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A History of Chicanos, Essay Example

Pages: 7

Words: 1920

Essay

In your view, what were the most important factors leading to increased Mexican immigration from 1900­ –1920’s?

The most important factors leading to Mexican immigration to America during that time were not unique to Mexico or Mexicans or America and Americans. Instead, they were five classic interplays of politics and economics between cities and rural regions, both within nations and across borders. I will describe them below.

In her book Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Jane Jacobs breaks down the process into five parts: changing markets, new city jobs, new technology, transplanted industries (often maquiladoras in Mexico), and capital. In a nutshell: import-replacing cities generate capital as they grow in response to changing markets. In growing, they generate new jobs, attracting new residents who migrate from their rural homes or other cities that are relatively stagnant. With new work comes new technology related to that new work.[1] As cities continue to grow, they transplant some of their industries to distant areas to make room. In agriculture, that new technology results in widespread rural unemployment, but if all five forces are acting together, those rural workers can find jobs in the cities that created the capital that made the new technology. But “The fates that befall traditional rural settlements tend to be drab and dispiriting when only one or another of the great city forces impinge on them . . .” (Jacobs).

Mexico had many such “traditional rural settlements.” Dictator Porfirio Diaz, working in conjunction with American and Mexican corporate agricultural interests, brought about the disproportionate use of capital that Jacobs warned about. Meanwhile, Mexican cities could not provide employment for farmers displaced from their ejidos (communal lands).[2] “Perhaps as many as five million people lost access to their ancestral lands” (Ruiz).

In 1910 the Mexican revolution began. It lasted a decade and reportedly killed between one and two million people. American capital had already built Mexican railroads that ran north-south, providing a readily available if dangerous mode of travel that led to seasonal and semi-permanent jobs in America. Finally, apart from war and revolution and corruption — forces found universally active around the world at nearly all times — technology was modernizing farming, also around the world, making agriculture more productive and efficient, pushing millions more farm-workers into unemployment or sporadic migrant labor.

To Americans today, what is interesting about the early twentieth-century Mexican migrants to America is that they did not come to stay as many want and try to do now. The U.S. government’s 1910 Report of the Immigration Commission — submitted during the first year of the Mexican Revolution — reported that Mexican migrants “were the lowest paid of any laborers and that the majority worked as transient and migratory labor, did not settle, and returned to Mexico after only a few months” (Acuña). In other words, when they had a sustainable home to return to —that home was not so bad as to keep them away — they simply came north to earn some quick money and then return south. They could do this because both border enforcement and employment documentation was minimal for them — as it was for native-born white Americans too. Job applicants did not have to supply proof of citizenship then they way we must now, allegedly for the purposes of national security. When it came to Mexican workers in the U.S., American employers were glad to look the other way.

The main reason for that enforcement-neglect was that Mexican workers were indeed the lowest paid. Yet that low American pay was quite high compared to what Mexicans could earn in Mexico. Migrants would then take their money home (today they just wire it) and doing so pay for improvements there, and live relatively well until their American money began to run out. But, try as they might, that money brought to Mexico was (and is) really just an ongoing subsidy for their hometowns, a kind of welfare or dole earned through hard work and the risk to the inhabitants. The money does not make for economic growth — it does not become capital. For that to be accomplished, all five city forces are required. And so, for too many villages, the world only needs their labor, the only export they have, and which is wanted only when it is needed. When it is not needed, the migrants, once welcomed, must make themselves scarce.

For much of the period from 1900 to 1910, Mexicans migrants could do that, and did. But after 1910, many more came to America to escape the chaos of their homeland, and more of them stayed, at least until the war was over. Many of those became naturalized citizens. This worked out relatively well as long as times were good in America, but that was not the case after 1929. There was and is nothing historically unique about that situation. It is a known pattern.

Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States!

Diaz allegedly commented. He did not live to see the rise of the maquiladoras along the Mexican-U.S. border. But increasingly those free-trade-zone industries are leaving Mexico for places where even cheaper labor is available, itself an age-old pattern that dooms regions whose once-low wages have risen a bit. Until Mexico — and the rest of the world — masters Jacobs’ five city forces, too many of its people will be disposable at the beginning and end of their journeys.

How did the Great Depression affect Mexican Americans differently than other Americans? Explain the various socio­-political realities endured by Mexican Americans.

Mexican Americans were affected differently because, unlike nearly everyone else in America, they were seen as eligible for wholesale deportations during a time of scarce work. That is, the most fundamental socio-political (as opposed to economic-legal) realities endured by Mexican-Americans sprang from the fact that they were, to whites, blacks, yellows, and native reds alike indistinguishable from illegal Mexican immigrants. Just to be brown was to be a suspected “illegal alien”, the term used at the time. As for the legal immigrants and Mexican-American citizens, they were viewed as only temporarily legal anyway, documentation or not. As a result, many or even most Mexican-Americans during the Great Depression were treated as non-citizen aliens who stole jobs from “real” Americans the way the Chinese had done in the 19th century: by working harder for less pay than most whites and sometimes even blacks would.

Background

Overt racism has always been a part of American life. But the Irish, Italians, Germans, Jews, Russian, Poles, Puerto Ricans, Chinese and all the other overseas immigrants necessarily entered America openly via the official entry ports of New York and San Francisco. Detested though they might have been by native-born whites and each other, the right of these ship-borne huddled masses to be here as legal residents or citizens was — usually — legally indisputable. Not so for Mexican-Americans, who, unlike white Canadians, battled then (and now) the implied taint of illegality by virtue of the porous Mexican-American border. Any Mexican might be illegally here. But there was another problem as well: because U.S.-Mexican travel required no port, Mexicans often and easily left the U.S. to return “home”. Nth generation Mexican-Americans openly spoke Spanish fluently along with their fluent English. Because of these realities, Mexican-Americans were seen to divide their loyalty to their new country, which other immigrants did not, or at least not seemingly as much. These aspects of being a Mexican in America can be found distilled in the subhead on the top of page 202 in the 8th edition of Occupied America: “Greasers Go Home.” The stage was set for the Depression.

The Great Depression: La Crisis

In the 1930s, a great many Mexican Americans were farm-workers (as were many poor whites). The Great Depression hit rural areas very hard because of the general fall in prices, which was especially severe for crops. It was one of the first goals of the Roosevelt administration to increase those prices. One of the ways it did that was to pay farmers to keep their land unplanted, thus making thousands of farm-workers unemployed.[3] But there was another side of that coin. When the Depression began in 1929, half of the nation’s Latinos were living in cities (Garza). Like American blacks, Latinos — citizens or not — were the first to be fired and evicted to the sidewalks.

Now they were visible three ways: non-white, unemployed, and (assumed to be) illegal aliens. But unlike other American non-whites, Mexicans could be deported. And so they were: “To send a trainload of Mexicans to the border cost Los Angeles county a mere $77,000, compared with $348,000 to keep them on relief . . . About a half-million men, women, and children were deported, including thousands of Mexican U.S. citizens” (Garza).[4]And moves were made to reduce Mexican immigration: Congress sought to slash legal immigration from fifty-eight thousand to one thousand nine hundred (Garza).      One of the rationales for that restriction was tuberculosis. In Los Angeles, Mexicans contracted it at twice the rate of blacks and five times the rate of whites (Acuña).  That and Mexican-Americans’ perceived divided loyalty, bilingualism, color, and pattern of transient agricultural work patterns — at least among guest-workers indistinguishable to whites from Mexican-American citizens, whether native or naturalized — made all of them natural targets. Even when agricultural interests fought state legislatures’ and Congress’ efforts to restrict immigration, and looked the other way when immigration laws were broken wholesale, the cost for having allies like that was substantially lower rates of pay than ever. Mexicans in America could be squeezed because the alternative was deportation to increasingly dysfunctional Mexico.

One economic-legal reality for Mexican-Americans and Mexican migrants alike was the need to take upon themselves the work of organizing their labor and fighting for their rights and a living wage. No one was going to do it for them. Those new to the subject of American labor history will be amazed at the number of strikes and labor actions that Acuña details in his book, especially compared to other ethnic groups.[5] That may be because Mexican-Americans, even natural-born citizens, saw themselves to a degree as sharing the values of expatriates. Ruiz quotes historian Richard White as follows: “A self-conscious working class demands not just common labor, but also a common sense of identity, a common set of interests, and a common set of values.”

Perhaps that was a positive socio-political reality to counterbalance the others, and why the struggle begun during the Great Depression has never really ended.

Works Cited

Acuña, Rodolfo. Occupied America: A History of Chicanos. New Jersey: Pearson, 2014. Book.

Garza, Hedda. Latinas. New York: Franklin Watts, 1994. Book.

Jacobs, Jane. Cities and the Wealth of Nations. New York : Vintage Books, 1984. Book.

Rickards, James. The Currency Wars. New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2012. Book.

Ruiz, Vicki. Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Book.

[1] Jacobs describes how agriculture is actually an invention of prehistoric cities, not the other way around.

[2] By contrast, China’s explosive city growth has been providing employment — dirty and dangerous employment — for millions of Chinese peasants rendered homeless and unemployed, more or less like the peons of Mexico were.

[3] The private ownership of gold was also banned. Since people could no longer demand gold in exchange for paper money, the Federal Reserve was free to inflate the currency to boost prices overall (Rickards).

[4]  Ruiz states that a majority of that 500,000 were native U.S. citizens.

[5] The objectivity of both Acuña and Ruiz is suspect, as they both refer to desperate strikebreakers as “scabs.”

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