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¡Pobre Raza!

¡Pobre Raza!
Violence, Justice, and Mobilization among México Lindo Immigrants, 1900-1936

This book examines the response of Mexican immigrants to Anglo American prejudice and violence early in the twentieth century.

August 1999
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297 pages | 6 x 9 | 16 b&w photos, 10 tables |

Fleeing the social and political turmoil spawned by the Mexican Revolution, massive numbers of Mexican immigrants entered the southwestern United States in the early decades of the twentieth century. But instead of finding refuge, many encountered harsh, anti-Mexican attitudes and violence from an Anglo population frightened by the influx of foreigners and angered by anti-American sentiments in Mexico.

This book examines the response of Mexican immigrants to Anglo American prejudice and violence early in the twentieth century. Drawing on archival sources from both sides of the border, Arturo Rosales traces the rise of "México Lindo" nationalism and the efforts of Mexican consuls to help poor Mexican immigrants defend themselves against abuses and flagrant civil rights violations by Anglo citizens, police, and the U.S. judicial system. This research illuminates a dark era in which civilian and police brutality, prejudice in the courtroom, and disproportionate arrest, conviction, and capital punishment rates too often characterized justice for Mexican Americans.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. The Mexican Revolution, Border Mexicans, and Anglos
  • 2. México Lindo Mobilization
  • 3. The Consuls and México Lindo
  • 4. Mexican Criminals in the United States
  • 5. Police Treatment of Mexican Immigrants
  • 6. Civilian Violence against Mexican Immigrants
  • 7. Mexicans and Justice in the Courtroom
  • 8. Capital Punishment and Mexicans in the United States
  • 9. Doing Time for Mexicans in the United States
  • 10. Extradition between Mexico and the United States
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix A. White and Black Civilian Violence against Mexicans
  • Appendix B. Mexican-on-Mexican Violence in Texas and the Chicago Area
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

F. Arturo Rosales is Professor of History at Arizona State University.


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In the United States, large-scale outbursts against immigration began in the nineteenth century when Anglo Americans reacted first to the influx of Catholic Irish and German newcomers and then to Asians and southern and eastern Europeans, but in this century, Mexicans have been the main recipients of such antipathy. Americans are again angry over immigration, especially the influx from south of the border. This latest anti-immigrant trend, however, is mild when compared with the most severe reaction to Mexicans in U.S. history during the first decades of this century, the era of the story covered in this book.

Perhaps the most startling discovery in preparing this study is the aplomb these immigrants displayed for interacting with American officials and politicians of all types to combat abuse, all the while desiring to return to Mexico. That the Mexican government aided the immigrants does not in any way reduce their own contribution. The account of how Mexican immigrants combated this abuse is presented mainly within the framework of the U.S. justice system, violence within that system, and the immigrants' reaction to the Anglo hostility that emerged during massive Mexican immigration from the 1890s to the 1930s.

In the early phase of Chicano studies, nationalistic young scholars searched intently for examples of victimization to demonstrate the thorough oppression of Mexicans in the United States. Now many scholars believe it is time to move on beyond the search for oppression because the pantheon of Chicano research is replete with sufficient examples of victimization, and some critics even believe that the experience of Mexicans is no different than that of other immigrants, especially those who came to the United States in the late nineteenth century.

But in the rush to judgment, the significant themes of oppression have not been adequately developed, and, in many cases, they are caricatures in the mold of what Alex Saragoza called "we versus them" historiography. Recognizing the need to transcend simplistic racism or victimization models in explaining the history of Mexicans in the United States does not nullify oppression as a major defining ingredient. So rather than setting aside the abuses and moving on to more agency oriented issues, I believe oppression and racism still require closer analysis and reinterpretation, but not just to indulgently parade before readers a stream of demonized Anglo American acts.

In looking at other studies on immigration in this era, including some of my own work, it is obvious that immigrants and the Mexican government viewed inequities in the justice system and civilian mistreatment as perhaps the most severe form of repression. They quickly mobilized politically around the issue because it could not be put on hold; the abuse provoked too much pain, both physical and psychological.

Before the beginning of massive Mexican immigration of the 1890s, the relationship between native Southwest Mexicans and Anglos had evolved within a competitive milieu that pitted the two ethnic groups in trade, mining, and land tenure. Anglo control of Mexican labor, although not having the priority of later years, also propelled discord. During the late nineteenth century, both Mexicans and Anglos engaged in border smuggling and banditry, but Mexican outlaws provoked the greatest indignation. Vigilante committees administered summary justice to all criminals regardless of race or ethnic background, but a disproportionate number of Mexicans received this treatment. Racially motivated lynchings proved to be particularly galling to Mexicans. Moreover, in the nineteenth century few Mexicans served on juries, they were unevenly sentenced to jail, and were given longer sentences than Anglos. A major justice issue for southwestern Hispanics was their inability to understand court proceedings conducted in English because of a lack of Spanish-speaking lawyers or interpreters.

Nonetheless, most of the time Anglos accepted, even if grudgingly, that Mexicans in areas acquired by the United States had a right to remain, and upper-class Mexicans in the Southwest were acceptable for socializing and for marriage. In the nineteenth century, contrary to the images portrayed in Hollywood westerns, many lawmen and municipal court officials in the West were Mexicans, a factor that allowed for more egalitarian treatment than has been previously believed.

Unfortunately, this "live and let live" arrangement between Mexicans and Anglos eroded in the twentieth century after industrialization and modernization reduced the jobs available to Mexican immigrants to the lowest types of manual labor. Instability caused by the Mexican Revolution and its aftermath dislocated hundreds of thousands of Mexicans. They crossed the border and had to contend with poor housing and malnutrition, which made them vulnerable to disease and to brushes with the legal system. Generally, the only Americans who wanted immigrants in the country were employers who tolerated Mexicans because they were low-wage laborers who could be manipulated and persuaded to return to their homeland when their labor became unnecessary. "Greenhorn" immigrants encountered more difficulty in dealing with police and the courts than their settled southwestern brethren. The immigrants adjusted, but during the painful process of adapting, they remained extremely vulnerable.

Middle-class Americans perceived the massive influx of labor as threatening to the social and cultural order, while the white and black working classes feared them as competitors who lowered wages and took jobs they felt belonged to them. Certainly, poor eastern and southern Europeans ("new" immigrants) who immigrated during this period shared this burden, but Americans saw Mexicans as less racially acceptable than the "new" immigrants. Although negative attitudes toward other groups emerged because of conditions contemporaneous to the period of their immigration, Anglos had despised Mexicans as a mixed breed since early in the nineteenth century, before massive immigration. Indeed, proponents of Manifest Destiny rationalized encroachment into Mexican territory by demonizing a mongrelized Mexican culture--a stigma that endured.

When the first major immigration wave occurred early in the century Mexicans were experiencing the most violent political upheaval in their history. Because the part of the upheaval that took place on the northern border had anti-American overtones, often manifested by threats against American property, border raids, and angry anti"Gringo" rhetoric, many Americans took out their frustrations on immigrant workers who were not involved in any of this activity in a hysteria that historian Ricardo Romo has dubbed the "Brown Scare" (fear of Mexicans during the Mexican Revolution) . Even after the militant phases of the Revolution ended, border problems persisted--the smuggling of liquor, drugs, and large numbers of "illegal" immigrants--and continued as sources of resentment toward Mexico and its people.

The flood of Mexican immigration caught Anglo Americans and their institutions off guard. To government officials, social workers, educators, and scholars this became known as the "Mexican Problem." The rapport with southwestern Hispanics forged in the nineteenth century proved inadequate for interacting with landless laborers from Mexico who engulfed southwestern barrios. To Americans it became clear that the Jim Crow laws employed for blacks could be applied to the new foreigners. Even though new codes did not avowedly target Mexicans, laws regarding vagrancy, weapon control, alcohol and drug use, and smuggling were partially designed to control Mexican immigrant behavior. In addition, education policy, private-sector housing, and labor segmentation combined with the judicial web to keep Mexicans powerless and easier to control.

The newcomers were not only extremely poor but also mainly illiterate, and Americans perceived them to be more of Indian than old Hispanic stock. A November 1926 editorial in the New York Times warn ing about dangers stemming from unregulated immigration captures this sentiment. There were two kinds of Mexicans in the United States, the Times proclaimed--the old stock with more Spanish blood, thus desirable by American standards, and newer immigrants, more visibly Indian. Fortunately, said the Times editorial, "For the most part they return to their old homes as soon as laced by a few hundred dollars."

Among the many foibles that Americans attributed to Mexicans was an innate propensity to crime. An assessment in the social-work magazine Charities and the Commons during 1907 gave three reasons why 60 percent of those convicted of felonies in Arizona were Mexicans: one, it acknowledged prejudice in the court system; two, that among the immigrants came "fugitives from justice in Sonora and Chihuahua"; and, three, that "many are of mixed Indian and renegade American blood." Much of this perception had to do with negative media publicity. Arrest rates and even conviction rates did not necessarily measure comparative offense rates (the real rate of crime). More often they reflected differential application of the law. Essentially, this means that law officials expected Mexicans to be criminally prone, so they dogged them and caught them in the act or considered them guilty even if they were only suspects. As a consequence, American institutions that dealt out justice became the first to encounter the Mexican immigrants and a sour relationship developed from the outset.

Mexican expatriates, in turn, immediately identified police brutality, prejudice in the courtroom, disproportionate arrest and conviction rates, uneven application of the death sentence, and unpunished violence from white civilians (bosses and workers) as the most onerous conditions they had to endure. This realization was beaten into their everyday lives, regardless of whether they were poor working people or economically comfortable.

Feeling unwelcome and rejected, the subordinated immigrants adopted an intense expatriate nationalism that revered "México Lindo" (Beautiful Mexico), as their colonias (Mexican immigrant communities) swelled. This conviction served as a source of empowerment by providing them with identity and a sense of unity. The mainly nostalgic ideology incorporated Spanish language preservation; indigenismo (pride in Indian background); celebration of the fiestas patrias (Mexican patriotic holidays); reverence for patriots like Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla and Benito Juárez; Catholicism, specifically as manifested by Our Lady of Guadalupe; and an ambivalent form of anti-Americanism. The Mexican consuls who acted as brokers in the struggles and encouraged mobilization provided the movement with an infrastructure and mechanism to spread nationwide.

Kerby Miller, in a marvelous study of Irish emigration to the United States, evokes a similar concept. He argues that while immigrants from the Emerald Isle certainly left for a better life in the United States, they chose to see their sojourn as a product of victimization by the British. Therefore, they saw their stay in the United States as a temporary exile, even when they entered American politics. In fact, numerous symbols evoking a nostalgic and romantic notion of their homeland, and hate for their British victimizers, sustained much of the legendary political activity of the Irish Americans.

The México Lindo identity came earlier to communities like Tucson and San Antonio where immigration first appeared on a large scale. As early as the 1880s, for example, a writer for Tucson's El Fronterizo, Francisco Dávila, encouraged Mexicans to return to Mexico by projecting idealized notions of the mother country. By the late 1910s, as immigrants and their children in these older immigrant colonias settled into a more permanent place, such fervor waned. El Tucsonense, Tucson's premier Spanish-language daily in this era, for example, contained few allusions to Mexico's pre-Columbian heritage, a staple of identity for new arrivals. The same is true of writers for San Antonio's El Imparcial de Texas and La Prensa who turned their attention to extolling the virtues of Mexicans who fought in World War I for the United States and to encouraging Mexicans to become U.S. citizens and vote.

By the 1920s, communities with large numbers of recently arrived immigrants promoted México Lindo ideology more forcefully. In Chicago during the 1920s, immigrants from Jalisco or Guanajuato encountered paisanos who had themselves only recently arrived; few had political influence or knew the proverbial ropes. In addition to the city's bone-chilling winters, a painful contrast to the warmer latitudes of Central Mexico, Mexicans had to adjust to schools, neighborhoods, and a justice system far different from anything they had known. Rapid coalescing proved essential to recreating an ethnic space in this strange terrain. In 1926, an editorial in one of Chicago's first Spanish language publications, El Correo, proclaimed that upon arriving in Chicago, Mexicans immediately sought each other out: "Our Mexicanness is rooted to the degree of fanaticism. Celebrating our patriotic festivals, where we honor glorious historical heroes in a cooperative and zealous spirit, is a divine mandate." Regardless of the area, leaders evoked an immigrant nationalism when confronting abuse.

But those leading the campaigns did not see their compatriots as simply innocent victims. Aware of the violence and crime that existed in their communities, including Mexican-on-Mexican crime, they often launched moralistic diatribes against deviant behavior among their own people. Yet they protested vehemently when compatriots were unjustly treated at the hands of the law. Although there is no doubt that some Mexicans required policing, what is obvious in this historical study is that policemen habitually overreacted, sometimes because they feared Mexicans, or on other occasions because it allowed certain neurotic policemen to empower themselves at the expense of the powerless. Just as tragic is that a legal system designed to protect individuals from violence all to0 often left Mexicans with little or no protection against vindictive American civilians.

Nonetheless, this book demonstrates that the Mexican experience with the law of the United States varied region by region. The time of immigration, regional origins, social conditions in Mexico, and the configuration of host communities all contributed to shaping the character and frequency of Mexican immigrant crime. For example, those who concentrated in industrial areas and who were new to the United States had the highest arrest and conviction rates. This had much to do with the complex process of establishing roots, family networks, and immigrant institutions. Although arrest rates, capital punishment, police violence, and white civilian hostility toward Mexicans increased and decreased in well-defined patterns, antipathy, or at least its physical manifestations, never reached the white-heat intensity evident when border violence during the Mexican Revolution and immigration converged.

Within a few short years of their arrival, however, Mexican immigrants from this period experienced considerable relief from these oppressive conditions. Two structural theories help explain this change. One is that Anglo intolerance decreased as chronological distance separated extreme border hostility generated during the Mexican Revolution from continuing Mexican immigration in later years. The second, more complex and drawn out within the context of various themes throughout the book, concerns the role of labor competition and the aging and stabilization of the immigrant community.

The issues discussed above are treated in thematic fashion throughout this book. The first chapter addresses how border raids into the United States and anti-Americanism during the Mexican Revolution exacerbated prejudices already held against Mexicans. Chapters 2 and 3 trace the process by which both immigrants and the Mexican government established a system to defend against the violation of civil rights. Chapter 4 examines the extent of Mexican criminal behavior, especially internecine violence, and determines to what degree it merited the treatment Mexicans received at the hands of the law. The phenomenon of police consistently violating the civil rights of Mexicans is treated in Chapter 5. Brutality that white, and to a lesser degree black, civilians inflicted on Mexicans, is treated in Chapter 6. Chapter 7 assesses the courts, which played a crucial role in the destiny of Mexicans caught in the snare of the U.S. justice system. Capital punishment, the worst nightmare for Mexicans who got into trouble with the law, is assessed in Chapter 8. The life of incarcerated Mexicans and their release from prison is treated in Chapter 9. The final chapter of this book portrays Mexicans seeking asylum in their homeland when U.S. authorities sought to imprison them.

Terms of Reference for Mexicans in the United States

Throughout the book I use the word Mexican to denote those born in Mexico and Mexican American for persons who are ethnically Mexican but born in the United States. The term ethnic Mexicans is applied at times to people born on either side of the border who have a connection to the mestizo culture and race forged in Mexico after the arrival of Spaniards. At times the word Hispanic or Hispano appears, usually to portray natives of the Southwest during the nineteenth century who did not have a very strong link to the emerging political entity known as Mexico, especially after the United States annexed the Southwest. The term mainly serves the utilitarian purpose of making the distinction more easily understandable for the reader.



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