The Brutal History of Anti-Latino Discrimination in America

DoThe Best
By DoThe Best September 29, 2017 16:47

The Brutal History of Anti-Latino Discrimination in America

This 1893 image commemorates the notorious 1851 hanging of Josefa Segovia (sometimes called Juanita) in Downieville, a mining town in Northern California. Accused of murdering a white man and hung by a vigilante mob without a proper trial, Josefa, who was of Mexican heritage, is believed to be the only woman lynched during the California Gold Rush.

Olvera Street is a Los Angeles icon—a thriving Mexican market filled with colorful souvenirs, restaurants and remnants of the oldest buildings in Los Angeles. But though the bright tourist destination teems with visitors, few realize it was once the site of a terrifying

In 1931, police officers grabbed Mexican-Americans in the area, many of them U.S. citizens, and shoved them into waiting vans. Immigration agents blocked exits and arrested around 400 people, who were then deported to Mexico, regardless of their citizenship or immigration status.

The raid was just one incident in a long history of discrimination against Latino people in the United States. Since the 1840s, anti-Latino prejudice has led to illegal deportations, school segregation and even lynching—often-forgotten events that echo the civil-rights violations of African-Americans in the south.

The story of Latino-American discrimination largely begins in 1848, when the United States won the . The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which marked the war’s end, granted 55 percent of Mexican territory to the United States. With that land came new citizens. The Mexicans who decided to stay in what was now U.S. territory were granted citizenship and the country gained a considerable Mexican-American population.

As the 19th century wore on, political events in Mexico made emigration to the United States popular. This was welcome news to American employers like the Southern Pacific Railroad, which desperately needed cheap labor to help build new tracks. The railroad and other companies flouted existing immigration laws that banned importing contracted labor and sent recruiters into Mexico to convince Mexicans to emigrate.

Anti-Latino sentiment grew along with immigration. Latinos were barred entry into Anglo establishments and segregated into urban barrios in poor areas. Though Latinos were critical to the U.S. economy and often were American citizens, everything from their language to the color of their skin to their countries of origin could be used as a pretext for discrimination. Anglo-Americans treated them as a foreign underclass and perpetuated stereotypes that those who spoke Spanish were lazy, stupid and undeserving. In some cases, that prejudice turned fatal.

According to historians William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb, mob violence against Spanish-speaking people was common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They estimate that the number of Latinos killed by mobs reach well into the thousands, though definitive documentation only exists for 547 cases.

The violence began during just after California became part of the United States. At the time, white miners begrudged former Mexicans a share of the wealth yielded by Californian mines—and sometimes enacted vigilante justice. In 1851, for example, a mob of vigilantes accused Josefa Segovia of murdering a white man. After a fake trial, they marched her through the streets and lynched her. Over 2,000 men gathered to watch, shouting racial slurs. Others were attacked on suspicion of fraternizing with white women or insulting white people.

Even children became the victims of this violence. In 1911, a mob of over 100 people hanged a 14-year-old boy, Antonio Gómez, after he was arrested for murder. Rather than let him serve time in jail, townspeople lynched him and dragged his body through the streets of Thorndale, Texas.

These and other horrific acts of cruelty lasted until the 1920s, when the Mexican government began pressuring the United States to stop the violence. But though mob brutality eventually quelled, hatred of Spanish-speaking Americans did not.

In the late 1920s, anti-Mexican sentiment spiked as the  began. As the stock market tanked and unemployment grew, Anglo-Americans accused Mexicans and other foreigners of stealing American jobs. Mexican-Americans were discouraged and even forbidden from accepting charitable aid.

As fears about jobs and the economy spread, the United States forcibly removed up to 2 million people of Mexican descent from the country—up to 60 percent of whom were American citizens.

Euphemistically referred to as “repatriations,” the removals were anything but voluntary. Sometimes, private employers drove their employees to the border and kicked them out. In other cases, local governments cut off relief, raided gathering places or offered free train fare to Mexico. Colorado even ordered all of its “Mexicans”—in reality, anyone who spoke Spanish or seemed to be of Latin descent—to leave the state in 1936 and blockaded its southern border to keep people from leaving. Though no formal decree was ever issued by immigration authorities, INS officials deported about 82,000 people during the period.

The impact on Spanish-speaking communities was devastating. Some light-skinned Mexican-Americans attempted to pass themselves off as Spanish, not Mexican, in an attempt to evade enforcement. People with disabilities and active illnesses were removed from hospitals and dumped at the border. As one victim of “repatriation” told Raymond Rodriguez, who wrote a history of the period, Decade of Betrayal, “They might as well have sent us to Mars.”

Others, like Rodriguez’s father, did not wait for raids or enforcement and returned to Mexico independently to escape discrimination and the fear of removal. His wife refused to accompany him and the family never saw him again.

When deportations finally ended around 1936, up to 2 million Mexican-Americans had been “repatriated.” (Because many of the repatriation attempts were informal or conducted by private companies, it is nearly impossible to quantify the exact number of people who were deported.) Around one third of Los Angeles’ Mexican population left the country, as did a third of Texas’ Mexican-born population. Though both the state of California and the city of Los Angeles apologized for repatriation in the early 2000s, the deportations have largely faded from public memory.

Another little-remembered facet of anti-Latino discrimination in the United States is school segregation. Unlike the South, which had explicit laws barring African-American children from white schools, segregation was not enshrined in the laws of the southwestern United States. Nevertheless, Latino people were excluded from restaurants, movie theaters and schools.

Latino students were expected to attend separate “Mexican schools” throughout the southwest beginning in the 1870s. At first, the schools were set up to serve the children of Spanish-speaking laborers at rural ranches. Soon, they spread into cities, too.

By the 1940s, as many as 80 percent of Latino children in places like Orange County, California attended separate schools. Among them was Sylvia Mendez, a young girl who was turned away from an all-white school in the county. Instead of going to the pristine, well-appointed 17th Street Elementary, she was told to attend Hoover Elementary—a dilapidated, two-room shack.

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DoThe Best
By DoThe Best September 29, 2017 16:47
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