The Mexican population in the United States has endured a great deal of persecution and oppression in its long history. Much of their plight goes unnoticed alongside more publicized and popularly demonized instances of racism, of which there is unfortunately no shortage. But the curious fact remains that while the United States population in general is entirely apologetic about the treatment of black Americans, Native Americans, Middle Eastern Americans, and even Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor, Hispanic Americans have always been an acceptable punching bag for prejudicial policies and racist hostility. This sample essay highlights the challenges Mexican Immigrants faced in the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries, articulating some misconceptions of American citizenship as well.
Subjugation of Mexican immigrants in the early republic
Many Americans seem to be under the impression than Mexican immigration is a new phenomenon that is an imminent threat to the stability of the country, but the fact is that Mexican immigration has been a part of American culture and economy since a line was first drawn between the two nations. There is a largely unsung history of Mexican-American relations that extends from the Mexican-American War to World War II and a better understanding of this era could go a long way toward making modern Americans more accepting and understanding of the long-standing and often turbulent relations between Mexico and the United States.
Before the Mexican-American War, there was very little official intermingling of Americans and Mexicans. It was only after the United States conquered the Southwest and drew their line in the sand that Mexican immigration became a concern, since before that it was either Americans trespassing on Mexican soil or both people wandering around in no-man’s-land. From the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century, Mexican immigrants in the United States were forced to give up much of their national pride and even personal dignity to fit into the role they were allowed in the United States (Meyer). Several factors influenced this transformation.
Relations between U.S. and Mexico
The question might come up of why the Mexican people would bother to interact with Americans at all, following the war. For many, an international border being moved meant nothing and the land that they had owned and lived off for generations was suddenly in America which meant they were suddenly part of America (Meyer). Relations between United States and Mexican citizens were tense, largely because of the Mexican-American War.
It is obvious why the Mexicans would be bitter toward their conquerors, but the American approach to warfare aggravated this. American soldiers were still in war mode, trained to believe that the enemy was entirely evil and worthy of destruction; this turned out to be a switch that could not be turned off. When the troops who hated and killed Mexicans in the war became land and business owners in the Southwest, their hatred persisted and tainted all the future relations between the two peoples (Gonzales). This kind of hostility was taught both intentionally and incidentally to future generations of Anglo Americans and future generations of Mexican Americans grew up under the heavy heel of bigotry.
Religion was also a point of contention. As much as the United States worked to leave behind their English ancestry, the hatred of Catholicism carried through in a dormant state until Americans came up against the devoutly Catholic Mexicans in armed conflict. This was further aggravated by the distrust that Americans felt toward Irish immigrants who were also devout Catholics. And the entire issue came to a head in the Mexican-American War when a number of Irish Catholic soldiers defected to the Mexican Army (Gonzales). The latent dislike of Catholics was inflamed by war and then cemented in place by the betrayal of American troops.
Just like the more abstract hatred of Mexicans as an enemy, the hatred of their Catholic religion persisted long after the war and was inflamed continually by the observance of that religion. Finally, there was also a matter of race. As much as modern day citizens try to leave matters of race behind, it has proven a difficult thing to do. And in the 19th century there was no pressure to try. Mexicans had dark skin and Anglo Americans had light skin and that was all the reason many needed to be suspicious and prejudiced. This point of conflict has been seen time and again in many different parts of the country and the world which only proves how difficult it is to ignore and how powerfully it affects people (Gonzales). While it may be distasteful to admit, it was a very real factor in determining relations between the U.S. and Mexico.
Factors that influenced the treatment of Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans
As is often the case, many of the pressures between the two populations came about because of money. Shortly after the end of the Mexican-American War, the California gold rush hit. During this time, California was largely undeveloped, at least by the American government, and the entire Southwest region was relatively lawless. Anglo miners quickly became the most powerful population in the area thanks to the backing of the government and various business interests which meant that whatever law the miners wanted is what held sway. Vigilantism made the Southwest a very dangerous place for the Mexicans were hated for all the reasons already stated.
The miners were also not interested in sharing any of the gold with either the Mexicans or the newly immigrating Chinese. So, these two ethnic groups were targeted by the vigilante justice and by absurd taxes that dramatically favored Anglo miners. Whether they were European immigrants or American citizens did not much matter (Gonzales). Being shut out of the gold rush meant that the local Mexican population, though much older than the Anglo population, lost even more influence as they fell behind in wealth.
Many Mexicans found their own way to succeed though. The Southwest was a big place and goods needed to be shipped and sold and the railroad had not yet arrived. A number of Mexican entrepreneurs took advantage of this need and, for a time, regained some footing in the socioeconomic ladder. The ongoing wars against the Apache also meant that every capable soldier was needed and many Mexicans found work with the U.S. military, fighting the Indians.
But eventually the railroad did come and the Native Americans in the area were defeated and the Mexican population realized that its success was entirely at the convenience of the Anglo population. Industrialization of the Southwest meant that the manpower intensive Mexican businesses that had found success fell by the wayside again (Gonzales). It seems likely that this point was really the definitive one for the future of Mexicans in America. If they were going to be accepted, they would have been welcomed into the new, mechanized economy. Instead they were cast aside.
For many Mexicans, the only recourse was lawlessness. Particularly in the late 19th century when the Southwest was still largely untamed, a large portion of the Mexican-American population turned to banditry to make a living (Gonzales). In this way they managed to compensate for the Anglo resistance to Mexican assimilation. As the law slowly overtook the frontier, though, this too had to die out. Ultimately, the most apparent example of Mexican resistance to oppression is a firm hold on their heritage.
Even in the 20th century when Mexican immigrants penetrate farther into the United States, they kept strong ties with their home country and persisted in using their native language even though it also served to alienate them (Gonzales). For a population that is not accepted in its new home, these practices seem like the only way to maintain any meaningful identity.
Events in Mexico and the United States – Push and Pull Factors
Around the turn of the century, a number of events took place in Mexico and the United States that served as push-pull factors to further encourage Mexican immigration to America. The Mexican ruling class became increasingly oppressive, creating conditions not unlike those that preceded the French Revolution. The Yaquis Indians in particular were brutally subjugated and the lands of the poorest class was taken by the wealthiest to expand their estates. A revolution broke out in response to this and members of both ends of the spectrum were pushed out of Mexico to find peace and safety in the United States.
On the tail of the revolution, Mexican insurgents tried to reclaim Texas, but their efforts were put down brutally and Texas only became more stable, pulling in Mexican refugees despite the social hostility of Anglos toward Mexicans in the area at that time (Gonzales). This kind of flight from chaos and poverty in Mexico to perceived peace and opportunity in the United States has repeated throughout history to this day all throughout the nation.
Like what you read? Check out this essay on Cesar Chavez, a Mexican-American civil rights activist.
The relationship between Mexico and the United States has been tense for as long as the two nations have stared across a border at each other. A veneer of forced civility seems to only thinly cover deep loathing for each other at a national level while individuals swing more wildly to both ends of the spectrum. The hatred of Mexicans and resentment of Americans that has its roots in the Mexican-American War persist to this day, tainting relations between the two people and continuing the subjugation of the Mexican population. They remain evil invaders and unwelcome parasites in the eyes of the public while their reason for coming is exactly the same as every immigrant that ever stepped off a boat onto American soil, no matter their ethnicity or country of origin. The only chance for equality and the healing of old wounds is if both sides can let go of the past and work toward a more cooperative, more accepting future. A future now more murky due to the divisive policies of Donald Trump’s presidential administration.
Gonzales, Manuel G.. Mexicanos: A History of Mexicans in the United States. 2nd. Reprint. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009. Print.
Meyer, Michael C., and William L. Sherman. The Course of Mexican history. 9th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.