Mexican Americans

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Editor: Sonia Benson
Date: 2003
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 3,823 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1250L

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The Mexican-origin population is the largest Hispanic group in the United States, numbering over 20.6 million according to the 2000 U.S. census. Because of its size and geographic range both in the United States and in Mexico, this population is also the most diverse. Indeed, some of the Mexican regions from which immigrants originate are larger than any of the other Hispanic-origin countries. The U.S. East Coast is represented by Mexicanos from Tamaulipas, Saltillo, Torreón, and the southeastern seaboard of Mexico, including Vera Cruz and other Caribbean-like regions. The core sending area of Mexico, however, is the central states of Durango, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, Guanajuato, Jalisco, and Michoacán. The majority of these people from the core sending states travel to the southwestern United States, principally to California and Texas. But people from throughout Mexico are represented in all areas of the United States. People have also migrated from the northern Mexican border states of Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and the states of the Pacific coast, Sinaloa and Nayarit. Even remote Mexican areas and regional cultures are represented in the United States. In fact, Mexican colonies in the United States are often dense settlements of people from specific Mexican regions and states. Neighborhoods in Los Angeles, for example, are made up of people from Sonora, others from Michoacán and Sinaloa. Each group expresses a regional pride and specific cultural practices. Neighborhoods exhibit commercial establishments that boast native restaurants and shops specializing in regional specialties. This variety, a product of recent immigration, is complicated by the fact that many Mexican Americans were also original populations in much of the Southwest.

The historical conditions between the United States and Mexico set the tone for current relationships. Of extreme importance in these relationships are the southwestern borderlands, which were first Spanish outposts in the New World, then Mexican territory before the Mexican-American War of 1846. This is the area currently separated by a 2,000-mile border. It consists of the U.S.-Mexican border states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Although indigenous Americans first lived in this region and continue to do so, each state is historically Spanish Mexican. Unlike the political-economic influence and domination of the United States in other countries of Hispanic origin, the United States conquered the Southwest and took it from Mexico. This conquest was the beginning of a U.S.-Mexican relationship that shaped present attitudes, economic dependencies, and immigration. The Southwest borderlands, currently the area of the highest density of the Mexican-origin population, stretches from the Pacific Ocean at San Diego, California, to the Gulf of Mexico at Texas. This 2,000-mile zone has been a frontier since indigenous periods when trade routes between the civilizations in Mexico and the Pueblo Indians in the north were established before the arrival of the Spanish. It is an area of immense geographic variety and isolation. The history of settlement here reflects this diversity, a long-standing Mexican and Spanish heritage. The names of states, major settlements, and geographic sites bear witness to this heritage.

However prominent the Spanish Mexican heritage of the Southwest, the population, both native and immigrant, has been subordinate to the dominant Anglo and has lived a history of segregation and racial conflict that only recently has begun to change in meaningful ways. Before the Anglo arrived, there were only outpost settlements in the region that had very small populations. According to Moore and Pachón (1985), Texas had some 5,000 Mexicans; New Mexico, the farthest outpost yet the largest, had some 60,000; California, around 7,000; and Arizona, perhaps 1,000 people. Each of these states has a specific history of Mexican and Anglo social interaction that conditioned the modern incorporation and adaptation of Mexicans, both U.S.-born and immigrants.

The adaptive response of the family during this early period was conditioned both by the frontier nature of the Mexican settlements and the ensuing conflict of conquest and entrance of the Anglo population. The long-standing Hispanic presence in the United States is exemplified by New Mexican settlements around Albuquerque and Santa Fe. New Mexicans to this day consider themselves Hispanos, direct descendants of the original Spanish settlers who arrived in the seventeenth century. Similarly, the towns along the Texas Rio Grande frontier had been settled early in the original Mexican settlement. And in California, the Spanish-Californio families became landowners and ranchers, establishing a specific culture that was a product of their lives there.

It was the early Spanish and Mexican settlements that were the basis for the Mexican American and Hispanic Southwest. Mexico had lost nearly one-third of its territory in the Mexican-American War. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo set both the boundaries for the international border separating the United States and Mexico and outlined the rights of the Mexican population that remained in the territory ceded to the United States. In each region and state, the new American presence capitalized on a variety of economic pursuits. Mexicans, once landowners and dominant entrepreneurs throughout the region, fell prey to the new economies and became wage laborers, although a few upper-class families survived. The overall result was the subjugation of the Hispanic population from a dominant economic and political entity to one of a prevailing wage labor in which Anglo economic interests controlled the regions. In Arizona, mining became a major resource for American capitalists that depended on Mexican labor, both native and immigrant. Agriculture became prominent in both California and Texas, establishing the migrant streams of Mexican workers.

In the late 1880s, the termination of the transcontinental railroad brought an onslaught of Americans from the eastern seaboard who made the Southwest their home. According to Moore and Pachón, in 1887 the railroad brought in 120,000 Anglo settlers to southern California when the total population was only 12,000 for all Mexicans. The early families of these Mexican populations slowly lost power and social status. To Anglos they became socially indistinguishable from the Mexicans who began arriving in great numbers after the turn of the century.

The historic connection of the Southwest and Mexico continues to be prominent. Spanish is still spoken in much of the area, the geographic proximity makes travel back and forth to Mexico easy, and many of the border towns became truly a part of both cultures. The names for Calexico (California-Mexico) and Mexicali (Mexico-California), for example, were derivatives of the frontier and binational status along the California-Mexico border.

Small Mexican settlements developed throughout the Southwest and became the basis for the wave of Mexican immigration that was to begin in the early 1900s. The early settlements, however, had been closely tied to specific regions in Mexico. In California, for example, the regional ties between Baja California and Alta California during Spanish and Mexican periods provided traditional patterns of movement for families migrating into the United States. These regional ties helped people maintain affiliation to hometowns and kin in the south. By the 1900s, colonies of Mexicans from specific regions of Mexico had established themselves in southwestern towns and cities, providing links to hometowns and the country of origin. Many of these settlements were agricultural camps, others the result of mining, and many Mexicans began moving to the growing cities of the West.

Mexican immigration has been the result of the ongoing economic and political relationship of the home country with the United States. The concurrent conditions in Mexico, coupled with the demand for wage labor in the United States, and the history of the Spanish Mexican Southwest, influenced the massive and continuous movement of people between the two countries. The development of Mexican railroads, financed and controlled by American capitalists in the early 1900s, provided access to raw resources and human labor. The railroads made labor accessible to every major economic center in the United States. Mexican labor was contracted for work in the Southwest and later in the industrial middle-eastern states.

The onslaught of the Mexican Revolution, a result of the tyrannical control of Porfirio Díaz, uprooted thousands and opened the doors for mass migration from the previously landlocked peasantry. Díaz, who was dictator of Mexico from 1887 to 1911, ruled Mexico with an iron hand. He took millions of acres from the Mexican campesino and fostered a laissez-faire development program that favored foreign interests in the republic. Díaz gave up huge land grants to foreign capitalists under the rubric of development. Many of these schemes were in the mining industry. One of his most amazing land grants was to an American company that went by the name of the International Company of Mexico in Baja California; the company was given some 18 million acres (28,000 square miles). The confinement and destitution of the major Mexican population, together with continued land takeover, led to civil disorder and finally the Mexican Revolution of 1911. Many people fled Mexico at this time, many with hopes of returning.

At the end of the revolution, the migration to the United States did not abate, and through 1930 continued in a steady stream, with only brief stoppage during the First World War. In 1930, the Great Depression in the United States caused economic upheaval. Mexicans became a threat to the nation's unemployed and were displaced by Anglo Dust Bowl migrants. President Herbert Hoover initiated a repatriation program aimed at returning the Mexican-origin population to Mexico. The result was the deportation of almost one-half million Mexicans and Mexican Americans to Mexico. Much of this was voluntary, but social pressures and the country's mood influenced the return of many Mexican Americans, even some who had been born U.S. citizens. The 1940s reversed this pattern and the Second World War provided new opportunities for Mexican Americans in the United States. This period was characterized by a move out of agriculture, railroad work, and mining. Significantly, 300,000 to 500,000 Mexican American men served in the U.S. armed forces during the war. This was also a period in which the majority of Mexican people made a shift from a basic rural to an urban existence. In 1950, about 25 percent of Mexican Americans were rural; by 1970 only 15 percent were rural. In some areas, 90 percent of the Mexican population today is urban.

What has occurred is a slow movement into the middle class for many Mexican Americans. Even though immigrant Mexicans have continued to be primarily unskilled, there has been a steady incorporation of Mexican Americans into the primary labor market of the United States. Immigrants and undocumented Mexicans continue to be at the bottom strata of the labor market, filling nonskilled jobs primarily in the service sectors. However, Mexican Americans now represent three and four generations (and more) in the country; many are U.S.-born citizens. This residential longevity has provided for a basic adaptation and slow movement into the mainstream of American society.

The 1950s through the present has seen the continued movement of Mexicans into the United States. Much of the migration has been the result of voluntary immigration by Mexicans who come in search of better jobs that will help support their families and kin in home areas; others arrive with hopes of settlement. U.S. programs have also influenced the migration. For example, the Bracero Program, a labor contract program for agricultural workers in the United States, brought hundreds of thousands of Mexicans into the Southwest in the early 1960s. Many Mexicans returned to Mexico when the program was ended, but many "braceros" had made their home in the United States. This period (the 1960s) also saw the beginnings of real political involvement. Mexican Americans became involved in the Chicano movement and in politics in general. Ethnic identity became an important issue for Mexican Americans/Chicanos and brought visibility to the population as a national minority. It was no longer perceived as an isolated population of the Southwest but recognized as the fastest-growing minority in the United States.

This brief outline provides some idea of the complexity of the immigration and origin of the Mexican American population in the United States. There are major differences in Mexican immigration from that of other Hispanic groups, and these discrepancies have influenced family patterns of socialization and change among Mexicans. In the first place, it is easy for Mexicans to get to the major cities of the United States. All are accessible by inexpensive travel (car, bus, and railroad) in addition to air travel. Mexicans and Mexican Americans often return to Mexico to visit relatives and to enjoy cultural and social events not available in the United States. These and other factors have had an impact on the development and change of the family and its institutions among Mexican Americans.

Mexican traditions, including the family, have survived more widely among Mexican Americans because of the historic isolation of the southwestern settlements and the geographic proximity to Mexico. The earliest of settlements as well as newcomer colonias (settlements) are rejuvenated by the continuing migration and the easy access to the border and the home regions of early pioneers. Furthermore, the residential segregation of Mexican communities and neighborhoods has fostered strong ethnic ties and boundaries to the greater society. These factors, along with racial conflict and discrimination toward Mexicans, have sustained a fierce pride and commitment to sociocultural institutions, which have in many ways become cultural symbols among Mexican Americans.

The family continues to be held as a particularly important institution among Mexican Americans. But family and familism is also a source of stress and conflict. Although the extended family is instrumental in socialization, especially in early settlement, it is also seen as creating inner barriers to adaptation to the outside world. The concept that family is all-important and that the individual should sacrifice for the good of the family has its costs, especially if individuals forgo immediate opportunities that may aid in long-term adaptation. Education is one example. Among migrant farm labor families, the economic necessity of having all family members participating and contributing to the family helped lead to one of the worst dropout rates for Hispanics in the country. Among second- and third-generation Mexican Americans, the traditional family values can be sources of stress in that they are not congruent with modern life-styles. However, the values of la familia are still adhered to by many, albeit only ideologically.

As with other groups of Hispanics, the family has played an instrumental role in the early adaptation and settlement of Mexicans to the United States. Among Mexican and Mexican Americans, the concept of the family is rooted in Mexico's agrarian past. This concept was emphasized first by the severance of the original native Mexican population from political and economic standing, then with the continuing entrance of rural immigrants from across the border. Once pioneer migrants settled in the United States, loved ones were brought north. This began a migration stream that included whole branches of families, representing the towns and regions to which they were connected. It is not uncommon for migrations between specific Mexican and U.S. regions to have three and four generations of continual back-and-forth flow, with established U.S. branches that receive and aid newcomers from Mexico.

Familism is perhaps the single most consistent aspect of Mexican American culture. The strong sentiment toward family, family cohesiveness, and incorporation of the individual into family membership has provided a base for settlement in the form of community for people in the United States. Migrants faced with strange and often threatening social environments naturally sought each other out and extended the relationships used in home regions. These were the institutions of ideology, confianza, compadrazgo, parentesco, and marriage. In some U.S. areas, migrants maintained strong regional ties through these institutions, whereas people who had migrated out of the same home regions and remained in Mexico did not maintain the regional and familial ties. These latter individuals were absorbed into new Mexican regions as Mexicanos, but in the United States the socioeconomic environment incurred a boundary maintenance and cohesiveness. People count on their personal connections in the United States for housing, help in finding jobs, and in adapting.

Although the nuclear family and household is preferred over the extended family household, connections to kin and the relations of the extended family continue to play important roles in the lives of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the United States. There is a great range here, however, especially when one considers the generational differences of family branches in the United States. Recent and early immigrants rely on kin and the extended family for the majority of their social relationships, while individuals born as U.S. citizens have less extended kin relations (especially after the second generation). Education in the United States, geographic and social mobility, and economic stability have all contributed to strengthen the nuclear family and household for Mexican Americans. The nuclear family is in fact the desired type of family for both Mexican Americans and Mexicans.

The relationships of the extended family often take different forms for these more acculturated individuals. Frequent visiting between immediate kin and special celebrations such as birthdays, baptisms, marriages, and funerals serve to bring kin together and rekindle family ties, whereas among newer immigrant Mexicanos the extended family is the center of social and kin relations. Marriage has continued to be primarily within the group, but a growing number of Mexican Americans have wed non-Mexican-origin individuals. This is greatest among Chicanos in California, but it is not uncommon among all the U.S.-born Latinos, especially after the first generation.

Recent immigrants of Mexican origin first live in segregated neighborhoods and are schooled with peers of the same ethnic background. However, as families get better jobs, they often move out of the ethnic neighborhoods, thus ensuring more exposure to American society for offspring. Schooling and the continued upward mobility of families have resulted in the economic severance from the reciprocity and mutual help among kin so needed in early settlement and adaptation. The reciprocal duties of kinship obligations through compadrazgo, for example, continue to be ideological values that are not expressed or carried out as in previous periods. But it must be remembered that the migration from Mexico continues to emphasize these values and the actual expression of compadrazgo and other kin institutions in social behavior.

Compadrazgo has been a very strong institution among Mexican Americans. The compadre/comadre relationship often stands above even sibling relationships. Requesting someone to be a padrino in a baptism or marriage is a high honor. Compadres are expected to provide help and advice in time of crisis, and in the migration process the compadre/comadre is often the central individual who provides mutual help in the first stages of settlement. These are life-long relationships in which compadres provide help such as needed information, access to jobs, and other essential social-economic benefits. Among second and later U.S.-born generations, however, compadrazgo has lost much of its reciprocal obligatory and mutual help functions, and when it is still practiced, it is often only symbolic and expressive of ethnic pride and identity.

Although the actual role of the male in the Mexican American family has changed, the ideals of the patriarchical family with father as decision maker and authoritarian is still expressed. Respect and deference to the male is expected ideal behavior. Children, especially, are expected to regard the father as the final voice and decision maker without exception. However, in actual behavior, fathers and mothers have taken on a more dualistic role in the management of the family, with the mother having increasingly more responsibility, especially regarding economics.

Among early generations of immigrants, children generally get much more exposure to the outside world than their parents through school and other institutions. The natural outcome of this exposure and education is the acceptance of mainstream values and goals for normalized American life-styles. This has been the root cause of conflict within the Mexican American homes and families, as it has been among other Hispanic groups. The U.S. educational systems stress norms and values that are sometimes in conflict with the expected behavior of the Mexican American family and its institutions.

Women's roles have changed the most dramatically among Mexican Americans. As with the other Latino groups, it is the female's entrance into the work force that has initiated the major changes in sex roles and division of labor. Mexican women have a long history of working in various industries in the United States. In southern California during the Second World War, Mexican American women worked in the aviation industry on assembly lines and afterward in the canneries throughout the state. Their history as migrant laborers throughout the United States is also well noted. The garment industry and other industries employed Mexican women as well.

Working women have gained more access to society in general and more of an egalitarian role in the household. As with other Hispanic groups, however, Mexican American families exhibit change in women's roles but not necessarily in those of men. Men generally continue not to participate in household duties. It is mostly women who have taken on some of the male responsibilities.

Mexican Americans must be viewed in the range of their historical experiences and relationships in the United States. A look at any single region, town, or neighborhood that is characterized as Mexican or Mexican American/Chicano will illustrate many inter- and cross-generational differences. Families of well-adapted and acculturated individuals who hold strong Mexican familial patterns live side by side with families who have opted for more nuclear family patterns. In addition, bilingual families can be found in neighborhoods where monolingual Spanish- and monolingual English-speakers are also residents. Some values are held onto more stringently than others, as, for example, the respect held for the elderly. This continues to be a strong value among Mexicans and Mexican Americans, illustrated by the low rates of Hispanic elderly in nursing or old-age homes. They continue to be cared for in the homes of kin and children.

When compared to other Hispanic groups and to the U.S. population in general, Mexican Americans have the largest households, averaging almost five people per family. Puerto Ricans have almost four (3.67) people per family, and Cubans, 3.5. These averages illustrate a growing population and, when viewed in conjunction with the median age of Hispanics, indicate continuing high population increases for the future.

The fact that the Mexican American and Hispanic population is growing and will have a greater impact on the United States in the future is obscured by the fact that Hispanics continue to be at the bottom rungs of the economic and social classes. Poverty among Mexican Americans, as with other Hispanic groups and particularly Puerto Ricans, is a continuous problem that affects family life-styles and well-being. Among Hispanics, Mexican Americans have the second-highest proportion of families living in poverty (next to Puerto Ricans) at approximately 24.1 percent in 2000. What is shocking is that it appears that instead of decreasing, poverty is increasing. The Mexican American family will continue to be an important adaptive mechanism, utilizing the support institutions and evolving in ways that fit the sociocultural milieu of the United States.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ2128700575