The Mexican American Struggle: Discrimination and Segregation
Forging the Way: Political Movements and Civil Rights
All For One and One For All: LULAC
My research project is titled “A Portrait of Community and Violence in South Texas, 1930-1975.” It seeks to answer the question: How did LULAC help South Texas Mexican American communities bring about positive social, economic, and political change after decades of segregation, discrimination and marginalization? The Portraiture Methodology of social science research used in this qualitative research project seeks to bridge art and science in a way that informs and inspires. Portraiture requires researchers to combine quantitative and qualitative research methods by weaving interviews, observational site visits, library data, and personal narrative. I interviewed a historian and a LULAC ex-officer, recorded two observational site visits, researched library and web research materials and included my personal narrative. In utilizing my personal history and that of my interviewees, this research project exposes primary information not found in the historical record. The themes weave an intricate pattern as “New Horizons in Early Texas” explains the economic, social and political climate in South Texas. “The Mexican American Struggle” depicts incidences of discrimination and segregation against Mexican Americans. “Forging the Way” highlights Mexican American civil rights groups, their origins and involvement in forging change. Finally, “All For One and One For All” gives a detailed historical account of LULACS birth and contributions to combat Mexican American discrimination. In the United States, Mexican Americans suffering decades of segregation and discrimination in every aspect of society found in LULAC and other civil rights organizations, a way to combat the persecution and oppression they faced. I found that by utilizing the tools of education, the United States court system, LULAC and other civil rights organizations helped bring about a measure of positive change for Latinos.
Introduction and Background
My parents were both born in South Texas to a long line of devout Catholic families. All 9 of my siblings and I were born in Illinois. We relocated to the lower Rio Grande Valley of South Texas in 1962 where I grew up during the 1960s and 1970s. I always wondered why my grandparents were left behind in South Texas while both my parents’ siblings migrated to Illinois. I wasn’t aware of the repressive South Texas community they fled as targets of discrimination for their Catholic faith, their traditional Hispanic large family size, and for being of Mexican descent. Ramos stated that the three things South Texas Anglos hated most about Mexican Americans were their Catholic faith, their large family sizes, and their ethnicity.1 This idea never dawned on me as I grew up in South Texas. In Illinois, whenever my mother would take us with her on public outings, people always stopped her and commented on “what a blessing” she had in so many children. I grew up with a desire to have a large family like my mother because I also wanted that blessing.
There were no equitable jobs for uneducated minorities when my parent returned to South Texas. My father only had a 4th grade education. My mother had a 3rd grade education. Any acquired education there-after was self- taught. After a long search for work, my father, a master mechanic for the Ford Motor Company in Illinois, was forced into the trucking industry. While my mother took care of our family and my father’s parents, my father drove a truck locally, carrying abundant “caliche” around the Rio Grande Valley to industrial building sites. Later he would truck regionally and then nationally. As a consequence, our home went fatherless as my father appeared periodically after prolonged absences from 1962 until adulthood.
As a child growing up, I knew my family was poor because we had to migrate to the Northern United States with my mother to work in the agricultural fields. Field labor allowed us to pay our home mortgage, and have clothes and supplies for the school term. There was little work and extremely low pay for Mexican Americans in the 1960’s.2 When we began traveling to the Northern States as migrant laborers, I became aware of class differences and racial discrimination against Mexican Americans by some of the Anglo community. Most of the people I met as a child in states such as Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio in public institutions and businesses were warm and welcoming, while many of the people in these same institutions in South Texas were arrogant, unfriendly, and condescending. In the Northern States, we went to desegregated schools with White children. In Edcouch, Texas, my siblings and I were forced to go to the all Hispanic “Migrant School” in which children were tagged “Burros,” the Spanish word for “donkey.” This implied that the students at this school were hard headed and ignorant because we missed too much school. Other children sometimes taunted us as going to “la escuela de los burros,” or the school for the ignorant. As migrants, we left to the northern states around April or May for the early crops and did not return until late September or October after the late harvests. LULAC officer Lico Reyes feels that people are all endued with tremendous learning abilities, regardless of their ethnicity.
There’s no Anglo Saxon that is smarter than a Hispanic; or man better than woman. God created minds exactly the same. We all have the same capabilities and capacities. But in those times you’re talking about, many resources were wasted. We could have had an “Abraham Lincoln” in the Hispanic community in the “Barrio.” We could have had an “Einstein” in the Barrio. We didn’t cultivate that particular aspect.
Through my child eyes, attitude differences between the northern and southern states left an indelible impression of how geographical locations presented differential treatment to individuals based on status, economy, or race.3
Seized with a desire to know South Texas history and how it related to my life, I sought out the historical written record through which I was able to begin piecing together my life experience.
Through my research I investigated violence tactics perpetrated against Hispanics, following the path of civil rights groups to investigate Hispanic lifestyle changes and what perpetuated those changes. I found that historically, many Anglos from the Deep South actively practiced racial discrimination, segregation, and marginalization in relation to Mexican Americans throughout the United States in society, economics, and politics. Attitudes embedded from “Jim Crow” traditions dominating people of color were automatically transferred to all persons of color. Since the majority of the population in South Texas was White or Hispanic, Hispanics became the colored people. These attitudes were prevalent in South Texas from 1930-1975.
The lack of Mexican American history in the textbooks, for me as a student growing up in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, was a defining reason for investigating this work. Historian Joe Willoughby agrees that “it’s really important for Mexican American children to know their cultural histories.”4 It is my desire to bring awareness to the Mexican American struggle and history. I believe that Mexican American children, adolescents, and adults should have access to scholastic textbooks that uncovers history from the viewpoint of their ancestors. My goal is to expand my historical contribution with interviews and personal narrative.
My research investigation focuses on the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) organization. My research question is: How did LULAC help South Texas Hispanic communities bring about positive social, economic, and political change after decades of segregation, discrimination and marginalization? I found that as LULAC and other civil rights organizations utilized the tools of education, the U.S. court system, and the political process, their combined efforts were able to help bring about positive change for Latinos. In the United States, Mexican Americans suffering decades of employment denial, school segregation policies, little or no medical care options, and denial of public services, among many other things; finally found representation for their causes and a voice through these organizations.
Before this project, my knowledge of LULACs structure and purpose was limited. I felt alienated from the organization under the impression that membership catered to upper class, conservative people, of which I was not a part. It was only through research that I realized the importance of LULACs’ strategies in the years before 1964. LULACs inclusion of professionally educated members with alliances within the borderland White and Mexican community was necessary in order to push for change and acquire a voice in the South Texas Anglo community.
The Portraiture methodology used in my research focuses on combining qualitative research methods with a first person narrative style of writing. It is a research method bridging art and science to inform and inspire. Through portraiture, I combined data obtained from two interviews, two observational site visits, numerous library and web research materials and personal narrative, interweaving all the information into one article.
I visited the Nettie Benson Latin American Collections Library located at the University of Texas at Austin to obtain literary resources and historical archives not found in my locale. I also visited Rio Grande City, Texas, known as the cradle of Texas history. It is located just one mile from the Rio Grande River in the Texas borderlands.
I interviewed Joe Willoughby in early October of 2014. Mr. Willoughby is a historian, book author, and professor of Texas History at Austin Community College in Austin, Texas. I also interviewed Mr. Federico (Lico) Reyes, a Texas LULAC officer who lived in South Texas, and who has served as a civil rights investigator for some time. After being unjustifiably incarcerated, Mr. Reyes joined the civil rights cause through the LULAC organization. I interviewed Mr. Reyes in late October, 2014.
I also used several library sources to aid in this narrative. Among those resources are books by several authors. They include Julian Nava’s’ Mexican Americans: Past, Present, and Future, Cynthia E. Orozco’s No Mexicans, Women, or Dogs Allowed -The Rise of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement, and Henry A.J. Ramos’ The American GI Forum: In Pursuit of the Dream, 1948-1983.
New Horizons in Early Texas
A study in the American history of European colonization of America reveals that Anglo Europeans brought beliefs, values, and lifestyles that were very different from those of the Indigenous people who inhabited the Americas. Seeking to establish rule, the Europeans forcefully subdued the natives, propagated among them, and changed their culture forever.5 Mexican Americans in the early 19th century derived from any combination of three distinct racial groups through intermarriage: Spaniards, Indians and Negros.6
In South Texas, Spanish colonizers crossing the Rio Grande River in northern Mexico were awarded land grants by Spain that reached the Nueces River near San Antonio. At the time, there were approximately 77,000 Mexicans living in the unconquered lands alongside the diverse Indigenous populations. Mexicans had lived in this territory for 250 years before the Anglo moved to the region.7 Mexican Americans were a “territorial minority” along with Native Americans. They were an ethnic group enjoying stable viable communities before the European arrival. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe signed on February 2, 1848 between the U.S. and Mexico, Texas Mexicans were awarded full American citizenship and classified as “White.” Many historians believe that Texas/Mexican wars specifically served to create negative attitudes of hatred and vicious treatment against Hispanics by South Texas Anglo communities. Many Southern Anglos already believed in racial superiority predicated on skin color. Southern Anglos transferred their treatment of Black slaves to Hispanics. Racial superiority provided these groups justification for discrimination against Hispanics.8 Consequently, the contempt against all Mexican descent populations progressively increased. The U.S./Mexico border’s proximity helped fuel that particular sentiment among Whites.9 Hispanics pursuing the American dreams promise of freedom, democracy, justice, equality, opportunity, morality, and destiny were often denied the right.10 Not until the 1964 Civil Rights Law would that dream begin to become a reality. With the advent of WWII, increased industry, and the need for labor, Hispanics saw a ray of hope, only to find they were often excluded from equal participation under the law. History was forced to expose the path of the Hispanic dreamer.
The Mexican American Struggle: Discrimination and Segregation
Mexican Americans, whether by citizenship before or after the Treaty of Guadalupe, were all considered “Mexicans.” It was not until 1936 that LULAC was successful in changing the census classification from Mexican to Mexican American.11 Many were rampantly called “Meskins,” “Messcans,” or “greasers.”12 Mexican Americans were neither White nor Black, creating confusion as to their constitutional citizenship. Violence against Hispanics was not only physical, but emotional, mental, and psychological. Oftentimes, Hispanics lost their legal rights, social and economic advancement opportunities, and any discourse in public discussion and debate simply because of their dark skin or Spanish surname.13 Mexican Americans had their lands stolen, were stripped of political power, their culture disparaged, and their historical role in history erased, were physically attacked and demoralized, and were isolated from the community at large.14 Historian Joe Willoughby explains how the Hispanic heritage was stolen from Mexican Americans in the early years and the reaction of the young Mexican American community to forge change:
I have friends who have gone through this process: Say you’re a twenty, or thirty year old Mexican American in the Rio Grande Valley and you’re educational level gets up there; maybe post high school. You start to realize that the history of that area was Spanish territory; that this was Mexican land. The people who created the ranching traditions down there were the Hispanic people and culture. And it was the White Texans who came in and took the land, some by violence. Mostly it was legal; going into the courthouse and changing records. But generations began to realize that their legacy had been stolen. Now they are demanding change; political change which means economic and social change. As more Mexican Americans become more highly educated and more fluent after 1965 when the Voting Rights Act and the Jim Crow Laws were eliminated a year earlier, there are no legal restrictions anymore that the state can put on Mexican American participation. You’ll see, all over the Southwest, just like you saw in the south with Blacks, tremendous numbers of Mexican Americans moving into the political system. And I don’t mean governors; I mean City Council, school boards, mayors of small towns and so forth. And so that is what kind of sets the stage that brings about the change.15 Change began to take effect as a result of the confusion between Mexicans and Mexican American citizens within the Anglo community. From 1930 to 1940, after the stock market crashed, the country was in a depression. Mexican Aliens on U.S. Government relief rolls became a burden. U.S. immigration officials could not distinguish Mexican American citizens from Mexican citizens when it instituted the U.S. Repatriation Act to expel Mexicans to Mexico. The tactics they used to round up the people were humiliating interrogations, raids, and round-ups. In 1929 and 1930, about one hundred thousand persons were exported to Mexico. In 1931, the U.S. Public Health Service squeezed over two thousand repatriates into makeshift corrals. Without proper sanitation and starving, the people waited for deportation. Many Mexican Americans who had never been to Mexico were caught in the throng and exported.
In contradiction to Repatriation, the U.S. made repeated treaties with Mexico to allow thousands of Mexican farm workers to come to the U.S. due to so called labor shortages. During WWII, it was called the “Bracero Program” under Public Law 58.16 Braceros and Mexican persons entering Texas from Mexico were subject to bathing, chemical delousing, and vaccination for typhus and syphilis. The United States Public Health Service (USPHS) was responsible for this activity based on suspicions of disease contamination. It was a practice not imposed on Americans going to Mexico.17 Mexican Americans, including LULAC and the G.I. Forum were against the Bracero program because it took jobs away from Mexican Americans who like my family, had to migrate to other states in search for work. During the Bracero Program, the League of United Latin American Citizens organization promoted the banning of Braceros from Texas due to the exploitation of these populations. During the 1954 Repatriation or “Operation Wetback”, LULAC supported the U.S. drive to deport undocumented workers.
Agricultural and industrial employers during America’s postwar years of rapid economic expansion frequently used and exploited illegal Mexican immigrants. Mexican workers were pushed to the U.S. by their personal economic hardships and pulled by Anglo business as a low wage, non- striking workforce.18 Mexican Americans felt that the Bracero program hurt them and other native workers as employers hired Braceros over American employees. Braceros worked for lower wages, had few rights, and did not require health or retirement benefits from their employers. Mexicans and Mexican Americans resented political and law enforcement officials for unfair law practices.19 Unfairness by U.S. officials brought forth questions about a government that invited cheap labor into the country and when it was no longer economically beneficial, those populations were exported back. Many Hispanics have felt alienated from Anglo society due to beliefs they are still not wanted but are used for the benefit of U.S interests.20 Many Mexican Americans feel they are a people without a country; not of Mexican citizenry, but not fully accepted in the U.S.
Mexicans were wanted and needed when they helped the U.S. free Texas from Mexico during the Texas/Mexican war. After the war, some talented, educated and ambitious Hispanics helped make Texas prosperous. Regardless of Hispanic educational, occupational, or historical distinctions, Anglos often treated them with equal contempt as racial undesirables.21 Hispanics were typically denied access to jobs, social centers, public establishments, and integrated living quarters due to Anglo restrictions. 22 Many Anglos disliked Hispanic customs, language and religion.23 Such was the repulsion of Hispanics by South Texas Anglos that a Nueces County Farmer stated, “I don’t believe in mixing. They are filthy and lousy . . . I have raised my two children with the idea that they are above the doggone Mexican nationality and I believe a man should.”24
Sometimes Hispanics were denied their lands because the courts refused to allow Hispanics to testify on their own behalf, allowing Anglos to claim Hispanic lands. In 1957, Hector Garcia with the G.I. Forum won the right for Hispanics to be judged by a jury of their peers after 25 years of “White Only” juries in South Texas.25 Some resorted to violence perpetrated personally or by the use of the Texas Rangers law enforcement officers, in order to gain access to Hispanic property. Eventually, many Anglo Americans became owners of Hispanic property and many Hispanics became tenant workers in their own land.26 The majority of Hispanics were working class, poor, and Catholic. Local Anglo service establishments such as restaurants, hotels, hospitals, neighborhoods, grocery stores, parks, swimming pools, beauty and barber shops, were ordinarily off limits to Latinos.27
In addition to stripping Hispanics of their lands and denying them public services, federal agencies tried to strip Hispanics of their culture. Agents claimed that government program beneficiaries were for the culturally deprived. Federal agencies implied minorities were the cause of America’s social problems, classifying them as second class citizens. In addition to this, Hispanics were exposed to informal manifestations of racial threats, slurs, public signs, and social restrictions.28 These Anglo attitudes would be further exposed as U.S. Hispanic veterans returned home from WWII to a country in the depths of the Great Depression.
Hispanics have served in every American war since the Europeans arrived in America. Fighting valiantly for their country, numerous WWII Hispanic veterans returned to find that their families had been inexcusably neglected during their absence. Veteran families were among the highest in illness and disease related to poverty and discrimination. A 1930 South Texas study showed Mexican Americans typically lived in a one or two-room frame shack with dirt floors and outdoor toilets in depressed conditions. Homes were put together from lumber scraps, discarded signboards, tar paper, and flattened oil cans. Children were forced to sleep on dirt floors, wrapped in quilts. With no money or accommodations, clothing was stored in boxes.29
Poverty was not secluded to the Rio Grande Valley. Corpus Christi, Nueces County was largely inhabited by Hispanics in 1948. During this time, 34 percent of homes were considered substandard by the city and county health units. Tuberculosis was twice the state average; dysentery was eight times more than other parts of the state, and pneumonia was 20 percent higher than the state average.30
Housing and healthcare in South Texas were directly linked to education and employment. From 1930-1960, Hispanics in South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley had difficulty acquiring meaningful employment or schooling. Employment for Mexican Americans in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas in 1950 was $1.25 per hundred pounds of product for pickers, with many farmers paying as little as .35 to .75 cents. The national average was $2.45 per hundred pounds.31 Low wages kept families in poverty, without healthcare, and uneducated. In addition, stepping out of the “status quo” had the potential to render a family in much worse condition. Historian Henry Ramos explains:
The significance for Hispanics is that it entrenched them in a position of relative powerlessness and compromise. Tolerating circumstances as they were meant, accepting criminally low wages and punishing work conditions. Challenging these injustices, however, meant risking the possibility of job loss, defaming accusations of subversive-ness for any number of social, political, or economic reasons, persons of Mexican ancestry could be unjustly but legally subjected to official action and intimidation; and throughout the late 1940s and the 1950s, they were.32
Until 1960, another risk to job loss or intimidation was at the voting poll as Hispanics were forced to the bottom of the political and socio-cultural order through discrimination and violent force. The poll tax instituted in 1902 along with the all-White primaries of 1904 effectively disenfranchised Latinos. In 1949 and 1950, the American GI Forum began “poll tax” drives, but it was not until 1956 that the first majority Mexican American electorate occurred in the Rio Grande Valley.33 $1.75 per year was required for statewide, regional, and local elections. The average pay for Hispanics was $19 per week. Many Hispanic were excluded because they had no funds to pay the poll. Anglo employers were known to pay for their employee’s poll tax and dictate who the employee should vote for.34 In addition, Anglos often altered the Mexican electorate by manipulating voting qualifications and playing upon language differences, since Hispanics were not allowed to learn English.35 Reports of South Texas ranchers locking ranch gates on Election Day to prevent Mexican-American workers from voting were frequent.36
Economics and politics were not the only area of marginalization. Education in South Texas was noted for its deplorable condition as early as the 1920s. Most Hispanics were migrant farmworkers earning poverty level wages. Education was geared to provide a constant supply of a menial labor workforce to major state industries. Urbanites were educated with low skills to provide domestic services and a manufacturing low wage labor force.37
Though Hispanics longed to advance their education in South Texas, the elements that kept them from their objectives were systematic barriers, segregation, and racially disparate school financing, outdated programs, dilapidated facilities and materials, and culturally and linguistically biased performance evaluation measures.38 Ethnic segregation alone denied Mexican Americans the educational opportunities given to Whites.39 MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense Education Fund) fought and won the Edgewood ISD v. State of Texas case whereby the Texas Supreme Court unanimously charged that the state's system of public finance of education was unconstitutional. This led to the South Texas Initiative which the Border Region of Higher Education Council helped to pass and afterwards, monitored the program's progress.40 Historian Henry Ramos gives us an example of the refusal of the Anglo community to integrate Hispanics in education:
An Aguas Dulces superintendent explained that “Anglos would drop dead if you mentioned mixing Mexicans with Whites. They would rather not have an education themselves than associate with these dirty Mexicans.” “There would be a revolution in the community if Mexicans wanted to come to white schools. Sentiment is bitterly against it. It is based on racial inferiority.” Sentiments of this nature caused many Hispanics to question their intellectual equality and whether to seek continuing education.41
Studies showed segregation tactics were used by many school districts. Tactics were used, such as gerrymandering or confining Hispanic children to a zone away from Anglo children. Freedom of choice plans allowed Anglo children the option to integrate into Hispanic schools but Hispanics were not allowed that choice.42
Whether in employment, politics, or education, most South Texas Hispanics chose not to submit to local Anglo dominance and instead protected their culture and traditions by withdrawal tactics. 43 As Hispanics fought to survive, they learned to adopt Americanized tools as aids, developed tactics, and took stances to improve their situation under an Anglo dominated world. The most proficient of those tools were the very ones denied to Mexican Americans by the Anglo community: education and political power.44LULAC member Lico Reyes was born in Mexico but moved to El Paso Texas with his mother at a young age. Attending Catholic schools and seminaries in El Paso, Chicago, Illinois, and Alexandria, Louisiana, Mr. Reyes studied to be a Catholic Jesuit Priest. He shared his story about why he joined the LULAC civil rights organization:
I started as a (LULAC) member in 1982 right after I got arrested by the Arlington Police Department, taken to a jail where they took all my clothes off, including all my religious items including my scapular. They wouldn’t tell me why they arrested me. “Why are you arresting me?” I asked. They said, “We don’t have to tell you.” I said, “I need to talk to my attorney.” They said, “You watch too many movies.” I said, “OK.” Then they took me to the jail and they took all my clothes off and they said to go to the bathroom. I said, “I don’t want to go to the bathroom.” They said, “You’re gonna go to the bathroom.” And when I went there they said, “Don’t close the door.” I said, “Oh.” Then they closed the door and when I came out, they let me call my attorney. They cleared my record and gave me a letter of apology. That’s why I became a member of LULAC. LULAC was the first to write a letter to the newspapers saying: “We need a little bit of sensitivity towards Mexicans. I think there’s a justice, and we fight for those people’s (justice). (Speaking tearfully) No money, only to help our people progress and to have their grievances heard and resolved. You know, the Justice Department agent whom you will see said, “We settled in court and we made you whole.” Guess what? (Speaking tearfully) I will never be made whole from being naked in a jail in Arlington, Texas, ever! So I joined LULAC. I formed a council that serves only civil rights cases.45
Many civil rights organization members applied for membership, as Mr. Reyes did, after undergoing discrimination. Highly educated members made the most difference in the legal process, as the emergent LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) organization would soon understand.