The Great Migration


Mexican American youth held for questioning

During the Great Migration in the early twentieth century, members of the intellectual classes were pushed out of Mexico and those of the lower classes were pulled into the United States. Those who arrived faced discrimination, anti-Mexican sentiment and lack of opportunity. The recent immigrants retained one foot in Mexico through connections to family and because of their proximity to their home country. As they sought to make their way in their new homeland and established roots, by the third, fourth of fifth generations mindsets began to change. No longer focused on the possibility of returning to Mexico, they began to see themselves as Americans of Mexican descent. And, for those in the Mexican American generation, from the 1920s onward, that meant working within and for the system, to achieve civil rights through assimilation and adoption of the dominant American cultural values and way of life. However, by the 1960s, the Chicano generation took a more radical viewpoint and sought to achieve their political goals and civil rights through more aggressive and separatist actions. Although Mexican-Americans still have not received parity in American society, the work of both moderate and radical organizations have been influential in accomplishing modest gains in educational opportunities, greater representation in facility and administrations of the school system, and political representation.

Following World War I, Mexican Americans in the west sought to create a unique identity for themselves by establishing many middle class organizations which, in 1929 merged to become the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). Formed in Corpus Christi, Texas, they fought for citizenship, equality and justice. LULAC was the first organization to embody the “Mexican American Mind – the ideology and consciousness calling for developing a middle class, greater education, citizenship rights and political power” (Garcia, Week 6, Lec 6b). They maintained their burgeoning loyalty to the United States while retaining their culture, values and ‘mexicanidad’. LULAC’s principals, embodied in the name of the organization as an acronym: L for love of country and fellowmen, U for unity of purpose, L for loyalty to country and principles, A for the advancement of a people and C for citizenship, true and unadulterated; became the largest Mexican American organization throughout the southwest. One of the founders and signers of the LULAC Constitution, M.C. Gonzalez stressed “pride in education, individual achievement, Mexican heritage, American patriotism, religious grounding, Democratic principles, obligations of citizenship and ethnic pride” (Garcia, Week 6, Lec 6b).

These values were in line with American values and implied that middle class Mexicans were becoming more Americanized while maintaining pride in their heritage. Perhaps because the founders and their members had a growing awareness that political action was necessary to achieve their goals, LULAC’s membership was confined to citizens and excluded immigrants. Through its political activism, and associations with major corporations, federal, state and local governments, LULAC has been able to establish educational programs, federal internships, academic scholarships, and workshops for youth and adults (Garcia, Week 6, Lec. 6b). This organization allowed middle class Mexican Americans to fully participate in American politics and culture. Through their political engagement and military service during World Wars I & II, they were able to begin to shed the “otherness” which had characterized earlier generations. This was a time of unprecedented economic growth and achievement for the majority of Americans, and middle class Mexican Americans were able to participate, to some extend, by becoming “part of the system”.

Particularly during World War II, Americans developed a heightened sense of patriotism. Following the war, the federal government mounted a concerted effort to reward the American people, including those of Mexican descent, for the sacrifices they had made during the war. There were campaigns to protect and enhance worker’s rights in many sectors of the economy and greater civil rights for minorities. One of the benefits which Mexican American veterans took advantage of was the G.I. Bill. This federal bill gave soldiers funds to attend universities, purchase homes and establish businesses (Garcia, Week 6, Lec 6b).

Whereas LULAC focused on middle class values and issues, in Southern California, there were efforts to organize working class Mexican Americans as well as those who had achieved middle class status. On the heels of the violence of the Zoot Suit Riots and the regular discrimination experienced in Mexican barrios in Southern California, small organizations were formed for the protection of their communities. A coalition of these organizations, called the Unity Leagues, were formed by a respected champion of the ethnic community, Ignacio Lopez, to mobilize the working class as well as the middle class. Their primary mission was to fight against the rampant discrimination, particularly in the school system and other public places (Gonzalez, p 185).

The Unity Leagues laid “the foundation for the Community Service Organization (CSO), the most effective Mexican American association to appear in California during the postwar period” (Gonzalez, 185). A primarily political machine, the CSO was able to get Edward Roybal (1916-2005) elected to Los Angeles City Council in 1947 (Gonzalez, 185). They focused on voter registration drives and educational and policing issues through the 1950’s. By the 1960’s these priorities were viewed by some within the organization as too controversial so the CSO evolved into a mutual aid society (Gonzalez, 186).

Founded in Corpus Christi, Texas in 1948, another community-based organization founded in the post-war period was the G.I. Forum. It was established exclusively for veterans and was undoubtedly the most patriotic and committed to promoting American values and assimilation (Gonzalez, 186). Under the leadership of Dr. Hector Perez Garcia (1910-1996), the organizations focus was to combat the discrimination which was so prevalent in the Lone Star State. “Indeed, the organization was founded in the first place as a result of a clamorous example of racial injustice in 1948, when a Mexicano soldier killed in the Philippines, Félix Longoria, was refused burial in the Love Oak County town of Three Rivers, Texas. After a heated campaign, and with the help of Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, the beginning of along and fruitful association, Dr. Garcia and the G.I. Forum were able to secure Longoria a burial at Arlington National Cemetery” (Gonzalez, 186-87). Other notable campaigns which were successful as a result of the G.I. Forum were a “series of class action suits aimed at desegregating schools, recreational facilities, and transportation” (Gonzalez, 187).

Although both the CSO and G.I. Forum maintained their non-partisanship, both organizations were able to advance their political agendas through the endorsement of candidates and by encouraging members to run for office. LULAC, the CSO and G.I. Forum all operated under the ideology that they could achieve their political goals and greater civil liberties through the exercise of advocacy and electoral politics. They believed that working within the system was the most effective way to achieve their goals. However, their sons and daughters took a different approach in the next decades.

The generation born directly after World War II, the baby boomers, renamed themselves “Chicano” when they had come of age. This movement was inspired by the moderate successes of the the civil rights movement of the Mexican American generation which took place from World War I into the 1950’s and a “confluence of historical events in the 1960’s: The Black Power Movement, frustrated by unsuccessful attempts at a civil rights movement as led by Martin Luther King Jr. and others; the coming of age of a tremendous wave of youth “baby boomers” worldwide; frustrations with ‘societal alienation’ and dehumanization brought about by corporations and bureaucracies; a university education that culturally and politically mis-educated students” (Garcia, Week 9, Lec 9). The socio-economic conditions of the Mexican Americans combined with the discrimination based on class, religion and race meant that they faced persistent disadvantages. Having been inspired by the Black Civil Rights movement, particularly Brown v. Board of Education and Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, a stimulus was provided for other people to color to stand up for their rights (Garcia, 199).

Parents of these Chicano youth were disturbed by the adoption of this name, because for them, the term had a negative connotation (similar to the term “black” adopted by “negro” youth). They differed from their parents in that they advocated for direct political action and an acquisition of power. They were “tired of apologizing for their ethnic origins” and “looked to Mexico, especially indigenous Mexico for inspiration” (Gonzales, 194). Their struggle was to promote ethnic pride and advance Mexican American civil rights.

The Chicano movement encompassed several different organizations which formed in schools, barrios and prisons. They focused on a myriad of issues and some were more radical than others. At the beginning, more moderate forces prevailed, including the United Farm Workers (UFW). This organization was formed in the San Joaquin Valley by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta and had been influenced by the earlier Community Service Organization (CSO) and the National Farm Labor Union (NFLU). Their objectives were “better working conditions, including higher wagers, and recognition of their union” (Garcia, 201). Prevailing views of the time were that migrants were isolated and on their own, but Chavez believed that the middle class would support their efforts if given the chance. The Delano strike – the first nation-wide boycott - was successful because of a confluence of middle class support, innovative non-violent strategies and cooperation from the American public.

Later, the movement took a more radical and militant turn. Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez “realized that the future of the Mexicano community would be in urban areas and that the focus should be on young people” (Garcia, 206). He was influential in politics, serving as “Colorado coordinator of the Viva Kennedy clubs” (Garcia, 207). He was an ex-G.I. Forum member who promoted the notion of Aztlán, a mystical homeland of the Aztecs which encompassed the southwest. This ideology taught that this area was being “occupied” by the the Americans and through violence and militancy, Chicano youth could drive Americans out of their perceived homeland. To achieve his goals, Gonzalez launched the Colorado Raza Unida Party, a separatist political party in 1970.

This political movement coincided with the Chicano student movement. There were walkouts at colleges and high schools throughout California to demand the “hiring of Mexicano instructors, counselors, and administrators; bilingual and bicultural education; and closer cooperation between schools and the barrio (Gonzalez, 212). This resulted in the Plan de Santa Barbara which had two meaningful results. First, a call to reform the educational system to create Chicano studies departments in universities; and second, the establishment of a new, united association of Chicano students called MECHA – El Movimiento Estudiantil de Aztlán (Gonzalez, 213).

Another victory of this radical movement was the Chicana women’s movement. Stemming from the activism of the UFW, Chicana feminists, although discriminated against within their own communities and organizations, persisted in created their own caucuses within Chicano conferences. And, although Chicano movement had basically died out by the late 1970s, the Chicana movement as well as other feminist movements continued into the 1990s (Garcia, Week 7, Lec 7b).

“One can say that the ‘Chicano’ generation was only different in ‘degree’, not in ‘kind’, to the Mexican American generation” meaning that both generations sought the same benefits, civil rights, acceptance and to become participants in the culture and economy of the United States (Garcia, Week 7, Lec 7b). What differed was how they went about achieving their goals. The Mexican American generation focused on assimilation, by working within the system, through political action, electoral politics, voting and exercising their rights. By the Chicano generation of the 1960s, the children of these Americans of Mexican descent began to feel as if the advancements made by their parents were either being rolled back or had not gone far enough for them to be fully integrated into American society. Continuing to face rampant discrimination and income inequality, educational opportunities and inspired by the civil rights and anti-war movements, they became increasingly radicalized and called for revolution. Looking to their Aztec roots for motivation, Chicanos were correct in believing that the only way their rights would be recognized is by exerting their collective power and forcing the government to recognize their rights as citizens. All the organizations discussed, whether moderate or radical, sought to gain political representation in order to achieve civil liberties while maintaining their cultural heritage

Signs of Discrimination