When we think about Mexican immigration to el norte, we must examine it under historical context. That is, unlike the millions of European immigrants who travelled across an entire ocean to settle in North America, Mexicans have always occupied this land or called it home until it was stolen from them by military force. Moreover, like in the case of Native Americans and the brutal history of broken treaties by the US government, the Mexicans in el norte lost their basic rights under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Given their historical memory, this is one reason why the millions of Mexicans who make their journey to the US (with or without legal status), especially to the Southwest, don’t view themselves as law breakers or so-called ‘illegals’.
Like the homing pigeon, the Mexican is simply returning to the motherland.
Despite the loss of their ancestral lands, the impact or contributions of Mexicans (immigrants, residents and citizens) to American cities, suburbs, rural communities and agricultural fields during the past 170 years has been positive, overall. Moreover, while Mexicans in el norte don’t receive the credit that they deserve, they’ve contributed greatly (and continue to the present) in many areas of American society and its economy, including agriculture, music, art, construction, infrastructure, transportation (e.g., railroads, freeways, roads), medicine, mining, ranching, science, the military, the academy and beyond. Essentially, there’s no doubt that individuals of Mexican origin played a key role (to the present) to help make this country into the richest, most advanced and powerful country in the world.
Despite being defeated militarily during the 1800s and experiencing institutional racism, Mexicans have migrated to this country – along with those who’ve settled prior to the US war against Mexico – to work, create jobs, study, serve in the military, raise families, etc. For instance, during the second half of the 19th Century, Mexican immigrants and their offspring represented a key labor force in agriculture, railroad construction, mining and other key sectors. However, instead of being rewarded for their labor contributions with adequate financial compensation and upward mobility opportunities, they’ve experienced racism (to the present) in the workforce and beyond. For example, according to Takaki, working on white-owned ranches in Texas, “Mexican laborer[s] found themselves in a caste system – a racially stratified occupational hierarchy.”
During the 1800s and most of the 1900s, it was very common to see Mexicans and Chicanas/os (Mexican-Americans) employed as laborers/workers, while whites worked as supervisors or managers. This racial hierarchy in the workforce, along with the unequal educational system, has limited the occupational status of Mexican immigrants and Chicanas/os. Yet, despite being relegated to the bottom of the economic workforce, which included agricultural programs like the Bracero Program–the US-Mexico guest worker program of the mid-19thcentury–the Mexican people in el norte have a strong tradition of organizing for social and economic justice. For example, according to Takaki, in 1903, “… hundreds of Mexicans and Japanese farm workers went on strike in Oxnard, California.” This is just one example, apart from the case of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and Brown Berets of the 1960s and 1970s, where Mexicans and Chicanas/os defended their labor and civil rights through labor strikes, civil disobedience, protests, marches and so on.
Moreover, despite being a racial minority in this country, Mexicans and Chicanas/os served in the military in higher rates compared to whites. According to Acuña, during WWII, while Chicanas/os represented only 2.69 million residents in the U.S., between 375,000 to 500,000 Chicanos served in the war. Despite their contributions and sacrifices, it didn’t stop the U.S. government from implementing “Operation Wetback” in early 1954, where Mexican immigrants and Chicanas/os were deported in mass to Mexico. It’s obvious to me that their military and labor contributions weren’t appreciated by the U.S. government, after all.
As a of son of Mexican immigrants, this issue is not just an academic exercise for me. It’s also personal. For instance, like millions of her paisanas, while my late mother Carmen toiled in the informal economy as a domestic worker in this country for many decades, middle- and upper-class whites pursued economic opportunities and leisure activities outside of the household.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Brief History Notes on Mexican Immigration to the US’. Courtesy: Counterpunch.org