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Background

Find out more about Mexican Americans in the United States, the Bracero program, Operation Wetback and the Edcouch-Elsa school walkout.

Mexican Americans in the United States

According to a 2005 us Census Bureau report, more than 25 million us residents are of Mexican origin — approximately 9 percent of the national population and about 61 percent of the total Hispanic population of the United States. About 10 million people of Mexican descent reside in California and roughly 7 million in Texas — constituting nearly a third of the population of those two states.

Families of Mexican-American heritage arrived in the United States in a variety of ways. Approximately 78,000 were residents of disputed territory in California and New Mexico when, after years of ongoing disputes, control of the areas was finally won by the United States in the Mexican American War. Rather than move to the Mexican side of the border, thousands chose to stay and become us citizens. A similar pattern occurred when Texas declared independence from Mexico.

In the last half of the 19th century, relatively few people immigrated from Mexico to the United States. However, numbers increased in the early 20th century due to the combination of political instability in Mexico and increased demand for farm labor in the United States.

Between 1900 and 1930, at least half a million Mexicans migrated to the United States, (because the Border Patrol was not created until 1924, exact numbers are difficult to confirm). This immigrant population was split between those who intended to work for a few years and then return home and those who intended to stay and bring additional family members to join them. Both groups sent a significant portion of their wages to family members back in Mexico, a pattern that continues for many Mexican immigrants today.

During the Great Depression, many Mexican immigrants returned to Mexico, either because they could not find work or because they were caught up in us government enforcement of the Repatriation program. When demand for workers increased during World War II, Mexicans again returned to the United States. Millions crossed the borders in the latter part of the 20th century as part of an ongoing pattern that includes spikes in immigration (often in response to official incentives), followed by crackdowns on undocumented workers.

Sources:
» "Facts for Features" us Census Bureau (April 20, 2005).
» "Mexican Americans" Allan Englekirk and Marguerite Marín.


The Bracero Program

Mexicans have crossed the border to work in the United States throughout the 20th century, but laws and restrictions governing the crossings have varied greatly. For much of the century, there were no penalties for employers who hired undocumented workers, and when there were penalties, they were rarely enforced.

In 1942, the government launched the Bracero ("strong arm") program as a response to a predicted shortage of farm labor due to the large numbers of men joining or being drafted into the armed forces. The program allowed Mexicans to work as farm laborers under contracts lasting from one to six months. Between 1942 and 1964, when the program ended, 4.6 million Mexicans came to the United States to perform farm labor as program participants.

Conditions for participants in the Bracero program were often no better than for those who came to the United States without documentation. Bracero employers were supposed to supply housing, food, medical care and transportation, but these requirements were largely ignored, leaving many workers vulnerable to exploitation. Bracero laborers were frequently isolated and given substandard housing. Complaints about poor treatment were likely to prompt reprisals from employers, and there was little capacity to enforce labor standards and wage requirements.

Critics argued that the Bracero program created a separate class of workers who could be subjected to extremely harsh conditions with little risk to their employers. Such shortcomings led to large-scale efforts at organizing farmworkers, including those by the United Farm Workers.

Sources:
» "Migrant Farmworkers: America's New Plantation Workers" Food First Institute for Food and Development Policy 10:2 (Spring 2004).
»The Bracero Program: Was It a Failure? Philip Martin History News Network George Mason University (July 3, 2006).


Operation Wetback

In 1954, in response to public pressure for a crackdown on illegal immigration, the commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, General Joseph Swing, led federal, state and local officials in a massive operation to sweep up undocumented immigrants in the southwestern United States and deport them en masse. Government agents first began rounding up foreigners (and, on occasion, their American-born children, who were citizens) in California and Arizona. Agents then swept northward and eastward through agricultural communities and Mexican neighborhoods in Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Texas. The operation came to be known as Operation Wetback.

Although the program was supposed to focus on noncitizens, Mexican Americans and others who seemed suspiciously foreign were also caught in the sweep. In the first six weeks, 50,000 individuals were caught up for deportation, leading many thousands more to leave voluntarily. The harshness of the program prompted sharp criticism in the United States and in Mexico, and it was abandoned in the fall of 1954.

Sources:
» "Operation Wetback" Fred L. Koestler. The Handbook of Texas Online.
» "The Border: Timeline" KPBS-TV (1999).


Edcouch-Elsa School Walkout

In 1968, in a climate of civil rights activism and student antiwar protests, Mexican American students at Edcouch-Elsa High School led the first major Chicano student protest in south Texas. Student walkouts had already occurred in Los Angeles, and Mexican-American students had been organizing on college campuses.

At Edcouch-Elsa, 192 students (including Armando Peña and his brother Luis) walked out of class to protest a range of grievances, from the distribution of fans in the (non-air-conditioned) classrooms to overt racial discrimination. Hispanic students, who comprised a majority of the student body, were punished for speaking Spanish. They were discouraged from applying for college and were instead encouraged to seek menial labor jobs. The school's curriculum, which paid little attention to the contributions of Mexican Americans in history, was another point of contention.

The walkout lasted a week. And when student leaders were arrested and five students who were expelled for participating in the walkout sued the district for readmission, the event gained national attention and became a touchstone for Chicano activism. The students won their suit, and the court victory not only preserved the right of students to protest, but also challenged discrimination and Anglo control in the school and, to some degree, in the community at large.

Sources:
» "Armando Peña: The Edcouch-Elsa School Walkout" My Journey Home.
» "Former Edcouch-Elsa Students Recall the Tumultuous Year" The Brownsville Herald (December 13, 1998).
» "The Impact of Brown on the Brown of South Texas: A Micropolitical Perspective on the Education of Mexican Americans in a South Texas Community" Miguel A. and Francisco J. Guajardo American Educational Research Journal. 41:3. (Fall 2004)





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