A Minority Nobody Knows

THE Atlantic



Those who think about them at all tend to think of Mexican-Americans who squat in the fields of the Southwest or labor in the vineyards of California. But there are scores who live in urban ghettos under conditions that are worse in every respect than those of nonwhites in America. This long-neglected minority is beginning to stir, and in this report on the biggest of the Mexican-American communities, a penetrating observer tells why. Miss Rowan grew up in southern California and now lives in San Francisco. Among other activities, she writes the Carnegie Foundation’s Quarterly.

THERE are some five milion Americans of Mexican descent or birth. About four and a half million live in five Southwestern states: Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. Between them, California and Texas account for 82 percent of the Southwest’s total, with California holding the edge.

Census statistics and other studies show the Mexican-Americans in the Southwest to be worse off in every respect than the nonwhites (Negroes, Indians, and Orientals), not to mention the dominant Anglos (everybody else). They are poorer, their housing is more crowded and more dilapidated, their unemployment rate is higher, their average educational level is lower (two years below nonwhite, four below Anglo).

What is extraordinary about the situation is not so much that it exists as that it is so little known. In California, Mexican-Americans outnumber Negroes by almost two to one, but probably not one Californian in ten thousand knows that simple fact. It is an easy one to overlook if you measure a minority’s importance by the obvious signs: poverty programs, education, and job-training activities geared to its situation, the elected and appointed officials it can number, the attention directed to it by the press, politicians, and even textbooks, and the help given it by do-good organizations. By all these measures, the MexicanAmericans have been slighted.

The Johnson Administration is beginning to pay them some attention, though in a fitful and nervous manner. Mexican-Americans have been demanding such baubles as jobs, federal appointments, and Great Society programs tailored to their needs. Since they justifiably consider themselves to be the nation’s best-kept secret, they would like some national visibility, preferably through the lens of a White House Conference focused on their many problems. This the Administration has been loath to give them, though it has tried to appease them for a couple of years by holding out the possibility of such a meeting. Still, there are signs that the federates are thinking of some programs specifically designed for Mexican-Americans. While their first needs arc the same as those of a lot of other people — money and jobs — there are certain issues which clearly affect them in a special way.

The Mexican-American birthrate is 50 percent higher than that of the general population; the community’s average age is already ten years younger than that of the total population. The school dropout rate is higher than that of any other group, and very few of those who do graduate from high school move on to college. Even in California, with its vaunted and supposedly inclusive system of higher education, only about 2 percent of the four-year college enrollment is MexicanAmerican, while Mexican-Americans constitute about 10 percent of the total population and a much higher percentage of the school-age population. Delinquency and drug addiction rates are high. Residential segregation is increasing. As far as jobs go, the old devil, overt discrimination, has been largely replaced by the new devil, automation, and by more subtle “cultural discrimination” in the form of tests which penalize the MexicanAmerican first as a student and then as a prospective employee. Finally, there are signs of increasing family change. In the Spanish-speaking ghetto of east Los Angeles, for instance, 26 percent of all children under eighteen are not living with both parents (the figure is only 13 percent for Los Angeles as a whole). This is a particularly serious development for the Mexican-American community, which springs from a culture in which the family is the strongest of all institutions.

If they think of them at all, Easterners are likely to think of Mexican-Americans in terms of wetbacks who cross the border to fester in farm shacks for the miserly wages paid to migratory workers. In fact, Mexican-Americans are heavily urbanized. Almost 80 percent in the Southwest live in cities and towns, a proportion fully as high as the Anglo concentration and considerably higher than the nonwhite. For every Mexican-American picking fruit in California’s Central Valley there are scores working as hod carriers and busboys in Los Angeles. For every stereotypical migrant who follows the crops, there are dozens crowded into the colonias and barrios that cling to the fringes of innumerable Southwest towns. The recent urbanization of such a group, given its low educational level and other characteristics, must represent social, economic, educational — and potentially political — significance of a high order.

But the Mexican-Americans’ few successes in bringing themselves to national attention have had to do with the farm-labor issue, which is appropriate yet somewhat ironic. The farm workers, with an average annual income of about 81500 and generally unspeakable living and working conditions, are worse oil than anybody else. In the past two years, Cesar Chavez managed to organize and sustain a successful strike of grape pickers. The strike was dramatic, colorful, and immensely appealing, and it drew the support of activist Anglos from all over. Pilgrimages to the Central Valley were undertaken by Bobby Kennedy and youngsters from SNCC, by correspondents of the New York Times and television crews from national networks. Bay area liberals who had never set foot in San Francisco’s Mission District or in east San Jose made the 550-mile round trip to Delano, the strike headquarters, carrying money, food, and clothing. And many middle-of-the-road Californians did not eat so much as one grape for months, so as not to risk patronizing a struck vineyard.

The condition of the farm workers is obvious and desperate. But Chavez himself is said to have urged urban leaders not to allow the farm-labor issue to deflect their attention from the more complex problems of the barrios, which are bound to grow worse as the ghettos continue to receive steady influxes of Mexican immigrants (almost a thousand a week) and displaced domestic farm workers.

East Los Angeles is one of those areas that Eastern eyes would never recognize as being poor. The low dwellings (though there may be as many as three on a tiny lot) have yards around them, and flowers, and on smogless days the nearby mountains stand out beautifully. There is a color that is heightened by the leftover symbols of other peoples for whom the area earlier served as a port of entry: Orientals, Italians, and then Russian Jews. Mexicatessens offer kosher burritos and Okie frijoles, and Winchell’s Do-Nut House features a Taco Fiesta. Youngsters cruise around in beat-up cars for which they buy gas by the quarter’s worth. An “Operator Wanted” sign in a curtained storefront window signifies that yet another small sweatshop has opened where the illiterate (and perhaps illegal) immigrant or school dropout may find a few days’ work sewing blouses or shirts.

Following the riots in nearby Watts, a special census was made of that area and east L.A. What attention the survey got was mainly directed to the part on Watts, but those who read the rest of the report could find that in cast L.A., too, between 1960 and 1965 real income slipped by 8 to 10 percent, housing deteriorated, home ownership declined.

OF THE two courses that Mexican-Americans might follow to bring themselves helpful attention, one they have been unable to take and the other they have been unwilling to take. They have not been able to organize into an effective political bloc, and they have not been willing to riot and burn. One federal official describes them as “the most disorganized ethnic group in the country.” The federal establishment, according to some officials, is so desperate to find a real leader to treat with that it would even welcome the emergence of a Mexican-American Stokely Carmichael.

There are good reasons for the Mexican-Americans’ lack of political clout, but they escape anyone who tries to understand the Mexican-American experience in terms of other ethnic groups. Ernesto Galarza, a distinguished scholar and writer, points out that historically Mexican-Americans have not been seen as a great constitutional and moral issue, as were the Negroes, nor as an ordinary immigrant group to be acculturated or assimilated. They have been looked on simply as an ever replenishing supply of cheap and docile labor.

The Mexican-Americans do have in common with the Negroes a long history of discrimination, but they were never enslaved and no war was ever fought over them, though one was fought over their land. Harsh as the discrimination was, including Iynchings and segregation in schools and other public facilities, it was spotty (you could get into a swimming pool if you weren’t too swarthy) and varied from place to place and from time to time.

The somewhat nebulous quality of the discrimination — and the concomitant fact that a lucky Mexican-American could “make it” into the middle class—helps explain why the Mexican-Americans have not yet produced the spontaneous leadership or found the unifying force of the civil rights movement. And the very institutions which might have been expected to recognize the condition and champion the cause of the Mexican-Americans - the Roman Catholic Church, labor, the Democratic Party, liberal groups, educational institutions, and the Eastern philanthropic and press establishment — have been by and large deaf, dumb, and blind on the subject. “For the Mexican-American,” says a college professor, “there are no liberals.”

This is not literally true, of course. Some individuals such as Carey McWilliams have for years written and spoken vigorously on the problem, and twenty years ago Fred Ross, supported by Said Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation, began community organization efforts in Mexican-American sections of California. Other individuals and groups have done effective work on a small scale, and a few priests (though often at the cost of being silenced or sent away by their superiors) have been fairly militant spokesmen for the Mexican-Americans.

But there has been no wide-scale involvement. The white liberals who at one time helped to lead and to bankroll the Negro movement had few Anglo counterparts working with and speaking out on behalf of the Mexican-Americans. Many Southwestern Anglos supported the Negro movement, however, and even some Mexican-American college students confessed to me that they became active in the Negro cause before they caught on that there was work to be done closer to home.

The lack of outside interest and help (spelled m-o-n-e-y), combined with the fact that until recently the group was overwhelmingly rural and had very few educated members, has given the Mexican-Americans of today very little political leverage. Social, fraternal, and thinly disguised political organizations appear and disappear with startling rapidity, but there has never been a Mexican-American equivalent of the NAACP or Urban League, let alone SNCC or CORE. Even the sturdiest and longest-lived of the organizations have very little in the way of paid staffs. If you want to see the head of some group, you phone his place of business or his house, because it is quite likely that there isn’t any headquarters. There is no effective clearinghouse or information center, and communications within the community are weak - among the leaders, and also between them and the poverty-stricken of town and country.

Chavez is the most authentic leader in the traditional sense: a charismatic man sprung from a rural proletariat whose understanding and loyalty he commands. What is questionable is whether the basis of his appeal — a combination of religious pageantry, evocation of the heroes of the Mexican Revolution, and nonviolent civil rights techniques — could successfully be transferred from the fields to the city streets.

“There are dozens of Chavezes hidden in the barrios,” a city spokesman said sadly, but presumably these buried Chavezes will have to find new ways to rally the new urban proletariat. For whatever the culture of the barrios may be, it is certainly a hybrid one, neither classical Mexican nor traditional Anglo urban.

“It’s always my parents telling me to be proud I’m Mexican and the school telling me to be American,” a junior high school student cried out. For the city youngsters (50 percent of the MexicanAmerican population is under twenty), the goodies offered by the industrialized society are all too visible and unavailable. “The thing to do is learn how the gringos keep you down,” they say. And the residents of the barrios are sophisticated enough to recognize that it is the future they have to fear more than the present.

“They are teaching my boy nothing in that school, nothing,” a mother said to me with a despair that is impossible to convey in writing. “What will happen to him? What will he do?”

CONSIDERING their numbers in California (now estimated at nearly two million), the MexicanAmericans have a singular dearth of elected representation. There is one congressman of Mexican descent, Edward R. Roybal, a Democrat from Los Angeles. No Mexican-American sits in either house of the California legislature, or on the city council, or elected board of education in L.A. Roybal became the first of his community since 1881 to serve on the city council when he was elected in 1949, but when he left for Congress in 1962 his seat was contested by four Mexican-Americans and one Negro, with the result one might expect.

What the Mexican-Americans have lacked in elective political muscle they have tried to make up for by extracting promises and appointments from Anglo politicians. Here again they are handicapped: the Democrats have taken them for granted (traditionally, about 90 percent of the relatively small registration votes Democratic), and the Republicans haven’t bothered much until recently. Most Mexican-Americans agree that Democratic Governor Pat Brown did more for the group than any previous governor. Still, it wasn’t enough.

During the last campaign the Reagan forces made some successful overtures to the community, and the Republicans made some electoral inroads, notably around Los Angeles, but the Democrats believe that overall they managed to hold on to about 75 percent of the Mexican-American vote. The defections in California and the rest of the Southwest, however, apparently worried the Democrats (they hastily appointed a Mexican-American to the National Committee), and they should be worried; while they may have no place else to go now, the Mexican-Americans are looking around. A mutually satisfactory political marriage will not easily be achieved. The one thing that Anglos and Mexican-Americans do most certainly for each other is to provide inexhaustible sources of frustration. The Anglo litany of complaints about Mexican-American political behavior, to abbreviate it drastically, runs like this:

They can’t get organized, they can’t agree among themselves, there aren’t any real leaders, and the so-called leaders can’t deliver. ("They’d come to us with talk about 400,000 votes,” one of Governor Brown’s campaign managers said aggrievedly, “but some of those guys couldn’t deliver their own families.”) The community is uninvolved, and it is difficult to find out what it wants. An assistant to a southern California congressman says that when he sends out invitations to a meeting with the congressman—say 250 to the Negro community and 250 to the Mexican-American about 150 Negroes usually turn up, and about 30 Mexican-Americans. “And the first question, sometimes the only question, they ask is: ‘How many MexicanAmericans on your staff?’ If it was 100 percent it still wouldn’t be enough,” he adds glumly.

This leads to another Anglo complaint: that many Mexican-Americans view the American political process with an eye to appointments and that politics for them becomes a superficial numbers game, with little attention paid either to the potential importance of the jobs or the ability and effectiveness of the appointees.

Finally, Anglos complain that many MexicanAmerican spokesmen prefer to compete among themselves for elective or appointive jobs instead of working out ways and means for achieving at least a show of unity, a drive for a cause. All too often four or live Mexican-Americans insist on running for an office, thus dividing the vote.

Beyond the Anglo politicos, who have special and self-centered interests in view, others who are highly sympathetic and have no political axes to grind are appalled by the amount and ferocity of infighting that goes on and the fact that it is so often caused not by ideological but by purely personal differences. So strong is the role of personalismo in Mexican-American politics that, as one sympathetic observer commented: “They wouldn’t even vote to establish a postal system unless they knew who would be the mailman on the block.”

Although there is much evidence to support these complaints, they do not take into account a number of relevant factors, including the Anglo role in perpetuating disunity and ineffectiveness within the group, whether intentionally or heedlessly. The Anglo politicians who criticize the lack of Mexican-American political organization make the very decisions that render such organization nearly impossible. In California, the Democrats, apparently thinking they knew a safe thing when they saw it, gerrymandered the Spanish surname sections of Los Angeles and San Francisco so as to make Spanish-speaking voters the pivotal but never the controlling factors in their various districts. This makes it difficult for Mexican-Americans to vote as a bloc and cuts off incipient leadership.

While the Democrats complain that they have to deal with leaders who have no followers, they have not financed the kind of block-to-block canvassing and voter registration that would produce organized constituencies. In search of votes, they woo die heads of the Mexican-American organizations and other community leaders in the hope that the leaders can exert personal influence over the community; it has to be personal, since the organizations themselves lack the money or manpower to organize real constituencies.

In making appointments, too, Anglos seem to set up situations which inevitably cause trouble in and for the Mexican-American community. Because they want to get the maximum political mileage from the few appointments they are willing to make, Anglo officials undertake elaborate though clandestine efforts to procure the perfect all-purpose Mexican-American, then assert that no man can be found to meet the wildly unrealistic qualifications established for the job.

Anglo officials make incessant demands for unity among Mexican-Americans, the implication being that the Anglos are unable to do anything until they can discern an unmistakably clear picture of exactly what the community wants. While there are real frustrations involved in dealing with a group as fragmented as the Mexican-Americans, there is also real cynicism involved in the way so many Anglo officials in positions of power at all levels seize on the condition as an excuse to do nothing. It should not be necessary to identify genuine leaders or take a poll of the grass roots to guess, for instance, that no group “wants" to have urban renewal accomplished at the price of its own removal (in at least one border town the MexicanAmericans were renewed right over into Mexico); that no community “wants” to be slashed into chunks by hideous freeways (as has happened in east Los Angeles); that few people “want” their children to attend a school run by someone who could remark, as the former principal of an east Los Angeles high school did in the presence of an Anglo friend of mine, “We couldn’t run this school without the dropout rate. They don’t belong here anyway — they belong in the fields.”

The truth is that the endless jockeying, delaying, rumormongering, and playing of the cat-andmouse game simply elicit and intensify the very kind of behavior the Anglos deplore: dissension and a flying off in all directions. The entire protracted handling of the on-again, off-again White House Conference is a perfect case in point.

In the fall of 1965, some Mexican-Americans, having heard of plans for a major civil rights conference in Washington, asked to be included. They were given to understand, in writing, that a separate conference would be held for MexicanAmericans or possibly all Spanish-speaking Americans. From then on there were unanswered telegrams from this group, unanswered letters from that one, understandings and misunderstandings, and joint attempts by the leaders of MexicanAmerican groups to apply pressure. A year ago the President had a few spokesmen to dinner and left them with the impression that there would be a conference. Others of a group that considered itself the prime negotiating committee were not invited. Their exclusion, of course, strained relations among the Mexican-Americans as well as between them and the federales.

No more was heard of the much-wanted conference until late October of 1966, when high officials of the Administration found time, despite, or because of, the imminence of the elections, to meet with about sixty Mexican-American spokesmen in “preplanning” discussions of the real conference. Since then official silence has been accompanied by comic-opera goings-on. A small group with Labor Department leadership and the use of White House stationery—but with offices in neither place — is known to be “doing something” about Mexican-Americans and other Spanishspeaking Americans. A receptionist answers its phone “National Conference” but is unable to say on what, or where, or when, or for whom any conferring is being or is going to be done. So rumors fly, consternation and frustration increase among the Mexican-Americans, and much of their attention, time, and energy, and that of a number of federal officials, is diverted from the real problems, which continue to grow more malignant.

THE school systems of the Southwest have totally failed the Mcxican-American community,” says Dr. Miguel Montes of California’s state board of education. The cold statistics alone make his case.

What is striking is that so little has been done or said until recently, despite the fact that a few educators such as Dr. George Sanchez of the University of Texas have for years been urging bilingual instruction, a revision of the curriculum and textbooks to appeal to the interests and to strengthen the sense of cultural identity of MexicanAmerican students, decent counseling and guidance, and teacher training that might produce instructors capable of reaching and educating MexicanAmerican children.

In most of the states, among them California, it is against the law to use any language but English as the medium of instruction, though the law is openly flouted by the few teachers who can speak Spanish. The psychological and educational implications of such a policy are clear. By denying the child the right to speak his own language (in some places children are still punished for speaking Spanish even on the playground), the system is telling him, in effect, that his language, his culture, and by extension he himself, are inferior. And he rapidly becomes truly inferior in achievement, since the teachers must perforce water down the subject matter, such as arithmetic or social studies, for use as a vehicle for teaching English rather than the subject itself.

Counseling in the schools is notoriously bad, and constitutes a special source of bitterness for the Mexican-Americans who have survived it — that is, defied it. “Realistic” counselors say, in effect: college costs too much; besides, you couldn’t make it anyway; besides, you couldn’t get a good job when you finished. Congressman Roybal was advised to become an electrician on the strength of an A in his ninth-grade algebra class (he was lucky to get into algebra; “general math” is usually considered sufficient). Julian Nava, a young professor at San Fernando Valley State College with a Ph.D. in history from Harvard, was advised to take, and did take, body and fender courses in high school in east Los Angeles. There are plenty of current stories of this sort.

The inadequacy of ability tests when applied to many groups is also notorious; the question is how, when the fact is so well known, school officials can summon the arrogance to brand young children as mentally deficient when it is the tests and the schools that are deficient. In California, Negro and Mexican-American children are overwhelmingly overrepresented proportionally in classes for the “mentally retarded.” A former education official (an angry Anglo) told me of visiting a school in the San Joaquin Valley where he saw records listingone child as having an I.Q. of 46. Wanting to learn more about how such a mental basket case could function at all, he inquired around and found that the child, a boy of eleven, has a paper route, takes care of his four younger brothers and sisters after school, and prepares the evening meal for the family. He also speaks no English.

Many Anglo educators claim that they cannot make headway against the problems of language, culture, and parents. The stereotype has it that Mexican-Americans are not interested in having their children get an education, though every bit of evidence I found suggested just the reverse. In fact, many Mexican-American adults have an entirely unwarranted respect for the wisdom of teachers and principals, which is one reason why they have allowed their children to be pushed around for so long. There are problems, but they are by no means insurmountable. Actually, they have been used as a mask, and not a very effective one at that, for the real attitudes of the Anglo community at large.

“The schools are the places where Anglos and Mexican-Americans come to learn and act out the roles they will later play,” says Theodore W. Parsons, an anthropologist at the University of California. He recently spent months studying the schools in a California town where the population is about 57 percent Mexican-American; practices similar to the ones he observed there are followed in many schools all over the feudal Southwest. The children — Anglos are called “Americans” and Mexican-Americans are called “Mexicans” — are conditioned for their respective roles in the adult world from their first day in school to their final one, when at graduation the Mexicans march in last and sit at the back of the platform. “This makes for a better-looking stage,” a teacher explained to Parsons, adding that it allows the Americans, who have all the parts in the program, to get to the front more easily.

“Once we did let a Mexican girl give a little talk of some kind,” Parsons was told, “and all she did was mumble around. She had quite an accent, too. Afterwards we had several complaints from other parents, so we haven’t done anything like that since. That was about twelve years ago.”

THE Negro revolution has stimulated, but by its great drama has also obscured, already existing ferment within the Mexican-American community. Spokesmen have had increasingly stormy sessions (and nonsessions — the walkout is becoming something of a fad) with federal, state, and local officials.

Many Anglos seem to dismiss the volubly expressed anger of Mexican-American leaders as not being “representative” of the feelings of the masses, but it is foolish to do so. No Mexican-American I know of has ever threatened that blood will run in the streets if conditions continue to grow worse, but thoughtful spokesmen acknowledge that no one can predict what outlet the growing hostility will find, a hostility that may be the more malignant because it has been so long suppressed.

“Man, if east L.A. ever blows, it will really blow,” one said, and Herman Gallegos of San Francisco, a highly responsible leader, reports that some Mexican-Americans decline to join picket lines or other peaceful demonstrations because they fear they could not remain nonviolent. There is undeniable resentment of not only Anglos but Negroes: “If they don’t move over, they’re going to line! footprints on their backs,” one temperate Mexican-American said. He and other sophisticated Mexican-Americans realize that it is not the Negroes’ “fault” that they are getting a little bit more of not enough, but there is the dangerous tension that always exists when poor people are set to scrambling for the few crumbs tossed out by the affluent society.

The fuel that could set off a Watts-type explosion is present in ample supply. Perhaps one day it will be ignited by some incident. Or perhaps the youthful population will simply retreat into increasing withdrawal, alienation, and addiction.

There is also, of course, a third possibility: that Anglos will give up their cynical game of divide and rule, listen to the growing number of articulate Mexican-American spokesmen as they define the community’s problems, and allow Mexican-Americans the tools they can use to carry themselves into the mainstream of American life.