World War II and Its Affects on Mexican Americans
Beatrice Griffith, upon finishing her ground breaking research during World War II, came to the following conclusions about Mexican Americans: “They have come from the war fronts and factories, from foreign lands and American cities, to change their old ways of living. They are sustaining their new dreams with new knowledge of American work habits, skilled trades, and organizational methods. Like the Phoenix rising, they, too, are rising from their own ashes.”1
The story of the Phoenix is as old as time. The tale of a bird burning itself every 500 years in order to renew its immortality has been passed through all major civilizations since the ancients Greeks. Sensing old age and lackluster, the mystical bird collects kindling and fans its own fire while nesting upon the flames. From the ashes of the old Phoenix, a young and beautiful Phoenix is reborn. By overcoming fire, death, and old age, the Phoenix represents triumph over adversity and rebirth into glory, thereby providing hope and constancy.
World War II afforded Mexican Americans their own trial by fire. Before the 1940s, peoples of Mexican heritage endured segregated social, economic and political conditions despite being an essential part of the Southwest since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. This treaty awarded the US approximately half of Mexico’s territory after the Mexican American War. Since then, segregation of Mexican heritage communities became as socially entrenched as the Jim Crow Laws.
Originating with the Treaty, Mexican Americans are those individuals of either Mexican decent born in the United States or those who have spent a significant portion of their lives within the US. Mexican American communities frequently include recent migrants from Mexico, as well, allowing their societies to be categorized as Mexican heritage.
WWII, however, provided the kindling for Mexican Americans to light a social, economic, and political fire in the United States. New opportunities in labor and military service, along with the influx of Mexican immigration and wartime rhetoric of democracy, fueled the flames. The changing dynamics created by WWII allowed Mexican Americans to shed their old stereotypes and classifications. Once the embers of the war cooled, Mexican Americans emerged as an organized, enlightened force ready to challenge established discriminations.
World War II provided a catalyst for Mexican Americans to become aware of their value as United State’s citizens, prompting them to organize and demand social, economic, and political justice, which enhanced the presence of Mexican American communities in the United States. Firstly, the rhetoric of the war, with its emphasis upon preserving democracy and equality, prompted Mexican Americans to challenge the hypocrisy resulting from US war propaganda and actual domestic conditions. Furthermore, the Good Neighbor Policy forced the US to honor the rights of Mexican heritage citizens in order to receive war support from Mexico and Latin America. Thus, Washington became invested with ending all forms of Mexican American segregation within its borders, allowing these individuals to become full social members of the country.
The labor opportunities created by the war provided economic stability for Mexican Americans, thereby solidifying communities by helping them achieve economic strength. As industry expanded to accommodate wartime production, Mexican Americans received opportunities to establish themselves in cities with higher paying jobs and stable living conditions. This urban migration forced farmers to petition the government for the Bracero Program, which brought thousands of poor, male Mexican farm workers to the United States to remedy labor shortages. This influx of workers exposed new migrants to life in the US and allowed them easy entry, thereby enlarging Mexican heritage communities and providing the numbers necessary for unionization. Labor unions formed during and after the war, and perpetuated the idea of possibly achieving the lucrative “American Dream.” Mexican American women also entered the workforce in vast numbers, adding to a collective class consciousness and an increased sense of economic stability in the US.
WWI allowed Mexican Americans to prove their patriotism by serving in the military and engaging in war support activities. Mexican Americans received the highest number of Congressional awards out of all minority groups and represented themselves in higher percentages in all branches.2 Military service placed Mexican American men on an equal footing with their Anglo counterparts. Upon return to the United States after proving that they could equally risk their lives in the name of duty, servicemen became more critical of the unequal living conditions in the US. Veterans took advantage of new skills and GI benefits to rally their communities into political action groups and challenge the existing social order.
The economic prosperity that followed on the heels of World War II allowed Mexican Americans to move into the middle-class in small numbers. National political and social organizations, such as League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), consolidated and strengthened to coordinate the economic power of this new social group. Aware of entrenched racism, the vanguard middle-class championed such causes as ending school segregation and electing Mexican American politicians. Albeit a small proportion of the overall Mexican heritage population, this middle class further established Mexican American communities by encouraging social and political consciousness in their societies.
Thanks to the influx of new agricultural workers from Mexico and the movement of Mexican Americans into the cities, thousands of migrants enhanced the stability of Mexican American communities and established new migratory networks. In order to effectively challenge social and political discriminations, they looked to themselves first to find solutions to problems and support for the long road ahead. Thus, new migrants became integrated into the existing Mexican American communities, ensuring community survival for the next generation. Their community consolidation created the new cultural identity, different from the previous historical identity residual of the Treaty, of “Mexican American,” which became a rallying point for social action.
The Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles during June 1943 were the product of US nativist backlash and further cemented the consciousness of discrimination in Mexican American communities. Outraged by the blatant racism, Mexican Americans consolidated their strength around local communities and embraced their common heritage as a means for stopping the attacks. Although the Riots proved an example of the extreme hatred towards Mexican Americans, the community grew stronger and more collected as a result of their common culture. The group consolidated their political influence and appealed to the greater US consciousness of democratic ideals. After all, their sons, husbands, fathers, and brothers were dying in battlefields with the Anglos to defend their homes, as well.
Thus, a combination of social, political, and economic changes fostered by the war provided the conditions necessary for Mexican American communities to solidify their position in US society. World War II increased the number of Mexican migrants in the United States, enhancing migration networks and communities. These vanguard communities not only broke ground on social justice issues, but also created a focal point around which Mexican Americans and new migrants could rally. With this initial establishment, the foundations were laid for future Mexican immigrants. Their struggles and efforts earned them a niche in mainstream US life. Moreover, following the cyclical pattern of the Phoenix, the Mexican American communities of the WWII era laid the kindling for the next generation. The issues that were questioned and the leaders that were born out of WWII provided the fuel for the Chicano Movement in the 1960s.
It is essential to understand the historical and social conditions of both Mexico and the United States in order comprehend the gains Mexican Americans made during the war. The US suddenly found itself with thousands of native Mexicans living within its borders after the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which allowed the US to annex approximately half of Mexico’s territory. Thus, these individuals became the first Mexican Americans.A They became integrated into the labor force of the Southwest, working in ranching, agriculture, railroad construction, and mining.
From the beginning, AnglosB adopted a superior attitude towards their Spanish-speaking neighbors. Separate “Mexican” barrios were formed and the “Mexican” wage became a prevalent labor issue. If, in fact, the Mexican barrios and Anglo neighborhoods happened to merge, Mexican Americans received segregated services, such as restaurants and schools. Throughout the early 1900s, Mexican Americans continued to supply cheap labor for the mining, agriculture, and railroad industry. Wage and working discrimination ran rampant, and Mexican Americans were forced to assume the lowest rung of the social ladder. Complicating this position was the Great Depression and the 1930s, when displaced Midwestern farmers flocked the Southwest seeking employment. Their desperation for work created a backlash of nativism against the Mexican American minority, ushering an era of persecution, heightened segregation, and deportation.
Despite social and economic hardships in the United States, many native Mexicans envied their co-patriots to the North since conditions in Mexico deteriorated rapidly after 1848. Stung by the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and the loss of half its territory, the Mexican government moved towards the authoritarian Porfiriato, which was marked by rampant corruption and inflation. Instead of providing the large social reconstruction it promised Mexicans, the government forced the country into a downward economic, social, and political spiral that culminated in the Revolution of 1910. During this time period, many Mexicans fled the instability and bloodshed by migrating to the United States. Although many wished to return, they became integrated into the communities established by the original Mexican Americans. The Revolution failed to be the savior many Mexicans hoped. The resulting agricultural and economic reforms did little to ease the daily plight of working-class and farming Mexicans. As historian Richard Craig notes, “Soil, weather, geographic proximity, urge for adventure, salaries, credit, political bossism, and hunger” became the motivations for Mexicans to migrate to the United States.3 Lured by the ideals of the “American Dream,” these individuals came to the US with an ethic of hard work mixed with determination, hoping to achieve moderate economic and social stability.
The Good Neighbor Policy and It’s Affect on Mexican-American Communities
With this background, the United States and Mexico entered the 1940s and the war years. The attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 threw the US into World War II. The United States stressed democracy and racial equality as motives for defeating Hitler, and called for hemispheric unity.4 Mexico answered the United States by declaring war against the Axis powers on April 1, 1942. Eager to become a Latin American leader and the critical link of communication between the US and the rest of the hemisphere, Mexico readily embraced its existing Good Neighbor Policy with the United States. The policy deeply united the two countries economically, politically, and socially, forcing the US to reevaluate its treatment of Mexican heritage individuals.
The United States enacted the Good Neighbor Policy in 1939 to consolidate hemispheric cooperation, promote economic exchange, and encourage cultural understanding.5 By enhancing pan-American unity, the US hoped to create protection from Axis attack and supplement the Allied war machine. Mexico became a logical partner in this coalition, given its history and proximity to the US, and the availability of “immense resources for war production.”6 With its privileged position in the Good Neighbor agreements, Mexico and the US became equal partners, a marked separation from their previous history. As US Ambassador to Mexico George Messersmith described the “equity and lasting advantage” of these accords, he commented, “The relations between Mexico and the United States are more favorable and show a better mutual understanding than any time in our history.”7
The Mexican press also hailed the new agreements, portraying the Good Neighbor Policy as a means of ending economic hardships within Mexico. Since the war created a situation of joint dependency, the US was forced to invest in Mexico. The Excelsior, a prominent national Mexican newspaper, proclaimed the United States to be Mexico’s “older brother,” joined to the country in an “indispensable alliance.” It was reported that “only an economic, political, and military alliance with the US would resolve immediate problems and moreover create large, new sources of production and work.”8 The United States media interpreted this excitement as Mexico being “deeply impressed” with the “permanent, goodwill cooperation between the two countries.”9
Using its leverage as an equal political partner, Mexico forced the United States to address its own racial issues before it could be viewed as a credible “good neighbor.” As historian Juan Gomez-Quinones attests, “The struggle against fascism elicited unprecedented identification by Mexicans with U.S. aims and a heightened belief in democratic principles. At the same time … discrimination [in the US] was not suspended.”10 While battling Hitler and picking away at his racial superiority agenda, rampant anti- “Spanish speaking” prejudices persisted in the United States. Mexico, recognizing this dichotomy forced Washington “to promise a harmonious future of progress and international justice.”11 Thus Mexico not only became linked to the United States economically, politically, and militarily, but also socially.
Washington created the Office of the Coordinator for Inter-American Affairs (OCIAA) to address these social concerns. Such an objective prompted historian Emilio Zamorra to call the Good Neighbor Policy a “diplomatic concern joined with domestic issues.”12 The OCIAA focused on creating cultural awareness in the United States via media campaigns and educational drives. Although their primary focus was educating Anglos, the OCIAA also provided programs for Mexican Americans. These endeavors focused on easing any tensions that might have arisen from discriminations.13
The OCIAA created the Good Neighbor Commission (GNC), which focused on easing labor tensions between the United States and Mexico. As an ally, Washington solicited much needed labor from Mexico under the Bracero Program, which brought thousands of Mexican male agricultural and industrial workers to the US for temporary employment. These laborers, however, became subjected to the same discrimination and social alienation as their predecessors. Mexico, as an ally, called upon the US to honor its patronage as a “good neighbor” and remedy the discrimination. For example, Mexico refused to send braceros to Texas, forcing Washington to investigate substandard bracero conditions. This action shook the accords of the Good Neighbor Policy, bringing the issue of discrimination to national attention. Although this seemed to merely address labor contract violations, the true significance of Mexico’s intervention extended beyond the program. Mexico relentlessly forced the US to broaden the Good Neighbor Policy, which resulted in Washington paying closer attention to local Mexican-heritage communities and intervening in issues of discrimination.14 The Mexican Consul General, Miguel Calderon, conceded the social agenda of Mexico’s actions when he stated that the Texas ban provided “merely exceptional measures for protecting Mexican nationals in view of exceptional circumstances.”15
The OCIAA did not only deal with labor complaints, but also tackled the issue of discrimination from a military perspective. By discriminating and segregating “Spanish-speaking” peoples from mainstream social networks, the United States government decreased the efficiency of its war machine. First, repercussions from Latin America would threaten supplies of labor and raw materials since US leaders would appear inefficient or prejudiced. US citizens would also view their Latin American allies as second rate, rather then equal partners. Finally, the Axis powers could potentially exploit the racial tensions by turning Latin America against the US or publicizing the hypocrisy between US rhetoric of democracy and the actually state of racial affairs.16
The need for stable relations and continued military support from Latin America forced the United States to be a good neighbor locally before being a good neighbor hemispherically. Washington hired individuals like Loyd Tirement to travel throughout the United States promoting pan-nationalism and biculturalism.17 Governors and local officials, like Gov. Coke Stevenson of Texas, prohibited blatant racism, such as segregated public buildings and signs in store windows that read “No Mexican Trade Wanted.”18 Stevenson went even further and declared on June 25, 1943, the Good Neighbor Policy in the Public Policy of Texas. This act allotted for “full and equal or amusement to Mexicans and other Americans residing in the State.”19
Thus, the Good Neighbor Policy ceased to be political jargon and became a social reality. In an attempt to create unity and augment the war machine, Mexico forced the United States to address its issues of racism. Discrimination became explicitly condemned, given the equal racial footing created by the Good Neighbor Policy. As a result, the social and economic standing of both newly arriving Mexican immigrants and established Mexican Americans began the slow process of change.
The Affects of Wartime Labor Policy
As previously stated, the Good Neighbor Policy forged wartime cooperation between the US and Mexico. Part of this cooperation included Mexico supplying desperately needed wartime labor. The Bracero Program allowed temporary male Mexican agricultural and industrial workers to enter the United States to fill the labor vacuum created by the war. These workers spread all over the country, from the Border States to the Northern industrial zones.
This concord impacted the political, social, and economic relations of Mexico and the United States. First, this program so intricately wove Mexican labor into the American workforce that these laborers became indispensable, even after the war’s end. Second, the program directly moved thousands of native Mexicans into the US, increasing the numbers of Mexican heritage individuals in the US and providing new blood for established Mexican American communities. Third, the program furthered Mexico’s status as an equal partner with the United States. As the value of Mexican labor increased, so did Mexico’s clout, as well as the social and political momentum of Mexican heritage individuals living in the US. Mexican Americans and braceros unionized, which lead to better treatment and the public presence of Mexican heritage labor in the US. As prominent bracero historian Richard Craig notes, this program was not one-dimensional. Indeed, it contained strands of international, national, and sub-national components.20
Wartime labor needs opened the gate for Mexican nationals seeking employment. With thousands of men drafted for military service, the US faced a severe labor shortage. Men suitable for working in agriculture and industry were recruited from Mexico and brought into the US with pre-determined contracts. Given the particularly desperate need for agricultural labor, Mexican nationals became essential in maintaining the stability of US farms. In 1943, 52,000 braceros entered the United States, while 62,000 entered in 1944.21 Of the 5,073,450 foreign workers legally admitted to the United States for temporary agrarian employment between 1942 and 1967, more than 92% were Mexicans.22 This dependency upon Mexican labor forged a sense of national pride amongst Mexican-heritage individuals in the US. As the Excelsior boasted in a front page article, “Only Mexicans can salvage California’s crops.”23 Thus began the consolidation of pride and recognition of value amongst Mexican-heritage laborers. This pride and recognition would become important motivators for attacking social, economic, and political segregation in the post-war years.
Although braceros were originally recruited to keep the US agricultural market functioning, braceros soon became valuable workers in other economic sectors, such as industry. Industrial manufacturing output increased dramatically during the war years, creating a huge need for laborers. In 1940, only 163, 978 laborers were needed for manufacturing positions. By 1950 however, 328, 980 laborers were demanded.24 The Lend-Lease Program radically increased the need for steel, causing Midwestern factories to nearly double production. In 1920, less then 100 residents of Mexican heritage resided in St. Paul, Minnesota. By 1940, that number jumped to 2000 and skyrocketed to over 3000 in 1946.25
Fueled by wartime production, both the industrial and manufacturing sectors created lucrative, stable jobs for Mexican Americans and imported Mexican nationals. Labor opportunities shifted from only agriculture to including industry. With increased job security, higher wages, and new skill sets, industrial workers became reluctant to return to agriculture. A New York Times article reported that “when the Mexican Americans went into industry, they found that dexterity gained from orange picking served them to advantage. They climbed a notch in the economic scale and have been reluctant to return to the citrus orchards.”26 New wartime jobs therefore fueled the Bracero Program, which in turn increased the numbers of Mexican individuals in the US.
Mexican Americans and recruited Mexican nationals also directly participated in the war industries. Many farms utilizing Mexican labor were under contract from Washington to provide food goods solely for the armed forces. Braceros also supplied critical railroad labor, helping to expand tracks and keep defense operations in motion. Shell Oil, airfields, and shipyards all benefited from Mexican American labor. Workers of Mexican heritage frequently proved their skill and value as mechanical laborers, debunking myths of inefficiency and ineptitude. As Floyd Wohlwed of California Shipbuilding Company stated, “They are on par [with Anglos]… there is no difference.”27
Mexican American and imported Mexican labor proved their significance to the US war effort by stabilizing the economy and etching their position as integral elements of the labor force. Mexico understood their significant contribution of its workers, frequently pointing out their value in government correspondence. For example, the Mexican Ambassador to the Secretary of State politely reminded the US of the “contribution to the war effort [that] has been of so much importance” when aiding its nationals in obtaining better employment rights.28
A critical secondary effect of this transition into new areas of industrial labor was the urbanization of Mexican Americans and the creation of new migratory patterns. Mexican heritage families spread throughout the entire country; no longer were “Spanish speaking” communities found only along the Mexican-US Border States. Thus, Mexican Americans further solidified their presence in the US. Rather than being a regional community in the Border States, they became a national minority throughout the West, Midwest and Northwest areas of the country. Moreover, the recent industrial positions offered increased job security and the ensuing movement to urban centers created new inter-US migratory patterns. Such a lure to northern urban centers repeatedly forced agricultural employers to recruit braceros from Mexico directly,29 which increased migration to the US.
An example of the national success and entrenchment of the Bracero Program was its duration. Originally created to last only during WWII, Mexico and Washington signed the original agreement in 1942. The Agricultural Act passed in 1949, extending the program in order to allow for the transition out of the war time economy. After much debate between Mexico and the US, Public Law 78, signed in 1951 and valid until 1964, ensured the continuation of the program well beyond the war and its immediate after-effects. As Craig notes, the Bracero Program outlasted a world war, policing activities, numerous political administrations, and ceaseless international and national bickering.30
The continuation of the program proved the significant contribution of Mexican labor in the US. Griffith claims that the program and the bitter fights to ensure its survival debunked the cliché that “Mexicans are not good for skilled labor.”31 Furthermore, the continuation allowed some permanency for Mexican nationals within the US. Many of the original braceros could easily skip the end of their contracts and pass as new recruits. Another option was to remain employed in the original positions since the program encouraged employers to use foreign labor. Public Law 78 even allowed employers the right to recruit undocumented entrants who had been in the US for at least five years or skipped repatriation at the end of their contract.32 Thus, Mexican American communities were augmented since new Mexican laborers continually entered the workforce and older laborers could easily remain within the US.
These augmented communities enhanced the permanency of Mexicans in the United States. Since contracts became renewed relatively frequently and easily, Mexican laborers achieved a higher level of job security. Even though racism and job discrimination persisted, employment in the United States granted more opportunities than in Mexico. Historian Dionicio Valdes states, “The wartime economic boom afforded some people the stability of employment they had long sought.”33 As a result, many braceros brought their families, or openly welcomed friends and relatives who had recently arrived. Valdes notes, “Experience as braceros and the employment network they had formed lured additional thousands of Mexicans.”34
Bracero stories and intense recruitment campaigns caused Mexicans to believe the Unites States offered endless opportunities. Reporting on the Bracero Program in the Excelsior proves this widespread ideology of the US as a true land of opportunity. One article boldly announced, “There are not any Mexicans in the US without employment.”35 The Mexican press also hinted that naturalization in the US was a viable opportunity for braceros.36 The two governments were well aware of this propaganda, prompting an exasperated Messersmith to say that “the news that labor could be recruited for the US would immediately bring about a considerable number of requests to go in the belief that they were going to an El Dorado. The Mexican Government had to consider that the wages of the laborers in the US would be considerably greater than in Mexico.”37
Given the state of Mexico’s economy before the war, Messersmith was justified in worrying about a Mexican rush to the US. Mexico had little permanent industry and it was not self-sufficient in the production of critical foodstuffs. Both of these conditions signified a large unemployment sector and a destabilized economy.38 The President reported that 1943 was “a year charged with grave preoccupations. The rise in the cost of living [and] the scarcity of essential commodities … were a source of constant anxiety.” This statement was based on the rapidly rising cost of living since 1934, which was fueled by food shortages and speculation.39
Those braceros who came back to Mexico frequently expressed desire to return to the US, either with a visa, green card, or a new bracero contract.40 The labor conditions in Mexico, caused partly by the destabilized economy, proved to be deplorable. At least for bracero workers, contracts guaranteed room, board and wages. Many braceros also received fringe benefits unheard of in Mexico, such as job transportation, guaranteed work time, tools, and medical care.41 Like Richard Craig states, “[Mexicans] were so desperate as to trek hundreds of miles, suffer hunger, humiliation, beatings, and even death just to contract for the most menial of tasks” in the US.42 An Excelsior article commented on this “crudest reality” when it stated that the majority of peasants “live under subhuman conditions and therefore have turned their eyes toward a possible improvement beyond our frontiers.”43
The national press demonstrated frustration and embarrassment at the sheer volume of individuals wishing to leave: “Barely one train leaves with braceros … when immediately another train arrives with many people holding the pretext of contracting themselves in order to immigrate.”44 The Bracero Program hung the tantalizing “American Dream” in front of thousands of Mexicans, thereby fostering an economic and social ideology that would encourage migration. However, only a certain number of employees were needed. Thus, undocumented immigration became the viable alternative for thousands of desperate Mexicans.
The Bracero Program made the privilege of working in the United States a reality for thousands of adventurous, eager men. In doing so, it shifted economic and social scenarios in Mexico, further enhancing the desire of Mexicans to migrate to the US. Firstly, with the influx of remittances from braceros, the economy of Mexico became intimately connected with that of the US.45 This relationship enhanced the Good Neighbor feeling of interdependence and equality while tantalizing those still in Mexico. Secondly, bracero mentality gradually shifted once they arrived in the US. Originally intending to find work, earn a quick buck, and return to Mexico, thousands decided to stay in the US because of changing demographics in Mexican American communities. Both bracero communities and Mexican American communities influenced by the influx of new workers began to experience higher birthrates, encouraging braceros to remain.46 With incentive to stay, braceros began to organize with their US born counterparts and demand better treatment. These actions tightly integrated the migrant workers into the labor force and made jobs in the US significantly more appealing than jobs in Mexico.
The Bracero Program thus had several significant effects in forming a sense of value amongst Mexican-heritage people in the US and in encouraging community stabilization. First, Mexican labor was desperately needed to keep the US economy functioning. This instilled a sense of pride and equality amongst Mexican heritage laborers, since their work was just as valuable as that of Anglo’s. Second, the program further connected the social dynamics of the US and Mexico. Stories from braceros filtered back to Mexico, creating a picture of instant economic success in the US. This encouraged more Mexicans to immigrate to the US, whether via the Bracero Program or undocumented means. Third, the shear volume of Mexican-heritage people in the US grew tremendously. This would gradually encourage Mexican heritage community organization.
The Importance of Unionization and Labor Dynamics on Mexican American Communities
The organization and unionization efforts that resulted from the Bracero Program achieved significant social and political gains for individuals of Mexican heritage residing in the United States. With recognition of their labor vitality, a new sense of pride emerged amongst these communities. US citizens of Mexican heritage experienced a renewed sense of honor in their ancestry, while newly arrived Mexican migrants felt a new feeling of devotion to the US. As one Mexican American said of the war and war-enhanced labor opportunities, “The war years plowed us under, made our soil rich, and gave us new strength.”47 This very strength was applied to challenging, initially on the local level, the very same discrimination that Mexico challenged on the international level when forcing the US to become a veritable “good neighbor.”
Although the Bracero Program offered improved labor conditions when compared to those in Mexico, it provided substandard conditions when compared with mainstream US working conditions. Historian Juan Gomez-Quinones notes, “The historical conditions of stratification, exclusion, discrimination, and political subjugation relegated Mexicans to the bottom economic stratum in the US.”48 This subjugation was prevalent until the war, but the war required labor. That labor was largely of Mexican heritage, prompting a reevaluation of current labor discrimination. However, in demanding better labor rights, Mexican-heritage individuals did not merely force change on the local level. Rather, labor rights became an issue that the New York Times reported to be “national in scope and requir[ing] action by the national government.”49
Empowered by the essential services they provided, workers of Mexican heritage banded together and began to organize. Gomez-Quinones further comments that “labor unions promised to be centers of power, a new community.”50 Since unions helped workers and communities remained organized, Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans could remain progressive and unified during the long struggle for labor and social equity. Fueled with the “demographic clout” created by the thousands of new Mexican workers in the US,51 unions became integrated organizations where legal and non legal minorities could find access. Unions challenged the idea of the “Mexican job” and “Mexican wage,”52 by highlighting the significant contribution of their work and employer dependency upon their labor. Avoiding discrimination, standardizing wages in relation to Anglo wages, and insuring jobs became the overall goals of labor organizers.53
These newly organized Mexican Americans and Mexican migrant workers called upon the Good Neighbor Policy to end discrimination. Washington immediately responded to both union and Mexican governmental pressures, taking the necessary steps to curb discriminatory practices. In 1941 the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) and the Office of Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (CIAA) were created. Born out of the wartime need to supply labor, the FEPC attempted to curb discrimination in order to encourage migration. It formulated Executive Order 8802, also passed in 1941, which prohibited racism in hiring for defense industries. Workers of Mexican heritage could thus matriculate into more stable government jobs. The CIAA became charged with, in the words of official Joseph E. Weckler, of “breaking down, so far as possible, Anglo prejudices against resident Latin Americans … this discrimination is also directly injurious to our relations with the other Americas, particularly Mexico.”54 The War Manpower Commission (WMC) also investigated discriminatory issues. It investigated labor complaints and aided in the recruitment of new workers. The WMC was noted particularly for drastically revamping conditions of Mexican heritage railroad workers.55
Mainstream social recognition was achieved, which encouraged a reevaluation of labor rights. Demands made to Congress were approved. For example, a petition by the National Farm Labor Union achieved: free trade schools for job training, expansion of social security benefits, creation of “real housing,” and wage increase.56
The successful campaigns were caused partly by an interest in Hollywood. For example, the movie The Lawless was born out of this recognition of labor rights violations. Although not released until 1950, this movie exemplified the need for national awareness regarding the plight of Mexican-heritage laborers. As the director stated, “Though it is true that discrimination against guys named Garcia and Chavez is more prevalent in the Texas and California border towns and in Los Angeles, it exists wherever there is a Mexican community.”57 The film Salt of the Earth extensively documents the plight of picketing mine workers. Based on the real Mine-Mill strike of 1951-1952 in New Mexico, the film movingly and dramatically highlights the labor injustices between Mexican Americans and Anglo workers, demonstrating the challenges Mexican American unions faced.58
However, Mexican heritage workers felt it necessary to take labor issues into their own hands, building up strength in unions. Although several Mexican heritage-specific unions were created, Mexican Americans and Mexican nationals joined the ranks of larger, national unions such as Mine Mill, CIO and AFL. These unions, after all, stressed overall inclusion without regards to race, believing that exclusion would undermine the true meaning of labor unity.59 Mine workers proved particularly adept at organizing and gaining national attention. This publicity not only furthered their causes, but made their position in society more prevalent and established.
Laborers in the mines faced class and race discrimination that resulted in little or no job advancement, few security rights, low wages, and inadequate housing.60 The unions provided the necessary resources to redress these grievances. Mine Mill Locals 501 and 509 engaged in active picketing while appealing to the press. They never left their jobs, however, appealing to patriotic sentiments by working to fuel the war effort. Local 501 even petitioned the War Labor Board for higher wages. Once they received a pay raise, they banded together and bought war bonds. 61 AFL Local 890 also provided the organization necessary for mass mobilization by encouraging smaller unions to merge into one larger union with specific goals.62 Thus, unions appealed to patriotism and community.
The wartime need for labor did not only effect the employment of men or new migrants, nor merely encourage labor equality. Women of Mexican heritage also became critical elements of the labor force in the United States, just like their Anglo counterparts. Mexicanas became swooped up in the labor needs of wartime production. As worker Margarita Salazar McSweyne stated, “You figured you were doing something for your country and at the same time making money.”63 Not only does this statement demonstrate the new economic power Mexican-heritage women were afforded, but also their political identification with the United States. Both their new buying power and enhance political role contributed to a new, independent Mexicana awareness. Women now received an income that not only helped support the family, but also gave them buying power.64 She went to work and emerged self-confident and self-sufficient.
With this new mentality, Mexican heritage women came of age in US society. They moved outside of traditional boundaries and became actively engaged in their local communities. As one woman commented, “I think I gained a lot of confidence. It made me feel grown up and mature. At first I was insecure, but I found out I was worth something.”65 With this new leadership potential, women became engaged in social issues. Mexicana women created women’s auxiliary groups attached to GI forums, which increased their civic participation and awareness.66 They made new contacts and friends as their social communities and networks grew. In sum, the ability to be laborers enhanced women of Mexican-heritage’s ability to be active members of their communities, ultimately leading them to champion the cause of Mexican American equality in the US.
Changing labor dynamics played an important role in furthering the presence of Mexican Americans in the United States. The Bracero Program, aside from increasing the volume and value of Mexican-heritage workers in the US, further joined the US and Mexico under Good Neighbor fellowship. The urbanization movement occurring as a result of increased wartime production allowed Mexican-heritage workers to achieve stable employment and increase their skill sets. Mexicanas even entered the workforce, which allowed them to increase their economic presence in society. As the value of Mexican-heritage labor became recognized, workers formed unions and began to demand racial equality in the workplace. These actions pushed Mexican American communities into mainstream social and economic discourse. Thus, the labor vacuum created by the war allowed Mexican-heritage individuals opportunities to advance within the United States.
Significance of Military Involvement upon Mexican American Communities
World War II also allowed employment outside the civilian sector. Military commissions provided steady employment for thousands of Mexican Americans. Aside from guaranteed wages and benefits, the military offered Mexican Americans other distinct opportunities to gain social and political clout. By serving in the armed forces, Mexican Americans proved their loyalty and patriotism to the United States, indicating their devotion to the country. They fought as bravely as Anglo soldiers, demonstrating their mettle and importance to the war effort. Mexican American soldiers thus earned the reputation of being “equal” to Anglo servicemen. This new ideology of equality did not end with their tour of duty. Rather, returning veterans carried this newly earned respect back to their home communities and challenged the existing discrimination. Via political organizing, veterans began a process of social change for Mexican American communities.
Proportionally and statistically, Mexican American servicemen overrepresented their ethnic group in the armed forces. It is estimated that over 250,000 Mexican American men enlisted, although it is difficult to know the exact number since war records classified them as Mexican, Latin American, Spanish American or American. Since Mexican American families were generally larger than the average Anglo family, many mothers sent four or more sons off to war.67 In St. Paul, it is suggested that every Mexican American son enlisted and every daughter married a soldier. The Mexican barrio in Silvis, Illinois boasted the highest participation rate of any other neighborhood block in the US.68
Thousands of Mexican Americans enlisted out of patriotic duty, while other waited to be drafted. Public Law 507 from the Seventy-seventh Congress encouraged military participation. It states, “Aliens who have been lawfully admitted to the United States and who serve honorably in the Army during the present war may be naturalized.”69 Thus, military duty allowed for easier and quicker naturalization. A particularly high concentration of Mexican Americans enlisted in dangerous assignments like the paratroopers, Marines, and Rangers (included the famed Blue Devils), because they offered increased benefits.70 Although Mexican Americans provided important battle support in the Coast Guard, Navy, Air Force, and Army, they could also be found in riveting industries or the Civil Defense Volunteer Corps at home.
Frequently criticized and accused of being more “Mexican” than “American,” the war raised issues of cultural identification and social classification for Mexican- heritage individuals. Service allowed Mexican Americans to prove that they could both honor their Mexican heritage while remaining devoted to their native United States. Their massive enlistment demonstrated the influence of what Dinoicio Valdes calls the “agents of Americanization.” Communities, churches, and social organizations all became agents that encouraged Mexican Americans to fight for the country where they were born.71 As Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Paratrooper Manuel Perez stated, “We are proud of our Mexican heritage and loyal to the U.S. There is no conflict between the two.”72 Beatrice Griffith even reports one man sewing the American flag and the Mexican flag into his fighting pants for good luck. Apparently, the charm worked since he came home alive.73 Thus, military service allowed Mexican Americans the chance to prove their loyalty to their home and country. No longer would they tolerate being classified as transient, “undedicated” members of society or second-class citizens.
Patriotism, aside from solidifying their dedication to the country, allowed Mexican Americans to enjoy a feeling of community with the rest of the United States. Soldier Aniceto Nunez stated, “When the war started, I became a white man,”74 meaning he became a member of the national US community. Mexican Americans reported feeling connected with other Americans; the atrocities and deaths reported in the media could easily have been Mexican Americans, rather than other ethnicities.75 For many white servicemen outside of the southern Border States, the war was their first encounter with “Mexicanos.” The war broadened society’s awareness of the Mexican American community, raised issues of cultural identity, and encouraged social blending.76
In the face of increased awareness, racism in the Anglo community softened under the spirit of patriotism. Although discrimination and segregation were far from eradicated, gains were made towards social equality. For example, newspapers eased up on pre-war discrimination, such as the Fort Stockton Pioneer from Texas. This paper, which had previously excluded any mention of its Mexican American citizens, carried stories about Mexican American soldiers, including even obituaries and photos of the deceased. Most shockingly, it ceased to use the racially abrasive identifier “Mexican,” using the new phrase “Mexican American” instead, if identifying ethnicity at all.77
The spirit of national community extended onto the battlefield, too. Mexican American soldiers were equal to their comrades, becoming intimately connected like brothers. As Griffith noticed, “the rare comradeship and democracy that comes from sharing pellagra, dysentery, malaria, beri-beri, and scurvy” cannot be easily forgotten after the battle is over.78 One soldier recounted:
“Kids at home grow up surrounded by barriers … Then you find yourself at the front, thousands of miles from home. And suddenly, perhaps for the first time in your life, you realize that here on foreign soil is an outpost of America where there are no barriers. This was always the dream you had of America, a dream that never before had come quite true … There are only Americans … at the front, only Americans purged of the artificial barriers we still make so much of here at home.”79
Mexican American soldiers earned not only equal recognition from their comrades, but also respect. These soldiers demonstrated exemplary fighting qualities, and earned more awards than any other minority group represented in battle, including 11 Medals of Honor.80 Griffith notes, “It seems fairly clear that the proportion of “Mexican” causalities and of decorations in the war was considerably higher than the proportion of Mexican Americans to the total population.”81 Commanders frequently commented on the steadfast, almost reckless, dedication that Mexican Americans brought to the field. For example, Company E, 141st Infantry from the 36th Division of Texas experienced the highest casualty rate. This company was entirely Mexican, and fought in two of the bloodiest and most successful battles in the war: Anzio and San Pietro.82
Stories about Mexican-heritage soldiers achieving military honor frequently made their way to Mexico. One headline in the Excelsior, from the first page, boasted “Our soldiers have the same abilities as the US soldiers.”83 Pride in the first Mexican ancestry Air Force legion made several appearances in the Excelsior, with the paper applauding the “excellent qualifications, good class conduct, and academic achievements” of these men.84 These stories increased pride in the Mexican heritage community, particularly in response to the praise awarded from Mexico.
Empowered by their patriotism and camaraderie, veterans returned ready to challenge the discrimination they left behind on the home front. The pre-war social and political structure of the United States denied equal rights to Mexican Americans, relegating them to the fringes. Veterans would not tolerate this duality any longer. One veteran, when told he could not buy a home in a certain neighborhood because of racial restrictions, cunningly said, “Restrictions, hell … There was no restrictions on those bullets … they weren’t marked for Garcia or Jones!”85 They proved their “American-ness” just as much as any other soldier, if not more so. After all, Mexican Americans valiantly fought under US colors despite being discriminated and segregated at home. Having earned equality as US Americans abroad, veterans demanded that same respect at home. The Excelsior commented that Mexican-heritage soldiers “form part of the forces that fight for democracy.”86 These men gave their blood in a war to save democracy and battle racial superiority. The veterans, upon return, asked the US justify its lack of democracy and racial equality within its borders. As one soldier commented, “We were in a war over there, and now we’re in a war over here. Que siga la guerra! (Let the war continue).”87
If Mexican Americans could endure the same conditions and give the same sacrifices as their Anglo compatriots while at war, why could they not receive the same equality on the home front? This question became the rallying cry for Mexican American veterans and civilians as they formed political and social organizations during the post war era. The G.I. Bill extended to Mexican American soldiers. Under this act, veterans received education benefits, economic incentives, and membership in the G.I. Forum. This body had several goals: aid disabled vets, encourage civic participation, raise awareness of democratic rights, and equalize the social and economic status of its members.88 Mexican American contingents formed under the G.I. Forum. These groups championed voter registration and political activity in Mexican American communities, as well as aided in the creation of anti-discrimination lawsuits.89 The forum moreover encouraged veterans to apply for jobs that utilized their new skills and leadership abilities developed during the war. For example, the founders of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) were veterans.90
The actions of veterans, who remained determined to stop segregation and perpetuate democracy, used their leadership to encourage grassroots political activity amongst their home communities. For example, a Veterans of Foreign Wars outpost in El Paso formed a campaign that helped elect the first Mexican-heritage mayor in the city.91 Veterans created a program called “unity leagues” that encouraged Mexican American communities to think critically about the political process in the US. As legal voters, veterans encouraged their neighbors to use their democratic rights in order to receive democratic treatment. One motivator stated, “It’s like this for us Mexicans- if we don’t complain, the Americans think we like to live the way we do- that we like these rotten shacks. So we got to make a lot of noise and vote.”92
The actions of the veterans began to make waves. Local communities followed their example and became actively involved in addressing grievances. For example, when a Mexican American veteran named Private Aguirre was beaten by bored, intoxicated Anglo boys, the Mexican- American community rallied together to raise money for his treatment and bring the juveniles to court, despite the general apathy amongst the racist Anglo majority. Aurora Garcia became their spokeswoman, and she clamored for attention in the press, claiming: “Our Latin American boys are not segregated on the front line … They are dying beside the Anglo boys for a most worthy cause- that democracy may live and so that people may have all the privileges of a democracy.”93
Another racist action brought even greater media attention. When a funeral home in Texas refused the grieving family of Private Felix Longoria the right to use its services because of their ethnicity, the community rallied for national attention. They contacted the American G.I. Forum leader Dr. Hector Garcia, who took the case to Senator Lyndon B. Johnson. The senator chastised the funeral home, as well as the whole state of Texas, before obtaining the rights to have Private Longoria buried in Arlington.94 The debate even made national press in the New York Times, who gave him his deserved recognition as a “war hero.”95 The local community, guided by the leadership of a veteran, successfully challenged racism.
Military service in World War II encouraged Mexican American veterans to campaign for equality on the home front. The equity forged overseas was not forgotten upon return. Rather, after fighting for democracy abroad, these veterans demanded democracy at home. Using their new leadership skills, Mexican American veterans organized their communities and began political action movements. By encouraging political and social equity, these veterans stabilized the presence of Mexican American communities within the United States by fueling the process of political and social reform.
The Rise of a Mexican-American Middle Class and Its Impact upon Communities
Aside from generating social and political impetus, veterans created economic momentum, as well. G.I. benefits, such as pensions, were extended to Mexican American servicemen, some who returned home as members of the middle-class. Between veterans’ benefits, wartime investments, and greater labor and wage opportunities, Mexican American families amassed new amounts of economic clout. They joined other US citizens in buying new houses, many outside their original barrios, along with new appliances, and new cars. Even though many Mexican heritage families did not achieve middle class status, the economic standing of the majority of Mexican heritage people increased with the wartime job stability. Essentially, the war provided the economic opportunities for many Mexican American families to move higher on the socio-economic ladder.
The rise of a conscious, albeit small, Mexican American middle class was one of the most significant resulting phenomena of the war and further helped Mexican American communities solidify their presence in the United States. Although a minute Mexican American middle class existed before WWII, it consisted primarily of wealthy Mexicans who fled the Mexican Revolution. These immigrants brought their accumulated wealth with them to the US, giving them an increased social status, but not forging any significant social or political identification with the US.96 These individuals regarded themselves as “Mexican” more so than “American” or “Mexican American.”
The new generation of Mexican heritage peoples in the middle class, however, identified strongly with the US. They forged a new class consciousness based on recognition as legitimate laborers and honorable veterans. They became “Mexican Americans” officially, for the first time in their ethnic history, creating a synthesis between their Mexican heritage and US dedication.97 Mexican Americans rallied around their new identity, using their new economic power to achieve significant equality in political and social issues. This new class had the experience, resources, and determination to begin the fight against racism.98
The fight against racial discrimination, which had been well established in the United States, required the new Mexican American class to organize. Following the examples of labor unionizers and veteran leaders, Mexican Americans rallied behind national organizations. The most prominent group was the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). Founded in 1921 in Texas, LULAC boomed into a national force by the 1960s. Its huge growth during the war and post-war era attested to the growing force of the Mexican American population.
LULAC provided the exact services the small, but growing, middle-class needed. The organization focused on native born or nationalized citizens who claimed a Latin American background. Although the organization was all-inclusive, people of Mexican descent dominated. LULAC’s agenda based itself on the overall principle of loyalty to the United States combined with recognition of Latin American heritage. As a result, the organization advocated Latino engagement in politics, integration into US society and, recognition of multiculturalism, overall desegregation, and improved education.99
LULAC strength lied in its ability to adapt its national agenda to the local community, encouraging widespread change on a small scale. It sponsored unions, scholarships, political campaigns, English classes, citizenship preparation, and voting campaigns. LULAC also engaged in legal action, acting as a watchdog in labor disputes and championing desegregation policy in the courts. For example, a 1945 Orange County, California case titled Mendez et al. v. Westminster School District of Orange County gained desegregation of schools. This case became the precursor to Brown v. Topeka. 100 Seeking no special privileges, LULAC stated: “If in the trenches of Europe and the Pacific we were equal and we demonstrated our loyalty and love for the Stars and Stripes, then in civic life we also desire equality … We simply want the same opportunity given to our children in education as the equal duty that was given them to figh[t] and die for our country.”101
As the previous statement suggests, LULAC drew upon the patriotism and equality forged by the war. The impact of LULAC was not merely political, but also social. LULAC continued the formation of a true Mexican American identity, encouraging a shift from “lo Mexicano” to “lo Americano.” As historian Richard Garcia notes, “LULAC was introducing a new discourse of Mexican Americanism: a mentalidad that sought to express the new philosophical and ideological contours of the Mexican American mind.”102 With the surge of US pride, LULAC did not want Mexican Americans to forget their cultural history. In their code, LULAC calls for Mexican Americans to “love the men of your raza, be proud of your origins and maintain it immaculately; respect your glorious past, and help defend the rights of your own people.”103 LULAC thus used common history to rally and consolidate Mexican Americans for a changing present.
The new social ideology that accompanied the rise of the Mexican American identity was a synthesis of Mexican heritage, US lifestyles, and the “American Dream.” It represented a form of “Americanization” that would ultimately disintegrate the political, economic, and social segregation of Mexican heritage peoples.104 Identifying with the war-time slogan “Americans All,” Mexican Americans used their new cultural identification to champion citizenship guarantees, civil rights, and a secure future for their children. Mario Garcia comments that these individuals, “proud of their Mexican origins and of their ability to function in two cultural worlds, Mexican Americans – that the term became popularized during this period in itself is symbolic – looked to an eventual synthesis and coexistence between the culture of their parents and their desire to be fully accepted as US citizens.”105
The Mexican American community, empowered by their new class consciousness, emerged from World War II demanding to be treated like full-fledged US citizens, rather than a secondary transient minority. One battle these individuals fought was segregation. Encouraged by G.I. Forums and LULAC, local communities challenged segregation in public locations, such as swimming pools, theaters, housing developments, and schools. They applied social pressure to local business owners and political representatives, utilizing their economic power, military success, and labor value as reasons for fairer treatment. Mexican Americans did not riot or create social chaos. Rather, they worked within the system, believing that it was capable of providing the democratic values they deserved as citizens.106 Barbara Griffith summarized their position as such: “They have seen their children eating better meals, growing healthier, staying in school. They want to see them live as Americans should live, not as “foreigners.” They will not submit … without considerable protest.”107 Thus, US values and institutions, like democracy, would yield the upwards social mobility that would culminate in the “American Dream.” Mexican Americans were now permanent social fixtures in the US.
Combined with challenging social discrimination, Mexican Americans began challenging economic discriminations. Originally only offered farm labor opportunities, Mexican Americans moved into business enterprises. Although the majority of Mexican Americans remained lower-wage manual laborers, a vanguard group of Mexicans broke into the entrepreneurial middle class. They invested the extra income earned during the war boom and took advantage of urbanization trends to open new businesses.
Moreover, the pre-war economic order became archaic. With the postwar increase in industry and the changing dynamics of the social order, Anglo capitalists and merchants competed for the labor, partnership, and buying power of Mexican Americans, which gave the group leveraging power to demand more economic equality.108 This recognition proved the emergence of Mexican Americans onto the US economic scene, making their position in society more prominent and stable.
An offshoot of this new economic prowess was increased consumption by Mexican Americans. Particularly to envious relatives still in Mexico, it appeared that Mexican American communities achieved part of the “American Dream.” These individuals earned the economic power to buy their way into mainstream US society. They used their clout as consumers not only to boycott and challenge racist businesses, but also to participate in the postwar housing boom.
Moving out of the barrios, however, proved to be a challenge. Frequently, Mexican Americans faced racism from their new neighbors, who purportedly aimed to keep neighborhoods “clean and safe.” Equally threatening was the expansion of barrios and colonias, like the one in St. Paul,109 into new cities and suburbs. The increase in industrialization led to not only increased economic gains, but also increased urbanization that prompted massive ethnic migration to the cities. However, this new self-conscious Mexican American class was not easily swayed. They brought racist neighbors to courts, or rallied locally to demand desegregation. Beatrice Griffith commented: “Moving out of the slums and across the tracks into clean and modern neighborhoods is a long, uphill climb … These men and women, unlike their timid parents, intend to fight for that right.”110 These battles over actually residency proved the permanent nature of the vanguard Mexican American middle class in the United States. The struggles this group won would become the groundwork from which Mexican American advocates would advance in during the Chicano Movement of the 1960s.
The economic clout of the Mexican American middle class, combined with their new social consciousness as “Mexican Americans,” influenced the group’s political effectiveness. Up until World War II, Mexican Americans were not relatively engaged in the political processes. Bossism ran rampant, with Mexican American voters choosing the candidate who promised even minimal social and economic change. Given the rampant racism during this time period, the politicians very rarely delivered. Moreover, Mexican Americans were unaware of their political rights and many did not understand how to vote. Needless to say, no politicians of Mexican heritage won, or even ran, in elections.
Before the war, Mexican American communities lacked leadership willing to tackle these political issues. However, wartime experiences bred leaders in the Mexican American community. Capitalizing on previously unrealized potential, this new leadership understood the importance of political organization and how their new social identity and economic achievements could further political equity.
Voting and representation were critical in achieving the change they desired. Veterans created local volunteer organizations to educate Mexican Americans on their voting rights. They encouraged local communities to team up with recently arrived Mexican migrants to create larger political bodies by encouraging them to assimilate and obtain citizenship. Moreover, the established Mexican American communities saw themselves reflected in this large migrant class. They were treated with the same biases that these immigrants also faced, and such biases were not acceptable for themselves or their newly arrived recruits111. LULAC encouraged prominent local leaders to run for political office in order to challenge these political biases.
The election in 1957 of Raymond L. Telles as mayor of El Paso proved the success of these politicizing efforts. Despite that half of the city population was Mexican Americans with legal voting powers, the community was not able to elect a Mexican-heritage politician until Telles. Thanks to massive grassroots recruiting and campaigning, the Mexican American community rallied on voting day and took the majority of votes. Mario Garcia describes this election as symbolizing “a growing confidence in [Mexican Americans] as American citizens and political actors.”112 Mexican Americans realized that by utilizing their democratic powers, they could achieve their goals of representation and eliminate their status as second-rate citizens. Moreover, it demonstrated their sheer numbers and determination. The Mexican American community could no longer be ignored or segregated. Thus, Mexican Americans began the successful battle of forging political equality in the United States. The leaders educated during this struggle would be the ones who led the Chicano Movement during the civil rights era of the 1960s.
Henry Wallace was forced to campaign to Mexican Americans during his quest for Presidential election in 1948. Recognizing the changing social, economic, and political power of this group, Wallace spoke to a crowd in El Paso. During his speech, he encouraged US citizens to maintain the “good neighbor” mentality in order to preserve “a progressive democratic system [that] is able to solve the social, economic, and political problems of humanity.” He spoke for 10 minutes in Spanish, telling his Mexican American supporters that he would challenge housing and wage discriminations. Wallace also told them that “time was running out in the fight against bigotry and fear.” His prediction that “1,000,000 Negroes and Latin Americans would vote” in the election signified the growing strength of minority classes, in particular the Mexican American class.113
The emerging middle-class, along with championing social, economic, and political equality, devoted energies to developing a distinctly Mexican American intellectualist movement that augmented their social agenda. This intelligentsia studied issues of race and identity. Examples include Gregorio Cortez, who wrote the famous “With a Pistol in His Hand”: A Border Ballad and Its Hero, and Ernesto Galarza, who penned Strangers in Our Fields. These intellectuals brought awareness of social discrimination to the national scene. George Sanchez, for example, challenged segregation in schools while Alonso Perales traveled the nation attacking discrimination.
Part of this new intellectual support was the creation of a distinctly Mexican American press. El Espectador, whose publication ranged from 1933 to 1961, gained popularity during the war years. The paper frequently reported on issues of racism and discrimination, while publishing information about racist neighborhoods and businesses.114 The news sparked action amongst Mexican Americans, encouraging them to end second-class subjugation. The popularity of the paper proved the willingness of Mexican Americans to fight for equality and fair treatment.
After participating in the war, via both the military and civilian labor, a small group of Mexican Americans emerged from World War II with a new socioeconomic status. Thanks to wartime economic prosperity and recognition as patriotic equals, a vanguard group Mexican Americans emerged into the US middle-class. Using their new status as leaders, these middle class Mexican Americans organized their neighborhoods and began to work as an overall community to achieve social, economic, and political integration. This group encouraged their compatriots to embrace the term “Mexican American” in order to symbolize their new position within US society. Uniting their combined efforts was a rising Mexican American intellectual group, who highlighted issues of segregation on the national scale. Thus a new economic and social class consciousness combined to help cement the presence of Mexican American communities within mainstream US politics and society.
How the Stabilization of Migratory Networks Affected Communities
The Mexican American middle class capitalized upon another significant trend born of World War II: the consolidation and stabilization of new migratory networks and communities. The rising political leaders needed people to lead; they found their subjects in burgeoning communities ready to tackle discrimination and injustices, eager to display their social, political, and economic prowess. These communities provided essential rallying points and important centers of acculturation for a people establishing new identity. The community therefore played an important role in the traditional assimilation of the Mexican American.
Because of the increased birth-rate caused by wartime labor stability and the influx of immigrants caused by the Bracero program, the number of Mexican-heritage individuals residing in the United States increased dramatically. Between 1940 and 1960, the number of Spanish surnames in just the Southwest increased by over 41%.115 Three distinct dynamics created this growth: resident Mexican Americans, Braceros, and recently arrived undocumented workers. The original generation of Mexican born adults who arrived in the US before 1930 became augmented by their children, who formed a second generation that was born and raised in the US. Moreover, these established first generation communities drew braceros who skipped the end of their contracts or obtained legal employment. As a result, these barrios became destinations for illegal workers who slipped into the country under the guise as braceros. Thus, various types of Mexican-heritage individuals combined in these communities in what Juan Gomez-Quinones describes as a new “American tradition” created during the war.116
Despite success and progress in achieving some social, economic, and political equality with the overall US society, Mexican Americans still occupied a marginal, relative position. Ethnic communities provided a safety net of resources and familiarity where Mexican heritage individuals could stabilize themselves and find shelter. As researcher Larissa Lomnitz states, local communities created “networks of reciprocal exchange.” She claims, “Marginals occupy the bottom of the social scale in society. They have literally nothing. Their only resources are of a social nature: kinship and friendship ties that generate social solidarity … [and] mobilize the social resources of the settlers on behalf of survival.”117 These local community networks looked within at their own cultural similarities to stay functioning and find the strength to battle outside discriminations. By finding support at the local level, Mexican American communities could then begin the transition into US society and the challenging of national discrimination.
The majority of Mexican Americans were relatively new to the US. The first completely US-born generation of Mexican Americans had barely reached adulthood when World War II began. Moreover, many communities themselves were very young since they arose with the influx of braceros and migrant workers. Thus, battling outside discriminations in a country where your ethnicity was relatively new would have been a daunting task to face on one’s own. The community provided the necessary strength to launch a campaign for social justice.
These new communities were born during expansive urbanization that left the US scrambling to manage development. With housing already in short supply and racism still an issue in US culture, Mexican-heritage individuals looked to themselves to adapt to the changing dynamics. Researchers Richard Griswold de Castillo and Arnoldo de Leon claim that Mexican-heritage peoples became “more comfortable in collectives of their own creation” rather than waiting for a prejudice, scrambling United States to aid them.118 As a result, many existing barrios were expanded with the influx of new Mexican heritage workers. With the creation of new employment, Mexican heritage migrants banded together in their own ethnic neighborhoods around new job sites. These developing communities provided the stability Mexican-heritage individuals needed to survive. One of Beatrice Griffith’s antidotes summarizes this dynamic: “Mexicans are like sand. You can push them anywhere – here – there – it don’t matter. But if they get smart and wise up they’ll get together and come out strong. Then the sand would be hard like cement … You can’t push concrete around – but you can build roads and bridges with it.”119
The communities provided the bridges from which individuals could gradually experiment with changing social dynamics and adjust to their new “Mexican American” identity. Combining old cultural familiarity with new economic and political awareness, these communities helped solidify the emerging Mexican American class by creating fraternal, social, cultural, political, and labor organizations based on common ethnicity. This emphasis on common ethnic history allowed individuals a point of reference to feel culturally and socially accepted. Individuals struggling with identity as “Mexican American” or workers recently arrived from Mexico could find their psychological and social bearings within the greater US society, knowing they could return to an area of cultural refuge if needed.120 Traditions that created important community and social cohesion in Mexico institutionalized themselves in new Mexican American communities, providing important framework for cultural adaptation and exploration.
Communities themselves became the natural extension of the family, an important Mexican social and cultural element. One Mexican American commented about the West side of San Antonio, “One great thing about the neighborhood is that there were faces you knew … You could talk to your neighbor … we didn’t have privacy fences.”121 To this individual, the neighborhood community was like an extended family. Communities-as-families enhanced the development of distinct, ethnic neighborhoods. Family members care for each other, providing assistance and support when needed. Large neighborhood families could therefore offer significant support to Mexican-heritage individuals attempting to establish themselves and their identity in the US. Larissa Lomnitz summarizes this prerogative: “Reinforcing interaction between kinship, neighborliness, compadrazgo, cuatismo, and the resulting confianza as generated by repeated instances of reciprocal assistance” created community stability and support services.122 The stronger a community, the more consolidated it became and more likely to tackle discrimination issues.
Adding to the overall strength of community families in Mexican-heritage neighborhoods was the fact that many neighbors were related or from the same Mexican hometown. As Juan Gonzales comments, “Once the migration process is set in motion, it has a tendency to perpetuate itself and attract people from similar locations. In the majority of cases, their migration to this country can be viewed as a chain migration process: migrants will almost always attract their family members and close friends.”123 This literal family relation has two significant ramifications. As stated, family members provide financial, emotional, and cultural support. Family members also serve as sources of information for eager migrants. Word-of-mouth recruiting became a significant means of obtaining labor during and after World War II, especially when the Mexican government blacklisted business from the Bracero Program or when braceros became difficult to obtain under legal recruiting measures.124 Thus, family migration not only stabilized support networks offered by Mexican-heritage communities in the US, but also increased the sheer number of Mexican-heritage workers and perpetuated the value of their labor.
The rise of undocumented workers caused by word-of-mouth recruiting and the limitations of bracero contracting became a significant issue during and after the war. Undocumented workers easily entered the country by pretending to be braceros. Blending into pre-established Mexican-heritage neighborhoods allowed them some degree of safety and opportunities to find employment. Like Laura Zarrugh notes, the Bracero Program created a window of “free entry” when papers and permanent residency became easy to achieve.125 Local communities provided recent migrants, both documented and undocumented, with the lodging, money, social, and language services necessary to begin a life in the US. For many migrants, local neighborhood contacts and services became their first introduction to the US. These communities thereby aided the success of the next generation of Mexican Americans by facilitating their adjustment to US society and culture. Like Juan Gonzales summarizes, migrants were “introduced to an existing system of social networks that were already in effect when they arrive. It is these informal institutions of indoctrination that provide the immigrants with social, economic, and emotional support once they arrive in the community.”126
Similarly to providing social support and becoming important segments of the migratory process, local networks and communities formed what Lomnitz calls “sporadic action groups” that addressed issues of discrimination.127 Such organizations could more effectively tackle issues since they were locally focused and uniquely infused with its members. Churches, for example, founded youth organizations, organized cultural events, and encouraged political action. Informal and formal volunteer organizations brought people Mexican-heritage people together, which not only encouraged them to meet each other and strengthen the community, but also advocate for a changing political and social agenda. Often, these communities linked together to form large networks to champion causes. In Texas, 1956, counties with large Mexican-heritage populations banded together to vote down and sanction a referenda calling for the preservation of school segregation, the creation of laws against intermarriage, and the increase of states rights in minority issues.128
Communities became critical players in the campaign for desegregated education. Rising Mexican American leaders used the established communities to rally for local social justice. With a large number of communities in rebellion, national attention would turn the tides in their favor. Drawing upon the sacrifice of Mexican Americans in the war, the Good Neighbor Policy, and the new economic power of Mexican Americans, the communities efficiently utilized WWII policy towards their own advantage. Pre-WWII teaching methods stressed the superiority of “Americanism.” A national Mexican American spokesperson accused schools of “preserv[ing] the political and economic subordination of the Mexican community.” Little or no bilingual training was allowed. However, the cultural awareness programs established in the spirit of being “good neighbors” encouraged schools to foster a sense of culturalism. 129 The Mexican American won a huge victory with the desegregation of school sin Orange County, California. The judge wrote in his opinion that segregation was an “arbitrary and discriminatory and in violation of their constitutional rights and illegal and void.”130 The greater Mexican American community thus won a significant legal battle that further granted them social solidarity and challenged discrimination.
The role of the Mexican-heritage community was critical in stabilizing the presence of Mexican-heritage individuals in the United States. First, they provided a cultural and social safety net from which people could explore their new country and identity as “Mexican American.” Second, communities became like families for immigrants, providing important survival services and increasing the numbers of Mexican heritage individuals in the US. Third, communities organized to challenge issues of discrimination, such as educational segregation. Thus, the efforts of these communicates solidified the presence of Mexican Americans as a permanent, consolidated social class.
The Impact of the Zoot Suit Riots on Mexican American Communities
A nativist backlash countered the increased presence of Mexican heritage peoples in the United States. The racist attitude came to a boil during the Zoot Suit Riots, which highlighted the existing impoverished condition, cultural segregation and social isolation of the Mexican-heritage population in the US. On June 3, 1943, in Los Angeles, a group of sailors on leave from duty claimed to be assaulted by a group of Mexican youth wearing zoot suits, a type of clothing considered to be “Mexican.” Sailors and neighboring Anglos rushed the streets for the next week, battling anyone wearing a zoot suit or appeared “Mexican.” The local police had little control over the situation, frequently arresting Mexican Americans for disturbing the peace while military personnel went largely unpunished. A Time article describes the police as “futile,” even following bands of trouble-seeking sailors to arrest their Mexican victims.131
These actions infuriated the Mexican American community, who recognized the duality and hypocrisy of the scenario. Understanding that they were being unfairly targeted, Mexican Americans made passionate pleas for national attention, citing their patriotism and military involvement as reasons for ending the discrimination. A 12-year old boy, a victim of the Zoot-Suit riots, asked, “So our guys wear tight bottoms on their pants and those bums wear wide bottoms. Who the hell they fighting, Japs or us?”132 In one of Beatrice Griffith’s stories, Mingo asks: “Tonight they beat us up …. Beat us up while our guys are overseas fighting. Why should I sweat my guts out in the army for this?”133 Although citizens making sacrifices in the name of war, Mexican Americans were still considered second-rate.
The riots became a manifestation of the social ills they suffered. As historian Luis Alvarez states, the Zoot Suit Riots demonstrated that “cultural difference was not easily dismissed in an ea of wartime consensus and conservatism.”134 Griffith notes that fifth generation Mexican American citizens were assumed to be “Mexicans” on the basis of dark skin and a Spanish surname135 and therefore subject to the same discriminations. A Newsweek article reported that “they encountered much of the social ostracism accorded Negroes.”136
These same social discriminations, however, were aggravated by the changing identity of Mexican-heritage individuals in the US. As previously described, the “Mexican American” identity was being formulated since a growing proportion of Mexican-heritage people was born in the US, thereby holding citizenship. This population could not obtain equal social and political recognition, however, because of US social racism. Time commented that the average zoot suiter understood that he represented a “basic American problem: the second generation. Their fathers and mothers were still Mexicans at heart. They themselves were Americas—resented and looked down on by other Americans.”137 Thus, the zoot suit riots not only symbolized the social stigmas Mexican-heritage peoples battled, but also the process of changing identity. As Beatrice Griffith observes, this generation created “a hybrid culture that is neither American nor Mexican.”138 Newsweek summed up this dichotomy: “Their American-born children grew up in a jangled environment at home- they were Americans speaking a language different from their parents; outside they were Mexican.”139
However, the Mexican community rallied together. Mexican Americans became stronger and more unified in the face of such discrimination. Like Newsweek reported, the various neighborhood communities “had forgotten their own back alley strife to join forces.”140 In a pre-cursor to the Civil Rights Movement, Mexican Americans brought their plea to the national stage. A Los Angeles County Grand Jury, although not punishing the servicemen, claimed that the “young people of Mexican ancestry have been more sinned against than sinning in the discriminations and limitations that have been placed on them and their families.”141 Although the country responded at a sluggish pace, national media pressure eventually forced the Los Angeles authorities to stop the violence. The need for Mexican labor, Good Neighbor accord, and national unity bred by World War II forced the country to curb its racism. Alvarez states that the riots allowed Mexican Americans to suggest “that there was more than one “American identity.”142
Despite the Zoot Suit Riots being a blaring example of national discrimination, they ultimately forced the Mexican-heritage community to rally together and demand the social equity it deserved. The riots afforded them the opportunity to raise national indignation in the media and obtain legal rulings justifying the end of segregation. More importantly, however, the riots forced the community to deal with internal issues regarding cultural identity. By bringing these issues to light, the community could address them and ease internal cracks. This process ultimately increased cohesion and community strength.
As the Zoot Suit Riots prove, World War II was not a peaceful time for Mexican-heritage communities. Racism, segregation, and second-class citizenship were common place occurrences. However, the war provided a catalyst for Mexican-heritage individuals to challenge the status quo. Like the Phoenix, they used the fire to give new life to their communities.
World War II bred rhetoric of democracy and racial equality. With political agreements such as the Good Neighbor Policy in effect, the United States had to confront its own racial discrimination on social, economic, political, and labor issues. This accord provided the overall framework of racial equality that Mexican-heritage peoples aspired to obtain in the United States. It provided a solid rallying point for Mexican-heritage communities to begin exploring issues of discrimination and identity formation.
The Bracero Program further solidified the Mexican-heritage communities in the United States. With the popularity and the expansion of the Bracero Program, Mexican laborers came to realize their economic value. This created a sense of pride amongst Mexican heritage workers, which prompted them to demand equal labor rights. Moreover, the Bracero Program brought thousands of Mexican workers and their families into the United States, thereby increasing the sheer volume of Mexican-heritage peoples and turning them into a growing social, political, and economic force with the potential for change.
This potential was realized as veterans returned from the war. Empowered by the fraternal equality generated by the battlefield, veterans began a crusade to achieve that same equality on the home front. Mexican-heritage communities proved their patriotism and dedication to the United States by integrating themselves into the war machine. When the war was over, however, these individuals sought to maintain the same commonality with other US citizens. Given their new economic standing bred by wartime production and wealth, Mexican-heritage communities were eager to assert their equality with other sectors of US society. The returning veterans capitalized upon a growing identity with the term “Mexican-American,” which symbolized the changing social consciousness of the group. They effectively used this growing identification to rally their communities into social and political action groups. Thus, these communities became more organized and stable while enthusiastically engaging in social action.
As communities became more organized and united, they tended to their own social and identity needs, thereby ensuring their survival. Although the Mexican American communities could have shattered while processing their changing cultural dynamic, the communities banded together more tightly in the face of the social discrimination that challenged their identity formation. The presence of stable communities allowed individuals to safely explore their new cultural identities while providing important services to adjusting migrants. Mexican American neighborhoods became essential safe houses for entering migrants. The communities thereby ensured their stability and presence in US society by attending to its own needs and facilitating the migration processes. They also united in the face of discrimination, demonstrating their newfound economic, political, and social clout.
Mexican-heritage individuals used the wartime rhetoric and mentality of the United States as kindling for their fire. They fearlessly plunged into US wartime society, as the Phoenix fearlessly gives itself to the flames. These people emerged stronger and consolidated, ready to take on the racial battles ahead of them. Although the war did not provide them with complete racial equality, it helped Mexican Americans lay the crucial foundations for future generations of advocates, such as the leaders of the Chicano Movement. Just like the Phoenix, Mexican Americans did not emerge from the flames unchanged. The Phoenix is reborn as a chick, with years of growth ahead. The same was true of Mexican Americans after World War II. They emerged from the flames of the war changed, but with years of development and battles ahead.
1 Beatrice Griffith, American Me ( Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1948), x.
2 Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, “Introduction,” in Mexican Americans and World War II, ed. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005), xvii.
3 Richard Craig, The Bracero Program: Interest Groups and Foreign Policy (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971), 58.
4 Mario T. Garcia, Mexican Americans: Leadership, Ideology, and Identity, 1930-1960
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 13.
5 Lynne Marie Getz, “Lost Momentum: World War II and the Education of Hispanos in New Mexico,” in Mexican Americans and World War II, ed. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005), 74.
6 “U.S. Capital Interest in Mexico,” Excelsior, 9 April, 1942, 5.
7 “U.S. Envoy to Mexico Gives Victory Pledge,” New York Times, 15 February 1942, 30.
8 “La Economía de México se Encuentra Ligada con la del Vecino País Norteño,” Excelsior, 9 January 1942, 3.
9 “Mexico Welcomes Program with US,” New York Times, 19 July 1943, 6.
10 Juan Gomez-Quinones, Mexican American Labor, 1790-1990 (Alburquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994), 163.
11 “La harmonía Entre México y Estados Unidos Es Ejemplar,” Excelsior, 14 January 1942, 1.
12 Emilio Zamora, “Mexico’s Wartime Intervention on Behalf of Mexicans in the United States: A Turning of Tables,” in Mexican Americans and World War II, ed. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005), 222