When visiting Los Angeles, a single street by the name of Olvera, is my home away from home. The street is filled with mariachi music, shops galore, and the smell of churros, reminding me of my abuelita. Olvera Street aims to preserve Mexican culture within the City of Angels, and offers a warm welcome to anyone who wants to experience it. As a second-generation Chicana, I believe in the importance and pride in culture. I believe that this starts with education on the subject, but that has not always been a readily accessible option. The history of Latinos, specifically Mexican-Americans, has been turbulent and relatively unknown due to state laws, which holds consequences for Chicano youth that hinder their personal growth.
The terms “Latin American” and “Hispanic” are used interchangeably in conversation to describe anyone with roots to a Spanish-speaking country. In the United States, “‘Hispanics’ or ‘Latinos’… trace their ancestry to one of twenty-two Spanish-speaking countries, including Spain, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Cuba” (Garcia). Often these terms are used to define nationality, as “Latino” is not a race of people. The term “Latino/Latina” have become increasingly more popular to use “as a reaction to the term ‘Hispanic’, which some feel privileges the Spanish ancestry of this population at the expense of its African and indigenous origins” (Garcia). Using this term is more inclusive to people from countries like Portugal or Brazil, whose population is primarily made up of portuguese speaking Nigerians. For this reason, it is fairly important to distinguish between the subsets of these people, as they “mask the very real differences that exist within and across these various groups, not all due to national ancestry” (Garcia). While they may share the same or a similar language, the experiences of particular ethnic groups are very different. This paper will be primarily focused on the experiences and contributions of the United States’ longest residing Latino population; Mexican-Americans, or “Chicanos”.
While Mexicans were one of the initial groups of the Southwest, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo changed the lives of these peoples forever. As the Library of Congress states, “The first Mexicans to become part of the United States never crossed any border. Instead, the border crossed them”. After the Mexican-American War had been laid to rest, Mexicans found themselves adding “-American” to their nationality, as they became residents of the United States (“Mexican – Land Loss in Trying Times – Immigration”). While being an American granted freedoms of “life, liberty, and justice” for all its citizens, this was not exactly the case for people of color up until the mid-20th century. The threat of less land for railroads and city developments caused tension between Mexican Americans already living on the land and settlers migrating west. Upon establishing cities, Mexican Americans were not granted any political voice, as they were portrayed “as the descendants of two inferior cultures that produced a lazy, apathetic, conniving, amoral, and intellectually deficient population that could not be trusted to understand or participate in democratic institutions” (Garcia).
Mexican-Americans were seen as “second-class citizens” that were inferior to all other races. Prejudices and stereotypes furthered racial tensions, as “Mexicans were called ‘greasers,’ ‘cholos,’ ‘bloodthirsty savages,’ and other demeaning epithets for decades after the U.S.-Mexico War” and as “Vigilante groups regularly hunted down Mexicans and lynched them without any legal proceedings” (“Latino Social Movements”). They were killed under the justification of “gringo justice”; a concept that stemmed from Manifest Destiny ideology. This toxic but mainstream idea that Mexican Americans were an inferior class led to the segregation of the group up until the 1960s. Similar to the African American community, “Segregation [for Mexicans] in housing, education, and public areas such as theaters, restaurants, pools, and even churches and cemeteries was enforced by custom if not by law” (Garcia). When World War II had broken out, the military needed as many American men to fight, regardless of color.
This provided a glimpse into what the caucasian life could be like for men of color, as Mexican American soldiers on furlough “did not have to enter restaurants through back doors or sit at segregated lunch counters, nor were they forced to sit in theater balconies reserved for people of color.” (Garcia). The post World War II era of the United States complicated the racial divisions within the country, as soldiers returned home to the previous system of racism. Whether they had returned home or died for their country, soldiers of color were not given the same burial treatment or level of respect as white soldiers. It was still illegal for Mexican-Americans to enter “Whites Only” spaces and in Los Angeles, it was even illegal to wear a “Zoot Suit” in public after 1943 because of its “gang affiliation” status (PBS). Instead, Mexican-Americans in the work force were still subjected to “Back-breaking [work] conditions, very low pay, no bathrooms or drinking water, and an overall lack of respect and dignity for workers” (“Latino Social Movements”). Under these conditions, workers sang songs to uplift one another. One such was “Brown Eyed Children of the Sun”, which spoke of the harsh conditions workers underwent primarily in the agricultural fields (UCSD Library). These would become the songs and chants of the workers unions they formed, which would later be called “The Chicano Movement”.
“White’s Only” sign circa 1942
The Chicano Movement was a civil rights demonstration led by Mexican-Americans. Beginning in the 1960s, el movimiento (“the movement”) was characterized by “the radical social justice activism within the Mexican American community” that “struggled for self-determination, equal rights, and economic equality” (Miner). The movement had reclaimed the term “Chicano”, which older generations associated “with backwardness, inferiority, and indignity”, breathing into it a meaning that “connoted cultural pride, militancy, and political engagement” (“Latino Social Movements”). Some of the notable groups during this movement were Crusade for Justice, United Farm Workers, Community Service Organization, and the Mexican American Youth Organization or MAYO (Miner). Striving for equality within the workforce and education system, the groups gained tremendous communal support through their unions. Students associated with organizations such as MAYO and the United Mexican American Students were heavily inspired by the Black Panther movement as “young activists held rallies, sit-ins, walkouts, and other mass demonstrations to call national attention to the poverty, high school dropout rates, and discrimination faced by Mexican Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities” (Garcia). Believing in the power of protest and looking to other civil rights groups, the demands of Chicano individuals were given volume.
One such mass demonstration organized by the Young Citizens for Community Action was the “East L.A Walkouts”. The YCCA had felt that students in East Los Angeles, a city whose Mexican-American population composed of “97% of its 126,496 residents” (Schakenbach), were not being educated fairly. On March 1st, 1968, “asserting that they were being ignored and their educational rights abused” (Mier & Gut), the YCCA helped organize a massive walk out of public high schools in the area. Approximately “15,000 students walked out of classes […] all demanding an equal, qualitative, and culturally relevant education” (Simpson). This form of protest was meant to target the school system financially until their demands for “Chicano faculty, courses, departments, and administrators, as well as for the admission of more Chicano students” (Meier) and “bilingual education, Mexican folklore in textbooks, and improvements to school buildings” (Simpson) were met. For the next two weeks, the students were subjected to harassment from the police and civilians who believed that the effort was fruitless. While the demands were not met by the school board at the end of the two week demonstration, it was seen as a success by the Chicano movement due to the passion and swelling level of youth’s pride in their culture. Colleges began to look at Chicano students, proving a small victory, but a victory nonetheless.
This is but one of many demonstrations that I learned about personally through my own research, not through public school history class. In the state of Arizona, one of the more controversial laws in place is House Bill 2281. HB 2281 was created to prohibit classes that led students to “RESENT OR HATE OTHER RACES OR CLASSES OF PEOPLE” (2281, 2010). The Tucson Unified School District used this as the justification to suspend their Mexican-American Studies program (Cadava), prohibiting students from learning about their culture and the history behind it. Superintendent John Huppenthal believed the program “taught Latino students to hate other races and that they’d been historically subjugated and mistreated by the government, and that it even encouraged sedition” (Phippen).
However, the Bill continues to state that “classes that include the history of any ethnic group and are open to all students” or “include the discussion of controversial aspects of history” (2281, 2010) are still allowed to be taught in school. The most striking point written within the House Bill is that “Nothing in this section shall be construed to restrict or prohibit the instruction of the Holocaust, any other instance of genocide, or the historical oppression of a particular group of people based on ethnicity, race, or class” (2281, 2010). With this in mind, one can argue that banning of Mexican-American Studies program within the TUSD is unnecessary, and that the program should be allowed to taught within the school.
Without the opportunity to learn about the history behind our culture, we are left with a lack of role models. It is a moment in history class that a student asks “Why doesn’t anyone look like me?” as they flip through a textbook that is black and primarily white. The Chicano Movement had brought forward leaders like Cesar Chavez, Rodolfo Acuña, Sal Castro, Corky Gonzáles, and Francisca Flores (“Notable Chicano Movement Leaders”). However, none of these leaders are ever mentioned in Arizona’s public school history classes (except for the one paragraph on Cesar Chavez). Their contributions to American history are swept under the red and white striped rug, leading students of color to be unaware of how their culture contributed to the “Melting Pot” of the country. Young chicanos grow up not knowing about these leaders who represent them in a positive light. Mainstream media consistently portrays Mexican Americans as drug dealers and smugglers, prostitutes, as struggling immigrants, single mothers, landscapers, and house workers. Current President-Elect Donald Trump had even gone on to say that Mexicans and Latinos were “ [B]ringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people” (“Here’s Donald Trump’s Presidential Announcement Speech.”). At a critical time in American history, Mexican-American/Latino Studies are needed now more than ever to dispel these prejudices. When asking my 14 year old sister how she felt about the lack of historical representation, she responded “It feels as though being Mexican-American or Chicano is not significant. I’m embarrassed that I don’t know the history or the language” (Rosales).
This response reflect another consequence of a lack of Chicano role models. Best modeled through second or third generation Mexican-American children, there can be a loss of ties into the culture, depending on the family’s preferences. To address why this is, I asked my father, a first generation Mexican-American, why he distanced his children slightly from the culture. His response was “When I moved back to Arizona, I only spoke Spanish. I had to learn English through watching Sesame Street and cartoons. For this, I was bullied and beaten up throughout primary school. I didn’t want my kids to have a similar experience. I wanted life to be easier for you guys [my siblings and I], so I made sure you had learned English first and foremost, to avoid the broken accent and ridicule” (Rosales). Mexican culture and traditions were still practiced within my household and we grew up with a large family that was active with the Chicano movement, from cooking to marching with Cesar Chavez! Interacting with other friends who did not have this type of tie to the culture, I found that they were more oblivious to significant movements and contributions made by other Mexican-Americans. With each generation that is furthered into American society, ties to roots can become thinner and thinner until they are non-existent.
The history behind Mexican Americans should be mentioned within the public school education. Through this paper alone, I had learned more about the complexities and vastness of the Chicano Movement and was amazed at what Mexican-Americans had endured previous to that point. Education on this group of Americans should be pushed into the public school system curriculum. As previously stated, during this critical time in American history and politics, educating students on the contributions that these citizens have made in legislation is essential to fighting against prejudices. When our citizens can see each other as equals and transcend ethnicity, race, and class, our society can progress. That pathway to progress starts with the most important players in future; our students.
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