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World War II and Mexican American Civil Rights

World War II and Mexican American Civil Rights

The first book-length account of how World War II galvanized Mexican Americans of the “Greatest Generation” to seek full rights and inclusion in American society.

April 2008
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255 pages | 6 x 9 | 25 b&w illus., 92 pages of documents |

World War II marked a turning point for Mexican Americans that fundamentally changed their expectations about how they should be treated by the greater U.S. society. The experiences of fighting alongside white Americans in the military, as well as of working in factory jobs for wages equal to those of Anglo workers, made Mexican Americans less willing to tolerate the second-class citizenship that had been their lot before the war. Having proven their loyalty and "Americanness" during World War II, Mexican Americans in the postwar years wanted to have the civil rights they knew they had earned.

In this book, Richard Griswold del Castillo and Richard Steele investigate how the World War II experiences of Mexican Americans galvanized their struggle for civil rights and how the U.S. government responded to the needs and aspirations of Mexican Americans. The authors demonstrate, for example, that the U.S. government "discovered" Mexican Americans during World War II and set about addressing some of their problems as a way of forestalling a sense of grievance and disaffection that might have made the Mexican American community unwilling to support the war effort. The authors also show that, as much or more than governmental programs, the personal wartime experiences of Mexican Americans formed their civil rights consciousness. The book concludes with a selection of key essays and historical documents from the World War II period that collectively gives a first-person understanding of the civil rights struggles of Mexican Americans.

  • Introduction (By Richard Griswold del Castillo)
  • 1. Mexican Americans in 1940: Perceptions and Conditions (By Richard Steele)
  • 2. The Federal Government Discovers Mexican Americans (By Richard Steele)
  • 3. Violence in Los Angeles: Sleepy Lagoon, the Zoot-Suit Riots, and the Liberal Response (By Richard Steele)
  • 4. The War and Changing Identities: Personal Transformations (By Richard Griswold del Castillo)
  • 5. Civil Rights on the Home Front: Leaders and Organizations (By Richard Griswold del Castillo)
  • Epilogue: Civil Rights and the Legacy of War (By Richard Steele and Richard Griswold del Castillo)
  • Appendix A: Ruth Tuck, "The Minority Citizen"
  • Appendix B: Statement of Carlos E. Castañeda before the U.S. Senate Regarding the Need for a Fair Employment Practices Commission, March 12, 1945
  • Appendix C: Executive Order 8802 Establishing the Fair Employment Practices Committee, June 25, 1941
  • Appendix D: The "Caucasian Race—Equal Privileges" Texas House Concurrent Resolution, 1943
  • Appendix E: Manuel Ruiz, "Latin-American Juvenile Delinquency in Los Angeles: Bomb or Bubble!"
  • Appendix F: Raul Morin, excerpts from Among the Valiant: Mexican-Americans in WW II and Korea
  • Appendix G: Affidavits of Mexican Americans Regarding Discrimination in Texas during World War II (Collected by Alonso S. Perales)
  • Notes
  • Selected Annotated Bibliography
  • Index

Richard Griswold del Castillo is Professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at San Diego State University.


World War II was a turning point in the experience of many Mexican Americans. Within four years, 1941 to 1945, hundreds of thousands of Mexican Americans left segregated urban barrios and rural colonias in the Southwest and, for the first time, experienced a kind of equality with white Americans within the military, sacrificing their lives for the cause of democracy and freedom. Other hundreds of thousands of women and men found new factory jobs working in urban areas where, also for the first time, they earned wages equal to those of Anglo-Americans. After the war, as a result of their experiences on the home front and in the military, Mexican Americans were less willing to tolerate a second-class citizenship, having proven their loyalty and "Americanness" during the war. They had come to believe the rhetoric of patriotism, and they wanted to have the civil rights they knew they had earned.

The Mexican American struggle for civil rights predated World War II. In the prewar years, countless labor union activists and community organizers fought against inequality, and many of them continued to do so after World War II. Zaragosa Vargas, in his book Labor Rights Are Civil Rights, has shown how the working-class organizations in the prewar period contributed to an expanded definition of civil rights for Mexican Americans. He argues that in these years, "Mexican Americans initiated a labor and civil rights movement of the postwar years, which formed the foundation of the modern Chicano movement."

Mario T. Garcia, in his pioneering study of the Mexican American generation, Mexican Americans: Leadership, Ideology, and Identity, 1930-1960, has also shown how leaders and organizations from the 1930s were important precursors to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In his words, this Mexican American generation that came of age during the war "gave a high priority to the achievement of civil rights for all Mexicans in the United States." Biographies of Mexican American leaders like Bert Corona reveal the evolution of their activism in the 1930s and how the war served to influence their careers. Important regional histories of Mexicans and Mexican Americans by David Montejano, Arnoldo De León, and Rudolfo Acuña indicate how an awareness of civil rights and the growth of organizations developed over a continuum. Thus, although World War II was certainly an important watershed event, it should not be seen as the cause of a new civil rights movement among Mexican Americans.

The importance of the U.S. government's role in shaping a dialogue with new terminology about Mexican Americans and their rights has not been examined by contemporary scholars, although it was a topic of much discussion by some Mexican American leaders during the war years and immediately thereafter. Largely as a result of changing federal priorities, Mexican American leaders began to expect the government to take a more direct interest in the problems of the people of Mexican origin in the United States. During World War II, the nation at large discovered Mexican Americans as an ethnic minority, and simultaneously, federal and state officials began working to address issues that targeted this population.

On the eve of the Second World War, Mexican Americans were one of a number of immigrant groups that had come to the United States in large numbers over the previous half century. Each, to varying degrees, suffered from poverty, discrimination, and the larger public's indifference. But no immigrant group experienced these to a greater degree than the nation's 3.5 million Americans of Mexican descent. Of course, a large number of Mexican Americans were not immigrants at all, but descendants of some of the first non-Indian families to settle in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. In the popular mind, however, these Spanish-speaking citizens were considered foreigners.

To breach the walls of ignorance and hostility and achieve their rightful place in American society, Mexican Americans had to command a new level of political force. "Mexicans," which is how they were known in the United States at least until the 1940s, had long constituted a community in the sense of a people united by a matrix of social and cultural ties—preeminently a common heritage and language. What they lacked in 1940 was a corporate sense of their ethnicity that linked them to others of similar background. European immigrant groups in America, and their offspring, have found it expedient to subordinate regional and class differences that divided them in their countries of origin in order to present America with a common front. If Mexican Americans were to find relief from their problems in government action, they would have to follow suit by constituting themselves as a self-conscious, unified political community that gave at least the appearance of sharing common interests and speaking with something approaching a single voice. The first step to reform was the recognition that persons of Mexican descent had needs specific to them that government officials had an interest in addressing.

As the Second World War approached, Mexican Americans began to think of themselves in these terms, but it was the events that accompanied American preparations for participation in a global conflict that first significantly advanced this goal. The impetus came from the government itself, but the groundwork was simultaneously being laid for a new era in civil rights consciousness by many Mexican American organizations. In the early 1940s, as the nation prepared for war, policy makers looked for ways to strengthen the nation's capacity for the impending struggle for national survival. Success, they concluded, required encouraging each of the groups that constituted America's multiethnic society to believe that victory was in its interest. As part of their effort to unite and motivate all Americans, officials "discovered" Mexican Americans. The former were concerned lest a sense of grievance or disaffection on the latter's part undermine their willingness to work and sacrifice for the common effort. Washington was also concerned that the mistreatment of Spanish-speaking Americans might adversely affect sensitive relations with the nations of Latin America in general, and Mexico in particular. Officials concluded that the treatment of Mexican Americans had a bearing on national security. A people hardly known to American officialdom before 1939 was now given a name—indeed several names. They were called "Spanish Americans," or "Spanish-speaking Americans," or "Mexican Americans." A select few individuals emerged as unofficial representatives, and a variety of programs and reform initiatives were introduced at all levels of government to deal with their needs. The basis for Mexican American political power and future reforms at the federal level had been laid.

But the war's effect on Mexican Americans was not only, perhaps not even primarily, political. The vast majority of Mexican Americans were unaware of and little affected by the petitions of their leaders, the calculations of government officials, or the implementation of high-minded reform programs. Nevertheless, partly as a result of emerging government efforts, but largely as an unintended consequence of the necessities of war, opportunities for mobility and economic advancement did become available, and those who were able to take advantage of them found that the war improved their lives. Exposed to wartime experiences, many of the sons and daughters of Mexican immigrants found a sense not only that they belonged in America, but that they should raise their voices in the struggle to secure for themselves and their children the benefits that life in the United States could entail. The veterans of the war, whether they wore uniforms or not, were no longer content with second-class status. This personal transformation paralleled and fed the emergence of a political community after 1945.

These are the themes of this book: how World War II encouraged government and society to recognize and deal with Mexican Americans, and how Mexican Americans themselves were affected personally and politically by the wartime experience, which led them to work on their own agenda of social and political advancement. As was true for another U.S. "minority," the African Americans, World War II was a watershed in the mobilization of new energies to combat segregation and racism and was instrumental in shaping a new kind of ethnic identity—one that refused to accept second-class status while striving for acceptance and inclusion.

Despite the seeming importance of World War II and its impact on Mexican Americans, little attention has been devoted to these years and to how they shaped a new cultural and political environment for Mexican Americans. Only a few books have been published that specifically deal with the World War II experience of Mexican Americans. In 1963, Raul Morin's Among the Valiant was a pioneering account of the heroic actions of Mexican and Mexican American soldiers during the war. It provided important information about the military contributions and sacrifices of Mexican and Mexican American servicemen. Mauricio Mazón has written a social-psychological study of the so-called Zoot-Suit Riots, which took place in Los Angeles in 1943. This penetrating study of scapegoating and racism in wartime dramatized the contradictions inherent on the home front for Mexican American youths. The only other book-length treatment focusing on the war and Mexican Americans, Mexican Americans and World War II, an anthology edited by Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez at the University of Texas, was published in 2005. This pioneering book has excellent essays about life on the home front and the complexities and contradictions of the Latina and Latino experience during the war. Other important articles and portions of books discussing local organizations and workers during the war have been published, but by and large, there has not been a synthetic study of Mexican Americans and the many changes they experienced during the war. With the exception of an important chapter by historian Zaragosa Vargas, no one has yet studied the evolution of civil rights consciousness during this conflict.

This book provides an introduction to what is known about the emergence during World War II of what has been called the Mexican American generation by looking at the process by which they changed their ideas about their place in America and formulated ideas about their right to equal treatment and respect. As an introduction to the relationship of World War II to Mexican American civil rights struggles, this book is a starting point for deeper study and research. The five chapters and epilogue explore the issues touched on above and provide the historical narrative to understand the documents that follow in the appendices. This collection of key essays and documents from the World War II period gives a first-person understanding of the civil rights struggles of Mexican Americans. An annotated bibliography lists works that help place the World War II experience in the context of the social and political history of Mexican Americans.

Although this is a collaborative book, most of the writing and inspiration for it came from Richard Steele, Professor Emeritus of History at San Diego State University. Richard's long career as a historian focused on American civil liberties during World War II, and he authored two important books interpreting this era, both of which provide insights into how the U.S. government changed its policies and perceptions regarding ethnic minorities. He became intensely interested in Chicano history after his retirement in 2000 and in conversations with me. He read most of the important books that had been written by Chicano scholars. His passion for history and, most importantly, his demanding search for the truth have shaped the tone and direction of this book. My assignment was to research and write about how this war affected the Mexican American communities in shaping their sense of civil rights. Richard passed away before we could finish our work together. His widow, Elaine, graciously agreed to allow me to proceed with the then incomplete manuscript. She also acted as an important editor of the final drafts. The result of our collaboration is this book, an effort that is by no means exhaustive, but one that may suggest avenues for future research and writing. Our hope has been that besides serving as a catalyst for others, this book will be a valuable teaching tool for future generations.


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