In June 2013, Sebastien de la Cruz sang the National Anthem for Games 3 and 4 of the National Basketball Association (NBA) Finals in San Antonio. In July 2013, Marc Anthony sang “God Bless America” at the Major League Baseball (MLB) All-Star Game. Both de la Cruz and Anthony are U.S. citizens; the family of de la Cruz descends from México, and Marc Anthony’s family from Puerto Rico. Social media backlash labeled both of them Mexican and indicated neither belonged as U.S. nationals. The United States Census currently categorizes both performers as ‘Hispanic/Latino.’
This heated debate over who ‘belongs’ to the United States, who is worthy of being called American, shows a longstanding contention over geography and history, race and national belonging. México, after all, once included the present-day southwestern United States. Before Mexican independence, imperial Spain claimed these lands. And before that, the indigenous peoples of Anáhuac, Mogollon, and Diné.
Neither Marc Anthony nor Sebastien de la Cruz is a Mexican national, even though the backlash pejoratively labeled them as such. The usage of Mexican in the backlash could refer to nationality or to race. Twentieth century battles over racialized school segregation policies and U.S. Census categories reveal an equally contentious history fought by people of Mexican descent over race and national belonging.
“We did not cross the border, the border crossed us.”
In 1930, the United States Census included Mexican as a non-White racial category for the first time. U.S. citizens of Mexican descent lobbied to have this category removed. They wanted to be considered legally White which, in racially exclusive Jim Crow America, allowed access to full citizenship. Classified as “less-than-White but not-Black,” workers and families of Mexican descent fought back against discrimination. They fought for space to define and perform their sense of cultural heritage, which did not map easily into the Black-White racial binary, histories, and social structures of the United States.
In 1945, parents in Orange, Westminster, Santa Ana, El Modena, and Garden Grove sued the Westminister School District of Orange County, California on behalf of their children in Méndez, et al v. Westminister. The plaintiffs—Thomas Estrada, William Guzman, Gonzalo Mendez, Frank Palomino, and Lorenzo Ramirez—all claimed that the school districts of Orange County unconstitutionally segregated their children into “Mexican Schools” and classrooms.
The attorneys argued that no state laws allowed for the segregation of children of ‘Mexican descent,’ since ‘Mexican descent’ fit in to definitions of White at the time. In 1947, the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the parents.
A lower court ruling in Méndez v Westminster informed the legal strategy of NAACP activists leading up to Brown v Board (1954). Although it was a major breakthrough in legal precedent for school desegregation, California segregation laws excluding Chinese, Japanese, and those of “Mongolian parentage” remained on the law books.
Listen to NPR’s “All Things Considered: Before ‘Brown v. Board of Education’ in 1947 Orange County, Families Sued for Desegregation–and Won.”
This legal strategy, in addition to lobbying efforts against the 1930 census categories, became common tactics used by advocacy groups on behalf of people of Mexican descent. During the 1940s and 1950s, many middle class people of Mexican descent fought for access to whiteness as a means of belonging. The Méndez case also revealed the complexity of Southwest populations commonly labeled as Mexican. The Méndez parents, whose Spanish surname titled the case, were of differing Central American and Caribbean descents: the father of Mexican descent, and the mother of Puerto Rican descent. Many families in the Southwest U.S. had lived on their lands for many generations, yet the White-Anglo populations treated them as an itinerant labor force that did not belong in White schools.
The history is much more complicated. After the Mexican-American War in 1848, the U.S. Congress struck Section X from the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. This section contained language that bound the U.S. government to honor the current land holdings of Mexican nationals annexed within U.S. borders. By striking this section, the U.S. Congress freed up millions of acres of new land for farmers, corporations, and wealthy entrepreneurs.
Want to learn more about the Mexican American War and its impact on U.S. and Mexico territory? Check out this interactive map and timeline created by PBS and primary source documents including letters, battle reports, and speeches related to the war.
In México, the war can be referred to as guerra del 47 (War of ’47) or invasión estadounidense a México (US invasion of México).
Another challenge lay in the clashing definitions of racial and national heritages. In the United States, the Census considered Black lineage, White lineage, and extra-national lineage, or mother tongue. But families of Mexican descent were new arrivals to the United States only by virtue of the U.S. appropriation of their lands. And the U.S. systems of classification did not account for 400 years of imperial Spain, movement between territories, and imperially-forced migrations.
The Western hemisphere—the Caribbean islands and the long, connected, continental landmass—holds many different American histories. At various times in its 400-year history, the Spanish Empire included and administered present-day Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Italy; some Pacific and Caribbean islands; and parts of Africa, South America, and North America territory like modern day Mexico and Florida. Residents of all territories moved from continent to continent among Spanish holdings. Spanish territories traded with East Asia, and Spain imported laborers of African and Asian descents. These American histories incorporated many and varied influences from the all over the world. According to United States racial categories, then, people of Spanish colonial heritages can also have Amerindian, Asian and Pacific Islander, African, and European heritages. But in the 1930s, people of Mexican descent did not want all of those heritages categorized by the U.S. government individually. They wanted to count within the legal classification of whiteness. California allowed Mexicans to claim whiteness, and this presented a problem for a young wartime couple Andrea Pérez and Sylvester Davis who met in a Los Angeles factory, fell in love, and wanted to get married.
In 1948, Pérez v Sharp made it to the Supreme Court of California. When applying for a marriage license, Andrea Pérez, of Mexican descent, listed her race as ‘White,’ and Sylvester Davis listed his race as ‘Negro.’ At the time, California’s anti-miscegenation law prohibited any person categorized as ‘White’ from marrying with any person categorized as non-White. The County Clerk, W.G. Sharp, denied a marriage license to Pérez and Davis due to the California Civil Code that prohibited interracial marriages. They filed a lawsuit, and the California Supreme Court ruled that the law unconstitutionally prohibited Pérez and Davis from exercising their religious rights to the sacrament of marriage as practicing Catholics. The victory in Pérez v Sharp later informed the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Loving v Virginia, but it did not dismantle structures of racial segregation or discrimination.
“No cruzamos la frontera; la frontera nos cruzó a nosotros”
Even though the U.S. Census agreed after 1930 to classify people of Mexican descent as ‘White,’ they still attempted to count people of Mexican descent, but only in the Southwest. They created a new category for people who spoke Spanish as their mother tongue and who had a Spanish surname. This regional focus may have allowed some families to pass into whiteness by virtue of losing a Spanish surname, or not speaking English with an accent.
Despite some apparent victories against the U.S. Census, school segregation, and the ability to marry across racialized lines, people of Mexican descent did not necessarily count as White socially or culturally. Their ties to Spanish language and their names set some households apart from White-Anglo households. In addition, households and communities of Mexican descent experienced violence targeted at their communities and culture. Signs indicating “No Mexicans Allowed” proliferated throughout the Southwest United States. Other signage included “No Mexicans Served,” for restaurants, and “Colored Men and Hombres Aqui,” for restrooms.
Book presentation on No Mexican, Women, or Dogs Allowed by Cynthia Orozco, author, with archival images.
Water fountains were sometimes painted white, brown, and black, indicating which population could drink from which fountain. The Ku Klux Klan had a history of lynching residents labeled as Mexican in Texas. In 1943, the Zoot Suit Riots occurred in Los Angeles in 1943, along with several similarly motivated riots in large U.S. cities.
Despite violence, continuing discrimination, and being counted separately from Anglos, many communities in the Southwest U.S. retained the Spanish language. Through religion, folklore, and popular culture, populations of Mexican descent continued and adapted their understanding of mexicana/o within U.S. borders. Performers and companies with shared Spanish heritages and colonial histories traveled throughout northern México and the Southwest U.S. from the nineteenth century well into the twentieth. They performed carpas, pastorelas, tandas de variedad, zarzuelas, teatro de revistas, and teatro frívolo. These performers toured in communities with working-class people of Mexican descent, and through large urban centers, such as San Antonio, Tucson, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Even though people of Mexican descent fought segregation by arguing for legal whiteness, they also perpetuated Mexican culture in choices of everyday speech and popular culture.
Other communities, such as those of Cuban and Puerto Rican descents, similarly used opportunities within US borders to retain, continue, and adapt their national cultures, Spanish heritages, and shared histories. At times, this included negotiating the complex relationship between the U.S., Spain, and the Western hemisphere. Companies from Spain also toured throughout the U.S. In urban areas, such as New York City and Tampa, Spanish-language theatres drew in resident audiences of Spanish heritage and immigrant audiences from geographies with Spanish colonial histories. Radio programming also allowed language, music, and dance beats from different American cultures to spread. During the 1940 strike by the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, radio stations offered more work to singers and musicians from African American, Central American, Caribbean, and South American traditions. This increased opportunities for learning and adapting performance modes outside of those categorized as White at the time.
Based on these efforts by populations eventually categorized as Hispanic/Latino, it seems unsurprising that Anglo populations may have viewed them as non-White and the Census continued to count some households apart from White. In the 1950s and 1960s, people of Mexican descent changed their legal and advocacy strategies against categorization and discrimination.
Internal Borders and Ethnic Origin
In 1950, a murder occurred in Edna, Texas, and a migrant worker named Pedro (Pete) Hernández was arrested and tried. Gustavo García, his lead defense attorney, appealed the conviction. He argued that Hernández had no opportunity for a fair trial when no person of Mexican descent had been called for jury duty in the past twenty-five years. He and the defense team based this strategy on the Fourteenth Amendment, a risky choice at the time. In Hernández v Texas, they argued that the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed equal protection above and beyond the racialization of White or Black.
The attorneys argued that Anglo practices created an unjust and separate class for people of Mexican descent. These tactics presented a foundational shift in legal strategies. Instead of arguing into the Black-White binary, the attorneys attempted to create a new understanding of unequal protection. They did not adopt the language of race or origins, but pushed for a new interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment. All nine justices on the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that in Jackson County, the treatment of people of Mexican descent qualified as a separate class, or a class apart. This decision set a legal precedent for considering everyday practices of discrimination that may or may not have been based on racialized differences. However, the Court did not necessarily create a set standard. They based their decision on the practices evident in Jackson County, that an entire community had been excluded from participating in a civic duty. The Court rendered this decision just two weeks before they rendered a decision on Brown v Board of Education in 1954.
“Yo Soy Joaquín/I am Joaquin” performed by Luis Valdez, original poem by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, activist in Denver, Colorado.
As the 1950s turned into the 1960s, several new organizations organized to fight for legal, educational, and social justice on behalf of the Mexican-descended. Some organizations worked within the ‘class apart’ arguments. Others argued for the creation of a Mexican race, or a Chicano race. On every level, advocacy organizations pushed aggressively for their chosen audience, whether students, workers, families, or potential registered voters. The combined weight of all these activities placed pressure on local and national structures of government. Political lobbying and voter initiatives worked in tandem with agricultural strikes and student mobilization. All of this activity contributed to significant changes in the legal and educational landscapes.
Legal advocates pushed to broaden the victory in Hernández. In Cisneros v. Corpus Christi Independent School District (1970), the US Supreme Court extended the protection and argument of Brown v Board. The Court ruled that discrimination was unconstitutional on the basis of any ethnicity or race, regardless of state law; all minority groups were entitled to Equal Protection under the law. This victory significantly expanded the 1950 precedent of Hernández, because it did not depend on proving local practices or state-specific restrictions on a specific class or group.
Through all of these battles, the U.S. Census continued to unevenly count households with a Spanish surname and Spanish as a mother tongue in the Southwest U.S. After the 1970 Census, several advocacy organizations – on behalf of all communities labeled as Hispanic or Latino – brought a lawsuit against the Census itself. They alleged that, due to uneven enumerating practices, the Census grossly undercounted minority populations labeled as Hispanic or Latino. Because of this undercounting, those communities would not have access to federal funds or oversight as permitted by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Finally in 1980, the U.S. Census asked about Hispanic or Latino descent and origins for all households and on all forms. In order to count within U.S. society, people of Mexican descent succeeded through claiming minority status along with other populations that had shared Spanish histories of rule and heritages. They legally formed a minority bloc that could span the White and Black races in the U.S. by including other populations under legal categories of Hispanic and Latino. Only through the emergence of Hispanic and Latino as a minority category did people of Mexican descent find a place in the U.S. educational, legal, and political systems.
Contested Categories, Hispanic and Latina/o
In the end, the fluctuating status of Mexican-descended populations in the United States simultaneously exemplified the fiction of race and the fact of racism. Even though the category of Hispanic and/or Latino became an “ethnic” or “origin” category, the category presumed that cultural legacies pass through the blood. Going even further, all cultural legacies from territories of shared Spanish histories and language stood as equivalents and outside of the U.S. Passing on mexicanidad stood equal to passing on argentinidad and peruanidad. The mexicanidad of Sebastien de le Cruz equaled the puertorriqueñidad of Marc Anthony, and both stood as outside Mexicans, regardless of their specific family histories or the historic annexations by the US government.
Despite being counted as equivalents or derogatorily labeled the same non-US outsider, people who are counted as Hispanic or Latino do not necessarily follow these categories. Ever since the 1980 U.S. Census, respondents who count as Hispanic or Latino select “some other race” nearly as often as they select “White.” They often write in their national descent, interrupting and differentiating within their assigned pan-ethnic label. Concepts of race, ethnicity, and nation remain contested categories in the everyday and in official systems for categorizing people labeled as Hispanic or Latino. Marc Anthony, Sebastien de la Cruz, and Hispanic/Latino communities know the differences between mexicanidad and puertorriqueñidad. They continue to recognize and practice internal borders within the Hispanic/Latino category as hemispheric American citizens, even as they recognize and respond to ways in which they do and do not count to Anglo U.S. nationals.
For more information:
- Check out the recent PBS series Latino Americans, now available for streaming online.
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