Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945 Book Review

Sanchez, George J. Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Recently President Obama changed the focus of the enforcement of illegal immigration policies. Obama’s administration focused on penalizing the employers of illegal immigrants and not the immigrants themselves. The penalizing focus on employers has a long history with the bracero program of the 1940-60s, focusing on immigration through employers and not migrants themselves. George Sanchez, in one of his most recent works, discusses the cultural shifts in the early twentieth century. Sanchez argues and writes the book to unravel the multiple levels of cultural adjustment among Mexican immigrants to Los Angeles in the first part of the 20th century. He begins discussing the railroad system built in the last part of the nineteenth century backed largely by American companies. Sanchez discusses the immigration of Mexicans usually because of the raging Mexican Revolution in 1910 towards large urban populations, with a focus on Los Angeles. One factor that caused this mass migration of 10% of Mexico’s population was the extensive railroad system in Mexico and the American Southwest. Many Mexicans moved there but they also worked on the railroads and businesses along them. In the end of the book, Sanchez discusses the bracero program and the ways it affects the way Mexicans migrants become Mexican-American through multiple means.  Sanchez here focuses much more of his methodology on seeing the cultural change through many different perspectives. The methodology comes through his focus on language, economic, and social factors that determined who was a Mexican and who was Mexican-American.

Sanchez’s first section of the book emphasizes on the primary act of crossing the border, wherein Sanchez focuses on the railroad system both created by the Mexican government but also by private corporations and captains of industry, mostly railroad companies and financiers. Most of the railroads were created in the peaceful reign of Porfirio Diaz that ended in 1910 and started the Mexican revolution that caused a mass exodus of Mexico mostly to America. These railroads were created to help build a national economy to end migration and secure a better future for Mexico, in the end they created the possibility for Mexicans in large numbers to leave. Sanchez also evaluates the destination of the migrant workers that go to the U.S. and finds that many of them for lack of funds either stay along the border, move along railroad lines that they work on, and to large urban centers like Los Angeles for their high work options and high wages that the migrants can send back home. Sanchez also discusses that the movement northward did not always end in America, and even when it did it was not always the first move and often the second or third move for Mexican men. Many Mexican men moved to the districts of Sonora and Chihuahua along the border with the US for jobs. This new insight into Mexican migration show that Mexicans often went northward to do jobs that they later did in America, either building railroads or farm work. The ones that do move to Los Angeles find a city that many of them must have found unlike anything they have seen before, since most the migrant workers were from rural villages and towns.

In the second part of the book Sanchez discusses the Americanization the Mexicans went through in the late 1910’s and 1920’s after the First World War. Even those from larger cities like Mexico City would have found Los Angeles as new and different, because during the end of the 19th century LA became the largest US city, both in square size and in population, in the West and just behind Baltimore as the city with the largest minority population, mainly with Mexicans and Asians. In LA the Mexican population did not follow normal patterns of creating ethnic enclaves and this became the case because the municipal government did not want one in their city. Since Mexicans were seen as more assimilable than Asians, though not as much as Western European immigrants, midwestern women who recently moved to the city themselves started to Americanize the Mexican population in their newly adopted city. The midwestern traditions they brought also voted Johnson in a gubernatorial candidate for governor, who created the Commission on Immigration and Housing. The CIH focused on the Mexican women to Americanize the immigrant population.

In the third and fourth sections of the book Sanchez concentrates on the mobility of the population. This mobility is both in the physical sense of voluntary movement for work and involuntary movement of the repatriation during the early 1930’s and in the cultural sense that many of the tasks that the CIH wanted to be completed were successful, in that the Mexican population acted more like their Anglo counterparts. Some of these cultural changes were not seen as good because they were the same post work activities that older middle-class white women were trying to stop in Anglo-Americans like dancing clubs. In this second half of the book Sanchez focus less on specific people as evidence and more in larger organizations and movements of the time. The Mexican agricultural workers also started to act more as Mexican-Americans through their organizations, mainly through labor unions and strikes. As the second generation of Mexican-Americans started becoming legal adults they started to participate in politics mostly through parties on the left including the democrats and communists. Sanchez ends the section with how the second generation is fully intergraded into the American population with the murder case of Jose Diaz in 1946 by a gang. The gangs are one clear example of Mexicans becoming Mexican-American by having a geographically stable population to support a gang.  The gang was on the opposite side of the spectrum from the MAM, a subsection and spinoff of the YMCA for men of Mexican ancestry, who believed in strong education of the youth to raise the whole population up the socio-economic ladder. In the end, Sanchez also splits up parts three and four even that in his writing they share a common theme of mobility in all senses.

Sanchez makes the argument of discovering the ways these Mexican immigrants change in a cultural sense with a focus on the urban center of LA in the early stages of the twentieth century. One topic Sanchez does not bring up is that of food practices and traditions. There is no discussion on how they changed or how they affected the American culture in the city of Los Angeles. The new addition must have made an impact on the food practices of the city, what were the impacts? The research on LA from 1900-1945 in the future could look at the micro-history of the CIH and how it developed. The micro-history could create a fuller picture of how migrants both from America and Mexico came together on different levels to create a new culture that is unique to the city of Los Angeles. In the end we find that what Niels Bohr said “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. The opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth” is especially true in Sanchez’s book. The profound truths he finds can lead to more that create a better history for tomorrow.

By: Benjamin Masse

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