The Market Revolution of the early 19th century triggered the US government’s violent seizure of land from Mexico, as the Cotton Kingdom expanded into Mexican territory. In 1826, President John Quincy Adams unsuccessfully attempted to purchase Tejas (Texas) from Mexico for one million dollars. A great many Americans were already living there, and the Mexican government feared that the territory had already been “conquered” by these settlers. In 1830, Mexico abolished slavery and banned American immigration to Texas. The Americans in Texas, many of whom were enslavers, were furious and believed war was the only answer. In 1836, a group of Americans in Texas “began an armed insurrection against Mexican authority.”
This passage argues that the story of how Texas became part of the US is a story of Anglo-American greed and selfishness. Americans in Texas wanted more land and resources, and wanted to be able to keep practicing slavery. They were prepared to inflict an enormous amount of suffering and destruction in order to fulfil these desires.
The American rebels declared Texas a ceded, independent state, naming it the Lone Star Republic and electing Sam Houston its president. In 1845, the US annexed this new Republic, and a border dispute erupted with Mexico. However, the “real reason” for the ensuring war was not actually this border dispute, but rather the US’ desire to annex California. A conflict there began in Sonoma in 1846. Mexico had adamantly kept control of California until that point, although only a fairly small number of Mexicans ever settled there. They were joined by a few Anglo Americans, who were welcomed, offered land grants, and given Mexican citizenship as long as they converted to Catholicism. Once assimilated, they were accorded high social status.
The good treatment Americans received in Mexican-ruled California again highlights the hypocrisy of US expansion and its treatment of nonwhite people. At every turn, other ethnic groups treated white American settlers with a remarkable level of fairness and even generosity. In almost every case, white Americans returned this favor with duplicity, brutality, theft, exploitation, and even murder.
By the 1840s, more and more “Yankees” were settling in California. These new arrivals were less likely to assimilate into Mexican culture; rather, they wanted to make California part of the US. The Mexican authorities were threatened, and rightly so: before long, American rebels arrested General Vallejo, who represented Mexican authority in California, and announce that California was now the “Bear Flag Republic.” Shortly after, Commander John D. Sloat triggered war by declaring California a US territory. While the seizing of California largely happened without violence, the same was not true in the Southwest, where “American soldiers themselves documented the atrocities committed against the Mexican civilian population.”
It can be quite shocking to read about the readiness with which white Americans were prepared to use violence in order to expand their territory and defend and increase their power. Indeed, it is difficult—but necessary—to gain awareness about the extent to which the US was founded through merciless violence.
The bloody conflict ended in 1848, when Mexico ceded the Southwest territories to the US for $15 million and agreed to the Rio Grande River as the Texas border. All in all, one half of Mexico’s total territory was lost to the US in this deal. The US celebrated this outcome, characterizing it as part of the “Manifest Destiny” that supposedly gave white settlers the right and duty to colonize and “civilize” territory. Many Americans were delighted by the acquisition of these new territories, particularly in light of the abundant natural resources that existed in California.
In light of the tensions that exist today around Mexican immigration to the US and the border between the US and Mexico, it is extremely important to bear in mind that half of what was once Mexico was seized by the US.
However, for the Mexicans who suddenly found themselves no longer living in their own country but in the US, these were unwelcome changes. They became “foreigners in their own land,” suddenly subject to discrimination that they did not experience previously. In California, Mexican miners shared knowledge with Anglos, but in return the Anglos treated them with hostility and disdain. Meanwhile, in Texas, Mexicans found that although they were legally allowed to vote, in practice they were prohibited from exercising this right.
Again, there is a huge amount of hypocrisy, selfishness, and cruelty contained within the Anglo-American treatment of other races. Seemingly unmoved by the generosity and sympathy extended to them, they continued to behave in an exploitative, oppressive manner to those of other races.
Mexican landholders also often found themselves being swindled out of their land, unable to prove that they owned it in the way American authorities required. Those who fought to have their ownership recognized had to pay exorbitant lawyer fees. The US also introduced a different taxation system, wherein the land itself was taxed instead of the products, which varied in amount from year to year. Many Mexican farmers suffered greatly due to this shift, and were forced to sell their land in order to pay off debts. A huge number went from “landholders to laborers,” while Anglos took what had once belonged to the Mexican farmers.
Takaki emphasizes how the survival of so many people is dependent on the seemingly innocuous factor of agricultural policy. Switching to a different taxations system may not appear to have devastating potential, but in reality it was a way for Anglos to consolidate their power and push Mexicans into a cycle of poverty and dispossession.
The number of Mexican cowboys also declined, as more and more Mexicans relied on cotton-picking to survive. Others built irrigation systems that helped turn Texas into a lush, fertile region, while still more worked in railroad construction, doing work that was too poorly paid to appeal to white men. In California and the Southwest, a huge number of Mexicans also worked in mining. Their contributions to copper mining in particular helped make possible the spread of electricity around the nation. Yet they were forced to work within a “caste labor system,” where Anglos did the less dangerous work, and were better paid even when they were doing the same jobs as Mexicans. As a result, many Mexicans ended up indebted to the companies for which they worked.
Mexican labor was crucial to the construction of the US and the transformation of the land into a profitable resource. Yet in return, they found themselves degraded, endangered, and driven into debt. Sadly, as readers will see, this story is repeated across various ethnic groups throughout the history of the US.
White people would use the same logic to justify the exploitation of Mexican workers as enslavers did to justify slavery. However, Mexicans themselves fought back, repeatedly going on strike and making important gains such as pay increases and the implementation of an eight-hour work day. In 1903, a coalition of Mexican and Japanese farmworkers went on strike together in Oxnard, California. This was the first interracial strike in Californian history, and managed to successfully achieve its aims. When Mexican strikers were offered a deal that would sabotage their Japanese counterparts, they refused.
In the same year, Mexican strikers at a mine in Arizona were joined by Italian and Slavonian workers in demanding equal wages to workers of northern European descent. The ensuing conflict lasted 19 weeks, but the strikers ultimately emerged victorious. Strikes were often supported by mutualistas, benevolent associations that provided financial assistance. The strikes that took place during this period showed that Mexican workers maintained dignity and a distinct identity in the face of American racism.
Like the Irish, Mexicans were determined to improve their own conditions and established networks that would make this possible. Through mutual aid, the little power and resources that Mexican immigrants had was consolidated and thus greatly increased. Through collaboration and solidarity, far more is possible than it would be alone.