AMERICAN HISPANICS AND THE CIVIL RIGHTS STRUGGLE: THE MEXICAN DIXON LINE AND NATIONAL AMNESIA -THE CHICANO EXPERIENCE
According to an Epigraph by Brenda Payton to “Who’s the Leader of the Civil Rights Band” by Nicolás C. Vaca in Chicana/o Studies: Survey and Analysis, 3rd Edition (303) the popular American misconception is that “the Civil Rights Struggle of the 60’s was essentially an African American endeavor.” While the focus of visibility is rightly centered on African Americans in that struggle, the aggregate strength of the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s came from the myriad groups that formed that movement which included Mexican Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, LGBTQ Americans, and a host of other disenfranchised Americans. What is disconcerting, though, is the situation described by Nicholas Dauphine in Education Week (May 13, 2014):
Whenever civil rights has been covered in history class, or when I’ve seen a documentary or read an article concerning such, I have always been very aware of what is missing, and it is something that I am interested in and looking for. As an American of Hispanic descent, I never see any information related to my ethnicity’s cause for civil rights. Where is the plight of Hispanics represented in the civil rights discussion and history of the United States?
Addressing this issue historically, the Hispanic struggle for civil rights in the United States began almost as soon as Hispanic Mexican Americans became Americans by conquest and by fiat as part of the spoils of the U.S. War against Mexico (1846-1848). Once Mexicans, now Americans—but always mejicanos—Mexican Americans quickly became painfully aware of their diasporic condi-tion and the limitations that standing entailed–principally their legal status. Despite the “safe-guards” of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo (February 2, 1848), Mexican Americans were brutally subjected to the harsh apodictic codes governing a conquered people.
Fully aware of their new status, Mexican Americans were nevertheless perplexed by the paradox of place: though now Americans, they were still in the same place they were when they were Mexicans. No longer Mexico now—but the United States—how were they to refer to their “new homeland”? And what would become of them as Mexicans now that they were Americans? These were critical questions for Mexican Americans as they grappled with the realities of readjusting their lives to a new political and linguistic order.
These questions framed the Mexican American agenda for the next century and a half, during which the succeeding generations of Mexican Americans labored to define the boundaries of their “homeland” while mainstream America sought to diminish their presence on the American scene by subjecting them to the same public code applied to African Americans and all other peoples of color in the nation by creating a “Mexican-Dixon Line.”
An ungrateful nation never thanked them en masse for their sacrifices to the country during military conflicts even though during World War II more than 500,000 Mexican Americans were in uniform, dying in Europe and the Pacific for a nation that would discriminate against them until well into the 1970’s and beyond, into the 21st century.
Important to bear in mind is that after 1848 Mexican Americans did not go gently into that good night of American occupation. Insurgency politics dominated the “conquest generation” for most of the transition period from 1848 to 1912. Even during the period of Americanization
from 1912 to 1960 when Mexican Americans sought to become what the nation wanted them to become, they were considered and treated as second-class citizens, reviled as the stereotypes that demonized them, disenfranchised, working at jobs of last resort, their children thrown into English-language schools to sink or swim. The period of the Chicano Movement from 1960 and after sparked the rise of confrontational militancy among Mexican Americans now becoming Chicanos. They had reached the end of “patience”.
In 1948 George I. Sanchez commented that instead of helping Mexican Americans lift themselves up by their bootstraps the American government took away their boots (Forgotten People). Bootless, with the advent of the Chicano Movement, Mexican Americans forged their manifesto of liberation and found succor in identifying where they lived as Aztlan–the mythic homeland of the Aztecs, the people of their indigenous roots in the Americas. All of the Mexican Cession, including Texas, became Aztlan–an emblematic homeland. As Chicanos now, Mexican Americans were home.
One of the jobs of last resort for Mexican Americans was picking crops in the fields that supplied the nation’s food and supported its produce structure. Mexican Americans became migrant farm workers at seasonal employment wherever there were crops to pick across the nation. One season would find them picking beets in Minnesota; another season would take them to the apple orchards of the Yakima Valley in the state of Washington. Oftentimes they picked cotton in America’s southland. Mostly, though, the migrant trail was confined to the harvest crescent of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.
Given the significance of farm work to Mexican American existence, it was only logical that the early efforts of the Chicano Movement would emerge among Mexican American migrant workers. Indeed, Mexican Americans worked across the spectrum of Labor activities in the United States, but they were aggregated principally in the work of the fields. Nevertheless, their labor helped to build the United States for they also worked in the steel mills, the railroads, the restaurants, all kinds of odd jobs in pursuit of the American dream.
The early stage of the Chicano Movement (circa the 1960’s) was not only about the struggle in the fields. It was about the struggle everywhere for civil rights. Nevertheless, it was the struggle in the fields that caught the attention of the American public, starting with the Delano strike against California grape-growers, principally Schenley farms in 1965 led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.
Almost from the beginning of their colonization in 1848, Mexican Americans organized various groups for their well-being and protection of their civil rights. In 1883 Mexican American vaqueros organized a strike against cattle companies for better wages. In the 1880’s, Mexican Americans organized the Caballeros of Labor to ward off Anglo land-grabbing schemes. By the end of the 19th century, they organized the Alianza Hispano-Americana in Arizona for better mining conditions. In 1903, Mexican Americans organized a sugar beet strike in Ventura, California. And in 1913, they organized a strike against the Durst Ranch in Wheatland, California for better housing conditions. Organizing sustained efforts to improve agricultural conditions for Mexican Americans proved difficult despite successes like the El Monte berry strike of 1933 and the San Joaquin Valley strike of that same year. A succession of farmworker groups gained prominence throughout the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, but none prevailed, owing largely to the repressive retaliatory measures of growers who saw only subversion in Mexican American efforts to organize farmworkers. The most disastrous effort at organizing Mexican American farmworkers occurred in 1947 with the DiGiorgio Fruit Corporation and Richard Nixon’s duplicitous participation in the affair. Yet, Mexican Americans persisted, becoming part of the American labor movement in the United States.
Success with the struggle in the fields came with the charismatic organizers Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta who organized the Farm Workers Association which later became the National Farm Workers Association. That success has been credited to Chavez’ philosophy of non-violent confrontation which had to surmount attitudes like those of W. H. Knox of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association who in his refusal to deal with Chavez and the farmworkers union said: “Have you ever heard, in the history of the United States, or in the history of the human race, of the white race being overrun by a class of people of the mentality of the Mexicans?”
History acknowledges Chavez’ achievement in the fields with his red flag and black eagle. In a real sense, during the Civil Rights Struggle, Mexican Americans did not take back the schools that did not want them. American schools are still an educational gulag for Mexican Americans despite their ostensible academic gains. Though Enron-like shenanigans manipulate school data, the actual drop-out rate for Mexican Americans is still, at 50%, distressingly high. American schools have not only failed Mexican Americans but they have failed the nation as well, for it’s an educated citizenry that betokens the well-being of the State.
In a landmark work of investigative reporting, “Montezuma’s Children” (Felipe de Ortego y Gasca, The Center Magazine, November/December 1970), the statistics about the education of Mexican American children in the Southwest were appalling. The educational level of Mexican Americans was slightly better than 4.8 years of schooling, with most Mexican Americans dropping out of school by the 6th grade. In Texas 39% of the Mexican Americans had less than a 5th grade education. Only a third of Mexican American children were enrolled in school. Almost half of the Mexican Americans in Texas were considered functional illiterates. In their aggregate, their drop-out rate was more than twice the national average.
According to government studies of the time, 80% of Mexican Americans were falling two grades behind their Anglo cohorts by the time they got to the 5th grade. Until the late 40’s, throughout the Hispanic Southwest, Mexican Americans attended segregated schools. Until the advent of Bilingual Education in 1968, Mexican American children with limited English or no English skills began their education in English-language immersion classes with monolingual English teachers who had no training in language theory or second-language instruction. Rules prohibiting Spanish in the public schools and their campuses (except in Spanish classes), brought harsh punishment for infractions.
Mexican American children were frequently relegated to classes for the mentally retarded simply because many teachers equated linguistic ability with intellectual ability. In the Hispanic Southwest, Mexican American students accounted for more than 40% of the so-called “mentally retarded.” Massive protest and walkouts seemed to be the only remedy for Mexican Americans in their efforts to reform the schools.
Since 1935 when Herschel T. Manuel pointed out the deficiencies of the Stanford-Binet test in assessing the abilities of Spanish-speaking Mexican American children, efforts to reform “standardized testing” vis-a-vis Mexican Americans has met with limited success owing to hard-core insistence that doing so is a diminution of standards.
The end result of the educational gauntlet Mexican American children were historically forced to undergo severely limited the outcome of Mexican American college graduates, Their numbers in college and university populations then (and even now) did not and do not reflect their numbers in the American population, even though, here and there, the large presence of Mexican American students in Hispanic-serving colleges and universities suggest otherwise.
The fundamental question here is: To whom do the schools belong? Since Mexican American taxes support the schools as well (lower and higher education), excluding them from or restricting their access to those schools is tantamount to “taxation without representation.”
The apothegm “Everything is political” may best characterize the Mexican American struggle for political power in the United States. While formation of La Raza Unida Party in 1971 may epitomize to many the apogee of Mexican American politics, the truth is that Mexican Americans have been “political” since day one, and glistening here and there in their historical presence in the United States are any number of spikes comparable to the apogee they achieved in forming La Raza Unida Party.
From the beginning of their colonization starting in 1848, the “conquest generation” of Mexican Americans organized all manner of organizations for their survival, some of them political, most of them fraternal and beneficial societies intended to help them keep a cohesive sense of community and to withstand the brutal bombardment their presence in American society engendered against them. The American legal system was slow in responding to the legal and political grievances of Mexican Americans. That situation would not change until the advent of the Chicano Movement and its focus on the structural experiences of Mexican Americans.
Growing consciousness of their plight and rising expectations to improve their situation, Mexican Americans organized for social change and embraced their aspirations for social justice in an ideology of self-determination, independent of the social system that had held them at arm’s-length for so long. Community identity and community control emerged as key objectives in the renaissance empowered by the Chicano Movement.
Historical organizations like the Alianza Hispano-Americana founded n 1894, League of United Latin American Citizens founded in 1929, and the American G.I. Forum founded in 1948, played important roles in advancing the political agenda of Mexican Americans, but that agenda gained more immediacy after 1960 with formation of Mexican American political groups like the Mexican American Political Association, the Political Association of Spanish-Speaking Organizations, Mexican American Youth Organization, Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Southwest Voter Registration Project, the Crusade for Justice, La Raza Unida Party, United Farm Workers Union, National Council of La Raza, National Association of Latino and Elected Officials, and others.
Important to bear in mind is that today Mexican Americans are essentially a native-born population despite the public perception that they are recent immigrants. More than a million of them have served in the American armed forces since the Civil War to the present conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. Over the last 163 years they have had a modicum of success in electing Mexican Americans to Congress, state legislatures, and municipal posts. They are still not represented in the professions in terms of their numbers in the American population. They still lag in educational achievement; and poverty is still a specter in their daily lives. Their growing numbers in the population, especially in Texas and California, augur significant political changes in those states.
While not absent from the Mexican American political agenda, Chicano nationalism has given way to new realities of pragmatism in order to offset meretricious perceptions of them as “lazy rather than hard-working . . . living off welfare rather than being self-supporting” (Tom Smith, “Ethnic Survey,” GSS Topical Report, Number 19. National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago, 1990).
In the first decade of the 21st century, Hispanics are still facing the ominous threats of racism engendered by residual anathema of the Black Legend [see the series on “The Black Legend” in Somos Primos] in states like Arizona and Texas whose new legislations seek to severely limit their rights of citizenship. What the future augurs for Mexican Americans is dimly apprehended through a glass darkly. What is evident, though, is that—whatever that future—Mexican Ameri-cans today, like their forebears of yester-year, have rolled up their sleeves to face it with hopeful determination and without fear.
Copyright 2014 by Dr. Philip De Ortego y Gasca. Scholar in Residence (Cultural Studies, Critical Theory, Public Policy), Western New Mexico University.