Ana Elizabeth Rosas
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.
On August 4, 1942, the Mexican and U.S. governments launched the bi-national guest worker program, most commonly known as the Bracero Program. An estimated five million Mexican men between the ages of 19 and 45 separated from their families for three-to-nine-month contract cycles at a time, in anticipation of earning the prevailing U.S. wage this program had promised them. They labored in U.S. agriculture, railroad construction, and forestry, with hardly any employment protections or rights in place to support themselves and the families they had left behind in Mexico. The inhumane configuration and implementation of this program prevented most of these men and their families from meeting such goals. Instead, the labor exploitation and alienation that characterized this guest worker program and their program participation paved the way for, at best, fragile family relationships. This program lasted twenty-two years and grew in its expanse, despite its negative consequences, Mexican men and their families could not afford to settle for being unemployed in Mexico, nor could they pass up U.S. employment opportunities of any sort. The Mexican and U.S. governments’ persistently negligent management of the Bracero Program, coupled with their conveniently selective acknowledgement of the severity of the plight of Mexican women and men, consistently cornered Mexican men and their families to shoulder the full extent of the Bracero Program’s exploitative conditions and terms.
In September 1962, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) held its first convention in Fresno, California, initiating a multiracial movement that would result in the creation of United Farm Workers (UFW) and the first contracts for farm workers in the state of California. Led by Cesar Chavez, the union contributed a number of innovations to the art of social protest, including the most successful consumer boycott in the history of the United States. Chavez welcomed contributions from numerous ethnic and racial groups, men and women, young and old. For a time, the UFW was the realization of Martin Luther King Jr.’s beloved community—people from different backgrounds coming together to create a socially just world. During the 1970s, Chavez struggled to maintain the momentum created by the boycott as the state of California became more involved in adjudicating labor disputes under the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA). Although Chavez and the UFW ultimately failed to establish a permanent, national union, their successes and strategies continue to influence movements for farm worker justice today.
Michael J. Bustamante
The Cuban Revolution transformed the largest island nation of the Caribbean into a flashpoint of the Cold War. After overthrowing US-backed ruler Fulgencio Batista in early 1959, Fidel Castro established a socialist, anti-imperialist government that defied the island’s history as a dependent and dependable ally of the United States. But the Cuban Revolution is not only significant for its challenge to US interests and foreign policy prerogatives. For Cubans, it fundamentally reordered their lives, inspiring multitudes yet also driving thousands of others to migrate to Miami and other points north.
Sixty years later, Fidel Castro may be dead and the Soviet Union may be long gone. Cuban socialism has become more hybrid in economic structure, and in 2014 the Cuban and US governments moved to restore diplomatic ties. But Cuba’s leaders continue to insist that “the Revolution,” far from a terminal political event, is still alive. Today, as the founding generation of Cuban leaders passes from the scene, “the Revolution” faces another important crossroads of uncertainty and reform.
Post-1945 immigration to the United States differed fairly dramatically from America’s earlier 20th- and 19th-century immigration patterns, most notably in the dramatic rise in numbers of immigrants from Asia. Beginning in the late 19th century, the U.S. government took steps to bar immigration from Asia. The establishment of the national origins quota system in the 1924 Immigration Act narrowed the entryway for eastern and central Europeans, making western Europe the dominant source of immigrants. These policies shaped the racial and ethnic profile of the American population before 1945. Signs of change began to occur during and after World War II. The recruitment of temporary agricultural workers from Mexico led to an influx of Mexicans, and the repeal of Asian exclusion laws opened the door for Asian immigrants. Responding to complex international politics during the Cold War, the United States also formulated a series of refugee policies, admitting refugees from Europe, the western hemisphere, and later Southeast Asia. The movement of people to the United States increased drastically after 1965, when immigration reform ended the national origins quota system. The intricate and intriguing history of U.S. immigration after 1945 thus demonstrates how the United States related to a fast-changing world, its less restrictive immigration policies increasing the fluidity of the American population, with a substantial impact on American identity and domestic policy.
Religion is at the heart of the Latina/o experience in the United States. It is a deeply personal matter that often shapes political orientations, how people vote, where they live, and the type of family choices they make. Latina/o religious politics—defined as the religious beliefs, ethics, and cultures that motivate social and political action in society—represent the historic interaction between popular and institutional religion. The evolution of Protestantism, Pentecostalism, and Catholic Social Action throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries illuminates the ways in which Latina/o religious communities interacted with movements for social justice.
Pablo Mitchell and Xavier Tirado
Sexuality has been a central feature of the lives of people of Latin American descent since the beginning of Spanish exploration and conquest in the Americas in the late 1400s. The history of Latina/o sexuality encompasses courtship, marriage, and reproduction; sexual activity including same-sex sexual intimacy, sex within and outside of marriage, and commercial sex such as prostitution; as well as various forms of sexual coercion and violence. Attempts to define, control, and regulate sexual activity and the shifting meanings and understandings attached to sexuality have also played an important role in the sexual lives of Latinas/os over the past five centuries and have helped to establish sexual norms, including appropriate masculine and feminine behavior, and to limit and punish sexual transgressions. While Latinas/os have at times been targeted as sexually improper and even dangerous, they have proven to be strong defenders of their sexual rights and intimate relationships in their communities.
Perla M. Guerrero
Latinas/os were present in the American South long before the founding of the United States of America, yet knowledge about their southern communities in different places and time periods is deeply uneven. In fact, regional themes important throughout the South clarify the dynamics that shaped Latinas/os’ lives, especially race, ethnicity, and the colorline; work and labor; and migration and immigration. Ideas about racial difference, in particular, reflected specifics of place, and intersections of local, regional, and international endeavors and movements of people and resources. Accordingly, Latinas/os’ position and treatment varied across the South. They first worked in agricultural fields picking cotton, oranges, and harvesting tobacco, then in a variety of industries, especially poultry and swine processing and packing. The late 20th century saw the rapid growth of Latinas/os in southern states due to changing migration and immigration patterns that moved from traditional states of reception to new destinations in rural, suburban, and urban locales with limited histories with Latinas/os or with substantial numbers of immigrants in general.
Brian D. Behnken
African Americans and Latino/as have had a long history of social interactions that have been strongly affected by the broader sense of race in the United States. Race in the United States has typically been constructed as a binary of black and white. Latino/as do not fit neatly into this binary. Some Latino/as have argued for a white racial identity, which has at times frustrated their relationships with black people. For African Americans and Latino/as, segregation often presented barriers to good working relationships. The two groups were often segregated from each other, making them mutually invisible. This invisibility did not make for good relations.
Latino/as and blacks found new avenues for improving their relationships during the civil rights era, from the 1940s to the 1970s. A number of civil rights protests generated coalitions that brought the two communities together in concerted campaigns. This was especially the case for militant groups such as the Black Panther Party, the Mexican American Brown Berets, and the Puerto Rican Young Lords, as well as in the Poor People’s Campaign. Interactions among African Americans and Mexican American, Puerto Rican, and Cuban/Cuban American illustrate the deep and often convoluted sense of race consciousness in American history, especially during the time of the civil rights movement.
The Latino/Latina or Hispanic Catholic presence spans the colonial era, the period of U.S. expansion during the 19th century, and the waves of new immigrants in the 20th and 21st centuries. A long-standing element of Latino Catholic history, the struggle for justice both in church and society, became even more prominent during the 20th century.
While Catholics in the thirteen British colonies were a minority in a Protestant land, in Hispanic settlements from Florida to California, Catholicism was the established religion under Spain and, in the Southwest, under Mexico after it won independence in 1821. Spanish subjects founded numerous missions intended to Christianize and Hispanicize native populations. They also established parishes, military chaplaincies, and private chapels to serve the religious needs of Hispanic settlers. From the standpoints of original settlement, societal influence, and institutional presence, the origins of Catholicism in what is now the United States were decidedly Hispanic.
The first large group of Hispanic Catholics incorporated into U.S. territories was Mexicans in the Southwest, who, as a common adage puts it, did not cross the border but had the border cross them during U.S. territorial expansion. When military defeat led Mexico’s president to cede nearly half his nation’s territory to the United States in 1848, Mexicans underwent the disestablishment of their Catholic religion along with widespread loss of their lands, economic well-being, political clout, and cultural hegemony. Many continued their traditional expressions of faith, which enabled them to defend their sense of dignity, to collectively respond to the effects of conquest, and to express their own ethnic legitimation.
Nascent 19th-century Latino immigration to the United States quickened over the course of the 20th century, expanding the diversification of national-origin groups among Latinos in the United States. Mexican immigration increased substantially after the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 and has continued into the 21st century. Significant numbers of Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans, and Central Americans have also come, along with some South Americans. Each group of Latino newcomers has fostered ministries and church structures that served the needs of their compatriots.
Latino Catholic activist efforts range from local initiatives such as establishing Spanish-language masses and prayer groups to broader endeavors such as the recent National Hispanic Pastoral Encuentros of the 1970s and 1980s, major events that enabled Hispanic leaders to articulate their ministerial needs and demands to Catholic bishops and the wider church. Latino Catholics have also been active in social causes such as the plight of farmworkers, immigration, and faith-based community organizing.
Sara C. Fingal
Since the 1960s, Latinxs have played prominent roles in the environmental justice movement and in organizations that have defined their members as Hispanic or Latinx environmentalists. Organizers created their own groups in response to their alienation from predominantly white mainstream environmental movements that focused on wilderness preservation and government conservation policies. Latinx community activists, on the other hand, related social justice and grassroots democracy to struggles over public parks and beaches, clean air, clean water, pesticide exposure, and high environmental risks. In the late 1960s and 1970s, organizations like the United Farm Workers (UFW) consciously connected worker safety to environmentalist and consumer concerns about unregulated pesticides, but the majority of environmental groups ignored issues that affected Latinx communities. Eventually, mainstream environmentalists and federal government agencies responded to calls for diversity with increased attention to environmental justice for communities of color in the late 20th century. In recent years, the National Park Service and the US Forest Service have attempted to engage Latinxs through American Hispanic heritage projects and Spanish-language advertising. Previous calls for environmental justice and the youth of the US Latinx population have made many mainstream environmental organizations aware of the need to engage with people of color, although persistent stereotypes about Latinx disinterest in access to public lands and conservation still linger. Newer organizations have worked to engage community members, young people, and departments in the federal government. Latinxs have been and will continue to be critical actors in conversations about local and global environmental issues. Recognition of an existing environmental ethic among Latinx and Spanish-speaking people in the United States would expand the understanding of conservation and environmentalism in American history.
Elda María Román
Latina/o literature can be understood both in terms of its historical emergence and development as well as its engagement with and representation of history. The formation of a canon called Latina/o literature is a contemporary phenomenon. Institutions that have published, disseminated, and shaped this literature into a discernible entity emerged in the 1970s as extensions of political activist movements. In the 1990s, the establishment of the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Project also made possible the recuperation and publication of literature written before the 1960s. Studies of Latina/o literature now explore texts dating back to the 16th century, include 19th-century exile and dissident writing, and trace the evolution of Latina/o literature through the 20th and 21st centuries. While most writing and scholarship has been produced about Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Cuban Americans, literature by Dominican Americans, U.S. Central Americans, and U.S. South Americans is increasingly gaining visibility. Since the mid-20th century, most Latina/o literature has been written in English, though many writers incorporate Spanish or Spanglish. This tradition now spans a wide range of themes, experiences, and genres.
Allison Brownell Tirres
Latino Americans have intersected with the law in complicated ways throughout American history. Latinos themselves are a diverse and heterogeneous racial, ethnic, and cultural group, with members hailing from all parts of the Spanish-speaking world and representing all variations on the spectrum of race. Each group has a unique origin story, but all have been shaped by law and legal process. Legal historians and legal scholars explore the role of law in incorporating Latino groups in American society, the effects of law on Latino communities, and the struggles of Latino lawyers, activists, and ordinary people against legal discrimination and for equality. The civil rights story of Latinos bears strong resemblance to that of African Americans: In each case, members have been subjected to de jure and de facto discrimination and social subordination. But the Latino civil rights story has unique valences, particularly in the areas of language discrimination and immigration law and policy. Latino legal history demonstrates the complex ways that Latinos interact with the color line in American law and politics.
Laura Isabel Serna
Latinos have constituted part of the United States’ cinematic imagination since the emergence of motion pictures in the late 19th century. Though shifting in their specific contours, representations of Latinos have remained consistently stereotypical; Latinos have primarily appeared on screen as bandits, criminals, nameless maids, or sultry señoritas. These representations have been shaped by broader political and social issues and have influenced the public perception of Latinos in the United States. However, the history of Latinos and film should not be limited to the topic of representation. Latinos have participated in the film industry as actors, creative personnel (including directors and cinematographers), and have responded to representations on screen as members of audiences with a shared sense of identity, whether as mexicanos de afuera in the early 20th century, Hispanics in the 1980s and 1990s, or Latinos in the 21st century. Both participation in production and reception have been shaped by the ideas about race that characterize the film industry and its products. Hollywood’s labor hierarchy has been highly stratified according to race, and Hollywood films that represent Latinos in a stereotypical fashion have been protested by Latino audiences. While some Latino/a filmmakers have opted to work outside the confines of the commercial film industry, others have sought to gain entry and reform the industry from the inside. Throughout the course of this long history, Latino representation on screen and on set has been shaped by debates over international relations, immigration, citizenship, and the continuous circulation of people and films between the United States and Latin America.
A. K. Sandoval-Strausz
“Latino urbanism” describes a culturally specific set of spatial forms and practices created by people of Hispanic origin. It includes many different aspects of those forms and practices, including town planning; domestic, religious, and civic architecture; the adaptation of existing residential, commercial, and other structures; and the everyday use of spaces such as yards, sidewalks, storefronts, streets, and parks.
Latino urbanism has developed over both time and space. It is the evolving product of half a millennium of colonization, settlement, international and domestic migration, and globalization. It has spanned a wide geographic range, beginning in the southern half of North America and gradually expanding to much of the hemisphere.
There have been many variations on Latino urbanism, but most include certain key features: shared central places where people show their sense of community, a walking culture that encourages face-to-face interaction with neighbors, and a sense that sociability should take place as much in the public realm as in the privacy of the home. More recently, planners and architects have realized that Latino urbanism offers solutions to problems such as sprawl, social isolation, and environmental unsustainability.
The term “urbanism” connotes city spaces, and Latino urbanism is most concentrated and most apparent at the center of metropolitan areas. At the same time, it has also been manifested in a wide variety of places and at different scales, from small religious altars in private homes; to Spanish-dominant commercial streetscapes in Latino neighborhoods; and ultimately to settlement patterns that reach from the densely packed centers of cities to the diversifying suburbs that surround them, out to the agricultural hinterlands at their far peripheries—and across borders to big cities and small pueblos elsewhere in the Americas.
Ramón A. Gutiérrez
The history of Mexican immigration to the United States is best characterized as the movement of unskilled, manual laborers pushed northward mostly by poverty and unemployment and pulled into American labor markets with higher wages. Historically, most Mexicans have been economic immigrants seeking to improve their lives. In moments of civil strife, such as the Mexican Revolution (1910–1917) and the Cristero Revolt (1926–1929), many fled to the United States to escape religious and political persecution. Others, chafing under the weight of conservative, patriarchal, tradition-bound, rural agrarian societies, have migrated seeking modern values and greater personal liberties.
Since the last quarter of the 19th century, due to increasing numeric restrictions on the importation of immigrant workers from Europe, Asia, and Africa, American employers have turned to Mexico to recruit cheap, unskilled labor. Before 1942, Mexico minimally regulated emigration. While attentive to the safety and well-being of its émigrés, the Mexican government deemed out-migration a depletion of the country’s human capital. Monetary remittances helped compensate for this loss, contributing perhaps as much as 10 percent of the country’s yearly gross national product, vastly improving national life, particularly when emigrants returned with skills and consumer goods, seeking investment opportunities for their accumulated cash. Since the 1980s, single Mexican women have become a significant component of this migration, representing 40 percent of the total immigrant flow, employed mostly as service workers, domestics, and nannies, and less so in agricultural work. Mexicans also have gained authorized entry into the United States as highly skilled professionals, but their numbers remain relatively small in comparison to unskilled laborers. Beginning in 1942, and particularly in the 1990s, Mexican immigrants have been stigmatized as illegal aliens, subject to deportation as significant security threats to the nation; a rhetoric that intensified after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States by al-Qaeda.
Benjamin H. Johnson
When rebels captured the border city of Juárez, Mexico, in May 1911 and forced the abdication of President Porfirio Díaz shortly thereafter, they not only overthrew the western hemisphere’s oldest regime but also inaugurated the first social revolution of the 20th century. Driven by disenchantment with an authoritarian regime that catered to foreign investment, labor exploitation, and landlessness, revolutionaries dislodged Díaz’s regime, crushed an effort to resurrect it, and then spent the rest of the decade fighting one another for control of the nation. This struggle, recognized ever since as foundational for Mexican politics and identity, also had enormous consequences for the ethnic makeup, border policing, and foreign policy of the United States. Over a million Mexicans fled north during the 1910s, perhaps tripling the country’s Mexican-descent population, most visibly in places such as Los Angeles that had become overwhelmingly Anglo-American. US forces occupied Mexican territory twice, nearly bringing the two nations to outright warfare for the first time since the US–Mexican War of 1846–1848. Moreover, revolutionary violence and radicalism transformed the ways that much of the American population and its government perceived their border with Mexico, providing a rationale for a much more highly policed border and for the increasingly brutal treatment of Mexican-descent people in the United States. The Mexican Revolution was a turning point for Mexico, the United States, and their shared border, and for all who crossed it.
Rosina A. Lozano
Language rights are an integral part of civil rights. They provide the tools that permit individuals to engage with and participate in society. The broad use of the Spanish language in the United States by both citizens and immigrants—it is the second-most-spoken language in the country by far—has a long history. Spanish was the first European governing language in parts of the future United States that included the Southwest, portions of the Louisiana Purchase, and Florida. The use of the language did not disappear when these regions became part of the United States, but rather persisted in some locales as a politically important language. In the 20th century, Spanish-speaking immigrants entered not just the Southwest and Florida, but also Chicago, New York, the South, Michigan, and other locales across the country in large numbers. Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century, Spanish speakers and their advocates have reasserted their cultural preference by fighting for monolingual speakers’ right to use Spanish in legal settings, in public, as voters, as elected officials, at work, and in education. The politics of the Spanish language have only grown in importance as the largest influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants ever has entered the United States. This demographic shift makes the longer history of Spanish a crucial backstory for future language-policy decisions.
Puerto Rican migrants have resided in the United States since before the Spanish-Cuban-American War of 1898, when the United States took possession of the island of Puerto Rico as part of the Treaty of Paris. After the war, groups of Puerto Ricans began migrating to the United States as contract laborers, first to sugarcane plantations in Hawaii, and then to other destinations on the mainland. After the Jones Act of 1917 extended U.S. citizenship to islanders, Puerto Ricans migrated to the United States in larger numbers, establishing their largest base in New York City. Over the course of the 1920s and 1930s, a vibrant and heterogeneous colonia developed there, and Puerto Ricans participated actively both in local politics and in the increasingly contentious politics of their homeland, whose status was indeterminate until it became a commonwealth in 1952. The Puerto Rican community in New York changed dramatically after World War II, accommodating up to fifty thousand new migrants per year during the peak of the “great migration” from the island. Newcomers faced intense discrimination and marginalization in this era, defined by both a Cold War ethos and liberal social scientists’ interest in the “Puerto Rican problem.”
Puerto Rican migrant communities in the 1950s and 1960s—now rapidly expanding into the Midwest, especially Chicago, and into New Jersey, Connecticut, and Philadelphia—struggled with inadequate housing and discrimination in the job market. In local schools, Puerto Rican children often faced a lack of accommodation of their need for English language instruction. Most catastrophic for Puerto Rican communities, on the East Coast particularly, was the deindustrialization of the labor market over the course of the 1960s. By the late 1960s, in response to these conditions and spurred by the civil rights, Black Power, and other social movements, young Puerto Ricans began organizing and protesting in large numbers. Their activism combined a radical approach to community organizing with Puerto Rican nationalism and international anti-imperialism. The youth were not the only activists in this era. Parents in New York had initiated, together with their African American neighbors, a “community control” movement that spanned the late 1960s and early 1970s; and many other adult activists pushed the politics of the urban social service sector—the primary institutions in many impoverished Puerto Rican communities—further to the left.
By the mid-1970s, urban fiscal crises and the rising conservative backlash in national politics dealt another blow to many Puerto Rican communities in the United States. The Puerto Rican population as a whole was now widely considered part of a national “underclass,” and much of the political energy of Puerto Rican leaders focused on addressing the paucity of both basic material stability and social equality in their communities. Since the 1980s, however, Puerto Ricans have achieved some economic gains, and a growing college-educated middle class has managed to gain more control over the cultural representations of their communities. More recently, the political salience of Puerto Ricans as a group has begun to shift. For the better part of the 20th century, Puerto Ricans in the United States were considered numerically insignificant or politically impotent (or both); but in the last two presidential elections (2008 and 2012), their growing populations in the South, especially in Florida, have drawn attention to their demographic significance and their political sensibilities.
C. J. Alvarez
The region that today constitutes the United States–Mexico borderland has evolved through various systems of occupation over thousands of years. Beginning in time immemorial, the land was used and inhabited by ancient peoples whose cultures we can only understand through the archeological record and the beliefs of their living descendants. Spain, then Mexico and the United States after it, attempted to control the borderlands but failed when confronted with indigenous power, at least until the late 19th century when American capital and police established firm dominance. Since then, borderland residents have often fiercely contested this supremacy at the local level, but the borderland has also, due to the primacy of business, expressed deep harmonies and cooperation between the U.S. and Mexican federal governments. It is a majority minority zone in the United States, populated largely by Mexican Americans. The border is both a porous membrane across which tremendous wealth passes and a territory of interdiction in which noncitizens and smugglers are subject to unusually concentrated police attention. All of this exists within a particularly harsh ecosystem characterized by extreme heat and scarce water.
Relations between the United States and Mexico have rarely been easy. Ever since the United States invaded its southern neighbor and seized half of its national territory in the 19th century, the two countries have struggled to establish a relationship based on mutual trust and respect. Over the two centuries since Mexico’s independence, the governments and citizens of both countries have played central roles in shaping each other’s political, economic, social, and cultural development. Although this process has involved—even required—a great deal of cooperation, relations between the United States and Mexico have more often been characterized by antagonism, exploitation, and unilateralism. This long history of tensions has contributed to the three greatest challenges that these countries face together today: economic development, immigration, and drug-related violence.