Ethnicity of the Latino Community Freedom in America Essay

Ethnicity of the Latino Community Freedom in America Essay

This chapter explains when, why, and how ethnicity mattered, prior to the 1970s, in shaping the citizenship and political opportunities of persons in the United States who trace their origin or ancestry to the Spanish-speaking nations of Latin America or the Caribbean, what we would today call Hispanics or Latinos. Latinos are a pan-ethnic group comprised of many ethnic-national communities—Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans, among others. Like other racial and ethnic minorities, each of these populations endured a process of racialization whereby Whites, or Anglos, created social, economic, and political roadblocks because Latinos were assumed to be inferior or a threat to Whites. Assumptions about ethnicity vary from those we apply to race, so our task is to explain the unique history of the racialization of Latinos as well as the emergence of Latino politics. Recall from Chapter 1 that the concept of race—La Raza—in Latin America is more fluid because it involved the European (Spanish, Portuguese) assimilation of non-Europeans rather than the English concept of racial separation.

The origins of today’s Latino community can be traced to the colonial expansion of the Spanish empire in the sixteenth century. Spanish colonists predated the U.S. Revolutionary War and the ratification of the Constitution. These Spanish émigrés and migrants acted collectively to achieve common goals and established governing structures to allocate resources; in other words, they engaged in politics.

Demands for equal education galvanized Latino communities from their earliest days. In this photo, Puerto Rican demonstrators walk in silence from City Hall in Manhattan to the New York Board of Education offices in Brooklyn.

It would be a serious misreading of history and of the creation of U.S. ethnic identities, however, to say that this means that Latino politics began in the sixteenth or eighteenth century. Instead, the construction of a Latino politics is a twentieth-century phenomenon resulting from shared experiences of exclusion and a collective effort to build a political identity based on those experiences. How was a shared Latino identity created that was understood both by the White majority and by Latinos to be ethnically/racially distinct from the (non-Hispanic) White majority? U.S. society tapped the cultural distinctiveness of Latinos, the racial biases of the majority, and the economic resources or tools of Latinos, particularly their labor. Latinos used their cultural connections to overcome exclusion by society and demand equal rights and full citizenship in the United States. Latino politics in this formative period focused on the national-origin, rather than pan-ethnic, politics. As we explore the evolution of Latino politics across this period, we see several outcomes of racialization based on the interaction of society, the polity, and Latino communities. (See Table 1.3 for the uneven roads framework.) Anglos increasingly used ethnicity to limit Latino political and economic progress until Latinos could effectively harness their own resources and overcome these barriers. Prior to the U.S. conquest of the Southwest in 1848, ethnicity was largely inconsequential for the descendants of Spanish colonists; instead class status determined most rights. By 1900, ethnicity proved to be a nearly absolute barrier to Latinos seeking to exercise political and economic rights. The Latino population grew when the United States added Puerto Rico as a colony in 1898. The early decades of the twentieth century through the dawn of the Latino era in the early 1970s was a period of transition, from ethnicity playing a nearly absolute barrier to one in which it was decisive in galvanizing Latinos to organize, make political demands, and ultimately shape some aspects of governance. Today’s Latino politics cannot be understood without first reviewing the distinct evolution of the three Latino populations that dominated the U.S. Hispanic experience prior to the modern era—Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Cuban Americans. We examine how their distinct though overlapping experiences united into a pan-ethnic politics by the 1970s. We also identify comparable experiences to other racial and ethnic populations in the United States so that the Latino experience can be understood broadly as part of the story of the uneven roads of today’s racial/ethnic politics. The Road’s Colonial Beginnings, 1493–1850 Ethnicity emerged slowly as a barrier to Latino populations in the United States. Like race, ethnicity was not a fully formed concept several centuries ago. The initial contacts between Anglos and Latinos saw both cooperation and conquest. Quickly, however, a structure of inequality emerged. Cultural differences—ethnicity—came to be used by Anglos to explain and justify Latino disadvantage. Spanish Exploration and Conquest The Spanish presence in what became the United States predated colonization by Northern Europeans; Spanish colonists established the first permanent European settlement in the continental United States in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565. Santa Fe, New Mexico, incorporated in 1608, was the first Spanish settlement in the western United States. Spanish settlements had small populations. Their residents were primarily focused on agricultural and religious pursuits rather than on mercantile endeavors. Estimates of the European-origin population at the time of the Southwest’s transfer to the United States in 1848 place it between seventy-five thousand and one hundred thousand (the population of this territory now exceeds seventy-two million). These settlements had a small governing elite made up of large landholders and clerics. The Spanish Crown provided large landholdings to elite migrants; the rest of the population (including many Native Americans) worked for these landholders. The landholdings did not produce crops for export. These sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish colonists did establish early forms of governance. New Mexicans created institutions to regulate irrigation that remain today. In Texas, local Mexican leaders invited Anglo colonists to migrate and buy land so as to build the territory’s population and provide a buffer against raids by Native Americans upon whose lands they had encroached. These migrants from the United States quickly outnumbered the Mexicans. By 1835, the Anglo population in Texas was approximately thirty thousand, compared to just six thousand Mexicans. With Mexican independence in 1821, the territories became part of a new and weak Mexican government. The internal political struggles of the new Mexican state quickly led to efforts by the northern territories to separate from Mexican rule. In 1819, a few years prior to Mexican independence, the United States purchased Florida from Spain. Its population remained small until the U.S. Army subdued Native American populations in the 1830s, opening Florida to migration from the North. As was the case in the Southwest, the Spanish presence in Florida was quickly overwhelmed by the in-migration of White settlers and Black slaves. Latinos and the Western Expansion of the United States So how did ethnicity initially emerge as a line of division? Puerto Ricans and Mexican Americans became part of the United States through conquest.2 The largest example of this was the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war between the United States and Mexico begun in 1845.3 The treaty transferred to the United States approximately half of what had been the prewar territory of Mexico, which included what today are the states of Texas (which had been in dispute before the war), California, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah, as well as part of Wyoming. The treaty guaranteed the former Mexican subjects U.S. citizenship and the protection of their landholding rights. These new citizens became subject to U.S. and state/territorial laws, including a new responsibility to pay taxes on their land. Slavery was extended to these territories, where it had previously been prohibited by the Mexican government. Native American residents of the newly acquired U.S. territories were not accorded these same rights and protections and, in most cases, did not become U.S. citizens until 1924. The treaty established rights for the new U.S. subjects and responsibilities for the new sovereign. U.S. states, however, failed to live up to these responsibilities. This failure to abide by treaty responsibilities is a central example of the uneven road for Mexican Americans. The polity (often state and local governments) used its power to advantage White settlers over Latino populations. The consequence was to eliminate the small pre–Mexican-American War landed elite, removing the one group in society that could challenge the broader denial of political rights of Mexican Americans.

Destruction of Mexican American Politics, Late 1800s

Ethnicity became a more decisive roadblock for Mexican Americans in the late nineteenth century because portions of the Mexican elite assimilated into the Anglo population, and other Mexicans, especially the laboring classes, were marked by Anglos as non-White and as a threat. As the White population grew and Mexican American economic power diminished, fewer Mexican Americans were elected to state office. Race/ethnicity in the late nineteenth century then shifts from inconsequential to nearly absolute (with some exceptions that we will note).

The decline of Mexican American political fortunes in the late nineteenth century echoes in some ways that of freed slaves in the Reconstruction era. Political and economic rights offered by the federal government were undermined by state and local elites. What distinguished the Mexican American experience was that a Mexican elite existed that controlled resources (mostly land) in 1848. It was this elite that participated—as minority partners—in the political births of the states of Texas and California.

At its core, the decline reflected a widespread perception among Anglos that the former Mexican subjects were simply not a part of the polity. The majoritarian institutions of the southwestern states offered White populations a resource to disenfranchise Mexican Americans.

Political Losses and Economic Disempowerment

The second half of the nineteenth century was also a period of severe economic disempowerment for Mexican Americans, particularly the small landholding elite who had dominated prewar society. Although some of this land was simply stolen (mobs of gold prospectors in northern California occupied land they perceived to be vacant), most was taken more insidiously.

Anglo-dominated governments frequently seized Mexican-held lands on the claim that the landholder could not prove his ownership. Ownership was based on royal land grants issued in Spain many generations before and less-than-specific demarcations of where a landholding began or ended. Legal ownership could be proven in the courts. Frequently, the only asset the landholder had to fund a legal battle was the land itself, so while he might win in court, he would subsequently lose the land to creditors.

Landholders also faced another new challenge—property taxes. In many cases, these lands had not been used to produce cash crops for market. The Spanish notion was that a large tract of land, under the control of a resident landholder, would provide for the needs of people who lived on the land including the laborers and their families and, often, members of the clergy. These large tracts rarely produced significant revenue, since most of the production was for internal use. The new yearly property tax necessitated changes to the land’s use so that the tax could be paid. Large landholders were the most powerful in the prewar era, and over time, many lost their land to taxes or the inability to change the mode of production to make land more economically productive.

A Demographic and Social Shift in Influence

A final source of declining economic power among the prewar Mexican elites speaks to the fluidity of race/ethnicity differences for some of the former Mexican subjects in the face of class similarities. Over the period from 1850 to 1900, many of the landholding prewar Mexican families intermarried with Anglos of a similar class background. By the early twentieth century, these blended families tended to focus more on their Whiteness and did not offer leadership in Mexican American communities.

Other demographic and economic reasons also contributed to the decline of Mexican American influence. The small prewar population was almost immediately swamped by massive in-migration of Anglos (and to some degree by Chinese migrants). Within days of the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, gold was discovered in California, leading to a migration of over three hundred thousand from the eastern United States and China, increasing the population of the region by a factor of three. Over the next twenty years, the United States incorporated its new territories in a way that Spain and Mexico never did. The small Mexican population that had been present in the Southwest at the end of the war remained relatively unchanged. New migration from Mexico did not begin until the 1890s. (See Table 4.1.)

Source: Authors’ calculations based on U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2012, 2011 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, Table 2,

Notes: The data, particularly in the period before 1917, underestimate the levels of immigration from the Americas. Based on their residence after 1898 and citizenship status after 1917, migrants from Puerto Rico are not counted as immigrants.

During this period of transition, Mexican Americans began to experience increasing levels of discrimination. Certainly, they were always subject to some discrimination, though arguably it was as much class-based as racial/ethnic at the end of the war. Late in the nineteenth century, Anglos imposed both de jure and de facto segregation that mirrored the discrimination experienced by African Americans in the eastern United States.

At the end of the Mexican-American War, the small Mexican population was concentrated on Mexican-owned agricultural lands. Population was low, so Mexican Americans and Anglos had little contact. By the turn of the twentieth century, the Anglo population had grown dramatically, and Mexican Americans increasingly lived in small towns. Many of the Anglo migrants came from the South and the border states, bringing with them a system of racial ordering driven by relations between Whites and Blacks. In both Texas and California, dual (segregated) education systems emerged. Anti-Mexican violence also became more common; in fact, lynching of Mexican Americans became more common than lynching of African Americans in Texas.

The early twentieth century saw the emergence of “dual societies” in the small towns of the Southwest. In this case, the dual society created an entrepreneurial opportunity for a Mexican American pharmacy, but also included separate schools and residential segregation that limited social and educational opportunities for Mexican Americans.

Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

The parallels to the African American experience under Jim Crow racial segregation are notable, but there were differences that need to be acknowledged. Mexican Americans could frequently vote, but their votes were manipulated by political machines. (In South Texas and New Mexico, these political machines were sometimes controlled at the local level by Mexican Americans and allowed for the election of Mexican Americans to office.)4 Manipulation ranged from telling Mexican Americans how to vote (providing a string with knots to match up to the ballot to show illiterate voters where to vote) to simply voting on their behalf. Thus, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Mexican Americans continued to exercise the franchise and, at the beginning of the civil rights era, voted in large numbers.

Exceptions to this pattern of rapidly declining Latino social, economic, and political fortunes did exist in the Southwest. Prewar Mexican elites and their descendants continued to dominate politics and society along the U.S.-Mexican border in Texas and in New Mexico into the early twentieth century, in large part because Mexican Americans remained a numerical majority in this region and Mexican elites continued to own the land. This Latino dominance of territorial politics in New Mexico, however, slowed its admission to statehood. New Mexico did not gain statehood until 1912 out of fears over having a state with a Latino majority and rights for Spanish speakers. Here, Whiteness served as an advantage for statehood. Territories in which Anglos dominated politics had an easier path to statehood.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Mexican American political and economic influence was at its nadir. Despite the citizenship and land rights guarantees in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, there were few Mexican American officeholders or other influentials outside of South Texas and New Mexico. The prewar elite invested little in establishing a civic infrastructure such as building local governments (outside of New Mexico), so it too was absent. Mexican Americans did begin to face class-based restricted voting rights, similar to what poor Whites faced at the turn of the century.5 This potential for class-based exclusion was tempered in Texas and New Mexico by the fact that Mexican American votes were often important to political machines. The steady loss of Mexican-owned landholdings and the slower conversion of the economy away from agriculture (the sector of the economy in which most Mexican Americans worked) to extraction and agricultural processing reduced the immediate opportunities for Mexican Americans to build economic power. Finally, this approximate point of the lowest Mexican American influence also reflected its population nadir. Estimates suggest that the Latino population nationally in 1900 made up just 0.9 percent of the national population. (See Table 4.2.) Most of these Mexican Americans lived in a world in which ethnicity served as a nearly absolute bar to the free exercise of the citizenship rights guaranteed in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

The Rebirth of Mexican American Politics, 1900–1960

By roughly 1900, Mexican Americans were at their political, as well as social and economic, low. They lacked political and civic leadership, had few economic resources, faced increasing discrimination, and made up a declining share of the population in areas that they formerly dominated. What had been a powerful economic resource for some in the community and a potential resource for political influence and leadership at the end of the war—landholdings—had largely disappeared by the turn of the century. Despite these barriers, Mexican Americans were able to build a political community in the twentieth century and lay the foundations for the Latino politics that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s.

The origins of the rebirth of Mexican American politics appear in the destruction of the prewar society. With the end of the prewar elite, new local-level leaders emerged who slowly created civic infrastructure such as civic organizations and, ultimately, political groups that could support the election of Mexican Americans to political office. Unlike what had preceded the war, this nascent structure for action existed at the mass level. Such groups initially emerged to overcome the roadblocks and economic exclusion created in the late nineteenth century. Importantly, they found a tool for organizing in the promises—particularly the guarantee of U.S. citizenship—in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Demographics also began to work to their advantage. Migration began to build in the 1890s and surged in the first decades of the twentieth century. (See Table 4.1.)

Ethnicity continued to be a significant bar to Mexican American exercise of political and economic rights in the early twentieth century. Community organization emerged to challenge racial restrictions. White leaders saw the emergence of Mexican American civic and political organization and in some areas, particularly those where new White populations migrated from the U.S. South, began to implement racial restrictions against them comparable to those imposed on African Americans in the South. Even with these changes, however, the outcome of racialization slowly shifted from absolute to decisive because Mexican Americans were able to organize over time to assert their rights in U.S. society.

The first mass organizations to focus on serving the immediate needs of Mexican American communities took three forms: mutualist, trade union, and religious. Mutualist organizations were designed to meet specific collective needs that could not or would not be met by Anglo organizations, such as providing for the burial of the poor. As early as the 1890s, there is evidence of local organizations offering a form of life insurance.

In this same period, unions began to organize some Mexican American workers. As is true today, agricultural workers have not traditionally been the focus of successful trade union organizing, and most Mexican Americans worked in agriculture. The unions that did organize focused on Mexican Americans in mining. These were not Mexican American unions. Instead, they were national unions, particularly the International Workers of the World (IWW). The rhetoric and ideology of the IWW were nondiscriminatory; unlike the skilled trade unions, the IWW organized all workers, regardless of ancestry.

The third early form of mass organizations serving Mexican Americans was via religious organization through the Catholic Church. The church has long been an important presence in Mexican American and other Latino communities, but its political role has often been secondary to its spiritual and social role. In this era, most Catholic priests were not themselves Mexican American, and they limited the use of the church as a locus for political organizing. The priests often accepted the larger society’s view that Mexican Americans were second-class citizens.6 The church nevertheless offered a safe center for civic organizing.

Migration Spurs a New Ethnic Identity

Throughout the late 1800s, few people emigrated from Mexico. Before railroads crossed it in the 1880s, the northern Mexican desert provided an effective barrier to migration, and the Mexican government used its national police force to restrict emigration in order to keep labor plentiful and exploitable in Mexico. By the early 1900s, the Mexican government’s ability to control emigration declined, and U.S. employers began to actively recruit Mexican labor. Official figures, which underestimate the true levels of migration, indicate that 31,188 Mexicans migrated to the United States between 1900 and 1909; 185,334 migrated between 1910 and 1919; and 498,945 migrated in the 1920s. (See Table 4.2.)

These new migrants brought with them a new ethnic identity. Beyond simply being immigrants, they carried with them a rising recognition of the racial composition of Mexico that played a significant role in the early ideology of the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s. The revolutionary racial ideology valorized the Mexican blending of indigenous populations with European and African peoples to build Mexican national identity.7 It placed Mexican Americans (and, by extension, Latinos) outside of U.S. racial categories, seeing the Americas as the amalgam of all races.

The large numbers of Mexican émigrés—people who leave their native country for another—spurred another form of local civic organizing in the 1920s: the Mexican government sought to organize some of its nationals within the United States.8 These efforts ultimately collapsed because Mexico attempted to control émigré civic organizing rather than allowing the émigrés to set the agenda for their organizing. This transnational organizing, however, offered another path to Mexican American collective action that had not been available prior to the rebirth of Mexican American civic organizing in this era.

The League of United Latin American Citizens and El Congreso

Mutualist civic organizing was local and reflected the efforts of friends, neighbors, and coworkers to meet collective needs. These early community-level efforts provided the foundation for regional civic organizing. The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) formed in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1929 as the first regional civic organization for Mexican Americans. Its early members reflected a small, newly emerging group within the Mexican American community in the Southwest, a middle class made up of small-business owners and professionals who provided services, such as small shops, hair cutting, and mortuary services, that Whites hesitated to provide to Mexican Americans. A very small professional class of Mexican Americans had emerged, including some teachers in the Mexican schools. This small professional class grew as a result of World War I, as the military offered some Mexican Americans opportunities to move out of their small towns, receive advanced training or college degrees, and return at the end of the war with a willingness—and the skills—to challenge the local status quo.

LULAC’s approach to civic organizing reflected its membership, but not the larger Mexican American community. It was open only to male U.S. citizens and conducted its meetings in English. It saw the ultimate advancement of Mexican Americans through the adoption of the values of the larger American society.9 Fundamental to LULAC’s organizing principles was the full and equal exercise of U.S. citizenship.

In these organizing principles, LULAC reflected the civic organizing patterns of White ethnics of European ancestry in this period and an expectation on the part of this new small Mexican American middle class that Mexican Americans would have the same political and economic opportunities in U.S. society that White ethnics were beginning to exercise. By the end of the 1930s, LULAC had chapters throughout the Southwest and focused its resources on using the courts to challenge educational and employment discrimination. As was the case in African American communities, this first generation of Mexican American civic leaders saw the courts as the branch of government most responsive to constitutional equal protection guarantees.

LULAC was not the only example of regional Mexican American civic organizing in this period. El Congreso de Pueblos de Habla Española (the Congress of Spanish-Speaking Peoples), formed in 1939, organized the “Spanish speaking” regardless of nativity, and called for an end to discrimination against the foreign born and an end to the large-scale deportations of as many as one million Mexican Americans that had taken place throughout the Great Depression. El Congreso opposed the denial of labor rights to immigrants, recognizing that the demand for immigrant labor by U.S. employers is one of the causes of migration. El Congreso’s ranks included Latinos of non-Mexican origin/ancestry, making it in some sense the first national Latino organization.10 Although these organizations represented different segments of the Mexican American community and had different visions for the path to Mexican American civic, political, and social incorporation, they signify the emergence of a Mexican American/Latino political voice in the Southwest and nationally. These organizations also reflect that race/ethnicity was no longer an absolute barrier to civic organizing.

How do the historical examples of Latino organizing and influence relate to today’s struggles for Latino political incorporation?

They by no means replaced the community-level organizing that had preceded their formation. Beginning in the 1920s, Mexican Americans became much more urban and more likely to work in manufacturing. Their expanded employment opportunities included public employment as well as union efforts to mobilize Mexican Americans. National and state political leaders and the parties—particularly the Democrats—began to look to Mexican Americans for their votes and, more slowly, for new leaders.11

From Civic Activism to Political Engagement

While the political and economic incorporation of Mexican Americans into the wider American polity accelerated after World War II, this period also saw an increasing focus on electoral politics, including the election of the first generation of twentieth-century Mexican American leaders.12 Organizing to elect Mexican American candidates was not always well received by Anglo leaders, who were loath to give up power, particularly to those they felt were less capable of leadership. Generally, however, Anglo political racialization of Mexican Americans was less severe than of African Americans in the South in this same period. Part of the reason why is that Mexican American voting had been tolerated (if not encouraged) in most of the Southwest since the end of the Mexican-American War. Mexican Americans often provided votes for Anglo candidates, including Lyndon Johnson, who owed his initial election to the U.S. Senate and his later election to the vice presidency to manipulated Mexican American votes.13

In the period after World War II, Mexican Americans challenged local electoral power structures and won local and, ultimately, congressional offices in areas of high population concentration. They did so by organizing at the community level around issues critical to Mexican Americans such as education and limiting abuse by the police. This first generation of Mexican American elected leaders included Edward Roybal (Los Angeles city councilperson, 1949–1962; member of Congress, 1962–1993), Henry B. González (San Antonio city councilperson, 1953–1956; Texas state senator, 1957–1961; member of Congress, 1961–1999), and Raymond Telles (mayor of El Paso, 1957–1961; U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica, 1961–1967).

Victory for this first generation of Mexican American officeholders usually required multiracial support and, often, support from trade unions and civic organizations. Mexican American leaders needed to build a new type of community political organization to make voters of citizens. Unlike the civic organizations that preceded them, these organizations focused specifically on mobilizing voters and running candidates for office. Political organizations such as the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) in California and the Political Association of Spanish-Speaking Organizations (PASSO) in Texas formed to register and turn out voters.

Differing Paths: Puerto Ricans and Cubans, 1890s–1950s

At about the same time that Mexican Americans in the Southwest began to build the road toward the rebirth of their politics, the United States added new Latino populations to the nation through the conquest of new territories, such as the colony of Puerto Rico in 1898. (Puerto Rico remains a colony today.) Unlike the end of the Mexican-American War, this expansion accorded the new residents few treaty-based or statutory protections, resulting in their increased racialization. Cuba, briefly a U.S. colony and now a sovereign nation, has a contentious relationship with the United States, partly because of Cuban American émigrés who strongly oppose the island’s communist regime. Though the nature of their arrival in the United States differs from that of Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans, Cuban American émigrés also found themselves facing social and political barriers.

Efforts to industrialize in the years after World War II pushed many of Puerto Rico’s rural residents to the cities and into the migration stream. With opportunities limited in Puerto Rico, many instead migrated to New York and the cities of the northeastern United States.

Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

The reason why Puerto Ricans and Cubans encountered differing ethnic barriers from Mexican Americans stems from a perspective popular at that time. The late 1800s was a period of Western empire–building guided by a racial worldview—the White Man’s Burden—the belief that White America and Europe should “civilize” less developed nations while extracting their mineral resources and agricultural product. The result was that the United States racialized the residents of Puerto Rico and Cuba, who became U.S. subjects due to colonial expansion.15 The United States acquired Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Philippines, and Guam after Spain’s defeat in the 1898 Spanish-American War. The territories became U.S. colonies, without any expectation that they would eventually move toward statehood. The United States had sole determination of the future of these lands and their peoples.16 Cuba was granted a quick, though limited, independence. The Philippines was put on a slower path to independence (to be achieved in 1946). Puerto Rico remains a colony of the United States, though a 1950s agreement between the two has changed the name of this relationship to “commonwealth” (a status in which Puerto Rico has autonomy over local governance). None of the peoples of these conquered territories were guaranteed U.S. citizenship as a result of the Treaty of Paris (1898) that ended the war.

The end of the war sped what in the late nineteenth century had been a slow migration from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean to the United States. Migrants from Cuba moved primarily to Florida and New York. Migrants from Puerto Rico began to move to New York in the 1880s. These migration streams were small and did not organize around distinct national or ethnic identities. Caribbean migrants formed mutualistas and worked as part of civic organizing efforts. As was the case with Mexican Americans, these initial efforts focused mostly on meeting collective needs and did not initially seek to influence electoral politics. Labor organizing offered a more explicitly political outlet for some of these migrants, but this political activity was distinctly multi-ethnic, and the leadership of the unions was European in origin or ancestry. As was the case with White ethnics in New York at the same time, Puerto Ricans and Cubans faced exclusion on a variety of dimensions, including ethnicity. As such, ethnicity was insufficient to explain group status.

In 1917 Congress passed the Jones Act, which granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans and established Puerto Rico as a “self-governing unincorporated territory” of the United States, a legal status that formalized the differences between Puerto Rico and the states of the Southwest after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.17 Unlike the treaty-based guarantee of U.S. citizenship for former Mexican subjects, Puerto Ricans’ U.S. citizenship is statutory and could, in principle, be reversed by Congress (subject to the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States).

The small U.S. Puerto Rican and Cuban populations grew rapidly in the first decades of the twentieth century and also began to migrate to areas other than Florida and New York. The expansion of this migration reflected two structural changes in U.S. policy. First, the war and subsequent American political domination of Puerto Rico and Cuba ensured that these nations and their economies were increasingly linked to the U.S. economy. Second, Puerto Rican and Cuban migration, like Mexican migration in this era, was spurred by the steady restrictions imposed by Congress on migration from Europe (see Chapter 6). Many of the restrictions on European migrants implemented beginning in the 1910s, and particularly in the 1920s, excluded Western Hemisphere migrants. (See Table 4.1.)

Puerto Rican Politics in the Pre-Latino Era

The growth in Latino populations in the East, and particularly of Puerto Ricans in New York, led to a change in the manifestations of Latino politics. Between the 1920s and the dawn of the Latino political era, New York Hispanic politics was dominated by Puerto Ricans. Like Mexican Americans in the Southwest, Puerto Ricans needed to build a politics largely out of whole cloth.18 They were relatively advantaged, however, in that the fluid, politically liberal, and competitive nature of New York electoral politics ensured that they had the opportunity to compete for and win electoral offices and to make demands on city resources. In this, Puerto Ricans were more like other, mostly European, migrant populations in New York than they were like Mexican Americans. As a result, Puerto Rican politics more quickly included an electoral dimension than did Mexican American politics. Beginning in the 1930s, Puerto Ricans ran for and, less often, won local and state offices in New York. Puerto Rican civic organizations were able to tap municipal and state resources for their operations and become part of political machines. From the outside, this may have appeared to be a form of political power, but that was not the case. New York Puerto Ricans were very much the junior partner to other racial and ethnic groups in the city, including African Americans,19 who dominated the city’s racial politics and were more numerous, were better organized, and had a cadre of leaders in civic organizations, churches, municipal employment, and elective office. Puerto Ricans were slower to achieve electoral positions than were White European ethnics.

The New York political leadership sought intermittently to disenfranchise Puerto Ricans along racial/ethnic lines. Since their citizenship was uncontested, this disenfranchisement used literacy tests to make Puerto Rican voting more difficult.

Although Puerto Ricans were often at a disadvantage in asserting their political rights, they had one resource that was unique to their status—mobilization by the government of Puerto Rico. Beginning in the 1950s, these efforts included the promotion of cultural connections to Puerto Rico, such as celebrations of national holidays and cultural performance; assistance for Puerto Rican residents on the mainland with municipal and state social service agencies; and support for electoral participation, including voter registration and get-out-the-vote in some elections.

These organizational and electoral gains in Puerto Rican communities at midcentury were not matched by economic and social advances. Migration from the island surged after World War II as part of a conscious effort by the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments to develop Puerto Rico’s economy by moving Puerto Ricans off rural lands. The island’s industrial economy could not absorb them all, so many moved to the mainland. Puerto Rican labor was initially in great demand, particularly in New York and other U.S. cities. But as urban industrial economies decreased, opportunities for Puerto Rican migrants declined commensurately. In addition to limited economic opportunities, group advancement was stymied by the failure of northeastern cities to invest in education and housing, and by residential discrimination that limited Puerto Ricans’ ability to join White ethnics in the mass move to the suburbs. Over time, and certainly by the dawn of the Latino era, Puerto Ricans had social and economic characteristics closer to those of urban African Americans than to the descendants of European immigrants.

Puerto Ricans outside of New York experienced a political and civic world much more like that of Mexican Americans. Outside of New York, Puerto Rican leaders had not been co-opted into partisan politics and local political machines, so they were nearly all political outsiders. Interestingly, it was in Chicago—a northern city with sizeable Puerto Rican and Mexican American populations—that some of the earliest efforts to build a pan-ethnic Latino politics emerged.20

The Cuban Revolution and Rise of Cuban American Politics

A final Latino political force appeared in the years just before the emergence of pan-ethnic Latino politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Cuban Revolution (1953–1959) spurred unprecedented levels of migration from Cuba. These postrevolutionary Cuban émigrés arrived in the United States with clear organizational and political objectives, somewhat higher levels of human capital—education, skills, training, and professional connections—and more political experience than did other migrants from the Americas. Between 1959 and 1980, ethnicity moved from inconsequential at the national level and insignificant at the state and local level to more decisive, particularly in electoral politics and in meeting the policy needs of Cuban Americans.

The first wave of postrevolution Cuban migrants included many who did not expect to stay in the United States for long. These were largely self-identified political refugees who left Cuba because they did not feel they would be safe there but expected to return soon. Most expected the Cuban Revolution to follow the pattern of previous regime changes in Cuba. As a result, they initially focused their political energies on working to destabilize the new regime, a goal they shared with policymakers of both parties in Washington, and were able to gain influence in national policymaking over U.S.-Cuba relations very quickly, particularly with those for whom ethnicity was largely inconsequential. This national political influence, however, was not initially matched by local- and state-level political influence.

Because of their shared goal, the U.S. government aided the initial incorporation of the Cuban émigrés, investing considerably in efforts both in building the internal resources of the Cuban American community and in enterprises that would undermine the Castro regime.21 Many of these resources went directly to activities to destabilize the regime, including support for paramilitary activities and the creation of front businesses for Central Intelligence Agency activities. This investment benefited the Cuban American community by providing jobs, leadership opportunities, and an outlet for the anger felt for the Castro regime. The U.S. government also invested more directly in the Cuban American community to use it as an example of the benefits of the American ideal. These policies included such programs as direct financial assistance for migrants, employment programs, resettlement assistance, aid to local education, funding for community-based organizations and religious groups assisting with migration and resettlement, and training programs to convert professional credentials. No other large migrant population from the Americas has received such an extensive set of government resources for such an extended period of time.

This direct investment served as an unintentional settlement policy (a policy designed to assist in the incorporation of immigrants). As part of the U.S. effort to destabilize the Castro regime, it spent freely in Cuban American communities—estimated between $2 and $4 billion between 1959 and 1980. These resources ensured that Cuban Americans were able to adapt more rapidly to life in the United States than were other immigrant groups who lacked comparable resources. U.S. funds provided seed capital for the development of a vibrant Cuban American business community. The long-term consequences of these measures added to the political and social capital, business acumen, and collective identity of the Cuban émigré community as it began to build a Cuban immigrant (as opposed to refugee) community.

The growth of a Cuban American politics, rather than Cuban émigré politics, was slow. As the duration of the Cuban stay in South Florida lengthened and the numbers of immigrants grew, however, Cuban Americans began to organize to meet community needs in the United States and to shape domestic politics.22 They were quicker to achieve these goals than were other immigrant groups because of the strong sense of collective identity that grew from the community’s émigré origins, the level of human capital possessed by many early postrevolutionary émigrés, and the leadership that had emerged to oppose the Castro regime, as well as U.S. investment in the Cuban American community. Organization and resources aside, however, Cuban Americans faced many of the same challenges as other racial/ethnic groups.

Cuban Americans found themselves subject to discrimination based on language and culture and were initially unable to use electoral politics to achieve community goals because of low rates of U.S. citizenship. Local political institutions denied Cuban American leaders access to position  of power and influence, a denial that was particularly galling because many had greater access in Washington than they did in Miami or Tallahassee. Discrimination in the housing sector and in schools was of particular concern.

As the Cuban presence grew and the likelihood that Cuban immigrants would soon return to Cuba diminished, however, tensions with native populations surfaced. For example, Miami, which had initially been tolerant of the Cubans (and appreciative of the massive federal funding that accompanied them), reversed course and barred the use of Spanish by city agencies.

These tensions came to a head in 1980, when the Castro regime seized an opportunity and opened the port of Mariel to Cubans seeking to flee the country. It became known as the Mariel boatlift. Castro’s decision was initially viewed positively in the United States, and particularly in the Cuban American community. It soon became evident, however, that some of the tens of thousands of migrants fleeing Cuba were being forced to leave and had come from prisons. The forced émigrés were a significant minority of the Mariel immigrants, but in the popular racial imagination, violent criminals made up the majority of Marielitos.

Civil Rights and Ethnic Nationalism in Latino Communities, 1960s–1970s

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, Mexican American and Puerto Rican communities had built civic organizational infrastructures and used these bases to begin to get co-ethnics elected to office. By any standard, these communities were underrepresented in elective office (and in every other elite sector), but the opportunities that each community seized offered some hope for the future. This (re)building of Mexican American and Puerto Rican politics throughout the early twentieth century was comparable to processes in White ethnic communities in this same period, but the outcomes were becoming increasingly different. By 1960, White ethnics (the descendants of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century migrants from Southern and Eastern Europe) were also underrepresented in elective office and elite positions, but they had been able to use the economic growth of the post–World War II era to improve their opportunities at the mass level and position themselves for further political, economic, and social advance. They had been considerably aided by government programs that benefited White ethnics but did not offer the same opportunities to Blacks and Latinos (see Chapter 6).24 Local and state policies in this era also reduced levels of discrimination against White ethnics, particularly in housing and schools. Certainly, the expanding gap between White ethnics and Latinos cannot entirely be placed in the hands of government social policies. New migration continued in Mexican American and Puerto Rican communities throughout the twentieth century, while it slowed after the 1920s in White ethnic communities.

Continued discrimination and disparate outcomes spurred organizing in Black and Latino communities. Latino civil rights organizing is important to understand not only for its positive outcomes for the community, but also for its critical role in demonstrating the shared civic and political needs of Latinos of different national origins. Latino identity is a political identity forged to overcome a common set of barriers and exclusion that distinguished these populations from the majority.25 All of these factors—ancestral, cultural, experiential, and political—came together in the 1960s to begin the process of cementing the Hispanic pan-ethnic identity.

Not surprisingly, the 1960s Latino civil rights efforts began locally. Their demands—modest by today’s standards—were fundamentally revolutionary in that they sought for Mexican Americans’ and Puerto Ricans’ treatment as equal citizens. Anglo power structures recognized that if these changes were implemented, the racial hierarchy that had emerged over the previous century would disintegrate and Latinos would be able to compete as equals in U.S. society. As they had for the past century when facing serious challenges from Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans, local political leaders sought to limit Mexican American and Puerto Rican political gains.

Latino civil rights organizing in the 1960s took a variety of forms: voter mobilization and challenges to discriminatory registration and districting rules, labor organizing in the agricultural sector, anti–Vietnam War organizing, land rights claims resulting from the loss of Mexican-owned lands after the Mexican-American War, youth organizing focused on high schools and colleges demanding access to educational opportunities equivalent to White students, and challenges to the legacies of colonialism such as the failure to teach Mexican American history. The rhetoric of these new civil rights organizations, particularly those organized by young adults, was confrontational and sometimes violent, but the demands, at their core, were for full inclusion—for ethnicity to be inconsequential.

It is not possible here to examine each of these efforts individually, but several patterns emerge that link them, including the Fourteenth Amendment principle of equal protection of the law and the national civil rights rhetoric that grew in African American communities in the 1950s and early 1960s. The membership and leaders of these organizations were more likely than not to be young adults who were U.S.-born and raised. Latino civil rights organizational efforts emerged out of alliances, particularly with unions and other grassroots organizations in the localities.26 The rhetorical demand for dramatic change, such as the creation of a Mexican American political party or independence for Puerto Rico, however, was often tempered by a willingness of many Latino civil rights leaders to accept more incremental change that allowed for an increased Latino political voice.

The movement’s organizations also dramatized for the national population, Latino and non-Latino alike, that there was a national Latino, rather than Mexican American, Puerto Rican, or Cuban American, political identity. To encourage this perception, Latino organizations spoke of a shared set of needs that distinguished Latinos as a group from Anglos: educational access; nondiscrimination in the schools, housing, and job market; language rights; redress for past discrimination; bilingual education; culturally relevant K–12 and college curricula; labor rights in agriculture; and job training. None of these demands individually was revolutionary, but taken as a whole, they reflected an expectation of equal citizenship that had not been made so forcefully or so articulately before. Out of these Latino civil rights demands came both contemporary Latino politics and a growing recognition by the government of the need to design programs to overcome past discrimination and ensure Latinos’ full incorporation into U.S. politics. We explore the outcomes of these movements in subsequent chapters.

The Beginning of the Latino Political Era

By the late 1960s, Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans organized to influence local and, in some cases, state-level politics. Cuban Americans would follow a decade later. Latinos were largely unrepresented at the national level in this era and had little influence on national policymaking. Why, then, can this era be seen as the beginning of a pan-ethnic Latino politics?

The answers focus on the development of a collective identity within Latino communities and on efforts by the national government to measure the relative status of different groups in U.S. society as a tool to understand the pervasiveness and consequences of discrimination, on an increasing recognition by Latinos of different ancestries that they shared experiences with language and national origin–based discrimination, and on efforts to craft legislation to redress these collectively experienced barriers.

Latino civil rights organizing highlighted the policy dimensions of this collective identity but did not immediately translate to the mass level. That would be a process of the 1970s and 1980s. Instead, their efforts forced government to recognize and measure the relative social and economic status of Latinos as a group. In 1976 Congress passed PL 94-311, the Americans of Spanish Origin–Social Statistics law. PL 94-311 required that the U.S. Census and other government agencies collect data on Latinos as it long had for African Americans and Whites. With this law, and the implementation of Hispanic as a collective ethnic identity term to categorize this group, advocates and leaders would have concrete data with which to show where Latinos stood in U.S. society. It would also allow them to make reasoned social science inferences about how government policies led to these outcomes. Finally, discrimination and opportunity could be measured, and Latinos, regardless of national origin or ancestry, could see what they shared.

With evidence of a shared status and increasing contact across Latino groups, Hispanic leaders were able to make the case at the mass level that there was a Latino political identity built upon national origin identities. It is also important to observe that Latino leaders and Congress ensured that the pan-ethnic term Hispanic (and Latino) was not a racial identification. PL 94-311 mandated that Hispanic was an ethnic identity and that all Hispanics could identify separately in racial terms. Hispanic leaders sought to ensure that this pan-ethnic identity would not place Latinos into the racial hierarchy, with Whites at the top and other racial groups, of which they would be one, subordinate.