The United States–Mexico War was the first war in which the United States engaged in a conflict with a foreign nation for the purpose of conquest. It was also the first conflict in which trained soldiers (from West Point) played a large role. The war’s end transformed the United States into a continental nation as it acquired a vast portion of Mexico’s northern territories. In addition to shaping U.S.–Mexico relations into the present, the conflict also led to the forcible incorporation of Mexicans (who became Mexican Americans) as the nation’s first Latinos. Yet, the war has been identified as the nation’s “forgotten war” because few Americans know the causes and consequences of this conflict. Within fifteen years of the war’s end, the conflict faded from popular memory, but it did not disappear, due to the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War. By contrast, the U.S.–Mexico War is prominently remembered in Mexico as having caused the loss of half of the nation’s territory, and as an event that continues to shape Mexico’s relationship with the United States. Official memories (or national histories) of war affect international relations, and also shape how each nation’s population views citizens of other countries. Not surprisingly, there is a stark difference in the ways that American citizens and Mexican citizens remember and forget the war (e.g., Americans refer to the “Mexican American War” or the “U.S.–Mexican War,” for example, while Mexicans identify the conflict as the “War of North American Intervention”).
The US–Mexico War
El Paso, Texas, sits on the northern bank of the Rio Grande along the international boundary between Mexico and the United States and the states of Texas, New Mexico, and Chihuahua. Its location makes El Paso a major urban center in the US Southwest and a key border city, and together with Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, the cities comprise the largest border metroplex in the western hemisphere. Occupying formerly Mansos and Suma lands, the collision between Spanish imperial design and native stewardship began in the mid-17th century as civil and religious authorities from New Mexico established a southern settlement along the river to provide a place of rest and security for the trade and travel making its way from the mineral-rich regions of New Spain to the far-flung colony. Initial settlement patterns in El Paso occurred on the southern bank of the river in what is early 21st-century Ciudad Juárez due to seasonal flooding, which provided a natural barrier from Apache raids. El Paso remained a crossroads into the national period of the 19th century as the settlements began to experience the expansion of state power and market relations in North America. The competing national designs of Mexico and the United States collided in war from 1846 to 1848, resulting in the redrawing of national borders that turned El Paso and Ciudad Juárez into border cities. In the 20th century, industrial capitalism, migration, and state power linked these peripheral cities to national and international markets, and El Paso–Ciudad Juárez became the largest binational, bicultural community along the US–Mexico border. In 2020, the decennial census of Mexico and the United States counted a combined 2.5 million residents in the region, with over eight hundred thousand of those residing in El Paso.
The Chicana and Chicano Movement
The Chicana and Chicano movement or El Movimiento is one of the multiple civil rights struggles led by racialized and marginalized people in the United States. Building on a legacy of organizing among ethnic Mexicans, this social movement emerged in the decades of the 1960s and 1970s to continue the struggle to secure basic human needs and the fulfillment of their civil rights. To be Chicana and Chicano during this era represented an assertion of ethnic and cultural pride, self-determination, and a challenge to the status quo. Those who claimed this political identity sought to contest the subordinate position of people of Mexican origin in America. They responded to the effects and persistence of structural inequalities such as racism, discrimination, segregation, poverty, and the lack of opportunities to rise out of these conditions. Militant direct action and protest were hallmarks of this sustained effort. A flourishing intellectual and creative atmosphere existed within the movement that included the proliferation and combination of multiple ideological and political positions, including cultural nationalism, internationalism, feminism, and leftism. A major facet was rooted in historical recovery, analysis of conditions, and cultural awareness, represented within a wide-ranging print culture, and various forms of expression such as political theater, visual arts, poetry, and music. Constituted by several organizations and local movements, El Movimiento participants varied in age, generation, region, class, and sexuality. Several long-standing issues, including labor and land disputes that were directly linked to a brutal history of exploitation and dispossession, were grappled with. A lack of political representation and substandard education fueled struggles for an alternative political party and education. Further struggles stemmed from poverty coupled with police violence and suppression. Others took on anti-war efforts, and still others tackled gender inequality which reverberated throughout.
Mexico-US Relations from Independence to the Present
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.
The Politics of the Spanish Language
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.
The Mexican Revolution
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.
The United States–Mexico Border
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.
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.
The Long War on Drugs
Anne L. Foster
The beginning of modern war on drugs in the United States is commonly credited to President Richard Nixon, who evoked fears of crime, degenerate youth, and foreign drugs to garner support for his massive, by early 1970s standards, effort to combat drugs in the United States. Scholars now agree, however, that the essential characteristics of the “war on drugs” stretched back to the early 20th century. The first federal law to prohibit a narcotic in the United States passed in 1909 and banned the import of “smoking opium.” Although opium itself remained legal, opium prepared for smoking—a form believed to be consumed predominantly by ethnic Chinese and imported into the United States—was not. All future anti-narcotics policies drew on these foundational notions: narcotics were of foreign origin and invaded the United States. Thus, interdiction efforts at U.S. borders, and increasingly in producer countries, were an appropriate response. Narcotics consumers were presented as equally threatening, viewed as foreigners or at the margins of American society, and U.S. lawmakers therefore criminalized both drug use and drug trafficking. With drugs as well as drug users defined as foreign threats, militarization of the efforts to prohibit drugs followed. In U.S. drug policy, there is no distinction between foreign and domestic policy. They are intertwined at all levels, including the definition of the problem, the origin of many drugs, and the sites of enforcement.
Labor in the Spanish and Early US–Mexican Borderlands (1540–1848)
Eric V. Meeks
The forced, coerced, and voluntary labor systems of the Spanish and early US–Mexico borderlands were as diverse as the territories where they predominated, and they evolved substantially over the course of three centuries. Spanish borderlands refers to an immense region that encompassed New Spain’s northern “interior provinces.” They were mostly inhabited and controlled by Indigenous peoples. In the 19th century, these provinces would become the modern border states and territories of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and Texas to the north; and Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas to the south. Thousands of Indigenous, Black, mulatto, and mestizo people worked in coerced and unfree labor systems that ranged from outright slavery to encomienda, repartimiento, and debt peonage. New labor forms emerged with expanding global trade, economic reform, and industrialization in Europe and the United States. Compensated labor coexisted alongside forced labor in the colonial period, until it came to rival and, in some cases, replace involuntary labor by the early 19th century. Yet debt peonage and chattel slavery grew in importance during the same period. Workers themselves struggled to maintain autonomy and resisted through means that ranged from flight, malingering, and migration to outright rebellion.
The Bracero Program/“Guest Worker” Programs
Ana Elizabeth Rosas
On August 4, 1942, the Mexican and US governments launched the binational guest worker program most commonly known as the Bracero Program. An estimated 5 million Mexican men between the ages of nineteen and forty-five separated from their families for three to nine-month cycles at a time, depending on the duration of their labor contract, in anticipation of earning the prevailing US wage this program had promised them. They labored in US agriculture, railroad construction, and forestry with hardly any employment protections or rights in place to support themselves or 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 this goal. Instead, the labor exploitation and alienation that characterized this guest worker program and their program participation paved the way for fragile transnational family relationships. The Bracero Program grew over the course of its twenty-two-year existence, and despite its negative consequences, Mexican men and their families could not afford to settle for unemployment in Mexico nor pass up US employment opportunities of any sort. The Mexican and US governments’ persistently negligent management of the program coupled with their conveniently selective acknowledgment of the severity of the plight of Mexican women and men consistently required Mexican men and their families to shoulder the full extent of the program’s exploitative conditions and terms.
The History of Immigrant Deportations
Since the 1880s, the US government has deported more than 55 million immigrants, the majority of whom came from Latin-American countries. But the history of immigrant deportations from the United States dates back further, as both colonial and state governments practiced expulsions. Many expulsions were not based on immigrant status, but rather integration or membership in a town or state. Citizens from the United States, for example, found themselves expelled from Massachusetts between the 1840s and 1870s under laws that targeted the migrant poor. In the 1880s, US federal authorities constructed the nation’s first deportation policy, building off earlier state expulsion policies. Early federal deportation policy reflected the racism and nativism of the era. In an expression of anti-Chinese racism, one of the very first deportation provisions passed by the federal government targeted Chinese immigrants. Other early federal deportation provisions included ones aimed at idiots, prostitutes, alcoholics, and public charges. The earliest federal deportation policy was narrow in scope, at least initially, in part because the laws held primarily that only people who entered the country in violation of an immigrant exclusion were deportable, and there were time limits that protected most long-term immigrants from deportation. Beginning in the second decade of the 20th century, lawmakers slowly expanded deportation policy to make actions on US soil deportable offenses or for what has been called “post-entry infractions.” The newly created post-entry infractions included a small number of crimes and provisions that targeted political radicals. After the 1920s, immigration authorities focused their enforcement actions more on Mexican immigrants than on any other group under an expanding deportation policy. They did so on racial grounds, for racist reasons. The numbers of Mexicans deported increased with each passing decade, eventually reaching as many as a million people a year. Almost all immigrant deportations from the United States—more than 48 million—have taken place since 1965. In that year, the federal government entered the business of mass and constant deportations. As deportations multiplied, the proportion of Latin-American countries other than Mexico that received deported people also escalated. Although the majority of deportations in US history have been carried out for entering or remaining in the country in violation of immigration law, major anti-crime campaigns in the last forty years have resulted in a growing number of deportations for post-entry infractions.
Mexican Americans in the United States
Iliana Yamileth Rodriguez
Mexican American history in the United States spans centuries. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Spanish Empire colonized North American territories. Though met with colonial rivalries in the southeast, Spanish control remained strong in the US southwest through the 19th century. The mid-1800s were an era of power struggles over territory and the construction of borders, which greatly impacted ethnic Mexicans living in the US-Mexico borderlands. After the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), the passage of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo allowed the United States to take all or parts of California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. Ethnic Mexicans living in newly incorporated regions in the mid- through late 19th century witnessed the radical restructuring of their lives along legal, economic, political, and cultural lines. The early 20th century witnessed the rise of anti-Mexican sentiment and violence. As ethnic Mexican communities came under attack, Mexican Americans took leadership roles in institutions, labor unions, and community groups to fight for equality. Both tensions and coalition-building efforts between Mexican Americans and Mexican migrants animated the mid-20th century, as did questions about wartime identity, citizenship, and belonging. By the late 20th century, Chicana/o politics took center stage and brought forth a radical politics informed by the Mexican American experience. Finally, the late 20th through early 21st centuries saw further geographic diversification of Mexican American communities outside of the southwest.
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.
Mexican Immigration to the United States
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.
Latino/a and African American Relations
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.
Andrew Jackson and US Foreign Relations
The foreign relations of the Jacksonian age reflected Andrew Jackson’s own sense of the American “nation” as long victimized by non-white enemies and weak politicians. His goal as president from 1829 to 1837 was to restore white Americans’ “sovereignty,” to empower them against other nations both within and beyond US territory. Three priorities emerged from this conviction. First, Jackson was determined to deport the roughly 50,000 Creeks, Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles living in southern states and territories. He saw them as hostile nations who threatened American safety and checked American prosperity. Far from a domestic issue, Indian Removal was an imperial project that set the stage for later expansion over continental and oceanic frontiers. Second and somewhat paradoxically, Jackson sought better relations with Great Britain. These were necessary because the British Empire was both the main threat to US expansion and the biggest market for slave-grown exports from former Indian lands. Anglo-American détente changed investment patterns and economic development throughout the Western Hemisphere, encouraging American leaders to appease London even when patriotic passions argued otherwise. Third, Jackson wanted to open markets and secure property rights around the globe, by treaty if possible but by force when necessary. He called for a larger navy, pressed countries from France to Mexico for outstanding debts, and embraced retaliatory strikes on “savages” and “pirates” as far away as Sumatra. Indeed, the Jacksonian age brought a new American presence in the Pacific. By the mid-1840s the United States was the dominant power in the Hawaiian Islands and a growing force in China. The Mexican War that followed made the Union a two-ocean colossus—and pushed its regional tensions to the breaking point.
The Socialist Party of America, 1900–1929
One of the pervasive myths about the United States is that it has never had a socialist movement comparable to other industrialized nations. Yet in the early 20th century a vibrant Socialist Party and socialist movement flourished in the United States. Created in 1901, the Socialist Party of America unsurprisingly declared its primary goal to be the collectivization of the means of production. Yet the party’s highly decentralized and democratic structure enabled it to adapt to the needs and cultures of diverse constituencies in different regions of the country. Among those attracted to the movement in its heyday were immigrant and native-born workers and their families, tenant farmers, middle-class intellectuals, socially conscious millionaires, urban reformers, and feminists. Party platforms regularly included the reform interests of these groups as well as the long-term goal of eradicating capitalism. By 1912, the Socialist Party boasted an impressive record of electoral successes at the local, state, and national levels. U.S. Socialists could also point with pride to over three hundred English and foreign-language Socialist periodicals, some with subscription rates that rivaled those of the major urban daily newspapers. Yet Socialists faced numerous challenges in their efforts to build a viable third-party movement in the United States. On the one hand, progressive reformers in the Democratic and Republican parties sought to coopt Socialists. On the other hand, the Socialist Party encountered challenges on the left from anarchists, syndicalists, communists, and Farmer-Labor Party activists. The Socialist Party was particularly weakened by government repression during World War I, by the postwar Red Scare, and by a communist insurgency within its ranks in the aftermath of the war. By the onset of the Great Depression, the Communist Party would displace the Socialist Party as the leading voice of radical change in the United States.
Latinos and the Law
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.