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Mexican Consuls and Labor Organizing

Mexican Consuls and Labor Organizing
Imperial Politics in the American Southwest

How Mexico attempted to control its American emigrants in the early 20th century.

November 1999
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301 pages | 6 x 9 | 17 halftones |

Chicano history, from the early decades of the twentieth century up to the present, cannot be explained without reference to the determined interventions of the Mexican government, asserts Gilbert G. González. In this pathfinding study, he offers convincing evidence that Mexico aimed at nothing less than developing a loyal and politically dependent emigrant community among Mexican Americans, which would serve and replicate Mexico's political and economic subordination to the United States.

González centers his study around four major agricultural workers' strikes in Depression-era California. Drawing on a wide variety of sources, he documents how Mexican consuls worked with U.S. growers to break the strikes, undermining militants within union ranks and, in one case, successfully setting up a grower-approved union. Moreover, González demonstrates that the Mexican government's intervention in the Chicano community did not end after the New Deal; rather, it continued as the Bracero Program of the 1940s and 1950s, as a patron of Chicano civil rights causes in the 1960s and 1970s, and as a prominent voice in the debates over NAFTA in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. The 1910 Mexican Revolution, the United States, and México de afuera
  • Chapter 2. Organizing México de afuera in Southern California
  • Chapter 3. The Los Angeles County Strike of 1933
  • Chapter 4. The San Joaquin Valley Strike of 1933
  • Chapter 5. The Imperial Valley Strikes of 1933-1934
  • Chapter 6. Denouement and Renaissance
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Gilbert G. González is a Professor in the School of Social Sciences and Director of the Focused Research Program in Labor Studies at the University of California, Irvine.


In early 1994 twelve prominent southern California Chicano political figures met with Santiago Ofiate Laborde, the personal emissary for then Mexican presidential candidate Donaldo Colossio. The Mexican representative initiated the encounter to discuss ways in which the Mexican state might engender closer ties with México de a fuera, literally Mexico outside of Mexico. The Chicano group opened with a specific agenda. Over Mexican sweet breads, hot chocolate, and coffee, the Chicanos discussed ways in which the Mexican state might open professional and business opportunities for qualified Chicanos. The Mexican government, guided by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) for nearly 70 years, had a distinct agenda, one scripted to develop political support from the region's expatriate community for the PRI in the upcoming presidential elections. After a lengthy but friendly engagement at a downtown Los Angeles hotel, both sides departed pleased with the meeting. The Chicano group was particularly impressed by Oñate's responses to its ideas.

Meetings like the Los Angeles conclave had been held from time to time in the 1980s and 1990s, but more importantly for this study, these encounters also carried forward a long history of Mexico to México de afuera relations. Dating back to the postrevolutionary period of the late teens and twenties, such contacts have taken a number of forms, but always with the same objective: to extend official Mexican domestic policy into the emigrant community. In regard to such contacts, the Mexican immigrant community is unique in comparison with other immigrant groups. Among the hallmarks that distinguish Mexican immigrant history from the Asian and European experiences, the long-standing interventionist policy sponsored by various Mexican administrations is of vital significance. Not only does the pattern of intervention differentiate Mexican immigrant experience from other immigrant groups; it also contributes in important ways to shaping Chicano political history. Whereas historical accounts of European and Asian immigrants scarcely mention their respective home governments, the Mexican case is substantially dissimilar.

Indeed, students of Chicano history, Southwest labor, and U.S.Mexico relations cannot avoid bumping into archival documentation that testifies to the significant presence and activism of the Mexican government via its consulate corps within the expatriate communities across the United States. With the exception of Mexican historiography (which traditionally expresses little interest in matters north of the border), numerous published studies verify that consuls actively engaged an interest in the political affairs of the immigrant colonias between 1920 and 1940, the period of interest to this study. Several strands of twentieth-century Chicano history—in particular, community organizing, political development, union organizing, and the California agricultural labor strikes of the 1930s—defy explanation without reference to the high-level interventions by various Mexican consuls.

Although nearly every historical account of Mexican immigrants devotes varying degrees of attention to the consuls, a comprehensive examination of this important and fascinating matter is unfortunately absent. Nor is there a shared understanding and explanation for consular conduct. Thirty years of Chicano historiography have delivered neither a basic understanding of the importance and effects of consular interaction nor a sustained interest and discussion. On the contrary, we have neither disagreement nor debate. The issue seems to list this way and that, consequently languishing on the research margins. Yet, if we examine the record we find abundant material demonstrating that the consulates sponsored a wide variety of organizations, from self-help mutualistas to political and labor groups. Consuls established community organizations, sought union leadership, polarized political factions, and, among other interventions, generated serious political conflicts within the colonias and with other ethnic communities, particularly Filipinos. Moreover, that intervention with variations has continued into the 1990s.

The Debate

Many emigrados voiced complaints concerning the consuls, while others expressed deep satisfaction that the consuls took an abiding interest in their welfare. An interpreter for the Detroit International Institute confided, "The Mexicans in the past have not been very fortunate as to their consuls. I do not think that they have tried to do anything for the common people." Not a few immigrants agreed that the consuls were uninterested in the plight of the "common people." By 1930 the volume of complaints had induced the Secretariat of Foreign Relations to issue a public relations bulletin defending the consulates. Notwithstanding the "praise expressed for Mexico's consulates by colleagues from other nations," read the bulletin, "disgracefully, only vituperations come from Mexican elements." The Secretariat correlated the negative response with the level of honesty of the individual consuls who had been instructed to deal equally and without favoritism with their compatriots. Anastacio Torres was one of those who felt the apparent callousness of the consuls toward their compatriots. Torres recollected that he had thought of "going to ask the Mexican consul there [Kansas City] to help me but some countryman told me not to go to that consul because he didn't help anybody." Gonzalo Clark, a small bookshop owner in Tucson, Arizona, proudly published an independent humorous weekly that targeted the consuls. "A few times," stated Clark, "I have had some scraps with the Mexican consuls who don't attend to the interests of the Mexicans here or who think that they are sent to enjoy their salary. I have attacked them in my paper freely and faithfully but as they can't do anything here they don't bother me." Mexican labor leader Vicente Lombardo Toledano expressed similar misgivings in an interview with a Mexico City journalist in 1937. In Lombardo Toledano's opinion, the Mexican government implemented "no program for the protection of Mexican workers in the United States.... The majority of consuls dedicate themselves, placidly, to play golf and bridge, without attending the most urgent problems affecting thousands of workers."

Others disagreed that the consuls comprised a shabby lot, and some offered opposing views of consular involvement. Longtime civil rights and union activist Bert Corona recalls that the civil rights organization Asociación Nacional México Americana, founded in 1949, "developed a very good relationship with the Mexican consulate in San Francisco." Further on, Corona contends that from 1934 to 1940, consuls appointed by President Lázaro Cárdenas "were very sympathetic to ... the labor movement in the United States." Official bulletins periodically briefed the colonias with information that supported the positive portrayal sketched by Corona. Annual reports from Mexico's Secretariat of Foreign Relations related impressive data on services rendered by the consuls. According to the 1931 bulletin, nearly 38,000 cases of "direct intervention by consuls exercising their good services in favor of our nationals" were registered.

Consuls reportedly comforted the sick, helped the indigent, assisted the injured to seek compensatory damages, and more. These protective actions, announced the Secretariat, can be explained by "the desire of the Secretariat of Foreign Relations that the consular corps render good services for Mexicans abroad and has given instructions so that in those cases where action is necessary to realize what our nationals justly require, that the consuls do not limit their service to mere sympathy, on the contrary [the Secretariat] has recommended the greatest activism without omitting any effort."

Local consulates also issued annual bulletins of services rendered to the colonias. For the month of June 1934, Los Angeles Consul Alejandro Martinez reported impressive data to the Secretariat of Foreign Relations relating to assistance provided by the consulate to 950 Mexican citizens. The consulate intervened in a wide variety of cases, from assisting fellow citizens held in county and state prisons, counseling those detained on immigration violations, to visiting the infirm in county hospitals; at least forty were assisted in repatriating. Consul Martinez also expressed his support, promising his complete cooperation to local garment workers who had charged that their employer mistreated them. He counseled the women to identify their just grievances for "constructing a solid foundation for a formal and energetic representation before the authorities." His office, he assured, would meanwhile carry out its own investigations in a show of solidarity.

Many observers, however, were far from convinced that the consulates contributed to the well-being of the community. On the contrary, they alleged that the consulates harmed México de a fuera. Anthropologist Ruth Tuck's study of a Los Angeles County urban colonia, Not with the Fist: Mexican Americans in a Southwest City (1946), severely criticized the Mexican consulate for fostering mexicanismo. Tuck alleged that this "attempt to strengthen ties with Mexico" contributed to a timid and inactive colonia leadership. Tuck submitted that mexicanismo was "simply nostalgia, a warm relaxing bath into which immigrants can fall back." Unfortunately, she wrote, it was "a devotion which every consulate has ardently encouraged." Furthermore, the nationalist exercise conformed with the dominant community's intent to withhold from the Mexican American community full participation and equality with the larger society. Consequently, in Tuck's view, mexicanismo inadvertently strengthened the subordinate status of the Mexican community vis-à-vis the dominant classes.

Mexicanismo spilled over the generational divide, as sons and daughters of emigrados were well within earshot of the nationalistic messages. And like their parents, the Mexican American generation had opinions concerning the consuls. Mexican American civil rights activists found substance in these critiques, contending that the matter required their attention. Some militant activists of that era went further than Tuck. Ignacio López, the noted southern California civil rights activist, newspaper publisher, and muckraker, complained that Tuck failed to take the consulate sufficiently to task for harming the colonia's interests through foisting mexicanismo upon it. Although Tuck raised serious misgivings relating to the political impact of the consuls, Lopez's charges take on greater significance and offer an insight into the internal conflicts generated by the political presence displayed by the consuls. The two perspectives collide, not only within the voices of the past generations, but within the literature on Chicano history and California agricultural labor history, where they continue to resonate.

Just as in the past, so in the present there exists a division of opinion that in turn lends an air of historiographical dissension to the subject. At least four strands of opinions and conclusions regarding the historical role, significance, and objectives of the consulates permeate the literature. The marketplace condition suggests that readers choose between works which portray the consulates as protectors of the colonia, and the opposing studies, like that of Ruth Tuck, which argue that the consuls represented interests far removed from the colonias they allegedly served.

The first variant contends that the consuls played a central role in colonia affairs and in doing so provided protection of the interests of the expatriate community. This perspective traces its lineage, in part, to Stuart Jameison's 1938 study of agricultural unionism in the United States, sections of which highlighted the Depression-era strikes involving Mexican workers. Jameison reported that "Consular officials were perhaps their main source of protection in California. On numerous occasions in later years these officers mediated labor disputes, served as official representatives in collective bargaining agreements, and even organized labor unions among their compatriots." More recently, that tradition has been embraced by several scholars. The most prominent among them is Francisco Balderrama, who wrote the pioneering study In Defense o f La Raza: The Los Angeles Mexican Consulate and the Mexican Community, 1929-1936. This study remains the only work that effectively places the consul at the center of the colonia experience. Contemporary scholarship reiterates Balderrama's main thesis, that "the Los Angeles Consulate provided effective assistance to the more than 170,000 Mexicans and Mexican Americans during the twentieth century's most severe crisis."

In the second, counter current, the consulates provided minimal protection, and their participation is recognized primarily for maintaining the community in a politically subordinate position, both to the Mexican government (consuls represented the policies of the Mexican government) and to the employers in the United States. The tradition begins with the stinging critiques published in the mid-forties by anthropologists Ruth Tuck and Beatrice Griffith that acknowledged the significance of the consuls in community affairs but rebuked them for hindering the political development and action of the Mexican American community. Griffith underscored her argument with a statement by a high school teacher who charged: "The consuls retard us... they hold us back. There is no doubt about it. The only thing they do is get visas for Mexico and be important at the [national] Holidays." Not to be outdone, Tuck offered a most unflattering view of the consul: "a nice fellow, from the gente decente of Mexico, mildly ambitious, somewhat narrow in outlook, and given, like most officialdom, to the pious hope that he will never stick his neck out and get himself into trouble." That tradition continues with Clete Daniel's examination of California agricultural labor, which blisters the consuls for their conduct and paints a convincing portrait of consular deception and collaboration with the very economic and political forces that oppressed the colonia. Devra Weber's study of the 1933 cotton strike shows that Consul Enrique Bravo exerted "little effort to support workers in relation to growers." Further, Bravo's interventions were not consistent with the strikers' objectives: he opposed the striking compatriots, cooperated with growers to break the strike, and conspired with growers to form a company union. My own studies of the 1936 citrus picker strike and the 1933-1934 Imperial Valley strikes sustain the conclusions reached by Daniel and Weber.

Other studies extend the critique beyond the union movement, citing community organizing, political activities, and repatriations. Camille Guerin-Gonzales counters the thesis that consuls offered much-needed assistance to expatriates who were being forcibly returned to their native land during the repatriation drives of the 30s. Her analysis provides substantial evidence that the consuls did more than merely feed and transport the departing thousands; she shows that consuls collaborated with U.S. authorities in all aspects of the repatriation campaign. George Sánchez goes one step further and finds that the Mexican government was as central to the repatriation campaigns as were the authorities in Los Angeles who sought the mass return of excess Mexican labor. Both studies strongly suggest that without the collaboration of Mexican authorities the repatriation drives would have remained inoperative or, at the very least, far less extensive.

The third current of thought on the issue claims a middle ground, that the consuls acted positively here, negatively there, depending on the circumstances and on the good intentions of specific consuls. Juan Gómez Quiñones, among others, provides an example of this line of analysis. He writes:

The administrations of Obregón-Calles (1920-1924 and 1924-1928) and Cárdenas (1934-1940) were generally sympathetic to Mexican residents in the United States and to Mexican workers in particular, often taking specific steps to provide aid and assistance to Mexicans abroad through giving orders to consulates or by providing resources. If a consul acted negatively, it was due less to standing government policy and was more the result of personal bias. The contribution of the consul to a community organization role must be viewed through specific situations.... Mexican consular officials became involved in strikes, sometimes favoring owners and at other times the workers.

Ricardo Romo suggests a similar interpretation in his study of East Los Angeles during the 1920s.

Finally, the fourth view either marginalizes the consul to the periphery, transforming him into a bit player, or omits the consul altogether. In a few cases the omission is quite obvious, as in several studies that touch upon important agricultural strikes in which Mexican workers and the Mexican consulate figured prominently. An example of this line comes from the work of anthropologist Carlos G. Vélez Ibáñez, Border Visions: Mexican Cultures of the Southwest United States. Although Vélez Ibáñez's study is not primarily concerned with union issues, he devotes several pages to union organizing, in particular, the Mexican union, the Confederación de Uniones Obreros Mexicanos, founded in Los Angeles in 1927. Several works, including the 1920s research of Paul S. Taylor, show conclusively the leadership displayed by Consul F. Alfonso Pesqueira in the organizing and development of that union. More recently, Devra Weber, Clete Daniel, Abraham Hoffman, and Charles Wollenberg, among others, have verified the fundamental participation of consuls in the disputes that a number of scholars examine with minimal attention to the consul. Vélez Ibáñez, however, emphasizes border cultural practices but misses the international dimension of the union drive. Whereas a few scholars omit mention of the consular tutelage, other works marginalize, practically to the point of extinguishing, the involvement of the consul. In their impressive study of California agribusiness and the state, Linda C. Majka and Theo J. Majka briefly discuss the consulate-controlled Confederación de Uniones Obreras Mexicanas, but they, too, overlook the critical participation of the consul in unionization drives. Later, their discussion of repatriation and the strikes of 1933 and 1934 involving Mexican workers conforms to the pattern: consuls were simply unimportant understudies to the events.

These, then, comprise the four main interpretations. The question remains: Which of the four accurately reflects the historical record? That question frames the parameters of this study. Meeting that challenge requires a comprehensive examination and analysis of the broad scope of consular policies, actions, and outcomes. Though mention is most often made of individual acts of consular interventions, markedly absent is a comprehensive study that investigates whether a pattern of consulate involvement appears. If a discernible pattern exists, did a central policy guide consulate actions? In pursuing these matters, other important lines of inquiry will surface: What policy or policies guided consular conduct? Did this policy correspond to the needs of the community? What role did the Mexican government have in shaping that policy and in directing the conduct of the consulates? Finally, were the activities of the consulates a contributing factor in the economic subordination of the Mexican community? The purpose of this study is to explore these questions, and, hopefully, explain and illuminate the obscure area that reaches beyond Chicano and labor history to embrace Mexican political history and international politics.

This study resumes an interest that began with an exploration into the history of citrus worker villages in southern California. In that work I found ample evidence of high-level consular involvement, particularly in relation to political acculturation and labor organizing. Indeed, in the Orange County citrus picker strike of 1936, the largest strike ever to affect the industry, the Mexican consulate played a major role in the eventual outcome. I concluded that the consul succeeded in shaping union politics along quite conservative and nationalistic lines and, in doing so, badly divided the union ranks. The present work enlarges upon that theme to explore the role of the Mexican consulate in community organizing and the unionization campaigns and strikes of the 1920s and 1930s in Los Angeles County, the San Joaquin Valley, and the Imperial Valley. Again, the question to be addressed revolves around consular patterns of action as well as their political objectives. In order to adequately investigate these problems, the analysis must examine the politics of the Mexican revolutionary regimes, especially those of the 1920s and 1930s. After all, it was the Mexican state that administered and directed the consulate enterprise.

The analysis then moves to a discussion of the community organizations fostered by the Los Angeles consulate that held jurisdiction over much of southern California. With well over 200,000 Mexican immigrants in the area, the consulate made it a matter of high priority to organize and monitor the political activities in the community. George Sánchez reports that the Mexican consul "emerged as the central organizer of community leadership" within the Los Angeles city colonia. Evidence shows that the consul was deeply involved beyond the city and had extended organizing throughout the southern and central California regions. The questions remain: What political objectives guided the consulate's organizing efforts? Did a Mexican middle-class outlook shape the contours of consular community activities? I will argue that the Mexican civil war, popularly known as the 1910 Revolution, and the political forces and their ideology that reformed (but did not revolutionize) the Mexican nation and state constituted the critical factors shaping consular interventions. Ultimately, the objective of the Mexican government in organizing the expatriate community did not originate with "encouraging return migration" or with the "preservation of cultural integrity of Mexican emigrants." The long-term goal had more to do with Mexican domestic politics in the postrevolutionary period.

During the regimes of Obregón through Cárdenas, dating from 1920 to 1940, an authoritarian corporate state institution underwent construction. The first example of that institutionalized state apparatus, the Partido Nacional Revolucionario, made its debut in 1929, succeeded by the Partido Revolucionario Mexicano in 1938. Within these state institutions, government-sponsored labor and peasant organizations were extended the opportunity to participate, but only on the condition of their loyalty, dependence, and subordination to the ruling party and state bureaucracy. This domestic policy objective ultimately guided the conduct of the consuls who followed on the heels of emigrants as they crossed borders. Whereas emigrants searched for survival, work, and a better life, the Mexican government endeavored to define the parameters of that search and incorporate México de afuera into a political ideology and social relations consonant with the interests of the ruling upper classes in Mexico. Within that fundamental guiding principle, consulates fostered mexicanismo, organized unions, developed community leadership, offered legal protections, spied upon the colonia, facilitated emigration, and, when required, participated in the massive removal of its citizens from U.S. territory.

Mexican state political involvement in U.S. territory was not an entirely novel departure from past practices. Dirk Raat's study of the Porfirio Diaz regime's persecution of the Flores Magón brothers and their Mexican Liberal Party adherents by U.S. agents in collaboration with Mexican government undercover men provides an early-twentieth-century example of international political intrigues. After the fall of Diaz, the revolutionary regimes recognized that the border region still served as a harbor for all sorts of disaffected elements. With the mass emigration of a million or more between 1900 and 1930 and the potential for their adverse political socialization and return, it became imperative that the postrevolutionary governments that feared the potential for working-class political rebellion inoculate themselves against antigovernment activities, especially the radical and leftist political versions. In tandem with domestic policy, consulates were directed to enforce that policy bearing upon the relation of the state to the working class. In performing their duties the consulates were quintessential expressions of the politics engendered by the Mexican revolution and seldom acted out of individualistic impulses. As we shall see, positions in the consular corps were awarded to those who could demonstrate their complete personal allegiance to the governing regimes. Defining the interventions of the consulate requires, therefore, an overview of the politics of the 1910 Mexican Revolution. Included in this overview are summary analyses of revolutionary policies toward land reform, foreign capital, labor, criteria for selecting consuls, emigration, and repatriation.

One last but most important point remains to be made. The significance of the imperialist conduct of the United States for explaining Mexican public policy, particularly emigration, has unfortunately been muffled, if not silenced. The reader will note an analytical thread extending throughout this study, specifically regarding the political implications of Mexico's subordination to the economic power of the United States. Only by way of reference to the imperialist relationship can the conduct of the Mexican state, via the consulates, be explicated. Or put another way, the Mexican state, especially in its policies toward the expatriate community, operated within the parameters of an empire administered by its northern neighbor. Mexican emigrant policy, in the final analysis, emanated from Mexico's status as an economic satellite of the United States.


“This is the most comprehensive extant study in a growing literature on the role of the Mexican consulate in the United States.”
Dennis Nodín Valdés, author of Al Norte: Agricultural Workers in the Great Lakes Region, 1917-1970


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