Mexicans in the Making of America
by Neil Foley, Belknap Press/ Harvard University Press, 368 pages
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