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History of Mexican Americans

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The history of Mexican Americans, or American residents of Mexican descent, largely begins after the annexation of Northern Mexico in 1848, when the nearly 80,000 Mexican citizens of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico became U.S. citizens.[1][2] Large-scale migration increased the U.S.’ Mexican population during the 1910s, as refugees fled the economic devastation and violence of Mexico’s high-casualty revolution and civil war.[3][4] Until the mid-20th century, most Mexican Americans lived within a few hundred miles of the border, although some resettled along rail lines from the Southwest into the Midwest.[5]

In the second half of the 20th century, Mexican Americans diffused throughout the U.S., especially into the Midwest and Southeast,[6][7] though the groups’ largest population centers remain in California and Texas.[8] During this period, Mexican-Americans campaigned for voting rights, educational and employment equity, ethnic equality, and economic and social advancement.[9] At the same time, however, many Mexican-Americans struggled with defining and maintaining their community's identity.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Chicano student organizations developed ideologies of Chicano nationalism, highlighting American discrimination against Mexican Americans and emphasizing the overarching failures of a culturally pluralistic society.[10] Calling themselves La Raza, Chicano activists sought to affirm Mexican Americans' racial distinctiveness and working-class status, create a pro-barrio movement, and assert that "brown is beautiful."[10] Urging against both ethnic assimilation and the mistreatment of low-wage workers, the Chicano Movement was the first large-scale mobilization of Mexican American activism in United States history.[11]

The Spanish Period

The Santa Barbara Mission, established in 1786.
The Santa Barbara Mission, established in 1786.

Spanish entry into what is now the United States southwest began in 1540, when Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, his 230 Spanish soldiers, 800 Indigenous Mexicans, and three women marched into the Rio Grande valley.[12] Soon after, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo led the first expedition into Alta California in 1542, when he landed in modern-day Santa Barbara.[13] There are reports that the explorer Marcos de Niza entered Arizona in 1539, but scholars have cast doubt on his fabled exploration for the Seven Cities of Gold.[14]

Full-scale Spanish colonization of the Southwest didn’t begin until 1598, when the Spanish government, under pressure from the Catholic Church to Christianize the Coahuiltecan peoples of the Rio Grande Valley, selected Juan Oñate to cross the Rio Grande and establish a permanent settlement in San Juan Pueblo, near present day Espanola.[15] Rumors of hidden gold and silver ores in New Mexico circulated in the lead-up to the Oñate settlement, but none were ever found in the region.[16] The focus remained on religious conversion.

The first Spanish missions in Texas were founded in the 1680s around present-day San Angelo, El Paso and Presidio, near the New Mexico settlements. In the early-1680s, however, conflict emerged in New Mexico, as the Pueblo people rebelled against the Spanish occupation.[17] Spanish colonization nevertheless persisted, and in 1690, new missions were built in East Texas by Alonso de León after the Spanish discovered the French had been encroaching into the territory.[18] In Arizona, the first Spanish settlements were founded in 1691 by the Italian Jesuit missionary Father Eusebio Francisco Kino.[19] California's first permanent Spanish settlement wasn’t established until 1769, when the Presidio of San Diego was founded by Father Junipero Serra and his accompanying Spanish soldiers.[20] This marked the beginning of the Mission system, an era infamous for its brutality toward indigenous peoples.[21]

The Spanish-period ended in 1821 with the signing of the Treaty of Córdoba, which officially ended the Mexican War of Independence.[22]

The Mexican Period

José María Estudillo, Commandant of the Presidio of San Diego, 1820-21.
José María Estudillo, Commandant of the Presidio of San Diego, 1820-21.

The Mexican period of the U.S. southwest lasted from 1821 until 1848. The First Mexican Republic (1824-1835) had difficulties maintaining control over the region.[23] Sparsely populated and far from the economic and political center in Mexico City, the northern territories of Alta California, Santa Fe de Nuevo Mexico, and Tejas were now free to engage in economic exchange with American traders. This newfound freedom resulted in strong economic and social ties developing between the economic elites of Tejas, Alta California, and the United States.[24]

Mexico's Constitution of 1824 guaranteed the equality of all Mexicans regardless of race. This had significant consequences in Alta California. In 1824, the Chumash of Santa Barbara coordinated a rebellion against the Mission system,[25] and the elites of the state, including the Vallejos, Alvarados, and Peraltas, urged for the total secularization of Mission lands. These agricultural families understood that if the Missions were secularized, the churches' large land-holdings would be distributed through land-grants by the regional government.[26] The Mexican government eventually acquiesced, and the Mission system was ultimately abolished through the Secularization Act of 1833.[27] As a result, the large land-holdings of the Missions were distributed through grants to the state's wealthiest families, including the Vallejos, Alvarados, Peraltas, Carillos, de la Guerras, and Picos.[28] The California neophytes, rather than being freed, ultimately became laborers on the large Ranchos that the Californios created. These ranchos were compared to Southern Plantations, and the indigenous laborers were often "treated worse than slaves."[29]

Pío Pico, a Californio ranchero and the last Mexican governor of Alta California.
Pío Pico, a Californio ranchero and the last Mexican governor of Alta California.

During this period, California and Texas were flooded by Anglo American businessmen.[30] These migrants were welcomed into the region, and intermarriage between U.S. men and Mexican women was common practice, as it was a way to secure business loyalties through familial bonds.[31] Yet the continual flood of Americans into the Northern territories grew into an ever-larger issue for the Mexican government. In 1835, less than 14 years after Mexico's independence from Spain, American ranchers in Tejas revolted against Mexico and declared themselves the Republic of Texas.[32] Mexico's President Santa Anna led an army to put down the rebellion, but after initial victories at The Alamo and Goliad, Santa Anna's army surrendered defeat on April 21, 1836.[33] The Republic of Texas was never recognized as a sovereign state by the government of Mexico, which refused to recognize the treaties signed by Santa Anna, as he was a hostage when he signed them.[34] In the new Republic of Texas, Tejanos faced severe educational and economic discrimination.[35]

Meanwhile, Mexico struggled to maintain political stability and went through eighteen different Presidential administrations from 1836-1845.[36]

In 1845, newly elected U.S. President James K. Polk, aware of the lingering instability in Mexico and keen to expand the United States to the Pacific Ocean, propositioned Mexico to purchase Alta California and Santa Fe de Nuevo México.[37] The offer was flatly rejected by the Mexican government. Polk responded by moving U.S. troops, led by Zachary Taylor, into the Nueces Strip to provoke the Mexican Army into attacking the U.S. in order to get Congress to declare war.[38] Taylor set up camp in a disputed border territory and refused to leave, even after repeated warnings from the Mexican government.[39] After several skirmishes in the disputed zone, the U.S. Congress declared war on May 13, 1846.[40]

The Mexican American War

Conflict and Battles

U.S. battalion in Saltillo.
U.S. battalion in Saltillo.

The Mexican–American War of 1846–48 would prove one of the most consequential events for Mexican Americans in United States history. In 1846, U.S. general Stephen W. Kearney marched into New Mexico, where he faced little resistance from the Mexican residents of Santa Fe.[41] He installed local elite nuevomexicanos as the head of the provisional military government, which largely placated the residents of the territory.[42] In his first public speech to residents, he proclaimed the forthcoming equality of an American regime, claiming that, “El fuerte, y el debil; el rico y el pobre; son iguales ante la ley… protegeré los derechos de todos con igualdad” (both the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor… everybody is equal before the law and will be protected by the same equal rights).[42]

New Mexico at first accepted the United States’ military occupation without resistance, but within a year of Kearney’s annexation of the territory, there was a widescale uprising.[43] Nuevomexicano Pablo Montoya and Taos Puebloan Tomás Romero together led the 1847 Taos Revolt, which resulted in the execution of Charles Bent, Taos sheriff Stephen Lee, Judge Cornelio Vigil, Bent’s brother-in-law Pablo Jaramillo, the attorney J. W. Leal, and a young boy named Narciso Beaubien.[44] The US military moved quickly to quash the revolt, and the fighting ended in New Mexico after the Nuevomexicanos' subsequent defeats in the Battle of Red River Canyon, the Battle of Las Vegas, and the Battle of Cienega Creek.

U.S. Army in Saltillo, 1847.
U.S. Army in Saltillo, 1847.

In California, residents also fought the American army. In 1847, Californios staged battles throughout Southern California against the American conquest, including the Battle of Los Angeles and the Battle of San Pasqual (present-day San Diego). The United States Navy, believing that cutting off supplies to the Californios would ensure their defeat, implemented blockades along the Pacific Coast and Gulf of Mexico. As a result of these actions, the Navy's Pacific Squadron subsequently conquered Monterey, San Francisco, and San Diego, virtually guaranteeing victory for the U.S. in California[45] The war ended on September 8, 1847, when Winfield Scott took control over Mexico City in the Battle for Mexico City. The U.S. and Mexico soon after entered negotiations for conditions of surrender.[46]

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

Lands ceded to the U.S. through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
Lands ceded to the U.S. through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

On July 4, 1848, the United States and Mexico ratified the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which formally ended the war.[47] Under the conditions of defeat, Mexico also ceded more 525,000 square miles of territory.[48] The Treaty guaranteed full citizenship for all former-Mexican citizens who requested it, as well as formal U.S. citizenship to all who remained in the U.S. territories for one full year after the signing of the treaty.[49] The full text of the Treaty also included Article X, a provision which would have guaranteed rights to all holders of Mexican land-grants.[50] Fearing that Article X would give Tejanos too much protection over their land, the U.S. Congress quietly removed it from the final version, claiming that it was “redundant.”[42] The law of the Treaty guaranteed the "treaty citizens" full rights to their land if they were able to prove ownership, but the ability to prove ownership proved extraordinarily difficult.[51]

Furthermore, the Treaty was signed without any formal legal guarantees that all Mexican citizens would be treated as citizens under U.S. law. Under the Constitution of 1824, all Mexicans, regardless of their race, had gained recognition as citizens, yet the United States, under the Naturalization Act of 1790, only recognized "white persons" as citizens.[52] The Treaty thus legally classified Mexicans as "white" in order to allow them U.S. citizenship, yet this was applied only to the Spanish Mexican elite, mestizos, and assimilated indigenous peoples.[53] Without explicit legal protection, all unassimilated and autonomous Native Americans in the new territories were thereby subjected to prior United States' case law relating to "Indian" tribes.[54]

The Early-American period

José Francisco Chaves, territorial representative for the New Mexico Territory.
José Francisco Chaves, territorial representative for the New Mexico Territory.

The early-American period in the U.S. southwest was a period marked by violence and land loss. Under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, all Mexicans were granted formal citizenship rights as American citizens, yet widespread dissatisfaction emerged amongst the Mexican Americans.[55] Despite the treaty pledges of full and equal citizenship, rampant discrimination and violence were immediate and widespread.[56]

Realizing the potential dissatisfaction which the former Mexicans would face as American citizens, Mexico's president José Joaquín de Herrera issued a recolonization plan in August 1848, which promised economic resources and land for any former-Mexican who returned to Mexico.[57] The commission hired three commissioners to recruit repatriates. Father Ramón Ortiz y Miera, the New Mexico commissioner, encouraged resettlement by criticizing the inferior status of the “treaty citizens.”[57] Such arguments had a strong resonance for the former Mexicans, as twenty-five percent of the country’s Mexican American population repatriated after the war.[57]

Yet, the United States, despite guaranteeing the rights of former Mexicans to return to Mexico, developed legal arguments in order to institute formal barriers against this resettlement movement.[57] The U.S. Secretary of War George W. Crawford even claimed that repatriation was prohibited. Because New Mexico served as the primary buffer between American settlers and indigenous groups, the U.S. believed it was in their best interest if the treaty citizens remained in the U.S. to maintain a “civilized” presence in the region and protect against Native encroachment.[42]


A vaquero in San Antonio, Texas.
A vaquero in San Antonio, Texas.

In 1850, the United States census counted approximately 80,000 Mexican treaty citizens living across California, Texas, and New Mexico.[58] New Mexico was the largest United States territory at the time, with around 61,547 inhabitants, about 95% of whom were former Mexican citizens.[59] The majority of the Nuevomexicanos lived in rural communities with populations of fewer than 1,000 people. According to the 1850 census, the three most common occupations held by Nuevomexicanos were farmer, laborer, and servant.[59]

In South Texas, Tejanos lived in a three-tiered society. At the top were the landed elite, who owned huge ranchos, many of which had been granted by the Spanish colonial empire and turned into haciendas.[60] The elite retained their economic dominance through cattle ranching.[60] Small landowners occupied the second rung of the South Texas economic and social ladder.[60] These landowners lived in one-room adobe houses and spent most of their time caring for their horses and cattle.[60] Finally, South Texas had a third lower class composed primarily of peóns, vaqueros, and cartmen. Peóns had a status above slaves in antebellum Texas but below that of free men.[60] Peóns worked at the direction of the patróns—planting and harvesting crops, herding goats, digging wells, and doing any sort of manual labor necessary. They lived in tiny one-room jacales, huts with walls of mud or any other material available and thatched roofs.[60] Anglo migrants to Texas believed the jacales were evidence of the Tejanos' "sub-human" and "primitive" nature.[61]

A Pomo woman at the Mendocino Rancho in California.
A Pomo woman at the Mendocino Rancho in California.

In California, native-born californios mostly lived in small farming and ranching communities in the south. The two largest cities in 1850 were Los Ángeles, with a population of 3,500, and Santa Barbara, where 1,185 people lived.[62] While elite Californios, such as Pablo de la Guerra and Luis María Peralta, held political and economic power in the state, they represented only 3 percent of the population in 1850.[63] The vast majority of landed Californios were subsistence farmers who based their livelihood on their small plots of land. In the southern coastal regions, business-ownership and manual labor were also common occupations for general Californios. For the Indigenous peoples of California, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo's failure to ensure full citizenship and protections had dire consequences. They were subjected to a systematic genocide, funded by the state of California.[64] The California Genocide killed around 90% of California's Native population during the early-American period, clearing the way for full-scale Anglo colonization.[65]


José Manuel Gallegos, delegate from the Territory of New Mexico to the U.S. House of Representatives.
José Manuel Gallegos, delegate from the Territory of New Mexico to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Over time, the social, economic, and legal position of the hispanic Mexicanos diminished, largely through political disenfranchisement and large-scale land loss. These two processes were facilitated through the elimination of political, linguistic, and property rights. In two decades, Anglo Americans seized complete control over the apparatuses of political power across the U.S. Southwest.

José Manuel Gallegos was sworn into Congress in 1853 as the first nuevomexicano terrritorial representative to Congress. He spoke only Spanish, which was not a problem for his first two terms. After he successfully ran for reelection in 1856, however, his bilingual opponent Miguel A. Otero, contested the election results.[66] Otero claimed Gallegos' inability to speak English disqualified him. Gallego made an impassioned self-defense in Spanish on the House floor, where he protested the “disappointment" he felt from the "sneers" of his colleagues.[67] Nevertheless, Otero's bid was successful, and he replaced Gallego as the territorial representative of New Mexico.[68]

California’s first U.S. senator, John C. Frémont, introduced legislation for the federal government to arbitrate land claim settlements.[69] After the removal of Article X from the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, treaty citizens were stripped of any formal protection of their land rights.[70] After gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in Coloma, California in 1848, a massive migration flooded the state, sparking the Gold Rush. By 1852, the population of California had grown from 8,000 in 1848 to 260,000.[71] These gold miners were largely landless and asserted ownership over California lands. The California Land Act of 1851, also known as the Gwin Act, after California senator William M. Gwin, created a Presidentially-appointed commission to settle disputed claims between the landholders and Anglo miners.[72]


The Sanchez Adobe, part of the Rancho San Pedro, purchased by U.S. General Edward Kirkpatrick.

In California's post-war years, land proved to be the most contentious and sought-after commodity. The California Land Act of 1851 established a commission to determine the validity of Spanish and Mexican land grants.[73] In order to prove ownership over the property, landowners needed to both provide evidence of the initial grant, as well as submit proof they had made "structural and pastoral" improvements to the land.[42] If they could not, Anglo squatters were free to claim ownership because they had "improved the land."[74] Because many of the initial Spanish and Mexican "diseños" grants were vague, merely describing the natural boundaries of the property, contestations over ranchos boundaries were difficult for the Californios to prove.[75] All documents submitted in support of a claim also needed to be translated into English. Some firms, like Halleck, Peachy & Billings, gained popular reputations as "friends to the Mexicans" for helping the Californios navigate the new American court system, but most land lawyers used the situation to their advantage, drawing out the cases and charging exorbitant fees for their services.[76]

Rancho Petaluma, which was subdivided and sold by Mariano G. Vallejo to pay for his attorneys' fees.

In most instances, land claim cases often proved simply too expensive for most Californios. While the majority of cases were ultimately ruled in favor of the Californios, the average wait-time for a case to be resolved was seventeen years.[77] During that time, most Californio families were forced to sell portions of their property to pay their attorneys.[78] In addition, land commission hearings were held in San Francisco, which was difficult and expensive for the Southern California landowners to reach.[79] Mexican American landowners faced often insurmountable odds in proving ownership of their lands, which some argue was the intent of the convoluted court system.[76]

Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, writing from San Francisco, said, "It requires a lot of work and money that I don’t have to locate [possible witnesses], and afterwards to pay for notarized affidavits and English translations for each."[42] Some Californios attempted to use their positions of influence and power to fight against the legal discrimination. Pablo de la Guerra, a Santa Barbara landowner, asserted his political influence as a state senator and then lieutenant government to vocally critique the American legal system, which treated Mexicans as a "conquered and inferior race."[42] De la Guerra complained that the testimony of white people was taken more seriously in the court system than that of Mexicans; he said, "A disgraceful distinction between white testimony and ours was indelicately paraded."[42] De la Guerra would have to fight even to maintain his right to hold political office; the landmark case People v. de la Guerra decided that despite charges otherwise, De la Guerra could hold office.[80] Anglos came to dominate the political and economic landscape of California, as not even a single Mexican family retained their wealth in the early-American period.[81]

Rancho Agua Caliente in Fremont, California, which was subdivided and purchased by Leland Stanford.

In Texas, land grants were never subject to a federally legislated commission. Because Texas had attained statehood in 1845, it retained jurisdiction over the entirety of its border regions and thus claimed exemption from the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.[82] The Texas state government thus took the matter of land grants into its own hands, when governor Peter H. Bell appointed William H. Bourland and James Miller to determine the validity of Spanish and Mexican land holdings in the state.[83] At its first hearing in Webb County, the Bourland-Miller Commission faced significant opposition from the local Mexican American landowners, who claimed that the commission had been established in order to seize the property of Tejanos and take away their full rights.[84] Miller and Bourland were able to win over the landowning elite of the Laredo area, however, by conducting an "impartial" proceeding, which resulted in all the Tejano families retaining their landholdings.[85] In the rest of the state, however, the commission was less favorable to the land-owning claims of the Tejanos. In areas of Southwest Texas, fewer than half of all land grants were recognized as legitimate by the commission, and many of the ones which were recognized as legitimate were already owned by Anglo Texans.[84]


Two Mexican American men lynched in Santa Cruz, California.
Two Mexican American men lynched in Santa Cruz, California.

In addition to using legal measures to seize economic and political control, American settlers also used physical violence as a tactic to control the conquered Mexican American population. In California, Mexican Americans were driven out of their homes, forced out of mining camps in gold-rich areas, barred from testifying in court, and gradually segregated into barrios.[86] There was resistance to this violence, as men like Tiburcio Vásquez turned to banditry to resist the domination of the Anglos.[87] As a method to keep Mexicans in their place, the American settlers lynched Mexicans. Between 1848 and 1860, at least 163 Mexicans were lynched in California alone.[88]

Between 1848 and 1879, Mexican Americans across the United States were lynched at an unprecedented rate of 473 per 100,000 of population. Most of these lynchings were not instances of "frontier justice"— out of 597 total victims, only 64 were lynched in areas which lacked a formal judicial system.[88] The majority of lynching victims were denied access to a trial while others were convicted in unfair trials. Mexican Americans had no avenues for justice in the early-American period. As a result, many of the folk heroes of this period were considered to be outlaws by the U.S. government: robbers, social bandits, and freedom fighters.[89]

In Texas, Mexican Americans also resisted the violence of the U.S. settlers. Juan Cortina began the First Cortina War in 1859 when he shot the Brownsville town Marshall, Robert Shears, for brutalizing Cortina's former employees.[90] Cortina raided and occupied the town with a squad of armed men. They held the city for several months, until they were attacked by a joint effort between the Texas Rangers and U.S. Army, led by John Ford and Samuel Heintzelman. The final battle was fought in March 1860, when Cortina was defeated.[91]

Late-19th century

Civil War

Cpt. Rafael Chacón of the Union New Mexico Volunteers.
Cpt. Rafael Chacón of the Union New Mexico Volunteers.

Mexican Americans played a major role in the American Civil War (1861-1865). Texas, which was home to a significant portion of the nation’s Mexican American population in the 1860s, seceded from the Union and joined the Confederate States of America in February 1861. In the Arizona and New Mexico territories, many elite Mexican American families held views sympathetic to the Confederacy.[92] In New Mexico, wealthy Mexican American crop-farm families openly expressed sympathies toward the slave-owners of the South, due to their own reliance on the forced labor of Native Americans.[92]

Across the country, Mexican Americans felt resentment toward the U.S. because of the racial discrimination they experienced after the Mexican American War. The result was a mixed dispersion of support and opposition toward the United States. In New Mexico and California, support among Mexican Americans was split.[92] Many wealthy landowners in southern New Mexico supported the Confederacy, while most northern New Mexicans fought for the Union Army.[92] In California, Union support tended to be stronger in Northern California, while many Mexican Americans in Southern California leaned toward the Confederacy. Nevertheless, California remained in the Union.[92]

Cipriano Andrade, a Mexican Navy Rear Admiral who fought for the Union.
Cipriano Andrade, a Mexican Navy Rear Admiral who fought for the Union.

The Confederates, however, believed that opening a route to California would aid their cause. In summer 1861, John R. Baylor led the Confederates into Mesilla and declared the southern portion of New Mexico as the Confederate Territory of Arizona.[93] He then marched into Tucson and declared Southern Arizona the second district of the Arizona Territory.[94] In response to this aggression, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Henry Connelly - an Anglo politician who married into a Mexican American family - as the territorial governor of New Mexico.[95] Inspiring confidence amongst the Nuevomexicanos, the Union army was soon filled by Mexican Americans. The New Mexico units, known as the New Mexico Volunteers, were led by Capt. José Sena, Capt. Rafael Chacón, and J. Francisco Chaves.[96] This massive Mexican American army was able to destroy the Confederate hold on New Mexico by March 28, 1862, when Lt. Col. Manuel Chávez and his army destroyed the Confederate supply train on Glorieta Pass and forced the Confederate soldiers to abandon the field.[97] Often called the "Gettysburg of the West," the Battle of Glorieta Pass effectively ended the Confederates attempts to take over the Western United States.[98] With the Confederates’ surrender of the Territory, Mexican Americans from California were responsible for clearing out all Confederates supporters, including French imperialists who entered the U.S. during Maximilian’s rule in Mexico.[92]

A Tejano Union soldier.
A Tejano Union soldier.

As the last Confederate stronghold of the Southwest, Texas played a major role in Civil War battles. Wealthy Tejano ranchers, such as Santos Benavides, were the strongest Texas supporters of the Confederacy.[99] Nevertheless, many working class Tejanos fought for the Union army, as they had no interest in living in a social system predicated on unfree labor.[92]

Some Tejanos, such as Antonio Ochoa, had fought against the Texas Confederates from the time of secession. In 1861, Ochoa and a group of 40 men marched to the Zapata County courthouse and sought to prevent the town officials from swearing their allegiance to the Confederacy.[100] Ochoa and his men were immediately attacked by Confederate troops and forced to flee into Mexico. There they met and recruited Juan Cortina, who'd been forced out of Texas at the end of the First Cortina War.[92] Ochoa and Cortina together launched multiple military and economic attacks in South Texas, targeting supply lines, and even assassinating a Confederate county judge.[101] After each attack, they and their men fled back to the safety of Mexico, waited for a short time to pass, and then moved back into Texas for their next attack. This continued until Ochoa was executed by the brother of Santos Benavides.[92]

The final battle of the U.S. Civil War was fought in Texas. One month after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in April 1865, Union forces marched toward Brownsville.[102] Tejano Confederates responded near the mouth of the Rio Grande and attacked the Union soldiers.[103] While the Confederates won this final victory, they were the ultimate losers of the war. All told, an estimated 20,000 Hispanic soldiers fought during the American Civil War.[104]

Reconstruction Era

Despite the significant contributions of Mexican Americans in the American Civil War, the community faced a resurgence of discrimination in the Reconstruction era. In the 1870s, the New Mexico Territory saw a massive influx of white settlers and land speculators.[105] The Territory legislature, fearing a Gold Rush-style land grab, petitioned Congress for protections.[42] In their 1872 memorial to Congress, the New Mexico legislators argued for a change in federal land laws, which stipulated that in the case of a dispute, the owners of the land must present evidence of their original land grant in both English and Spanish. The legislators argued this provided an undue burden to Nuevomexicanos, since in the territory, "very few... understand the English language.”[42] As migration increased over the course of the decade, the legislature issued more memorials, stressing the need for a Board of Commissioners to settle disputed land claims.[42]

In Texas, disputes between Tejanos and white Americans resulted in open racial conflict. The Skinning Wars, also known as the Second Cortina War, erupted in the 1870s.[106] After the Civil War, Texas ranchers found themselves with a massive surplus of cattle, and this resulted in a precipitous drop in the price of beef. The cost of cowhides, however, remained relatively high. Because of the high price of hides, disputes soon emerged over mavericks, which, in this period, were often left to grange on the open range. These disputes resulted in "skinning raids," where young Mexican men would round up disputed herds of cattle and skin them all at once. In retaliation, white Americans in South Texas organized "vigilance committees," which quickly gained notoriety for their violent tactics.[107] In Corpus Christi, the Anglo vigilance committee raided Tejano ranches, where they would kill every Mexican male, burn down all their buildings, and attempt to force the Tejano ranchers across the border into Mexico.[108] Texas Ranger Leander H. McNelly, a former Confederate, imposed punishments against the Tejanos he believed were responsible for the "raids," and formally put an end to the race war.[109]

José Mauro Luján, a San Elizario resident and participant in the San Elizario Salt War of 1877.
José Mauro Luján, a San Elizario resident and participant in the San Elizario Salt War of 1877.

In West Texas, violent ethnoracial tensions exploded by 1877. In September of that year, San Elizario District Judge Charles Howard sought to charge collection fees from Mexicans, Tejanos, and Tiguas when they harvested from local salt beds.[110] The residents were outraged by the fees, as the salt beds had been considered a public resource for many generations.[111] After Howard arrested two residents who tried to collect salt without paying, the residents revolted against Howard. Known as the San Elizario Salt War, this revolt resulted in the death of Howard and four other white Americans.[112] In response, the white residents of San Elizario called upon the Texas Rangers, who, along with the U.S. Army, suppressed the rebellion and reasserted Anglo-American political power in the region.[113]

Further south, Richard King continued to actively consolidate the King Ranch in the late-1870s, usually through violent and coercive tactics directed against his Tejano ranchero neighbors.[114] In 1878, one newspaper commentator complained that King's neighbors "mysteriously vanish whilst his territory extends over entire countries."[115] King, however, did not work alone. As his wealth grew, so did his political influence, and the territorial consolidation of Texas ranch land was made possible through the Texas Rangers. The Rangers in this period took violent measures against Tejano ranch owners to scare them into selling their land. In fact, the Rangers were known popularly in the late-1870s as los riches de la Kineña, an allusion to the belief they acted as King's private security force.[116]

The Gilded Age

The 1880s for Mexicans Americans was a period of substantial change, marked especially by the emergence of the Southern Pacific Railway. In El Paso, the Southern Pacific reached the city in 1881, at which point it birthed an immediate economic and industrial revolution, as new industries emerged in mining, smelting, and construction.[117][118] The economic boom was felt throughout the U.S. Southwest and Northern Mexico, and it brought new national and transnational migrants into the region.[119] In addition to Mexicans entering the U.S. from Mexico, Chinese laborers came from San Francisco, African Americans fled from the Jim Crow South, and whites came from the East Coast. The influx of new capital and immigrant labor into the region helped transform Texas from a barren terrain into a hub of international commerce, and El Paso emerged as the region's primary economic hub and an international commercial depot.[120] Nevertheless, racial violence continued.[121] Mary Jaques, a British tourist who spent two years in Central Texas in the 1880s, wrote in her journal that the murder of Tejanos "carried a sort of immunity with it," as Mexicans appeared to be "the Texan's natural enemy; he is treated like a dog, or, perhaps, not so well."[122]

Initial monument marking the Mexico–United States border.
Initial monument marking the Mexico–United States border.

Migration into the United States in this period was also soon complicated by racial restrictions. For the first time in its history, the U.S. barred an entire national-origin group from immigrating when it passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.[123] This caused difficulties at the Mexico–United States border, since the Act officially excluded Mexicans of Chinese descent from entering the U.S. as well.[124] "Chinese Inspectors" were hired by the United States Customs Service to inspect immigrants at ports of entry in the Southwest.[125] While official U.S. policy was to deport all Chinese immigrants attempting to enter the country to China, policies were slightly revised for Chinese Mexicans, who were simply deported to Mexico instead, especially if they held Mexican citizenship, had lived most of their lives in Mexico, or were married to Mexican nationals.[126]

María Ruiz de Burton, a Mexican American author.
María Ruiz de Burton, a Mexican American author.

These continued indignities suffered by Mexicans and Mexican Americans did not go completely ignored, however. In 1885, María Ruiz de Burton, a Californian Mexican-American, published The Squatter and the Don, a novel set in 1870s San Diego County, where the fictional Amaro family clashed with esquatas, Anglo Americans who "improved" the Amaro family ranch in order to lay legal claim to the land.[127] Considered the United States' first female Chicana author, Maria Ruiz de Burton had been politicized through her personal experiences in California after the Mexican American War.[128] Before the publication of her novel, she wrote to her cousin, "It cannot be denied that the Californians have reason to complain. The Americans must know it; their boasted liberty and equality of rights seem to stop when it meets a Californian... And now we have to beg for what we had the right to demand."[129] The publication of Burton's novel coincided with several other important developments in California for Mexican Americans. The decade witnessed the official dismantling of Spanish usage in official government documents,[130] around the same time as the emergence of the Gilded Age practice of African American voter suppression to disenfranchise non-white peoples from the functions of government.[131] For Mexican Americans, the Gilded Age was a period of abrupt economic change and demographic displacement. While there was significant migrant labor entering the Southwest in this period, it was dwarfed by the tidal wave of Anglos moving West from New York and other ports of entry. While the 1880s represented change, the coming years would emerge as a retrenchment of racial animosity.

Early 20th-century

Mexican-American workers formed unions of their own and joined integrated unions in the 20th century. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was particularly active in organizing Mexican-American farm workers and hard rock miners the first three decades of that century, in Arizona and elsewhere. In 1917, many of them were expelled in the Bisbee Deportation.

The first recorded strike led by Mexican-Americans was at the start of the 20th century in Southern California. There, a small group of Mexican farm laborers along with Japanese-Americans organized strikes in 1905 near Oxnard in Ventura County, California but were not successful in meeting demands for better wages and working conditions.[citation needed] From about 1902 to 1914, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) attempted to organize coal miners in Colorado. In 1927, Mexican-American coal miners participated in a bloody coal strike in Colorado, walking out under the banner of the IWW. Mexican-Americans in the southeastern part of the state, particularly from the Walsenburg, Pueblo, and Trinidad areas, took leadership roles in the 1927 strike.

Numerous workers from Mexico were in the mines. As many as 60 percents of all these wage earners had come to Colorado after further labor troubles at Colorado Fuel and Iron (CF&I) properties in 1919 and 1921. As the IWW agitation increased in 1926-27, mine owners refused to hire Mexicans, blaming them for the labor unrest.[132]

The UMWA returned to northern Colorado in 1928, just weeks after a machine-gun massacre of strikers, when Josephine Roche, president of the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company, invited the AFL-affiliated organization to take the place of the more radical IWW.

The Communist Party-affiliated[133] Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union led a massive strike of cotton pickers in California in 1933; that strike was defeated after mass arrests and the murder of several strikers. The movie Salt of the Earth depicts another strike, waged by the mostly Mexican-American members of the Mine Mill and Smelter Workers; the movie itself became an important document in the later Chicano movement.

Regional History


In South Texas, a band of radicals issued the manifesto "Plan de San Diego" in 1915, calling on Hispanics to reconquer the Southwest and kill all the Anglo men. Rebels assassinated opponents and killed several dozen people in attacks on railroads and ranches before the Texas Rangers smashed the insurrection. Tejanos strongly repudiated the Plan and affirmed their American loyalty by founding the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). LULAC, headed by professionals, businessmen, and modernizers, became the central Tejano organization promoting civic pride and civil rights.[134]

Audience inside the Azteca Theater, Houston, TX in 1927.
Audience inside the Azteca Theater, Houston, TX in 1927.

People of Hispanic ethnicity, most of whom were Mexican nationals, also began arriving into Texas in greater numbers between 1900 and 1930. Adding to the number of older Hispanic residents already in Texas, some of whom had been here since the Spanish Colonial Era, many of these new immigrants engaged in cotton production by performing the back-breaking work of hoeing cotton fields clean of weeds and harvesting the mature crop during the summer and fall. These new migrants oftentimes established themselves in communities where earlier Hispanic communities already existed. From settlements in The Rio Grande Valley, in South Texas, communities in the Nueces Strip - between Three Rivers and Corpus Christi, Texas - and the interior city of San Antonio, Hispanics ventured outward, following the maturing cotton crop north and west. They traveled in extended family groups on an odyssey known as "The Big Swing". Along the route, some younger family members might land a permanent job and stay behind. From Lubbock to San Angelo, Hispanics formed an integral part of their local communities.

New Mexico

Hispanics living in New Mexico were relegated to second-class social status by the socio-economically dominant non-Hispanic population. Some of these "Anglos" deprecated Hispanic/Mexican culture and questioned the native population's fitness for democracy. Some claim, in response, they constructed a "Spanish American" identity in an early instance of cultural citizenship (expressing Americanism through ethnic identity) but this is strongly disputed by Richard Nostrand when he describes the concept of the "Hispano Homeland".[135] World War I gave the Hispanics the opportunity to prove their full American citizenship. Like the "new immigrants" in eastern cities who also constructed dual identities, members of the Nuevomexicano middle class exuberantly participated in the war effort. They melded images of their heritage with patriotic symbols of America, especially in the Spanish-language press. Nuevomexicano politicians and community leaders recruited the rural masses into the war cause overseas and on the home front, including the struggle for woman suffrage. Support from New Mexico's Anglo establishment aided their efforts. Their wartime contributions improved the conditions of minority citizenship for Nuevomexicanos but did not entirely eliminate social inequality. For example, no Hispanics—not even the son of a regent—was allowed in a fraternity at the state university.[136]

The Anglos and Hispanics cooperated because both prosperous and poor Hispanics could vote and they outnumbered the Anglos. Around 1920, the term "Spanish-American" replaced "Mexican" in polite society and in political debate. The new term served both the interests of both groups. For Spanish speakers, it evoked Spain, Not Mexico, recalling images of a romantic colonial past and suggesting a future of equality in Anglo-dominated America. For Anglos, on the other hand, it was a useful term that upgraded the state's image, for the old image as a "Mexican" land suggested violence and disorder, and had discouraged capital investment and set back the statehood campaign. The new term gave the impression that "Spanish Americans" belonged to a true American political culture, making the established order appear all the more democratic.[137]

The Mexican Revolution

Refugees of the Mexican Revolution standing among tents, possibly in Marfa, Texas, ca. 1910.
Refugees of the Mexican Revolution standing among tents, possibly in Marfa, Texas, ca. 1910.

After 1911 the ferocious civil wars in Mexico led 600,000 to 1 million refugees to flee north across the border, which was generally open. Well educated middle-class families emigrated, as well as poor citizens.

The consulates of the Mexican government in major cities in the Southwest organized a network of "juntas patrioticas" (patriotic councils) and "comisiónes honoríficos" (honorary committees) to celebrate Mexican national holidays such as the Cinco de Mayo; the target audience was the Latino middle class.[138]

Large-scale emigration from central Mexico to the United States began in the 1920s. Mexico was exempted from the system of quotas created by the Immigration Act of 1924, with U.S. politicians hoping to dissuade the revolutionary government from carrying out the nationalization of the nation's oil reserves decreed in the 1917 Constitution of Mexico. In 1926, the anti-clerical policies of Plutarco Elías Calles led to a rebellion by Catholic ranchers and peasants in Jalisco and Michoacán, known as the Cristero War. The rebellion spread to thirteen states across the center of Mexico, with upwards of 50,000 people taking up arms to defend the Catholic Church. Although they failed to capture any major cities, the federal army was unable to defeat these mounted guerillas. Between 1926 and 1930, the Cristiada War claimed 70,000 lives, led to the internal migration of 200,000 people, as well as the external emigration (mostly to the U.S.) of over 450,000 people.

Treatment of Refugees

Mother and child in Imperial Valley, California.
Mother and child in Imperial Valley, California.

In borderlands towns such as Brownsville, Corpus Christi, Laredo, San Antonio, El Paso, Tucson, Yuma, San Diego, and Los Angeles, local Latino leaders wanted to restrict the influx of immigrants, because the newcomers directly competed with resident Latinos for jobs and housing and because they reinforced negative stereotypes regarding a lazy and violent lifestyle. In 1929 the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) was formed on the premise that full acceptance of American social, educational and political values was the only way Latinos could reasonably expect to improve their political, economic, and social position in American society. Some upwardly mobile families joined Protestant churches, but most remained devout conservative Roman Catholics. From the early 1930s through the 1960s, LULAC's political agenda focused on citizenship training and naturalization of "foreign-born Mexicans," English-language training, active support of antidiscriminatory litigation and legislation (particularly regarding public schools), and strict control of further immigration from Mexico. LULAC promoted the liberal rhetoric of "equality" and "rights" and the mutual obligations of republican civic duty. However, voting levels were quite low, and especially in South Texas the Latino vote was controlled by local "bosses." There was little in the way of radical movements.

'The establishment of a major Mexican presence in California dates back to these years.' [139] Mexicans met the increasing demand for cheap labor on the West Coast after draconian restrictions were imposed on Asian immigration. During this period, Mexicans began to migrate to areas outside the Southwest; they were imported to work in the steel mills of Chicago during a strike in 1919, and again in 1923.[140] Many would find work on the assembly lines of automobile factories in Detroit, and in the meat-packing plants of Chicago and Kansas City. Many also worked as agricultural laborers in farming valleys of the southern ends of the border states of California, especially the Imperial Valley; Arizona, especially Tucson; New Mexico; and Texas, especially the Rio Grande Valley. Anglo-Americans hired Mexicans and the U.S. born Mexicans to work in the region's year-round agricultural economy, most notably in tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, grapes, strawberries, and citrus fruit. Mexican farm laborers along with African Americans, Filipino Americans, Japanese-Americans, and even Armenian Americans, Punjabi Americans, Native Hawaiians and Native Americans were highly instrumental and contributed to California becoming the nation's leading agricultural state in the 20th century.

Mexican Repatriation

During Repatriation, "El Argil" took Mexicans and their American-born children from California to Baja California, Mexico, in September 1935.
During Repatriation, "El Argil" took Mexicans and their American-born children from California to Baja California, Mexico, in September 1935.

During the Great Depression in the United States, the federal INS adopted a policy of repatriation; some 400,000 Mexican immigrants and their children were given one-way tickets back to Mexico. Texas used Rangers to forcibly evict Mexicans who refused to accept voluntary repatriation, while Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan paid for special trains to take Mexicans back to Mexico.[141]

President Franklin D. Roosevelt promoted a "good neighbor" policy that sought better relations with Mexico. In 1935 a federal judge ruled that three Mexican immigrants were ineligible for citizenship because they were not white, as required by federal law. Mexico protested, and Roosevelt decided to circumvent the decision and make sure the federal government treated Hispanics as white. The State Department, the Census Bureau, the Labor Department, and other government agencies, therefore, made sure to uniformly classify people of Mexican descent as white. This policy encouraged the League of United Latin American Citizens in its quest to minimize discrimination by asserting whiteness. LULAC, with its middle-class base aspiring to the American Dream, emphasized its loyalty to the United States, its commitment to individual achievement, and free-market capitalism.[142]

World War II

At war

Mexican American pilot Lt. Arthur Van Haren, Jr. with his Grumman F6F Hellcat, ca. 1944.
Mexican American pilot Lt. Arthur Van Haren, Jr. with his Grumman F6F Hellcat, ca. 1944.

World War II was a watershed for all the Latino groups. Enthusiasm for the war was high.[143] Some 500,000 men were drafted or volunteered; even larger numbers of women and older men worked in high paying munitions plants, ending the hardship years of the depression and inspiring demands for upward mobility and political rights. The LULAC and El Congreso de Pueblos de Habla Española (the Spanish-Speaking Peoples' Congress), founded before the war, expanded their membership and more successfully demanded full integration for their middle-class constituents. LULAC expanded from its Texas base into New Mexico.[144]

In Arizona, community organizations were very active in patriotic efforts to support American troops abroad and made efforts to support the war effort materially and to provide moral support for the young American men fighting the war, especially the young Mexican-American men from local communities. Some of the community projects were cooperative ventures in which members of both the Mexican-American and Anglo communities participated. Most efforts made in the Mexican-American community, however, represented localized American home front activities that were separate from the activities of the Anglo community.[145] Mexican-American women organized to assist their servicemen and the war effort. An underlying goal of the Spanish-American Mothers and Wives Association was the reinforcement of the woman's role in Spanish-Mexican culture. The organization raised thousands of dollars, wrote letters, and joined in numerous celebrations of their culture and their support for Mexican-American servicemen. Membership reached over 300 during the war and eventually ended its existence in 1976.[146]

At home

UCAPAWA organizer speaking in "Mexican Town" in California.
UCAPAWA organizer speaking in "Mexican Town" in California.

Labor unions opened their membership rolls and Luisa Moreno became the first Latina to hold a national union office, as vice-president of the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA), an affiliate of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

Teenagers developed their own music, language, and dress. For the men, the style was to wear a zoot suit — a flamboyant long coat with baggy pegged pants, a pork pie hat, a long key chain and shoes with thick soles. They called themselves "Pachucos." Trouble broke out in Los Angeles and several smaller cities, where servicemen in uniform who had never seen a Mexican American took umbrage at well-paid teenagers taking their leisure. Skirmishes and mini riots erupted in 1943, but the servicemen moved out, no one was killed, and there were few long-term reverberations.[147]

Mexican Americans had learned new trades and organizational skills in service, and many civilian men and women had taken well-paid jobs in war industries. The veterans were fully eligible for the GI Bill, which financed 52 weeks of unemployment insurance as well as very low-cost home mortgages and free high school and college educations, and free medical care at VA hospitals.[148] However the community felt it did not gain the full measure of economic and political equality it had earned on the battlefield; that disappointment led to a new level of activism.[149]

Mid-20th century

Bracero Program

Potential Bracero workers awaiting legal employment in the United States.
Potential Bracero workers awaiting legal employment in the United States.

When the U.S. entered the war it turned to Mexico to address wartime labor shortages. In August 1942 the Bracero Program was launched for the importation of temporary contract laborers from Mexico. By the time it ended in 1964 more than 4 million Mexican farm-workers arrived in the U.S. under this guest worker program, most of them destined for the cotton-fields and orchards of California's Central Valley and the Pacific Northwest, and the ranches and sugar beet farms of the Midwest. Texas chose to opt out of the Bracero program and hire farm-workers directly from Mexico. At its height, over 437,000 guest-workers entered the U.S. annually. The invention of mechanical cotton harvesters reduced labor needs, and scandals over the exploitation of guest workers led the Department of Labor official overseeing the program to denounce it as 'legalized slavery'.[150]

Post-war civil rights issues

The movement to overturn the many forms of state-sponsored discrimination directed at Hispanic Americans began in the first fifty years of the 20th century. The movement picked up steam after World War II, when groups such as the American G.I. Forum, formed by returning veterans, joined in the efforts of organizations such as LULAC to demand an end to segregated schools and denial of the right to vote. Hispanic Americans brought several legal cases against school segregation in San Antonio and Corpus Christi, Texas, in the 1940s and similar battles in San Diego and Orange County, California.

The U.S. Border Patrol packed Mexican immigrants into trucks when transporting them to the border for deportation during Operation Wetback.
The U.S. Border Patrol packed Mexican immigrants into trucks when transporting them to the border for deportation during Operation Wetback.

In the post-war McCarthy era, the Justice Department launched Operation Wetback, which deported over 70,000 illegal immigrants and resulted in over 700,000 leaving voluntarily.[151]

Mexican-Americans, mestizos especially, also faced heightened racism during World War II, most famously during the Zoot Suit Riots, when sailors in Los Angeles attacked Mexican-American youths in 1943, and in the Sleepy Lagoon Case, in which a number of young men were wrongly convicted in a case marked by sensationalized press coverage and overt racism from the prosecution and judge. That trial and verdict, overturned on appeal after a broad-based committee was created to support the defendants, is depicted in Luis Valdez' play and film Zoot Suit. At the same time, the United States was importing thousands of Mexican farm workers under the Bracero program that used them as temporary labor, without employment rights.

Mexican American veteran William Gonzales in 1952.
Mexican American veteran William Gonzales in 1952.

According to the National World War II Museum, between 250,000 and 500,000 Hispanic Americans served in the Armed Forces during WWII. Thus, Hispanic Americans comprised 2.3% to 4.7% of the Army. The exact number, however, is unknown as at the time Hispanics were classified as whites. Generally, Mexican American World War II servicemen were integrated into regular military units. However, many Mexican–American War veterans were discriminated against and even denied medical services by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs when they arrived home.[152] In 1948, war veteran Dr Hector P. Garcia founded the American GI Forum to address the concerns of Mexican American veterans who were being discriminated against. The AGIF's first campaign was on the behalf of Felix Longoria, a Mexican American private who was killed in the Philippines in the line of duty. Upon the return of his body to his hometown of Three Rivers, Texas, he was denied funeral services because he was Mexican American. Under the guidance of Hector P. Garcia and Vicente T. Ximenes the AGIF throughout the 1950s expanded its role as an agency for civil rights advocacy beyond that of solely advocating for Hispanic veterans.

Mexican American schoolchildren were subject to racial segregation in the public school system. They were forced to attend "Mexican schools" in California. In 1947, the Mendez v. Westminster ruling declared that segregating children of "Mexican and Latin descent" in Orange County and the state of California was unconstitutional. This ruling helped lay the foundation for the landmark Brown v Board of Education case which ended racial segregation in the public school system.[153]

In many counties in the Southwestern United States, Mexican Americans were not selected as jurors in court cases which involved a Mexican American defendant.[154] In 1954, Pete Hernandez, an agricultural worker, was indicted of murder by an all-Anglo jury in Jackson County, Texas. Hernandez believed that the jury could not be impartial unless members of other races were allowed on the jury-selecting committees, seeing that a Mexican American had not been on a jury for more than 25 years in that particular county. Hernandez and his lawyers decided to take the case to the Supreme Court. The Hernandez v. Texas Supreme Court ruling declared that Mexican Americans and other racial groups in the United States were entitled to equal protection under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.[155]

Results came more slowly in California, on the other hand: although Los Angeles had a significant Mexican-American population, gerrymandering eliminated the seat held by Edward R. Roybal, the only Mexican-American member of the Los Angeles City Council, in 1959.

Chicano Movement


Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta found the United Farm Workers association in 1965
Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta found the United Farm Workers association in 1965
Activists in San Jose, California marching in support of the UFW Gallo boycott.
Activists in San Jose, California marching in support of the UFW Gallo boycott.
Chicano Movement activists at a rally in San Jose, California.
Chicano Movement activists at a rally in San Jose, California.

The Chicano movement blossomed in the 1960s. The movement had roots in the civil rights struggles that had preceded it, adding to it the cultural and generational politics of the era.

In 1963, in Crystal City, Texas the mainly Mexican-American migrant community together with the support of the Teamsters Union and the Political Association of Spanish-Speaking Organizations (PASSO), an outgrowth of the Viva Kennedy clubs of 1960, encouraged Mexican-American men and women to pay their poll tax and choose their own candidates. Led by Teamsters business agent and cannery employee, Juan Cornejo, five Mexican-Americans, despite intimidation by the Texas Rangers, won the support of their community young and old alike who thanks to the protection provided by the Teamsters and PASSO mobilized for electoral victory. This "revolt" was covered nationwide and reported in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. This election led Americans outside of the Southwest to take note of America's other minority community as a political force.

The early proponents of the movement — Rodolfo Gonzales in Denver, Colorado and Reies Tijerina in New Mexico — adopted a historical account of the preceding hundred and twenty-five years that obscured much of Mexican-American history. Gonzales and Tijerina embraced a form of nationalism that was based on the failure of the United States government to live up to the promises that it had made in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.[156]

That version of the past did not, on the other hand, take into account the history of those Mexicans who had immigrated to the United States. It also gave little attention to the rights of illegal immigrants in the United States in the 1960s — not surprising, since immigration did not have the political significance it was to acquire in the years to come. It was only a decade later when activists embraced the rights of illegal immigrants and helped broaden the focus to include their rights.[citation needed]

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 set strict quotas on the number of persons who could legally enter the U.S. from Latin American nations, and most new Mexican migration to the U.S. in the 1960s was temporary and short-term. Seasonal migration between the United States and Mexico became illegal in 1965. Nevertheless, the numbers involved with seasonal agriculture kept growing, often forced to resort to undocumented migration. They made money in the U.S. but returned to the villages to spend it, tend to the family business, and participate in extended kinship rituals such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals.

The most significant union struggle involving Mexican-Americans was the United Farm Workers' long strike and boycott aimed at grape growers in the San Joaquin and Coachella Valleys in the late 1960s, followed by campaigns to organize lettuce workers in California and Arizona, farm workers in Texas, and orange grove workers in Florida.

The most prominent civil rights organization in the Mexican-American community is the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), founded in 1968. Although modeled after the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, MALDEF has also taken on many of the functions of other organizations, including political advocacy and training of local leaders.

Instead, when the movement dealt with practical problems most activists focused on the most immediate issues confronting Mexican-Americans: unequal educational and employment opportunities, political disenfranchisement, and police brutality. In the heady days of the late 1960s, when the student movement was active around the globe, the Chicano movement brought about more or less spontaneous actions, such as the mass walkouts by high school students in Denver and East Los Angeles in 1968.

The movement was particularly strong at the college level, where activists formed MEChA, el Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán, which promoted Chicano Studies programs and a generalized nationalist agenda. The student movement produced a generation of future political leaders, including Richard Alatorre and Cruz Bustamante in California.


The Brown Berets marching in 1970.
The Brown Berets marching in 1970.
Dolores Huerta Huerta is the originator of the phrase, "Sí, se puede".[157]
Dolores Huerta Huerta is the originator of the phrase, "Sí, se puede".[157]

Some women who worked within the Chicano movement felt that participants were more worried about other issues, such as immigration than solving problems that affected women. This led Chicanas to form the Comisión Femenil Mexicana Nacional in 1970. The Chicano Moratorium was also held in Los Angeles in 1970.

La Raza Unida Party campaigns in the early 1970s had the practical effect of defeating Mexican-American Democratic candidates, embittering many activists against the party and the form of nationalism it represented.

As a result of the Voting Rights Act, followed up by intensive political organizing, Mexican-Americans were able to achieve a new degree of political power and representation in Texas and elsewhere in the Southwest. The La Raza Unida Party, headed by José Ángel Gutiérrez of Crystal City, Texas made startling progress in the poorest regions in the Rio Grande Valley with its base of operations at Crystal City, Texas in the early 1970s, spreading for a while to Colorado, Wisconsin, California, Michigan, Oregon, Kansas, Illinois and several other states. The party faded in the mid-1970s and held on only in Crystal City, Texas before collapsing in the early 1980s. Veterans from the party, such as Willie Velasquez, became active in Democratic politics and in organizing projects such as the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, which boosted the electoral fortunes of Mexican-American candidates throughout the Southwest.

While the UFW suffered severe setbacks in California in 1973 and never established a strong union presence in other states, its struggle propelled César Chávez and Dolores Huerta into national prominence, while providing the foot soldiers who helped increase the visibility of Mexican-Americans within the Democratic Party in California and elect a number of Mexican-American candidates in the 1970s and 1980s.

By the late 1970s, tactics had forced growers to recognize the UFW as the bargaining agent for 50,000 field workers in California and Florida.

Late-20th century


Since the 1980s, Mexican migration has increased dramatically. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 granted amnesty to illegal immigrants who had resided in the U.S. before 1982 while imposing penalties on employers who hired illegal immigrants. Several factors led to an increase in Mexican immigration to the U.S. The Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s led to high rates of unemployment in Mexico and destroyed the savings of a large portion of the middle-class.

In the 1980s, the first Mexican-American was elected to the Los Angeles City Council in over twenty years. A landmark lawsuit was also filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which argued "the Los Angeles Supervisors in 1981 adopted a plan that fragmented the Hispanic population into three districts, thus dividing their political power." The outcome of this litigation permitted a Mexican-American to win election to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, the first Mexican-American to join that body in more than a century.


Hispanic Advisory Commission with President Bill Clinton.
Hispanic Advisory Commission with President Bill Clinton.

In 1991, Mexican president Carlos Salinas dismantled the communally-owned ejidos, one of the most important legacies of the Mexican Revolution, and the enactment of NAFTA brought a flood of subsidized U.S. corn into the Mexican market, driving down grain prices and forcing hundreds of thousands of people from rural areas to migrate in search of better economic opportunities.

Tthe 1994 Mexican Peso Crisis led to severe economic distress in Mexico and led to increased migration into the United States.

Meanwhile, at home, the Service Employees International Union led a number of successful "Justice for Janitors" campaigns throughout the United States among predominantly immigrant workers, many of whom have come from Mexico and Central America. Those campaigns do not stress cultural or ethnic identity in the way that the UFW did but have linked immigrant workers' struggles with the political interests of Mexican-Americans in many communities, such as Los Angeles.

The IWW also began organizing again, particularly among Troquero truck drivers and immigrant taxi drivers in the Los Angeles, California area. Mexican-American politicians assumed high offices throughout California in this decade.

21st century

Jorge Ramos interviewing Democratic presidential candidate and United States senator of Vermont Bernie Sanders, January 2016. Ramos was included on Time 2015 magazine's list of "The World's Most Influential People".[158]
Jorge Ramos interviewing Democratic presidential candidate and United States senator of Vermont Bernie Sanders, January 2016. Ramos was included on Time 2015 magazine's list of "The World's Most Influential People".[158]

The 2000 Census showed that the foreign-born population of the U.S. increased by 11.3 million people in the 1990s, and Mexican immigrants accounted for 43% of that growth.[159] The region which had the fastest-growing immigrant population was the Southeast, where many Mexicans who found work in construction, as migrant agricultural laborers, and in textile mills and chicken processing plants. The Latino populations of Georgia, North and South Carolina, and Arkansas increased between 300 and 400 per cent from 1990 to 2000.[160]

A major focus of Chicano activists in the 21st century has been to advance the representation of Chicanos in all American mainstream media.[161] Criticism of the American mainstream news media and U.S. educational institutions by Chicano activists has been particularly harsh in recent years subsequent to the massive displays of support for immigrant rights such as that seen during La Gran Marcha[162] (The Great March) on March 25, 2006 in Los Angeles. As of today, this self-proclaimed "largest march in U.S. history" which was primarily organized by Mexican American organizations, Chicano activists, and fueled through a large network of active Internet users, L.A. Spanish language television, and Spanish language news radio coverage, is still virtually ignored by American mainstream (English language) news media and all textbooks of the American educational system.

After the increased border security following the 9-11 attacks in 2001, the back-and-forth pattern became dangerous. People kept coming north, but they stayed in the U.S. and sent money home every month. Locked into the American economy year-round, millions of these undocumented workers moved out of season agricultural jobs into year-round jobs in restaurants, hotels, construction, landscaping and semiskilled factory work, such as meatpacking. Most paid federal social security taxes into imaginary accounts (and thus were not eligible for benefits.) Few had high enough incomes to pay federal or state income taxes, but all paid local and state sales taxes on their purchases as well as local property taxes (via their rent payments to landlords). By 2007 there were 12  million or so undocumented workers in the U.S.

In 2005, Antonio Villaraigosa was elected mayor of Los Angeles, the first Latino in 130 years to hold the seat. Eric Garcetti became the second consecutive Mexican American mayor.

Voters have elected a number of governors of Mexican-American descent in the Southwest, include Ezequiel Cabeza De Baca, Octaviano Ambrosio Larrazolo, Jerry Apodaca, Toney Anaya, Bill Richardson, Susana Martinez and Michelle Lujan Grisham the first Democratic Latina elected state chief executive in the history of the United States in New Mexico and Raúl Héctor Castro in Arizona, Brian Sandoval in Nevada. Colorado voters elected Ken Salazar as the first Mexican-American Senator from that state and more recently Nevada voters elected Catherine Cortez Masto the first Latina elected to serve in the Senate. Cruz Bustamante was the first Democratic lieutenant governor of California in 130 years from his election in 1999 to 2007, but Bustamante lost the gubernatorial election to Austrian-born actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who went on to be state governor. Romualdo Pacheco served as 12th governor of California and remains the only Hispanic or Latino governor in the state's history as part of the U.S. Joseph García became the first lieutenant governor of Colorado on January 11, 2011.

Representative Joaquin Castro (left) and his twin brother, then-San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro (right), at the LBJ Presidential Library.
Representative Joaquin Castro (left) and his twin brother, then-San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro (right), at the LBJ Presidential Library.

Mexican-Americans have also achieved some degree of political recognition in Chicago, where they make up roughly 75% of a Hispanic community that also includes significant numbers of Puerto Ricans and immigrants from other Spanish-speaking countries. That predominantly Mexican-American community has elected Luis Gutierrez, whose ancestry is Puerto Rican, to represent it in Congress and a number of Mexican-American politicians at the state and local level.

Mexican-Americans tend to vote Democratic (in 1960, the John F. Kennedy presidential campaign boosted the Mexican American vote to over 80% for Kennedy). However, Mexican-Americans in recent decades had a low turnout on election day. George W. Bush targeted Hispanics and won 35% of their votes in 2000, and 40% in 2004. Barack Obama gained 67% of the Hispanic vote in 2008, and, after extensive get-out-the-vote campaigns reached 71% in 2012. Hispanics—including groups besides the Mexican-Americans—comprised 8% of the electorate in 2004, 9% in 2008 and 10% in 2012.[163] Republican strategist blamed their worsening performance among a large, young, and rapidly growing group on the hostility GOP candidates displayed toward illegal immigrants, and argued the party needed to moderate its position.[164]


Scholars of Mexican-American history

See also

By state:

In other regions:


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Further reading

External links

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