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Digital History ID 3347

 

On Election Day 1963, hundreds of Mexican Americans in Crystal City, Texas, the "spinach capital of the world," gathered near a statue of Popeye the Sailor to do something that most had never done before: vote. Although Mexican Americans outnumbered Anglos by two to one, Anglos controlled all five seats on the Crystal City council. For three years organizers struggled to register Mexican American voters. When the election was over, Mexican Americans had won control of the city council. "We have done the impossible," declared Albert Fuentes, who led the voter registration campaign. "If we can do it in Crystal City, we can do it all over Texas. We can awaken the sleeping giant."

During the 1960s, a new Chicano movement suddenly burst onto the national stage. Epic struggles arose across the Southwest to register voters, organize farm workers, and regain stolen lands. The Mexican American struggle for political and civil rights has received far less attention than the struggles of other minority groups for social justice, but it is, in fact, only the most recent expression of a long tradition of Mexican American labor and political activism.

At the beginning of the 20th century, between 380,000 and 560,000 U.S. and foreign-born Mexicans lived in the United States. Prior to the Mexican War, many Mexican American farmers lived on land granted by Mexico or Spain. Following the war, these grants had to be legally confirmed. Fraud, protracted litigation, and onerous taxes deprived many Mexican Americans of their land, and by the turn of the century, most worked as tenant farmers or as farm laborers on lands owned by Anglos. Mexican Americans faced discrimination, disfranchisement, and even lynchings. Anti- miscegenation laws prohibited intermarriage with Anglos.

Three major surges of immigration, punctuated by two large-scale efforts at deportation, shaped 20th century Mexican American history. Between 1910 and 1930, nearly 700,000 Mexican immigrants entered the Southwestern United States, pushed out of Mexico by revolutionary upheaval and economic instability and pulled into the Southwest's increasing demand for low wage, unskilled physical labor. Mexican immigrants took jobs as migratory laborers or seasonal workers in mines and packinghouses and on commercial farms and ranches. But these jobs generally resulted in lives characterized by geographical isolation and physical mobility with few opportunities for economic advancement. Most immigrants lived in segregated communities where Mexican culture and organizations prevailed.

Depression-era unemployment, however, reduced immigration to less than 33,000 during the 1930s. The United States and Mexico sponsored a "repatriation" program that returned half a million people to Mexico, about half of whom were American citizens. Although the program was supposed to be voluntary, many were pressured to leave.

Demand for Mexican American labor resumed during World War II. In 1942, the United States and Mexico instituted the Bracero Program, which allowed Mexican contract laborers to work in the United States during seasonal agriculture and in other sectors of the economy. Following the war, however, a new deportation effort sought to expel resident Mexicans who lacked American citizenship.

During the 1960s, Mexican immigration rose rapidly, propelled by the rapid growth of Mexico's population--which tripled in 50 years; driven by the higher wages found in the United States--at least six times higher than those in Mexico; and forced by the unwillingness of the Mexican government to control immigration after the demise of the Bracero Program in 1964. Mexican immigration has continued to increase into the 1990s.

Beginning in the early 20th century, Mexican Americans formed many organizations to address problems of poverty and discrimination. Among the earliest were self-help organizations known as "mutualistas," which provided members with a broad range of benefits and services including credit, insurance, funeral and disability benefits, and often served as the basis for labor unions. During the 1920s, new kinds of organizations appeared which sought to assimilate Mexican Americans into the mainstream of American society and to combat discrimination in education, jobs, wages, and political representation. In 1929, these organizations united to form the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). During the 1940s and 1950s, LULAC organized voter registration drives and filed law suits to end school and job discrimination. World War II marked a major turning point in Mexican American history. More than 300,000 Mexican Americans served in the armed forces, earning more military honors proportionately than any other ethnic group. Veterans formed new activist organizations, like the American G.I. Forum and the Mexican American Political Association, to fight discrimination and end segregation.

As the 1960s began, Mexican Americans shared problems of poverty and discrimination with other minority groups. The median income of a Mexican American family was just 62 percent of the median income of the general population, and over a third of Mexican American families lived on less than $3,000 a year. Unemployment was twice the rate among non-Hispanic whites, and four-fifths of employed Mexican Americans were concentrated in semi-skilled and unskilled jobs, a third in agriculture.

Educational attainment lagged behind other groups (Mexican Americans averaged less than nine years of schooling as recently as 1970). Mexican American pupils were concentrated in predominantly Mexican American schools, which were less well staffed and supplied than non-Mexican American schools and employed few Hispanic or Spanish-speaking teachers. Mexican Americans were under-represented as a result of gerrymandered election districts and restrictive voting legislation. In addition, they were under-represented or excluded from juries by requirements specifying that jurors be able to speak and understand English.

During the 1960s, a new surge of Mexican American militancy arose. In 1962, Cesar Chavez began to organize California farm workers; three years later, in Delano, California, he led his first strike. At the same time that Chavez led the struggle for higher wages, enforcement of state labor laws, and recognition of the Farm Worker Union, Reies Lopez Tijerina fought to win compensation for the descendants of families whose lands had been seized illegally. In 1963, Tijerina founded the Alianza Federal de Mercedes (the Federal Alliance of Land Grants) in New Mexico to restore the legal rights of heirs to Spanish and Mexican land grants that had been guaranteed under the treaty ending the Mexican War.

In Denver, Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales formed the Crusade for Justice in 1965 to protest school discrimination, to provide legal, medical, and financial services and jobs for Chicanos, and to foster the Mexican American cultural heritage. Chapters of La Raza Unida, a political party centered on Chicano nationalism, arose in a number of small towns with large Mexican American populations. On college campuses across the Southwest, Mexican Americans formed political organizations.

In 1968, Congress responded to the demand among Mexican Americans for equal educational opportunities by enacting legislation encouraging school districts to adopt bilingual education programs to instruct non-English speakers in both English and their native language. In a more recent action, Congress moved in 1986 to legalize the status of many immigrants, including many Mexicans, who entered the United States illegally. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 provided permanent legal residency to undocumented workers who had lived in the United States since before 1982 and prohibited employment of illegal aliens.

Since 1960, Mexican Americans have made impressive political gains. During the 1960s, four Mexican Americans--Senator Joseph Montoya of New Mexico, representatives Eligio de la Garza and Henry B. Gonzales of Texas, and Edward R. Roybal of California--were elected to Congress. In 1974, two Chicanos were elected governors--Jerry Apodaca in New Mexico and Raul Castro in Arizona--becoming the first Mexican American governors since early in this century. In 1981, Henry Cisneros of San Antonio became the first Mexican American mayor of a large city.

Today, 14 million Mexican Americans live in the United States. This is a 60 percent increase over the number in 1980 and a four-fold increase over the number in 1960, making Mexican Americans the country's youngest and fastest growing minority group.

Mexican Americans are able to maintain ties with their ancestral culture to a degree not possible for other ethnic group because of Mexico's proximity to the U.S., a continuous influx of new arrivals, and a concentration of population in predominantly Mexican barrios and colonias, An estimated 40 percent of all Hispanics (of which Mexican Americans make up almost two-thirds) are immigrants and another 30 percent are the children of immigrants. As a result, Mexican Americans, more than any other immigrant group, have evolved a bilingual, bi-cultural identity that combines Mexican and American elements. Today, half of all Mexican Americans speak Spanish at home.

While high birthrates and immigration have contributed to increasing political power, Mexican Americans continue to lag behind other minority groups in political representation due to lower voting rates and the fact that many are not yet naturalized citizens. Mexican Americans are also more disadvantaged than other Americans in income, education, and home ownership rates. They are twice as likely to be poor as non-Hispanics, and three times less likely to have completed college. Third generation Mexican Americans average just 11 years of schooling, two years less than non-Hispanics. More than other ethnic groups, Mexican American workers are concentrated in low-paying jobs in factories, warehouses, construction, and the service sector. Mexican American teenagers are more likely to drop out of high school, often to help their families during periods of economic distress. Mexican Americans are less likely to have health insurance than any other ethnic group.

Today, many Americans worry whether Mexican immigrants will assimilate into the mainstream of American life. Many fear that prospects for upward mobility--so vital for the assimilation of earlier immigrant groups--are eroding, and that the consequences are apparent by the increase in teenage pregnancy and single parent households. Others express anger about illegal immigration--an issue that has increasingly inflamed American politics. In 1994, California voters adopted Proposition 187, denying public services to illegal aliens.

As the United States approaches the 21st century, many important political and socioeconomic issues face the country's largest immigrant group. For most European ethnic groups, ethnic background ceased to be an important factor in social or economic standing by the third generation. Will the same be true of Mexican Americans? Will Mexican Americans advance socially, economically, and politically like earlier European immigrants, or will racism and discrimination consign many to an economic underclass? Will Mexican Americans follow the European immigrant path of movement out of distinct urban enclaves and intermarriage, or will they successfully maintain a distinct identity and cultural heritage?

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