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The rise of immigration from Spanish-speaking countries in the last decades of the twentieth century has profoundly affected the makeup of American society, bolstered especially by the large numbers of immigrants from Mexico in the Southwest and increasing immigration from the islands of the Caribbean to cities such as Miami and New York. The controversy over the porous border between the United States and Mexico has contributed to an increasingly negative perception of impoverished Hispanics in the United States: Hispanics have been accused of bringing competition for good jobs and a willingness to work at low-income jobs as migrant laborers, farm workers, and general laborers.
Although racism and ethnic prejudice have negatively influenced ethnic Mexicans in the United States, the discrimination that Mexican Americans have faced is more nuanced than that historically directed toward African Americans. The American annexation of territory from Mexico at the end of the Mexican American War in 1848 formally granted ethnic Mexicans the rights of citizenship, but Anglo prejudice often denied them the means to exercise these rights. Legally, ethnic Mexicans were “white,” even though they enjoyed few of the privileges of whiteness. This remains an important issue today, because Spanish speakers continue to face social embarrassment—as shown by recent efforts to declare English as America’s official language.
In the mid-twentieth century, the economic discrepancy between white middle-class Americans and Hispanics still existed: whites tended to monopolize professional jobs, whereas most Hispanic men worked as industrial or farm laborers and Hispanic women often held low-level clerical or service occupations. Most Hispanic Americans still resided in the Southwestern states: Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, Utah, and California. One of the best examples of the intense changes and struggles endured by Hispanic Americans is what occurred in Los Angeles, California—the city with the largest number of Hispanics in America. As in cities across the nation, Los Angeles launched an extensive urban renewal program, which destroyed “blighted” ethnic and impoverished neighborhoods in an attempt to improve the city’s image. As a result, many of the city’s Hispanics lost their residences and, in the 1960s and 1970s, began organizing protests against the actions of city officials. In the early 2000s, similar protests have also occurred in Los Angeles, Detroit, and other cities across the nation in opposition to immigration policies.
In the 1960s many Hispanic Americans turned to protest as a means to voice their discontent. Mexican Americans—”Chicanos”—were the most visible of these groups, and, especially in the Southwest, several strong Chicano nationalist movements developed that emphasized the region’s Spanish and Mexican heritage. Some Mexican American journalists—such as John F. Mendez of the Los Angeles Eastside Sun—identified Americans as the invaders, which was a confrontational stance to take during the Cold War. Chicano nationalists constructed their identity from Mexican history and used historical interpretation as a means to political power. The Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) supported John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960 but soon became dissatisfied with the Democrats and struck out on its own. An unsuccessful bid to make East Los Angeles an independent city in 1962, which would have ensured greater Mexican American voting power, lessened MAPA’s power, and in 1964 the city of Los Angeles redrew its political boundaries and effectively excluded the Chicano vote in municipal elections. When Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Association (UFWA) picketed MAPA in 1965—after MAPA’s failure to take a strong stance on the Watts riots that left three Mexican Americans dead—MAPA lost its remaining credibility among Los Angeles’s Chicano community.
Unlike later groups such as the La Raza Unida Party and the Brown Berets, earlier Chicano civil-rights organizations—such as the Community Service Organization (CSO) and Association National Mexico Americana (ANMA)—respected the American democratic system. Ethnic Mexicans often placed their faith in advancement in the process of Americanization; idolized America’s famous men like Abraham Lincoln; and respected the traditions of freedom, equal opportunity, and progress. Prior to the 1960s, most Chicanos believed that advancement would be the consequence of immersion in the American way of life. Social inequality and continued violence on the part of the Los Angeles Police Department toward Mexican Americans—the most publicized occurrence was the arrest and beating of CSO chairman Anthony Rios in 1951—broke down moderate Chicano reform movements and led to more extreme resistance. In 1966, however, the Chicano movement took a more radical stance, and, for the first time, Mexican Americans blamed the American establishment for their woes. The Brown Berets, the Chicano equivalent of the Black Panthers, adopted khaki military-like clothing to it their belligerent attitude and published their “Ten Point Program” in their newsletter, La Causa. This program emphasized the importance of upholding Mexican traditions and language, called for an end to urban renewal programs, and stressed the need for Mexican American officials to ensure that the city’s ethnic Mexican population was not abused by municipal institutions such as the police and court systems. In 1972, after pursuing more radical policies, the Brown Berets fell apart because of internal discontent.
Illegal immigration from Mexico has contributed to the isolation of impoverished Hispanics in many U.S. cities. Hispanic “ghettos” differ in many ways from the structure of traditional African American ghettos, which have either been largely institutionalized through public housing, as Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes have been, or are crumbling through disrepair, as in central Detroit and Camden, New Jersey. Although some impoverished urban Hispanics live in similar surroundings in older cities in the Northeast or Midwest, most Hispanics live in the newer, sprawling cities of the South and West, such as Dallas and Los Angeles, that have less confined urban space. In general, ghettos in these Sunbelt cities are more energetic, dynamic, and open to change than the crumbling and institutionalized ghettos of the Northeast and Midwest. Language presents the strongest barrier to the residents of Hispanic ghettos: poor English communication skills ensure that Hispanic immigrants remain segregated in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods, limiting their ability to move up the social and economic ladder.
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