Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Tejanos and the Elusive Goal of Whiteness, Part IV

It is ironic, given the history of crillo and even mestizo hostility towards Indians, that the Latino experience in the Anglo-conquered Southwest most paralleled that of Native Americans. “It should never be forgotten that, with the exception of the Indians, Mexicans are the only minority in the United States who were annexed by conquest,” as one historian has put it. After the Mexican-American War from 1846-1848, former Mexicanos now found themselves racialized and outnumbered in Texas. According to Rodolfo Alvarez, the Mexican in Texas suffered from cognitive dissonance, a crisis in identity:

“[The Mexican surrender in 1848] meant that Mexico had lost any respect it might have had in the eyes of the Mexicans living on lands annexed by the United States . . . The break and annexation meant that they were now citizens of the United States, but they surely could not have changed their language and culture overnight merely because their lands were now the sovereign property of the United States; thus they maintained their ‘Mexicanness.’ Because their cultural ties were to Mexico, they were, in effect, ‘Mexicans’ in the United States. They were . . . a minority. They thought, dressed, acted and had all the anatomical characteristics of the defeated Mexicans . . . For all these reasons and more, the ‘Mexican’ minority could be viewed as deviants onto whom all manner of aggressions could be displaced whenever the Calvinistic desire for material acquisition was in the least frustrated.”

Part of the hatred Mexicans in Texas would experience in the years after the Anglo invasion would be rooted in the violence of recent warfare. “Any bloody war will engender very deeply felt animosity between contending factions,” Alvarez argues. “Furthermore, in order to kill without feelings of remorse it may necessary to define the enemy as being sub-human and worthy of being killed.”

Another factor was more pedestrian - simple ruthless economic struggle. With the conclusion of the Mexican-American War, the floodgates were open for massive Anglo migration. Title to the land had often already been parceled out under Mexican laws. As Alvarez points out, legal and extra-legal means were pursued to remove resident Mexican landowners from their property.

Many of these Mexicans had cooperated with the Anglos in their struggle with the centralist forces of Santa Anna. “By 1900 even those provincial Mexicans who owned large tracts of land and who had held commanding social positions in Texas and throughout southwestern society had been reduced to a landless, subservient wage-earner class,” Alvarez says. These “Mexicans” fought a losing battle to maintain their status as they contended with “the advent of a new English language legal system, masses of land hungry migrants, and strong anti-Mexican feelings[.]” Racist sentiments provided a moral rationalization for this naked land-grab.

[T]he dominant Anglos became increasingly convinced that socioeconomic and cultural privileges should not belong to a ‘culturally and racially inferior’ people,” James Diego Vigil writes. “For example, Anglos complained that the large ranchos were poorly developed by the Mexicans. . . They also believed that Mexican customs retarded the full use of land and resources; that is, too many fiestas hindered large-scale development. The new leaders maintained that the cause of civilization would advance with land control in Anglo-American hands.”

Cultural differences on land tenure aggravated Anglo-Mexicano tensions. “Fundamental differences in practices of land tenure and conceptions about proper land use, particularly the tensions inherent in the transformation of the land into a salable commodity, complicated the . . . competition [between Mexican-Americans and Anglos],” Robert J. Rosenbaum writes. The pressures were hardest on los pobres, the poor Mexicano farmer or agricultural laborer. “Most mexicanos engaged in subsistence agriculture solidly rooted in the traditions and social relations of their village or land grant,” Rosenbaum notes. “They were concerned with survival and prosperity within the traditional community. Producing a surplus for market was very low on their list of priorities.”

By 1854, Anglos had taken over all but one Mexican land grant in Texas. Anglo Texans forced Mexicanos off their land, sending them into a spiral of poverty. The poverty then was taken as evidence of Mexicano cultural and racial inferiority. Everywhere in the Anglo-conquered lands a similar process took place, according to Maurillo Vigil:

“Essentially, the pattern, though varying in time lapse, was one in which the Mexican essentially a poor dirt
farmer and sheep raiser operating under a subsistence economy but possessed of his land, begins to lose his land primarily but not exclusively to Anglo-American land speculators, large-scale farmers and ranchers, railroad and mining executives and the like, through legal and illegal machinations. With the loss of his land the Mexican became a ‘peon’ a laborer, essentially unskilled in all but those trades which he had traditionally performed for himself. The Mexican thus entered the labor market under the worst kinds of conditions and his economic status reflected it. As economics dictates social position, the cycle of subordination was complete . . . the Mexican became victim of a stereotyped image, he became a dirty Mexican, a greaser, he was characterized as lazy, lethargic, unambitious, fatalistic and so on.”

Not all Mexicans in Texas were treated with equal contempt. Early on, it became apparent that whiteness had its rewards and Latinos who most closely conformed with Anglo norms would face the least hostility. “Those Mexicans who could not look and act the part of Europeans were accorded a subordinate status,” James Vigil writes. “Generally speaking, gente de razon [“men of reason” as Mexican elites had designated themselves in opposition to the “unthinking” Indio and mestizo ] had a somewhat easier time because of their Latin background. It was the poorer, darker individuals unassimilated to the European model who suffered the worst abuse . . . Many of the lighter-hued, Spanish types felt superior to other Mexicans and ‘to this day, the don’s . . . descendants refuse to acknowledge their mestizo ancestry or to recognize that their grandfathers acquired Mexican, not Spanish, land grants.”

Poor and struggling Latinos often banded together against both oppressive Anglo landholders and the gente de razon. “To protect their interests . . . many of the gente de razon joined Anglos in oppressing the resistance acts of the Mexican masses,” James Vigil observes. “Despite this uneasy alliance, they too lost out in the end, becoming bankrupt and poverty-stricken in some instances. For ‘despite the division between the two groups . . . Anglo-Americans regard them as one - as Mexican - except for ceremonial occasions when elements of the native-born become ‘Spanish.’”

At first, the racial hierarchy of Texas was rather simple - there were whites and then there were everyone else. Some of the wealthier Mexicanos had achieved whiteness, but most Texas residents of Mexican descent found themselves occupying a similar status as African Americans and Indians.

As Arnoldo De León points out, most Tejanos (Texans of Mexican heritage) were descendants of Tlascalan Indians and mestizo soldiers from Coahuila. In East Texas, these mestizos had further miscegenated with Louisiana mulattos. “Their contrast to ‘white’ and salient kindred to ‘black’ and ‘red’ made Mexicans subject to treatment commensurate with the odious connotations whites attached to colors, races, and cultures dissimilar to their own.” Tejanos were seen by Anglos as passive, lacking curiosity, superstitious and completely in the thrall of the Vatican, lazy and irresponsible. A year before the Texas Revolution, Sam Houston had declared, “The vigor of the descendants of the study north will never mix with the phlegm of the indolent Mexicans no matter how long we may live among them.”

Free-floating Anglo stereotypes of African Americans and Indians became attached to the Tejano. “For two hundred years, ideas that black men lusted for white women and notions that slaves were of a ‘heathen’ or ‘savage’ condition had played upon Americans’ fantasies; the result had been an institutional debasement of blacks because of their race,” De León says. “Images of the Indian as fierce, hostile and barbaric similarly affixed themselves in the thoughts of white settlers, and the constant confrontation over land led more to the reaffirmation of these images than to their dissolution. Consequently, when whites arrived in Texas, they unconsciously transferred onto the new ‘colored’ folk they encountered a pseudo-scientific lore acquired from generations of interactions with blacks and Indians.”

In spite of their partial European heritage, Mexicanos were most frequently associated with these two other much-despised “races.” As De León puts it, “Anglos were not about to elevate Mexicans to their level of European whiteness; their own sense of superiority turned Tejanos into a people lesser than themselves; and, obviously, in any comparison, Mexicans were going to resemble their progenitors. Thus, whites often likened Mexicans to Africans and Native Americans.”

The myth of the Mexican rapist, like that of the black sexual predator, entered Anglo Texas folklore. After the Mexican-American War Anglos never trusted Tejano loyalty. The Mexican in Texas was feared as a potential insurrectionist. Both before and after the Texas Revolution rumors spread that Mexicans were plotting to incite a slave rebellion. Whites, in any case, suspected that the Tejanos were “infused with African blood.” One rumor claimed that slaves on plantations along the Trinity were seeking to enlist the aid of Coushatta Indians in a campaign to march south to Galveston where, with Mexican aid, they would slaughter the Anglos of Galveston.

Writings after the Mexican-Anglo wars of the 1830s and 1840s display an Anglo Texan obsession with the racial origin of their Tejano neighbors. “They are of a mongrel blood the Aztec predominating,” one author wrote in describing Tejanos in Brownsville in the 1860s. “These degraded creatures are mere pilferers, scavengers and vagabonds downright barbarians but a single remove above the Digger Indians, hanging like vermin on the skirt of civilization - a complete pest to humanity.”

Much Anglo revulsion centered on skin color. The darker skin of the Tejano held associations with dirt and disease, according to De León. “[T]he unhygenic nature that white consciousness associated with the skin color of blacks was very naturally extended to Mexicanos. To whites, dark colors connoted filth and therefore Mexicans were a dirty, putrid people, existing in squalor.” So associated with filth had the Mexican become in the Anglo Texan mind that a myth developed in the nineteenth century that even carrion avoided unburied Mexican corpses. Several Texans in the nineteenth century reported that Mexican bodies following battles, or in the aftermath of lynchings were shunned by scavengers.

“Thus did Noel Smithwick, who had been in Texas since the 1820s, explain that buzzards and coyotes feasting upon dead horses following the Battle of San Jacinto passed up the Mexican dead ‘presumably because of the peppery condition of the flesh.’ Moreover, continued Smithwick, when cattle nibbled at the bones that scavengers had known better than to touch, their milk was adversely affected . . . After eleven Mexicans were reported lynched along the Nueces River in 1855, a Corpus Christi correspondent declared it just as well: ‘Better so than to be left on the ground for the howling lobos to tear in pieces, and then howl the more for the red peppers that burn their insides raw.’”

Marshall T. White of Carrizo, Texas told a reporter for the Philadelphia Sun in 1886 that, during the War with Mexico, “greasers” were often buried near the bodies of American soldiers. Wolves, he said, would dig up the bodies of Americans and ignore the Mexicans sticking halfway out of the ground next to them. The wolves avoided the Mexican bodies, White told the reporter, because “Greasers fill themselves with cayenne pepper and garlic until their flesh is as rank as mule meat.”

It was inevitable, perhaps, that such gross dehumanization might encourage anti-Mexican violence. Ironically, the pressures of Anglo racism seemed at times to be uniting what had been a badly-fractured Latino community. In late nineteenth century Texas, three violent clashes between Tejanos and Anglos broke out - the “Cortina Wars” of 1859-1860 and of 1873-1875 near Brownsville and the El Paso “Salt War.”

As David Montejano points out, in all three cases, “competing claims to land or livestock precipitated a state of virtual warfare, with a mobilized Mexican element matching arms with the local constabulary and the Texas Rangers. The losers in these conflicts were usually the uninvolved civilian population, who bore the brunt of escalating and indiscriminate retaliation and counterretaliation.” Lynching and other forms of anti-Mexican violence were prevalent in Texas in the late 1860s and the 1870s, primarily in South and West Texas.

In one instance, a Mexican teenager in Eagle Pass was accused of killing a white boy and absconding to Mexico with a white girl. A lynching party gathered wood and built a fire. “With the fire lighted, the party commenced torturing their victim,” De León writes. “ . . . [T]he whites mutilated the Mexican’s nose and ears and split his hands and feet with their knives. The party severed various members of his body, gouged out his eyes, and finally picked him up and threw him into the fire. The Mexican, still alive, tried to scramble out of the fire, only to be flung back into the flames. There he was kept until life was extinguished. Mexicans of the area watched the ordeal from a distance.”

The worst outbreak of mass anti-Mexican Anglo violence in Texas occurred during the wave of xenophobia engendered by the First World War. There, the Rio Grande Valley turned into a virtual war zone from 1915-1917. White fury seemed to have been sparked by reports of the “Plan de San Diego” which reportedly was a rallying cry for Latinos to head an “Liberating Army for Races and People” (to include blacks, Japanese and Indians) which would carve out an independent republic consisting of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and California..

Groups of between 25 to 100 men organized in military fashion attacked train derailments, burned bridges and sabotaged irrigation pumping plants. Anglos saw the attacks as Mexican banditry, violence spilling over from the concurrent chaos of the Mexican Revolution. “Confronted with raids they could not understand and that threatened their lives, the Anglo residents of South Texas became panic stricken,” Montejano writes. “They formed vigilante committees which administered ‘summary justice’ to Mexican suspects.”

An attack occurred August 8, 1915 on the King Ranch, carried out by an army of 60 Mexican raiders bearing a banner that proclaimed “Igualdad e Independencia” (“Equality and Independence.”). After this, Texas Rangers launched a manhunt resulting in the deaths of between 100 and 300 Mexicans. Press reports suggested that the raiders were being armed by the Germans and the Japanese.

Fear of an insurrection of “colored people” filled the air. By the time the hysteria and the violence subsided in 1917, anywhere between 500 and 5,000 “Mexicans” had been murdered in the Valley compared to 62 Anglo civilians and 64 soldiers. This mayhem was followed, just two decades later during the Great Depression, by the mass deportation of Texas “Mexicans” - regardless of their status as citizens to Mexico. Out-of work Anglos now saw the poorly-paid Mexican laborer as an economic threat. Between 250,000 to 300,000 Tejanos were forcibly “repatriated” between 1929 to 1939.

The most typical manifestation of anti-Latino racism, however, was not violence but the day-to-day practice of segregation. As Montejano points out, separate quarters for Mexicans and Anglos early on were established in the farm towns. A separate school system emerged, starting in Seguin in 1902, until Mexican ward schools existed throughout the states. “By 1930, 90 percent of South Texas schools were segregated,” Montejano writes. “By the early 1940s, separate schools for Mexicans existed in at least 122 school districts in 59 representative counties.”

Montejano cites three reasons for segregation which targeted Mexican Americans. As noted, the folk wisdom in Texas had already assigned Mexican Americans a separate racial identity from the Anglo majority, one that consigned them a position closer to the social status of African Americans and Native Americans. Secondly, anti-Latino segregation in the state reflected labor problems. “The major concern of Anglo farmers was the organizing and disciplining of a Mexican labor force, which they attempted to accomplish through numerous controls,” Montejano argues.

Agricultural production was based on a work force “tied to the land through nonmarket means - through violence, coercion and law. This condition requires strong, undemocratic political measures to contain the response of the working population.” Secondly, Montejano believes the segregation formed a type of psychological control. “Physical separation, in this sense, was necessary to ensure that Mexican knew their inferior position in the developing order,” he writes.

By the time the segregation of Mexicans had become almost universal in the state’s school systems, the formation of a Mexican-American racial identity was almost complete. All - regardless of degree of Spanish or Indian ancestry, regardless of economic class - had been collapsed into one “Mexican” identity. As Montejano observes, the Anglo pioneers, in spite of their general feelings about Mexicans, still made distinctions between Latinos of higher birth and the working class. Mexican landowners were ‘Spanish” or “Castilian” while Mexican agricultural laborers were “greasers,” “half-breeds” or “Mexican Indians.” The impoverishment of the Mexican upper class, however, had darkened the former Castilian elite. “The Castilian-Indian distinction of the nineteenth century had lost its meaning, and Mexicans became simply and unambiguously Mexican,” Montejano says.

“ . . . Symbolic of the ‘darkening’ of the Mexican was the 1930s Census reclassification of Mexicans as belonging to the ‘other races.’ A more fundamental sign of this new racial status was manifested by the rise of segregation in the agricultural zones . . . The ‘factories in the field’ brought about a heightening of race distinctions. Agribusiness development gave rise to ‘Anglo market towns’ and ‘Mexican labor towns,’ a division that laid the basis for pervasive social segregation.”

The state’s racial hierarchy would thus be easy to describe if only a white/brown dichotomy had been drawn. The status of African Americans vis-à-vis Latinos, however, created an ambiguity that drove a wedge between the two groups and gave Latinos a narrow space in which to claim a higher social status. Blacks and Latinos often found themselves fighting for the same low-wage jobs, set against each other by Anglo bosses. The fate of the two populations was inextricably linked.

The Mexican population had been chased off and persecuted after the Anglo invasions of the 1830s and 1840s, unneeded by white elites well-equipped with African American slaves to do the state’s agricultural labor. With the abolition of slavery after the Civil War, the white leadership reassessed the value of Mexican labor.

“Mexican workers, now more valuable, were used as surplus laborers to depress wages of the Black pickers, who were now wage earners,” Acuña says. “Planters on the Colorado River, near Bastrop in San Marcos and Navidad, Lavaca County, where Mexican labor had been threatened and expelled before the Civil War, were now desperate for Mexican labor.” The splitting of the labor market followed a classic “divide and conquer” strategy. In August, 1894, a group of Africans Americans attacked Mexican laborers in Beeville.

“Growers encouraged antagonism between different ethnic groups,” Acuña observes. “They brought Mexicans into Beeville to drive down wages of Blacks and to create a labor surplus. Blacks blamed the Mexicans, rather than the growers for their depressed state and raided the Mexican quarter. Throughout this period considerable tension developed between Mexicans and Blacks. The federal government encouraged this tension by stationing Black soldiers in Mexican areas, using them to control the Mexican population. At Fort McIntosh in Laredo, the 10th Cavalry, a Black unit, participated in suppressing Mexicans.”

The comparative status of Tejanos and African Americans varied from town-to-town. It seems that even where anti-Mexican sentiment was the strongest, such as in South Texas, Tejanos enjoyed more social mobility than African Americans. In 1934, Paul Schuster Taylor published interviews he conducted in Nueces County (a South Texas county which includes the city of Corpus Christi).

Taylor’s interviews reveal that even in an area with a large Mexican-American population, at the height of the Depression and just two decades after the Plan de San Diego, that the Anglos of Nueces County drew distinctions between its black and brown population, to the advantage of the Tejano. A narrow opportunity for whiteness, based on wealth and conformity to Anglo norms was afforded the Latino population but completely denied blacks. “If a Mexican dresses well and is clean and wealthy, he gets by,” one informant told Taylor. “but the old greasers, no.” Social acceptance was afforded some Latinos, and it seems, regardless of census categories, that money still whitened. “If a Mexican is high class, they admit him,” an informant said, “and if of the lower class, they don’t; they draw the line on the laboring class.”

Taylor noted some similarities between the status of African Americans and Tejanos, but more glaring were the distinctions. “Do I consider them white?” one teacher, working in a school that included Tejano students, asked Taylor. “Yes, it would lower me to be teaching non-whites.” One farmer more explicitly spelled out the racial hierarchy:

“We give social equality to educated Spaniards, but these [Mexicans] are a cross between Aztec Indian and Spanish, and are not white. They get no social equality. They are not like Negroes; they are much better.”

A wealthy landowner agreed with these sentiments.

“The Mexican is a higher class person that [sic] the nigger. Some say that if we let the Mexicans mix with the white people, many would mix and would get out of this class, but mighty few Americans would let them associate . . . They look on them like the Negro . . . They say the Negro was descended from Ham [Noah’s accursed son in the Book of Genesis] and an ape; I believe it, too. Oh, I guess he is human, but he is not as good as he was in slavery. You can never make a white man out of a nigger, but a Mexican with half a chance improves.”

Taylor reports that there had been much intermarriage between the African American and Tejano populations in Nueces County in the nineteenth century. Mexicans helped slaves escape, he writes, and “color prejudice on the part of Mexicans” was weak. Tensions, however, were building between the two groups because of the unequal access to whiteness and the attending social advantages that came with that classification.

“The Negro women think they are going up [socially] to marry Mexicans and may be classified as white,” one black informant told Taylor. “There are plenty in the Mexican schools classed as white who have colored blood; you know, a Negro knows a Negro. They have Mexican names.” If some African Americans perceived that marriage to a Tejano offered an “escape hatch” from the bottom of the racial hierarchy, for some blacks resentment still simmered at the unequal opportunities afforded the two groups.

One informant of mixed black, white and Native American heritage asked Taylor, “Why can the Mexican be classed as whites when they are of the Mongolian race and Mongolians are considered colored? I had to tell the tax man that I was colored; he thought I was Mexican.” An African American cotton-picker overhearing the interview chimed in. “They [the Mexicans] think they are as good as you-all. Do you think so? Well, that is up to you-all.”

In spite of the mutual barriers the two groups faced, Latinos and African Americans failed to form an alliance in Nueces County. Tejanos found it to advantageous to achieve whiteness to surrender it in sympathy with oppressed blacks. One black farmer told Taylor that Mexicans “mixed” with Negroes only if the Negroes spoke Spanish. One Tejano cotton-picker told Taylor, “Negroes and Mexicans do not mix. It does not look right to see Mexicans and Negroes together. Their color is different. They are black and we are white. It is all right for Americans and Mexicans to mix. We are of the same race.”

A member of the “Latin-American League” told Taylor about a Mexican who had married a black woman who was expelled from the League for that reason and was socially shunned. “We told him, if you leave her, all right [you may remain a member], but not otherwise,” the man told Taylor. “An American mob would lynch him. But we are not given the same opportunity to form a mob and come clean.”

In other communities, Tejanos would earn the right to “come clean,” to prove their whiteness by acts of anti-black violence. In Dallas, Latinos constituted only the second largest “minority group.” Latinos have not only been outnumbered by African Americans, but have been overshadowed in terms of white racial anxieties. Dallas newspapers fretted throughout the century on the progress of anti-segregation litigation, on black crime and on the pretenses of African Americans to “social equality.”

Subjected to stereotypes and segregation, Latinos in Dallas nevertheless occupied an uncertain position in the Dallas racial hierarchy, not quite achieving whiteness but possessing a degree of status mobility not granted blacks. Aware that a label of non-whiteness in Dallas represented consignment to poverty, narrow opportunities, inadequate housing and poorly funded schools, some Latinos in the city would seize upon a white identity, even utilizing white supremacist discourse to establish their distance from blacks occupying the bottom of the social ladder. This unequal granting of racial privileges proved very effective at preventing an alliance for social justice between the two groups, frustrating attempts at meaningful reform.


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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