Digital History
Digital History ID 596

Author:   Merton E. Hill

Annotation: The history of Mexican Americans during the twentieth century can be understood, at least partly, by a succession of generations, each with a distinctive identity, outlook, culture, employment profile, and set of social institutions.

Migrants in the very early part of this century tended to think of themselves as Mexican and abhorred what they considered lax moral and religious standards in the United States. By the 1920s and 1930s, many Mexican Americans expressed a growing sense of themselves as at once Mexican and of the United States. But many early twentieth-century educators and social workers pressed for campaigns of assimilation. As early as 1909, a Stanford University professor called for a "breakup of these implant in their children...the Anglo-Saxon conception of righteous, law and order...." Progressive reformers visited Mexican American homes and encouraged families to eat bread instead of tortillas. Few Mexican Americans, however, were willing to abandon their identity, language, or cultural traditions. The Mexican government meanwhile was afraid that Mexican Americans were losing their Mexican heritage and took steps to reverse this process. During the 1920s, the Mexican government instituted a program to set up schools in California, foster patriotism for Mexico, and encourage migrants to return. But Mexican Americans tended to resist this program much as they resisted efforts at "Americanization."

By the late 1920s, a new Mexican American generation had begun to claim its rightful place in society. This self-image can be seen in the establishment of organizations that emphasized not only communal self-help, preserving cultural traditions, or promoting assimilation, but political activism. During the 1930s and 1940s, a distinct Mexican American youth culture emerged, with its own styles of dress and behavior. "Pachucos" or "zoot suiters" were suspended between two worlds. They were disaffected from their parents' rigid social code but not accepted by mainstream culture. A distinctive music--jump blues--became the anthem of the defiant zoot suit-clad pachuco. It fused swing, rumba, and jazz, and the lyrics were sung in Calo, the Spanish hipster dialect.

In this article, an educator, writing in 1931, describes the Americanization program in San Bernardino County, California.

Document: One of the most momentous problems confronting the great Southwest today, is the assimilation of the Spanish-speaking peoples that are coming in ever increasing numbers into that land formerly owned by Mexico and since 1848 owned by the United States....

The program to be presented . . . sets up those activities that will bring about the acceptance by aliens of American ideals, customs, methods of living, skills, and knowledge that will make them Americans in fact....

...The problem of Americanization involves not only the adults, but their children; . . . any program neglecting a full consideration of the educational needs of the foreign children is destined to fall short of complete success.... These and other problems can be wholly or partially solved; special classrooms adapted to the needs of the foreign element must be provided in the high school plant, in the elementary school buildings, in Mexican camps, and in central buildings within certain camps; a traveling school room on a bus chassis has been provided; teachers must be trained for Americanization work; lessons must be prepared to meet the needs of both children and adults; budgetary provisions must secure sufficient amounts of money;... the public must be aroused to a realization of the great and immediate need of making provision for educational, vocational, and sanitation programs that will result in...promoting the use of the English language, the right American customs, and the best possible standards of American life.

...As the average Mexican adult has had no training in the "home-owning virtues," it will be necessary to develop lessons regarding thrift, saving, and the value of keeping the money in the banks. As the Mexicans show considerable aptitude for hand work of any kind, courses should be developed that will aid them in becoming skilled workers with their hands. Girls should be trained to become domestic servants, and to do various kinds of handwork for which they can be paid adequately after they leave school.

...Finally, there should be established in the intensive program of adult education. Funds should be teach every Mexican the English language, to teach every mother the care of infants, cleanliness, house sanitation, and economical house management including lessons in sewing, cooking, and thrift. The men should be trained in thrift, in gardening, and in the principles of the American government. In order to bring all the Mexican groups up to a higher level, parents and other adults must be taught as well as their children.... Class instruction... must exist for everyone; none should be allowed to escape the educational campaign.

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