The Legally White, Socially Brown Latino


The Legally White, Socially Brown Latino

IN 1897, THE QUESTION OF RACE AND COLOR AROSE IN A TEXAS FEDERAL COURT when a Mexican resident alien petitioned for naturalization. The federal government objected to the Mexican’s eligibility on the basis that only white persons and African Americans qualified. In observing the applicant’s skin color, the judge commented that the applicant Rodriguez appeared to be a nonwhite person. The judge granted the petition, notwithstanding his skin color, since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 bestowed citizenship upon other Mexicans.1

The Rodriguez naturalization decision did not ameliorate race relations between Anglos and persons of Mexican descent. Racial conflicts continued since many Anglos viewed Latinos as nonwhite, since Indian blood dominates in the populations of the Latin American nations. Others, like early civil rights attorney Alonso S. Perales, claimed that Latinos are members of the white race. Both racial claims are, in their own way, correct. Latinos, in fact, include all major “racial” groups, i.e., white, yellow, brown, and black. Regardless, how anthropologists classify Latinos does not resolve the conflict. Instead, the objective test centers on how the dominant white society treats other ethnically or racially identifiable groups.

Historically, Mexican Americans and other Latinos have identified themselves as La Raza (literally “The Race”; figuratively “The People”). Contrary to the claims of politically driven groups, this does not classify Latinos as racists. While the term La Raza to some extent suggests separatist principles, the attitudes and actions of this population hardly indicate a desire to avoid integration into American society. For example, although racially restrictive covenants barred African Americans and persons of Mexican descent from purchasing land in Anglo residential areas, Latinos desired homes in these neighborhoods. They simply were not permitted by law until the Supreme Court voided the racially restrictive covenants imposed by whites.

In addition, Latinos signed up for military service and served loyally and valiantly, a fact that speaks volumes about the desire to be “American.” Even though business establishments, such as restaurants, excluded this ethnic group,2 and school boards assigned their children to segregated “Mexican Schools” (Rangel and Alcala 1972, 308–10), Latinos volunteered to represent their country. Many hoped this would convince their “fellow Americans” that they were as patriotic as whites. Latino military service proved to be outstanding. In World War II, the Texas military delegation received fourteen Congressional Medals of Honor. Latinos accounted for six, or 43 percent, of these recipients (Garcia 1952). In the 1940s, when these coveted medals were awarded, Latinos remarkably accounted for only 11 percent of the entire Texas population (Gibson and Jung 2002).

Furthermore, Latinos involved themselves politically to further their dreams of a better America, one in which they would have the ability to elect representatives of their choice. Unfortunately, Latinos did not encounter many electoral successes until recent times, when President Obama personally acknowledged to a newspaper editorial board that a reelection victory would, in great part, result from the Latino vote (Dunham 2012, A5).

In earlier days, many Latinos purchased their poll tax to vote, but those in control oftentimes excluded or discouraged them in one way or another. First, the racial discrimination they experienced generally alienated Latinos from the political process. Second, election administrators, almost exclusively of Anglo descent through the 1960s, imposed voting obstacles, such as the poll tax. In some parts of Texas, the Democratic Primary operated under the custom of a White Man’s Primary where only “white citizens” could vote. Specifically, in some counties, the rules did not allow a “Mexican” to vote unless that Latino was of “full Spanish blood” (Perales 1937, 2:93), a factor that nullified most Latino voters. After all, the Mexican population consists of approximately 60 percent mestizo (Caucasian and Indian) and 30 percent Indian blood (Gopel 2005, 802).

The predominantly Indo-Mexican population provides the basis for the prejudice this community has experienced since the conquest of previously Mexican territory. As early as the 1850s, this Anglo superiority obsession led to the exclusion of a prominent Mexican American citizen from testifying in a California trial. Manuel Dominguez served as a Los Angeles county supervisor and signed the California constitution. When he appeared as a witness, the Anglo lawyer successfully voided his potential testimony on grounds that Dominguez had Indian blood (Pitt 1966, 202).

Half a century after both the defeat of Mexico and the injustice against Dominguez, the legal issue surrounding the racial status of persons of Mexican descent continued to surface. In re Rodriguez3 involved an application for American citizenship by a Mexican person. The court acknowledged that by the terms of the treaty ending the war in 1848, thousands of Mexicans had been included “into our common citizenship.”4 This case presented the first opportunity for a court to determine if a Mexican-descent person qualified under the law for individual naturalization. Since only white persons qualified for naturalization,5 the government’s lawyer contended that Rodriguez’s color made him ineligible. The judge acknowledged that a “strict scientific classification of the anthropologist”6 would probably not classify Rodriguez as white, but the judge instead focused on the treaty provisions related to Mexicans who remained in the previously Mexican territory. Article VIII declared that these Mexicans may either retain the title and rights of Mexican citizens or “acquire those of citizens of the United States.”7 Those Mexicans who failed to assert citizenship affirmatively “shall be considered to have elected to become citizens of the United States.”8 Under these circumstances, the judge decided that Rodriguez possessed the requisite qualifications for citizenship.

Thus, Mexicans in particular, and Latinos in general by extension, very early in U.S. history began to encounter adverse treatment as a race or class apart from the white race. The Mexican experience in history, particularly as it relates to racism, has been so intense that the word Latino or Hispanic often connotes “Mexican.” The anti-Mexican rhetoric in our media and historical literature has been quite extensively documented by Bender (2003, 135) and others (Delgado 2009; Montejano 1987; De Leon 1983).

Latinos’ Social Construction as a Separate and Distinct Class

Undoubtedly, since the early Latino presence in the United States, the European-descent Caucasian population viewed Mexicans and other Latinos as other than white.9 Perhaps in defiance of that discriminatory treatment or as a means of self-protection, the Mexican-Latino community formed ethnic-based groups, which suggested that La Raza views itself as a separate and distinct racial group. These groups include the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in 1929, the American GI Forum (a Latino veteran’s association) in 1948, the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) in 1968, and the La Raza National Bar Association, currently known as the Hispanic National Bar Association (HNBA), in 1972. These groups share the common goals of advocacy and/or litigation for the Latino claim to equality and to the benefits of “whiteness.”

The term La Raza gained popularity with the publication of a 1926 book entitled La Raza Cósmica (The Cosmic Race) by José Vasconcelos, a former Mexican secretary of education. Vasconcelos described how the mixed races would become the universal race of people. The term appeared as early as 1855, when journalist Francisco P. Ramírez, in an editorial, expressed his disgust at the Anglo mistreatment of his raza (Kanellos and Martell 2000, 89).

Alonso S. Perales, one of LULAC’s founders and a crusader for justice, referred to persons of Mexican descent as La Raza while simultaneously advocating for Caucasian race status for his fellow Latinos (Perales 1974, 8–9). Perales obtained his law license in 1925, when Texas and the Southwest had only a few Latino attorneys. During his years as an attorney, Perales wrote two books, and for several years he authored a column in La Prensa (The Press), a San Antonio newspaper, in which he provided Latinos with advice on social, religious, legal, and political matters. Both books addressed the rampant “racial” discrimination against La Raza, a term that seems to contradict his unswerving assertion that the white race includes persons of Mexican and Latino descent (Perales 1937, vol. 2; Perales 1974, 5).

Fueled by his observations and experiences in Texas, Perales sought to create a strong organization that would serve as “a bulwark for the protection of all our Racial brethren.” Perales initially collaborated with educator J. Luz Saenz. The two men eventually joined forces with State Representative José Tomás “J. T.” Canales of Brownsville, Texas, one of the state’s first Latino attorneys, in laying the foundation for the creation of LULAC. Perales’s dream included the creation of a group that would protect the welfare of “our Race in Texas” and would labor “unflinchingly” for the good of “our people.” Perales and his two partners agreed on one specific objective: they did not want a group that would merely impress political bosses and public officials with the primary goal of securing a favor and/or jobs in city government or in the courts (Perales 1937, 2:101–16).

In 1927, Perales moved his law practice to the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas and began to deliver lectures on behalf of “our Race” and to advance the “intellectual, economic, social and political status of Mexican-Americans in particular, and the Mexican Race in General.” Soon after his move to McAllen, Perales met with Professor Saenz and attorney José T. Canales and created the League of Latin American Citizens, the precursor to LULAC as it is known today. Two years later, Perales and his companions encountered others with whom to collaborate in the effort to pave the way for the merger of the three active Latino groups. Initially frustrated with the obstructionist position taken by James Tafolla Sr., who refused to agree to a merger, Perales told Ben Garza of Corpus Christi, Texas, that no one man should stand in the way of progress for Latin Americans (Perales 1937, 2:102–3, 112–13). Eventually, the three groups10 convened in Corpus Christi on February 17, 1929, and merged under the name “United Latin American Citizens.” At a later time, the organization added the word “League” to the name (LULAC n.d., “LULAC History”).

In apparent gratitude to Garza’s breaking rank with Tafolla, and in paving the road for the critical merger, Perales urged Garza to accept the position of inaugural president general of LULAC. Perales, content to have been a founder of the organization, wisely sacrificed service as the first LULAC leader. Garza initially resisted since he considered his limited educational attainment an obstacle to successful leadership. However, Perales and his immediate founders expressed complete confidence in him.

Perales’s references to La Raza Mexicana (the Mexican Race) suggest the inference that Mexican Americans consider themselves as nonwhites. Throughout his career and his efforts to obtain justice, Perales utilized the term “the Mexican race.” In 1930, Perales complained in an appearance before a committee of Congress that some sponsors of an immigration quota bill described Mexican people as an “inferior and degenerate race.” He responded by stating that, as a “Mexican by blood,” he was “just as proud of my racial extraction as I am of my American citizenship” and denied that “the Mexican race