For decades, the federal government has waged war against Mexican immigrants attempting to enter the United States. They have shot and killed them in violent confrontations. They have jailed them in detention centers. They have spent millions of dollars building a fortified wall along the California-Mexico border. They have criminalized the hiring of undocumented workers. They have raided homes and businesses in search of people to deport.
Central to this decades-long policy, of course, is a basic premise: that it would be a bad thing to have Mexicans freely coming into the United States. Is such a premise valid? If not, then wouldn’t it be much more rational and humane to simply end the war on immigrants and open the borders to the free movements of goods and people? A review of the Mexican heritage in the American Southwest might help us to move away from a policy of animosity and war toward a policy of friendship and openness with our southern neighbors,
Before Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the Spanish Empire stretched from Central America all the way to the lands encompassing the current states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. These territories also included parts of the current states of Utah, Colorado, and Nevada. The Spanish had tried to encourage people to colonize these northern reaches of New Spain but had been only partially successful. Indian raids and desolate country had discouraged Spanish colonists from moving north.
When Spain acceded to Mexican independence in 1821, after ten years of revolution, all of this territory became part of the new nation – Mexico. To discourage foreign intrusion into the northern part of their country, the Mexican authorities also did their best to encourage Mexican citizens to colonize in the north. Again, they were only partly successful. Mexican population levels in the northern part of the country remained relatively low.
What is important to keep in mind though is that all of these territories – and virtually all the people who lived there when Mexico won its independence – were Spanish and Mexican. The language and culture were Spanish and Mexican. People ate Spanish and Mexican food. They learned Spanish, Mexican, and Indian history. Their political and economic systems were based on those of Spain. Their towns and cities had Spanish names: San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, El Paso, San Antonio. Most of the people living in this region were as much Spanish and Mexican as the people in Massachusetts and Virginia were once British.
Crucial to the history of the people of the Southwest – Mexican, Mexican American, and Anglo American – is the story of Texas. In 1822, with the permission of the Mexican government, Stephen F. Austin (for whom the state capital is named) began bringing American immigrants into Texas, which was a territory in the Mexican state of Coahuila. In return for being permitted to settle in Mexico, the colonists were required to become Mexican citizens, swear allegiance to Mexico, and agree to abide by Mexican law. Colonists were provided with cheap land and a promise by the Mexican government to exempt them from tariffs for a period of seven years.
Americans colonists began flooding into Texas, and it wasn’t long before American Mexicans far outnumbered the Mexicans. For example, by the end of the 1820s, there were an estimated 25,000 American Mexicans living in Texas, compared with an estimated 4,000 Spanish-speaking Mexicans.
Mexico’s Constitution of 1824 had guaranteed a decentralized, federal type of political system. That is, the nation would consist of individual states, each of which would have autonomy within its own region, similar to the type of political system that existed in the United States in the 19th century. The Mexican federal government would have little power over the affairs of the several states.
In 1834, Antonio López de Santa Anna assumed the presidency of Mexico. Endorsing the concept of a strong centralized government, Santa Anna discarded the Constitution of 1824 and, from Mexico City, the nation’s capital, began regulating the people in the various Mexican states, much as the U.S. government does today to the American people from Washington, D.C.
By this time, the seven-year grace period for tariff exemption for the American-Mexican colonists had expired. Santa Anna announced that customs stations were being established along the eastern border of Texas. He also sent Mexican troops to Texas to maintain order. Believing that American-Mexican immigrants, including American illegal aliens, were threatening Mexico with their foreign language and foreign culture, he closed the Texas territory to any further immigration by Anglo Americans.
The American Mexicans were outraged over Santa Anna’s imposition of immigration controls and tariffs. They considered these actions tyrannical, and petitioned the Mexican government for redress of grievances. But the petitioning process had never been part of the Mexican or Spanish political system, and the Mexican officials considered the petition to be an unlawful questioning of their authority. Santa Anna assumed the position of commander in chief and led the Mexican army north to quell the growing resistance to his rule.
There were approximately 180 men, including William Barrett Travis, David Crockett, and James Bowie, holed up at an old Spanish mission in San Antonio called the Alamo. Santa Anna’s forces numbered approximately 4,000. As the Mexican troops surrounded the Alamo, Santa Anna raised the “no quarter” flag, indicating that no man inside the Alamo would be taken prisoner. Santa’s Anna’s forces attacked, and every defender of the Alamo was killed.
Soon after the battle of the Alamo, however, Santa Anna’s forces were defeated by Sam Houston’s army at San Jacinto, Texas, and Santa Anna was captured. In return for his life’s being spared, Santa Anna personally agreed that Texas would be an independent nation, after which he was shipped back to Mexico in disgrace.
There was one big problem with this agreement, however: It was never ratified by the Mexican Congress. Mexico refused to recognize Texas as an independent nation and instead continued to claim the territory as its own. For years after the battle at San Jacinto, the Mexican government continued sending troops into Texas but would quickly withdraw them to avoid extended conflict with the Texans.
Aggravating matters was a decision by Texas to claim the Rio Grande as its southern boundary even though the southern boundary of the Texas territory had always been, going all the way back to the Spanish Empire, the Nueces River, which was about 125 miles north of the Rio Grande and which, more or less, paralleled the Rio Grande.
Thus, 10 years later – in 1846 – there were two matters in dispute. Was Texas truly an independent nation by virtue of a successful revolution and the agreement with Santa Anna? The Texans said yes, and the Mexicans said no. Second, if the Texans were right, was the new nation’s southern boundary (and, therefore, Mexico’s northern boundary) the Nueces River? Or was the boundary 125 miles south, along the Rio Grande, as the Texans now claimed?
These two questions were, of course, of crucial import to the people living in Mexico and in Texas.
But they were especially important to the people living in Texas who had been Mexican citizens all their lives, especially those who lived on the strip of land between the Rio Grande and the Nueces.
For example, my hometown of Laredo, which had been established by Capt. Tomás Sánchez in 1755, was located on the northern bank of the Rio Grande and, therefore, within the disputed strip. In 1840, four years after the battle at San Jacinto, the Mexican states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon, themselves disgusted with the dictatorial rule of the Mexican government, declared their independence from Mexico, and Laredo, despite being claimed by Texas, became the capital of the new Republic of the Rio Grande.
The Mexican government suppressed the revolt nine months later, but Laredoans chose to remain loyal to Mexico rather than Texas.
Issues involving political boundaries would ultimately be determined by the Mexican War in 1846 and by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. That war and that peace agreement would also make such things as family, language, history, and culture along the southern border more complicated than ever.
In February 1846, the independent nation of Texas was annexed as a state in the United States of America. The citizens of Texas were now American citizens. However, there was one major glitch. Mexico still considered the Texas territory to be part of Mexico. It threatened war over the annexation of Texas, which it refused to recognize.
Believing that it was its manifest destiny to stretch to the Pacific Ocean, the United States had previously offered to purchase the Mexican territories of California, New Mexico, and Arizona for $15,000,000. Mexico had indignantly refused the offer.
After the Texas annexation, U.S. President James Polk decided to send troops into south Texas. But the troops did not stop at the Nueces River, which had been the southern boundary of the Texas territory when it had been under Mexican and Spanish rule. Texas (and now the United States) claimed the Rio Grande as the new southern border of Texas (and new northern border of Mexico). Polk sent the troops into the area now known as Brownsville, which was located at the mouth of the Rio Grande, well within the disputed territory that both Mexico and Texas had claimed since the time of the Texas revolution some 10 years earlier.
Mexico repeatedly warned the United States to remove its troops from the disputed territory. Not only did Polk refuse to do so, he dispatched a naval force to the California coast with instructions to prepare for war.
In April 1846, Mexican troops attacked a small contingent of American soldiers across the river from Matamoros, Mexico, which, each day, had been taunting the Mexican forces by raising the American flag to the fife and drum. Polk advised Congress that American troops had been attacked by Mexico. Congress declared war. The Mexican War had began.
Support for the war, however, was not unanimous. Rep. Abraham Lincoln challenged Polk to prove that the land where the troops had been attacked was truly American territory. Other opponents of the war included Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster.
One of the most interesting episodes of the Mexican War surrounded the St. Patrick’s Battalion. Among the American troops was a contingent of Irish-born soldiers. After the war commenced, 200 of these soldiers concluded that they were fighting on the wrong side. They didn’t like the fact that the United States was using its overwhelming might to invade and conquer a much weaker nation – a nation that was also predominantly Catholic. They deserted the American army and began fighting for the Mexican army.
When U.S. Gen. Winfield Scott and his troops reached Mexico City, after invading at Vera Cruz, and accepted the surrender of Mexican officials, they captured the St. Patrick soldiers and hanged 50 of them.
Mexico, on the other hand, took a different perspective. Today, there is a Mexican memorial that states:
EN MEMORIA DE LOS SOLDADOS IRLANDESES DEL HEROICO BATALLON DE SAN PATRICIO
TO THE MEMORY OF CAPTAIN JOHN RILEY OF THE CLIFDEN AREA, FOUNDER AND LEADER OF SAINT PATRICK’S BATTALION AND THOSE MEN UNDER HIS COMMAND WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES FOR MEXICO DURING THE U.S. MEXICAN WAR OF 1846-1848
The Mexican War ended with the surrender of Mexico and with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. The war is considered by most Americans as a relatively minor blip in American history. Not so with the Mexican people. The war and its consequences had a catastrophic effect on Mexico and the Mexican people, an emotionally wrenching experience whose impact continues to this day.
By the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico lost one-half of its territory. The United States ended up paying what it had previously offered Mexico – $15,000,000 and the assumption of Mexican debts – for California, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, and a part of Colorado. Additionally, Mexico relinquished all claims to Texas, and the international boundary was set at the Rio Grande.
The peace treaty gave the inhabitants the option of remaining citizens of Mexico or becoming American citizens. Most elected U.S. citizenship. But a few were not exactly excited about becoming Americans. My hometown – Laredo, Texas, located on the Rio Grande – petitioned to remain part of Mexico. The petition was not granted. Another group of people in New Mexico moved south and established a new community in Mexico just below the new border. A few years later, they must have been somewhat chagrined to find that the territory in which they had settled was sold by Mexico to the United States as part of the Gadsden Purchase.
In their book Mexican Americans-American Mexicans, Matt S. Meier and Feliciano Ribera write:
“With the stroke of a pen the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo extended the borders of the United States to include 80,000 people with a culture that was different not only from that of the United States but also from that of the traditional European immigrant. Without moving, these people became foreigners in their native land. This unique experience inevitably led to misunderstanding, problems, and conflict.”
“Following the war, the Far Southwest remained culturally much as it has been under Mexican rule. Popular reaction to the new conditions was mixed; some accepted, some resisted, and most were simply unconcerned or indifferent. There was little immediate change in language; Spanish continued to predominate. Traditional Mexican living patterns persisted except in east Texas and in northern California, where an immediate and massive influx of Anglos brought far-reaching change.”
Animosity and conflict were inevitable. For example, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed that the inhabitants of the newly acquired lands would be secure in their property rights. In many cases, however, the guarantee turned out to be hollow. Many Anglo-Americans treated the Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the way they treated Indians – as an inferior, conquered, and subjugated people. For example, American squatters would sometimes trespass and settle onto properties owned by Mexicans and Mexican Americans. When lawsuits were brought, it was often impossible for the legitimate owners to prove a clear chain of title to their property; after all, this was not something with which they had had to be concerned when they lived in Mexico. And even when the property owners ultimately prevailed in the legal battles, attorney’s fees and court costs would force them to sell their property anyway.
The south Texas border areas were the scenes of interesting experiences during the Civil War. There were battles along the Rio Grande between Yankee and Confederate forces. But things were not peaceful on the Mexican side of the river either. The French army had invaded Mexico for nonpayment of foreign debt and had installed Hapsburg Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian as emperor of Mexico. The Mexican army attempting to oust the French invaders was led by Benito Juárez, the duly elected president of Mexico.
Thus, Mexican Americans along the Rio Grande, who not long before had been citizens of Mexico and who now were citizens of the United States, were torn in different directions by the battles that were taking place on both sides of the river. It would be safe to say that they felt a bigger connection and certainly more pride over the Mexican defeat of the French in 1867 than over the North’s defeat of the Confederacy.
Travel across the border after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was not difficult because the border was completely open and remained open for some 75 years. It was this open-border policy of our American ancestors that would continue to affect deeply the lives of the people along the southern border of the United States, especially during the Mexican Civil War that began in 1910.
In 1910, Mexico celebrated the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the war for Mexican independence from Spain. The political climate in Mexico was peaceful and orderly. It would not last.
In 1867, Mexican forces had defeated the French occupation army and had captured and executed Hapsburg Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, whom France had installed as emperor of Mexico. Benito Juárez reassumed the presidency of Mexico and remained in power until his death in 1872. He was followed by Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada, who in turn was ousted by Porfirio Díaz in 1876. Díaz would serve as a “benevolent dictator” until 1910. On the day after the centennial celebrations, Díaz announced the result of the presidential election: 99 percent in his favor. This sparked the Mexican Revolution of 1910.
Initially, there were three factions in the revolution: one led by Francisco I. Madero, another by Emiliano Zapata, and the third by Pancho Villa. Díaz jailed Madero but he was able to escape to the United States. Madero met with fellow conspirators in San Antonio, declared the election results fraudulent, and began planning the revolution. Zapata’s forces revolted in the state of Morelos under the slogan “land and liberty.” Villa fought in the north and attracted an audience of thousands of Americans on El Paso, Texas, rooftops when he successfully attacked Ciudad Juárez.
Díaz resigned and Madero assumed the presidency. But Madero was soon murdered by agents of Mexican Gen. Victoriano Huerta, who then assumed the presidency. Zapata and Villa continued their fight against Huerta and were joined by another faction led by Venustiano Carranza. Mexico was now engaged in a full-scale revolution that would last for much of the decade. (The situation was made even more complex by American military invasions at Veracruz in 1914 to redeem U.S. “military honor” and into Chihuahua in 1916 in an unsuccessful attempt to capture Pancho Villa – all without a congressional declaration of war.)
Here’s how T.R. Fehrenbach described the situation in his book Fire and Blood: A History of Mexico:
“This was the ‘poor, bleeding Mexico’ … a country torn by mindless struggles between emerging rival warlords for power. In the towns and cities men went armed, and Constitutionalist deputies carried pistols into the halls of congress. Some authorities estimated the anarchy and warfare killed as many as two million Mexicans. Whatever the cause, the net population dropped by several hundred thousands between 1910 and 1920.”
The war caused enormous chaos for the Mexican people, including those living in the north near the United States border. For example, my grandmother and her family lived in a small Mexican town named Lampazos near Monterrey. They were prominent “Porfiristas.” Here’s how my grandmother, who was then 21 years old, described the situation:
“There was lots of excitement because a garrison of federal troops had arrived to protect the town. The troops were under the leadership of Gen. Rubio Novarrete, and he had with him a group of boys of the best families of Monterrey and Mexico. For about six months we enjoyed lots of festivities, like dances and banquets. It was March of 1913 when they told us that the Carranzistas were going to attack the town and that we had to get out immediately. So we took with us the most necessary things and left in horse-drawn carriages; it was a long caravan escorted by federal troops. It took us about three days to reach Nuevo Laredo. We lived in Nuevo Laredo for about six months and often crossed to Laredo, Texas, to go shopping, see the picture shows, or visit friends. It was at this time that I met my future husband, Matías de Llano. Rumors started that the Carranzistas were going to attack Nuevo Laredo and that the federals were going to burn the bridge. So the refugees crossed into Laredo, Texas.”
The situation was the same for thousands of other Mexican families. The Mexican Revolution resulted in one of one of history’s largest human migrations. Here’s how Matt S. Meier and Feliciano Ribera described it in their book Mexican Americans – American Mexicans:
“The 1910 revolution, a period of incredible violence and confusion, directly affected the Southwest. Out of 15 million Mexicans an estimated one million lost their lives in the decade of revolution, and there was a large-scale displacement of people. Thousands fled from the countryside into the larger towns and cities of Mexico; at the same time other thousands fled northward to the United States. No one knows precisely how many Mexicans were involved in this great exodus; one estimate holds that more than one million Mexicans crossed over into the Southwest between 1910 and 1920…. These displaced people greatly increased the population of Mexican American border towns and barrios. Despite plans to the contrary, many ultimately settled in the United States since they found comfort and cultural security in the familiar milieu of Mexican American communities.”
“The wave of Mexican immigrants brought to the United States by the revolution included some who managed to escape with enough capital to start businesses in southwestern barrios. Among them also were landowners, merchants, and intellectuals…. At the same time that the revolution was causing thousands of peones to migrate, the demand for workers in the Southwest was growing rapidly.”
The ease by which this enormous human migration took place was the result of one crucial factor: after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the border with Mexico remained open. Mexican citizens had been free to do what Mexicans and the Spanish had done for centuries – travel to what had not long before been the northern part of their country. (The U.S. Border Patrol was not established until 1924 and even then was so poorly staffed that it had little significant effect on the ability of Mexican citizens to freely cross into the United States.)
Mexicans would cross the border to visit, to live, to work, or to start a business. Of course, visiting and working did not automatically translate into American citizenship. Open borders meant that Mexicans retained their Mexican citizenship while living or working in the United States, much as Americans living or working abroad today retain their American citizenship.
Economic and political conditions during the Great Depression reversed the flow of immigrants into the United States. An estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 Mexicans returned to Mexico during the 1930s. Of course, they were “encouraged” to return by President Franklin Roosevelt and the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service.
During the 1930s, the INS conducted a series of well-publicized raids on Mexican citizens living and working in the United States. No place was secure from the clutches of the INS; for example, one infamous raid took place on Mexican families who were picnicking in a Los Angeles park. The message President Roosevelt and the INS sent out to Mexican citizens, whom previous Americans had welcomed for decades, was loud and clear: “You’re not welcome here any longer. Get out of our country or face involuntary repatriation to Mexico.” Never mind that Mexicans had been able to freely come into United States since 1848, had legally started families and businesses, had legally purchased homes and other properties, had secured legal employment, had contributed to American prosperity, and had paid taxes.
(Of course, it was not the only time that the U.S. government used immigration controls in such a way. It also used them to reject Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. )
It is impossible to measure the degree of suffering among the hundreds of thousands of Mexicans who migrated back to Mexico during the 1930s. They pulled together their meager belongings and organized their caravans back to Mexico. Those who remained would often sing to those who were departing “Las Golondrinas,” the “Auld Lang Syne” of Mexico. The travail was especially difficult for those families whose children had been born in the United States and who, therefore, were American citizens. The older children sometimes refused to return to Mexico with their parents. Those children who did return were often teased by Mexican children for speaking English.
The federal government’s treatment of Mexican citizens in the 1930s didn’t stop Mexican Americans from serving in World War II. Here’s what Meier and Ribera write:
More than 300,000 Mexican Americans served in the armed forces during World War II. Most enlisted in the army, and based on their percentage of the total population, more Chicanos served in combat divisions than any other ethnic group…. Their valor helped them garner proportionately more military honors than any other ethnic group. Of 14 Texans awarded the Medal of Honor, five were Mexican Americans. By the end of the war 17 Mexican Americans had earned the Medal of Honor. Five were awarded posthumously.
Does the United States today truly need a war on Mexican immigrants – a Berlin Wall along our southern border – or INS killings of illegal entrants – or the forcible repatriation of Cuban refugees into communism – or raids on American homes and businesses – or deportations of fathers and mothers of American citizens – or foreigners dying of thirst on lonely deserts or drowning on the high seas while trying to enter the United States?
For more than 75 years, the American people had a rational and humane immigration policy: one of openness and friendship along the southern border. Isn’t this the only policy that is consistent with principles of economic liberty, the Statue of Liberty, and loving thy neighbor as thyself?