Mexican Americans

Alternative names: Hispanics, Chicanos
Location: all USA, especially south-western states
Population: 12.1 million
% of population: 5% of total US population
Religion: Catholic
Language: Spanish, English

Mexican Americans can be divided into two main groups; those who have lived in the south-west of the USA for several centuries and more recent immigrants from Mexico. Numbers are not always easy to determine. According to the 1980 census there were approximately 12.1 million people of Mexican heritage in the USA, and another 7.3 million who were of different Hispanic ancestry. Because more recent Mexican immigrants frequently live in the USA without legal status these figures are probably considerably higher. Mexican Americans are the largest group of people of Hispanic or latin heritage in the USA and one of the fastest growing minority groups.

Most Mexican Americans live in the five southwestern states of California (34% of all Hispanics), Texas (21%), New Mexico, Arizona and Oklahoma, but there are large populations in cities throughout the country. In New Mexico one third of the population is Hispanic, in both Texas and California over one quarter, and Los Angeles has the world’s third largest group of urban Mexicans, after Mexico City and Guadalahara. Both indigenous and immigrant Mexican Americans have high birthrates and this, coupled with continuing legal and illegal migration, will ensure that their numbers and proportion of the population will increase.

The colonial period

Mexican Americans are the descendants of the Mestizo, generally considered to be peoples of mixed or Spanish and Indian blood. However there were Jews among the original conquistadors; other ethnic groups included Arabs and Moors, an estimated one quarter of a million Africans brought to Mexico as slaves and thousands of Chinese who had come to Mexico on the Spanish galleons of the Manilla trade. They all contributed to the making of the Mestizo.

When the Spaniards entered the capital of the Aztec empire, which is now present day Mexico City, they were astonished to find a city as magnificent as Constantinople and Rome. The native Indians welcomed the Spaniards whom they believed to be the messengers of the Gods as foretold by their legends. Unions between Spaniard men and native women resulted in the growth of a racially diverse population. There was also religious diversity. By the 1550s there were 300 Jews in Mexico City, one quarter of the Spanish population, and later Jewish converts. These Jews were persecuted by the Holy Inquisition and most fled northwards towards present-day New Mexico which encompassed the land from the north of Mexico to present-day San Antonio in Texas. They, along with others who settled on the mountain slopes of desert valleys in the south-west of the USA, were not Spanish settlers but Mestizo and Indians who more often survived the rigors of the wilderness. These early settlers were outcasts and the royal officials of Mexico city referred to them as neither Spanish or Mexican but as barbaric Indians.

These Mexicans farmed as the Indians had, using dry farming and little water. Their farms and mountain villages were small. Ranching was more profitable and soon prospered. Eventually the land on the frontier was given to the settlers by royal decree and later by the Mexican government after its independence from Spain in 1821. There were at least 1,715 of these land grants which covered the entire south-west from present-day California to Texas and encompassed millions of acres, which today are some of the richest agricultural and most expensive urban lands in the USA. Life on the frontier depended on co-operation so the land grants and deeds for irrigation and pasture were given as communal property. Over time the land became as sacred to the settlers as it had to the original Indian inhabitants.

In the Rio Grande Valley of Texas the almost three million cattle on the ranches were the most sought after spoils of the Mexican American War and these herds were the beginning of the present-day livestock industry in the American West. The

1Until the 1960s Mexican Americans were not counted in the government census because they were listed as “white” and not as a separate minority group.

2Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Spanish, Central or South American.

original cowboy was the Mexican or Indian vaquero and much of what is today recognized as (American) Western culture was adopted from the Mexican Americans.

Incorporation into the USA

In 1845 the USA annexed Texas and gained control over the remainder of the south-west in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848. In the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in February 1848 Mexico renounced claims to Texas, recognized the Rio Grande frontier and, in return for 15 million dollars, ceded New Mexico and California. Since the Land Grants were officially decreed they were recognized in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which declared “. . . In the said territories property of every kind now belonging to the Mexicans shall be respected . . .”, a stand later upheld by the US Supreme Court. Despite this 80% of the lands were lost to the heirs of the Land Grants. In New Mexico an order was issued in English that unless land grants were re-registered in the capital they would be confiscated. Since few of the Mexicans could read English most did not obey this order and their land was confiscated. The same process was followed in California, Texas, Colorado and Arizona.

The gold rush of 1849 brought new immigrants to California and the south-west. However the majority of the rural population was Spanish-speaking and almost all Mexican Americans lived in rural areas in isolated and self-reliant communities — a situation which was to continue until well into the twentieth century. In California and New Mexico where state constitutions were of necessity written in both Spanish and English, Spanish remained the first language of the majority of the population until the twentieth century.

By 1930 half of the Mexican American population was basically rural but at the end of World War II there was an exodus to the cities. The villagers tried to hang on to their traditions and communal cultures and created for themselves a city within a city, the barrio, which although integrated into the larger city remains separated by the distinct culture, language and identity of its inhabitants. Along with their customs they brought their traditional rivalries which made it hard for them to come together as a political force.

Before World War I Mexicans began to cross the border into America. They were usually refugees seeking to escape the revolutions and counter-revolutions that were taking place in Mexico. After World War II there was a flood of illegal immigration across the Mexican American border and these illegal immigrants came to be know by the derisive term of “wetback”. By 1970 they were estimated to number between seven and nine million. These illegal immigrants generally worked in the fields without protection of the law and were usually underpaid and abused.

Political developments

Following World War II some Mexican Americans made unsuccessful efforts to reclaim the land that had been granted to them in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In the 1960s the Alianza Federal de Los Pueblos Libres (The Federal Alliance of Free City States) was organized to re-establish the legality of the Land Grants. The Allianza, which was formed by Reies Tijerina, gained notoriety when they raided a Courthouse in New Mexico and elected their own Land Grant officials and also issued a proclamation announcing that “. . . the USA had no title for New Mexico — all trespassers must get out. All Spanish and Indian pueblos are free forever”. When these earlier efforts proved unsuccessful Tijerina lobbied Congress to appoint a federal commission to investigate the Land Claims but although a number of bills have been introduced, to date, no lands have been returned. If their claim is ever recognized the Mexican Americans would be entitled to some of the wealthiest land in the nation. Convinced that only international pressure would bring about adherence to their claim and the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Tijerina and the Land Grant heirs sought the aid of the then Mexican president Luis Echeverria who agreed to take the matter to the United Nations. However the present political and economic situation in Mexico makes it highly unlikely that Mexican pressure would succeed.

As farms and ranches became more profitable in the south-west, land syndicates were formed which employed large numbers of campesinos (farm labourers). Illegal immigrants became an important part of the workforce, but without either political representation or legal knowledge were usually forced to work long hours at rates of pay below the legal minimum. During the mid-1960s the National Farm Workers Union was organized by Caesar Chavez. The struggles of Mexican American workers in the fruit and vegetable farms of California in particular, and the imaginative public and union boycott tactics used, brought the plight of these workers to nationwide attention.

During the 1960s the chicano movement was born. Chicano, a word that is an insult to Mexican Americans, took on new meaning as the students in the barrios of California cities began to popularize the word as a symbol of defiance in the schools where the speaking of Spanish was forbidden. The Chicanos, as they were soon to be called, established themselves as a new political movement and the barrios which had in the past been divided began to come together. Hundreds of political and social groups were established in the barrios where there had been previously only a few. These groups wanted to change the stereotype of the Mexican American as well as to improve their economic and social positions within the country.

National as well as local organizations were established to accomplish these goals. Some would eventually be supported by government agencies and for the first time Mexican Americans were represented in high office on the national level by Grace Olivarez who became head of the Community Services Administration and Lionel Castillo who was appointed the Commissioner of Immigration. Increased Mexican-American participation in elections in the south-west resulted in the election of Raul Castro as Governor of Arizona and Jerry Apodaca as Governor of New Mexico but their administrations were marked by scandal and loss of popular support.

Despite growing political awareness in the sixties however, in 1976 when nearly five million Spanish-speaking Americans were eligible to vote, 60% of them Mexican Americans, less than 40% actually did vote. In California where in 1976 the Mexican Americans made up almost 16% of the population they held only 2% of elected offices while nationwide they held only 3.4% of government jobs and in the Congress there were only four Mexican American representatives. But there were signs of change. By the end of the 1970s registration drives managed to bring in 300,000 Mexican American voters in California and 160,000 in Texas. In the south-west where racism against Mexican Americans is strongest new political participation is significant and they could emerge as a major political force.

Yet there are also problems. In California only one in four Hispanics voted in 1986. Perhaps one third of the total were ineligible to vote as illegal immigrants. There are claims that local and state constituencies are deliberately drawn to exclude Mexican Americans and other minority groups from power. In September 1988 the Justice Department filed a suit against Los Angeles County claiming that voting districts have been designed deliberately to exclude Mexican Americans, none of whom have ever held elected office in the county. (The same was true for blacks and Asian-Americans.) Two-thirds of the Hispanic vote goes to the Democrat Party. However, compared to black Americans, as a community, Hispanics are politically quiescent at a national level. In August 1988 President Reagan nominated Lauro Cavazos as the Secretary on Education, the first Hispanic in the US Cabinet.

Economic and social developments

The 1960s saw a rise in the number of middle-class Mexican Americans. They left the barrios and began to assimilate into American culture creating a gap between themselves and the people in the barrios where life had remained the same. In 1980, the barrios people were usually poorer than those outside, the average income was only two-thirds of the national average, more than one fifth of the people lived below the poverty level, there was lack of education and job skills were poor. This has changed little over the past decade. Rates of disease, malnutrition, crime, poor housing, are all higher in Mexican American communities than white areas of American cities. Mexican Americans on average receive fewer years of schooling than most other sectors of the population although less so than in the past.

The language question

By the 1970s an established programme of bilingual education, introduced by federal legislation, permitted the teaching of Spanish and English in schools. While some Mexican-Americans saw this as an important recognition of the role of Spanish, others including the Council of Mexican American Educators in the Federal Office of Education saw it as a deception. They claimed that it authorized the use of Spanish to teach English and not for its own sake. If it succeeds it eliminates itself and if it fails it defeats itself. What these authorities want is truly bilingual education and a system that recognizes and preserves Mexican-American language and culture. They want not only to teach English to Spanish-speaking people but to teach Spanish to English-speaking people, a mutual recognition and respect they say does not now exist.

The Voting Rights Act makes bilingual ballots mandatory where non-English speakers are concentrated in significant numbers. It is possible in many areas to use Spanish in court proceedings. Spanish is widely spoken and Spanish is used in commercial signs, press and other media. Yet California, the state with the largest Mexican-American population, has an official-English law and other states are following this lead. Access to education and employment provides a strong incentive to be fluent in English; according to a recent study 95% of Mexican-born Americans speak English and the majority of second-generation Mexican-Americans speak only English.

(See also French Canadians; )