Mex­i­cans in the Mak­ing of Amer­ica

by Neil Fo­ley, Belk­nap Press/ Har­vard Uni­ver­sity Press, 368 pages

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS -

In the midst of World War II, with troops in Europe and Asia, the U.S. feared Mex­ico, be­liev­ing the na­tion har­bored nu­mer­ous Ger­man na­tion­als poised to re­cruit Latin Amer­i­cans for the Axis forces. The fear didn’t stop at the bor­der. In a con­fi­den­tial re­port, U.S. of­fi­cials warned that the “sub­marginal” living stan­dards of Mex­i­cans re­sid­ing in the U.S. made them sus­cep­ti­ble to Nazi pro­pa­ganda. And so, in 1942, the feds leaned on New Mex­ico State Se­na­tor Den­nis Chavez to de­liver a Span­ish­language cri de coeur in de­fense of the Amer­i­can Dream that would air on 130 ra­dio sta­tions through­out the South­west and Mex­ico.

Truth, as they say, is of­ten the first casualty of war. But the fact that Amer­i­can lead­ers of the era con­sid­ered Mex­i­can im­mi­grants quite ca­pa­ble of aid­ing the Third Re­ich goes a long way to­ward ex­plain­ing the xeno­pho­bic hos­til­ity that Mex­i­cans and Mex­i­can-Amer­i­cans are of­ten sub­jected to in the U.S.

This wartime episode is one of many dis­turb­ing and fas­ci­nat­ing vignettes in his­to­rian Neil Fo­ley’s new ac­count of Mex­i­can lives in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, cul­ture, and eco­nomics. A Ful­bright, Guggen­heim, and Woodrow Wil­son fel­low, Fo­ley pro­vides a panoramic les­son about “Mex­i­can Amer­ica” that be­gins with the Spa­niards, mes­ti­zos, and In­di­ans of the 16th-cen­tury colo­nial prov­ince of Nuevo Mex­ico. He car­ries the timeline through its five-cen­tury stretch to a fu­ture in which one in three U.S. res­i­dents will be Latino. (De­mog­ra­phers es­ti­mate that this shift in pop­u­la­tion will have oc­curred by 2050.)

Fo­ley’s nar­ra­tive re­ally picks up steam with the U.S. con­quest of the north­ern half of Mex­ico (Ari­zona, Cal­i­for­nia, Ne­vada, New Mex­ico, parts of Colorado) in 1848. He demon­strates how this Amer­i­can an­nex­a­tion made pos­si­ble the com­ple­tion of bi­na­tional rail­way links that, in essence, es­tab­lished both coun­tries’ bor­der states as “a sin­gle eco­nomic re­gion with two-way, cycli­cal migration.” (For ex­am­ple, dur­ing the 1920s, U.S. oil com­pa­nies sent thou­sands of un­skilled Amer­i­can men to the Mex­i­can gulf coast — cov­er­ing their travel and visa ex­penses and pay­ing them pre­mium wages — all be­cause they didn’t want to hire Mex­i­cans.)

Mex­i­cans in the Mak­ing of Amer­ica enu­mer­ates the va­ri­eties of le­gal­ized racial dis­crim­i­na­tion levied on Mex­i­cans and Mex­i­can-Amer­i­cans — such as Texas’ seg­re­gated schools and public fa­cil­i­ties, which per­sisted well into the 1950s. Fo­ley also sheds light on the De­pres­sion-era na­tivist groups fil­ing law­suits that chal­lenged Mex­i­cans’ right to be­come nat­u­ral­ized U.S. cit­i­zens, claim­ing that their dark skin and In­dian her­itage vi­o­lated the na­tion’s whites-only im­mi­gra­tion laws then in ex­is­tence.

Con­versely, he also lo­cates the start of a civil rights move­ment with Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can sol­diers in World War II who would in­te­grate the Armed Forces, prove them­selves in battle, and re­turn to the U.S. gal­va­nized to form civic groups to com­bat dis­crim­i­na­tion. Fo­ley digs deeply into the civil rights move­ments of the 1960s and 1970s, an­a­lyz­ing the Coors beer boy­cott, the racist Frito Ban­dito ads, the Chi­cano stu­dent move­ment, and the en­trance of Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can vot­ers and can­di­dates into elec­toral pol­i­tics. He brings new at­ten­tion to the po­lit­i­cal dy­nam­ics of the 1980s, the so-called Decade of the His­panic that saw Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan’s ground­break­ing le­gal­iza­tion of three mil­lion Mex­i­can im­mi­grants and the sub­se­quent back­lash over im­mi­gra­tion, bilin­gual ed­u­ca­tion, and im­mi­grant ac­cess to public ed­u­ca­tion that re­ver­ber­ates to this day.

What may be most tren­chant for some New Mex­ico read­ers is Fo­ley’s brief but lu­cid dis­cus­sion con­cern­ing “the Fan­tasy Her­itage of the South­west.” While this ter­rain has been cov­ered be­fore, the au­thor con­trib­utes an anal­y­sis of how Indo-His­pano New Mex­i­cans latched onto a Span­ish iden­tity to achieve equal­ity with An­glo-Amer­i­cans and thereby es­cape the stigma of Mex­i­can an­ces­try. Mak­ing use of a wide range of ev­i­dence, from Walt Whit­man’s love let­ter to Santa Fe to tourist fes­ti­vals through­out the South­west, he ex­am­ines the ways in which An­glo-Amer­i­cans (whether con­sciously or not) “re­pro­duced the Span­ish colo­nial prac­tice of al­low­ing cer­tain light-skinned mes­ti­zos to be­come es­pañol, or white, and erased the mixed-race re­al­ity of In­dian and mes­tizo Mex­i­cans.”

— Casey Sanchez

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