World War II and Mexican American Civil Rights

By Richard Griswold Del Castilo | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
The Federal Government Discovers Mexican Americans

RICHARD STEELE

On the eve of World War II, Mexican Americans suffered from a grinding poverty stemming from hostile and indifferent public attitudes and institutionalized racism. There were few signs that these conditions would soon change, but within months of the onset of hostilities, government officialcials felt obliged to acknowledge the community's existence and address its complaints. Authorities began to speak of a “Spanish-speaking,” Hispanic,” or “Latin American” community—in effect constructing, for political purposes, an ethnic group out of the diverse elements of Mexican and Latin American origin. At the same time, they acknowledged Mexican American spokesmen, from whom they would learn of Mexican American needs and through whom they could effect the changes the situation seemed to demand. Three-and-one-half million people were suddenly “discovered” and their wants made part of the national security agenda.


The War's Impact on Mexican Americans

Benefits began to accrue to Mexican Americans even before the United States became involved in the war. In the two years before the Pearl Harbor attack (December 1941), the military had begun to open its ranks to volunteers, and Congress authorized the nation's first peacetime draft. Eager young Mexican Americans jumped at the enlistment opportunities, while others among them found themselves swept up in the draft. Military service offered an honorable, even adventurous, alternative to a hardscrabble existence, and soon large numbers of Mexican Ameri-

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