World War II and Mexican American Civil Rights

By Richard Griswold Del Castilo | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
Mexican Americans in 1940: Perceptions and Conditions

RICHARD STEELE

Few Americans in 1940 knew their compatriots of Mexican origin firsthand. What most did know was a creation of the popular media that portrayed them, no matter which side of the border they lived on, either as peons with eyes averted and faces buried in oversized sombreros, or as treacherous, grinning, bandoleer-draped bandidos. This mélange was leavened with the occasional appearance of a lighter-skinned but nonetheless indolent and irresponsible caballero vaguely associated with Mexico but more likely identifed as “Spanish.”1

In the Southwest, where millions of Mexicans (as all people of Mexican extraction were known) lived, familiarity produced a slightly different image, but little enlightenment. To most white Americans (or “Anglos,” as they were referred to by the Mexican community), the term “Mexican” commonly conjured up images of the bent figures in a distant cotton field or the swarthy common laborers encountered in the region's towns and cities. In either case, they were assumed by white Americans to be members of a ragged race of inferiors provided by providence to do the region's most unpleasant work.

The pervading ignorance and hostility were reflected in a poll conducted in 1942, which asked a cross section of white Americans to rate the qualities of a list of “people[s] or races of the world … in comparison with the people of the United States.” The question was unexceptional in this era of ethnic stereotypes, an era before the concept of race had been questioned and before Americans were discouraged from making invidious comparisons between peoples. Those who responded predictably categorized the English, Dutch, and Scandinavians as being “as good as we … in all important respects”; ranked the Irish, French, and Germans as somewhat inferior; and placed the Greeks, “South Americans,” “Jew-

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