The Common Good
July-August 1996

Searching for a Reflection

by Yolanda Leyva | July-August 1996

Where the immigration debate hits home.

Historian David Gutierrez’s provocative study of Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants, Walls and Mirrors, could not have come at a more timely moment. As the role of immigrants, both documented and undocumented, again comes under scrutiny, Gutierrez provides us with a well-researched investigation of the issues surrounding immigration, but from a different perspective than most.

Walls and Mirrors is a look at the debate from within the Mexican-American community. What are the historic links between immigration, civil rights, and ethnicity? How have Mexican-American organizations and activists strategized politically vis-á-vis immigration and citizenship during this century? How have Mexican Americans perceived themselves, their role in U.S. society, and their relationship to both long-term Mexican residents and los recien llegados, the recent immigrants? In Walls and Mirrors, Gutierrez explores the often shifting contours of this intriguing yet largely neglected subject through his chronologically organized study of Mexican-American activists and organizations in Texas and California.

As Gutierrez writes in his introduction, Mexicans and Mexican Americans have always been aware of the differences between them, yet few studies have focused on the nature of this relationship and the forces that have shaped it. Like the larger society, scholars have often treated Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants as if they were all the same, ignoring that the relationship between the two groups has been fraught with ambivalence and contradiction. Gutierrez’s long-needed study sets out to examine both the “differences that divided and the commonalities that bound the two groups together—the walls and mirrors.”

Using diverse manuscript collections, government documents, newspapers, and organizational records, as well as many of the now classic community, regional, and immigration studies published in the last two decades, Gutierrez has presented not so much totally new information (particularly in the early chapters) as known information within a new context. Herein lies the importance of this work— Gutierrez has gleaned from this collection of primary and secondary material a story of intra-ethnic relations which others have alluded to, but on which few have centered in their analysis of Mexican- American and Chicano history.

Accompanying the creation of the “new” ethnic group—Mexican Americans—following the mid-19th-century war between the United States and Mexico, a fundamental contradiction emerged that haunts Mexican Americans still and helped to shape Mexican-American/Mexican immigrant relations. While the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) gave Mexican Americans the “rights of citizens,” it gave them no way to practice those rights. Facing discrimination, violence, and ongoing economic, political, and social subordination, the diverse Mexican population developed a distinct ethnic identity by the 1850s.

TWO CONDITIONS whose roots lay in the 19th-century U.S. conquest of Mexico’s northern frontier— ethnic polarization and discord—not only helped define the relationship between Mexican Americans and Anglo Americans, but, as Mexican immigration grew significantly after 1890, also influenced intra-ethnic relations as well. Whether Mexican Americans perceived the walls between themselves and immigrants—or the mirrors—had much to do with their perceptions of how best to confront the ethnic conflict that was well-entrenched before the beginning of any significant Mexican immigration.

During the 1920s and 1930s, a truly polarized view of Mexican immigration and immigrants emerged within the Mexican-American community. As immigration grew in the 1920s, along with an ever- intensifying anti-Mexican sentiment, Mexican Americans divided into two camps.

One group, according to Gutierrez, empathized with immigrants. This group, characterized as primarily working class and often made up of long-term Mexican residents of the United States, saw the mirrors: They made the shared experience of discrimination primary in shaping their views of Mexican immigration.

The other side, perhaps best exemplified by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), gave primacy to their identity as Americans. As Gutierrez points out, however, even this position is not without its contradictions and ambivalence. The diversity of Mexican communities in the United States made the ambivalence, and the contradictions, difficult to escape.

The Great Depression of the 1930s, along with the events of the 1940s—including the introduction of the Bracero Program and the attendant increasing undocumented migration—led to further internal divisions within the Mexican-American community vis-á-vis Mexican immigration. Gutierrez’s analysis of these two decades reveals a fascinating interplay of class, ethnicity, nationality, and identity.

World War II and the subsequent Cold War further influenced Mexican-American/Mexican immigrant relations. Mexican-American organizations like the American GI Forum and the National Agricultural Workers Union renewed their support of more restrictive immigration laws and the end of the Bracero Program. Government actions such as Operation Wetback, a massive deportation campaign of the early 1950s, led some Mexican-American organizations, including LULAC and the American GI Forum, to join with the Community Service Organization (CSO) in beginning to talk about immigrant rights.

With the emergence of the Chicano movement in the 1960s, organizations began an even more serious reassessment of the connections between Mexican “immigration, Chicano ethnicity, and the status of Mexican Americans in the United States.” Chicano activists no longer accepted the view, so often a part of earlier Mexican-American politics, that undocumented immigrants represented a threat to Mexican Americans. Leading the way was el Centro de Acción Social Autonoma (CASA), established in 1968 to provide services to undocumented immigrants. CASA, with its philosophy that Mexican Americans and Mexicans were a people sin fronteras (literally, “without borders”), represented the tremendous change. Even moderate Mexican-American organizations began to revise their positions by the 1970s.

Gutierrez marks the First National Chicano/Latino Conference on Immigration and Public Policy, held in San Antonio, Texas, in 1977, as “the culmination of nearly a half century of Mexican American debate on Mexican immigration.” Drawing together more than 2,000 participants from a wide range of organizations and ideologies, the conference succeeded in showing “unprecedented” unity among Chicano and Mexican-American activists. This unity was even more remarkable given the increasing diversity of the population—generationally, politically, and ideologically.

Gutierrez ends his study with a thought-provoking epilogue that brings the debate forward to the present by examining the role of ethnic political leaders, the debate over controlling the border, and issues surrounding multiculturalism. The rhetoric of the current immigration debate appears unnervingly similar to that of the 1970s, ’50s, ’20s, and the 1890s. Gutierrez argues that the paradigm put forth by many U.S. politicians—that undocumented immigrants have created this nation’s problems—is “fundamentally flawed.”

Far from being resolved, Gutierrez argues, Mexican Americans continue to find themselves compelled “to make decisions about who they are, how they want to be perceived by others, and who they want to be as citizens of this society.” At a time when the debates over immigration, ethnicity, and multiculturalism fill the airwaves, television newscasts, and newspaper columns, Gutierrez presents an informative, provocative, and extremely well-researched study.

Review of Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the Politics of Ethnicity. By David G. Gutierrez (University of California Press, 1995).

YOLANDA LEYVA is a doctoral student at the University of Arizona in Phoenix; currently she is researching the lives of early 20th-century Mexican children along the U.S. border. This article is adapted with permission from a review originally published at H-Latam@msu.edu on February 29, 1996.

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