Chapter One: Placing Mexican Immigration within the Larger Landscape of Race Relations in the U.S.
In 1930, Professor of Economics at Vanderbilt University, Roy Garis, submitted his "Report on Immigration," an intensive study of Mexicans in the United States to Representative John Box of Texas, a diehard opponent of Mexican immigration, to present at the House of Representatives extensive hearings regarding three bills which all had the same end goal: to place countries in the Western Hemisphere on quotas just as had been done to European countries under the 1924 Immigration Act. Reducing immigration from Mexico in particular was a major priority and one bill suggested limiting immigration from Mexico to 2,500 persons per year (H.R. 8702).1
The study was comprehensive, canvassing the Southwest where the majority of Mexicans settled for work and examined their economic, political, and social impact on the United States. Garis's arguments carried great weight and parts of his report were reproduced in articles in the popular magazine, The Saturday Evening Post. While the report focused on Mexican immigration, Garis established in his opening paragraph that Mexican immigration would cause a long-term racial problem by linking it to slavery:
Abraham Lincoln once said that 'this country could not endure half slave and half free.' When one considers the present effects of immigration from the countries to the south of us, especially from Mexico, he is forced by the logic of the developments to conclude that the United States can not endure part citizen and part foreign."2
Garis attempted to persuade his audience that while many supported Mexican immigration because it provided a cheap labor source, it also had negative sociopolitical and cultural effects on U.S. society, just as slavery had.
Garis went on to connect Mexican immigration to past immigrant groups. In his report, Garis cited both the Commissioner General of Immigration and the Secretary of Labor (the Department of Labor housed the Immigration and Naturalization Service) as expressing these sentiments. Garis summed it up as follows:
"We barred the gate to Europe and closed the door to Asia, but the entrance to the South has remained open. The restrictive program is thereby virtually nullified, [sic.] for to admit peons from Mexico and similar types of immigrants from the other non-quota countries while restricting European and excluding oriental [sic.] immigration is not only ridiculous and illogical-it destroys the biological, social and economic advantages to be secured from the restriction of immigration."3
Garis' comments refer to how the 1924 Immigration Act most drastically affected Europeans, notably Southern and Eastern Europeans, whose immigration numbers were capped, and Asians, who were completely barred from immigration to the United States. Nativists sought to limit the large number of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe because they were considered to pose social, political, cultural, and economic problems to the United States. To mitigate the perceived problems, Progressive era reformers developed Americanization programs to assist with health, education, housing, and child and maternal welfare but many of these programs were based on the notion that these immigrants were inferior to Anglo-Saxon Protestants. A case in point is prohibition, the social movement that let to the eighteenth amendment in 1920, which outlawed the manufacturing and selling of alcohol. Prohibition was fueled, at least in part, by Protestants' beliefs that immigrants, many of whom were Catholic, needed to be reformed.4
Immigrants that spoke out against the government, espoused socialist or communist politics, organized in unions or political machines, were seen as unassimilable and labeled enemies of the government.5 These attitudes intensified after the U.S.'s entrance into WWI in 1917 and fueled a "Red Scare." The U.S. government perpetuated the movement by developing programs, such as the campaign led by Attorney General Mitchell Palmer, which targeted immigrants as radicals, subversives, and communists, and led to their arrests and, in some cases, subsequent deportation. The Ku Klux Klan, which had declined by the end of Reconstruction (1865-1877), was revived again in the 1910s. Spreading to the North and now targeting both blacks and immigrants (many of whom were Catholic or Jewish). The KKK espoused its tyrannical hatred against those they whom they they thought were destined to destroy the racial and religious homogeneity of the nation.6
Mexicans escaped much of this kind of targeting of immigrants in the 1910s and early 20s. They immigrated in smaller numbers, were confined mainly to the Southwest, and a large number were sojourner laborers who worked for a season and then returned home to Mexico. This meant that they did not tend to settle down, join unions, naturalize, or vote. These reasons, coupled with the lobbying power of large-scale employers from agriculture and industry, as well as diplomatic and trade interests insured that no quotas were imposed on immigrants from countries in the Western Hemisphere. Such a move demonstrates how capitalist needs could eclipse desires for a racially and culturally homogenous nation. Garis' analysis of the new racial order that was to arise from changes to immigration policy prompted him to argue that Mexican immigration was just as threatening if not more so than southern and eastern European immigration.
After the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act, it was as if people looked around them and questioned why the U.S. had curtailed immigration from Europe and not from Mexico. In the aftermath of the passage of the Act, the discourse around Mexican immigration shifted. For one, the demographics of Mexican immigration changed. Mexican immigration began to increase. In the two years leading up to the 1924 Immigration Act, Mexicans consisted of 10.9 percent of the total number of admitted immigrants. In the three years after the passage of the act, their numbers jumped to 16.1 percent. By 1927, Mexicans were second only to Germans in terms of the number of new immigrants. A long view of the 1920s decade reveals that in that period, Mexicans comprised over 11.2 percent of the total immigrants admitted to the United States.7 In addition, in search of work, Mexicans moved further into the interior of the nation, farming sugar-beet fields in Denver, toiling in Chicago's factories, and laboring in the steel mills of Pittsburgh.8 Lastly, long seen as racially inferior, but a generally malleable workforce, stereotypes of Mexicans as criminal, social burdens, diseased, and unassimilable intensified. As such, attempts to curtail Mexican immigration after the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act increased.9
What I highlight in this chapter and in this book is that one of the key ways to establish Mexican immigration as a problem was to compare Mexicans to racialized groups familiar to Americans through the use of racial scripts. As such, people increasingly began to look at Mexicans through a relational lens. In the post-1924 period, both proponents and opponents of Mexican immigration regularly compared Mexicans to other racialized groups in order to portray Mexicans as more or less desirable, respectively. These racial scripts provided a shorthand through which to construct Mexicans as inferior. It was common, for example, for white Americans to discuss Mexicans as "the negro problem" of the Southwest. White Americans argued that Mexicans were not like them. The best way to make this point clear was to compare Mexicans to other groups who had already been defined and established as non-white, non-normative, and unfit for self-government. As Mexicans became thought of as another "other" and as outside the body politic, they were increasingly positioned alongside groups such as Indians, Asians or blacks in immigration discourse. Discourses about these racialized groups were key in informing Americans what "Mexican" meant. When it comes to immigration, we understand each new "other" in relation to groups with which we are already familiar. As such, this chapter demonstrates a central premise of racial scripts: racialized groups are linked across time and space. This refers to how once attitudes, practices, customs, policies, and laws are directed at one group, they are more readily available and hence easily applied to other groups.
It is also important to understand when and why racial scripts work. Paying attention to the conditions under which racial scripts emerge-the social structure, the material conditions, and the historical context-explains what is at stake in a racial script. Mexican immigration was (and continues to be) primarily labor migration. The fact that Mexicans escaped the quotas of 1924 does not signal an acceptance of immigrants but a need for labor. Both those for and against Mexican immigration drew on racial scripts. Examining these moments in the long immigration debate era reveals that what was at stake was not the purported maintenance of U.S. racial purity, but the need to manage labor. This gets at a key tenet of the history of the United States: despite the deep tradition of racial hierarchy and racial exclusion built into the American system, the dynamics of capitalist expansion always worked at cross purposes to the goal of racial and cultural homogeneity. In other words, as the United States expanded both territorially and economically, the demand for labor almost always trumped the social desire to maintain racial purity.10
In this chapter, I use the concept of racial scripts to examine the constructions of "Mexican" that emerged under a new immigration regime during post-1924 immigration debates and that are still with us today. Specifically, I examine nearly two-dozen bills proposed by the House and Senate restricting immigration from countries in the Western hemisphere, from 1925 through 1930. These dates mark the period immediately after the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act, when many expressed their outrage that Mexican immigrants were not subject to the same quotas as Europeans, through 1930, by which time the Depression had set in and repatriations, voluntary and involuntary, and restrictions on visas severely curtailed Mexican immigration. I refer to this period as the long immigration debate era.
We need to be able to see how these long, intense, and sustained conversations on race shaped the meanings of "Mexican" during this phase of the immigration regime (and for years to come). Historian Mae Ngai's foundational work is key to understanding how it is that the deportation policies developed during this period helped make some undocumented immigrants "legal" (such as European immigrants), while marking others as "illegal" (mainly Mexicans) even though Mexicans had escaped quota restrictions.11 Yet, much more work needs to be done to better understand how the category "Mexican" came to be so demonized during the inter-war period, and immigration policy and discourse is a rich site for this.
Employing the concept of racial scripts, I widen my perspective to look at various other groups that were discussed in the hearings, debates, correspondence, newspaper articles that I have mined through archival research on Mexican immigration to argue that blacks, Indians, Asians, and colonial subjects had a strong presence in these forums to cue people how to think about Mexican immigration, as if giving them a racial script. Thus, racial scripts refer to more than just a stereotype. They show how power is always at stake in racial categorization and how once formed, those racial categories can easily be transferred to new groups. To put it simply, racism builds on past racial acts.
When looking at the history of Mexican Americans, we cannot point to landmark Supreme Court cases that clearly mark them as inside or outside of legal or social citizenship as we can for blacks and Asians.12 Mexicans have been considered legally white and eligible for naturalization since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848). Their racial exclusion is not marked in the same way as that of blacks and Asians who were written out of whiteness, and at points in history, citizenship, in absolute terms.13 Yet, we need to learn to read race not just in the rulings but in between the lines. Despite their access to citizenship, Mexican Americans' indigenous background marked them as racially non-white. It also linked them to Native Americans who were not only seen as racially other, but who had a different relationship to U.S. citizenship and civil rights because of their sovereignty and rights purportedly guaranteed by treaties, which were commonly violated. As such, Mexicans have a different relationship to whiteness that Asians and blacks do. Thus, we must turn to key periods, such as the long immigration debate era, rather than only landmark legal decisions, to understand the racial formation of Mexicans in the United States. In the next three sections, I examine racial scripts that reoccurred regularly during the long immigration debate era to argue that they contributed to negative cultural constructions of Mexicans, even in the face of failed legislation.
Racialization of Mexicans in the Nineteenth Century
Before I examine racial scripts that circulated during the long immigration debate era, I turn to the longer racialization of Mexicans in the U.S. so that we may establish which scripts emerged in the nineteenth century that may have effected the racialization of Mexicans into the twentieth century and beyond. After the U.S. War with Mexico (1846-1848), Mexicans entered the U.S. linked to two competing racial scripts: indigeneity and whiteness. The U.S. War with Mexico and the ideology of Manifest Destiny that justified it highlighted Mexicans' inferior racial position due to their indigenous roots. But in the aftermath of the war, under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexicans residing in the acquired territories were also extended U.S. citizenship, a privilege only extended to whites at the time. These conflicting scripts that simultaneously marked them as legally white but socially and culturally "other" and inferior would serve to complicate their status for generations to come.
Moreover, Mexicans were entering a nation at a time when other racial scripts were already in circulation and were written into the very fabric of American society. Racial difference had been codified in U.S. founding documents. The Naturalization Act of 1790 deemed only those considered "free white persons" to be eligible for naturalization. U.S. citizenship. In addition, the Constitution continued to allow for slavery, including the importation of slaves until 1808 (Section 9, Article I), while the fugitive slave clause (Section 2, Article IV) required escaped slaves be returned to their owners. Moreover, for taxation purposes, whites were counted as "whole persons," but indigenous peoples were dismissed simply as "Indians not taxed" and slaves counted as "three fifths of all other Persons" (Section 3, Article I).
The systematic and institutionalized racism directed at blacks and Indians in relation to citizenship, property, and systems of unfreedom meant that when Mexicans were forcibly incorporated into the U.S., they were already stepping onto an uneven playing field. With this kind of ideological and institutional framework, racial scripts that deemed racialized bodies as inferior were easily transferred to Mexicans once white Americans began to come into regular contact with them in the 1810s and 1820s, especially during the 1830s during the Texas War of Independence from Mexico, and then again, of course, during the actual war with Mexico, as well as in the framing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
Indigenous Racial Scripts
Manifest Destiny was a phrase used by politicians, officials, and journalists beginning in the 1840s to justify westward expansion. As an ideology, it expressed a belief that those who were taking over the lands were spreading democratic institutions for those who were not capable of self-government. Jingoistic politicians, journalists, writers, and citizens alike singled out Native Americans especially, and those of non-European origin generally, as not fit for self-government. Furthermore, they argued that Native Americans would eventually disappear in the Southwest after the U.S. takeover because they were not as biologically fit as Americans.
These claims extended to Mexicans because their indigenous heritage marked them as racially backward. Thus, Manifest Destiny served as a rallying cry to justify the U.S. War with Mexico. The United States saw it as a just war because they considered Mexico to be unfit to keep her lands. To white Americans, Mexico's largely feudal political economy was viewed as backwards and justified their dispossession. Interestingly, the notion that Mexicans were racially inferior (and, in addition, Catholic) contributed to anti-imperialist politics. In other words, some Americans preferred to leave Mexico's land off limits if doing so meant incorporating non-white bodies into the nation.14 As such, Manifest Destiny is inherently a racial ideology in that it pivots on ideas of who is deemed worthy of access to resources and fit for citizenship.15
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, that ended the war, provided for the Mexican succession of land and also laid out the terms of citizenship for the 75,000 to 100,000 Mexicans living in the Southwest. As a result of the war, Mexico lost nearly half of its territory, including all or part of California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. Continental expansion satisfied the United States' need for more land for cotton production during slavery, highlighting how systems that worked to oppress groups were linked. Mexicans could choose to return to Mexico or stay in the United States. If they stayed, they could choose between Mexican and U.S. citizenship. If they did not declare a choice, within a year they would become U.S. citizens.16
Everything changed for Mexicans in the United States after the U.S. War with Mexico. Overnight, Mexicans went from living in Mexico to living in the United States and from being Mexican citizens to being American citizens. Many lost their own land. In addition, their culture, language, and religion were seen as inferior. Various historians have looked at the aftermath of conquest and have detailed the ways that legal disenfranchisement and land dispossession, and extra-legal vigilante violence, turned Mexicans into outsiders in what had once been their own land.17
Given their racial heritage, Mexicans were linked to Indians. U.S. policy towards Indians to this was marked by war, genocide, and the take over of Indian lands. Anthropologist Martha Menchaca demonstrates how hollow the category of citizenship was for Mexicans deemed more Indian than white. In California, for example, the state constitution contained a racial restriction that allowed only whites to vote. Because many Mexicans were of Indian descent or mestizos (of Indian and Spanish descent) this made the majority of Mexicans in California ineligible to vote.18 These moments shed light on how Mexicans formally entered the U.S. as citizens but remained in a subordinate racial position.
Whiteness as a racial script
Because Mexicans were afforded U.S. citizenship, which was otherwise only available to whites at this time, it is important to understand the meaning of whiteness during this time period. Scholars, such as Reginald Horsman and Matthew Frye Jacobson, have demonstrated the many fractures in whiteness during the nineteenth century.19 White was not a monolithic category but a hierarchical one with shades of whiteness. Anglo-Saxons were on top and Celts, Slavs, Hebrews, and Mediterraneans below them. As Americans increasingly defined themselves against Mexicans through jingoism, popular literature, and foreign policy in the mid-nineteenth century, "Anglo Saxon" increasingly incorporated these once stratified groups under this label and "Anglo Saxon" came to be seen as a racial category.20 Anglo Saxons were defined by what they were not- black, Indian, and, as the U.S. came into more contact with its southern neighbor, Mexican. After all, these groups were not considered white in any way- racially, culturally, politically. The increasing rise and authority of scientific racialism only confirmed such beliefs. Thus, the hierarchy of races shifted to include Anglo Saxons, still on top, and Mexicans, Indians, and blacks below them.
For Mexicans, access to whiteness often depended upon various factors, notably class and region. Mexicans were considered non-white because of their indigenous heritage but access to resources, land and money, helped them move up the social hierarchy. As historian David Montejano has argued, "money whitens." In his study of the Texas frontier, he found that Mexicans were not considered a monolithic group but that there was a divide between the landed and landless, with the landed finding more acceptance amongst Anglos. For others, dispossessed of their land and performing low-scale, segmented labor helped solidify the notion of Mexicans as inferior race.21 Similarly, scholar Laura Gomez examines Mexicans' "fragile claim to whiteness" in the aftermath of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. She demonstrates how Mexicans occupied an in-between status; they were legally white, which served Anglo elites who wanted to lighten the demographics of their territory to increase its chances of statehood, but socially, Mexicans remained a distinct, racial group.22 Historian John Nieto-Gomez argues that New Mexicans themselves embraced a white identity in a move to distance themselves from a Mexican or indigenous past as a way to buffer themselves from the rapidly changing society that marginalized those groups.23
In Southern California, beginning in the 1880s, local boosters developed a racial script, now referred to by historians as a "Spanish Fantasy Past," as a way of down playing the region's violent recent history.24 The Spanish Fantasy Past established a historical narrative for the region, projecting a romanticized Spanish past replete with images of charming senoritas and handsome caballeros on horseback. This idealized and unrealistic past masked the reality of the U.S. War with Mexico and the period of intense vigilante violence immediately following the war. This script left out Mexico's rule in the region and also omitted Indian societies prominence before American, Spanish, or Mexican rule. This script was all the more powerful because it emerged at a time of demographic decline in the Mexican population. With a declining Mexican population, and commensurately waning political power, there were few challenges to this invented past. Through this narrative, with the stroke of a pen, Mexicans were transformed from conquered subjects to picturesque denizens. As historian Bill Deverell gracefully writes, "In this imagery, a Mexican boy posed atop a burro selling flowers becomes less an indication of urban poverty than an unwitting actor in a period romance."25 Taken in the aggregate, these historical moments demonstrate that what emerged from a politics of imperialism was a racial script of Mexicans as white in name only. Though Mexicans with access to resources may have had more success climbing the racial hierarchy, for the most part, Mexicans were branded as inferior and unsuitable for self-government, societally imposed traits that would follow them into the next century.
These interweaving racial scripts of Mexicans as legally white but racially other codified their position as unequal citizens for generations to come. Moreover, it gave rise to yet another racial script, one of unequal citizenship, which would shape how other groups entered the U.S. Mexicans were the first racialized group to be granted citizenship. Until they received citizenship, only whites had access to citizenship through birthright citizenship or naturalization. Thus, Mexicans were granted legal citizenship but were not afforded its full benefits. As they were stripped of their land and the economic and political wherewithal that accompanies land ownership, Mexicans were effectively denied equitable access to resources. In short, the Mexican American experience laid the groundwork for citizenship in name only.
The Long Immigration Debate Era
By the 1920s, Americans were once again heatedly debating the place of Mexicans in U.S. society.It is here that we see how established racial scripts were adapted to support a depiction of Mexicans as outside of U.S. social membership despite the fact that they had not been placed on quotas, were citizens or eligible for citizenship, and had a long history in the Southwest. I will first discuss how and why Mexicans once again began to occupy a central place in American discourse and then explain why this period is crucial for understanding the long-term implications of the post-1924 immigration debates for the racial construction of Mexicans.
After the U.S. War with Mexico, with the Mexican population in the United States on the decline and their subordinate position in the racial hierarchy solidified, Mexican immigration did not occupy a central place in public debate. But beginning in the 1910s, the Mexican population in the United States increased for a variety of reasons, including flight from the instability caused by the Mexican Revolution and, for those seeking work, the increased ease of transportation accompanying the expansion of the railroads.
As Mexican immigration increased, so did methods to circumscribe their place in the United States. The passage of the 1917 Literacy Act increased immigration requirements, but these were aimed primarily at southeastern Europeans who sometimes attempted to enter the U.S. through its southern border.26 Nonetheless, the Act's imposition of a head tax proved to be a financial burden for some Mexican immigrants and many looked for places to cross the border away from the supervision of a border checkpoint to avoid paying it.27 In 1924, with the creation of the border patrol, Mexicans experienced even more difficulty in crossing the border. A limited budget and understaffing rendered the border patrol generally ineffective during its first years, but its existence signaled that Mexicans were not welcome in the United States. In addition, negative cultural representations of Mexicans circulated more readily. The image of Mexicans as carriers of disease that threatened both the health of the nation and its charity system, and as a fertile population ready to overtake the nation, resulted in humiliating medical inspections at border crossing stations, making crossing the border more punishing.28 Thus, the post-1924 period marked a shift to new mechanisms of exclusion.
Birds of Passage or Mexican Invaders?
In the 1910s and 1920s, industry and agribusiness leaders in the Southwest who depended on low-wage laborers rallied against harsh immigration restrictions on Mexicans. They argued that Mexicans were not a threat to U.S. society in any way because they were "birds of passage" who would work hard for low wages and then return to Mexico. But as immigration debates continued even after the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act, the notion that Mexicans, like blacks, were a population ready to spiral out of control was a popular racial script for portraying Mexicans as unsuitable newcomers. In these post-1924 debates about Mexican immigration, politicians and everyday citizens alike regularly raised the specter of slavery. They argued that like slaves, the Mexican population would increase at unprecedented rates and in their estimation, reap a multitude of problems.29
The emphasis on comparing Mexican labor to slavery reminds us that there is always something at stake when racializing a group. Slavery was a political economic system designed to extract the most profits, benefitting whites, while having no regard for blacks. Regarding blacks as racially inferior helped justify using them as slaves.30 The low wage labor Mexicans engaged in in the Southwest was in no way comparable to slavery. The thread that runs through both political economies, however, is one that once again places an emphasis on the profits for those at the top of the power structure while disregarding those doing the labor, showing the contradictions between capitalism and a liberal democracy. Thus, comparing Mexicans to slaves was not just a racial comparison but one that was fundamentally about how to both continue to fuel the political economy while maintaining a racial hiearchy.
None other than the Chairman of the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, Albert Johnson, employed the use of such racial scripts. Congressman Johnson served as the chairman of the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization for six consecutive Congressional sessions from 1919 through 1931. He was also the President of the Eugenic Research Association.31 During this period, he worked steadily to pass restrictive immigration legislation. Johnson was the primary author of the 1924 Immigration Act, which he justified as a way to stem the tide against "a stream of alien blood, with all its inherited misconceptions respecting the relationships of the governing power to the governed."32 After the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act, Johnson continued to use this racialized biological reasoning to support restrictive immigration.
Johnson compared the situation with Mexican immigration to slavery to help bring about the passage of quotas that applied to countries of the Western Hemisphere, including Mexico. In 1926, during an immigration hearing on extending quotas to Mexico Johnson argued: "Who would have thought at the time that a fearful racial problem would have come, leading to a great war, from the introduction of those blacks? This committee knows that 1 person in every 12 in the United States is black skinned."33 Johnson's comments clearly are meant to invoke the image of a population explosion which resonated with eugenic thinking of the time that advocated that only certain populations were meant to reproduce (positive eugenics) and other were not (negative eugenics).34 In addition, Johnson intensified the image of a population out of control, relying on racial scripts, by referring to "those blacks," which brought to mind images of not just a significant black population but miscegenation which troubled the image of a population explosion further.
In a later immigration restriction hearing in 1930, Johnson presented a report to his Congressional colleagues designed to sway them to join him in supporting the bill.35 In the report, Johnson quoted testimony from Dr. H. H. Laughlin, a leading eugenicist and director of the Eugenics Record Office. Laughlin was an ardent supporter of strict immigration policy and a frequent expert witness for anti-immigration forces in Congress. He argued against importing Mexican labor by using the example of slavery. According to Laughlin, during two hundred years of slavery, about 333,000 blacks had been forcibly brought to the United States. At the time of the immigration debates, blacks numbered approximately 10 million, thirty times their population when slavery was abolished. "That makes a racial problem of the first order, and it is extremely difficult to solve," Laughlin argued, the implication being, of course, that Mexican immigration would result in a similarly intractable problem.36 Thus, Mexican immigration could readily be identified as a major race problem by connecting it to slavery, which both Johnson and Laughlin attempted to recast as a population problem, not a labor solution.
Other attacks on Mexican immigration came from those advancing arguments based on Mexicans' perceived biological inferiority and inability to self-govern. Leading West Coast prominent businessman, eugenicist, and founder of the Immigration Study Commission, C. M. Goethe,37 looking to extend quotas to Mexico, which he characterized as "pathetically hybridized," wrote to Representative John Garner of Texas, to share with him his collected correspondence on Mexican immigration.38 Representative Garner, in turn, shared Goethe's clippings at the Congressional hearings on Mexican immigration. One of the letters contained newspaper clippings that highlighted stories of white "girls" who married Blacks and Koreans. Goethe asked if Mexicans might also have such intentions. He described the Mexican Indian's "hopes of gaining for his children the precious genes of Nordics, that the latter may become mestizo," and went on to ask, "Does our failure to restrict Mexican immigration spell the downfall of our Republic...? Athens could not maintain the brilliancy of the Golden Age of Pericles when hybridization of her citizenry began. Rome fell when the old patrician families lost their race consciousness and interbred with servile stocks."39
Goethe relied on past racial scripts once directed at Mexicans in the mid-nineteenth century to racialize a new generation of Mexican immigrants. He appropriated and recycled Manifest Destiny claims to assert that Mexicans were biologically inferior due to their indigenous heritage thus this script was not unfamiliar. Goethe, however, depicted Mexicans as a miscegenation threat, a cultural representation that was untried in relation to Mexicans and not commonly circulated until the post-1924 period. Those who were in favor of Mexican immigration had depicted Mexicans as "birds of passage," a claim no one had previously disputed. Goethe employed this racial script as Mexicans were becoming a more permanent population in the U.S. and thus represented a different kind of threat, especially given that they had access to citizenship.
Similarly, the notion of blacks as a miscegenation threat circulated widely in the post-Reconstruction era during which blacks demanded social, political, and legal equality and whites fought to re-establish a system of social control to replace the slave system. Depictions of black men, in particular, as a miscegenation threat, followed up at times with lynchings, was a particularly violent and powerful way of circumscribing them. Furthermore, anti-miscegenation discourse and legislation was directed at Asian men purportedly to protect white women. Asian men's lives were circumscribed by immigration laws that did not allow them to bring their families to the U.S., as well as by the racism that limited where they could work, live, and recreate. These factors, combined with obstacles limiting the immigration of Asian women meant that they often lived in bachelor communities or engaged in transient labor. Though these conditions were not of their own making, they gave rise to societal anxieties of an unattached, male, sometimes roving Asian population that needed to be monitored and controlled. Depicting Mexicans as the new miscegenation danger demonstrates the power, utility, and multi-purpose nature of racial scripts in that past depictions of men of color could so readily be transferred onto Mexicans.40
This sort of rhetoric did not only come from the top down, but was employed readily by everyday people. Racial scripts served as shorthand to swiftly link Mexicans to other undesirable racial groups to garner support for the bill. In 1928, in correspondence between George Clark Sargent, an attorney in San Francisco, and his Congressional representative, W. E. Evans, Sargent expressed his support for the Box Bill. He wrote, "We already have a negro question in the southern states, which is going to take all the ingenuity of our best minds to solve. The Mexican peon is nine-tenths Indian, and would be a greater affliction than the negro."41 By linking Mexicans to blacks, he established that if they were afforded the opportunity to become a permanent population, Mexicans would develop into yet another labor problem, thus requiring the establishment of systems of social control just as the South had done through the creation of Jim Crow laws beginning in the 1890s. By connecting Mexicans to blacks and Indians, he indicated that like them, Mexicans were racially inferior to whites. His emphasis on Mexicans' indigenous background readily tapped into a racial script formed in the mid-nineteenth century that deemed Mexicans as inferior because of their mestizaje (mixed indigenous and Spanish ancestry). Sargent did not explain his claim and, for all intents and purposes, he did not need to do so. That is the power of racial scripts. One does not need to explain such claims when a pre-existing U.S. racial sensibility readily links these groups together.
Both nativists rallying against Mexican immigration and employers who lobbied for their continued immigration regularly referred to them as "peons." The word Spanish-origin word harkened back to a past in Latin America where the word referred to their inferior, low paid, unskilled laborers with little rights or autonomy. But the term also invoked another system of labor coercion, debt peonage, which was instituted in the South with the abolishment of slavery, thus ideologically linking Mexicans to blacks as menial laborers. Peons, like blacks in the post-slavery South, were described as dependent and considered to undercut the "free labor" engaged in by whites. Many opposed slavery on not on moral grounds, but for economic reasons arguing that free labor was economically and socially superior to and slavery. A central to tenet of capitalism is that a worker (and employer) is independent and free to negotiate labor contracts.42 Thus, comparing Mexican laborers to slaves was not just about a "racial problem" but anathema to a capitalist economic system.
Similarly, in a letter addressed to the editor of H. Patriot, the writer argued that those who were pro-immigration:
urge[d] on behalf of the employment of this poor [Mexican] laborer similar reasons to those advanced for the bringing of negro slaves into the country, and if they are permitted to have their way they will curse the nation with another race problem. Better curb this menace while it is capable of being peacefully curbed, rather than wait until it reaches such proportions as will once more array once section of the country against another.
[T]here were wise men in the early days of our nation," the letter-writer continued, "men like Thomas Jefferson, men who saw the danger attending the entry into our country of an alien race. And there are wise men here today, men like John C. Box, who seeks [sic.] to prevent the United States from repeating the mistake it made previous to 1808 of importing members of an alien race after which date (but all too late)" Congress banned the importation of slaves.43
The letter is interesting on various levels. For one, the writer chose to deploy his own version of history, one that upheld his narrative. He cast Thomas Jefferson as a bulwark against slavery, when in fact, Jefferson owned over 650 slaves himself, and is rumored to have fathered children with Sally Hemmings, one of his slaves.44 The writer also claims that although Congress banned the importation of slaves in 1808, this action was "too late." What he decries is not the great tardiness in righting a moral wrong but rather that this slow response provided blacks with the opportunity to increase their numbers through reproduction. This line of thinking resonates with the arguments employed against Mexican immigrants in the late 1920s. Whereas prior opponents of immigration had stressed that immigration from Mexico would increase the Mexican population in the United States, now they drew attention to the growing birth rates of Mexicans.45 Influenced by eugenic discourses of the time, many people framed their concerns over immigration in terms of how an overpopulation of Mexicans might affect what they saw as the racial homogeneity of the nation. In the next section, we see how the "birds of passage" depiction affected not just discourse but practice.
The Deportable Mexican
The cultural representation of Mexicans as non-citizens, thus as a disposable population, played over and over in immigration hearings by notable players. In the 1920s, especially post 1924, as we saw above, the rhetoric of Mexicans as "birds of passage" declined as Mexicans' population figures increased, as we saw above. Such a shift required new solutions in terms of how to deal with Mexican laborers. Deportation increasingly came up as a ready solution. If Mexicans no longer willingly departed back to Mexico at the end of their seasonal work, they could still be forced to leave the U.S.. Changes in immigration policy supported such thinking. The 1924 Immigration Act removed the statute of limitations on deportations for entering without a visa. More significantly, historian Mae Ngai demonstrates how the Act was applied unevenly, allowing European immigrants to avoid deportations through loopholes in the Act while simultaneously enforcing the law against Mexicans and hence, linking them to illegality.46
Lest the public not realize the advantages of a deportable workforce, leaders from various sectors strategically contrasted Mexicans with other racialized groups who had citizenship, mostly Puerto Ricans and blacks, as a way of highlighting Mexicans' desirability. While the "birds of passage" stereotype underscored that Mexicans would return home, the comments made by these leaders showed that if they did not go back, they could be forcibly removed, deported, which would not be possible with a citizen labor force.
Many of the most vocal supporters for Mexican immigration were agribusiness and industry leaders from California. The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, the businessman's booster club in a city built on boosterism, actively fought restrictions on Mexican immigration, and in Dr. George Clements, head of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce's Agricultural Department, they had an ardent member and supporter. Clements highlighted Mexicans' lack of citizenship as a strong advantage. He shifted attention away from biological notions of race that positioned Mexicans as inferior to highlight what made them desirable as laborers. Contacting his Representative, W. E. Evans (R), Clements stated:
"Arguments have been offered in a vain endeavor to show the Mexican laborer as a menace to the blood stream of the United States. Since this source of labor is alien, it is controllable. Should this which is our present source of alien labor be closed to us we would be forced to employ Porto Rican Negroes [sic] who would without question complicate and threaten the biological problem as we see it, particularly since the hybrid negro while offering few identification marks as to his race has all the habits detrimental to his progenitors. Again, he is an American citizen, and once brought into the United States, the full obligation as such must be accepted by the United States."47
Clements underscored Puerto Ricans as a biological threat, arguing that, "while they all have negro blood within their veins, the greater part of them are without these physical markings which can only protect society. They are red-headed, freckle-faced, thin-lipped negro hybrids with all the vicious qualities of their progenitors."48
Clearly, for groups such as Puerto Ricans and blacks, citizenship was a hollow privilege; it was repeatedly trumped by their race, which marked them as undesirable. Puerto Ricans' second-class citizenship is highlighted by Clements' characterization of the obligations of citizenship taking effect once one is in the United States, as if citizenship rights were limited to the country's continental borders. Clements' wording categorizes Puerto Ricans as foreigners, even though their homeland is a U.S. commonwealth, and despite the fact that as of 1917 (with the passage of the Jones Act), U.S. citizenship had been conferred on all citizens of Puerto Rico. In addition, by emphasizing Puerto Ricans' "negro" origins, Clements invoked a racial category that was known and denigrated in America. He played on this by portraying the Puerto Rican as a sort of racial Trojan Horse, harboring "negro" characteristics that, though temporarily hidden, might emerge at any time. Clements' remarks underscore how race and citizenship could be at odds and are important reminders that de jure citizenship did not guarantee social citizenship.
Clements' comments also demonstrate the stakes in a racial script. Although he characterized arguments that portray Mexicans as a biological threat as flawed, he took up the same racial script when portraying Puerto Ricans thus demonstrating that what was at stake had much less to do with maintaining some sort of racial purity in the United States than effectively managing labor. Clements' comments demonstrate that racial logic does not, in fact, have to be logical. One can dismiss racial scientific reasoning for one group, but then embrace it to disparage another.
Other notable players highlighted Mexicans' desirability by comparing them to groups that could not be characterized as "birds of passage." Harry Chandler, the owner of the Los Angeles Times and a well-known proponent of Mexican immigration, testified at hearings before the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization to extend quotas to Mexico and other countries in the Western Hemisphere in January of 1930. Chandler argued that as Indians, Mexicans would be less of a problem than "any other people brought into the country," such as Filipinos or Puerto Ricans. Unlike these other groups, he added, "[o]ur Indians [do] not make a problem."49
Chandler's comments reveal how one could also use racial scripts to portray a racialized group positively, if only for the self-serving purpose of continuing to guarantee a cheap labor force. As residents of a U.S. protectorate, Filipinos were considered "colonial subjects" and allowed to immigrate to the United States; Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens. Thus, as potential laborers, each group posed challenges.50 Furthermore, he played on constructions of Mexicans as Indians, racialized groups who by now had been contained to a large degree through genocide, forced assimilation, and reservation policies, and thus were not seen as a looming threat. As a long time resident of California, Chandler was likely referring to Indians in California when he spoke of "our" Indians. This population had been colonized under the Spanish and made to work and live in the mission system established by the Franciscans, either by force or what the padres saw as benevolent assimilation. Their population had already seriously declined by the time of the U.S. takeover, so it was no wonder Chandler presented them as a benign population. Moreover, this characterization had long been fueled by a nineteenth century Spanish Fantasy Past that privileged depictions of gentle Indians in bucolic pastures through cultural texts, such as Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona (published in 1884) over the reality of the violence inherit in the missions system and U.S. takeover. Chandler's testimony before Congress demonstrated how mid-nineteenth century racial scripts had a long shelf life, with the ability to influence policy well into the twentieth century. The same script that served to justify a U.S. take over in one century also ensured a cheap labor supply in another.
Special interests, such as agricultural organizations, who formed their own immigration committees to advocate on behalf of continued Mexican immigration, also used a similar comparative strategy and readily shared it with their elected officials. For example, the Ventura County Farm Bureau's immigration committee chairman contended that if Mexican workers were not available, Puerto Ricans and blacks would fill the labor gap: "Negroes would create a much greater social problem and school problem than do Mexicans since the latter are not American citizens and a very large percentage of them return annually to Mexico."51 The Ventura County Farm Bureau also highlighted two other important points: as non-citizens, Mexicans could more easily return to their home country; and, as non-citizens, Mexicans did not have the same rights as blacks (inequitable though they were). Similarly, Ralph Taylor, executive secretary of the Agricultural Legislative Committee of California delivered a comparable message to the California Farm Bureau Federation, but took it further. Referring to Mexicans, he argued, "unlike the American or Porto [sic.] Rican negro, he can be deported if it becomes necessary," thus emphasizing the power the U.S. government could exert in controlling capital's workforce.52 The comments left no doubt that "birds of passage" was not just a trope, but a political reality, albeit a potentially forced one. Even if Mexicans successfully passed border examinations, paid head taxes, obtained visas, found jobs and performed them well, they remained in a vulnerable limbo of being rendered deportable.
By consistently contrasting Mexicans to blacks and Puerto Ricans based on their citizenship status, Mexicans were continuously cast as immigrants, which invariably led to a dominant perception of Mexicans as foreigners. Because distinctions were rarely made between Mexican and Mexican Americans, it left the impression that all Mexicans, including Mexican Americans, were immigrants. Asian American studies scholars have skillfully demonstrated that by constructing a group as "perpetually foreign," they are seen as undeserving of citizenship rights and are culturally marginalized.53 I would not argue that Mexicans are racialized as foreigners in the same ways (for reasons including that they are legally white and can sometimes pass for white), but with few counter-scripts to challenge a dominant discourse of Mexicans as immigrants, we see, even today, assumptions and stereotypes that depict Mexicans and Mexican Americans alike as new arrivals. The next section highlights how racial scripts could be deployed when the passage of legislation failed.
Violence as Discourse
Legislation was just one way to restrict Mexican immigration. Opponents also suggested violence as a way of controlling Mexicans as well. Those that had used violence before, such as the KKK, and even those who might not have but knew this history of racialized violence, now advocated using such tactics on Mexicans. Such suggestions were in keeping with a long documented history of violence against Mexicans in the United States, including by organized groups, such as the Texas Rangers, a loosely-organized policing force that patrolled Texas from the 1830s into the twentieth century, the U.S. Border Patrol, that relied on legal and extra-legal forms of violence in their dealings with Mexicans, as well as vigilantes who lynched Mexicans.54
One should note the ease with which people suggested violence as a form of control to lawmakers. It highlights a key tenet in racial scripts, that the tactics used against one racialized group can be readily transferred when dealing with another group. Racial scripts naturalize racist tactics when they get recycled and, in the process, appear justifiable. The fact that these tactics had been used before made them more familiar and thus placed them not necessarily within the realm of acceptable behavior, but of actions that had been permissible and without consequence; hence constituents felt comfortable sharing these ideas with their elected officials.
Long before the controversies of the 1920s, those in the West had used both legal means and violence to suppress its Asian population, mostly Chinese and Japanese, and a minority Filipino population. These campaigns included the Chinese massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles, the Alien Land Law Acts of 1913 and 1920 that prohibited Asian immigrants from owning land or leasing it for more than three years, and the development of various zoning laws, aimed at circumscribing the businesses of Chinese business owners.55 This history of violence and containment of Asians informed the views of Madison Grant, a leading eugenicist and author of The Passing of the Great Race, in his 1923 letter to House immigration committee chair, Albert Johnson. Grant built his case against Mexicans with very few words and but great certainty, based on his credentials as a scientific "expert." "Some friends of mine are collecting for publication the data about the Chinese Exclusion fight of fifty years ago. The case with Mexicans today is exactly the same as it was with the Chinese fifty years ago," he wrote to Johnson.56 Madison Grant, along with other leading eugenicists of the time, were key in the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act´s restrictive legislation, and thus his words, which invoked the 1871 Chinese massacre fifty-two years before, carried great weight with the Chairman.
Others expressed views along the same lines. One resident of Los Angeles, Eva Martin, wrote to Chairman Johnson and described, "that we are literally swamped with Mexicans, Japs, Chinese and Negroes..." adding that, "more and more are being born here." Her comments highlight the shifts in these one immigrant populations increasingly settling in the U.S. and gaining citizenship, like African Americans. She did not, however, urge the passage of more restrictive legislation. What Martin proposed was that, "There should be a new Klan composed of all real Americans."57 This suggestion is an example of how linking racialized groups could provide people not only with a definition of what constituted a problem, but also with what might serve as a solution.
Organized opposition to Mexican immigration also included Ku Klux Klan chapters. The Klan's overt support of the Box bill (1928) is an example of how racial projects often overlap. The secretary of the Los Angeles chapter of the Ku Klux Klan wrote to the chairman of the House immigration committee to express his organization's support for restricting Mexican immigration. "I am talking restriction of Mexican immigration to ever [sic] one I meet," the secretary stated.58 The letter suggests that mechanisms for controlling one population can also affect others. Traditionally, the Ku Klux Klan is associated with the South and with vigilante violence directed against Blacks. In this case, the Klan was based in Los Angeles and worked openly and within the system to control Mexicans through legislation. They in fact became established in LA during the peak years of Mexican immigration and increased restrictions against Asians at the local, state, and national levels.59 These actions raise questions about the degree to which Western politics, usually portrayed as relatively progressive, actually differed from Southern politics, and serves as another example of how the lives of people of color are linked, which the concept of racial scripts stresses. In the next section, we take a different direction and see how Mexicans themselves understood racial scripts.
Whiteness as a Racial Script
During this same time period, Mexicans and Mexican Americans fought back on
various terrains, joining labor unions, choosing not to naturalize, and hoping that their children would not assimilate American ways, which they perceived as more permissive.60 But Mexicans also fought to be recognized as white because whiteness afforded them certain rights.61 Although Mexicans were legally considered white, they were clearly not afforded full social citizenship, and even their legal classification was at times contested. By fighting to be recognized as white, Mexicans were in a sense accepting the U.S. racial hierarchy. They were not challenging the terms of the debates, but rather saying that they were on the right side of the color line. Nonetheless, it was a strategy for trying to combat the racism directed at them by protecting the rights they had. Mexicans were not often invited to participate in the debates on immigration during the long immigration era and, thus, we turn to different sites to examine Mexicans' responses and actions around these questions.
Historians David Gutiérrez and Neil Foley have written about the large scale organizing in which Mexicans engaged through organizations such as the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in both Texas and California.62 Unlike most other Mexican organizations in the United States in the 1920s, whose main concern was immigrant mutual aid, LULAC's mission was political. The organization aimed to help naturalized Mexicans and Mexican Americans to claim their rights as U.S. citizens. Formed in 1929 by Mexicans who had been born or come of age in the United States (including some who had served in the U.S. armed forces during World War I), LULAC pursued an agenda of assimilation, excluding Mexicans who were not U.S. citizens, from its membership.
Confronted with the possibility of losing the little ground they had around citizenship rights, Mexicans fought back. Historian Mario Garcia tells the history of the move by the El Paso City Registrar and the City Health Officer to change Mexicans' racial classification from "white" to "colored" in El Paso in 1936.63 At the time, El Paso had a high white infant mortality rate, which would reflect badly on any city, but especially one such as El Paso that was working to establish itself as a health resort. With the help of LULAC, Mexicans in the city mounted a campaign against the reclassification, and won. Because El Paso city officials had justified the reclassification by citing the precedent set by the U.S. Census to place Mexicans in a racial category of their own, the Mexican activists continued their fight and took it to Washington D.C., where they compelled the U.S. Census Bureau to once again classify Mexicans as white.
Another history making-moment occurred in 1931, in Lemon Grove, San Diego, during the Depression, when school officials segregated Mexicans into a separate school. Enlisting legal counsel and the help of the Mexican Consul, the Mexican community organized and took their fight to the Superior Court of California in San Diego, where they won the first school desegregation case. The case, Roberto Alvarez v. The Board of Trustees of Lemon Grove School District, was the first successful school desegregation court decision in U.S. History, predating the 1954 landmark Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education.64
Mexicans fought discrimination through social and cultural means, as well. Historian Gabriela Arredondo argues that the Mexican community in Chicago had a more ambivalent attitude toward remaining in the United States permanently and thus Mexicans there tended to turn less to civic participation, preferring instead to unify amongst themselves to combat discrimination through everyday acts, such as joining sports teams and enjoying local festivals and parades. Arredondo also describes how Mexicans, cognizant of how racial positioning operated, tried to establish themselves as superior to blacks. For example, some Mexicans chose not to shop in black-owned stores. In other cases, Mexican families disregarded their black neighbors and Mexican children ignored black classmates on the playground.65 While these tactics may appear severe, Mexicans knew how racial scripts operated and that if classified as "colored," they faced severe consequences in areas such as housing, school, and employment discrimination, which many already experienced as a result of de facto segregation.
The Enduring Power of Racial Scripts
Nikhil Pal Singh argues that the "story of nationhood must be told over and over, because there is nothing natural about the nation or the fashioning of its predominant civic identities. Nations.... [are] lived primarily through the techniques of narration and representation."66 In the case of Mexican immigration, every new bill introduced on this subject, every hearing, every testimony, became ways of telling who was and was not part of the nation. In order to establish whether or not Mexicans "belonged," it was important to articulate who else did or did not belong. Aligning Mexicans with these groups brought Mexicans' place in the racial order into stark relief. Anti-immigrationists appropriated America's usable past, its failed racial experiments, and the specter of the racial other to advance their cause. Supporters of immigration countered with their own scripts of America's racial past. Thus, to discuss Mexican immigration, therefore, was to reveal where groups stood in the U.S. racial order and to reinforce, justify, and naturalize that order.
This chapter detailed the myriad of ways in which opponents of Mexican immigration sought to block, curtail, and control Mexican immigration. The next chapter presents how they fought this battle on a different front, naturalization. Like their efforts to control Mexican immigration, racial scripts were key in their efforts to deny Mexicans' ability to naturalize. In this chapter, we see how opponents could marshall legal cases and precedent to extend restrictive measures to Mexicans and exclude Mexicans from U.S. citizenship
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