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Brief History Notes on Mexican Immigration to the U.S.

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

The historical ties of Mexican immigrants to the U.S., specifically the Southwest, distinguishes people of Mexican origin from other immigrant groups, especially those from Europe. While Mexican immigrants continue to be demonized and characterized as “criminals,” “drug dealers,” “rapists,” “illegal aliens” and “invaders” by American leaders and millions of white citizens, they have essentially become “foreigners in their own land.”

In his infamous article, “The Hispanic Threat,” the late Dr. Samuel P. Huntington of Harvard claimed that Latinas/os in general and individuals of Mexican origin in particular represented an existential threat to the U.S. By studying history, however, we can easily dismiss racist labels and false narratives by small-minded American leaders, scholars and citizens. Moreover, we can learn the true history about the actual invaders. For instance, in progressive history books, like Dr. Ronald Takaki’s A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, we learn that white Americans gradually migrated into what is now known as Texas during the 1820s. While the Mexican government allowed for whites to settle in this foreign territory, the authorities did so under the assumption that the Americans adopt Mexican customs, learn Spanish and intermarry with the native population. This originally occurred without much conflict, which reveals the openness of the Mexican government and its people towards foreigners.

By 1826, according to Takaki, then-President John Quincy Adams offered the Mexican government $1 million for Texas, where the Mexican government refused. Once Mexico outlawed slavery in 1830, however, American slaver owners, along with other white settlers, rebelled and formed The Republic of Texas in 1836. By 1845, it was annexed into the United States.

It appears to me that the white settlers or gringos took the Mexicans literally when the hosts generously said, “Mi casa es su casa.”

Once the U.S. government annexed Texas, it didn’t take the government long to pursue additional territory via the U.S. war against Mexico (1846 to 1848), as documented by key Chicana/o historians, such as Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones, Dr. Deena J. González and Dr. Rudolfo “Rudy” Acuña. Based on the false idea of Manifest Destiny, this imperialist war represented a bloody and greedy land grab, where Acuña documents in his classic book, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, as “…a religious doctrine with roots in Puritan ideas, which continue to influence U.S. thought to this day.” After the U.S. forced Mexico to sign the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, Mexico lost half of its territory. Although the Mexicans who decided to reside in the U.S. were protected under the treaty, which included their ancestral lands, the U.S. Congress quickly ratified the treaty, where Mexicans eventually lost their lands through the courts, illegal acts and violent means by white citizens and the state.

Thus, when we think about Mexican immigration to el norte, we must examine it under this historical context. That is, unlike the millions of European immigrants who travelled across an entire ocean to settle in North America, Mexicans have always occupied this land or called it home until it was stolen from them by military force. Moreover, like in the case of Native Americans and the brutal history of broken treaties by the U.S. government, the Mexicans in el norte lost their basic rights under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Given their historical memory, this is one reason why the millions of Mexicans who make their journey to the U.S. (with or without legal status), especially to the Southwest, don’t view themselves as law breakers or so-called “illegals.”

Like the homingpigeon, the Mexican is simply returning to the motherland.

Despite the loss of their ancestral lands, the impact or contributions of Mexicans (immigrants, residents and citizens) to American cities, suburbs, rural communities and agricultural fields during the past 170 years has been positive, overall. Moreover, while Mexicans in el norte don’t receive the credit that they deserve, they’ve contributed greatly (and continue to the present) in many areas of American society and its economy, including agriculture, music, art, construction, infrastructure, transportation (e.g., railroads, freeways, roads), medicine, mining, ranching, science, the military, the academy and beyond. Essentially, there’s no doubt that individuals of Mexican origin played a key role (to the present) to help make this country into the richest, most advanced and powerful country in the world.

Despite being defeated militarily during the 1800s and experiencing institutional racism, Mexicans have migrated to this country—along with those who’ve settled prior to the U.S. war against Mexico—to work, create jobs, study, serve in the military, raise families, etc. For instance, during the second half of the 19th Century, Mexican immigrants and their offspring represented a key labor force in agriculture, railroad construction, mining and other key sectors. However, instead of being rewarded for their labor contributions with adequate financial compensation and upward mobility opportunities, they’ve experienced racism (to the present) in the workforce and beyond. For example, according to Takaki, working on white-owned ranches in Texas, “Mexican laborer[s] found themselves in a caste system — a racially stratified occupational hierarchy.”

During the 1800s and most of the 1900s, it was very common to see Mexicans and Chicanas/os (Mexican-Americans) employed as laborers/workers, while whites worked as supervisors or managers. This racial hierarchy in the workforce, along with the unequal educational system, has limited the occupational status of Mexican immigrants and Chicanas/os. Yet, despite being relegated to the bottom of the economic workforce, which included agricultural programs like the Bracero Program—the U.S.-Mexico guest worker program of the mid-19thcentury—the Mexican people in el norte have a strong tradition of organizing for social and economic justice. For example, according to Takaki, in 1903, “… hundreds of Mexicans and Japanese farm workers went on strike in Oxnard, California.” This is just one example, apart from the case of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and Brown Berets of the 1960s and 1970s, where Mexicans and Chicanas/os defended their labor and civil rights through labor strikes, civil disobedience, protests, marches and so on.

Moreover, despite being a racial minority in this country, Mexicans and Chicanas/os served in the military in higher rates compared to whites. According to Acuña, during WWII, while Chicanas/os represented only 2.69 million residents in the U.S., between 375,000 to 500,000 Chicanos served in the war. Despite their contributions and sacrifices, it didn’t stop the U.S. government from implementing “Operation Wetback” in early 1954, where Mexican immigrants and Chicanas/os were deported in mass to Mexico. It’s obvious to me that their military and labor contributions weren’t appreciated by the U.S. government, after all.

As a of son of Mexican immigrants, this issue is not just an academic exercise for me. It’s also personal. For instance, like millions of her paisanas, while my late mother Carmen toiled in the informal economy as a domestic worker in this country for many decades, middle- and upper-class whites pursued economic opportunities and leisure activities outside of the household. Similarly, like millions of his paisanos, while my late father Salomon first arrived in this country to pick fruits and vegetables during the Bracero Program, where he was forced to abandon his family and rural community, American families enjoyed the fruits of his labor in the comfort of their homes and restaurants.

At the end of the day, my late parents never received the adequate financial rewards or benefits of their labor and sacrifice, such as good wages, upward mobility opportunities, educational opportunities and homeownership.

In my expert opinion, based on my advanced degrees from UCLA and Berkeley, interdisciplinary scholarship, civic engagement experience and public policy background, it will take many generations to come for millions of Mexicans and Chicanas/os in el norte to one day obtain the elusive American Dream.

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Dr. Alvaro Huerta is an assistant professor of urban and regional planning and ethnic and women’s studies at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is the author of “Reframing the Latino Immigration Debate: Towards a Humanistic Paradigm,” published by San Diego State University Press (2013).

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