The impact of the Second World War on Mexican Americans in the Southwest
Hopes and sorrows of the Mexican American population
Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2004 24 Pages
II. Mexican Americans serving in the U.S. Army
II.1. Discrimination remained
III. Anglo-American Racism
III.1. The Sleepy Lagoon Case
III.2. The Zoot-Suit Riots
III.3. The Role of the Press
IV. Changes in the Labor Force due to the War
V. The Impact of the Second World War on the “Americanization” of Mexican Americans
The United States are a nation of immigrants. Mexican Americans are part of this country and make up about thirteen million people of Mexican descent these days. This minority group is the second largest ethnic group in the U.S. (Mexican A. /American M. 3-5) Since the U.S. is a nation of immigrants, frictions and conflicts between the different nationalities have never been avoidable in history and will not be in the future. Throughout this paper, the issue of racism and discrimination will always appear and be discussed because I think this is a burning issue which exists still today in the U.S. society.
In this seminar paper I am going to analyze the influence of the Second World War on Mexican Americans in the southwest. I chose this topic because the Second World War had an important impact on the people living in the United States and marked a turning point in the lives of the Mexican American population. I will focus on Mexican American soldiers and their experiences they gained in the war and after their service. Furthermore, I am going to examine how Mexican Americans contributed to the war effort and if this had changed anything on their acceptance and acknowledgement among the Anglo society. While thousands of Mexican American soldiers were fighting in the war, their families back home in the southwest gained different experiences. With the help of two incidents that happened during the war years in the southwest of the United States, I want to show in what way Mexican Americans had to suffer unjust treatment and prejudice of the white population. I will also take into consideration the various changes in the labor force as well as the reactions of Mexican Americans towards discrimination.
The main sources of the paper where I based my knowledge on and where I received the information necessary to provide a good overview of the situation during the war years, are Meier’s and Ribera’s books “Mexican Americans/American Mexicans” and “Readings on La Raza”, which offered a detailed and critic description of Mexican Americans living in the United States.
At the end of this paper the reader should have gained an impression on the difficult times of the war period for Mexican Americans, an ethnic minority who always had to fight for acknowledgement and their civil rights.
II. Mexican Americans serving in the U.S. Army
In this chapter I am going to examine what the situation for Mexican American soldiers was like during the Second World War and what experiences they gained when they returned back to the United States.
Like Anglo-Americans, Mexican American men were either called up by the government or joined the military service voluntarily. In fact, numerous Mexican Americans volunteered for joining the armed forces. In New Mexico, for instance, there was the highest number of Mexicans who enlisted on a voluntary basis. Manuel Avila Camacho, president of Mexico, advised people of Mexican descent not to worry about discrimination and hostile attitudes of Anglos any longer, and therefore many joined the U.S. army. The issue of citizenship became also a decisive factor for many Mexican Americans to enlist in the army. The U.S. government promised citizenship in return for serving in the armed forces. (Mexican A. /American M. 160) All together, over 300,000 Mexican Americans fought in this war. (Rosales 96)
There were even more reasons why there was such a large percentage of Mexican Americans in the U.S. army during the Second World War. In the Mexican American population there was a high percentage of adolescence who had the right age to be drafted. Furthermore, only a small percentage of Mexican Americans had jobs, and so they were eager to do something for a change. Many saw the entering into the army as a chance to gain equality since they were always set behind and disadvantaged economically compared to Anglo Americans. The war also meant an opportunity for adventure and exciting experiences for Mexican Americans in contrast to their life in the barrios where there was almost no hope for future prospects. (Mexican A. /American M. 160) Another reason for entering the army could be that during the war period, Mexican Americans came in touch with American institutions and government programs for the first time for instance with the YMCA or settlement houses. Many Mexican Americans felt as if they owed something to the United States for caring for them. Therefore fighting in this war gave them something like a patriotic feeling. Besides the enthusiasm of the Mexican American soldiers, it must be mentioned, that also Mexican communities actively participated in the war mobilization for instance in the Red Cross. (Griswold del Castillo 84, 102)
A movement in the southwest, that tried to convince Mexican Americans not to participate in U.S. war efforts, was the right-wing political centered “Sinarquismo” movement, which put extreme emphasis on Mexican nationalism and evolved during the 1930s in Guanajuato, the place where most Mexican immigrants came from. This organization was often said to have connections with Spanish and German fascists. During the war, it propagated its ideology in U.S. barrios such as in El Paso and L.A., with the help of its own newspaper “El Sinarquista”, which included articles that tried to persuade Mexican Americans not to participate actively in U.S. war matters. However, most Mexican Americans did not agree with the organization’s principles since the war brought an upswing of the industry sector, which again brought new hope and improvement of the economic situation of the overwhelmingly poor Mexican American population in the U.S. (Mexican A. /American M. 166)
The majority of Mexican Americans served in combat divisions where their number was the highest compared to any other ethnic group. (Mexican A. /American M. 160) Numerous Mexican Americans preferred the more risky and dangerous subdivisions for instance the paratroops and the marines. They got recognition as courageous, obdurate and resolute fighters. (La Raza 121) That bravery consequently meant receiving more military awards than any other ethnic group who had fought in the war. They earned awards like Silver Stars or Distinguished Service Crosses. The Medal of Honor was given to seventeen Mexican Americans, and five more were honored with this famous award after the war. The negative side of the war was that Mexican Americans had to face the enemy first. Many died, numerous had to encounter long and miserable imprisonment for instance in the Philippine Islands. (Mexican A. /American M. 160)
In the following passages I want to give a short overview on some battles in order to show that mostly Mexican Americans were involved in these. In many of the war campaigns Mexican Americans participated and succeeded. In the Italian campaign, the 88th Division, which is also known as the Blue Devils for they fought very successfully, almost exclusively consisted of Mexican American soldiers and officers. Company E of the 141st Regiment, who were almost only Mexican Americans from El Paso and its surrounding, invaded Italy in September 1943 (Salerno), pushed further north into France in August 1944 and finally made its way into Germany. In 1944 the Allied powers won air supremacy over Europe and a direct attack on the “Atlantic Wall” was possible. After the invasion of the Normandy on D-Day June 6, 1944, the 2nd Division, including many Mexican Americans from southern Texas landed and moved across northern France. In an counterattack in Ardennes between the Allied Powers and the Germans in December of the same year, José López from Texas held back part of the German campaign and received for this extraordinary achievement the Medal of Honor as well as the “Aztec Eagle”, which is the highest Mexican honor given to a foreigner, from President Miguel Alemán. (Mexican A. /American M. 161)
Experiences Mexican American soldiers made in the war was less discrimination and more acceptance for they fought together with Anglo Americans for a common goal. Furthermore, they earned recognition of the army on individual merit and were honored in contrast to the ordinary civilian life back home in the United States. Despite the fact that Mexican Americans were honored and praised for their bravery, only few of them became officers in the army due to the lack of college education. (Mexican A. /American M. 161)
The awareness of Mexican Americans for their exemplary and over-averaged achievements in the army let many of them develop a new self-esteem, more confidence, and new attitudes of personal worth which most of them did not have before they had entered the war. (Mexican A. /American M. 162) A veteran once said: “The war killed many of us but it gave us a better future”. (Madsen 35) These words reveal a new hope and encouragement war veterans had for their future.
The aspect of adopting the English language has to be mentioned as well at this point because the war contributed to a better understanding between Anglos and Mexican Americans. Many young Mexican American draftees, who mainly came from farm-working families, had language problems at the beginning, because they could not speak English properly in the army camps. But shortly after they had entered the war, they made success in learning conversational English since many of them served in predominantly Anglo units. (La Raza 145)
After returning from the service new opportunities were opened to the soldiers by the GI Bill which made aspects of daily life, that were restricted to Chicanos before the war, such as education, job training, business, or loans accessible to Mexican American veterans. Through the aforementioned newly acquired self-confidence, many Mexican American veterans strove for self-improvement, better economic and social conditions. Some took advantage from governmental provisions which helped them to enter the business sector. Mexican American veterans also became increasingly politically active after the war and founded organizations such as the “American G.I. Forum”, whose main aim was to gain gratitude and acknowledgement for the Mexican American soldiers who contributed to a large extend to the war effort, the “Community Service Organization” (CSO), the Mexican American Political Association” (MAPA), and the “Political Association of Spanish-Speaking Organizations” (PASO). Organizations like these encouraged many to undertake new attempts to strengthen civil rights, struggle for complete integration of Hispanics into American life, and created hope for a better future. (Mexican A. /American M. 169)
II.1. Discrimination Remained
We are mistreated here every time we turn around. We are not allowed in cafés, movies, restaurants. Even Latin Americans in United States Army uniforms are sometimes told they can’t see a show because the Mexican side is full. In the public schools our children are segregated [...].
(from a letter of a Mexican American from Texas) (La Raza 124)
Unfortunately, the hostile attitude of Anglo Americans towards Mexican Americans did not change as expected. Many Mexican American soldiers, who had fought for America bravely together with Anglos for a common goal, had to experience the antagonism of the English population after they had returned. (Mexican A. /American M. 169)
Let me now mention several incidents which caught national attention at that time to get a better picture about this issue of racial discrimination. The aforementioned José López, who was awarded with the Medal of Honor, was not served in a Texan restaurant (Mexican A. /American M. 169) as well as Sergeant Marcario García, who said to the owner of a café after he was refused a cup of coffee, “You will serve me. If I’m good enough to fight your war for you, I’m good enough for you to serve a cup of coffee to”. The waiter responded, “This punk thinks just because he’s got some stripes on his arms and ribbons on his chest he’s as good as a white man.” (La Raza, 147) In these words one can see that for many whites it did not make a difference that a Mexican American had fought and risked his life in the war for their home-country. In the minds of many Anglo Americans nothing had changed through the years of the Second World War concerning racial prejudice towards ethnic minorities.