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The Mexican Outsiders

The Mexican Outsiders
A Community History of Marginalization and Discrimination in California

How the residential, social, and school segregation of Mexican-origin people became institutionalized in a representative California town.

October 1995
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270 pages | 6 x 9 | 29 halftones, 3 maps, 4 tables |

People of Mexican descent and Anglo Americans have lived together in the U.S. Southwest for over a hundred years, yet relations between them remain strained, as shown by recent controversies over social services for undocumented aliens in California. In this study, covering the Spanish colonial period to the present day, Martha Menchaca delves deeply into interethnic relations in Santa Paula, California, to document how the residential, social, and school segregation of Mexican-origin people became institutionalized in a representative California town.

Menchaca lived in Santa Paula during the 1980s, and interviews with residents add a vivid human dimension to her book. She argues that social segregation in Santa Paula has evolved into a system of social apartness—that is, a cultural system controlled by Anglo Americans that designates the proper times and places where Mexican-origin people can socially interact with Anglos.

This first historical ethnographic case study of a Mexican-origin community will be important reading across a spectrum of disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, race and ethnicity, Latino studies, and American culture.


Outstanding Book Award, Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights in North America
A Choice Magazine Outstanding Academic Book

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One. Political Relations and Land Tenure Cycles in Santa Paula: Chumash Indians, Mexicans, and Anglo Americans
  • Chapter Two. White Racism, Religious Segregation, and Violence against Mexicans, 1913 to 1930
  • Chapter Three. School Segregation: The Social Reproduction of Inequality, 1870 to 1934
  • Chapter Four. Mexican Resistance to the Peonage System: Movements to Unionize Farm Labor
  • Chapter Five. Movements to Desegregate the Mexican Community, the 1940s and 1950s
  • Chapter Six. The Segmentation of the Farm Labor Market, 1965 to 1976
  • Chapter Seven. Interethnic City Council Politics: The Case of the Housing Cooperative Movement
  • Chapter Eight. Modern Racism: Social Apartness and the Evolution of a Segregated Society
  • Chapter Nine. The Impact of Anglo American Racism on Mexican-Origin Intragroup Relations
  • Chapter Ten. Historical Reconstruction
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Martha Menchaca is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin.


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It is my hope in this book to provide an ethnographic history of the prejudice and discrimination experienced by the Mexican-origin people of Santa Paula, California. This work is an attempt to write about their untold local community history and their memories of marginalization and discrimination. It is also my history, as I was raised in this community. Santa Paula is a biracial agrarian community in Ventura County, located sixty miles northeast of Los Angeles. Currently, Santa Paula is an ethnically balanced Anglo American and Mexican-origin community that is politically and socially dominated by Anglo American families who owe their wealth to the citrus industry (Belknap 1968; Menchaca 1989; Triem 1985). The city has a long and unpleasant history of social segregation, which has evolved into an interethnic system that I refer to as "social apartness."

Anthropologists and historians are aware that overt and subtle forms of racial prejudice against racial minorities have been a traditional practice in most Anglo American communities. Nonetheless, in the reconstruction of local histories, such experiences are often treated as unimportant or are altogether ignored (Frisch 1981). Perhaps this omission is due to the common practice of focusing on the local heroes, the power holders, or the founding families of a community. Unfortunately, the result is often unbalanced and univocal documentation of the contributions of the dominant culture—the Anglo Americans—and obscures the contributions of other ethnic groups. Failure to include information about racial minorities results in their depiction as passive community members and not as significant agents of social production and change. This characterization has served to perpetuate the myth that if they are not included within their community's history they must not have merited attention. Racial minorities are essentially robbed of their historical presence and treated as people without a history. Their exclusion also serves to construct a distorted community image because issues of interethnic contact are deleted from the historical discourse. As such, unpleasant events are forgotten or trivialized as past phenomena or, worse, considered to be part ofnatural processes that develop when two groups of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds come into contact. Social segregation, police brutality, political disenfranchisement, unfair labor practices, and everyday racist practices against racial minorities become part of the interethnic history that does not merit consideration. Why? Because acknowledgments of such behavior and policies are often thought to be unkind depictions of the dominant ethnic group. This form of historical distortion negates the characterization of racial minorities as agents of social change who have challenged their subordinate social roles and made their communities kinder places to live.

Such historical distortions and omissions aptly describe how the public history of Santa Paula has been written by local historians and subsequently immortalized in the city's museum, library archives, and city government plaques. Anglo Americans, in particular the families who owe their wealth to the citrus industry, are singularly credited for having founded Santa Paula, cultivated the land, established the citrus industry, and institutionalized fair government practices (Blanchard 1961; Cleland 1957; Teague 1944; Thille 1952, 1958). Santa Paula's public history is depicted as uncomplicated because the city is a peaceful one inhabited by Anglo Americans. The problem I see in this characterization is not what has been written but what has been omitted: this omission produces a distorted history. People of Mexican descent and Native Americans are ignored in the historical records, regardless of the fact that Native Americans founded Santa Paula and Mexicans colonized the city, inhabited it since the late 1700s, and planted the first citrus orchards. Indeed, these historical gaps are a problem, as the contributions and accomplishments of Mexican-origin people and Native Americans are attributed to Anglo Americans. Furthermore, by not including within Santa Paula's historical records accounts of the marginalization and discrimination suffered by Mexican-origin people, those who chronicled Santa Paula's past relegated such happenings to insignificance.

This incomplete history has also had consequences in everyday life. People in Santa Paula learn about their heritage and extract a sense of self-worth by hearing about the accomplishments of their ancestors and attending celebrations commemorating the achievements of the city's founding fathers. However, because the local heroes of Santa Paula—according to local history—have been only Anglo Americans, Mexicans are often left with a negative image of their ethnic group. Thus, the question of what Mexicans have to be proud of arises among Santa Paula residents.

Although, as in Santa Paula, many community histories may evade certain facts, the histories of racial minorities are not forgotten by all individuals (Vansina 1985). They continue to live in the oral traditions of the subordinate cultures (Paredes 1973). These unwritten histories, therefore, can be reconstituted by collecting oral histories and verifying these remembrances through a review of primary documents (Burgess 1982). Newspapers, property tax records, speeches, and court cases are among the many primary documents that can verify a peoples' oral histories. Such abundant physical evidence makes possible the historical reconstruction of racial discrimination. Although unpleasant events committed against racial minorities may not be included in the official histories of many communities, these events, nonetheless, can be reconstituted and the traditional histories written by Anglo Americans rectified.

My main goals for reconstructing the social history of Santa Paula's Mexican-origin community were to advance historiographic information about people of Mexican descent in the United States and to examine how past social injustices have influenced the perceptions of self-worth among inhabitants of this community. Thus, this case study examines both historical and contemporary issues. Regarding my first aim, this account illustrates that people of Mexican descent have a long history in California, which contributes to dispelling the myth that all Mexican people are recent immigrants. Although during the Spanish and Mexican periods Santa Paula remained a small village inhabited primarily by Native Americans and a few Mexican families, the presence of Mexicans predates the entrance ofthe Anglo Americans. Paradoxically, this fact is not acknowledged by local historians and is seldom mentioned in academic histories of California. Historians do acknowledge, however, the presence of people of Mexican descent in the larger, well-known settlements of San Diego, Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Santa Ynez, Santa Cruz, San Jose, and San Francisco—the sites of Spanish missions and the legendary towns where the Dons resided (Camarillo 1979, 1984; Galarza 1964). Indeed, historians do not refute the presence of Spaniards or Mexicans in these California towns, as this history is closely interweaved with the legendary accounts of the Anglo American conquest of the Southwest.

Ironically, the conquest not only marks the beginning of the Anglo American period in the Southwest but also introduces the writing of a history that minimizes the social contributions of the Native Americans and the people of Mexican descent (Paredes 1973, 1978). In the case of Mexicans, for example, there is a vast absence of information about the Mexican communities that surrounded the larger towns and cities. This void has served to perpetuate the myth that besides the large towns and cities founded by the Spanish in California, all other communities were founded by the Anglo American pioneers (Cleland 1930). Seldom is any reference made or historical significance accorded to the ranchos (ranches) that were located throughout California (Galarza 1972; Hutchinson 1969; Robinson 1948). For example, the Mexican ranchos of Santa Paula, Saticoy, Carpinteria, Sespe, Oxnard, Camarillo, and El Rio were located near the wellknown Mexican settlements of Santa Barbara and Ventura. These were communities composed of small family ranches. In these California ranchos Mexicans had built irrigation systems, cleared roads, planted citrus orchards, established sheep herding businesses, and constructed humble adobe homes and chapels. Although the settlements were sparsely settled when California was annexed by the United States in 1848, they were developed to the extent that Anglo American businessmen considered them attractive investment sites. Businessmen subsequently purchased or took possession of these ranchos and converted them to Anglo American townships (Gidney, Brooks, and Sheridan 1917; Stuart 1879). Thus, because most historical writings begin their accounts ofthe Southwest with the entrance of the Anglo Americans, the social and technological contributions of previous populations are obscured and often attributed to Anglo Americans (Cleland 193o; Lamar 1966; Larson 1968; Richardson, Wallace, and Anderson 1970).

This study is an attempt to reconstruct the social history of one of these California communities—Santa Paula. My second aim in this reconstruction is to present the historical background in order to better understand how the past has affected the city's contemporary social relations. Current descriptions of Santa Paula illustrate how, over time, interethnic relations between Anglo Americans and Mexican-origin people improved. These discussions, however, also offer a critical analysis of how past forms of discrimination have evolved into subtle and modern manifestations of dominant group racism. I also examine how prejudice and discrimination have affected perceptions ofself-worth in the Mexican-origin community of Santa Paula. That is, although people of Mexican descent are no longer involuntarily segregated in a different part of the city, social segregation has been transformed into a system of interethnic "social apartness." My conception of "social apartness," a construct developed for this analysis, refers to a system of social control in which Mexican-origin people are expected to interact with Anglo Americans only on Anglo American terms. Anglo Americans determine the proper times and places in which both groups can come into contact. Social apartness, therefore, is manifested in a number of ways similar to segregation. Santa Paula's current interethnic relations continue to be characterized by social distance and relationships defined by domination and subordination.

My historical review begins with the Native American period—to demonstrate that Santa Paula was not founded by Anglo Americans and to explain why Mexicans took physical and legal control of the region—and ends in 1991 with a description of how acculturation pressures have influenced the Mexican-origin people of Santa Paula. I have reconstructed the social history of this community using various sources, both ethnographic and historical. My ethnographic research is based on a one-year study conducted in Santa Paula from October 1, 1986, to October 1, 1987, and also on two subsequent visits in 1989 and 1991. The major parts of that research consisted of ninety-four open-ended interviews with community members and institutional representatives, as well as participation in a wide variety of social, civic, church, political, and recreational activities. Of these interviews, seventy-two were conducted with Mexican-origin people and twenty-two with Anglo Americans. The participants' ages ranged from sixteen to seventy-five years, and their occupations varied from farm laborers to citrus growers to attorneys. The participants were asked to respond to questions about Santa Paula's interethnic relations and its history and to describe the city's cultural ambiance. The historical data come from primary sources, including oral histories, church records, genealogies, photographs, newspapers, autobiographies, school records, court cases, and property tax records.

Oral histories provide information on the main features of the history of Santa Paula's Mexican-origin community. Although most of my informants were aware of some phases of Santa Paula's history, five of my Mexican-origin informants were experts on the subject. These individuals' consider themselves to be local town historians and guardians of their community's oral traditions. I spent countless days talking to José, Linda, Tony, Isabel, and Roney. Their oral histories dated back to the early 1900s. To verify the accuracy of the oral history accounts and to reconstruct unwritten historical events, I relied on archival records. I reviewed documents that dated back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. Historical records dealing with Santa Paula's Anglo American history were found in the local library, whereas documents about the Mexican-origin community were located in the files of Mexican American civic clubs or Mexican churches. California superior court, state supreme court, and federal supreme court cases provided additional information on the first Mexican settlers. These court records also contained descriptions of the land tenure history of Santa Paula beginning with its Native American period and concluding with the Anglo American homestead claims. Census data, as well as school and property tax records, were used to trace the emergence and disappearance of social segregation practices over time. Genealogies were used to collect information on the kinship systems of the Mexican-origin community. Contemporary information was gathered through interviews, ethnographic observations, the U.S. census, a survey of the Mexican American business sector, and agribusiness and school records.

Because I once lived in Santa Paula myself for twelve years, I also relied on extensive personal knowledge of the community. I arrived in the city as a five-year-old immigrant Mexican child and eventually moved to a nearby city upon entering college. My previous residence in Santa Paula has enabled me to acquire a deep understanding of the city's history, social structure, and economy.



“[Menchaca's] work buttresses the argument that race is alive and well and that twenty-five years of affirmative action policies have not eliminated the legacy of segregation... [This book] provides an excellent view of social relations in one place across time. Compelling and thought-provoking, the study argues for sustaining public policies that challenge racist discrimination.”
Journal of American History


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