CONTEXT: The history of Mexican Americans in the United States has been a long and troubled one. Dr. Felipe De Ortego y Gasca puts this history in perspective in this brief history of Chicanos in the United States. While not a historical document in the sense of the other documents in this section of Latinopia, we felt this history important to include as an important document of Latino history.
At the outset let me say that as Chicanos we did not get here by turning the other cheek or by rolling over like good lap dogs for the approval of the dominant hegemonic society. With due credit and homage to the Conquest Generation of Mexican Americans (1848-1912) who endured great suffering and iniquities, their sacrifices have made our existence as Mexican Americans of the 21st century (still a colonized people) more bearable though not less harsh. Our travails as an internal U.S. colony of Mexican Americans since 1848 have been punitive, and infamous.
What Mexican Americans of that “conquest generation” faced immediately after the dismemberment of more than half of Mexico’s national territory per the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (February 2, 1848) was (1) a strikingly different political system, (2) a completely different educational system, and (3) a different national language from their own which was immediately anathematized by mainstream American society and its apodictic strictures.
Though the territory of the Mexican Cession was larger than Spain, Italy, and France combined, we don’t really know how many people were on the land. In North From Mexico, Carey McWilliams indicates that there were only 75,000 people (counting Mexicans and Hispanicized Indians). In Occupied America Rudy Acuña suggests 3 million. The Texas historian Arnoldo DeLeon thinks the figure may be somewhere between the two. Whatever the number, inhabitants of the newly acquired territory were not welcomed by mainstream Americans. Much of what was Mexican and Spanish in the territory of the Mexican Cession has been retained by American society but the people themselves—the Indo-Chicanos have been held at arm’s length.
The journey and evolution from Indians to Chicanos started in 1492 when Columbus found himself in the Americas, thinking he had made his way to Cipango (Japan). Columbus called the Indigenous people he encountered in the Caribbean islands “Indians” He could not know that these people and the Spaniards would blend into a population which the Mexican educator and philosopher Jose Vasconcelos in the 20th century would call la raza cosmica—“the cosmic people.”
Who could have foreseen in this diaspora the holocaust engendered by the Spanish encounter of Cortez and Moctezuma in 1519? At first glance that encounter seems like little more than two cultures meeting each other face to face for the first time. But that encounter augured calamity for the Indians and, ultimately, calamity for the Spaniards as well. Despite the historical outcome, if one were to pronounce a “winner” of that encounter, I would pick the Indians who are as much our forebears as are the Spaniards. The descendants of that confluence of encounters have survived in prolific numbers. Regardless of the historicity of that encounter, like the creatures of “The Dark Crystal” (film) we cannot negate the duality of our parentage—somos indios y españoles—Indo-Hispanics. Like Joaquin in Corky Gonzalez’ epic poem, we must forge our future in light of that knowledge.
Our evolution from Indians to Chicanos was turbulent and more often than not brutal. But we survived. Like the Aztecs bewailing their plight in the throes of the Spanish conquest, we survived on dry grass and seeds. In his work on The Forgotten People: A Study of New Mexicans (1940)l, George I. Sanchez remarked how the New Mexicans had expected the U.S. government to help them lift themselves by their bootstraps; instead the government took away their boots. That has pretty much characterized the American government’s response to its colonized Mexican Americans.
Immediately in 1848 the Conquest Generation of Mexicans (now Americans by fiat) faced three considerations that the Mexicans who chose to remove themselves from territory annexed by the U.S. did not: (1) the English language, (2) the American political system, and (3) the American education system. All three considerations were to plague Mexican Americans until the present. To varying degrees, all three considerations have posed for Mexican Americans issues of identity, uncertainty, and representation.
Given the apartheid restrictions pertaining to Mexican Americans in many locales of the Hispanic Southwest during the transition period from 1848 to 1912, Mexican Americans were unsure or undecided if they were Americans or Mexicans. There are no statistics indicating how many (if any) Mexican Americans moved to the newly reconfigured Mexico during the transition period.
During this transition period, the American political system posed numerous barriers for full political participation by Mexican Americans, most barriers exacerbated by the requirements of the English language.
The American education system was by far the most difficult for Mexican Americans to navigate. Still is. In 1970 when my work on “Montezuma’s Children” was published as the cover story of The Center Magazine of the John Maynard Hutchins Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, average education attainment for Mexican American was 3.8 years. And Mexican American children with difficulties in the acquisition of the English language were assigned to classes for the Mentally Retarded. The story so affected Senator Ralph Yarbrough (D-TX) that he read the work into the Congressional Record 116, No. 189 (November 25, 1970, S-18961-S19865) and recommended it for a Pulitzer. The situation was no better when my work with Marta Sotomayor on Chicanos and American Education (Ford Foundation and National Council of La Raza) was undertaken.
The road for Mexican Americans in pursuit of social justice in the United States has been long and winding. For a while we thought that the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 brought into being by Senator Ralph Yarbrough would improve the dismal statistics of Mexican Americans and American Education. At least I thought so as a founding member of the Southwest Council of Foreign Language Teachers (CFLT) which morphed first into the Southwest Council for Bilingual Education in 1968, then into the National Council for Bilingual Education in 1970.
What moved Mexican Americans forward from where we were to where we are was the awakening need spurred by the Chicano Movement for civic representation and a social presence commensurate with our numbers in the American population. This was not a movement spawned on the coat-tails of the Black Civil Rights Movement. This was a movement born out of the call to Mexican American in 1848 by Father Martinez of New Mexico to resist the American military occupation of the Hispanic Southwest, their homeland.
Not unlike the resistance of the French Maquisards (the Maquis) Freedom Fighters during the World War II German occupation of France, the Mexican American Freedom Fighters arose in various guises and disguises. In some places they were las gorras blancas (the white hats), in other places they were la hermandad (the brotherhood), more ominously they were la mano negra (the black hand). Important to note is that Mexican Americans did not go gently into the role of the vanquished. They were role-models for a later generation of resistance fighters like Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. These were the roots of the Chicano struggle for civil rights.
That struggle continued in many forms both militantly and passively until 1960 when it turned more aggressively with groups like the Brown Berets, La Raza Unida Party, and Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA) and the Viva Kennedy clubs. Something impalpable was in the air, some ingress of pent-up frustration, a sense of immediacy to claim a place in the American sun. Whatever it was, it birthed the Chicano Movement. Almost immediately the four pillars of the Chicano Movement sprang up: The Crusade for Justice with Corky Gonzalez in Denver, The Farmworkers Movement in California with Cesar Chavez, the Raza Unida Party with Jose Angel Gutierrez in Texas, and the Land Grant Movement with Reies Lopez Tijerina in New Mexico.
To be sure, there were many other groups: inter alia National Council of La Raza, MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund), MAPA (Mexican American Political Action), Southwest Voter Registration Project, Trabajadores de la Raza (Social Workers). Older groups like LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizen) and the American GI Forum (Hispanic Veterans group) were re-energized in la causa (the cause). Groups like Teatro Campesino with Luis Valdez came into being to dramatize the plight of Mexican Americans in American society.
La Causa and the Chicano Movement marshaled significant participation in Chicano civil rights efforts. MALDEF pursued myriad cases in pursuit of social justice for Mexican Americans, particularly in the arena of voter rights. Everywhere, Chicanos were buoyed by hope and aspirations for change and a better future. Out of a sheol of despair, Chicanos forged a philosophy of life and a path to their historical origins.
Resistance can take many forms, from refusing to sit in the back of the bus to prayer. Each engenders an unfathomable power. Armed resistance is perhaps the least desirable—the last resort. For American colonists resisting English oppression, armed resistance at Concord Bridge on April 19, 1775 was the least desirable but seemed to be the most necessary in resolving their struggle with the English crown. Fortune often favors the bold, at times even restraint. It’s hard to determine the outcome of the moment and the matter. Only history ascertains the value of an action at any given time.
Almost 10 years ago in a 2005 piece on this topic I wrote:
During the Early Mexican American period (1848-1912), Mexican Americans had little choice about their futures. While many Mexicans, now Americans, embraced the presence of Anglo Americans in the territories that had recently been Mexico and prior to the Spanish, many Mexican Americans did not go gently into the good night of American “occupation” as Rodolfo Acuña tells us in Occupied America.
Nevertheless, they went into the 20th century with all the baggage they were forced to carry by Jim Crow laws of the Southwest. Interestingly, New Mexico and Arizona did not become states of the Union until 1912 when Senator Albert Beveridge of Indiana saw that the demographics of the territories favored Anglo Americans. This period was essentially one of transition for Mexican Americans, going from being Mexicans to being Americans. Part of that effort began in 1896 with formation of Alianza Hispano Americana in Tucson, Arizona, an organization designed to expedite the transition of Mexicans to becoming Americans.
“Are We There Yet? Mexican Americans in the Age of Hispanicity” Hispanic Vista Weekly Digest, March 17
It appears abundantly clear to me that Mexican Americans have come far in American society but not as far as we should be, given our priority as a conquest people of Manifest Destiny in the American mosaic. There is still a distance ahead of us. Not a sprint, but a steeplechase with obstacles to overcome, obstacles we are now well aware of. Ahora no nos hacen pendejos. We have built a legacy of service and loyalty to this country—we deserve better. Nay, we demand better!
Written and copyrighted 2014 by Dr. Felipe de Ortego y Gasca, Scholar in Residence (Cultural Studies, Critical Theory, Public Policy) Western New Mexico University.