Sunday, April 18, 2010

Mexican American Political Activism At Mid-Century

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 I describe the civil rights struggles of Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants during the time from 1945 to 1960.

From 1941-1945, close to 500,000 Mexican Americans served in the United States military out of a Hispanic population of about 2.7 million. In Los Angeles, Hispanics accounted for one-tenth of the total population but comprised one-fifth of the metropolis’ wartime casualties. Hispanics made up 25 percent of the victims of the “Bataan Death March” (in which the Japanese beat, shot and marched to death captured British and American prisoners of war in the Philippines), and Mexicans and Mexican Americans earned more medals of honor than any other demographic group.

The Mexican population in the United States increased dramatically during the post-World War II period, with Mexican immigrants increasing from 5.9 percent of all newcomers to 11.9 percent at the end of the 1950s. Part of this increase resulted from the bracero program, in which American landowners imported Mexicans as low-paid agricultural workers. The number of braceros brought in from Mexico jumped from about 35,000 in 1949 to 107,000 in 1960. In 1956, the bracero program peaked with more than 445,000 Mexicans working on American farms that year. Many braceros remained in the United States after their year-long contracts expired, joining a growing number of Mexicans who fled poverty in their country by crossing the American border.

Responding to Anglo concerns about the rising number of so-called “wetbacks” – the insulting term used for Mexican immigrants who supposedly crossed the border by swimming across the Rio Grande River – the federal government launched a crackdown on undocumented workers, “Operation Wetback,” in 1950. During the next five years, the government seized and deported nearly four million people whom authorities claimed were illegal immigrants, with Mexican American legal residents sometimes included in the sweeps. Immigration would heavily politicize the Mexican American community after the war, and many Hispanic political organizations battled to improve working conditions for migrant workers and to fight what they saw as harassment of the Mexican American community, including repeated FBI investigations of Hispanic labor unions which Anglo law enforcement insisted were communist fronts.

As with African Americans, Mexican American veterans of World War II returned from a war against racist fascist regimes impatient with the intolerance they still encountered at home. Passage of the G.I. Bill meant that more Mexican Americans attended college than ever before, and with increased enrollment at colleges and universities came rising expectations for a better life. The percentage of Hispanics living in towns and cities as opposed to rural areas dramatically increased after the war, reaching 65 percent in 1950, which facilitated political activism. Hispanic veterans in particular played a major role in the two primary Latino civil rights organizations of the post-war years: the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the American GI Forum. Well-educated, often prosperous and urban Mexican American elites formed LULAC in Texas in the late 1920s. LULAC’s founders saw assimilation with the Anglo majority as a path toward winning acceptance in American society. They embraced a “Mexican American” identity that combined respect for Mexican traditions and pride in American citizenship. A major focus was “Americanizing” Mexican Americans and recent Mexican immigrants who still spoke Spanish.

“LULAC symbolized the rise of the Mexican middle class,” according to historian Rodolfo Acuña. “As in the past, the organization did not really serve the interests of the poor, but, rather, reflected the philosophy of the middle class, who wanted assimilation . . . To achieve its goal, the middle-class leadership demanded constitutional and human rights for all Mexicans . . . They demanded equality as North Americans; their major goals remained equal access to education and other public and private institutions, and the enactment of state laws to end discrimination against Mexicans.”

The Anglo response to Mexican Americans and immigrants in states like Texas and New Mexico varied widely, with discrimination more common and harsher in places with large Spanish-speaking populations. In such communities, authorities denied Mexican Americans access to public parks and swimming pools, and restaurants either would not serve Mexican American and Mexican patrons or would force them to take their food through a back window and eat outside. Though no formal law segregated Mexican and Mexican American children from Anglos in Texas schools, in districts with large Latino populations, school officials routinely assigned Hispanic children to separate, crowded and poorly funded schools.

In New Mexico, teachers taught Mexican school children in Spanish, which LULAC saw as a deliberate attempt to block these pupils from economic success in an English-speaking country. Mexican children fared poorly in Anglo-run school districts. Hispanic students rarely finished their public school education with a high school diploma. Many non-native speakers of English ended up assigned to remedial classes. In San Antonio in 1920, 11,000 students attended the district’s elementary schools, but there were only 250 high school graduates. In 1928, only 250 Mexican students attended colleges and universities in the entire state of Texas.

To address the high drop-out problem in the Mexican American community, in 1956 LULAC President Felix Tijerina established “The Little School of the 400” program designed to teach Spanish-speaking preschool children a 400-word vocabulary of basic English words before they began first grade. Like the NAACP, from the late 1920s through the post-World War II years LULAC helped members file lawsuits against informal school segregation in the public schools and to open access to higher education for the Mexican and Mexican American community.

In 1946, a U.S. District court in Southern California ruled, in Méndez v. Westminster School District, that segregating Mexican school children violated their constitutional rights, a decision later upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The dismantling of segregation in Texas began with the 1948 Delgado v. Bastrop ISD U.S. Supreme Court decision that banned school boards from placing Mexican-American students in different schools than Anglo children. These cases established a precedent for the Brown decision. In the 1957 Hernandez v. Driscoll CISD case, the court ruled that a Texas district’s practice of holding back Mexican American children in grades one and two for four years served as a form of discrimination.

Dr. Hector Garcia formed the American GI Forum (AGIF) in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1948 to serve Mexican American veterans who frequently did not receive Veterans Administration benefits on time. Shut out by the Anglo-run American Legion, Garcia and others decided to form their own veterans’ group. The AGIF grabbed national headlines in 1949 when it led protests against a Three Rivers, Texas, funeral home that denied the use of a chapel to the family of Army Private Felix Longoria, who died in combat in World War II. The AGIF launched an intense lobbying campaign. Lyndon Johnson, at the time a U.S. senator from Texas, successfully persuaded authorities to grant a full funeral service for Longoria at Arlington National Cemetery. Angered by the treatment of Longoria, Mexican American veterans across the country flocked to the GI Forum and by the end of 1949, there were 100 AGIF chapters in 23 states across the country. With its ladies’ auxiliary, entire families could participate in GI Forum events, a key to its success.

The LULAC and AGIF leadership tended to be conservative, and through the 1950s often presented Mexican Americans as a white ethnic group with a distinct cultural identity but American loyalties. As such, the leaders of these groups distanced themselves from the African American civil rights movement, were often critical of black civil rights protests, and sometimes even used racist terms to describe African American leaders. Nevertheless, Mexican American politicians like Henry B. Gonzalez of Texas threw his support behind the NAACP and black desegregation efforts. The Chicano movement of the late 1960s would bring increased efforts to unite blacks and browns in a common battle against racism.


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.

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