Mexican-Americans stand up to Jim Crow

April 4, 2008

Justin Akers Chacón looks at the hidden history of Mexican-American workers.

"PLACING A premium on interracial and interethnic collaboration as a central component of unionization, the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] served as a center and training ground for activism for thousands of Mexican-Americans."

So unfolds Zaragosa Vargas' seminal work, Labor Rights Are Civil Rights, which concludes that the mass strike movement of the New Deal era not only toppled capital's resistance to industrial unionism but forged a generation of Mexican-American working-class fighters whose struggles against racism laid the basis for the Chicano civil rights movement and the eventual overthrow of legal segregation.

By the turn of the 20th century, most Mexican-Americans and Mexican migrants in the Southwest were incorporated into a highly oppressive dual-labor structure, adapted from the Jim Crow model fanning westward from the Deep South through Texas.

Mexican-American men and boys were confined to the lowest echelons of labor, particularly in agriculture and mining, while women and young girls were clustered in domestic work, sweatshop garment labor and agricultural packaging and processing. Segregation extended from the workplace to home to school, as legal, institutional racism confined Mexican-Americans to impoverished barrios and a woefully inadequate educational system.

Super-exploitative conditions of work, especially in the isolated fields, packing plants and mining camps, were maintained by Grower and Mine Operator Associations. As Vargas illustrates by examining agriculture in Texas, "growers and their cronies had command of the courts, the sheriff's offices and the justices of the peace, and utilized the Texas Rangers, who monopolized armed force in south Texas to sustain control over Tejano and Mexican national alike."

Growers in politicians' clothing gathered to represent their own interests in Washington, such as Texas Congressman Richard Kleberg, whose family owned the massive 825,000-acre King Ranch and controlled politics in Corpus Christi and surrounding counties. They controlled state government, such as the Texas Farm Placement Service (which distributed farm labor) and various relief agencies which would deny support to farmworkers if they tried to organize for better conditions.

Mine operators also wielded tremendous power. According to Vargas, "State legislators and mining industry heads served on government boards together and developed tax, welfare and law enforcement policies favoring the metals industry." This convergence of capital and state power was further backed up by immigration policy that kept Mexican workers under a permanent threat of deportation, especially if they tried to organize unions.

The near collapse of capitalism during the Great Depression fractured the American ruling class and created the space for working-class radicalism to offer its own solutions to the crisis. Republican Herbert Hoover's efforts to blame and deport a million Mexican and Mexican-American workers failed in creating new jobs or revitalizing the economy, but did begin a tradition in which immigrants would be perennially scapegoated for capitalism's woes.

While it succeeded in terrorizing the Mexican-American community, it also pushed its working-class majority to find a collective means to combat racism and poverty. The election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 coincided with the emergence of working-class militancy, especially as the Communist Party (CP) launched efforts to organize grassroots opposition in the workplace and community.

The party had prioritized the multiracial organizing and "helped Spanish-speaking workers obtain relief...provided legal aid to fight against discrimination and protest police violence, and defended the workers against deportation." Challenging the long-standing AFL tradition of excluding or marginalizing immigrant workers, the CP (and later the CIO, which it influenced) sought to directly organize Latinos into unions across the Southwest.

When small handfuls of party and union organizers were sent deep into hostile territory--San Antonio, Texas; Gallup, New Mexico; Los Angeles, California or numerous other locales, "resolute Spanish-speaking workers took up the call to organize and took center stage in the struggle that commenced in the Southwest." The experience forged a new generation of leaders who carried the struggles deeper into their own communities.

VARGAS PAYS close attention to the integral role that Latinas played in the union movement, taking up key roles as strike leaders, militant participants and supporters. In 1933 for instance, Mexican female garment workers in Los Angeles were the first workers in the city to strike under the National Recovery Act (which enabled the legal formation of unions).

Mexican-American women also played a key role in building the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers union (UCAPAWA), which grew to become one of the largest unions in the CIO. Some Latinas who came up through the ranks of the CP/CIO gained national prominence as a result of their leadership and accomplishments. One example was Emma Tenayuca, a diminutive, working-class Tejana who was first arrested for picketing at the age of 16.

Tenayuca organized a strike movement in the 400 non-union pecan-shelling sheds that comprised one of San Antonio's largest agricultural industries. The 12,000 predominantly female workers averaged $1 to $4 per week, ranking them among the lowest paid workers in the country.

The strike culminated in the establishment of a UCAPAWA-affiliated union which eventually grew to over 10,000 members. As Vargas concludes, "her efforts brought Tejana workers to the forefront of the demonstrations marches and picketing, as well as bringing the issue of wages, relief services and civil rights to the attention of the public."

Tenayuca ultimately became a prominent leader of the Texas CP, explaining, "no one but the Communists expressed the least interest in helping San Antonio's dispossessed Mexicans." She became a key contributor to the development of the party's theoretical orientation toward Mexican and Mexican-American workers and their relationship to the rest of the working class.

In the landmark essay, "The Mexican Question in the Southwest," she and her husband Homer Brooks concluded that "the Southwest's Mexican-Americans and Mexican nationals did not constitute a separate nation because they lacked territorial and economic community," but were bound together through their treatment as a conquered people since the time of the Mexican-American War.

Though exploited as a separate ethnic group, "Spanish-speaking communities were interconnected through a shared economic life and were linked to the Anglo working-class populations of the Southwest as a result of the region's economic and political integration with the rest of the United States." Multiracial working-class unity, therefore, was contingent upon combating the institutional racism facing Mexican-Americans in daily life.

The CP helped organize community-based campaigns, often under the leadership of women. One antiracist organization, the Congress of Spanish-Speaking Peoples, foreshadowing the Chicano civil rights movement, launched grassroots and direct-action campaigns to overturn segregation.

El Congreso's founding convention in 1938 declared its support for the extension of labor protections to agricultural and domestic workers (excluded from FDR's NLRA), extension of relief to unemployed Mexican-American workers, an end to workplace discrimination, and an increase in wages. They also called for rent controls and an end to discrimination in housing and rampant police brutality.

Understanding how immigration policy was being used to divide workers, they called for a cessation of deportations of undocumented workers and advocated for their inclusion in access to social services. Recognizing how the education system underdeveloped Mexican children to prepare them as commodities of manual labor, they advocated for "cultural democracy" in the classroom. This included the demand for bilingual education and the promotion of Mexican-American teachers.

Recognizing how Jim Crow laws like the poll taxes kept Mexican voters disenfranchised, El Congreso organized voter registration drives and fund-raisers for the poor to pay poll taxes. At its height, the organization had 73 chapters representing 70,000 members across the Southwest.

Members of the CP and its affiliated organizations also provided crucial material aid and political support for LA's Mexican community during the Second World War. After the declaration of war against Japan, racist sentiment was stoked across the country. While Japanese-Americans were being internally deported into concentration camps, Mexican-American youth became a target for persecution in inner cities across the West.

The growing population of Mexican-American workers in the cities, the emergence of Chicano youth culture that challenged the norms of forced assimilation, and the emergence of social problems associated with poverty and segregation in the barrio provided the kindling for nativists to ignite a lynch-mob atmosphere against Mexican-Americans.

In what became known as the Sleepy Lagoon Case (or as Vargas identifies it, the "West Coast complement of the Scottsboro Campaign"), 17 Mexican-American youths were arrested and put on trial for an unsubstantiated murder. The CP and the Congreso, CIO-affiliated unions and progressives from Hollywood united to form the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee (SLDC) to defend the boys and expose the campaign as racial persecution.

Organizers, led by CIO veterans Luisa Moreno and Revels Cayton, planned a multi-pronged campaign to "develop an educational program to solicit support for the SDLC, coordinate efforts to end racism against Mexicans within unions, and launch a CIO membership drive in the Spanish-speaking working-class neighborhoods."

After three years, the national campaign resulted in all the charges being dropped and the youth released. The fight evolved into numerous other campaigns that directed multiracial, working-class organization and power against the structures of segregation.

While the CP and CIO ultimately retreated from their efforts to directly confront racism, the Mexican and Mexican-American workers who rose through their ranks and were trained on the front lines of class struggle laid the groundwork for the ultimate defeat of Jim Crow in the Southwest. As Vargas concludes, the civil rights movement of the 1960s witnessed "a new generation of leaders and plans," but rather than serving as a starting point, Mexican-American militancy only "deepened and expanded."

It is in understanding this continuity of class struggle that makes Vargas' book an indispensable read for a new generation of activists confronting the new Jim Crow assault on immigrants, as well as for the next generation of Emma Tenayucas that carry with them the hope and possibility of a better world.

Further Reading

From the archives