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Constructing Identities in Mexican American Political Organizations

Constructing Identities in Mexican American Political Organizations
Choosing Issues, Taking Sides

This book sheds new light on the process of political identity formation through a study of the identity politics practiced by four major Mexican American political organizations.

July 2003
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181 pages | 6 x 9 | 17 photos |

The formation of a group identity has always been a major preoccupation of Mexican American political organizations, whether they seek to assimilate into the dominant Anglo society or to remain separate from it. Yet organizations that sought to represent a broad cross section of the Mexican American population, such as LULAC and the American G.I. Forum, have dwindled in membership and influence, while newer, more targeted political organizations are prospering—clearly suggesting that successful political organizing requires more than shared ethnicity and the experience of discrimination.

This book sheds new light on the process of political identity formation through a study of the identity politics practiced by four major Mexican American political organizations—the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, the Southwest Industrial Areas Foundation, the Texas Association of Mexican American Chambers of Commerce, and the Mexican American Women's National Association (now known as MANA—A National Latina Organization). Through interviews with activists in each organization and research into their records, Benjamin Marquez clarifies the racial, class-based, and cultural factors that have caused these organizations to create widely differing political identities. He likewise demonstrates why their specific goals resonate only with particular segments of the Mexican American community.

  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Mexican-American Organizations and Identity Politics
  • 2. Constructing Identities in Mexican-American Social Movement Organizations
  • 3. Voces Unidas: The Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice
  • 4. Standing for the Whole: The Southwest Industrial Areas Foundation Network
  • 5. Aquí Se Habla Dinero: The Texas Association of Mexican American Chambers of Commerce
  • 6. One Dream, Many Voices: The Mexican American Women's National Association
  • 7. Conclusion
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

Benjamin Marquez is Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His previous books include LULAC: The Evolution of a Mexican American Political Organization.


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The separate parts of group identity come melded to each other in highly varied and often quite distinctive or eccentric ways. It is a living thing that grows, changes, and thrives or withers according to the rise or decline of its own vitality and the conditions in which it exists. It dies too or is fossilized.
—Harold R. Isaacs, Idols of the Tribe: Group Identity and Political Change

The formation of a political identity is a critical issue in multiracial societies. Collective identities emphasize similarities among citizens, what is held in common, criteria for group membership, and difference from others. Identities can offer the individual psychological health, personal authenticity, and attachment to community. However, ascribed identities that brand racial minorities as inferior and relegate them to lower social and economic status can undermine the target group's attachment to the larger society and lead to the formation of disparate, antagonistic racial identities (Taylor 1992; Hochschild 1995). What kinds of identities have Mexican Americans created in response to discrimination and economic deprivation? Do they form antagonistic political identities? Or, alternatively, do they share identities with others in society? This book offers a conceptual framework through which these and other questions about the content of Mexican-American political identities can be answered. It also provides insight into the process of identity formation with a study of identity politics as practiced by four major Mexican-American political organizations: the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice (SNEEJ), Southwest Industrial Areas Foundation Network (IAF), Texas Association of Mexican American Chambers of Commerce (TAMACC), and Mexican American Women's National Association (MANA).

Since the end of the United States-Mexico War (1846-1848) Mexican Americans have created numerous organizations in order to oppose racism, segregation, and violence (Acuña 2000). Before the turn of the twentieth century, Mexican Americans were too economically weak, politically marginal, geographically isolated, and poorly acquainted with the legal traditions of the United States to launch sustained political campaigns. As the population grew, so did the number of political organizations (Tirado 1970). Identity formation has been a preoccupation of Mexican-American political organizations. In the process of organizing, struggling to realize their goals, and making appeals to others, they project their interpretation of race relations to society at large. Their understandings of group identity were created by the most articulate and politically active individuals, who not only struggled for social change but often vied with one another for support from other Mexican Americans (M. Garcia 1989).

During the first half of the twentieth century, three distinct forms of organizations emerged to protect members of the community from outside threats: the mutualistas or mutual aid societies, Mexican-American labor unions, and civil rights organizations. All were formed to defend a people facing widespread discrimination, but each generated a distinct identity in the process.

The mutualistas were the earliest organizations for Mexican Americans. Common in Mexico and the American Southwest prior to that area's annexation by the United States, the mutualistas issued funeral insurance, acted as credit unions, created libraries, and published newspapers. After the United States-Mexico War, their functions expanded to include racial advocacy and self-defense (Hernandez 1983). What distinguished the mutualistas from other activist groups operating at the turn of the twentieth century was their organizers' ardent Mexican nationalism, rejection of cultural assimilation, and distrust of American political institutions. Through the mutualistas, the webs of race, class, and culture created a tight bond of interdependence among Mexicans living in territories that they believed properly belonged to Mexico. They were Mexicanos de afuera, a people whose political loyalties, national sentiments, and solidarity lay with Mexico. In order to reinforce group solidarity and keep Anglo society's cultural influences at bay, the mutualistas sponsored traditional dances, barbecues, and celebrations of Mexican patriotic holidays. In large cities like Los Angeles and San Antonio the Mexican Consulate established relationships with the mutualistas and other associations as it sought to harness nationalist sentiment among the immigrant population in order to further its domestic and foreign policy goals (Sanchez 1993; Gonzalez 1999).

As immigration to the United States rose in response to increasing demands for labor, widespread discrimination and segregation confronted Mexican Americans. In the workplace they were faced by well-financed farm and ranching associations that wanted a large unorganized labor pool and by Anglo-dominated labor unions which treated new immigrants as enemies (Zamora 1993; Gomez-Quiñones 1994a). Mexican-American labor activists primarily fought discrimination in the workplace; but because Mexican Americans were largely a working-class population, they often took the lead in community organizing. Lacking political representation and isolated from the Anglo population, Mexican-American farm workers' struggles for equal treatment often met with violence as union meetings were disrupted, members beaten, and leaders deported (Escobar 1999). Labor-led organizations shared many of the mutualistas' cultural values but rejected nationalism as a dangerous division that weakened all workers. Mexican nationalism, like racial discrimination, pitted workers against each other and made them all more vulnerable to exploitation. Opposed to racism in all forms, given the opportunity, Mexican-American labor activists readily joined in multiethnic organizing (Ruiz 1987).

By 1930 the proportion of Mexican Americans who were United States citizens skyrocketed as a result of natural population increases and the deportation of 500,000 Mexican immigrants during the Great Depression. This demographic shift favored the rise of a more assimilated political leadership that emphasized the rights of citizenship, endorsed the U.S. system of government, and believed that racism could be overcome through interest group politics (M. Garcia 1989; Sanchez 1993). Their mobilizing strategies were premised on the belief that the U.S. free enterprise system was normatively acceptable and that Anglos would eventually accept Mexican Americans as their social equals. What further distinguished these activists from those of the mutualistas and the labor-based groups was their celebration of industrial capitalism and its potential to reward the best qualities of their people: intelligence, hard work, and perseverance. Racial solidarity was considered necessary only to eliminate the evils of discrimination; but in the end, individual Mexican Americans would have to find their place in the social order (Márquez 1993). After World War II and during the 1950s groups like the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Coordinating Council for Latin American Youth, and Mexican-American Movement would become the most visible and articulate forces in Mexican-American politics (M. Garcia 1989; Pycior 1997).

The 1960s and 1970s

The mass deportation of Mexican citizens during the Great Depression and the growing numbers of native-born Mexican Americans depleted the ranks of those most responsive to appeals to Mexican nationalism. Although a few prominent nationalist organizations survived beyond the 1930s, their ideas returned with full force at the dawn of the Chicano Movement. Beginning in the mid-1960s, university and community organizations across the Southwest adopted the disruptive politics of the Black Power Movement and formulated a revitalized ideology of cultural and racial separatism (Gomez-Quiñones 1973; Muñoz 1989). This new wave of activists questioned the conservative, assimilation-driven ideas of established civil rights organizations like LULAC. Instead they opted for racial separation and the politics of disruption. Some activists rejected the entire racial, economic, and cultural structure of Anglo society and argued that equality could be achieved only through Chicano-controlled political parties, social service agencies, and government (I. Garcia 1989; Vigil 1999). The Alianza Federal de Pueblos Libres formed in northern New Mexico and reignited the issue of land stolen from Mexican settlers after the United States-Mexico War. Reies Lopez Tijerina, the Alianza's charismatic leader, became the leading proponent of Chicano separatism as he utilized protest and armed confrontation to reclaim the old Spanish and Mexican land grants in order to build a Chicano homeland (Nabokov 1970).

Mexican-led labor activism continued on farms and ranches throughout the Southwest (M. Garcia 1989). The most widely recognized organization of the era was the United Farm Workers Union, a group that revived earlier models of labor/community organizing. Cesar Chavez, the union's leader, was revered by Chicano Movement activists for his ability to organize strikes against growers and draw national attention to farm workers' plight (Hammerback and Jensen 1998). Chavez greatly increased the union's power by building alliances with Anglo political organizations and liberal politicians. He solidified his status as one of the era's great civil rights leaders by successfully coordinating a national boycott of grapes and table wine. The boycott brought farm owners to the negotiating table and won Californian farm workers the first multiyear agricultural contracts in the state's history, a stable union, and unprecedented gains in wages, benefits, and working conditions (Jenkins 1985; Martin, Vaupel, and Egan 1988). Most of those gains were soon lost as his coalition of support fell apart. The passing of the 1960s liberal atmosphere, the decline of the Democratic Party's fortunes in California and the nation, a protracted struggle with the rival Teamsters Union, and increased grower resistance virtually destroyed the union's ability to negotiate contracts and wield power in California agriculture (Mooney and Majka 1995).

The Contemporary Period

Today Mexican-American neighborhood groups, church groups, professional interest groups, and environmental organizations across the southwestern United States pursue a broad range of political causes (Pulido 1996; Pardo 1997, 1998; Shirley 1997; Wilson 1997). Identity construction is an important function for each group, but the notion that a given identity formation is generally accepted or that it trumps all others is highly problematic. An examination of contemporary Mexican-American politics points to a great diversity in political appeals and goals. Mexican-American business and professional associations, like their Anglo counterparts, advance their members' economic interests through advocacy and networking. A number of organizations representing Mexican-American women have made their mark on the political scene (Honig 1996; Pardo 1997). They occupy a unique political space, as their political agenda often conflicts with that of white feminist or male-dominated Mexican-American groups (Zavella 1993). Finally, it is common to find organizations that draw their inspiration directly from the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Their politics are informed by a desire to gain community control of institutions and a distrust of Anglo-dominated society (Moore and Head 1994; Márquez 1998).

The literature on Mexican-American political organizing is very thin. So little has been written about Mexican-American political organizations that often even basic information about their goals, policies, and institutional dynamics or the role they play in the political representation of the Mexican-American people is lacking. However, the existing literature does point to some general patterns. Mexican-American political organizations today tailor their appeals to specific sectors of a population increasingly differentiated along the lines of class, gender, and occupation. Mexican-American business and professional associations, like their Anglo counterparts, advance their members' economic interests through lobbying, advocacy, and networking. Several women's organizations, notably the Mothers of East Los Angeles (MELA), La Mujer Obrera in Texas, and the Mexican American Women's National Association, have established reputations as important players in local and national politics (Honig 1996; Pardo 1997). The Industrial Areas Foundation maintains a vigorous network of neighborhood organizations in Mexican-American communities throughout the Southwest. Their values and vision for change are drawn from an activist interpretation of the Judeo-Christian tradition of solidarity with the poor—a doctrine they believe will unite people of all races and creeds (Reitzes and Reitzes 1987; Shirley 1997). Finally, members of organizations like the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice draw their inspiration directly from the cultural nationalism of the Chicano Movement (Pulido 1996; Márquez 1998).

As Mexican Americans have grown more diverse socially and economically, multitask civil rights groups like the League of United Latin American Citizens and the American GI Forum have gone into steep decline. The dormancy of these older civil rights organizations stands in sharp contrast to the proliferation of Mexican-American groups with a more restricted design. Professionals and business owners were drawn to appeals of groups like the Mexican American Grocers Association, Hispanic Nurses Association, and Society of Mexican American Engineers and Scientists. At the same time, organizations like Justice for Janitors in Los Angeles, La Mujer Obrera in El Paso, and Fuerza Unida in San Antonio have been at the forefront of worker struggles throughout the Southwest. This shift suggests that any organization attempting to rally a large membership base by using an all-inclusive political identity is unlikely to succeed for an extended period. Few contemporary membership-based organizations even attempt to re-create the broad-based strategies of the past.

Internal debates over political identities are not costless, symbolic gestures (Waters 1990). Contemporary Mexican-American political organizations are actively defining the roles, obligations, and loyalties of a people whose survival has often depended on group solidarity. Subordination based on race and ethnicity exacts a toll on the lives of all Mexican Americans, and the debates over the appropriate political course of action to be taken can be emotionally charged. Mutually recognized group membership can lay the groundwork for concerted action; and those perceived as straying from the fold are denounced as renegades. Nevertheless, disagreements over tactics and values lie at the very heart of politics—and who is to say what constitutes an appropriate blueprint for collective action?

Mexican Americans disagree over asserted identities because they are essentially contested concepts. I argue that identities incorporate judgments about the causes and intensity of racial discrimination, the legitimacy of economic hierarchies, and the value of Mexican cultural practices. They are political constructions, the result of a process whereby practical interests, political beliefs, and moral values are brought into the political sphere (Smiley 1997). Identities are configurations of ethnic symbols, group experiences, and history arranged and reinterpreted for a specific political purpose. Through racial, class-based, and cultural significations, individuals and groups form specific political projects aimed at improving their status, life chances, political effectiveness, and legitimacy in Anglo-dominated society. A variety of political identities can be formed by people who are part of the same racial or ethnic group and share a similar economic status or cultural background. Ethnic and racial identities emerge from distinct visions of community life and politics. They prescribe specific goals which may resonate with some members of the minority population but not with others.

Activists hoping to build or maintain viable Mexican-American social movement organizations must base their mobilizing strategies on a firm understanding of history, culture, and economics. Nevertheless, they have considerable latitude in meshing racial and political identities. In this book I explore the possibilities inherent in ethnic and racial identity construction by analyzing political identities created by four major political networks organizing in Mexican-American communities: the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, Southwest Industrial Areas Foundation Network, Texas Association of Mexican American Chambers of Commerce, and Mexican American Women's National Association. The emergence of new, specialized Mexican-American social movement organizations such as these can constitute a more flexible strategy for resolving long-standing grievances or the first step toward the splintering and eventual breakdown of group ties. The larger significance of their activities can only be discovered through a close examination of their values, goals, and loyalties. We will find what they want, how they hope to get it, and, more importantly, how ethnic and racial identities are constructed in the post-Civil Rights era.


“Marquez has produced a valuable study of political diversity among Mexican American interest groups. His work exposes the fault of equating Mexican American—and by extension, I think, any other—ethnicity with any specific, much less a uniquely radical, political ideology.”
Sidney Plotkin, Professor of Political Science, Vassar College


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