For Mexican citizens in the early 20th century, immigrating to “El Norte” was fairly simple. Those who had immigrated wrote back to family about their positive experiences, which led to further immigration. Some had little choice to come, in order to escape exploitation from landowners, widespread unemployment, poverty, and starvation in Mexico. The Revolution of 1910 had proven dangerously violent. Immigration also increased thanks to the construction of the Mexican International Railroad, which made journeying to Texas easier. Most immigrants were young, working-class agricultural workers. Men often brought their families with them, or sent for them after settling. In the first decades of the 20th century, the Mexican population in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California blossomed.
Considering how difficult it is for people to journey from Mexico to the US today, it is quite startling to imagine that it was once as simple as getting on a train. Of course, in many parts of the world, crossing borders remains this simple. Crossing the border into the US has now become a much more difficult, and—for the many immigrants who attempt to cross via the desert—dangerous endeavor.
Many Mexican immigrants worked in construction, public utilities, and mills, performing unskilled, blue-collar labor. Upward mobility was difficult. Most worked in agriculture; there was much work to be found in this industry, particularly after various pieces of legislation began excluding Asian immigrants. Employers in this industry felt that Mexicans were particularly suited to agricultural labor, and seized the opportunity to pay these workers very little money. Because agricultural work was seasonal, workers migrated, working different jobs for fixed periods of time. In part because of the transient status of these workers, employers did not make any effort to provide them with decent, sanitary conditions.
One of the points that Takaki reiterates throughout the book is that discrimination against a particular nonwhite ethnic group (in this passage, Asian immigrants) inadvertently ends up benefiting another nonwhite ethnic group (in this case, Mexicans). Takaki shows that this entire situation is a product of white supremacy, which creates an environment of intense competition and pits nonwhite groups against each other. Unfortunately, the result is sometimes that nonwhite groups themselves become prejudiced toward other groups.
In protest against this poor treatment, Mexican immigrants got involved with labor organizing. Their “militancy” shocked employers, who had previously considered them “bovine and tractable individuals.” When workers in the San Joaquin Valley went on strike in 1933, the local sheriffs called the Mexicans “trash” and “pigs,” where local media threatened them with “concentrations camp[s].” However, bolstered by the enthusiastic participation of women, the Mexicans held strong, and eventually secured a (compromised) wage increase.
It is unfortunately a fairly common feature of racism to compare people of a certain ethnic group to animals. Here, this takes place with two farm animals, cows (“bovine”) and pigs. The implication is that Mexicans, like livestock, can be easily controlled and that their whole purpose is to support agricultural work. As Takaki makes clear, their actions boldly defied these racist, dehumanizing ideas.
In the early 20th century, Punjabi immigrants began coming to the US from India. Most of them were Sikh, and the sight of agricultural workers picking fruit in California wearing turbans struck some observers as “exotic.” Most came from the farmer caste in India, and, like Mexicans, they engaged in seasonal, migratory work. Almost no women came as part of this immigrant community, and after 1917, Asian men were legally barred from bringing their wives to the US. Punjabi men were also legally banned from marrying white women. As a result, in Central California, over three quarters of Sikh men were married to Mexican women.
This is a rather surprising and moving example of the way that racism can inadvertently bring different ethnic groups together, rather than pushing them apart. The Punjabi men in all likelihood did not come to the US expecting to marry Mexican women; yet the absurd laws governing who could own land and who counted as a citizen made these unlikely unions proliferate.
The 1913 Alien Land Act barred Punjabi and other Asian immigrants from owning land, so marrying Mexicans was one of the only ways in which Punjabi men could be landowners. The marriages between Punjabi men and Mexican women created mixed cultural families; children were often given both Indian and Spanish names. Mexicans, meanwhile, faced discrimination and exclusion from Anglo society. Yet many Mexicans also refused to use “Colored” facilities, protesting: “I would rather die from starvation than to humiliate myself before the Americans by eating with the Negroes.”
This passage contains both further examples of the heart-warming union of Mexican and Punjabi culture, and an unfortunate reminder of the presence of racism among ethnic groups. While Takaki repeatedly shows that it is in the interests of people of color to act in solidarity with each other, the anti-black comments of the Mexican quoted here shows that, unfortunately, people often choose racism instead.
Children attended segregated schools, where education was limited in order to cultivate another generation of unskilled farm workers (as was the case on the plantations in Hawaii). Mexican children were taught little, and discouraged from going to high school. However, there were occasional teachers who believed that Mexican children had the right to a decent education, and who encouraged these children to feel proud of their dual Mexican-American identity. Yet at the same time, the influx of Mexican immigrants to the US was alarming many Anglos. In 1937, a group of educators (including President Lowell of Harvard) signed a petition demanding that there be a quota on the number of Mexicans able to enter the US.
Once again, Takaki emphasizes that it was a struggle for Mexican immigrants to access education even when they desperately wanted to. Rather than being encouraged to come to the US and make something of themselves, they were forced to remain a permanent underclass in order to serve the interests of white people and other wealthy people profiting from their underpaid labor.
White people expressed concerns that Mexicans were ruining the purity of the nation, and irrevocably shaping the character of the Southwest. The media was filled with negative stereotypes about Mexicans and arguments that the Mexicans could not be assimilated into the US. The fact that Mexicans constituted “cheap labor” was framed as a threat to white American workers. During the Great Depression, both the government and charities pressured Mexicans to go back to their homeland through repatriation programs. Many of those who were repatriated were children, and 60% were American citizens.
Here, Takaki pushes readers to see how little has changed between this era of history and the present. Mexican immigration is sometimes framed as a recent “problem” in the contemporary media, when in fact there have been Mexicans in the US since its founding.
Many Mexicans felt that the border was “only an imaginary line,” and created “Mexican-American world[s]” within the US through enclaves known as barrios. Despite being poor, the barrio provided a sense of belonging and community. Mexican holidays were celebrated there, and the distinctly Mexican version of Catholicism was a prominent part of life. Knowledge of job opportunities spread through the network of the barrio, and people provided newcomers with financial support to help them find their feet. There were other factors that created a sense of home: women wearing traditional dress, the presence of Mexican forms of entertainment, and stands offering Mexican food.
The feeling that the border was an “imaginary line” was actually an accurate one. Borders are imaginary lines, not in the sense that they don’t have real world implications—they absolutely do—but rather because they are human inventions that don’t have any inherent meaning. In this passage, Takaki gestures to the idea that separating human culture according to strict but arbitrary lines is rather pointless and illogical.
Residents of the barrio would share stories and commiserate with one another over the difficulties they faced in El Norte. Some admitted that they had no desire to learn English or assimilate; they didn’t like the US, and eventually hoped to return to Mexico. However, it was also clear that most were “making El Norte their homeland.”
It is important to remember that, although Takaki identifies trends among particular ethnic groups, in reality each group of people contained a huge amount of internal diversity. Some Mexicans wanted to stay, some wanted to assimilate, and some wanted neither.