Latino History Month #2

It’s time for your weekly “Hispanic Heritage Month” history lesson, something with a little more significance and less sponsorship than this.  Plus, you get for free what hundreds of students have to pay a high-priced college for, and I don’t even jack with your transcript when we’re done!

With the debate over Mexican immigration raging, 2010 is a time like no other in our history…or is it?  I wish.  History is a wheel of reoccurrence, a condition which is frustrating for noble-minded historians like myself, but a condition that is so nonetheless.  Among the many instances where this “debate” reared its racially-marked head in the past was the decade of the 1920s.

Back then, a swarm of xenophobes had manged to legislate the most restrictive immigration system in US history, framed by racial quotas which remained the “law of the land” until 1965.  These quotas made it easier for you to immigrate to the US if you were “white” and Northern European than if you were “swarthy” and Southern and Eastern European.  While support was diverse, both in constituency and the interests they sought to protect, a widespread base of support came from those whose goal was to limit the attack on “pure Americanism” which resulted from the infusion of so many not-quite-whites into the US.

Where were Mexicans in this formula?  Well, thanks to the political leverage of agribusiness, among other factors, they were left out of the quota system.  This didn’t sit well with the xenophobes who saw their presence as seasonal pickers in the Southwest as just as much a threat as the Jews or Italians in the East, if not more so.

The result was a regular attempt by some elites to extend the quota to Latin America and an accompanying attempt by other elites to stop them.

That’s the quick and dirty shaping the larger context of this piece, an op-ed written in 1928 and published in the LA Times (Feb. 18, 1928).  Penned by a representative of the agricultural industry, it is titled “Hands Off!” and reads, in part:

Putting up immigration bars at the border to keep Mexicans willing to perform manual labor from securing employment on the ranches and in the orchards of this country is a proposal that would bring injury to many and benefit to none. The Mexicans are good workers, the best as a class we have ever had in the Southwest. Under the present permit system, they come in when they are needed, and go back when their work has been done.

They are not wastrels, are not troublemakers. They create no race problems. They are neither political disturbers nor social menaces.

We of the Southwest know the Mexicans. They are god citizens. Many now living in Los Angeles recall when more than 70 per cent of the population was Mexican born or Mexican descent. Many of our most useful citizens are descendants of the second of third generation of the Mexicans who lived here before California was an American State. There are more than 100,000 persons of Mexican birth or descent now living in Los Angeles. Most of them are American citizens, and good ones.

California’s representatives in Congress asked for the exclusion of the Chinese and Japanese, but they have not and are not asking for the exclusion of the Mexicans. Agricultural, commercial and industrial organizations throughout the State are practically unanimous in their protest against restricting Mexican immigration to the 3 per cent quota…

…Relations between the United States and Mexico are cordial. The good will shown by the last two administrations has aided very materially in the restoration of peace and the promotion of good will in Mexico. Restriction of Mexican immigration would be regarded south of the Rio Grande as inhospitable, as unfriendly, as a reflection on the Mexican people which the Latin blood would be certain to resent

There have been no disturbances, no clashes between class and class, no general protests from California communities against the presence of Mexican laborers in any part of the South or West. Where the Mexican are employed they are welcome. They take part in cultivating and picking the cotton in California, Arizona and Texas. They pick the peaches, oranges, lemons and apricots and prepare them for shipment. They cultivate the beet fields of California, Utah and Colorado.

They are as necessary to our ranches and orchards as are the farm laborers at harvest time in the Middle West. A law prohibiting the movement of farm laborers from one State to another in the season of the wheat harvest would be about as reasonable as one preventing Mexican laborers from coming at seasonable times into the West and Southwest. These Mexicans are accustomed to life in a semitropical climate. They are children of the sun, and they perform a service for which those born in colder climates are neither suited no inclined…

If you’d like to think as a Latina/o historian, then you might want to consider the following questions to begin:

  • What are some of the reasons the author gives for not including Mexican workers under the quota system?
  • What can we infer from this argument regarding the opposition? That is, what does this tell us about how the “other side” is arguing?
  • How do ideas about racial fitness continue to frame the position here? What are those ideas? How do they benefit the argument?
  • How are Mexicans “naturalized” as part of the agricultural production process?

This position was a common one in this era, as it is today.  You might think about the ways this argument resonates with some of the ideas and positions you hear in our current public debate.