Title: Becoming Mexican American: Race, Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945
Author: George Sánchez
Categories: Immigration, Ethnic Identity, Social History, Race, Americanization, Great Depression, The American West, Urban History
Place: Los Angeles
Time Period: 1900-1945
George Sánchez writes a history of Mexican immigration to Los Angeles during the first four decades of the 20th century and the struggles of the Mexican community to form an ethnic and cultural identity. Sánchez argues against both older assimilationist literature and more recent Chicano literature championing cultural retention, instead giving agency to Mexican immigrants in exploring the complex ways in which they worked within a structural framework to forge an identity. He argues that this identity-formation culminated in the 1930s, when the Great Depression and large-scale repatriation created a window for younger second-generation Mexican-Americans to build a new hybrid identity of "ambivalent Americanism."
Sánchez begins by charting early immigration to Los Angeles, which experienced the most sustained explosive growth of any US metropolis between 1880-1930. During this period, Sánchez charts how in the early stages of the period the border remained remarkably fluid - it wasn't until the 1917 Immigration Act that it became more restrictive - although Sánchez argues that it was less the restrictions and more the position of dominance and power that border officials wielded that made the crossing more onerous. He goes on to chart dual efforts by both American and Mexican institutions during the 1920s in fighting for the loyalty and identity of Mexican immigrants. On the American side, middle-class white reformers try to "Americanize" Mexican immigrants by teaching them English and trying to culturally transform them from what they saw as their preindustrial legacy - a movement that was led in part by social scientists and academics, and targeted at Mexican women as wives and mothers who should be staying at home. On the Mexican side, the state tried to impose a "New Nationalism" based on opening Spanish-language schools and promoting Mexican heritage in hopes of luring immigrants back to Mexico. Sánchez ultimately describes the weakness of these nationalizing projects, instead arguing that the agency of actual immigrants operating on the ground was far more important.
Sánchez also looks at non-national influences on Mexican-American identity formation, specifically religion, music, mass culture, and consumption. Although he is dismissive of the efficacy of the American Catholic Church, he is more optimistic about how Mexicans turned to music as a form of adaptation and experimentation in melding American and Mexican identities. This cultural experimentation was often conducted by younger, second-generation Mexican-Americans - a group that plays a crucial role for Sánchez. His book culminates during the Great Depression, as Los Angeles lost one third of its Mexican community to deportation and repatriation. Sánchez argues that the temporary halt of new immigrants combined with opportunities to organize within the labor movement (one of the most effect processes of "Americanization") allowed for these younger Mexican-Americans to assert themselves. It was in the face of economic devastation that they crafted a blended ethnic identity based on accepting their Mexican heritage while simultaneously adopting many of the attributes of American culture (an "ambivalent Americanism") by the mid-1930s.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Great Depression as time when Mexicans became Mexican-American (via second generation identity formation) into an "Ambivalent Americanism"
- Cultural change doesn't have to take place alongside upwards economic/social mobility
- Early fluidity of border crossings for much of the period, lots of cyclical returns (made tougher by 1917 Immigration Act, and Depression of 1930s)
- "Americanization" reform movement by middle-class white Progressives during 1920s (tied to social science) + Mexican patriotism efforts by Mexican state via the consulate
- Argues against both assimilationist and cultural retention schools - instead looks at complex ways that identity was formed
- Weakness of state (both via Americanization projects and Mexican nationalism) in affecting identity
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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