Work/Study

I just handed in the longest paper I’ve had to write so far in my short span of college. I think I did a pretty good job so I thought I would post it.  It is for my ethnic studies class Issues In Chicano Education and is on the general topics of segregation in labor, housing and schooling as it relates to Mexicans/Hispanos during the Americanization Era (1920’s-1940’s) in the Southwest.  It is not intended for an academic audience, so there a couple things that are assummed knowledge.

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          Negative aspects of the Americanization era are still felt today, however at the time these facets were much more explicit and apparent to those who were prejudiced against.  In the American Southwest, Mexicans and Hispano communities faced widespread segregation in labor, housing and schooling as a result of the nativism and racism of the day.  In Colorado in the 1920’s – 1940’s, workers were recruited from Mexico and transported to Colorado to perform arduous labor in the fields for the sugar beet industry, effectively inviting the Mexican community to proliferate while purposely manipulating them and limiting their success (Donato).  This work was completely segregated; it was considered to be the work of Mexicans and their Hispano peers (Donato).

    One reason the segregation existed was the substandard wages paid for the work.  Thomas Mahony, a labor activist of the time pointed out that, “[A] family of five or six at a minimum health and decency level requires $1,800.00 to $2,000.00” (Donato).  However for the labor of the mother, father and all children age 7, “[T]he average earnings of thousands of contract beet worker families will average $600.00 per year” (Donato).  A typical Anglo family could earn more than three times as much money as a Mexican family simply through the labor of the father and/or the mother while a Mexican family had to employ the mother, father and the children and still not come out even.  While the backbone of the sugar beet industry was receiving pitiful wages, there was always plenty of capital to disperse to the shareholders; the sugar beet companies were performing well and could have easily paid their workers a livable wage (Donato).

          As a result of this disparity in what an entire family could earn as opposed to what was a “minimum decency level”, exploitation was the motivating factor for contracting Mexicans to perform this labor, or perhaps more appropriately vice versa, with the sugar beet industry paying these unlivable wages because the workers were Mexican.  The recruited Mexicans were facing circumstances more dire in their native land and felt compelled to take the opportunity presented to them in the U.S., as any relegated individual or group would naturally do.  Anglo American workers would never have performed this kind of labor and as a result of these factors the field labor in the sugar beet industry was for the most part an exclusively Mexican and Hispano affair; Anglos simply didn’t need to do back breaking work at a grossly low wage.

          Racism also factored into the belief that sugar beet labor was Mexican’s work.  Mexicans were viewed as rogue characters, incapable of learning professional skills and destined to wallow in their place (Donato).  Their Hispano peers were seen as descendents of the lowest form of white man on Earth who were similarly fit to be exploited because of their viewed inferiority (Donato).  In both cases their foreign cultures contributed to their viewed inferiority; only American systems of thought were viewed as correct.  The nativism and racism had a synergistic effect in the treatment of Mexicans and Hispanos in labor, which was also evident in other facets of their lives.

          In the initial phase of the sugar beet industry’s attempt to recruit Mexican workers, there was no attempt to situate them after they came (Donato).  Families lived in makeshift dwellings such as chicken coops (Donato).  In time however, the sugar beet industry decided that in order to increase productivity and profits they would construct “colonias” for the workers (Donato).  These were simply housing projects in which all of the Mexican workers lived, which were modest dwellings at best (Donato).  The motivation for constructing these colonias can best be described in a quote from one of the sugar beet company’s labor commissioners:

“The company’s purpose in colonizing the Mexican laborers is two fold.  There is a saving transportation expense, which under present conditions is high.  Also, experienced resident workers will do better work and more timely work on the crop and increase the tonnage per acre” (Donato).  In short, the goal was not to serve the workers best interests, but to enrich the company.

These colonias were always out of the way of Anglo areas as to keep them separate from Anglos and to marginalize them, further instilling their inferiority complex.  Segregation in housing was pervasive at the time in all parts of the Southwest, including California (Alvarez).  In Colorado, the segregation was unique because it was designed by the sugar beet industry in a vicious cycle of labor exploitation and housing segregation. 

Thurgood Marshall described education as “…perhaps the most important function of state and local governments “, however education at the time was not provided in an equitable fashion (Plyler V. Doe).  Schools were segregated, thereby denying an equitable opportunity for all to learn (UCLA).  One reason is that the goal of the segregated schools was to assimilate immigrant students, rather than to educate them (Galindo).  Education was seen as a nation building enterprise, rather than opportunity to educate all in the most efficient manner possible however it is ironic that this goal was performed in segregated schools (Galindo). 

With the sugar beet industry in Colorado, most Mexican children were sent to work in the fields thereby denying them any education at all.  Mexican children which did have opportunities at schooling were sent to separate schools in which the expectations were extremely low; the curriculum was designed to teach them trade work and prepare them for manual labor (Donato).  Additionally, the Mexican schools were more likely to have less skilled teachers and teachers who were apathetic to teaching Mexicans (Donato).  The separate facilities and materials for the Mexican students were ramshackle, clearly inferior to their Anglo counterparts (Donato).  In Colorado, Mexican families were living, working and being taught separately with the goal of inoculating them into being satisfied and made to believe the treatment was deserved.

Other parts of the Southwest had similar circumstances.  During the depression era in California, more than 80% of schools had segregated schools for Mexican children (Galindo).  What is also common throughout the Southwest was a propensity to segregate on the basis on limited English proficiency (LEP) (Galindo).  LEP students were segregated and placed in classes where the only focus was to learn English, at the expense of all other subject matter (Galindo).  There were even instances of fully proficient English speakers being lumped into LEP schools, illustrating the rationale of the segregated schools as a conduit to learn English was suspect (Alavarez).  The acquisition of English was not seen as an educational issue, but as a means of assimilation (Galindo).

Like the labor and housing segregation, racism and nativism were the motivating factors.  Mexican children were seen as being “unmotivated, disease-ridden and intellectually inferior” (Galindo).  Certainly this would explain why these students were places in schools in which some did not running water or electricity Galindo)!  While the supposed goal of segregated schools was to assist the Mexican students, they never contributed in changing the Mexican community’s economic and political relationship to the dominant society (Galindo).

When discussing desegregation court cases in the U.S., two cases stand out as having great importance not only with regards to the desegregation movement as a whole, but with a marked sense of importance as it relates to Latino history in the U.S.  These cases are Roberto Alvarez v. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District and Mendez v. Westminster.  To make an analogy, Roberto Alvarez v. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District, also known as The Lemon Grove Incident, can be compared with Julius Erving while Mendez v. Westminster can be compared with Michael Jordan. 

Erving is known for being the pioneer of a new style of basketball which revolutionized the game and paved the way for Michael Jordan, a player who took Erving’s approach and innovated on it in a way unimaginable in Erving’s time.  It is in this sense the analogy is most applicable.  The Lemon Grove Incident was the first successful school desegregation court decision in the U.S., and while many may be unaware of this fact, this distinction is critical to the history of the desegregation movement (Alvarez).  The Lemon Grove case can be compared to the hardworking father who breaks his back for his children but can take pride in his children achieving more than he could ever dream of.  In this case the children are the more well known Board v. Brown and the Mendez case.  While the Lemon Grove case operated on the local level, the Mendez case was a statewide decision which ended de facto and de jure segregation in California (UCLA).

The Lemon Grove case takes place in 1931 and involved Mexican residents of a small community (Lemon Grove) in California adjacent to San Diego (Alvarez).  169 students attended the local Lemon Grove Grammar school, out of which 75 students were of Mexican descent (Alvarez).  Without providing any prior notice to their parents, the Mexican students arrived at school one day only to be instructed to report to a separate school which was only for Mexican students (Alvarez).  When the children returned home, their parents instructed them not to report to the new school as it was a grossly inferior facility (Alvarez).  The parents of the Mexican students contacted the Mexican Consulate who referred them to lawyers willing to fight the case on behalf of the disenfranchised students. 

The presiding judge, Judge Chambers, ruled that there was no way Mexican students could be segregated from other students without violating California law (Alvarez).  Furthermore, he added his opinion that segregating students was not in the best interests of the students as the defendants claimed (Alvarez).  Being an isolated local event, the Lemon Grove case set no precedent-setting event on the state of California, however in a historical context this case can be pointed to as the beginning of the end of school desegregation (Alvarez).

The actions of the plaintiffs were extremely groundbreaking at the time as no other school desegregation case had been successful anywhere in the U.S.  Adding to that sentiment was the social climate of the time, with overt racism and prejudice the norm.  The Lemon Grove case was over 20 years before school segregation was outlawed on the national level with Brown and almost 10 years before it was outlawed in California (UCLA).  The plaintiffs showed moxie in their attempt to right an injustice at a time when their efforts seemed to be a huge long shot.

If the Lemon grove case started it all and is Julius Erving, then most certainly between the two the Mendez case was Michael Jordan.  Like Lemon Grove, Mendez involved Mexican students who were being forced into segregation and determined parents whose goal was to have equality for their children.  The Mendez case, which takes place in 1945, also involved defendants whose explanation for their actions involved pedagogical reasoning (UCLA).  The intent of the perpetrators and the vigilance of the plaintiffs are where most of the similarities end.  The Mendez case was a state wide affair, with 5000 plaintiffs and 4 separate school boards on trial (UCLA).  Its scope was unprecedented and due to that it received support from various minority groups who saw this case as a unique opportunity. Mendez was viewed as something all minorities could rally around and a conduit to ending all school segregation.

The argument in Mendez was also fundamentally different than in Lemon Grove.  In the Lemon Grove case the ruling was that while California law had provisions segregating “Orientals, Negros and Indians”, the judge considered Mexicans to be of the Caucasian race thus making their segregation illegal (Alvarez).  The Mendez case sought to attack the entire system of school desegregation itself by arguing it violates the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which provides equal protection for all, directly challenging the “separate but equal” interpretation of the 14th Amendment made some 50 years earlier in Plessy v. Ferguson.

The Mendez case was won by the plaintiffs with Judge McCormick ruling that segregated schools was an unconstitutional violation of equal protection (UCLA).   This ruling eventually led to the banning of school segregation in all of California with Anderson Bill (UCLA).  The Mendez case was used as stepping stone for other desegregation cases that followed, much like this case drew upon Lemon Grove (UCLA).

Brown receives the most acclaim for ending school segregation on the national level however its unsung predecessors are Lemon Grove and Mendez.  Before one can learn to walk one must crawl, and these two cases skinned their knees so a case like Brown could come to fruition.  The ending of school segregation was a long journey of many steps, and the Lemon Grove and Mendez cases are critical parts of that journey.

The facets of Mendez, Lemon Grove and the plight of Mexican families involved in the sugar beet industry have many parallels.  Those in positions of power were looking to subject a group of people to substandard ways of living in an attempt to subvert them into believing what was being done to them was appropriate, with the motivation coming from a fear of their foreign culture and a disgust for their ethnicity.  Segregation in housing, schooling and labor only serves to create the notion that peoples belong away from each other, and that segregation would bring uniformity in culture and ways of being, which is absurd. 

Assimilation in its most positive sense is the inclusion of all peoples into a common fabric of life.  It is not a method of denying a people their culture of origin or subjecting them to practices they do not agree with.  The United States was, and is, considered a melting pot, a place in which out of many there is one.  The pressure to assimilate in the negative sense, a manner in which one must abandon their native cultures, occurs to this day, though ostensibly on the surface much has changed.  When I was a child, I can remember begging my mother to stop speaking to me in Spanish because I was living in the U.S., something I regret to this day.  I was not experiencing overt prejudice, nor was I isolated from other Spanish speaking peoples, however even though I could not comprehend it at the time, society was telling me that my culture was wrong.  How else would I have felt so strongly about refusing Spanish? 

Much has changed since the Americanization era, however much has also stayed the same.  Neighborhoods all across the U.S. are segregated by race and ethnicity, which results in local schools being similarly segregated.  Labor laws have been put into place dictating minimum wage and work conditions, however minorities still hold a disproportionate number of the jobs considered most menial today.  The one thing that I think has changed the most is pedagogy; the science is more developed and it is more understood the way to educate peoples of different backgrounds and language proficiencies.  This fact is the most reassuring because education is the key to improve all aspects of our society and guaranteeing all a higher standard of living to pass on to their children.

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