Thursday, July 14, 2011

White Like Me: Mexican Americans, Jews, and the Elusive Politics of Whiteness, Part II

In 2006, the University of Texas Press published "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001." To mark the fifth anniversary of that publication, I am serializing "White Metropolis" at this blog site. Here, I describe the racism that Mexican Americans encounter in Texas after World War II and how Anglo hostility shaped the Latino relationship with African Americans.

From 1930 to 1960, San Miguel argues, Houston's Mexican American leadership sought to integrate schools for their children, to open more opportunities for such children to attend college and to promote political activism within the community. Such leaders, conscious of their precarious position in the region's hierarchy and fearful of an Anglo backlash, sought to avoid anything smacking of radicalism. "The goal of members of the Mexican American Generation thus was to support moderate social change that would improve, not replace, the existing social order," San Miguel writes.

This ideology shaped the League of United Latin American Citizens, founded in 1929 in Corpus Christi, Texas. LULAC drew its membership from "[s]mall business owners and merchants, small landowners, skilled workers, artisans, [and] professionals . . ." English was declared LULAC's official language. LULAC's racial politics can be deciphered by its name. By labeling themselves "Latin American," the middle class group emphasized the community's European origins and American citizenship. Some LULAC chapters expressed their white identity by erecting a color line between the membership and blacks. One LULAC council expelled a member for marrying a "Negress" and members socially shunned the interracial couple. A member of the council bitterly complained that "An American mob would lynch him. But we are not given the same opportunity to form a mob and come clean."

For many Mexican Americans in Dallas, surrendering any separate cultural identity provided the quickest route to the American mainstream rather than absorbing gringo racism. "I just don't believe in teaching the children Spanish," one resident of a Dallas barrio told anthropologist Shirley Achor in the early 1970s. "They'd be better off if they never spoke it at all . . . You know it's true — even a Spanish accent can hurt a person in life."

Such accommodation marked not just LULAC members, but also Dallas Latinos who joined the American GI Forum (AGIF) after World War II. Dr. Hector Garcia helped form AGIF in Corpus Christi, becoming its first chairman in 1948. The organization received national attention in 1949 when it protested a Three Rivers, Texas funeral home's decision to bar a chapel funeral for Private Felix Longoria, who had been killed years earlier in World War II. In 1954, several prominent Dallas Mexican Americans, including Pancho Medrano (who unlike many of his peers in the group actively participated in black civil rights campaigns) and Joe Landin, founded the Dallas chapter of the GI Forum. AGIF investigated job discrimination and police brutality while lobbying the Dallas school district for improved funding for Mexican American schools.

The American GI Forum, however, held a similar stance to LULAC vis-à-vis racial identity and the black civil rights movement. To both organizations, Mexican Americans were white and African Americans would have to fight their own battles. "LULAC has been the lone spokesman on Civil Rights for over a quarter of a century," the group's president, Paul Andow, sniffed in a 1963 policy statement just three days before Martin Luther King, Jr. and other black civil rights leaders held their famous March On Washington:

"We have not sought solutions to problems by marching to Washington, sit-in's or picketing or other outward manifestations . . . We believe that a man should not receive a position of trust or other emoluments simply because he belongs to a particular ethnic group — we believe that an individual must earn and merit this position . . ."

LULAC leaders like Andow clearly worried that too close an alliance with black civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King and endorsement of their tactics would imperil the position of Latinos in a white supremacist society. Andow further implied that blacks succeeding in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement did not deserve their good fortune. Meanwhile, LULAC sought a white identity for its members, campaigning against racial designations on government forms that classified Latinos as Mexicans. The term Mexican referred to a nationality, not a race, LULAC insisted, and Latinos were as white as any Anglo Saxon. Jacob I. Rodriguez of LULAC bristled at the Mexican label. "There's no sense of shame in being, or being called, a Mexican — IF YOU ARE A CITIZEN OF MEXICO!" Rodriguez wrote in a 1963 letter to the San Antonio Express. "There's just no reason why we — as U.S. Citizens — should be called what we are not . . ."

Dr. Hector Garcia of the American G.I. Forum also fought a long battle to get state institutions to stop classifying Latinos as non-whites. Garcia protested to Homer Garrison, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, that state troopers should stop making the notation "Mex" in the blank space on traffic reports calling for racial designations. " . . . [I]s the Department aware that there is no such thing as a Mexican race, no more than an American race?" Garcia asked Garrison in an April 17, 1950 letter.

Hector Garcia celebrated the decision of the Department of Welfare that they would classify Mexican Americans as "Race — White, Nationality — Americans." Like his LULAC counterparts, Garcia sought to distinguish his group from African American civil rights organizations. On March 9, 1954, an American GI Forum Local Secretary in Crystal City, Texas, Gerald Saldaña, requested Garcia to send a brief history of the organization. Saldaña asked if the Forum was a "Latin counterpart" of the NAACP. Garcia was adamant that no comparison should be made between the two groups. ". . . [W]e are not a civil rights organization," he wrote. ". . . Personally, I hate the word . . . [Definitely] we are not to be considered at all as a counterpart (Latin) of the NAACP."

One American GI Forum supporter, Manuel Avila, Jr., was alarmed when Ed Idar, Jr., the Forum's executive secretary, published an article in the group's newsletter depicting the AGIF and the NAACP allying in the struggle against school desegregation. "I only hope this does not hurt our cause but I can already hear the Anglos saying 'those nigger lovers,'" Avila wrote in 1956. ". . . Anybody reading [your newsletter] can only come to the conclusion we are ready to fight the Negro's battles, and God only knows we have a big problem ourselves and aren't that strong to defend someone else . . . [S]ooner or later we are going to have to say which side of the fence we're on, are we white or not . . . Let's face it first we have to establish we are white then be on the 'white side' and then we'll become 'Americans' otherwise never."

An impulse towards whiteness thus runs through the history of mainstream, middle class Latino political organizations such as LULAC and the American G.I. Forum. However, some Mexican Americans like Pete Garcia moved beyond mere accommodation to violent support of segregation. Garcia was not alone in seeing virulent anti-black racism as a means to achieve whiteness. P.R. Ochoa concluded that the enemy of Dallas' Mexican American community was not the Anglo power structure, but the state's politically disenfranchised African Americans. Part of being white, in Ochoa's view, was holding white supremacist beliefs.

Ochoa in the late 1960s served as a Nueces County Republican Party precinct chairman. In the 1950s and early 1960s, however, he ran a variety of businesses — a publishing company, a "commercial academy," an auto parts store, a real estate firm and a variety store — out of his Dallas office on Singelton Boulevard near Norwich Street. He was also the publisher, and the only identifiable writer, for a chain of Texas newspapers — the Dallas Americano and related editions in San Antonio, Corpus Christi and Kingsville. Ochoa signed his front-page column "Pedro el Gringo" and represented the assimilationist approach in its extreme.

Ochoa urged his Mexican American readers to use the term "Americano," "Spaniol," or "Texano" when referring to themselves because "Latin, Mexican and European are foreigners." Ochoa, who fancied himself the head of the "Spaniol Organization of White People," went much further in promoting white racial identity for Mexican Americans. Integration meant slavery for "Spaniol" Texans, Ochoa argued. He regularly printed slogans in bold type on the pages of his six-page weekly such as "conserve su raza blanca" ("preserve your white race") and "segregacion es libertad" ("segregation is liberty").

Like Pete Garcia, Ochoa also saw Dallas society in terms of a zero sum game. "The modern and first-class Negro public school located at Dallas, west housing project, it is far better and has more commodities than many public schools for Spaniol pupils and English speaking pupils at the valley near the border," he complained in an August 6, 1958 editorial. "Under what article of the Constitution, we should base our complaint?" In a Spanish language editorial he accused groups like the AGIF, LULAC, and the NAACP as engaging in a conspiracy to destroy Texanos. "The American GI Forum, LULAC, the NAACP, congresses and other nigger groups have repeatedly professed to be integrationists to push up the equality, intelligence and superiority of the black race," he wrote.

Anti-black racism by no means proved anymore universal in the Mexican American community than it did among Texas Anglos. Following the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 decision mandating school desegregation in Brown v. Board of Education, Texas Gov. Allan Shivers placed three non-binding referenda — laws preserving school segregation, strengthening laws against interracial marriage and supporting "local" rule against federal interference — on a statewide Democratic primary ballot.

These measures passed by a four-to-one margin statewide, but in twelve counties with significant Mexican American populations the ballots were approved by less than 60 percent. Three heavily Mexican-American counties, Bexar, Kleberg and Uvalde, refused to put the measures on the ballot while Webb county beat the proposals by an eight-to-one margin. In a state where Mexican Americans became targets of segregation, such opposition might reflect self interest, but it might also reflect a smaller degree of racist sentiment in the Mexican American, as opposed to the Anglo community.

There is less ambiguity in the career of the state's most visible Mexican American politician, Henry B. Gonzalez of San Antonio. As a member of the San Antonio city council in 1956, Gonzalez promoted measures that abolished all of the city's segregation ordinances. As a state senator in 1957, Gonzalez filibustered for 20 hours to block legislative proposals that would have impeded implementation of Brown v. Board of Education in Texas. In his lengthy oration, Gonzalez drew comparisons between his own experiences with segregation as a Mexican American and the freedom struggles of African Americans. "Is Texas liberty only for Anglo-Saxons?" he asked. The next year, Gonzalez won the NAACP's Man of the Year award. Even with his visible support of black civil rights groups, Mexican American voters continued to enthusiastically vote for Gonzalez, electing him to the United States Congress in 1961.

While anti-racist discourse could be heard in the Mexican American community, the desire of groups like LULAC and AGIF to keep the NAACP at a distance provided a counterweight, reflecting a fear that such an alliance would complicate Latino efforts for equality. In some cases the embracing of a white identity also revealed deep currents of white supremacy among Mexican Americans. Ochoa and 1950 bomber Pete Garcia were middle class men who saw their social status dependent upon the isolation of blacks. The ideological differences between LULAC and AGIF on one hand, and Ochoa and Garcia on the other, reflects a politically dominant sentiment in the community that ranged from indifference to African American rights to outright negrophobia.


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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