Like Asian immigrants, Mexican immigrants sought economic opportunity and improved lives within the context of an expanding, increasingly international, capitalist labor market. Like Asians, Mexicans were also typically sojourners and settlers. In addition, Mexican immigrants often participated in a circular, or back-and-forth, migratory pattern across the border between Mexico and the United States. Long-term Mexican settlement and long-term Mexican heritage in the Southwest and the West made the border a less formidable barrier.
In the late 1920s, looking back on his recent life, Zeferino Ramirez was justifiably proud. He had come north seeking work during the Mexican Revolution. In Los Angeles, he encountered job discrimination, but he persevered. He even brought his wife and children to Belvedere, an unincorporated Mexican community in East Los Angeles.
After working very hard, including several years as a highway laborer and time as a mortician's assistant, he was able to open his own business; a mortuary. He was one of the first Mexican businessmen in his community.
Most Mexicans in the United States and their descendants were not so lucky. They often found themselves caught up in physically taxing and low-paying work in mining, in railroad construction, and low-paying migratory and seasonal work in agriculture. Migrant families often found it more of a challenge to maintain themselves than settled families.
Mexican identities already combined Native, Spanish, and African peoples. Growing Americanization further enriched these mixed identities. Mexican American communities reflected creative blendings of Mexican and American cultures. Adaptive families, new social networks, and Spanish-language newspapers illustrated these mixings of Mexican and American worlds.
Mexican Americans organized formally to improve their status in the United States. In spite of increasing opposition, Mexican aliens, unlike Asian aliens, could be naturalized. Furthermore, there was some strength in numbers. In 1920, over a quarter of San Antonio's population of 161,000 were Mexicans.
Los Angeles's Mexican population was even larger. Farm workers, miners, and railroad workers organized to alleviate a range of injustices. These included a dual wage system that paid Mexicans less than Euro-Americans for the same job. On the formal civil rights front, the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, emerged in the 1920s.
African Americans and The Democratic Promise
Since Emancipation, Southern blacks had moved about in the South in search of improved life chances. The depression of the 1890s intensified that search, increasing migration within and outside the South. By the turn of the century, most still remained poor, southern-based, landless sharecroppers and tenant farmers.
The most prominent African American leader in this period was Booker T. Washington. He counseled accommodation and a de-emphasis on politics and agitation. As the founder of Tuskegee Institute, he emphasized vocational and domestic training as key to uplifting the black masses.
Another critical plank in his uplift philosophy was economic nationalism. This meant advocating black community development through the support of black business enterprise. There was much to recommend in this program, especially in light of the raging anti-black racism at the time.
Others, notably W. E. B. Du Bois, however, favored a more aggressive political stance, a more militant protest approach, and greater emphasis on a wider variety of educational options for blacks. Du Bois and a group of white and black progressives joined in 1909, to create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP eventually became the most important civil rights organization in the twentieth century.
During World War I, however, a flood of African Americans moved northward in search of opportunities opened up by wartime labor needs. This Great Migration must also be seen as a protest against racial oppression, notably Southern Jim Crow. More than half a million blacks were part of the Great Migration from the South to the North. As a result, northern communities like Harlem in New York City and Chicago's Southside grew rapidly.
Like the Great Migration, World War I was a turning point for African Americans. The democratic promise of the war was not lost on peoples of color. Many strongly supported the war effort. Many men of color served nobly.
Unfortunately for people of color, the democratic promise was a sham. Wartime service and wartime patriotism did not strengthen their citizenship claims. Veterans of color returned to an equally hostile, if not worse, racial regime.
On far too many occasions, returning veterans of color met violence and death at the hands of whites. Indeed, during what came to be known as the Red Summer of 1919, there was a gruesome series of anti-black race riots. Hundreds lost their lives.
Blacks reveal the ambivalent Americanism I discussed earlier. While sharing in the hope America represented, they fought against the oppression they confronted. At this time Du Bois spoke of the Negro American's "twoness: the tension between one's Negroness and one's Americanness." He explained: "One ever feels his twoness -- an American, a Negro: two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."
As the histories of Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and Asian Americans illustrate, this ambivalent Americanism is a fundamental issue. Indeed, "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line."