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The 1940-50s was a period of time that catalyzed large economic, political, social, and cultural shifts for Latinos in the United States. In my essay, I will focus on the effects of Mexican immigration patterns during World War II, the development of counter scripts in response to shifts in 1950’s social trends, and the rise of the national youth demographic to discuss the emergence of Latinos as “Mexican-Americans” and the new presence they held in American society post World War II.
In the early 1940s, the United States was enveloped in World War II and experiencing a dramatic lack in the labor force due to U.S. workers being called to the armed forces and defense industries. The Bracero Program, a system designed to provide cheap labor for the U.S. during wartime by organizing temporary six month labor contracts to Mexicans, filled much of the gap in the agriculture and manufacturing sectors, and bolstered military forces. However, due to blatant cruel and inhumane treatment of bracero workers, many Mexicans entered the country as undocumented “wetback” aliens to avoid horrific racist attacks and obtain marginally better wages outside the mangled and corrupt program. Mexico’s most significant contribution to the war effort, more crucial than the thousands of Mexican nationals who served in the US army, was the vast army of braceros, or “soldiers on the farm front” (Foley 121) who were able to keep food on the tables of the American families.
The implication of a staggering 4.5 million bracero workers, not counting “wetbacks”, who entered the country between 1942-1964 and settled instead of returning to Mexico soon instilled a great fear in the American people. Neil Foley’s book, Mexicans in the Making of America, describes how “the fear of a wetback invasion in the 1950s echoed the fear in the 1940s that the Axis Powers might invade the hemisphere through Mexico and prefigured the immigration backlash of the 1990s and border fence security measure after 9/11”. The Latino population in the Southwest grew rapidly, especially along the border states as braceros had their work contracts extended for almost the entire year while waiting for the U.S. to arrange more train and bus transportation back to Mexico (Foley). Recognizing the crucial role they had in preserving the web of American life during wartime, Mexican unions started to organize and demand better treatment and equal rights to white workers, challenging the inherently unjust system the U.S. had designed to ensure access to cheap labor.
Looking at the significant contributions Mexicans had made, the U.S. government was unsettled by the obvious foothold Mexicans had gained, yet determined to ignore the same values of democracy, equality and justice that U.S. troops had been fighting for in WWII and continue to oppress Mexican immigrants for their own economic, political, and ideological reasons. Economically, Mexicans had provided a cheap labor force in the agriculture and manufacturing sectors since before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. Though bracero and wetback wages were measly and unjust in comparison to those given to white workers, this income sent back to Mexico was vital to the economic health of the country. Mexico had effectively “hitched its economic wagon to the United States” (Foley 123). By exploiting this economic dependency and undercutting Mexican workers, the U.S. was able to save millions of dollars with this “deportable”, and “disposable” cheap labor force.
The political implications of race in the 1950’s were even more astounding. Many American citizens were still implicitly racist and it was almost impossible for campaigns to win seats in office without exercising “dog whistle politics”, a strategy of applying racist interpretations to policies and legislations without explicitly mentioning race. The fact that governor of Alabama George Wallace lost elections multiple times for being “soft on the race question” (Lopez 14), and did not win until he began incorporating underlying racial appeals into his campaign, demonstrates the immense emphasis American voters placed on racial issues. Wallace recalls of his series of campaigns, “I started off talking about schools and highways and prisons and taxes – and I couldn’t make them listen. Then I began talking about niggers – and they stomped the floor” (Lopez 14). American politics in the 1950’s further applied racialization and racial scripts to minorities as the “Southern Strategy” became the sole way to secure the intrinsically racist white man’s vote (Lopez).
Socially and ideologically, the U.S. pursuit of “manifest destiny” was the leading national interest. The dark skinned Spanish speaking neighbors to the South were considered of “mixed stock” and Indian descent, therefore not included in the body of people chosen by God to settle the Western frontier and spread democracy and civilization. Even though Mexicans had been the backbone of the agriculture and industry sectors for decades, living and working on American soil, they continued to be perceived as a menial race incapable of assimilating to American culture and therefore would not be acknowledged for their desire for progress or standing in society.
The U.S. took action to repress Mexicans’ mobility on a number of fronts: The 1952 Taft-Hartley Act undermined the expansion of unions and made it harder for them to form, organize and strike, as exemplified in the revolutionary film Salt of the Earth. In 1954, the execution of Operation Wetback consisted of immigration officers raiding fields, factories, and businesses and rampantly deporting thousands of Mexicans, regardless of their status as illegal aliens or naturalized citizens. In the face of broken families and suffocating communities due to these oppressive policies, Latinos began to mobilize and resist. In Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Committee for Protection of the Foreign Born (LACPFB) worked to counter the efforts of Operation Roundup, the local chapter of Operation Wetback. The American G.I. Forum (AGIF) assembled to ensure that Mexican veterans received the same benefits, such as education, employment, and small business loans, that U.S. veterans were entitled to in the G.I. Bill (Mora). The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) was a major player in situations like the Hernandez v. Texas case, which challenged the constitutionality of excluding Mexicans from jury duty and led to the establishment of “Mexican” as its own racial category to be incorporated into jury selection (Foley).
This mobilization of resistance to U.S. foreign policy and white supremacy resembles what Natalie Molina describes in her book, How Race is Made in America, as a “counterscript”, a new culture, meaning, and set of characteristics self ascribed to a group in resistance to a social script previously forced upon them based on race. Instead of playing a role as incompetent and inferior “disposable” workers, Mexicans sought to emerge as educated, equal, valuable members of the workforce and greater society.
Much of the fuel for the evolution of this counterscript was a result of colossal social shifts in 1950’s America. During this era, American culture was bound in rigid social roles used to create a sense of consistency and security in the face of the tension and fear brought on by World War II, immigration issues, the Red Scare, spreading of McCarthyism, and the Cold War. With the horizon relatively clear of further national calamities, several demographics, including Latinos, African Americans, and women decided to break free from the age of conformity and push the boundaries of social normalities and further develop their respective counter scripts for the coming era(Saragoza).
Professor of Chicano Studies, Alexander Saragoza, recently lectured on the UC Berkeley campus about the myriad of social shifts that occurred in the 1950’s. He explained the progression of national education with the statistic that seven million students were on track to earn college degrees by the mid 1950’s, compared to only one million in 1950. This increase of college graduates led to a growing middle class with a newfound awareness of the inequality and injustice in the U.S., especially the history and treatment of minorities. This awareness rippled through American households as the expansion of television networks and prominent presence of the media increased access to information, ideas and different ways of thinking spurred by civil rights movements across the nation. Furthermore, the stark realization of economic difference and encroaching gentrification on the array of vibrant Latino communities in places like L.A. motivated youth such as Sal Castro to take action and advocate for the rights of Latino communities (García).
Perhaps the demographic that resonated the most with these social shifts was not Latinos, African Americans, Asians, nor even women, but the broader demographic of youth. American society in the 1950s experienced an enormous cultural shift with the construction of the “teenage adolescent”; a young adult born after WWII who was not interested in political, economic, ideological, and racial tensions. These teenagers comprised a generation who did not want the American made car, white picket fence, green lawn, nine-to-five job, stay at home wife, and cookie cutter life so prominent in 1950’s American culture. This generation cried out in angst and restlessness, cutting through the tired droning of conformity and ideological stagnation and forming yet another counterscript: one of a generation willing to leave the confines of the whitewashed American suburbs and experiment with clothing, drugs, dancing, music, sex, wild behavior, unorthodox relationships, and revolutionary ideas.
Television and radio stations constantly broadcast sounds and images of youth across the country dancing to rock and roll music and prominent activists engaging in social and political riots. With unlimited access to visuals and ideas of the civil rights movement and the newlyfound spirit of rebellion, youth across the nation began to formulate the leading revolutionary ideas of the time and actively speak out in protest about the growing inequality and injustice that their parents were too ignorant, brainwashed, or inherently racist to address(Saragoza).
More specifically, while Latino elders were still too fearful to stand up in the face of ruthless discrimination, their children had long left behind the stereotypes and racial scripts of their first wave immigrant ancestors and sought to create their own counter script as “Mexican-Americans”. The Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 catalogued the presence of these counter scripts in L.A. with Latino youth demonstrating lawlessness and rebellion in the face of injustice and accusation based on race. American sailors stationed in L.A. had long targeted Mexicans, African American, and other minorities to blow off steam before being shipped off, but the generation of rebellious Chicano men donning baggy suits called “zoot suits” was the first to fight back. Their fiery spirit and neoteric clothing became a social statement announcing that Mexicans were assimilating into society while simultaneously creating their own culture, style, and identity. These interactions reflect and reveal the profound polarization between two groups of wartime youth: American service men and sailors in the Marines, and colored youth in gangs back home (Youtube).
The 1940’s and 50’s were a crucial time for Latinos in the U.S. as movements of resistance grew at a matching rate to oppressive and racist U.S. foreign policies. The newly developed counter scripts and culture of activism found in the organizations and civil rights advocates at the time would lead to tremendous feats for Mexican Americans in the 60’s and 70’s. For Mexicans, the 40’s and 50’s was an era of frustration, shifting consciousness, and mobilization that would lead to social awakening, empowerment of minorities, and the creation of a new identity for Mexican Americans in the United States.
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