Thursday, February 25, 2010

"An idle, thriftless people": Mexican Labor and Anglo Prejudice in the Late 19th Century West

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below if a description of the racism and violence faced by Mexican and Mexican American workers in the late 19th century West.

Pressure from labor unions, and elites worried about the arrival of “racial undesirables” on American shores, led to passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which banned the further immigration of Chinese people to the United States. Wealthy whites found other cheap labor sources, from Japan, Korea, and the Philippines. An emerging source of labor came with Mexicans and Mexican Americans, who drew Anglo hostility that often matched that shown the Chinese. In the white mind, Mexicans descended from three “inferior” racial groups: Indians, blacks, and the Spanish. The Protestant majority also disdained the Mexicans’ Catholicism.

Most Mexicans within the United States were poor, working their own small farms or serving as migratory agricultural labor. Before the Mexican American War, wealthy Mexicans in California owned about 15 million acres. Anglos poured in following the 1848 conclusion of the war and the subsequent annexation of California. One-time Mexican elites found themselves surrounded by land-hungry newcomers. Wealthy Mexicanos held land titles issued by the Mexican government. Anglo judges repeatedly invalidated these land claims. Whites often supplemented lawsuits with petty harassment or even violence.

White merchants, bankers and lawyers in New Mexico conspired to raise property taxes to force Mexican landowners to sell. By 1854, Anglos had seized all but one Mexican land grant in Texas. The Texas Rangers, a state law enforcement agency, initiated a campaign of terror against Mexicans within the state, murdering as many as 5,000 in the 19th century. The seized land would then be distributed to whites, who subsequently made fortunes as ranchers and farmers.

Formerly rich Mexicans declined into poverty and depended on low wages paid by the now-dominant whites. The poverty of the former landowners was then taken as evidence of Mexicano cultural and racial inferiority. Author Richard Dana expressed a typical Anglo attitude, describing Mexicans as “an idle, thriftless people.” Another author, Lansford Hastings, complained that a Mexican “always pursues that method of doing things, which requires the least physical or mental exorcise [sic] unless it involves some danger, in which case, he always adopts some other method.”

Mexicans worked as migrant farm labor or as low-wage workers in urban barrios (ghettoes). As irrigation methods became more sophisticated, improved technology brought more acreage into cultivation, and the spreading railroads expanded the marketplace for Western farmers, a wave of Mexicans poured into the United States. The biggest surge of Mexican immigration would await the bloody Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920.

The level of discrimination faced by Mexicans and Mexican Americans depended on how large their population was in a given area, the presence of whites or African Americans seeking similar employment, and whether the immigrants were perceived as transient or as seeking permanent residence. Mexicans faced particularly harsh discrimination in many parts of Texas.

No Texas school system ever segregated Mexican and Mexican American children by law. Instead, segregation of Anglo and Hispanic children derived by custom. Where there were few Mexican children, no segregation occurred. In farm communities, however, separate quarters for Mexicans and Anglos were established early on. In 1902, Seguin, in South Texas, became the first school system to segregate Mexican children but the practice spread until, by 1930, 90 percent of heavily Mexican South Texas schools provided separate facilities for Anglo and Mexican children. Restaurants in Texas and other Southwestern states often would not serve Mexican customers or would require them to wait outside for food. Park and public pool managers frequently excluded Hispanics.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

A bit one-sided?

Michael said...

In what way?