World War II and Mexican American Civil Rights

By Richard Griswold Del Castilo | Go to book overview
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Civil Rights on the Home Front: Leaders and Organizations


On December 7, 1941, Americans joined in a common struggle against the evils of Fascism, racism, and totalitarianism. The patriotic idealism of the war years pervaded everyday life, from war bond drives to United Services Organization (Uso) dances; from black, white, and brown soldiers in uniform to gold stars displayed in home windows to indicate servicemen killed in action. Along with expressions of unity and patriotism, Mexican Americans and African Americans were reminded of their second-class citizenship as a nonwhite group. Public facilities like movie theaters, parks and pools, schools, and housing remained segregated. Mexican Americans were denied service at some restaurants and were victims of police brutality and miscarriages of justice, of which the Sleepy Lagoon case and the Zoot-Suit Riots were only the most dramatic examples. Wartime America contained many contradictions, and these would become more evident in the postwar period.

Mexican American activism in fighting against discrimination and segregation did not wait until after the war. Actually, protest and activism became more widespread and officially sanctioned because of the war. Before World War II, Mexican American civil rights did not have official recognition. Because of the wartime experience, more and more Mexican Americans came to realize that local customs and practices were more than hurtful and insulting to individuals; they were also part of a larger evil: racism—a malady that was being opposed by the U.S. government and many Anglo-Americans. The kinds of injustices that African Americans, Native Americans, and Mexican Americans had experienced for centuries were now interpreted by officials as damaging to the war effort, either by hampering the production of war materials or by providing propaganda points for the Axis powers.


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