A Chicano and his Books

Every once in awhile, a young student will walk into my office and immediately be struck by the number of books s/he sees on my shelves.

“Have you read all of these books?,” they’ll ask.

“Yes,” I’ll say.  “It’s what they pay me to do.”

In actuality, I really haven’t.  As a historian, many of the books I have are for reference while working on a  lecture for a class, or a book or an article.  I have “covered” almost every book I have on my shelves, that is, I have read substantial parts of it to identify the argument, sources, perspective, and various elements of the proof.

It might seem odd, but I’m actually not a voracious reader.  I don’t love books they way other academics do.  I love History.  I LOVE Chicano/Latino histories.  I am obsessed with the evolving, scholarly understanding of us and our collective past.  I am also obsessed with California history, the history of social movements for change, and the history of racial inequality in the US.

When you put it all together, I’m not much for a novel, but I intellectually salivate over a new book on the the history of the Chicano Movement, or the UFW, or some other kindred topic.

In any event, every once in awhile I think it is important for those of us who read and write in these fields to remind others that we exist.  What’s better, we know and have books.  Whoever you are, if you’re ever interested in learning more about the varied pasts of the Chicano/a and Latina/o people, I’d be more than willing to point you in the direction of a great book.

Pictured above are some of my shelves of books in the office related to: California history (closest section, all shelves), Chicana Feminism (farthest section, top two shelves), and Chicano/Latino History (the whole middle section, and bottom shelves of farthest section).

What is Cinco de Mayo?

If you didn’t know any better, you would agree with the idiot who recently appeared on a late night show and described Cinco de Mayo as a holiday invented in the US “to celebrate our neighbors to the South, by drinking” (see part 5 of this episode of Conan). Long ago seized by the alcohol industry, for far too many people Cinco de Mayo is a day to drink margaritas or Coronas, all while wearing a straw sombrero.

If you fall into this category, you are possibly racist but most definitely a pendejo. Well, profe is here to tell you: ¡No seas pendejo!

Cinco de Mayo commemorates the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla of 1862, when Mexico successfully defeated the French imperialist army of Napoleon III. The better-equipped and more numerous French forces had invaded Mexico. For that reason the day came to symbolize the victory of the poor but righteous against the more powerful. This historic day in the life of the Mexican nation–a nation which had been severely compromised by the loss of almost half its territory to the equally imperialist United States in 1848–-was celebrated almost immediately as a day of independence and freedom from foreign control.

But the day was not just a Mexican holiday. The events in Puebla also meant something to the growing number of Mexican Americans in places like California.

Spanish language newspaper like La Voz de Méjico provided its delayed coverage of events in the south, including what they described as “our triumph against the French” at the Battle of Puebla. Exclaiming “¡¡Viva Méjico!! “¡¡Viva la Independencia!! “¡¡Vivan los valientes soldados Mejicanos!!,” the paper left little question where its sympathies lie.

As the exiled government of Benito Júarez sought financial and political support from abroad, Mexicans in the States worked to aid the restoration of Republican rule in their homeland. They created Juntas Patrióticas in the US, groups with “the noble desire to directly or indirectly help and defend our country.” Beginning in 1862, that support took the form of monetary donations. At first contributing to a commemorative tribute for the victory of General Ignacio Zaragoza against the French, fundraising campaigns evolved to more directly serve “the war effort” of the exiled government. Juntas “raised funds to provide medical care for wounded soldiers and support for the widows and orphans of Mexican soldiers killed in battle,” as well as secure the passage of former prisoners of war from France and to award medals for distinguished military efforts.

The lasting effect of this was important to Mexican American community formation here, as well as Mexican nation-building in the homeland. Cinco de Mayo became an annual event for commemoration and celebration in the US, uniting the Spanish-speaking in their new homes and creating venues for them to showcase their presence.

So do yourself a favor this Cinco de Mayo and stay true to the past. No! I don’t mean go beat up a Frenchman. I mean recognize that your commemoration of something seemingly corporate and racist can actually involve something much more meaningful than a beer and a hat. You are part of a long history in this country, one that took pride and strength from this day.

Latino History Month #4

For the fourth and final installment of the “Latino Like Me Presents: Latino History Month 2010″™ series I wanted to go into the past to provide you a historical primary source that is both a window into our collective past as well as our collective present.

And so we turn to the legendary Bernardo Vega.

Born in Puerto Rico, in 1885, Vega worked as a tobaquero, a cigar maker. Tobaqueros were skilled workers on the islands of the Caribbean, as well as a highly politicized class. In each workshop a man called “El Lector” was paid to read newspapers and political treatises to the workers, providing them something of a sustained education as they rolled their hand-crafted cigars.

In the late 19th century, when Puerto Rico and Cuba were both Spanish colonies, tobaqueros were among the first migrants to the US from the Lain American Caribbean. They settled in parts of the US South and Northeast, and helped organize political groups to agitate for an end to Spanish colonialism. The groups they established became the roots of future Puerto Rican and Cuban communities for the next century.

In 1916, Vega became part of that community when he arrived in New York City.

What makes Vega an important figure is that he wrote about his life experiences. Published after his death, The Memoirs of Bernardo Vega is less a personal story of one man than a record of early 20th-century Puerto Rican life, in particular in the mainland US. Among the more exciting elements of his text are the detailed descriptions of this early community, both passionate about their island home as well as the political realities of daily life in the belly of the US empire.

Vega, like other politically-minded people, had ideas about the world he witnessed, many times identifying and analyzing important issues facing Latinos in the US. This passage, from that seminal text, is one example:

The constant growth of the Puerto Rican community gave rise to riots, controversy, hatred. But there is one fact that stands out: at a time when there were no more than half a million of us, our impact on cultural life in the United States was far stronger than that of the 4 million Mexican-Americans. And the reason is clear: though they shared with us the same cultural origins, people of Mexican extraction, involved as they were in agricultural labor, found themselves scattered throughout the American Southwest. The Puerto Ricans, on the other hand, settled in the large urban centers, especially in New York, where in spite of everything the circumstances were more conducive to cultural interaction and enrichment, whether we wanted or that way or not.

Vega’s analysis is perceptive and, on many levels, true.

In this time period, and for the next two generations, Puerto Ricans were concentrated largely in one urban center–New York. The “impact” they had on affairs in that city (and somewhat beyond) is partially a result of their concentration, but also a result of their political and cultural organization. Even when their numbers were few, Puerto Ricans came to the US and set out to do the work of community organizing, and they were successful.

The fact that much of this organization took root in New York city–the most important city in the US–provided other advantages. New York’s position within US economic, political, and cultural matters only increased throughout the 20th century, and by having a voice within the Big Apple, Puerto Ricans had a voice in the nation writ large.

Where Vega missed the mark is in his lack of acknowledgment of one key difference between the migration of Puerto Ricans and the millions of Mexicans in the Southwest. Puerto Ricans migrated to the US as citizens, vested with full political rights upon their arrival. This isn’t to say they did not face harsh racism and multiple forms of discrimination. But, as voters, they could garner the attention of politicians in ways that Mexican Americans could not.

Ethnic Mexicans in the Southwest were numerous and diffuse, but they were also clustered in key urban centers. By 1930, Los Angeles had become the second-largest Mexican city in the world, second only to Mexico City itself. But in the early 20th century, most in the ethnic Mexican community were first-generation, non-citizen immigrants.

As the number of US-born Mexican Americans came to represent half and, then, a majority of the population as a whole, they did so with the largest share of their population under the age of 21. For much of the century, then, ethnic Mexicans were primarily a non-eligible to vote majority population. Accordingly, as late as the mid-20th century, Mexican Americans struggled to exert any political force at all, living as they were in a political system that had little motivation to cater to them.

My analysis is not meant to disparage Vega as much as to point out the people we call “Latino” and “Latina” have much in common, as well as much that distinguishes their historical and present-day realities. Citizenship and regional migration patterns are but two. We could also have discussed gender, race, nationality, class and a host of other forces which have carved out divergent experiences.

The final lesson is not a pessimistic one. This “diversity within commonality” is at the heart of Latino America. It is the source of a tremendous opportunity for us all to learn about the contours of US imperialism in “on the ground”, concrete ways. It is also an opportunity for us, as Latinos, to better learn about ourselves and, in the process, create something new.

The US national project has been simultaneously tragic and hopeful. Far from a fulfillment of its most enduring ideals, the US–as experienced by indigenous Americans, African slaves, and waves of immigrants–has been as much a story of conquest and oppression as freedom and liberty. But the space between those two poles, the lived reality of millions of us now and then, continues to breed a hope that something better can be realized.

The hope of this something better requires a deliberate and purposeful re-imagining of ourselves in ways that incorporate difference, acknowledge past and current struggles, and embrace true equity.

This is the example we set as Latinos in the US. We forge a pathway to this new nation by our current struggles to do exactly the same within our own “community.” The mere fact that this word can be used to describe us–however conditional it might be–should be embraced as a sign of hope for everyone.

We have been so important to the past of this nation. We are vitally important to it if it is to have a future.

Latino History Month #3

We’ve been discussing Puerto Rico for the past week in my Chicano/Latino Histories class so perhaps it’s a good time for us here at LatinoLikeMe to do the same.

In 1898, as a result of a war with Spain, the United States became a formal imperial power, taking possession of Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico (as well as a host of other islands in the South Pacific). From 1898 to 1900 the US ruled the island as an occupying force. Then, with the passage of the Organic Act of 1900—also known as the Foraker Act—Congress provided for a prolonged condition of imperial rule for the island, under the illusion of representative democracy.

Puerto Rico’s colonial government consisted of a Governor, an Executive Council of 11, and a House of Delegates comprised of 35 members. However, it was the US President who appointed the Governor, with the approval of the Senate. Then the Governor, with the oversight of the President, appointed the Executive Council of 11, providing that 5 members were “native inhabitants of Porto Rico.” Puerto Ricans elected the House of Delegates, but the President, the island Governor, and the Congress all had veto power over anything they passed.

The people of the island had no voice in the United States political system, even though the US had all power over them. They were allowed to elect a nonvoting resident commissioner who represented them to Congress, but this position held little sway.

In 1917, the US Congress extended US citizenship to the people of Puerto Rico, a move Puerto Ricans received with mixed feelings. Some supported the move, envisioning it as a step toward statehood. Some opposed it, seeing it as an impediment to full independence.

The Unionist Party on the island fell in the opposition camp. Originally dedicated to independence for their island, the Unionists amended their platform to more affirmatively support increase “autonomy,” a move made to garner more support in Washington. That didn’t stop their overall dream, however.

Luis Muñoz Rivera (pictured below) was one of the founders of the Unionists, serving as their party head. He also served as the nonvoting representative of Puerto Rico to the Congress. In 1916, as Congress debated citizenship and other matters, he made his views on the matter clear, while also phrasing his stance in as politic a way as possible:

We, the Unionists, believe that from the standpoint of American national interest this question of citizenship should be left undecided for the present, in order to prevent a possible embarrassment in the international policies of this country as a result of premature action—an international policy which includes at the present time open tendencies toward closer relations and a better understanding with the Latin Republics of South and Central America and the West Indies.

I believe that, in view of the divided opinion on the subject existing in Porto Rico, this Congress will lose nothing by waiting for future events to determine or indicate in a more precise manner the path that should hereafter be followed in this matter. No one expects Porto Rico to continue always a colony. Statehood or independence appear at the present time to be very remote measures. To declare now American citizenship for the Porto Ricans does not answer any practical purpose, especially when this Congress is about to promise independence to the Filipinos and when a former Congress granted independence to the Cubans. Neither Cuba or the Philippine Islands is superior to Porto Rico as regards the ability to maintain a national life of its own. They are both larger in territory, but not more civilized or wealthier in proportion to their respective areas.

The US-appointed governor of the island, Arthur Yager, supported citizenship in his testimony, while he also made it clear to the House of Representatives committee that, in his view, independence was “absurd.” When asked If the island was “in a condition of development such as would enable them to carry on a representative government,” Yager replied “Oh, no.”

Well, the tools with which we have to carry on self-government are dangerous and difficult tools, an no people without some experience and development could handle those tool without danger to themselves. I do not believe that there is any Latin American country on the continent now, with perhaps the exception of those older and stronger nations south of the equator, where they can hold an absolutely fair election, and without a fair election you can not have self-government. I do not believe there has ever been a perfectly fair election in many Latin American countries, as, for example, in Santo Domingo.

In 1917, Congress passed the so-called Jones Act, extending US citizenship to Puerto Ricans. Though Puerto Rico is now called a “Commonwealth,” it remains in, nearly every sense, a colony of the United States.

Text from “A Civil Government for Porto Rico,” Hearings Before the Committee on Insular Affairs, House of Representatives, 64th Congress, 1st session, January 13 and 15, 1916, pages 10, 11-12.

Original Intent

When I hear some politician or pundit pander to the radical right with talk of no taxes and no government, I often think about George Washington’s “cover letter” to the US Constitution.

The letter was actually written by the Committee on Style of the Constitutional Convention, and unanimously approved by the entire delegate body (as far as we know, without debate).  As President of Federal Convention, George Washington signed the letter.  It was sent along with the newly approved Constitution to the Continental Congress (and its President, Arthur St. Clair), who then sent both along to the states for ratification.

Contrary to “New Federalists” and their assertions that real sovereignty lies with the people of the states, and that the Founders believed in a highly limited national government, Washington’s letter is a thoughtful statement on the need for a federal government.  He explains the consensus of the delegates that “Individuals entering into society, must give up a share of liberty to preserve the rest.”  He also describes a healthy government being one of consensus built on a recognition of the need “to be less rigid on points of inferior magnitude.”

Here’s the full text for your enjoyment:

Letter from the President of the Federal Convention, September 17, 1787, to the President of the Congress, Transmitting the Constitution.

Sir,

We have now the honor to submit to the consideration of the United States in Congress assembled, that Constitution which has appeared to us the most adviseable.

The friends of our country have long seen and desired, that the power of making war, peace, treaties, that of levying money and regulating commerce, and the correspondent executive and judicial authorities should be fully and effectually vested in the general government of the Union: But the impropriety of delegating such extensive trust to one body of men is evident—Hence results the necessity of a different organization.

It is obviously impracticable in the federal government of these states, to secure all rights of independent sovereignty to each, and yet to provide for the interest and safety of all: Individuals entering into society, must give up a share of liberty to preserve the rest. The magnitude of the sacrifice must depend as well on situation and circumstance, as the object to be obtained. It is at all times difficult to draw with precision the line between those rights which must be surrendered, and those which may be reserved; and on the present occasion this difficulty was increased by a difference among the several states as to their situation, extent, habits, and particular interests.

In all our deliberations on this subject we kept steadily in our view, that which appears to us the greatest interest of every true American, the consolidation of our Union, in which is involved our prosperity, felicity, safety, perhaps our national existence. This important consideration, seriously and deeply impressed on our minds, led each state in the Convention to be less rigid on points of inferior magnitude, than might have been otherwise expected; and this the Constitution, which we now present, is the result of a spirit of amity, and of that mutual deference and concession which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensable.

That it will meet the full and entire approbation of every state is not perhaps to be expected; but each will doubtless consider, that had her interest been alone consulted, the consequences might have been particularly disagreeable or injurious to others; that it is liable to as few exceptions as could reasonably have been expected, we hope and believe; that it may promote the lasting welfare of that country so dear to us all, and secure her freedom and happiness, is our most ardent wish.

With great respect, We have the honor to be, Sir,

Your Excellency’s
most obedient and humble servants,

GEORGE WASHINGTON, President

By unanimous Order of the Convention.

His Excellency the PRESIDENT OF CONGRESS.

Why Repealing Birthright Citizenship is More Difficult Than You Think

In recent months, the “movement” to repeal jus soli–or “birthright citizenship–seems to be gathering steam.

I use the term “movement” cautiously because, at heart, this is really about political posturing by the right. While there are groups of people who have consistently advocated for this kind of revision of the US Constitution, they haven’t done anything in the last half year to warrant this new attention. What has changed is the number of high-profile politicians and pundits who have made this their “cause of the day” in the hope of securing their election, re-election, and/or high ratings.

The most visible evidence of their work is a now mainstream discussion of the danger of so-called “anchor babies,” or children born to “illegal” immigrants. As this rightist argument goes, the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution–which bestows citizenship on anyone born in the US–acts as a motivation for illegal immigration by promoting a wave of pregnant migrants who come to the US to have children and then use those children to secure their own residency.

I want to point out a few things that are missing in the wider debate, “realities” which should guide your understanding of this very important issue. The first one is simple enough–this “movement” has very little chance of ever being successful.

Repealing or amending part of the US Constitution is an extremely difficult thing to do. It is prohibitive by design, since nobody wants a country where the fundamental laws of the land can change with the whims of the age. Accordingly, changing any amendment requires the rarest of political conditions. To do it, supporters of a new Amendment (which is how you amend another Amendment) would need to follow one of two courses: 1) get a two-thirds majority of both the House and the Senate to pass the Amendment, and then get three-fourths of all States to approve it; or 2) get two-thirds of all States to hold a Constitutional Convention proposing the Amendment, and then get three-fourths of all States to approve it. Neither one of these scenarios has a chance of mustering even the slightest chance of coming to pass relating to the 14th Amendment.

Now, this reality is an important one to grasp, before we engage in any other debate about the issue. The only reason this “movement” has seemingly become so successful is because politicians–from Lindsay Graham to John McCain–are spouting off about “anchor babies” and the reasonableness of having hearings on repealing jus soli. But these politicians know the process that is required of such a move. They know it has no chance of passing, let alone ever being considered by the House or Senate under this (or any recent) configuration. So why doth they protest?

So, before we continue, let’s get our head around the fact that this is an esoteric discussion being led by politicians who are trying to secure their electability among a small yet vocal fringe of their party.

The second reality passing us by is the second point I would like to make: repealing birthright citizenship opens a mess of legal complexities, many of which do not benefit the US. Supporters of this act like the issue is an easy one since all it would do it stop Mexicans from coming to the US and having their babies. What it would really do is provoke a global war on citizenship.

Let’s say a child is born in to an “illegal” parent in a United States where jus soli is not the law of the land. We say this child is not a citizen and they must be deported. But to where? Having been born in the US, they are not a citizen in any other nation of the world. Barring bureaucratic measures taken by the parent on the behalf of the child, they would now be a human being who has no citizenship.

You can’t deport them without the other nation agreeing to take them, which is highly unlikely since they have no vested interest in accepting, en masse, people they consider to be your citizens. So now you have a class of people within your national borders who are neither citizens–ostensibly deprived of rights as basic as the right to exist within your national limits–and yet who are, in fact, legally present within your nation. How do you house them? What do they get to do? What do they not get to do? Do you raise them in federal orphanages? Do they go to school? What happens when they turn 18?

How about this: let’s say we have a child born to an “illegal” mother but the father is “legal.” What about the reverse? Is the child deprived of citizenship or not? Does this differ if the “legal” parent is a naturalized US citizen, a US-born citizen, or a legal permanent resident (LPR)? What if we decide one parent who is a citizen is enough? Are there penalties for pro-creating with an “illegal”? And what about victims of rape? What about women who do not divulge the father’s name or status?

And then there is this complication: what level of “illegality” is necessary to strip a native-born child from becoming a US citizen? Only if the parent is residing in the US without authorization? Do we include people who are here “legally” but working “illegally”? What about people who were once here legally but have overstayed their visa? Does it matter when the migrant gets pregnant? Let’s say they child is conceived when the parent(s) are legal but born when one or both are not? What if the child is born on the exact day a visa expires? What if the migrant has been here for years, unauthorized, but then gets pregnant. Certainly not an “anchor baby.” And what about legal guestworkers who get pregnant and have children while they are working?

These scenarios are hardly far fetched. When you are dealing with a nation the size of the US, who actively promotes the informal importation of as many unauthorized workers as we do, these scenarios are common. They would also clog the US legal system and bring it to a standstill while we worked it all out. Whatever the solution, there would be so many ways around it and/or so many gross violations of common decency as a result, nobody would be pleased with the outcome.

Finally–and I think the most compelling reality that exposes this entire effort for the political smokescreen that it is–the advocates of repealing jus soli are basing their analysis on a bunch of misinformation. When it comes down to it, “anchor babies” do not exist in any measurable fashion. The offensive phenomenon of “stop and drop” is a myth.

This recent report from the Pew Hispanic Center is causing a stir because it estimates that better than 12% of all the children born in the US are born to “illegal immigrant parents.” This seems to statistically demonstrate the level of our “crisis.” But, the report also calculates that as many as 80% of the “illegal” parents have been in the US for one-year or longer. (In case you didn’t know, human babies take about 9 months to gestate.)

Furthermore, because of the data they used, the report does not separate between those children who have one parent who is “illegal” and those who have two. Other fairly recent reports (one, two, three) suggest the number of children with “mixed” parents (in terms of legal status) may be rather high.

So where does this leave us?

If the politicians and pundits know everything that I just described to you, then they are purposefully manipulating the information in order to strike fear in their constituencies. You might ask why they would do such a thing.

If they don’t know what I have just described to you, then they are dumb, uneducated, and/or misinformed. You might ask yourself why people who are elected to represent you don’t do the simple work of research and learning about complex issues before they take stands on them. You might also ask why people who make millions of dollars on TV talking to you about these issues don’t either.

In either case, repealing the 14th Amendment is not only a bad idea, but one that works against any stable democratic republic. And, when it comes down to it, it will do nothing to curb the flow of “illegal” immigration to the US, a phenomenon that exists because of two things: systemic poverty in Mexico and active recruitment and labor needs in the US.

Trivial Presidential Trivia

The life of an untenured professor is a busy one, not to mention rarely free from the relentless pressure that you should be doing something “productive” with your time.  For this Chicano, that means doing things other than updating this lovely blog.

So, to find a little balance in my work life, I thought I’d offer up a little something that might make your day a little more interesting, something that doesn’t take up too much of my time in the process.  The result: Presidential Trivia! Ever since I was a little chicanito in the 80s, I’ve been a fan of trivial factoids related to the US Presidency, one of the many tendencies in my early life foreshadowing my present life as a historian.

So enjoy!

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  • Only two US Presidents took their oath on something other than a Bible.
  • John Quincy Adams tooks his oath on a stack of US laws, out of his love for the rule of the same.
  • Franklin Pierce refused a Bible for his oath, stuck, as he was, in a spiritual crisis after the death of his 12 year-old son (post-election).  Pierce also opted not to “swear” to “faithfully execute” his office but instead chose to “affirm.”  He is the only one to have made such a choice.
  • Llyod Bentsen got 1 electoral vote for Prez in 1988, from West VA elector Margaret Leach (she was protesting the Electoral College system). He is the last person to receive an electoral vote who was not one of either of the two major parties nominee for President. Of course, he was the Democratic nominee for VP that year.
  • JFK was the first President elected with a 50 state electoral map.
  • The first nationally televised presidential debates were the ones between JFK and Nixon in1960. Nixon was widely considered to have flopped, and he learned his lesson. The second debate contest to be televised didn’t happen until 1976, when Carter debated incumbent Ford.
  • Jimmy Carter was the first US President to be born in a hospital.
  • Among his many jobs, Lincoln is the only US President to have served as a Postmaster (New Salem, IL, from 1833-37).
  • John Tyler–who served only one term as president, from 1841-45–didn’t retire quietly. He served in the Confederate Congress from 1861-62 making him the only US president to serve in the Confederate Government.
  • James K. Polk holds the record for shortest term as a “former US President.” He died 3 months after leaving office.
  • At least 3 US Presidents killed Latin Americans in Latin America (by their own hand): Zachary Taylor (General in during the US-Mexico War); Ulysses S. Grant (soldier during the US-Mexico War); and Teddy Roosevelt (who left his position as Secretary of the Navy to go fight in the Spanish-American War in Puerto Rico).
  • Lyndon B. Johnson was the first US President to say the words “Mexican American” in public remarks as president.
  • Two US Presidents have been impeached: Andrew Johnson (1868) and Bill Clinton (1998). The Senate acquitted both.
  • With a tenure of 32 days, William Henry Harrison holds the record for shortest time in office.
  • At upwards of 360 pounds, William Howard Taft was the fattest president in US history.
  • Only one president was a bachelor when elected: James Buchanan.
  • 8 US presidents died in office. 3 of those were assassinated.
  • The last president born in the 1800s was Dwight D. Eisenhower (born 1890).
  • Herbert Hoover set the Presidential record for living the most years after leaving office: just over 31 years 7 months. This record has a chance of being beat in a two years. Carter will beat Hoover if he makes it to 2012 (he’ll be 88 years old if he does). George H.W. Bush tops Hoover in 2024 (if he makes it to 100). Bill Clinton in 2032 ( when he’ll be 86). And George W. Bush has to wait until 2040 (when he’ll be 94).

Chicano History Month #2

The below slice of a longer historical primary source is offered to you for your learning pleasure as part of this year’s “Latino Heritage Month.”

Today, we have a brief excerpt from a letter written from the Secretary of Labor to an influential Representative in the Congress, in 1924. In that year, the Congress passed the most sweeping reform to immigration law in US history. The Johnson-Reed Act (Immigration Act of 1924) tightened up the immigration quota system first reflected in legislation in 1921. As a result, the US set quotas for the allowable number of immigrants from a given nation. The numbers were set based on their share of the US population in the 1890 Census. This meant that immigrants from England and Germany would be ore numerous than those from Italy and Greece. Other legislation of the time also forbade outright immigrants from Asia. Interestingly, Mexicans and other Latin Americans were exempt. The following letter expresses some concern about the movement of Mexican nationals into the US while also reflecting the reason for the exemption.

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SOURCE: From a letter from Hon. James J. Davis, Secretary of Labor, to Hon. Cyrenus Cole, House of Representatives, United States Congress, April 15, 1924.

“On May 22, 1917, the United States Secretary of Labor issued an order instructing immigration officials on the Mexican border to disregard the literacy test, the contract-labor section, and the head-tax provision of the immigration law with reference to the coming of Mexican people who were to engage as workmen in agricultural pursuits. This order remained in force until March 2, 1921, or until within two days of the passing out of the Wilson administration. I have never been able to find out how many people came in under that provision.”

Mexicans after the U.S.-Mexican War

Beginning in spring 1846, after various diplomatic, informal economic, and unofficial militaristic attempts to take and occupy part of Mexico’s northern frontier, the U.S. declared war on its southern neighbor.  A decade after their politically unresolved dispute over Tejas, this war lasted for about one and a half years and resulted in the transfer of almost half of Mexico’s territory to the United States.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 2, 1848 and ratified by both nations the subsequent spring, agreed to a payment of $15 million for the lost territory; settled the dispute over Texas in the favor of the United States; made stipulations about the land transfer; and detailed responsibilities and obligations regarding the actions of the Native Americans living on much of that land (many of whom never recognized a “foreign” power sovereignty over them and, accordingly, were hostile to Mexico and the United States).  The Treaty also detailed what was to become of the Mexicans living in the newly conquered territories.

Mexicans in the now occupied lands were to be protected under the laws of the United States and the Treaty.  They retained the right to their language, religion, and culture.  Their property and land was protected by the law.  As for citizenship, they were offered one of three options: 1) declare their intent to retain Mexican citizenship; 2) leave to Mexico; or 3) become U.S. citizens by declaration or by doing nothing.

This was the first time in U.S. history that citizenship was extended to a population that was not formally recognized as “white” by the federal government.

Two generations later, most Mexicans living in the U.S. no longer held title to their lands and found their cultural way of life increasingly under attack as U.S. white supremacy came to predominate.  In California, as land transferred from Mexican to Euro-American hands, a very racially-motivated Workingman’s Party dominated the call for a Constitutional Convention.  In 1879, that new Constitution not only made Chinese immigration illegal (the primary cause of the Party), but it also destroyed the legal protections Mexicans once enjoyed, rights promised to them in the 1848 Treaty.  California once required Spanish and English as the languages of it official business.  Now the new Constitution followed the already common practice of an English language state.

The “nation of laws” violated international and domestic laws in order to secure a democracy for some (white, European, male) at the expense of others (Mexican and nonwhite).

For more information, see:
Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California (Almaguer);
Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race (Gomez); and
Border Citizens: The Making of Indians, Mexicans, and Anglos in Arizona (Meeks)

For more details on life for Mexicans in California after the war, see the classic Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish-Speaking Californias, 1846-1890 (Pitts).  The newer Negotiating Conquest: Gender and Power in California, 1770s to 1880s (Chavez-Garcia), which pays particular attention to issues of gender and sexuality, is also an excellent source.

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Sean Hannity Celebrates White Supremacy

FOX News talking head Sean Hannity aired a video clip of Sonia Sotomayor, Supreme Court nominee, wherein she states “I am a product of affirmative action. I am the perfect affirmative action baby.” He introduced the clip by saying:

Apparently being the beneficiary of reverse discrimination is a matter of pride for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. Included in some of the materials recently submitted to Congress for the confirmation process is a tape of Judge Sotomayor singing the praises of affirmative action.

The title of this blog post may not be sincere, but it’s not too far off the mark either.  You see, when Hannity takes a complicated issue like race and opportunity, and then reduces it down to a trite form of rhetorical spin by calling it “reverse discrimination,” well, he has to live with the equally rational consequences.  Sean Hannity thinks white people should get opportunities because they are white.  That is “white supremacy” in its practical (and most frequent) application.

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Because that’s what affirmative action sought to do.  It sought to undo what had been a centuries-long policy of affirmative action for “white” folks by trying to identify qualified or potentially qualified people of color and provide for them an opportunity to achieve.  It is vital to note, that opportunity was a mere slice of the government-funded opportunities afforded to “white” people.

Even if we only consider that period in US history from the 1930s to the 1970s–when new programs of “white” affirmative action were instituted and, later, new programs for people of color followed–this case becomes clear.  We can list the government-protected benefits which were both formally and informally denied to nonwhites: Social Security; job training in the Armed Forces; the full use of the GI Bill; unemployment benefits; FHA home loans; government incentives for home ownership; union rights; minimum wage and overtime rights; and the list goes on and on. This doesn’t even substantially include the day-to-day forms of discrimination people of color formally encountered.  This doesn’t include the other systemic forms of marginalization they faced (lack of protected voting rights and the like).

Affirmative action is often seen as a creation of the 1960s or 1970s, but that policy was crafted from the government-sponsored incentives and benefit structures of an earlier part of the century.  Calling it “reverse discrimination” separates it from its historical context and tries to analyze it as only a discrete practice–discrimination in the literal sense.  But it’s a hollow metaphor.  It’s the equivalent of calling a cup of water an ocean.

The failure of affirmative action was not in the Sonia Sotomayors of this world, people who have proven their distinction of being recipients of affirmative action policies.  Its failure isn’t in the way it discriminated against “whites,” a class of people whose status within the benefit structures of US society continues to reign supreme.  It is in the way affirmative action policies turned “racial justice” into “racial representation.”

Even when it opened up the spigot to people of color, it never turned it off for “whites.”  More importantly, it never forced “whites” to even consider why it was they were soaking wet.  Dripping all over the floor, it continued to allow an entire society of people to pretend that they were bone dry and thirsty.

Affirmative action was flawed, yes.  But it sought to address a real problem, one Sean Hannity won’t even acknowledge exists, because it is one that benefits him to this day.