Mexican Immigration Historiography from 1900-1950s in the American Southwest

In the same year as some well off Mexican-Americans packed up their cars with furniture to leave the U.S. in the Mexican Repatriation, or removal of Mexican and Mexican-Americans from urban centers in the American Southwest, Paul Taylor wrote a piece in the Journal of Political Science about Mexican Immigration into the U.S.[1] This piece is the first time, I found at least, of the scholarship discussing the Mexican immigration we hear about today in the news. This early writing is not what the academic world wants today from their writers, but it is the beginning of the field. Although Paul Taylor comes up in discussion today by historians as seeing not enough of people’s agency and perspective Taylor shares something in common with historical writers today in the Mexican Immigration field, that is, a lack of research on the culture. While the academic world has grown and developed thoughts on trans-nationalism and the idea of internal and external migration, they do not focus on the culture and how it changed and stayed the same in the American Southwest with the small exception of a few sources.

Before the research begins a topic must be determined. In a topic, you must have a specific place and time. The place is the American Southwest along the border between the two countries. Mexico has shared a border with the United States since 1845 when the U.S. gained Texas. Since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 and the end of the Mexican-American war, the area we now think of as the American Southwest, being western Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and Southern California, became part of the Continental U.S. and the Gadsden Purchase years later, which includes Tucson and Yuma in southern Arizona and a small part of New Mexico.[2] The shared border changed throughout the history of the two countries, but it has settled on the Rio Grande river by the treaty and an arbitrary line in the middle of the Mesilla Valley by the purchase.[3]

The other factor is a specific time. 1900-1945 is a tumultuous time between these two countries and the people that transverse the border. At 1900 the traffic is small and often ancestral, with most people crossing the border to see family and some small work. That all changed in 1907-8 when the American Government restricted immigration on a whole and the Mexican economy started to falter.[4] The Mexicans became a welcome source of labor in the American Southwest, both became of agricultural booms and the lack of labor from Asia. This lasted until, 1929 when the Great Depression started in America and the lack of jobs soured the American populace to Mexican-American labor. This started off the repatriation of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans by railroads with Los Angeles in the early 1930’s taking the lead. The demand of labor that started with America’s economic and then military entry into World War II. This lead to the Bracero Program starting in 1942 and lasting all the way to 1964, but ending in last term of migration in 1959.[5]

The start of the field begins with Paul Taylor as discussed earlier. Paul Taylor’s article, again published in 1930, includes three factors that we also see repeated Richard Craig’s book The Bracero Program published in 1971.[6] These three factors are: the lack of agency of the migrants, a focus on numbers, and an oversimplification and relation of Mexicans towards other populations. Paul Taylor when discussing the rise of Mexicans working rail lines in between 1909 to 1929 sees that “The Mexicans are as free to move as the Negroes; indeed, their employment, seasonal in nature, compels them to move.”[7] Taylor discusses the Mexican immigrants as if they have the same mind as the African-American population. The Mexicans and the African-Americans both, in his mind, share factors on where and how they work and thus Taylor discusses them as if they are in the simplest terms, the same. Taylor does not see how each population faces discrimination in America at two very different times, the duration is not all the same, and the African-Americans are intranational migration movement and the Mexicans first move internationally to America before moving within the United States. Craig also sees this problem in that all the bracero workers were Mexican except the workers brought in from Guam.[8] While the Americans in Guam were a small population of the total braceros Craig does nothing to separate their experiences with the rest of the braceros from Mexico.

Paul Taylor; main evidence for his argument of the article has no personal information, like letters, interviews, or newspaper articles. Taylor bases his entire paper from two tables of numerical data. The first table is one about the racial backgrounds of the workers on western railroads comparing 1909 and 1929.[9] The second table is comparing negroes and Mexicans in four plants, two meatpacking and steel factories each, in Chicago from 1912 to 1928 and the percentages the two groups made up of the entire employment.[10] Richard Craig also focuses on hard data. While Craig’s work does not have as many numerical data, he focuses on the paper trail that the governments and corporations made during the bracero program’s existence and many forms. Craig focuses in one part of the book, a detailed play-by-play. This play-by-play describes of the talks the two countries were having in 1958. Craig cites his sources here and does not cite anything that is not a governmental document for 15 pages.[11] The problem this evidence causes is the lack of agency the immigrants had based on their evidence. The migrants are acted upon and do no seem to have choice themselves.

This focus on numbers is a historical evidence based on data that the historical field has moved away from since 1930, because there has been a vocal push by the academic consciousness post World War II to focus more on the people as historical consciousness, or a personal side where people make choices and have agency. Taylor also does not discuss throughout the book the choices individuals made, or their agency. Taylor makes the government and other larger forces make the decisions for the immigrants, including the companies that employ them. Richard Craig also has this problem because of the nature of his work and the time his book written during. The bracero program was, depending on the time you focus on it, either an international agreement between two governments or a deal between U.S. corporations and Mexican government. Craig thus deals with larger forces and does not put in enough personal information to either give the appearance of or is stating that the Mexican people that were part of the program did not make choices but were objects acted upon by the governments and corporations without agency.

The decades that separate Taylor and Craig from the rest of my sources do lots to alleviate the problems with agency, generalization of distinct racial groups, and lack of personal evidence. By removing these fundamental problems, themes start to emerge and one such of those themes is how the Mexicans and Mexican-Americans dealt with the system and how the system dealt with them. Neil Foley’s book The White Scourge from 1997 compares the agricultural business’s effects on both Mexicans, Black and whites in the region. This is one thing Taylor does not do that the scholarship has learned in the time between the two.[12] Another look the academic world gives is a microhistory that focuses on the Zoot suit riots in early June 1943 named The Power of Zoot by Luis Alvarez, published in 2008.[13] Another microhistory is the pivotal book by Linda Gordon’s The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction, published in 1999, in which the action took place on September 25 to October 3, 1904.[14] All subsequent writing on the orphan crisis discuss Gordon’s work and create debates about her thesis. Alvarez and Gordan both discuss microhistories of Mexicans-Americans in settled parts of the American Southwest. Alvarez writes about the week-long riots in Los Angeles during World War II. The riot initiated when U.S. navy sailors on shore-leave beat up Mexicans and other minorities because they were not patriotic enough during the war. Gordan deliberates on when nuns in New York City sent 57 children from orphanages in the area to catholic parishes in the towns of Clifton and Morenci Arizona. When the children got there and placed in the orphans their prospective homes of Mexican-Americans, the white women riled up their husbands and the sheriffs of the towns to forcibly remove the children from the now racially diverse homes. The white majority then sent the children back to New York City and their orphanages. When the nuns and their charity sued to place the white children back into the Arizona towns, the courts in the Arizona territory and later in the U.S. Supreme Court, decided that they were in the wrong for creating racially diverse homes and that could damage the white children upbringing. The Mexican-American population in the American Southwest was a factor in how and when the territories became states. The often followed the pattern Acosta found is of, “How many Mexicans live here? Do they speak English? Do they need interpreters in court? How many cases involving Mexicans are criminal in nature? Do Mexicans pay taxes?”[15] The questions were created to figure out how much funding the federal government had to give to create a functioning system in the new states if they were admitted. The Mexicans and Mexican-Americans often were a limiting factor to statehood for the territories and their very presence in a state in sizable amounts and their heritage through language was a negative factor.

While the Mexicans had to deal with the judicial system and the policing in the interior of the U.S. the Mexicans also had to deal with the law on the border or otherwise known as the immigration services. One way in which the immigration services because of Americans worked for the Mexican and Mexican-Americans was that the Arizona Cotton Growers Associations (ACGA). The ACGA hired lobbyist to persuade Congress, and a special committee, to allow Mexican workers to travel between the two countries to work in cotton fields.[16]

This goodwill between employers and their Mexican employees ended when the Great Depression hit and caused a lessening of jobs for Americans. This general lowering of jobs caused the Americans to start, the repatriation of Mexicans and sometimes Mexican-Americans from 1929 to 1936. One locality that focused on removing Mexicans to lessen the strain their presence cause on the economy was Los Angeles. In the winter between 1929 to 1930 several well-off Mexican-Americans left with their cars and their savings they made in America to Mexico to beat the Great Depression in Mexico and not America.[17] Most of the repatriated Mexicans and Mexican-Americans left involuntary with many requiring a police escort to the rail stations. George Sanchez discusses in his book Becoming Mexican American, published in 1993, how most of the repatriation was involuntary and often of the poorer Mexicans. Sanchez discusses how most of the laws and rules passed were on a city council level and created to lessen the burden on the city’s coffers to help restart the economy of the city. George Sanchez also writes a chapter in a book on the history of Los Angeles discussing the repatriation of Mexican from Los Angeles in 2010 expands what the scholarship could do by intensifying the interdisciplinary by connecting different themes in Western U.S. history on immigrant populations. Sanchez’s thesis for the chapter is connecting “The repatriation of Mexican Americans in the 1930s, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the forced removal of urban residents to make way for public housing and freeway construction all occurred within similar neighborhoods made up of a mixed racial population.”[18] This discussion on the Mexican repatriation of the Great Depression is in line with other acts on racially diverse neighborhoods. Sanchez is expanding the field by adding into this interdisciplinary idea of discrimination of racial minorities in Los Angeles and Western U.S. states.

Mexicans and Mexicans-Americans seem to come to the U.S. for one reason and that is economically, otherwise known as jobs and work. While most of the Mexicans migrants came for work they did not find freedom in their work because of the limitations placed on where they can work, both by laws and by societal norms. Two of the main jobs Mexicans immigrants and Mexican-American migrants did was railroads and agricultural work. Each of these jobs had a name attached, traqueros and braceros respectively.[19] Mexicans were known for their railroad work for the same reason they worked in agricultural business, they did it in Mexico before they came to America and had the necessary learned skills to do the jobs. Many of the traqueros and braceros were from central and southern Mexico.[20] During the Porfiriate which was a stable period of the Mexican government in the decades of the 1890 to 1910, because of Porfirio Diaz and his political party. The Porfiriate lead to the industrialization of the Mexican landscape. One such of these is the expansion of the intra- and inter-national railroads in Mexico. With the backing of American railroad companies and financiers, the Mexican government started to build railroads. Mexicans from the south and central parts left their farms, which was a common and traditional type of work in the area, and built railroads. These lines started near their home towns and went north. The railroads then lead to different jobs after they finished their lines. Acosta states that, “Once a line was completed, Mexican often looked to the mines and fields for work. For example, when the line to Casa Grande was completed, over 1000 Mexicans working on construction of the line remained in the area to find work in the prospering valley.”[21]

The traqueros work lead to bracero work. One look at the etymology of the words though leads to show how the work had different connotations attached to it. Traqueros comes from the Spanish word for track while braceros, or agricultural labor, comes from the Spanish word for arm. So, a traqueros describes well that those traqueros work with track while the braceros only work with their arms. By saying they work with their arms might mean they do not work with their head and thus are not smart, leading to further discrimination of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.

Now braceros while being a word describing a job was also a program discussed earlier in the paper. One thing that the bracero program did do positively for the Mexican migrant population was set some standards for the workforce. As Craig discusses in his book The Bracero Program, the agreement set some living standards for the workers. The standards could include the living quarter status, wages per hours or flat wage the workers got, access to drinking water, work conditions, and advertising rights the U.S. companies had in Mexico.[22] The advertising rights were often the sticking point in the discussions between the two entities. Workers of mines that Mexicans and Mexican-Americans did the American Southwest also had the bracero title. One final job area that Mexicans and Mexican-Americans held in a significant amount was inner-city work. Now most of the inner-city work was factory work that was seasonal or part-time work. Now for most other minorities or immigrant societies this would be bad but for the Mexican-Americans. This was so because, often Mexicans would only be in the city for small amounts of time between railroad projects and agricultural lulls.[23]

While the Mexicans and Mexican-Americans held very specific jobs, the people also did not conform to normal immigration patterns through their unique movements. The movement both inter- and intra- national migration. Brian Gratton and Emily Merchant in 2015 state that, “Mexican workers first moved to northern states of that country, where wages were substantially higher than in central Mexico, and many then crossed the border into the United States.”[24] This idea first came up when talking about jobs, but this migration pattern is distinct to the Mexican people. This focus on the intranational movement the Mexicans made before coming to America is a how the historic world is diversifying and noticing the specific differences between exclusive immigration groups. The emphasis on the migration is another step forward the academic community is making together.

Race is another way that the identity of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans is different and special to themselves. The Mexican-American people start to assimilate to the American majority through multiple different methods. One main method was the starting community based organizations like unions, charities, newspapers, and gangs. Mexican-Americans had become stable and moved to urban environments for the popular idea of economic prosperity. When they achieved this stability and prosperity they supported other Mexican and Mexican-Americans in their community.  Even when they stayed in the rural setting they still adopted American styles of community. One interesting fact was that the poor workers often in farms and mines often gave money to help with disaster relief both in other states and Mexico.[25] In the urban setting while the city of Los Angeles did not want the creation of barrios it still happened when more and more Mexicans came in the 1940’s, though the city did stop it before the Great Depression, the influx of Mexicans during the war ended hopes of no ethnic enclaves and they were created and are still there today. Acosta states that it is “Most importantly, under the new system, minority sections of the city would no longer be guaranteed representation, and could be treated as barrios, separate and unequal.”[26] The gangs are one clear example of Mexicans becoming Mexican-American. This is because by having a geographically stable population the community can now support a gang or other community organization.[27] The Mexican populations created newspapers and unions to help protect their jobs both in the city and out of it as well to work within the system. One such of these organizations is MAM or the Mexican American Movement that was multiple state and multinational movement for the increasing of Mexican rights started in the 1940’s and 1950’s with these unions.[28]

The Mexican-Americans and Mexicans while becoming more American still stayed in touch with their home country or their parents’ home country mostly through the financial support. The academic field has focused on the transnationalism of both checks and the braceros’ and their contracts. The Mexican-Americans that worked and lived all the time in the U.S. often still supported families in Mexico and before the Great Depression most of the Mexicans did not want to live in America for the rest of their lives. They often used the nineteen-teens to gain enough money in America so that they can live a good life with their family in Mexico on a small family farm. One reason they used the U.S. economy in this way was that during this time Mexico was going through yet another civil war, that started in 1910. The Mexicans were avoiding the civil war and gaining an economical advantage over those who stayed in Mexico. The Mexicans using the bracero program where by their contract they had to go back to Mexico in the offseason in the 1950’s mostly. This had the same idea as during the 1910’s but without the political instability in Mexico, but with better labor stability and better and more reliant pay with the introduction of the bracero contract that had such things in legal writing.[29]

One way the academic field could expand the research is a focus on the cultural changes the Mexican and Mexican-Americans faced in the new country. The three examples of the scholarship discussing the culture of the Mexican immigrants in in Gordan’s The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction and George Sanchez’s Becoming Mexican American where they discuss the religious practices of the Mexican-American populations in Clifton and Morenci Arizona and Los Angeles, California and in Alvarez’s The Power of the Zoot, with the clothing the Mexican-Americans wore. In two of the cases, they are microhistories where all possible factors come up to decide how they played a role, big or small, into the events that the book focuses on. Gordon discusses the relationship of the white Protestants and the Mexican Catholics, in her book, and how the racial dived did not coincide with the religious divide. Gordon found that some Irish immigrants had recently moved to the area and while they were white they were also catholic. In the end the Irish help the other whites to send the orphans back and to help finalize their status as white in the community.[30] George Sanchez finds that the Catholicism that the Mexican-Americans brought over from Mexico did not always stay and they had to reconverted to the Catholic Faith.[31] Alvarez finds that most of the people that faced violence by the sailors were identified by a specific type of suit called a ‘zoot suit’, the suit seems to originate from the Mexican culture.[32] The type of suit was worn by other types of minorities in Los Angeles, though most of the minority people in the city had Mexican ancestors.

Mexican and Mexican-Americans faced many different problems and advantages when the both migrated and immigrated to the U.S. which historians have focused on but, there is still room to grow. The scholarship has given enough ink to the movement patterns, the labor the people did, the connection the people had to both countries, focus on small events that was typical of larger themes of the time, how Mexican themes connect to other themes they see in other populations, and how the field is growing in complexity. The research still needs to focus on the cultural shifts that the populations must go through. What happened to the religious practices, do they change, stay the same? What happens to the food, who is eating what, where and when? We must remember what Livy said, “The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind; for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see: and in that record, you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings: fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.” In all, history is not something you must learn and then never use, learn from the past to try to stop tomorrow’s problems from ever happening.

[1] Paul S Taylor, “Some Aspects of Mexican Immigration,” Journal of Political Economy 38, no. 5 (October 1930): 609.

[2] Scott Walker, “Making the Desert Bloom: Mexicans and Whites in the Agricultural Development of the Salt River Valley, 1867–1930” (PhD diss., Arizona State University, 2012), 111.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Walker, “Making the Desert Bloom”, 114.

[5] Richard B Craig, The Bracero Program; Interest Groups and Foreign Policy (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971), 199.

[6] Craig, The Bracero Program.

[7] Taylor, “Some Aspects of Mexican Immigration,” 612.

[8] Craig, The Bracero Program, 48.

[9] Ibid., 611.

[10]Ibid., 614.

[11] Craig, The Bracero Program, 66-81.

[12] Neil Foley, The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

[13] Luis Alvarez, The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance during World War II (American Crossroads; 24. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

[14] Linda Gordon, The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).

[15] Salvador Acosta, “Crossing Borders, Erasing Boundaries: Interethnic Marriages in Tucson, 1854–1930” (PhD diss., The University of Arizona, 2010), 171.

[16] Walker, “Making the Desert Bloom”, 154.

[17] George J. Sanchez, Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles (1900-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 210.

[18] George Sanchez, “Disposable People, Expendable Neighborhoods.” in A Companion to Los Angeles ed. William Deverell (Oxford, UK: Wiley‐Blackwell, 2010), 130.

[19] Jeffrey Garcilazo, Traqueros: Mexican Railroad Workers in the United States, 1870 to 1930” (PhD diss., The University of California Santa Barbara, 1995), 47.

[20] Sanchez, Becoming Mexican American, 20.

[21] Walker, “Making the Desert Bloom”, 110.

[22] Craig, The Bracero Program, 5.

[23] Laura E Gómez, Manifest Destinies the Making of the Mexican American Race (New York: New York University, 2007), 86.

[24] Brian Gratton, and Emily Klancher Merchant, “An Immigrant’s Tale: The Mexican American Southwest 1850 to 1950.” Social Science History 39, no. 4 (Winter 2015): 528.

[25] Francisco A. Rosales, Pobre Raza!: Violence, Justice, and Mobilization among México Lindo Immigrants 1900-1936 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999), 49.

[26] Walker, “Making the Desert Bloom”,117.

[27] Sanchez, Becoming Mexican American, 242.

[28] Ibid., 245.

[29] Craig, The Bracero Program, 7.

[30] Gordon, The Great Arizona Orphan, 104.

[31] Sanchez, Becoming Mexican American, 154.

[32] Alvarez, The Power of the Zoot, 65.

Acosta, Salvador. “Crossing Borders, Erasing Boundaries: Interethnic Marriages in Tucson, 1854–1930.” PhD diss., The University of Arizona, 2010.

Alvarez, Luis. The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance during World War II. American Crossroads; 24. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

Craig, Richard B. The Bracero Program; Interest Groups and Foreign Policy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971.

Foley, Neil. The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Garcilazo, Jeffrey. Traqueros: Mexican Railroad Workers in the United States, 1870 to 1930.” PhD diss., The University of California Santa Barbara. 1995

Gómez, Laura E. Manifest Destinies the Making of the Mexican American Race. New York: New York University, 2007.

Gordon, Linda. The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Gratton, Brian., and Emily Klancher Merchant. “An Immigrant’s Tale: The Mexican American Southwest 1850 to 1950.” Social Science History 39, no. 4 (Winter 2015): 521-50.

Rosales, Francisco A. Pobre Raza!: Violence, Justice, and Mobilization among México Lindo Immigrants, 1900-1936. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999.

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

Sanchez, George. “Disposable People, Expendable Neighborhoods.” In A Companion to Los Angeles, edited by William Deverell 129-46. Oxford, UK: Wiley‐Blackwell, 2010.

Taylor, Paul S. “Some Aspects of Mexican Immigration.” Journal of Political Economy 38, no. 5 (October 1930): 609-15.

Walker, Scott. “Making the Desert Bloom: Mexicans and Whites in the Agricultural Development of the Salt River Valley, 1867–1930.” PhD diss., Arizona State University, 2012.