovering too much pain in Mexico and too much promise in America, regular Americans have treated the “Mexicans,” the “Spanish-speaking,” the “Spanish-surnamed,” and now the “Mexican Americans” as intruders in this country, whom they could always “send back to Mexico.” And students of the treatment, almost all of the regular kind themselves, almost all anthropologists or sociologists (or behaving like them), have taken it as a reflection not on the stingy but on the denied.
On this prejudice they have been fairly productive. As advanced-degree candidates, journalists, professors, and researchers for state and federal commissions, they have delivered titles that now amount to a 200 page bibliography. But precisely because they have treated their subjects as intrusions, their work has made almost no dent on American historians, either the monographists who transmit only within the AHA, or the popularly talented from whom the reading public recollects its ideas of who Americans are. Between 1928 and 1934 Paul S. Taylor published five signal volumes of Mexican Labor in the United States, Manuel Gamio his perceptive Mexican Immigration to the United States, and Emory S. Bogardus his useful synopsis, The Mexican in the United States. Yet “Mexicans” did not figure even as hyphenated Americans in any of the US histories that came out before or during World War II. They were all, as a “Spanish-surnamed” author described New Mexico’s hispanos in 1940, “forgotten people” in American history and society.
After more sociology published just after the war, and the culmination of Carey McWilliams’s brave, solid, and brilliant reportage in North from Mexico (now published in a new edition), they did receive their first historical consideration, brief but wise, in Oscar Handlin’s The American People in the Twentieth Century (1954). But despite still more sociology and Octavio Paz’s fascinating essay on pachucos in The Labyrinth of Solitude, they soon faded back almost into oblivion. They received notice again only from Handlin, three tiny references in his grand synthesis, The Americans (1963). Even in 1966 la raza remained, as another “Spanish-surnamed” author subtitled yet another attempt to bring it fully into the public view, “forgotten Americans.”
Because of the United Farmworkers, the Tijerina rebellion, and the Chicano movement, books on “Mexican Americans” are now coming out in a rush. For a while the hottest topic was the farmworkers, who are not all “Mexican Americans,” and in particular Cesar Chavez, who is. Chavez himself has approved Mark Day’s Forty Acres, which is the name the Delano strikers gave their headquarters. Mostly an insider’s account of the union’s tribulations from 1967 to 1970, the book is best at conveying the innocence of the freshly indignant, who, blind to the odds against them, fight until they win.
Much more composed is Joan London’s and Henry Anderson’s So Shall Ye Reap. A sober and lucid report on “the long effort of agricultural workers in California to organize themselves,” it traces the endeavors of the early unions in the 1920s and 1930s and the complicated intra- and extramural battles of the National Farm Labor Union (NFLU), the National Agricultural Workers Union (NAWU), and the AFL-CIO’s Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Most of the book is on four men especially memorable from the campaigns of the last twenty years: Thomas McCullough, the priest who first seriously engaged the Church in defending farmworker unions; Fred Van Dyke, a “grower” who supported the unionizing (and lost his farm); Ernesto Galarza, an intellectual free agent, who fought like the hedgehog and the fox for the NFLU, the NAWU, and the AWOC; and finally Cesar Chavez, “The Organizer.”
Of all the recent books on farmworkers, the truest is Peter Matthiessen’s Sal Si Puedes. It was born in a deathly time, in the wretched summer of 1968, after the assassinations, the riots, and the mournful mud of Resurrection City, when Matthiessen journeyed to Delano to interview “one of the few public figures that I would go ten steps out of my way to meet.” Courting disaster, he expected Chavez to “impress” him. If Chavez had, and Matthiessen had taken it, the book would have been only another exposé of one more fraud by one more exhibitionist. But on the quiet Sunday morning when he received Matthiessen at his house, walked with him to early Mass, and drove out to Forty Acres to sit and visit with him, Chavez was just himself—which “startled” Matthiessen. The result is this splendid and inspiring book.
It is not a biography in style or purpose. Only at random Matthiessen concedes Chavez’s past—one of six kids on a family farm in the Gila Valley, at ten thrown into the Great Depression’s western migrations, at fourteen done with school, at eighteen a navy enlisted man (two years on a destroyer escort out of Saipan), after the war following the crops again, at twenty-one married and settling to sharecrop outside San Jose, moving again to cut timber on the Smith River, settling again to a lumberyard job in San Jose, living in its Mextown, Sal Si Puedes (Get Out If You Can), actually getting out in the 1950s as a paid organizer for the CSO, then its statewide coordinator, then its national director. He does not even suggest why Chavez, hobnobbing with congressmen, hustling mayors and legislators, meeting in “the best motel in town,” quit it all in 1962 to settle his wife and eight kids in Delano and start building from scratch without violence a movement that had always before failed, a farm workers’ union.
But Matthiessen does have the man Chavez has become as alive as he can be in print, “an Indian’s bow nose and lank black hair,…sad eyes and an open smile that is shy and friendly,…centered in himself so that no energy is wasted,…as unobtrusive as a rabbit,…’so stubborn, so irrational—oh, he can be a sonofabitch!’…praising, teasing, needling, cajoling, comforting, and gently chastising,” full of tales, organizing even in his sleep, and constantly in danger of assassination. Because Chavez gave him the nerve to write in praise without idolatry or shame, Matthiessen gives others the nerve to believe that “warmth and intelligence and courage, even in combination, did not account for what I felt at the end of the four-hour walk on that first Sunday morning…. What welled out of him was a phenomenon much spoken of in a society afraid of its own hate, but one that I had never seen before—or not, at least, in anyone unswayed by drugs or aching youth; the simple love of man that accompanies some ultimate acceptance of self.”
Chavez bores many professional Chicanos, who think that his rural concerns bore the barrios and that non-violence is crazy for Brown Berets under a hysterical policeman’s gun; Corky has insinuated that Chavez is an idiot. But Matthiessen shows Chavez already containing more power than his nationalist carnales have yet dreamed of releasing, through the “impossible gaiety” he spreads in the desperate struggle against American selfishness, the invincible faith he has fortified in a “New American Revolution.”
Last spring Chavez finally returned to his beginnings, to organize the Arizona valleys where thirty-five years ago the country seized his father’s farm for taxes. The “growers” think the union is “bad for the country.” And the Arizona legislature has passed a law that prohibits farmworkers from striking, picketing, and boycotting. When the workers protested, Governor Jack Williams observed, “As far as I’m concerned, these people do not exist.” Chavez has called for massive civil disobedience in Arizona on August 15, the day the law is to go into effect. The “simple love” Matthiessen felt is now defying the state itself, to test its interest in injustice.
For a while Tijerina also excited crowds of writers. Of all the reports on him, the most thorough and engaging is Richard Gardner’s ¡Grito! It is a deft weaving of straight agrarian history of northern New Mexico, sensitive accounts of contemporary life in its towns and out in its woods, and a canny biography of Tijerina himself in triumph and in court, thick throughout with nice quotes from locals pro and con. The book is dense, for Gardner respects the hispanos and Tijerina’s weird vision too much to gut the subject of its intricacy; but the writing is crisp and clean.
Now the publishers are pushing sets of “readings.” At least six have come out in the last couple of years, most of them so inanely edited that they do not merit mention as collections. Just passable is Edward Simmen’s Pain and Promise, thirty-odd articles (twenty from “Spanish-surnamed” authors) that fit into a plausible guide to “the Chicano today.”
The only collection commendable for more than meeting an emergency in the market, for being a book in its own right, is Luis Valdez’s and Stan Steiner’s Aztlán. Valdez’s introduction is the most assured, eloquent, and intriguing statement so far of the professional Chicano ideology, complete with rancid cracks about “eternal foreigners” from Europe. The notes introducing each selection, which smack of Steiner, are concise and apt. The order of the selections (130-odd of them!) is constructive. The selections themselves are 85 percent of them from “Spanish-surnamed” authors; they include the best lot of Chicano short stories and poems now at hand in the East. Especially welcome are the pieces on the barrios and the bits on Chicanas, the Albuquerque walkout, the blowouts, the El Paso and Denver conferences, the Brown Berets, the Comancheros del Norte, the Church, and Chicano theater.
The editors commit only a few gaffes—like ordaining Bernal Díaz and supposing Don Porfirio to have said, “Pobres de México….” The value of the collection is less than it could have been, because, as Valdez observes, “When the writer is a victim of racism and colonization,…the poet in him flounders in a morass of lies and distortions about his conquered people.” Because neither Valdez nor Steiner knows enough about Mexico to have avoided swallowing the theosophical sinkers in Mexican Indianism, they waste pages on Mayans and Aztecs that would have been better spent, for instance, on the hispano diaspora, long the leaven in “Spanish-speaking” business and politics throughout the Southwest; El Paso, for two generations now the main source of sartorial, linguistic, and social styles in the barrios; the Sinarquista movement, the first serious touting of la raza in the United States; GI ordeals, during and after the war; work in the plants; programs and practices of CSO, MAPA, PASO, etc.; recent experiences in the “service,” above all in Indochina; and the Raza Unida parties—all of which they omit. But at least the editors have shaped an argument.
Dwarfing these collections is the immense report by Leo Grebler, Joan W. Moore, and Ralph C. Guzman, The Mexican-American People. Ten years ago this was a gleam in the eye of a slew of professors, each beseeching the foundations for funds to go after the “Spanish-surnames” in the 1960 census. It became Grebler’s baby in 1963 when he won a “generous” grant (reportedly $400,000) from Ford for his Mexican-American Study Project at UCLA. With Moore, a sociologist, as associate and Guzman, a political scientist, as assistant, and a supplementary grant from the College Entrance Examination Board, Grebler, himself an economist, directed a team of some twenty “collaborating scholars” through probably 2,000 interviews and five years of research and reporting. The product is easily the most comprehensive and rigorous study now available of “the nation’s second largest minority.”
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.
August 31, 1972
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. ↩