U.S. border agents stop Mexican immigrants crossing into United States, 1948
Neil Foley has written what I believe to be the first comprehensive history of Mexicans in U.S. history. It seems ridiculous that no one has written something like this before but I’m pretty sure it is true. Mexicans have played a very important role in much of American history but in a nation where race in the public mind means black and white (Black Lives Matter interrupting an event at Netroots Nation primarily about Mexican immigration and the oppression of those migrants seemingly without blinking an eye to the irony of it was a classic example of this; that so few people talking about it even mentioned this point even more classic) and in a nation where until the last few decades they have primarily lived in states faraway from eastern centers of power means that for the most part we don’t think of Mexicans playing a big role in American history generally. That’s a mistake.
Some of this history are stories you know. The Bracero Program. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the theft of land and power from Mexican communities when they were unwillingly citizens of a new nation. The United Farm Workers and the rise of the Chicano movement with leaders as diverse as Reíes Lopez Tijerina, Corky Gonzales, and Cesar Chavez. These are the stories you expect to hear and any good overview will cover them.
But much of the book you will not know. I thought the best chapter was on World War II. Foley discusses the braceros in some detail, calling the program Mexico’s biggest contribution to defeating the Axis in World War II while detailing the enormous exploitation these workers faced. But there was a lot more going on in the Mexican-American community. A lot of Mexican-Americans were caught between two nations when it came to the war. Some wanted to fight, others didn’t. Some Mexicans immigrated to the U.S. with the express intent of joining the Army. Some tried to go back to Mexico and join the Mexican military so they wouldn’t die. Mexicans in the U.S. were subject to the draft whether or not they were American citizens and many of those drafted could not speak English and were sent to units without any other Spanish speakers, where they faced discrimination and punishment for not following orders they couldn’t understand. This all led to a pretty sticky diplomatic situation between the U.S. and Mexico, with the question of whether Mexicans should be classified as white or Indian central to it.
This question of how to classify Mexicans in a nation that saw race as black and white (with indigenous people a minor third category) also became important in issues around the segregation of Mexicans in schools, which contributed to the larger post-war move against school segregation. Desegregation cases against Mexican discrimination went back to the 1930s and a lower court decision in the 1946 Mendez v. Winchester case paved the way for the Brown decision in 1954, with a district court ruling school segregation unconstitutional and the Ninth Circuit backing it up, but only on the grounds that California didn’t actually have a law allowing for the segregation of Mexicans. But the language used by Earl Warren in Brown was quite similar to that original district court decision.
I also loved how Foley discussed the fantasy Spanish heritage in New Mexico. I witnessed this first hand during my time in the state. Essentially, after the Mexican War, with the arrival of white elites to New Mexico, racial hierarchies changed and the old Spanish-Mexican elite found their racial status severely threatened. Part of the response was to claim that in fact they were not Mexican or mestizo at all but rather pure-blooded Spanish, which in almost every case was (and is) certainly not true. This attempt to claim whiteness was only partially successful at the time and the Anglo elite certainly wasn’t going to give up their newfound power. But this fantasy Spanish heritage has incredible legs, with families still insisting upon it today, partially to delineate them from both recent Mexican migrants and the many poor Latinos in the state, as well as from the state’s sizable Native American population. I didn’t have any tolerance for this at all and would openly state it was a myth when I taught History of New Mexico in graduate school. I had students drop my class for this. It’s understandable, the need to claim whiteness in a new nation where that matters so much. But it’s also pretty racist and classist, especially given how it is deployed today.
Naturally, since the Mexican-American population has risen so quickly in recent decades, much of the book focuses on the last fifty years. Foley frames this as the “Decade of the Hispanic” in the 1980s giving away to what he calls “Fortress America” of the 1990s and into the 21st century. He comes across as a bit more pessimistic about the present than I am, but then again he makes a pretty good case. He follows the political arguments around immigration in the 1980s and how that shifted toward the more partisan politics of the present, including the labor movement turning from its traditional anti-immigration stance to a strongly pro-immigrant movement. But the 1986 amnesty and rapid growth of Mexican migration led to the 1990s backlash personified by Proposition 187 in California, which placed the issue front and center in the national debate and destroyed the Republican Party in California, as well as the militarization of the border, construction of the border wall, and all the other attempts to keep Mexicans out, which ended up just driving many of them to their deaths crossing the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. Not knowing too much about the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which granted amnesty to those in the country undocumented, I was interested to understand why Reagan bucked his conservative allies to push this, which was about his close ties to the California agricultural interests who had always demanded cheap and disposable labor of color, as well as his desire to build a free trade zone that eventually became NAFTA.
Certainly in the present, with Donald Trump leading a national freakout about “anchor babies” and
the future of the white race “the nation,” it’s hard to feel confident. Most of my confidence comes from demographic changes and the age of the xenophobes, along with what happened in California when a growing Mexican-American reacted to racist white politics by making the Republican Party toxic and moving the state significantly to the left. But demographics are no guarantee of the future and with a potential rise in violence against Mexican-Americans in the short-term, along with no solution in sight to our broken immigration system that deports good hard-working people who want to be Americans, it’s a bit hard to retain much optimism. Either way, Mexicans aren’t going anywhere. They are now a permanent part of the American landscape and centering their experiences in American history is going to become more central in understanding this nation, as well as Mexico.
This is a good book that you should read if you are at all interested in integrating the history of Mexicans into the broader national debate. Readable and recommended.