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Mexicanos, Second Edition: A History of Mexicans in the United States

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Newly revised and updated, Mexicanos tells the rich and vibrant story of Mexicans in the United States. Emerging from the ruins of Aztec civilization and from centuries of Spanish contact with indigenous people, Mexican culture followed the Spanish colonial frontier northward and put its distinctive mark on what became the southwestern United States. Shaped by their Indian and Spanish ancestors, deeply influenced by Catholicism, and tempered by an often difficult existence, Mexicans continue to play an important role in U.S. society, even as the dominant Anglo culture strives to assimilate them. Thorough and balanced, Mexicanos makes a valuable contribution to the understanding of the Mexican population of the United States—a growing minority who are a vital presence in 21st-century America.

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1 Spaniards and Native Americans, Prehistory–1521

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Mexican American is a term devoid of meaning before 1848. The number of Mexicans residing in the United States before the Mexican Cession was negligible. Yet it would be a mistake to begin this history with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, for the roots of Mexican American history are buried in the distant past. In order to understand the people and their culture it is necessary to go back at least to the sixteenth century. Like most other Latin Americans, Mexicans are predominantly mestizos; that is, they are products of race mixture. When Spaniards invaded the New World in the 1500s and initiated contact with Amerindians in Mexico, the genesis of the Mexican community in the United States began.

After a period of political and economic stagnation in the fourteenth century, the Renaissance, centered primarily in Italy, witnessed not only a momentous expansion of Europe’s intellectual and artistic horizons but also an enormous widening of its geographical limits. The Age of Exploration represents the first major expansion of the Europeans, who subsequently came to dominate much of the globe, thanks primarily to their superior technological development. Inspired by God, Gold, and Glory, Europeans pushed their frontiers in all directions, with their most meaningful acquisition being the New World. America was named after an Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, but in the forefront of the process of discovery and conquest were the Spaniards, the chief beneficiaries of this initial wave of Western imperialistic activity.

 

2 The Spanish Frontier, 1521–1821

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On 12 July 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner (1861–1932), a young professor from Wisconsin, gave a scholarly presentation entitled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” at the annual convention of the American Historical Association in Chicago. The most influential work ever written by a U.S. historian, this seminal essay proposed that the key to understanding the American people was to be found in their frontier experience, or, as he put it, “the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.”1 A product of three hundred years of westward movement into an environment with immense resources but few people, exactly the opposite of Europe, the national character came to be characterized by a strong work ethic, rugged individualism, and an unflagging optimism. Yet the most profound legacy of this adventure into the wilderness was democracy. While he discovered many other character traits, not all of them flattering, it was Turner’s description of Americans as paladins of democracy that left a lasting impression; by the time of his death in 1932, the idea that “democracy was born on the frontier” had been elevated to an article of faith among his countrymen. A brilliant analysis of the American past, the Turner thesis soon became the dominant interpretation of the United States and what the nation stood for.

 

3 The Mexican Far North, 1821–1848

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The Mexican period of Southwest History was very brief, lasting from 1821, when Mexico achieved its independence from Spain, to 1848, when the fledgling republic lost its northern territories to the United States with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.1 The most fateful trend in the Far North during this period was the continuing influx, in ever increasing numbers, of norteamericanos. Beset with a multitude of difficulties, which it shared with other emerging Latin American nations after the demise of the Spanish Empire in the New World, Mexico was unable to devote adequate attention to its northern border regions. The chief problem, as it had been for Spain, was the inability to populate an enormous area over which it never established effective control. The advent of the United States, a nation with seemingly unlimited resources and a burgeoning population, a people, moreover, brimming with a confidence that bordered on arrogance, could mean only trouble for their southern neighbors. What Mexico needed desperately in the first decades of its existence as an independent nation was a long period of peace, but it was its misfortune to find itself sharing a common border with the Colossus of the North.

 

4 The American Southwest, 1848–1900

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Chicano historians have tended to neglect the second half of the nineteenth century. When they began their work in the late 1960s, this period was generally viewed as a hiatus between two much more promising epochs: the age of Mexican sovereignty before and the decades of massive Mexican immigration afterward. It was the latter period, the twentieth century, which tended to dominate historical interest. One reason was that Chicano scholars are generally descended from twentieth-century immigrants and identify very little, if at all, with the so-called Spanish dons. Moreover, many of them pride themselves on being scholar-activists; consequently, they believe that it is imperative not simply to describe what happened in the past, but to change it, an orientation that naturally leads to a preoccupation with more contemporary issues. Still another reason for the neglect of this period was the abject condition of the Mexicano population in the Southwest before 1900. Small and powerless, they were despised and oppressed by mainstream society. It is a sad and depressing story, but one that needs to be told nonetheless. Adversity, after all, left a lasting impression among Mexicanos; many attitudes today are products of the trials and tribulations endured at the time. Happily, Chicano scholars have come to appreciate this perspective, and today it is recognized that the period was a crucible on which the modern Mexican American has been forged.1

 

5 The Great Migration, 1900–1930

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The dominant theme of Mexican American history in the twentieth century was immigration. With the one exception of the 1930s, every decade witnessed a substantial increase in the number of Mexican immigrants entering the United States, and there is little reason to believe that this movement will be stemmed in the near future. The first major push of immigrants occurred during the first three decades of the twentieth century. Although statistics pertaining to immigration from the south are highly unreliable, it appears that over one million Mexicans entered the country at this time, joining the half million already in residence. Most settled down in the Southwest, though Mexican colonies began to appear in other sections of the country as well. Given the magnitude and impact, Chicano historians have labeled this transnational movement “The Great Migration.”1

It is entirely possible, as some students of American immigration suggest, that more Mexicans have immigrated into the United States than any other single national group, including both Germans and Italians. One observer recently went so far as to conclude that Mexican movement north constitutes “the greatest migration of people in the history of humanity.”2 This statement appears rather grandiose, but Mexicans may indeed rank first among peoples who have made the United States their home. It is a claim, however, which is hard to substantiate, given inadequate statistics relating to the Mexican population. As hard as recordkeeping is today, it was even more difficult prior to 1930.3 The primary problem, then as now, was the surreptitious nature of much of the exodus. In fact, probably most Mexican immigrants in 1900–1930 entered the United States illegally, or at least through irregular channels.

 

6 The Depression, 1930–1940

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The 1930s was a decade of economic hardship for the United States. All segments of the American population suffered from the shrinking job market. Mexicanos were no exception. Material deprivation was only part of the story. Prior to this decade, anti-Mexican sentiment had been on the rise, but in many parts of the country “the Mexican Problem” was hardly a major issue. With the onset of the Depression, however, Mexicanos became a popular scapegoat. By now many Mexicanos had begun to move into towns and cities; no longer were they an invisible minority. Even their traditional defenders, the large mining, railroad, and agribusiness interests of the Southwest, were reticent to speak out on their behalf. Employers had access to a huge reservoir of cheap domestic labor thanks to the influx of Dust Bowl immigrants; Mexicano workers were now expendable.

By the thirties, though, many Mexicanos were beginning to view “los Yunaites Estaites,” as they called it, as their home. Indeed, many were now citizens by right of birth. Their means of resistance were limited. Not surprisingly, then, many Mexicanos joined the struggling labor movement, now radicalized by the desperate conditions of the working masses. In the end, the unions were forced to their knees by their powerful enemies. For Mexicanos, the defeat was especially vexing. By the mid-1930s, thousands repatriated to Mexico. Some did so voluntarily, others were forced to leave. The legacy of this humiliation is still felt in Mexicano communities to this day.

 

7 The Second World War and Its Aftermath, 1940–1965

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In the annals of American history, the Second World War was probably not as momentous in its consequences for many Americans as had been the Great War a generation before, but such is not the case for Mexicanos in this country. World War II altered life in the Mexicano community profoundly. Its heaviest impact was on the nascent middle class, which grew in both size and influence. In the aftermath of the war, this middle sector, largely composed of children of immigrants rather than immigrants themselves, was eager to win acceptance into American society, but only on its own terms. Much maligned by Chicano historians in the 1960s and 1970s for its lack of concern for the welfare of the ethnic community at large, in recent years this middle class, thanks largely to the efforts of the brothers Mario T. and Richard García, Guadalupe San Miguel Jr., and like-minded historians, has been reevaluated in a much more positive light. Given the intellectual and moral climate engendered by the war, it is clear that options available to this generation were rather limited. Moreover, it is now clear that a substantial number of the middle class did attempt to ameliorate working and living conditions for the Mexicano community as a whole, with surprising success.

 

8 The Chicano Movement, 1965–1975

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The decade comprising the midsixties to the midseventies was a period of extraordinary ferment in the Mexicano communities of the United States. Fateful social changes were in the air. Immigration from Mexico, for example, increased markedly, a trend that tended to push many of the older residents of the Southwest into other parts of the country. The most memorable changes, though, were political and psychological.

Following the lead of the African American community, which initiated a far-reaching movement for civil liberties in the fifties, many Mexicanos, now calling themselves Chicanos and Chicanas, embarked on their own campaign to improve socioeconomic conditions and win full recognition of their rights as U.S. citizens.1 While these concerns had been articulated before, notably by the Mexican American Generation of the post–World War II period, after the midsixties a new aggressiveness developed in the barrios. Socioeconomic gains made in past years seemed woefully inadequate. Many Mexicanos began to demand immediate reform. Some called for revolution. Convinced that changes of whatever kind could be instituted only through the acquisition of power, they emphasized political action as never before. Moreover, in contrast to their postwar predecessors, the leaders of the so-called Chicano Generation stressed pride in their ethnic roots while deemphasizing assimilation into the American mainstream. “A Chicano,” Rubén Salazar, a journalist on the periphery of the movement, once said, “is a Mexican-American with a non-Anglo image of himself.”2 Tired of apologizing for their ethnic origins, Chicanos looked to Mexico, especially indigenous Mexico, for inspiration. While there was much disagreement on specific methods—indeed, a substantial minority stood on the sidelines—most of the community was in general agreement with the goals formulated by barrio leaders: cultural regeneration and political power. Since these twin objectives are the crux of the emerging Chicano movement, also called Chicano Power or Brown Power, the struggle for Mexican American civil rights, it seems reasonable to see this decade in terms of Chicanismo.

 

9 Goodbye to Aztlán, 1975–1994

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The political generation that emerged in barrios after the mid-1970s, labeled by Chicano historians the Post-Chicano Generation—or the Hispanic Generation, given its more conservative nature—lived in a time of rapid and confusing change. Most Chicano scholars, swayed by the high expectations of the preceding decade, have tended to be critical. Political gains from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, for the most part a period of Republican ascendancy, appeared to them to be minimal. Socially and economically, too, the vast promise held out by the movimiento remained unfulfilled. And yet, upon closer examination of this disappointing and seemingly unproductive era, it is possible to detect more hopeful signs for the future. This chapter will try to present a balanced portrait of the Mexicano community in the United States during these two decades, a transitional period between Chicanismo and the contemporary age, by focusing on its frustrations and achievements, on its pain and promise.

 

10 The Hispanic Challenge, 1994–Present

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Unlike other social scientists, historians approach the study of contemporary events with some trepidation.1 While the factual record may be relatively clear, it is difficult to interpret significant trends. Nevertheless, in this chapter an attempt will be made to discover these major currents after 1994 as they relate to Mexicanos in the United States. Since the mid-1990s, a general awareness of Mexican-origin people, who presently represent about 11 percent of the total U.S. population, emerged as a central feature of American life. This recognition reflected an acceleration of two far-reaching demographical tendencies in the United States that were in evidence well before the advent of the North American Free Trade Association: first, the massive immigration of Mexicans, both legal and illegal; and, second, their dispersal to all corners of the Republic. Inevitably, given a whole host of problems that beset U.S. citizens during these turbulent years, not the least of which were the events of 11 September 2001, the appearance of immigrants of color throughout the country, many of them here illegally, fanned those nativist sentiments that were already pronounced before. Beyond xenophobia, Mexicanos, immigrants and residents alike, experienced a multitude of other barriers to advancement. Representing about 65 percent of a Latino population that exceeded 47 million in 2008, Mexicanos, hoping to take advantage of favorable demographic trends, looked to the political arena for relief. While some political gains were registered, however, socioeconomic progress remained uneven. Most Mexicanos, particularly immigrants, continued to live under precarious conditions. On the other hand, the small middle class did expand and continued to make distinguished contributions to American society, especially in the area of popular culture.

 

Appendix A. National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies Scholars of the Year

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Year

Name

Discipline

Hometown

1981

Américo Paredes

folklore

Brownsville, Texas

 

Carey McWilliams

history

Steamboat Springs, Colorado

1982

Julián Samora

sociology

Pegosa Springs, Colorado

1985

Ernesto Galarza

labor organization

Jalcocotán, Nayarit, Mexico

 

Tomás Rivera

literature

Crystal City, Texas

1988

Luis Leal

literature

Linares, Nuevo León, Mexico

1989

Rodollo Acuña

history

Los Angeles, California

 

Adaljiza Sosa Riddell

political science

Colton, California

1990

Juan Gómez-Quiñones

history

Parral, Chihuahua, Mexico

1991

Arturo Madrid

literature

Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico

1992

Margarita Melville

anthropology

Irapuato, Guanajuato, Mexico

1996

 

Appendix B. Hispanic American Medal of Honor Recipients

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Name

Conflict

Service Branch

Place of Birth or Recruitment

Lucian Adams

World War II

Army

Port Arthur, Texas

John B. Baca

Vietnam

Army

Providence, Rhode Island

David B. Barkley

World War I

Army

Laredo, Texas

Philip Bazaar

Civil War

Navy

Chile

Roy P. Benavidez

Vietnam

Army

Cuero, Texas

Rudolph B. Dávila

World War II

Army

El Paso, Texas

Joseph H. De Castro

Civil War

Army

Boston, Massachusetts

Emilio A. de la Garza Jr.

Vietnam

Marines

East Chicago, Indiana

Ralph E. Dias

Vietnam

Marines

Shelocta, Pennsylvania

Daniel Fernández

Vietnam

Army

Los Lunas, New Mexico

Fernando Luis García

Korea

Marines

Utuado, Puerto Rico

Macario García

World War II

Army

 

Appendix C. Mexican American Historical Novels

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Acosta, Oscar Zeta, Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo, 1972

———, The Revolt of the Cockroach People, 1973

Anaya, Rudolfo, Alburquerque, 1995

———, Bless Me Ultima, 1972

———, Heart of Aztlán, 1976

Arias, Ron, The Road to Tamazunchale, 1980

Azuela, Mariano, The Underdogs, 1915

Barrio, Raymond, The Plum Plum Pickers, 1969

Benítez, Sandra, Bitter Grounds, 1997

———, A Place Where the Sea Remembers, 1993

———, The Weight of All Things, 2000

Brito, Aristeo, The Devil in Texas, 1976

Cabeza de Baca Gilbert, Fabiola, We Fed Them Cactus, 1954

Candelaria, Nash, A Daughter’s a Daughter, 2007

———, Inheritance of Strangers, 1985

———, Leanor Park, 1991

———, Memories of the Alhambra, 1977

———, Not By the Sword, 1982

Cano, Daniel, Pepe Ríos, 1990

 

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