What political ideologies shaped the pre-Chicano generation?

Written by Byron R. Núñez

The pre-Chicano generation lived through two World Wars, the Great Depression, President Roosevelt’s New Deal, and even early parts of the Cold War. Their lived experience was shaped by international conflict and the establishment of major domestic policies and programs. This context shaped their relationship with the United States and in many ways, the strategies and tactics that they used for organizing. They were “patriot[s] who believed in [their country’s] potential” and felt that any allegiance to opposing political views was “dangerously wrong.” 1 Immediately after World War II, Mexican Americans’ ideology relied heavily on a politics of inclusion since they saw themselves as Americans first, more specifically Americans of Mexican descent. In retrospect, their organizing was motivating and even inspirational but most importantly it was limited due to their construction of identity and “whiteness.”

This earlier generation of Mexican American activists sought to gain recognition through the government, specifically through the Courts and the Legislature. This was because if they stepped outside of the democratic arena, they would have been labeled un-American, which was the last thing that any of them wanted. After all, they were

“individuals who best represented the integration of first and second-generation descendants of immigrants. They were individualistic, often exhibiting an aggressive independence, but were collectively united in their efforts to be good Americans and to entice their community towards the same goal.” 2

They had good jobs, great education, and lived middle-class lives. They fully believed in the “fundamental goodness of American society.” 3

They were loyal Americans who saw the government on their side and when their community was neglected, they turned to the democratic process in hopes of seeking recognition and acknowledgement. The American of Mexican Descent, A Statement of Principles by George I. Sánchez, a civil rights activist and academic who advocated for American patriotism among Mexican Americans, listed grievances experienced by this community and laid out policy recommendations. The statement, which was distributed through the Viva Kennedy Clubs of Texas, allowed Mexicans Americans to, for the first time, make their case in front of a national audience.

They created an image of an all-American and loyal citizen who was neglected and sought to gain recognition from the federal government. They hoped that this would materialize in better conditions for Mexican Americans since people of “Spanish-surnames in the Southwest [were] at the bottom of the scale on virtually every criterion measuring health, wealth, education, and welfare.” 4 Even those who were “well educated and highly regarded” found it difficult to “compete with colleagues of lesser stature professionally but who are of a higher stature.” 5

Their desire to be part of the American political mainstream makes sense considering the “white” racial classification that they had. However, this racial order was more complicated in places like the U.S. South and Southwest since

“on the one hand, all federal and Texas state laws either accepted people of Mexican descent as white or refrained from explicitly defining them as “Negro” or “colored.” Therefore, Mexicans were entitled to naturalize as free white people and – sometimes in theory, sometimes in practice – attend white schools, travel on white railroad cars, adopt white children, marry white partners, and serve time in white prisons.” 6

Rarely, however, did Mexican Americans lived experience reflect the positive attributes that were associated with “whiteness.” As one Mexican American explains, “we belong to the White race, but we are treated worse than Negros.” 7 They were knowingly excluded from juries, had few federal appointments, and often got paid less than their Caucasian peer. According to Sánchez, the “American of Mexican descent [was] treated very shabbily by a country to which he [was] intensely loyal and by governments and governmental officials he supported wholeheartedly.”

The political ideology of inclusion prohibited the pre-Chicano generation from being more critical about their role as political actors and the oppression that they were experiencing from the U.S. government. Their way of empowering their community was by trying to infiltrate and be part of a system that did not recognize or acknowledge many of the problems and issues that they faced. Their solution was to “serve at the highest levels of American society” since to them “government serviced seemed…the clearest sign of their integration into American society.” 8 They rejected radical efforts because it moved away rather than towards the integration of Mexican Americans into American society. For many people from this generation, the opportunities that the United States promised were real. These

“were men and women who had begun to see the fruits of their education and their skills. While some came from professional families, most were the first generation in their family to become educated and acquire professional jobs. They were exceptional individuals who had cracked through the barriers of the barrio to live their version of the American dream.” 9

For the rest of their life, this generation would see the success of a few as a reaffirmation that discrimination was not a problem even if it was for many other Mexican Americans. Their almost blind trust in American society shaped the strategies and tactics that they used for organizing. They sought representation, aid, and recognition from the Federal Government and used the established political system to, unsuccessfully, have their struggles acknowledge and addressed by the government. The Chicano movement of the 1960s, which brought awareness to a variety of issues that ranged from farm workers’ rights to reforming the education system, and the generation before it fought for similar issues. Ultimately, they both wanted to improve the lived experience of Mexican Americans across the United States. However, their context and racial order shaped the ideologies that fueled their mobilizing and organizing strategies. Nonetheless, the goal for both generations always remained the same – to empower Mexican Americans.

1 Blanton, Kevin Carlos. George I. Sánchez: The Long Fight for Mexican American Integration (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 128.
2 García Ignacio M. Viva Kennedy: Mexican Americans in Search of Camelot. (College Station: University of Texas, 2000) 61.
3 García, Viva Kennedy, 67.
4 Sánchez, George I. The American of Mexican Descent, A Statement of Principles (Austin: The University of Texas).
5 Sánchez, The American of Mexican Descent.
6 Guglielmo, T. A. “Fighting for Caucasian Rights: Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and the Transnational Struggle for Civil Rights in World War II Texas.” Journal of American History 92 (4): 1212–37. doi:10.2307/4485889.
7 Guglielmo, “Fighting for Caucasian Rights.”
8 García, Viva Kennedy, 81.
9 García, Viva Kennedy, 63.