Mexican Americans

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Date: 2017
From: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life(Vol. 2: Americas. 3rd ed.)
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 3,846 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1300L

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Mexican Americans

For more information on Mexican history and culture, see Vol. 2: Mexicans. For more information on immigration in the United States, see Vol. 2: American Immigrants. For more information on life in the United States, see Vol. 2: Americans.


In 1845 the independent republic of Texas became part of the United States. The Mexican people living there suddenly found themselves part of a different country. They were not offered US citizenship, however, so they were not officially considered Mexican Americans. The first official Mexican Americans entered the union when Mexico ceded the northern part of its territory to the United States at the end of the Mexican-American War (1846–48). The Mexican inhabitants of that land were given the choice of either becoming US citizens or relocating south to Mexican territory. About 80 percent (80,000) Mexicans chose to become US citizens, creating the first large group of official Mexican American citizens.

Although this territory had recently been part of Mexico and the Mexican Americans residing there lived on land that had been in their families for generations, the American government assumed authority. The government relegated Mexican Americans to second-class status. English was declared the official language. Mexican Americans were allowed to perform only low-paid, menial work. Stores, saloons, and schools were segregated, and landlords and employers put up signs that read: “No Mexicans need apply.” Some towns outlawed Mexican fiestas (celebrations). Perhaps worst of all, the United States broke its promise that the people would retain all rights to their lands. These rights were instead awarded to white settlers through the courts. As a result, Mexican Americans became impoverished, lower-class citizens in what had once been their own country.

A Mexican American middle class eventually developed along the Rio Grande, which was a major trade route between Mexico and the United States. Mexican Americans were able to fill the need for trade brokers who were fluent in Spanish and understood Mexican culture. Elsewhere, however, Mexican Americans fell into landless poverty and were forced to work as itinerant laborers.

Mexican Americans

In the late 1800s, political and economic instability in Mexico prompted thousands of Mexicans to move across the border in search of better opportunities. The Mexican American population rose from 75,000 in 1890 to 562,000 in 1900. The majority of these individuals were poor and illiterate. They became unskilled laborers, working mostly on farms, in mines, or for the railroad. When the US government restricted Asian immigration, positions that the Chinese had formerly filled in railroad construction became available, and Mexicans leapt at the opportunity. Eventually, some 70 percent of track-layers and 90 percent of maintenance crews on US railroads were Mexican. The US mining industry, particularly in Colorado, Arizona, and California, was built largely on the backs of Mexican Page 430  |  Top of Articleimmigrants, and much of US agriculture was accomplished through the contributions of Mexican migrant workers.

The largest wave of Mexican immigration to the United States, termed the “Great Migration,” occurred in the 1920s, partly as a result of the bloody Mexican Revolution (1910–1924). Between 1920 and 1929, as many as 600,000 Mexicans legally crossed the border. They were given permanent visas, allowing them to perform contract work in agriculture but not to become US citizens. Thousands of Mexicans also entered the United States illegally in the early 1900s. US employers contributed to this influx of illegal immigration by hiring smugglers, called coyotes, to bring undocumented migrants across the border as workers. These workers were easily exploited because they had no recourse with their employers, who could turn them in to immigration officials at any time. Some employers made a practice of hiring undocumented migrants, then turning the workers over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) as soon as the job was completed and before the workers were paid.

With the onset of World War I (1914), President Woodrow Wilson removed the restrictions on Mexican workers that had formerly limited them to agricultural labor. American men were going off to fight in the war, and workers were needed to fill their places. Because they could now work in other industries, many Mexican contract workers moved north to cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh, where industrial jobs were plentiful. Mexican workers flooded across the border to take advantage of these new opportunities. By 1929 the Mexican American population had reached approximately one million, not counting undocumented migrants.

The boom was short, however. In October 1929 the US stock market crashed, and America entered the Great Depression. Job opportunities became scarce as the economy fell apart. Some 85,000 Mexican workers returned almost immediately to Mexico. Frustrated American citizens, who believed that Mexicans were taking their jobs, forced others to return to Mexico. Anti-Mexican sentiment became especially violent in Southern California, and eventually about 75,000 Mexican residents of that state returned to their home country. Many Mexicans who stayed in the United States were so marginalized that they were forced to rely on public assistance. American citizens saw them as a burden on an already overburdened economy and insisted that they be forced to leave.

The United States and Mexico instituted a cooperative repatriation program, in which Mexican Americans would be resettled in Mexico. Some 500,000 Mexican Americans were removed to Mexico through this program before Mexico rescinded the agreement because its economy could not support any more people. Los Angeles established its own repatriation program between 1931 and 1934, deporting more than 13,000 Mexican Americans, including a number of US-born children.

When the United States became involved in World War II, American men again left their jobs to fight in the war, and the United States again requested Mexican workers to fill their places. These workers, called braceros (hired hands), were given only temporary visas. The braceros unfortunately displaced Mexican American workers already in the United States because they were willing to work for lower pay than established Mexican American citizens. The bracero program actually had little to do with wartime labor shortage. Instead, it was a way for US agriculture to take advantage of the economic difficulties in Mexico, evident by the fact that the program was originally intended to last only from 1942 to 1947, but continued (in a somewhat less official capacity) until 1964. The original program peaked in 1944, with 62,170 braceros brought into the United States. The peak year for the extended program was 1956, during which some 500,000 braceros were employed. Overall, about 5 million Mexicans came to the United States between 1942 and 1964 as seasonal workers.

The United States also hoped that the bracero program would discourage illegal immigration across the border by providing a legal way for Mexicans to work in the United States. However, since the program placed restrictions on where braceros could work and specified what they would be paid, it actually encouraged undocumented migration. Undocumented migrants could work wherever they could find a job, and employers could pay them less than the braceros, so both sides profited from illegal immigration. The fact that the bracero program increased, rather than decreased, undocumented migration is shown clearly in INS records. In 1942, the first year of the program, 8,000 undocumented Mexican migrants were deported. By 1951 some 500,000 were deported.

The INS responded to this increased flow of undocumented migrants by instituting Operation Wetback in 1954. Undocumented Mexican migrants were called wetbacks (or mojados), a derogatory term, because they often swam across the Rio Grande to get into the United States. Through Operation Wetback, the INS deported 3.8 million undocumented migrants in five years.

Economic and political difficulties in Mexico, combined with economic opportunities in the United States, however, encouraged the continued flow of undocumented migrants from Mexico to the United States even into modern times. Most undocumented migrants in the twenty-first century work at unskilled jobs in restaurants, hotels and motels, hospitals and nursing homes, and small manufacturing shops. They work on assembly lines, in sweatshops with the garment industry, in gardening and landscaping businesses, and in light construction.

In yet another effort to stem the flow of undocumented migrants from Mexico to the United States, the US Congress passed a bill that was signed into law by President George W. Bush in October 2006. This bill sought to build a “secure fence” along sections of the 2,000-mile border between Mexico and the United States. Some areas already had sections of fencing and other barriers, which were erected by certain states in the 1990s. These barriers essentially served to push migrants to other entry points, many of which required lengthy journeys through arid desert, resulting in an increased number of deaths. Debate over the fence, and over the undocumented migration of Mexicans into the United States, raged into 2016, when presidential candidate Donald Trump revived talk of fencing the border.

In 2014, an estimated 11.3 million undocumented workers resided in the nation, making up an estimated 3.5 percent of the population. This number was a decrease from the peak 2007 estimate of 12.2 million.

Not all Mexican Americans are undocumented migrants, however. Many entered the United States legally and are US citizens. Others are descendants of the original Mexican Americans who became US citizens in 1848. Second-, third-, Page 431  |  Top of Articleand later-generation Mexican Americans have family histories in the United States that go back much further than the histories of some Americans who migrated from Europe. Mexican Americans were one of the most decorated ethnic groups in World War II, earning thirty-nine Congressional Medals of Honor. Some 350,000–500,000 Mexican Americans served in the US Armed Services during that war. Many Mexican American soldiers used the GI Bill after the war to pursue higher education and vocational training, allowing them to move into skilled labor and professional positions. Mexican Americans have also been at the forefront of the US labor movement since its inception in the 1880s. The best-known Mexican American labor organizer was César Chávez, who founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962. This organization later became the United Farm Workers Union.

In the 1950s, a rise in ethnic pride began among Mexican Americans, led by people such as Reies López (“Pete”) Tijerina and Rodolfo (“Corky”) Gonzáles. Called the Chicano Movement (or El Movimento), it came to involve legitimate political organization as well as more radical protests, particularly around the issue of the theft of lands that originally belonged to Mexican families.

Hispanic Americans, which include Mexican Americans as well as other ethnicities from Latin America, are the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States, comprising more than 55.2 million individuals in 2015, or 17 percent of the total population. Mexican Americans made up the largest number of Hispanics—more than 64 percent. In 2014 the Mexican American population was estimated at 35.3 million.

In 2014 the US Census Bureau identified eight states with Hispanic populations of 1 million or more: Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Texas. Additionally, three states accounted for the largest numbers of Hispanics who identified as Mexican American: California (11,423,146), Texas (7,951,193), and Arizona (1,657,668). Other states with large numbers of Mexican Americans included Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, and New Mexico.

In addition to increases in the population due to the immigration of foreign-born individuals, Mexican Americans also experienced a relatively high birth rate—in 2011, this number was 85 births per 1,000 women, compared to 63.2 per 1,000 for the US population as a whole.

Many Mexican Americans speak only Spanish at home and with their Mexican American families and friends. Foreign-born Mexican Americans sometimes experience difficulties in the English-dominated United States, even though many cities with large Hispanic populations are de facto bilingual, with signs and other public information available in both Spanish and English. Non-Hispanic Americans have felt threatened by the growing Hispanic American population and have initiated movements such as “English Only” (1990s) in response to the bilingual movement promoted by the Hispanic community. That movement and other campaigns to make English the official language of the United States had not, as of 2016, resulted in any legislative change.

Mexican Americans are nearly all Roman Catholic, though their brand of Catholicism is somewhat different from European Catholicism. Many elements of Mexican folk religion have been retained, creating a colorful blend of Christianity and magic. Mexican Americans continue to celebrate the countless fiestas of their traditional Mexican Catholicism, as well as the conventional Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter, etc.

Mexican Americans also celebrate a number of secular holidays. Diez y Seis (Sixteenth of September) celebrates the El Grito de Dolores speech delivered by Father Miguel Hidalgo on September 16, 1810, which marked the beginning of Mexico's struggle for independence from Spain. Benito Juarez's defeat of French forces at the city of Pueblo on May 5, 1862, is commemorated each year on Cinco de Mayo (“fifth of May”). Both of these events are marked by parades, floats, traditional dress and music, and other festivities.

One Mexican American holiday tradition that has become popular in mainstream American culture is the piñata, a colorful hollow shell shaped like an animal or other object. The shell is filled with candy, fruit, and toys and is hung from the ceiling or a tree branch. Blindfolded children swing a stick in the air (one at a time), trying to break the piñata and release its contents. Once it is broken, the children scramble to grab the contents.

Other Mexican American contributions to mainstream American culture include zoot suits—baggy pants, long loose jackets, and wide-brimmed hats made popular by Mexican American youths in the late 1930s and 1940s—and food such as tacos, burritos, enchiladas, tortilla chips and salsa, and guacamole. Mariachi music played by strolling Mexican American musicians can be heard all across the United States, as can Tex-Mex music (musica nortena), a blend of Mexican and German polka music. Influential Mexican American musicians of the twenty-first century include Vikki Carr (born Florencia Bisenta de Casillas Marténez Cardona), Joan Baez, Carlos Santana, Tish Hinojosa, Linda Ronstadt, Sheila E. (Sheila Escovedo), and the Garza brothers (who perform as Los Lonely Boys).

Some well-known Mexican American actors include the late Ricardo Montalban and Anthony Rudolph Oaxaca Quinn. Other Mexican American entertainers include Jessica Alba, Salma Hayek, Eva Longoria, Selena Gomez, Cheech Marin, Edward James Olmos, and comedians Paul Rodriguez and George Lopez. Writers Jimmy Santiago Baca, Sandra Cisneros, Pat Mora, and Victor Villaseñor are all Mexican American. Xavier Martínez, artist and founder of the California Society of Artists, was Mexican American, as is Laura Molina, painter and publisher, who founded Chicano Art Magazine in 2006.

Mexican Americans have also influenced US politics. The first Mexican American governors served New Mexico in the early 1900s (Ezequiel Cabeza De Baca and Octaviano Larrazolo). Joseph Montoya became the first Mexican American elected to the US Senate in 1964, representing New Mexico, where he also served as lieutenant governor. In modern times, Jerry Apodaca was elected governor of New Mexico in 1974 and Raúl Héctor Castro was elected Arizona governor in 1975. Henry Cisneros became the first Mexican American mayor of a major US city when he was elected by the citizens of San Antonio, Texas, in 1981. In 1993 President Bill Clinton named him Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Educator Lupe Anguiano developed the Bilingual Education Act while serving in the Department of Health, Education, and Page 432  |  Top of ArticleWelfare, and Federico Peña was appointed US secretary of transportation in 1993. In 2002 Bill Richardson was elected governor of New Mexico and ran as a presidential candidate in 2008. President George W. Bush appointed Alberto Gonzáles US attorney general in 2005, the first Hispanic American to hold that post. The first female governor of New Mexico, Republican Susana Martinez, was elected in 2011. Former Democratic senator Ken Salazar from Colorado (2005–2009) served in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2013 as secretary of the interior. By 2016, several members of Congress were of Mexican American descent, including House representatives Loretta L. Sánchez and Grace Napolitano.

In the sciences, Mexican American astronaut Ellen Ochoa was the first Hispanic woman sent into space (1993). Mexicanborn chemist Mario Molina received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995 for his work on the ozone layer.

Mexican Americans also shine in sports. Tennis great Richard Pancho González won the US Open in both 1948 and 1949. He also won the Wimbledon doubles crown (with Frank Parker) in 1949 and was the top tennis player in the nation from 1952 to 1960. Golfers Lee Trevino and Nancy López were highly successful and popular Mexican American sports figures. Professional boxer Oscar de la Hoya earned a gold medal at the 1992 Olympics and continued an illustrious career until his retirement in 2009. Nomar Garciaparra was named an All-Star major league baseball player several times in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Swimmer Donna de Varona won two Olympic gold medals; Anthony Muñoz was named to the NFL Hall of Fame; and NFL quarterbacks Mark Sanchez and Tony Romo were very successful through the 2010s.

Dancers in traditional Mexican dress perform at the Cinco de Mayo Festival in San Diego, California. Dancers in traditional Mexican dress perform at the Cinco de Mayo Festival in San Diego, California. © KOBBY DAGAN/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM. © KOBBY DAGAN/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM.

Although individual Mexican Americans have become successful in the United States, Mexican Americans as a group continue to struggle against racial and ethnic discrimination that confines them to the lower classes of society. Mexican Americans have been stereotyped as poor, uneducated criminals. Because of these stereotypes, some American teachers believe that Mexican American students will not succeed, so they fail to direct much energy or attention to them. Consequently, the students fail, Page 433  |  Top of Articleleading to a high dropout rate. This lack of education perpetuates the Mexican Americans' status as poor and illiterate, confirming the stereotypes and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is a vicious cycle that many are working to break.

The majority of Mexican Americans continue to be trapped in a cycle of poverty—in 2011, 29 percent of American-born Mexicans lived in poverty compared to 25 percent of Hispanics overall and 15 percent of the general US population. This socioeconomic reality prevents Mexican Americans from improving their situation. Until inequality in education and employment opportunities are resolved, Mexican Americans will not be able to obtain the skills and resources necessary to rise to more appropriate levels in American society. From an educational perspective, in 2013, 64.7 percent of Hispanics received a high school diploma or its equivalent by age 25. However, only 10 percent of Mexican Americans continued on to earn a bachelor's degree, compared to 13 percent of Hispanics and 33 percent of the US population overall.

Hispanics in general command low incomes, although figures vary by source. According to the US Census Bureau, in 2013 the median annual earnings in a Hispanic household was $40,963. However, data compiled through 2011 by Pew Research Center suggests that for Mexican Americans, that number is closer to $20,000, with US-born Mexican Americans earning a slightly higher $22,000.

Additionally, access to health care is problematic. In 2011, 34 percent of Mexican Americans did not have health insurance, compared with 41 percent of Hispanics and 16 percent of the general US population. However, the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 increased access to health insurance across the American population as a whole. In 2015, the US Department of Health and Human Services estimated that the uninsured rate among Hispanics dropped by more than 25 percent (to 30.5 percent), with about 4 million Hispanic adults gaining insurance coverage from October 2013 through September 2015.

For Mexican Americans, there is a sense of “machismo” for men that requires a man to be strong, dominant, and sexually powerful. The Catholic Church, a prominent part of most Mexican and Mexican Americans' lives, prohibits sexual activity between unmarried persons. All of these factors lead to a difficult life for homosexual Mexican American men and women. Gay Mexican American men may engage in homosexual activity with other men, but they must be in the position of power. It is the receptive man who is disdained as being weak and effeminate. Mexican American lesbians must break cultural norms to declare themselves publicly, thus announcing to the world that they are independent sexual beings rather than otherrelated wives and mothers. Many Mexican American homosexuals choose to keep their sexual identity secret rather than risk rejection by their families and communities.

As of 2016, Mexican Americans were at the forefront of debate about illegal immigration. The administration of Barack Obama focused on immigration reform, with the president writing an executive order to help families. The bill offered relief from deportation to parents of American citizens or legal resident children who had lived in the country for more than five years. The bill required them to register with the government, undergo background checks, and pay taxes. The reform bill allowed immigration enforcement officials to focus their resources on deporting felons rather than families. However, the Republican-led Congress refused to support the order.


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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3648200200