Hispanic-American civil rights embody the overall social and economic integration of Hispanics into American society. Hispanic Americans come from a variety of places throughout Latin America, including Cuba, Mexico, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and El Salvador; they may also come from Spain. Hispanic Americans are primarily an ethnic group, not a racial group. Due to their status as a minority, Hispanic Americans have worked to earn their civil rights alongside African Americans and other minorities.
There has been a Hispanic presence in America since the 16th century. Spanish conquistadors were the first to explore the Americas and settle the New World. Spaniards established themselves primarily in the western regions that are now California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Most Mexican Americans are concentrated in the Southwest, whereas Cuban Americans live in the Southeast.
Many Mexican Americans are descended from 19th and 20th century immigrants. Los Angeles, California has the largest population of Hispanic Americans in the entire country. Hispanic Americans enjoy high-ranking positions in the government, business, the military and the entertainment industry.
The Hispanic-American civil rights movement, though perhaps not as dramatic as the African-American civil rights movement, responded to an urgent need within the Hispanic-American community. Since the Mexican-American War, many native Mexicans saw the American conquest as a tragic end to their thriving culture. Most Hispanics in the Southwest felt tension toward their Anglo conquerors, while white Americans were reluctant to incorporate this new body of people into their country, perceiving the Hispanics as foreigners.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in 1848 at the end of the Mexican-American War, guaranteed constitutional rights to Hispanics from conquered territories. The ninth article of the treaty states: "The Mexicans ... shall not preserve the character of citizens of the Mexican Republic.… shall be incorporated into the Union of the United States and be admitted at the proper time … to the enjoyment of all the rights of citizens of the United States according to the principles of the Constitution; and in the meantime shall be maintained and protected in the free enjoyment of their liberty and property, and secured in the free exercise of their religion without restriction." Despite the fact that Hispanics were granted citizenship, many Americans rejected them politically and socially. The two cultures lived in contempt of one another, the Anglo Americans bearing a long-held racial prejudice against the Hispanics. This state of uneasiness would persist for another century.
The 1960s saw a wave of social revolution hitting America, specifically regarding the status of minorities such as African Americans and Hispanic Americans. The Chicano movement, also known as the Mexican civil rights movement, focused on granting Hispanics the same benefits as Anglo Americans. The movement was driven by the Americanization of Hispanic youth and the segregation they experienced in schools. The movement first developed after World War II and launched itself into mainstream thinking in the 1960s.
The movement worked to dispel ethnic stereotypes of Hispanics and to enforce a sense of pride and cultural heritage within the Hispanic-American community. The Chicano movement addressed discrimination, exploitation and awareness of the historical background of Hispanic Americans. Student walkouts and youth organizations were major forms of political demonstration used by the Chicano movement.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 put an end to the political discrimination against minority communities in the United States. The Act forbids the enforcement of any voting qualifications based on race of color. At first, the law only applied to blacks in the Deep South, as they were the ones most discriminated against when it came to voting. Hispanics had never endured the same denial of constitutional rights to the extent that African Americans were subject to.
In fact, the Commission on Civil Rights and the Justice Department were dubious as to whether or not the Hispanic-American community had a legitimate claim for expanding the precepts of the Act to include their demands. Despite the government's resistance, the Hispanic community insisted it was underrepresented. By 1975, due to the efforts of Hispanic civil rights leaders, Hispanic Americans were included in the Act and could cast ballots in Spanish. They were ensured the right to elect members of their own ethnic community to represent them.