The hispanic people in the United States have made tremendous advances in recent years. The gains are perhaps more of spirit than of substance, for indeed there is yet a long way to travel as a people. But there are many successes walking around today who were weighed by defeat and failure a relatively few years ago — men and women who have gone to college and made a place for themselves in government, industry or education; self-made leaders who have risen in the barrios; young militants who have successfully campaigned for their people, political leaders who have won election or high appointments and, most important, humble people in many callings who have in some way savored the sweet taste of accomplishment, perhaps for the first time in their lives.
What impresses most is the spirit one finds in the people everywhere. I first became aware of it when I walked the picket lines with the farm workers in California. What struck me most about these men and women battling against such high odds was that they were no longer afraid — not of going to jail, not of the clubs of the ever-present sheriff’s deputies who often acted as the growers’ private police and not about where the next meal was coming from. The optimism of the farm workers motto, Si se puede (yes, it can be done) seems to pervade across the nation. There is new pride in the culture, a search for roots and a sense of unity. Several tines in the past year I have been asked to give talks on the history of the Spanish-speaking and in almost every case I have been asked to lecture in Spanish.
The difference between now and 20 years ago is like day and night. At that time the Spanish-speaking were called the silent minority because they were impotent and fearful to combat a situation which looked like this: Their history was a mere footnote in the march of Manifest Destiny. Their lifestyle and traditions were fair game for caricature in movies, advertisements and comic strips. Their portrait by sociologists showed them as crime-prone and lacking in future orientation, always waiting for a manana which never came. Their travail, always perceived as a defeating vicious cycle, was of no interest to a success-oriented society.
A recent study by A. J. Jaffe, Ruth M. Cullen and Thomas D. Boswell for the Center for the Study of Man in New York says the hispanic people did not catch the interest of national media until two decades ago. Before that, they only stirred occasional regional interest, as in the Southwest and in New York when Puerto Ricans began arriving in large numbers after World War II. Overall, concludes the Jaffe study, “in past years there has been comparatively little concern with Spanish-Americans in toto.”
It took the experience of the Black Civil Rights Movement to show the hispanics how to bring their case before the nation. They learned, as one Chicano put it, that the demonstration or riot is the press conference of the powerless and from the streets of New York’s East Harlem to the barrios of East Los Angeles they moved to put that tactic into effect. The movimiento, as the struggle came to be called, was carried out by the young people of the 1960s but it had its roots 20 years earlier. As with many peoples swept up by World War II, that cataclysm changed the destiny of the Spanish-speaking of the U. S. The hispanics entered the conflict as a largely rural people. The vast majority lived in isolated villages in New Mexico, colonias alongside the Rio Grande or largely Mexican American towns throughout the Southwest, aside from urban settlements on the West Coast and Midwest. Even when they lived in the cities, they were usually across the tracks, with little contact with the general population. The war brought an end to their isolation. Such was the rush to the cities that in the 1950s one could go through many rural villages or barrios in northern New Mexico and scarcely find anyone still living there. It was as if some pied piper had gone through entire communities and led off the population. Terromote, a rural farming area tucked into the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico some 80 miles northeast of Santa Fe, illustrates how the population scattered. My own family, like many others, went to Colorado to work in the beetfields. Later these people took jobs in packing houses and federal bureaucracies, military and civilian, in Denver. Others ended up in Los Angeles working in war industries. Others went to Kansas City, Wyoming and South Dakota. Today the people of Terromote are scattered all the way from New York to San Francisco, from Texas all the way to Montana.
This massive migration to the cities affected the hispanic people both positively and adversely. The scarcity of labor during the war years gave many the opportunity to learn new skills and improve their earning capacity. Their performance punctured the myth that the hispanic people were incapable of any job above common labor, an assertion one heard often in those days from growers. Economic power improved the chances of the next generation to enhance its education. However, for those people who had previously lived in cultural isolation, the move to the cities brought them into an environment of cultural clash, prejudice, discrimination and, sometimes, violence an the part of the majority.
Thousands upon thousands of Hispanos went to war, fought in every theater, were the most decorated ethnic group. Units of the New Mexico National Guard, heavily represented by Hispanos, fought heroically in the Philippines and suffered through the death march when the islands fell. Fellow soldiers gained a new perspective of a minority which had been falsely stereotyped in the literature and other media of the nation.
The hispanic soldier returned with a new consciousness of himself a new vistas of possibilities for the future. Some who lived in areas where discrimination was strong met Americans who were not tainted by bias. Those who found more respect and equality in the Armed Forces returned home less prone to accept the indignities of the past and determined to enjoy the freedom and opportunities for which so much blood had been shed. The new skills enlarged economic horizons and the G. I. Bill opened doors to educational institutions previously closed by poverty.
Those of us too young to go to war caught the same optimistic spirit of the returning veterans and in my first piece of journalism I exposed the segregation of Mexican Americans in a local theater by writing a letter to a newspaper. The discrimination was discontinued and a journalistic career was launched!
However, it was not until the late 1960s that the hispanics could come together as a people and confront the nation with their demands for justice. Only then did the American people become aware that the hispanic “problem” was national rather than just regional. Also, for the first time, it became evident that the Spanish-speaking would not follow the life-cycle of other ethnic groups, disappearing eventually into the general population. Rather than dying, hispanic culture was experiencing a rebirth.
The past several years have seen a growing awareness of the impact the hispanic people have on national events. A recent issue of the New York Times had seven stories involving hispanics. One dealt with the jobless rate, another with the trial of two policemen accused of murdering a young Chicano in Texas, another with the Senate voting to permit 10-year-olds to work as harvesters, another an segregation of students in New York City schools, where blacks and hispanos constitute 67 percent of the enrollment. Another news item said that a judge had declared unconstitutional a federal law allocating 10 percent of federal construction spending for minority firms. Another told how the billion-dollar irrigation-acreage fight in California was started by a physician retaliating against growers for the exploitation of his patients, poor Mexican Americans who work in the fields. The last story dealt with the desegregation of the Los Angeles school system, where Mexican Americans are the largest ethnic group — over 35 percent of the enrollment.
But the biggest story of all to hit the newspapers and other media in recent months concerns the “brown tide” sweeping over the border and allegedly taking jobs away from Americans, sending millions of dollars out of the country, threatening to swamp our social institutions and to lower the country’s standard of living. Immigration Service and Labor Department estimates of the number of illegal aliens already in the country range from six to 12 million and most of them, say these agencies, are hispanic. Last year, 793,000 illegal immigrants were apprehended and deported, but an estimated 500,000 to one million managed to slip into the country. Those sent back often try again and again — one woman along the Mexican border has been caught 50 times, reported the Christian Science Monitor.
The problem baffles immigration officials and other national leaders. They say that short of erecting a 2,000-mile Berlin wall, which is not economically feasible, there is no way of halting the flow. Recent years have seen a steady increase in the number of immigrants coming across the border as Mexico’s population went from 38 million in 1964 to 62 million today. What’s more, it is virtually certain that there will be 120 million Mexicans by the year 2,000 if the annual growth rate of 3.5 percent persists. At the present time there is no indication of a slowdown. Several years ago Professor Sabine Ulibarri of the University of New Mexico wrote: “In the international politics of today, it behooves the United States to think about Mexico. If Mexico goes to hell, it will inevitably drag down the U. S. with it.”
Each day several thousand men and women cross the border undetected and the reason they come is that there are jobs available in the U. S. Generally, these are tasks which the domestic labor force does not want to perform or for which employers do not want to pay the going wage. It is interesting to note that the biggest employers of cheap labor — agricultural industry — never seem to have enough. This past summer a familiar scenario was enacted once again in Presidio, Texas. The onions were almost rotting in the ground and growers claimed there was no domestic labor to pick them. Immigration and Labor Department authorities disagreed, refusing to certify the use of aliens because in their view domestic labor was available if the growers paid the stipulated wage of $2.83 an hour and provided adequate housing. The growers went to their congressmen who in turn appealed to President Jimmy Carter, who overruled the agencies and permitted the importation of 809 Mexicans to harvest the onions at $2.30 an hour. The growers did not have to provide adequate housing. In Virginia, Jamaicans were brought in to harvest apples on the basis that local labor was not available or qualified. Therefore, just as it has become tradition for Mexicans to come to the U. S. to work a few weeks, a few years or permanently, it has become a habit for private enterprise to dip into the foreign labor market. Between 1942 and 1964 the U. S. brought in millions of submissive Mexican laborers to work in agriculture under the wartime Bracero, program later extended through the controversial Public Law 68. During the peak year of 1956, a total of 445,000 workers worked on farms from California to Georgia. Were these men content to remain in Mexico once they saw what possibilities were in the north? No one, to my knowledge, has made such a study.
One thing is certain. Whether foreigner or citizen, the agricultural worker stays in the fields only as long as no better opportunities open up. The farm labor force is said to decrease 15 percent annually. I know of no one who worked in the fields with me who has remained in farm work. Clearly, it seems that until the farm labor situation is stabilized, one of the biggest magnets for illegal immigration will remain. Cesar Chavez has an answer to that — unionization — but it is not palatable to agribusiness.
Therefore, both internally and externally the pressure continues to bring cheap labor into the U. S. Even housewives’ dreams of household help enter the picture. Dr. Lucy Cohen of Catholic University, an anthropologist, writes that today it is women who lead immigration from Central and South America although house work is just one of a wide range of jobs they perform. These are women from established households who later bring their families.
With each new arrival, Latin influence increases. Using the most conservative estimate of illegal aliens, there are some 1.5 million in the New York area, 1.3 million in Los Angeles, 415,000 in the Chicago area, 250,000 in San Francisco and so on. Of course, these figures include many nationalities but the majority are hispanics.
Though the large number of Latins entering the U. S. has just recently come to national attention, the wave has been quietly cresting for a long time if one sees it from a historical perspective. Between 1845 when the Republic of Texas was admitted to the Union and 1846 when the rest of the Southwest was annexed to the United States, the nation took in as citizens about 75,000 people from an hispanic culture which had inhabited parts of that huge empire for 250 years. Only an estimated 13,000 had been born in Mexico. Most were people who had never seen the mother country to which they were given the option to “return.” At that time, the U. S. population, according to the 1850 census, was 23 million.
In the next century, the nation’s total population increased to 150 million, a six-fold jump. But the hispanic portion of that total multiplied 40 times, going from 75,000 to three million according to a 1945 estimate of the U. S. Catholic Bishops’ Committee for the Spanish-speaking. By 1963, the same bishops’ group stated that the hispanic population had topped eight million. Today, a mere 15 years later, the Hispanos are said to have doubled again, to an estimated 16 miIlion. In 1975, Fernando C. de Baca, then special assistant to President Gerald Ford for Hispanic Affairs, said the Spanish-speaking were well on the way to replacing Blacks (who number 22.6 million) as the nation’s most numerous minority. He said the hispanics had increased to an estimated 16 to 20 million. Similar estimates were given by Benjamin F. Holman, director of the Justice Department’s Comminity Relations Service, who said: “We must disabuse ourselves of the myth that the Hispanic Tide is not or will not become a problem, and stop doing any more demographic surveys of our cities which project the needs of Blacks or poor whites only.”
Census Bureau figures are much more conservative, setting the hispanic population at 11.2 million in 1976. This figure results from counting a five percent sample in 1970 with subsequent adjustments upward — a process challenged as being flawed. The U. S. Civil Rights Commission in a report to Congress in 1974 said the hispanics were undercounted by 10 percent in 1970. A direct count will be made for the first time in the 1980 census, but officials are already warning that there will be a large undercount because many illegal aliens fear that talking to a census taker will lead to deportation. However, even with the Census Bureau figures, the growth of the hispanic population has multiplied 148 times the original inhabitants in 1848. Meanwhile, the nation’s overall population has only multiplied nine times. The pace continues uninterrupted if not actually accelerating: between 1970 and 1976 the hispanic population grew by 20 percent while the national total went up by only three percent.
The accelerated growth is due not only to immigration but to high fertility and the relative youthfulness of hispanics. Fully half of the Spanish-speaking in the United States are under 21 years old compared to a median age of 28 for the general population. That means that their child bearing years are still ahead. With the nation’s growth rate now reported down to .59 percent, it appears that hispanics will be responsible for much of the nation’s growth. Between 1950 and 1960, Mexican Americans — the largest group among the Spanish-speaking — grew at a rate of 4.1 percent according to Joan W. Moore and Alfred Cuellar in their book on that group. While education and a better standard of living tend to lower fertility, relatively few have attained that status. Generally, birth control is not popular with hispanics. Thus there is every prospect that the Latin population in the U. S. will double by the year 2,000.
As of March, 1976, the Census Bureau broke down the hispanic population into 6.6 million Mexican Americans, 1.8 million Puerto Ricans, 700,000 Cubans, 800,000 Central Americans and South Americans and 1.3 million who claim “other Spanish origin.” About 6.4 million of the hispanic population resides in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. California has 3.2 million, or 15 percent of its population. Texas has 2.3 million, 19 percent of its inhabitants. The remaining one million live in the other three states. The Northeast has an estimated four million hispanics and the largest concentration is in the New York City metropolitan area. Estimates of the total range from 1.5 million to 2.5 million. As much as 80 percent of the estimated 1.5 million illegal aliens in the New York area are from South America, Central America or the Caribbean, according to the Immigration Service. A Catholic bishop from the Dominican Republic recently told me that there are so many Dominicans in the U. S. (he estimated 250,000) that 50,000 of them returned for the Christmas holidays last year.
The Justice Department’s Community Relations Service reports that Chicanos outnumber Indians in Utah, that Cubans can be found in great numbers in Elizabeth, N. J., and that requests for assistance are received from hispanics from such places as Burley, Idaho, Lancaster, Pa., and Omaha, Neb.
Such is the diversity that in San Francisco there are 18 distinct hispanic groups. In Texas, one out of every seven Spanish-speaking persons is other than Mexican American according to Census Bureau statistics. In California, one of every four Spanish-speaking persons is other than Mexican American. In New York City, three of every ten Spanish-origin residents are other than Puerto Rican. And in Miami, one of every four Spanish-speaking persons is other than Cuban in origin.
Besides the metropolitan centers of the East and West Coast, hispanics are said to have settled in the shape of a great tree through the center of the nation, with the trunk in Texas and its great branches outward through the Midwest and West. Washington State, for instance, has 80,000 Spanish-speaking people.
The vast internal migration in this century now has 83.9 percent of the hispanic population living in metropolitan areas. Of the different subgroups, Mexican Americans are the least urbanized, with only 76.8 in the cities. Puerto Ricans and Cubans live almost exclusively in the cities, with an urban percentage of 97.4 and 97.9, respectively. A total of 88 percent of other hispanics live in the cities.
Many central cities are rapidly changing character as middle-class whites flee to the suburbs and hispanic people move in. This can be seen in New York, Los Angeles, Miami and to a certain extent in Denver, Chicago and other large cities. The Black and hispanic residents of the Bronx became the majority of that borough in 1976. Puerto Ricans in Chicago already outnumber the white ethnics in formerly exclusive neighborhoods of Czechs, Poles and Lithuanians. Failure to properly assess the hispanic population phenomenon, warned Benjamin Holman in a talk in New York on April 9, 1976, can have “unimagined implications.”
One concern is the disadvantage of the hispanic population. Family income averages only $9,200 a year in comparison with $13,700 for whites in the U. S. One of every four families headed by a person of Spanish origin has an income below that set as the poverty line: $5,450. Only 39 percent of hispanics 25 years old or older have graduated from high school. Nineteen percent fail to complete five years of education, according to 1976 Census Bureau figures.
In 1974, there were approximately 7.7 million school children with limited English-speaking ability and 90 percent of them were Spanish-speaking. However, fewer than five percent were in bilingual education. So despite the fact that there are 27 federal laws dealing with bilingual education, according to an official of the National Education Association, the program has yet to reach the vast majority of the potential beneficiaries. Thus it is not surprising that the rate of attrition — dropouts and forceouts — is higher for the Spanish-speaking than for any other group. The dropout rate for whites nationally is 20 percent; for Blacks, 40 percent, and for hispanics, 55 percent. However, for hispanic migrant children the school dropout rate is 85 percent. While more than 80 percent of all persons in the nation aged 25-29 have completed four years of high school, the percentage for Mexican Americans is under 50 and for Puerto Ricans under 40. Nationally, the hispanics average only eight years of schooling and only five to seven percent go to college and, of those, only about three percent graduate.
Progress in all areas comes slowly for the hispanic people. In its report, Twenty Years After Brown: Equality of Economic Opportunity, the Civil Rights Commission emphasizes that “although minority groups have made economic gains in the last 20 years, their nature, extent and rate have been marginal.” The unemployment rate for persons of Spanish origin in 1975 was 12.7 percent, according to the Census Bureau. About a half million hispanic persons were out of work. In some areas, the rate of unemployment was much higher. A study made by Centro de Estudios Chicanos at South Bend, Ind., documented an hispanic jobless rate of 27 percent in 1974. The Midwest Council of La Raza said in a statement: “Many of the migrants whom we helped settle were the last ones hired and, due to their low seniority, were the first ones to be let go during the recent recession.”
New York City’s fiscal crisis had devastating effects on hispanic workers. During the first 18 months of financial difficulties, the city dismissed half of its Spanish-speaking workers and 40 percent of the Blacks. “You are close to wiping out the minority work force in the City of New York,” warned Eleanor Holmes Norton, chairman of the Commission on Human Rights.
Discrimination surfaces not only in hiring and firing but also in the pay received for the same work. Several years ago Willie Velasquez, then director of the Industrial & Service Employees Center in San Antonio, Texas, said that Spanish-speaking craftsmen in Albuquerque were receiving $1,000 less than Anglos in the same jobs. In Detroit, the salary differentials between Mexican Americans and whites in the same crafts amounted to $2,000, he said.
Hispanics, along with Blacks, are “virtually absent from the upper echelons of management” in the 106 largest corporations in the Chicago area, according to a study prepared by Professor Russell Barta of Mundelein College for the National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs in Washington, D. C. Only two of the corporations had officers of hispanic origin.
Though some gains have been made in recent years, the profile remains much as Bishop Patrick Flores sketches it for Mexican Americans, whom he divides into three classes. The first, comprising fewer than five percent of the people, is made up of those who have received a good education and succeeded in business, thus joining the American middle class. “He now lives on the other side of town, has purchased or is paying for a $40,000 home and associates only with other professionals, Mexican American or otherwise and he has (thus) managed to move into another world,” says Bishop Flores. In the process, such persons have cut themselves off from their people because their newly won status would be endangered by association. This has always been the tragedy among the poor and discriminated. A Jesuit priest whom I visited some years ago at a Lower East Side youth center for Puerto Ricans had the same lament. Those who made it left the neighborhood and the people were always without leaders.
However, Bishop Flores in describing the second class of Mexican Americans gives hope that things are changing with renewed cultural pride. These, he says, are 10 percent of Mexican Americans vho are still in high schools, colleges and universities and who know they must persevere if they are to bring change. They see they must get into politics, seek economic development and acquire power. They are opening doors into every walk of American life. They went to Vietnam and suffered many casualties but came back asking questions and making demands. These are the persons who are taking over in the barrios as educated leaders, interested and concerned citizens. They do not want to move across town but prefer to stay in the barrios to improve social, economic and educational structures.
The third class consists of 85 percent of the people. “For years and in every area,” says Bishop Flores, “they have toiled under conditions and handicaps unknown to others who have been more fortunate. Not only are they not catching up but every day they are falling further behind.” These are the people who were the peones of Mexico and, though they have been in the United States for generations, their lives have not changed measurably. “These are the voiceless, the powerless who until recently were for the most part farm-migrant, low-paid laborers,” the bishop said. Now a great number of them live in the cities where they work in the lowest jobs. They often live in dilapidated housing, are often barred from jobs on the basis that they can’t speak English well or lack education and are ill because they are poor “and become poorer because they are ill and the accumulated poverty engenders in turn more sickness.”
Among the nation’s estimated 2.6 million farm workers, a high percentage are believed to be hispanic, despite a Census Bureau statistic that only 5.6 percent of hispanic workers are in agriculture. The discrepancy results in part from the fact that the Census Bureau counts only workers over 16. According to Church sources, one fourth of all farm workers in 1970 were under 16. ln farm labor, no one has a bleaker life than the migrant worker, also likely to be an hispanic person. A questionnaire sent to 161 Catholic dioceses by the Division for the Spanish-speaking in 1974 revealed the presence of some 630,000 workers, 71 percent of whom were Mexican American, eight percent Puerto Rican, 15 percent Black and three percent white, with the remaining three percent a combination of other groups. The Diocese of Brownsville alone reported 100,000 migrants.
The typical migrant worker earns $3,324 annually, according to 1975 Department of Agriculture figures. His life expectancy is about 49. His children are more than twice as likely to die at birth as the general population. His family’s chances of catching influenza, pneumonia, tuberculosis or some other infectious disease are three times the national average. “If you’re a migrant you are lucky if you have two rooms in which to lodge your family,” says one agency. “You might have some electricity but probably no toilet, sink, bathtub or shower.”
Slavery was legally liquidated more than 100 years ago but the human exploitation continues. The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh observed while serving on the U. S. Civil Rights Commission a few years ago that migrant farm workers in the Rio Grande Valley were living under conditions close to peonage or slavery.” Indeed, in 1974 a migrant farm crew leader was charged by a federal grand jury in New Jersey with keeping four Puerto Ricans in slavery. Similar charges were made in several Eastern Seaboard areas the summer of 1977. In May, 1975, a Texas melon grower “opened season,” as he put it, on picketing farm workers and wounded 10 with an automatic shotgun; a grand jury refused to indict him.
In March, 1977, Cesar Chavez wrote a letter which said: The children of our nation’s farm workers — hundreds of thousands under the age of 16 — are forced to toil in the fields because greedy growers won’t pay their parents a living wage. The agriculture industry grows richer and more powerful by using children as cheap labor — a continuing form of slavery.” Farm worker Frank Rivera Flores of Delano, Calif., was quoted thus in Time‘s bicentennial issue: “. . . pesticides — you’re eating them. You spray some type of pesticide that’s highly dangerous, has ‘Keep Out for 30 Days,’ signs, and they’ll call you back to work in a week. So you’re paying the farmer not only with your labor but with your own health. Your own life.”
The attitudes which lead to such injustices are deeply rooted. More than 35 years ago Carey McWilliams wrote that the notorious Texas gunman, King Fisher, was once asked how many notches he had on his gun. He replied: “Thirty-seven, not counting Mexicans.” McWilliams reflected that “people fail to count the non-essential, the things and persons that exist only on sufferance, whose life tenure is easily revocable.” Great progress has been recorded since then but institutional violence remains against hispanic and Black people.
Among distinct hispanic groups in urban areas, none is worse off than Puerto Ricans. Their median income per family was only $7,629 compared with $9,498 for Mexican American families and $11,410 for Cubans. While 11.6 percent of all the nation’s families live in poverty, 32.6 percent of Puerto Ricans find themselves in that condition. The corresponding figures for Mexican Americans and Cubans are 24 percent and 14 percent respectively. In New York City, 85 percent of one million Puerto Ricans live in low-income neighborhoods which include some of the worst slums in the nation, according to data from a recent Civil Rights Commission report.
The employment picture is similarly bleak. While 86 percent of all U. S. men and 50 percent of all women are in the labor force, only 76 percent of Puerto Rican men and 32 percent of Puerto Rican women are included. When part-time workers looking for full-time jobs are entered into the calculation and the undercount factor in ghetto areas is taken into account, the sub-employment rate for Puerto Ricans in the slums of New York adds up to a shocking 33.1 percent. For teenagers, the situation is even worse. Jesuit Father Joseph Fitzpatrick, a sociologist at Fordham University and a specialist on the Puerto Ricans, said the unemploymamt rate for Puerto Rican youths this past summer was estimated at 40 percent. But when those employed part-time were included, the rate rose to 87 percent.
Puerto Ricans are largely absent from high-skill, white-collar jobs although between 1960 and 1970 the number of Puerto Ricans in professional, technical, managerial and administrative positions more than doubled from 15,869 to 34,016, according to the Census Bureau. But generally, they are concentrated at the bottom of the earning scale. In New Jersey, 68 percent are in low-paying jobs; in Connecticut, 78 percent are in semi-skilled or unskiIled jobs. In Bridgeport, Conn., unemployment among hispanics reached 30 to 40 percent in 1974 in contrast to 8.8 percent for that area as a whole, said the Civil Rights Commission report.
Thus Puerto Ricans are falling behind the rest of the nation economically. In 1959, reported the Civil Rights Commission, Puerto Rican family earnings were 71 percent of the national average. By 1974, that share had shrunk to 59 percent. An important factor in the worsening poverty is the number of families headed by women — 28 according to the 1970 Census — and what Father Fitzpatrick said he finds discouraging is that 25 percent of second-generation Puerto Rican families are also headed by women. This indicates to the sociologist that a cultural pattern is forming.
Educationally, Puerto Ricans are also at the bottom. While Puerto Ricans are more likely than Mexican Americans to have completed the fifth grade, they are less likely to graduate from high school. In one Chicago study, the Puerto Rican dropout rate for grammar school and high school was 71.2 percent. Since more than 30 percent of the 437,000 Puerto Rican students in mainland schools were born on the island, where the mother tongue and language of instruction is Spanish, the inability to speak English well hinders school success. Puerto Ricans, says Father Fitzpatrick, continue to be identified as mentally retarded in school when their only problem is language, leading to the high dropout rate which leaves them ill-prepared to compete in a dwindling job market. New York has lost 542,000,jobs since 1970, and other cities are beginning to face similar troubles.
Historically, said a former president of the New York City Board of Education, in New York City there have been two school systems, one for those expected to achieve and one for those not expected to achieve. “And most of the minority group youngsters are in that second school system, and the system in pretty much set up to see to it that they don’t succeed. And I think that’s why they drop out of schools.”
But perhaps the biggest tragedy is that such experience leads to a loss of self-esteem. A study by Educational Testing Service indicates that minority children enter school with as broad a range of abilities and as much self-esteem as any other group. However, by the third grade the minority children have experienced a significant drop in self-esteem.
No people suffer more injustice than the immigrants without documents, or so-called illegals. Contrasting the treatment of the undocumented with the hospitality preferred to Vietnamese refugees, Commonweal declared that illegal Mexican aliens “are subjected many times to hunts resembling those for runaway slaves.” Ricardo Parra, executive director of the Institute for Urban Studies of the Midwest Council of La Raza said the “violations to the dignity of man, human and civil rights, due process of law, warrant an investigation by the U. S. Civil Rights Commission and the United Nations.”
“No one is abused more than those who are here without documents,” said Bishop Flores at a workshop at Notre Dame. “They are abused in so many different ways, in horrible ways.” Often he has been asked to try to get employers to make good on worthless checks issued to undocumented workers in payment of wages. Several years ago he had 20 such fraudulant checks, some for as much as six months work, which had simply not been signed by employers. The illegal workers felt they would be deported if they complained to police.
Hispanic people have been put through humiliating tests of citizenship to prove they are not deportable. Formerly endemic only along the border, such treatment has now spread throughout the nation. In Chicago, the experience of being stopped by police officers and asked to prove citizenship is common for persons who look Mexican. Such abuse led to a suit in federal court in which Judge Prentice Marshall ruled that agents may not stop people simply because they look Mexican. He said agents must get search warrants or have a real reason to believe that a person is in the country illegally. Nevertheless, harassment continues. A nun tells of being on a bus which was stopped by Immigration Service personnel in a border state and everyone was asked to prove citizenship. An 11th generation New Mexican who has a high post in Washington said he was accosted at National airport.
The personal sagas of persons without documents make for a pathetic chronicle. Jesus Zapata, from San Antonio, Texas, talks of having to eat leftovers chewed by his employer. Mrs. Isabel Ramirez, an 87-year-old Texas widow in the U. S. since 1905, reared several children and lost one in the Second World War. But she was denied citizenship because she was only the stepmother of the children, born in the U. S. Others cannot become citizens because low-paying jobs deny them enough income to satisfy the law.
Clearly, disadvantaged and oppressed hispanics challenge the nation to eradicate racism, avarice in business enterprise and other inequities. As Archbishop Robert Sanchez of Santa Fe said in a talk to the National Organization for Continuing Education of the Clergy: “The rich of this nation cannot continue to sit back in comfort with an easy conscience and do little or nothing about it. No group of people with a genuine sense of humanity can say that we are one nation, under God, with equality and justice for all, and then continue to allow the perpetuation of unjust situations.”
The fact that Americans are responding in growing numbers to such pleas is what fuels the hope of the hispanics. The success of the farm workers’ boycott and the Farah strike were due in large part to the wide support these causes received from large segments of the American people. Congress and state legislatures have passed many laws designed to correct injustices. The courts have generally ruled firmly for the rights of the disadvantaged and several presidents have taken innovative and courageous stands for a more just society. The Civil Rights Commission has done important investigative work on inequities. The churches have provided, albeit not always in good grace, an idealistic corps of men and women who have worked tirelessly for justice. The Chavez headquarters in California, for instance, is full of Catholics, Protestants and Jews representing America’s ethnic variety.
Unfortunately there are still some who blame the hispanics for their economic and social problems, who feel that somehow the Spanish-speaking have not played by the rules of the game by forgetting their language and traditions and trying to become acceptable. When this charge is examined in the light of history, it is clear that the Hispanos did not have the option to merge into the general population.
J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur’s glowing vision of America (in his book titled Letters from An American Farmer) simply was not to be for the hispanic people. He wrote: “A traveler in Europe becomes a stranger as soon as he quits his own kingdom; but it is otherwise here. We know, properly speaking, no strangers; this is every person’s country…he meets with hospitality, kindness and plenty everywhere.”
Early after the conquest of the Southwest, the Spanish-speaking realized that they were to be considered “foreigners in their own land” as a legislator, Don Pablo de La Guerra, charged in the California Senate in 1856. Two recent books (Somos Chicanos: Strangers in Our Own Land by David F. Gomez and Foreigners in Their Native Land, edited by David J. Weber) suggest that the Mexican American has never been welcomed.
Rather than being invited to enter the melting pot, the hispanic was seen as candidate for liquidation. Carey McWilliams in North from Mexico quotes a Major Emery who wrote in 1859 that the white race was “exterminating or crushing out the inferior race” and another soldier wrote that “the Mexican, like the poor Indian, is doomed to retire before the more enterprising Anglo American.”
The myth that economic success would bring acceptance was exposed as false from the beginning. Leonard Pitt wrote (The Decline of the Californios: A Social History of Spanish-speaking Californians, 1846-1890) that of the 25 leading hispanic families recognized in 1846 as the principal men of the old regime, most of them had gone to their graves embittered.
Erna Ferguson, a Southwest historian, pointed out that “Texans could not get it out of their heads that their manifest destiny was to kill Mexicans and take over Mexico. And Kevin Starr (Americans and the California Dream: 1850-1915) wrote that hatred of the Mexicans was total.
Therefore, the drift of relations between the dominant culture and the hispanic people was toward liquidation or isolation. There is a link between the reservation, the colonia, barrio and ghetto. Fred W. Ross in his book, Community Organization in Mexican American Communities, said “It was never intended that the colonias were to be part of the wider community; rather, it was meant that they were to be apart from it in every way; colonia residents were to live apart, work apart, play apart, worship apart, and, in some cases, trade apart.” The roots of that isolation were racial, economic and, as Starr phrased it, “the perennial American contempt for the Latin way of life, the origins of which went back to the Reformation.”
Even in the face of such massive rejection, there was a time when assimilation might have been possible. George I. Sanchez, one of the earliest Mexican American writers to chronicle the agony of his people, wrote that Anglo culture might have assimilated the Mexican around the beginning of the 20th century “had the American people and government been thoughtfully aware of the basis of conflict in the differences between the two cultures.” But no thought was given, he added, to the social, economic and political well being of Mexican Americans because of racial attitudes and the unwillingness of the majority culture to accept them as equals.
Even then, the hispanic people attempted to assimilate. Dr. Jesus Chavarria, professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, says that around the 1920s “some of our people began to advocate a broadly conceived ideology and political program that to assimilate successfully into the dominant system we should turn away from our cultural roots and learn the dominant culture.” The effort failed. The prejudice went beyond language and culture and economic condition. It was racial! Thus education was no insurance against job bias and success no passport to social acceptance. Many who dated Anglo girls in college were bluntly told by parents that they did not approve and those of us who persevered met great opposition.
Bishop Flores, a former migrant worker and one of the most dynamic and courageous prelates in the nation, says that when he first approached his pastor to announce his intention to become a priest he was sent home to pray for six months. When he returned the same thing happened. Finally, it dawned on young Flores that he was not wanted. A nun finally took him to the bishop, who welcomed his interest and helped him get into the seminary. Many others in the 1940s and 1950s had similar experiences.
What happened in the 1960s in that hispanics and, specifically the Mexican Americans, began to see themselves in a new light. Those who had been to Mexico found that they were not Mexicans. Their frustrations in seeking assimilation made clear to them that they were not members of the dominant culture. Upon reflection, they saw that they were living through a unique and painful experience which not only influenced their values and shaped their character but modified their relationship with the larger society. For the first time, they saw what oppression had done to them. But they also began to see themselves as a people of worth and destiny, precisely because they blended what the white American has most feared: racial mix. The Mexican American represents a merger of Indian and Spaniard, whose features had in many cases already been darkened by the blood of the Moors. Caribbean peoples add to the mix the features of former Black slaves and, to a lesser extent, those of Chinese immigrants.
The hispanics were stirred, in the words of Dr. Jorge Lara-Braud, “by the richness of their own inner diversity.” (Dr. Lara-Braud was speaking about Mexican Americans but his insights can apply to all hispanics.) They saw themselves, he said, “at the intersection of two histories, two nations, two cultures, two languages converging, colliding, blending, embracing . . . “
“In reaching that understanding, we discovered our true history,” said Dr. Chavarria. “We became a historical people. And we also began to apply critical theory and methods to the study of our social situation and also to the task of new solutions.” The result was the aforementioned cultural pride, improved sense of unity as a people and the drive for cultural acceptance without penalty. The hispanics see their culture as a national asset, not as a hindrance to progress.
However, the dream of creating a melting pot endures. Upon learning that I am studying latinization, one editor said: “It seems to me that you have this thing turned around. What you should be writing about is the Americanization of the hispanic people.” Also, some politicians (as in the 1977 New York mayoral race) said bilingualism is detrimental to the nation as well as to the hispanic people. Such a view was also expressed by one bishop at a recent meeting of Catholic bishops of the Northeast on how to confront the problems of the Spanish-speaking. Fortunately these are minority views.
Of course, the time may come when the hispanics will merge into the general population. The 1970 census shows that a significant percentage of hispanics married outside their group in the second generation —16 percent of Mexican Americans, 33 percent of Puerto Ricans, 46 percent of the Cubans. So did 39 percent of Hispanos, defined by the census as the descendants of the Mexican territory annexed to the U.S. after 1848. The great majority of these marriages were to non-hispanic whites — 84 percent of the Mexican Americans, 76 percent of the Puerto Ricans, 64 percent of the Cubans and 41 percent of the Hispanos.
Significantly, marriage to non-hispaaic whites is more prevalent among those hispanics who have finished 12 or more years of schooling, showing how important education and increased earning capacity are in overcoming the other barriers. Of those with less than 12 years of schooling, only nine percent of the Mexican Americans, 21 percent of the Puerto Ricans, 26 percent of the Hispanos and 37 percent of the Cubans married non-hispanic whites. In contrast, among those with more than 12 years of education, 32 percent of the Mexican Americans, 44 percent of the Puerto Ricans, 53 percent of the Hispanos and 51 percent of the Cubans married non-hispanic whites.
The somewhat gratituous assumption is that the hispanic partner adopts the dominant culture, which is not necessarily so. I married a girl of Irish-French-German ancestry and do not consider myself particularly militant. But when I sent my green-eyed, fair-haired 13-year-old son to Colorado to spend a summer with his grandfather I was surprised when I saw his picture in the Denver Post in the front rank of a Chicano march protesting police brutality. Rather than having rejected the hispanic heritage, my family seems to move with a sense of ease and openness within both cultures.
Much more telling is the loss of language which results from out-group as well as in-group marriages. The study by Jaffe et al (Spanish Americans in the United States: Changing Demographic Characteristics) quotes Fray Angelico Chavez, noted Southwest historian, that ” … when the old language of Cervantes is no more, it can only mean the end …” Professor Sabine Ulibarri echoes the same sentiment, saying that the Hispano who does not speak Spanish “might as well choke on his chiles.” Nevertheless, the language seems to be dying out. The Jaffe study states that by the mid-1970s about one in four persons of Spanish origin spoke English only and two in five usually spoke English but had Spanish as a second language. Only one in 10 spoke Spanish exclusively. “Our analysis shows,” state Jaffe et al, “that in another generation or two it will be difficult to distinguish these people from the general U.S. population.”
Whether such trends overcome the continual renewal of language and culture infused by the ever-coming wave of immigrants and the cultural rebirth of the 1960s, only time will tell. Certainly some of us who had lost such of our facility with Spanish have had to learn it anew.
Nevertheless, the hispanics do not fear closer harmony between cultures if it is achieved through mutual respect for the history, traditions, rights and contributions of each group. For the hispanic who has rediscovered his identity and history and culture truly feels that he and his people really have something of value to contribute to this nation. It’s an impression which comes through strongly everywhere the Spanish-speaking gather.
Received in New York on October 31, 1977
©1977 Moises Sandoval
Moises Sandoval is an Alicia Patterson Foundation award winner an leave from Maryknell Magazine. His fellowship subject is latinization in the U.S.: a study of the Hispanic population explosion and its implications for the nation’s foreign and domestic policies. This article may be published with credit to Mr. Sandoval as a Fellow of the Alicia Patterson Foundation and to Maryknell Magazine. The views expressed by the author in this newsletter are not necessarily the views of the Foundation.