Chicano Education in the Era of Segregation

Chicano Education in the Era of Segregation

by Gilbert G. Gonzalez

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Chicano Education in the Era of Segregation analyzes the socioeconomic origins of the theory and practice of segregated schooling for Mexican-Americans from 1910 to 1950. Gilbert G. Gonzalez links the various aspects of the segregated school experience, discussing Americanization, testing, tracking, industrial education, and migrant education as parts of a single


Chicano Education in the Era of Segregation analyzes the socioeconomic origins of the theory and practice of segregated schooling for Mexican-Americans from 1910 to 1950. Gilbert G. Gonzalez links the various aspects of the segregated school experience, discussing Americanization, testing, tracking, industrial education, and migrant education as parts of a single system designed for the processing of the Mexican child as a source of cheap labor. The movement for integration began slowly, reaching a peak in the 1940s and 1950s. The 1947 Mendez v. Westminster case was the first federal court decision and the first application of the Fourteenth Amendment to overturn segregation based on the “separate but equal” doctrine. This paperback features an extensive new Preface by the author discussing new developments in the history of segregated schooling. “[Gonzalez] successfully identifies the socioeconomic and political roots of the inequality of education of Chicanos. . . . It is an important historical and policy source for understanding current and future issues affecting the education of Chicanos.”—Dennis J. Bixler-Marquez, International Migration Review

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“[Gonzalez] successfully identifies the socioeconomic and political roots of the inequality of education of Chicanos. . . . It is an important historical and policy source for understanding current and future issues affecting the education of Chicanos.”—Dennis J. Bixler-Marquez, International Migration Review

“[T]his book is a most welcome contribution to the field. It should be required reading for those interested in ethnic studies, education, and history.”—Guadalupe San Miguel, Jr., Teachers College Record

“A major study essential for collections in the history of American education and the social sciences.”—Choice

"Chicano Education must be required reading for graduate students of the history of education and Chicana/o-Latina/o studies. The text is also ideal for upper-level undergraduate courses as each chapter can stand alone. . . . Scholars and students seeking to understand the severe undereducation and generational poverty of contemporary Latino families will appreciate Gonzalez's carefully grounded, evidence-based assessment."--New Mexico Historical Review

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Chicano Education in the Era of Segregation

By Gilbert G. Gonzalez, Roberto R. Caldern

University of North Texas Press

Copyright © 1990 Associates Presses, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57441-501-8



Culture and Language

The Americanization of Mexican Children

During the segregation period, Americanization was the prime objective of the education of Mexican children. Authorities reorganized schooling administration and practices whenever the Mexican population rose to significant numbers in a community and whenever Mexican children because increasingly visible on the school registers. This reorganization established special programs, including Americanization classes, and applied to both children and adults in urban and rural schools and communities. The desired effect was the political socialization and acculturation of the Mexican community, as well as, ironically, the maintenance of those social and economic relations existing between Anglos and Mexicans. Indeed, more than anything else, Americanization tended to preserve the political and economic subordination of the Mexican community. Moreover, Americanization merged smoothly with the general educational methodology developed to solve the "Mexican educational problem," as it went hand in hand with testing, tracking, and the emphasis upon vocational education.

Social Theory and Americanization

Americanization was the practical form of the general sociological theory of assimilation, and assimilation was the specific application of the general theory of the organic society to the problem of immigrants and ethnicity in modern industrialized societies. Consequently, Americanization corresponded in most respects with the dominant social theory at the turn of the century. Organic theory arose as a response to emerging social conditions of advanced capitalist countries in the late nineteenth century and focused upon problems of social order in a complex, urban industrial environment. It offered a critique of Social Darwinism and subsequently replaced it with a view of society as governed primarily by social, not uncontrollable natural or biological, forces. Society was perceived as a single entity, organic, that is, without critical internal contradictions, with a life of its own, composed of interrelated and interdependent parts, each functioning as part of a single whole. An early proponent of organic theory and pioneer in American sociology, Charles H. Cooley, defined society as "a complex of forms and processes each of which is living and growing by interaction with the others, the whole being so unified that what takes place in one part affects all the rest. It is a vast tissue of reciprocal activity."

The forerunner of modern functionalism, the theory of the organic society, conformed to the ideological and institutional foundations of the existing social order. Consequently, the theory of assimilation that provided the practical basis for Americanization programs was designed to solve in "in-house" needs of a society governed by a dynamic capitalist system of production and characterized by a particular form of division of labor.

According to the organic theory of society, the maintenance of the modern social order is based upon a common "apperception mass" (experiential heritage) that subsequently forges a unified organization of individuals, although separated and differentiated by the economic roles corresponding to the complexity of a modern industrial society. The division of labor is highly complex; individuals are objectively interdependent, and individual roles cannot be separated from the whole. However, individuals must have a subjective consciousness of interdependence and a commitment to engage cooperatively in the productive process, and if not, the unity of society is seriously weakened. The absence of common norms undermines the social order; consequently, its survival is only as secure as the norms binding individuals together. The sociologist Florian Znaniecki, addressing the question of social order, summarized the prevailing views on the role of culture and social relations in society.

... uniformities of social systems, like those of cultural systems, are chiefly the result of a reflective or unreflective use of the same cultural patterns in many particular cases. There is obviously a fundamental and universal, though unreflective, cultural pattern in accordance with which all kinds of lasting relationships between individuals and their social milieu are normatively organized and which we denote by the term "social role."

W. I. Thomas and Robert E. Park, major figures and collaborators in race relations and assimilation theory, strongly advocated the organic view of society. Fred Wacker writes that Park's race relations theory "emphasized organic solidarity of societies." Consequently, the Thomas-Park conception of the integration of immigrants into society first and foremost concerned the functioning of the whole of society. The purpose of society, wrote Park, "is to organize, integrate, and direct the energies resident in the individuals of which it is composed." Consequently, Morris Janowitz describes Thomas as a "'functionalist' in the sense that he believed that hypothetical and value-oriented questions should be raised about the conditions under which optimum social relations would occur." Above all else, it was the "effort to establish and maintain a political order in a community that has no common culture."

Assimilation Theory and Folk versus Modern Societies

The theory of assimilation derived directly from the very process of modernization that resulted in that sharp historical break distinguishing feudal, agrarian societies from capitalist-industrial, urban societies. In the late nineteenth century, European capitalist development wrought massive changes that accounted for the merging and eventual disappearance of small ethnic and linguistically diverse communities, initially scattered and separate, into a single dominant national institutional structure and culture. Thus, according to European sociologists who initially analyzed this process and consequently constructed theories, the trend toward cultural amalgamation was not merely an American phenomenon, but the universal fate of all folk or peasant societies wherever they confronted an industrial bureaucratic social order. Moreover, they argued that the cultural composition of folk societies directly contradicted the culture of modern societies, thereby making traditional societies incompatible with industrial societies and a threat to their maintenance and development. Although social scientists espoused a deterministic view of the assimilation process—that is, that the peasant societies and their traditions will inevitably slip into worldwide oblivion —they also held the belief that an applied state-run program of assimilation can guide this evolutionary process. In the United States, this deliberate government-sponsored assimilation process was called simply, "Americanization."

Ethnic culture allegedly corresponded to a traditional society, justifiable and even necessary in a premodern context, but incompatible with the modern industrial setting. Traditional societies manifested a spontaneous, but isolated, culture springing from a simple division of labor and, in turn, reinforcing that simple division of labor. Moreover, assimilation theory contended that traditional ethnic culture rejected external governmental methods to achieve normal social relations characteristic of modern societies. Social relations within folk societies sprang spontaneously from the very nature of the society. Thus, villages comprised self-contained social units having no need to relate in significant ways outside of their society. Theoretically, the ethnic village achieved a social harmony from its simple productive organization. In the modern context, the spontaneous and self-directed society characteristic of the traditional village conflicted with the need for the centralized state to intervene in the complex social process to create a consciousness that conformed to national policies and therefore impersonal exigencies. Theoretically, the traditional mind tended to respond to personalistic, familial, and communal ties and distrusted the impersonal, nonfamilial, and distant bureaucratic forces characteristic of modern societies.

Given that an evolutionary process was eliminating diverse ethnic cultures whose distinctiveness was that they were preindustrial or peasant societies, the majority culture that corresponded to the most modern stage of human societies inevitably became the embracing and dominant culture. When ethnic diversity in a single society entailed peasant (or ethnic) cultures surrounded by an industrial culture, it constituted a formidable obstacle to modernization and posed serious threats to the exigencies of modern political life.

Within the assimilation process, language formed the core of transformation. The lack of a common language makes social cohesion impossible. In support of this view, Park and E. W. Burgess wrote that a common language becomes "indispensable" to the welfare of society and that "its absence is an insurmountable barrier to assimilation." On the basis of a common form of communication, "a gradual and unconscious modification of the attitudes and sentiments" occurs. Once a common language is established, a "unity of experience and of orientation" takes hold; a community with a unified sense of "purpose and action" develops. Thus, from smaller social units a single large social unit emerges, but it can do so only upon the foundation of a common language.

Other issues remain, however. When coupled with class consciousness and political action, ethnicity poses even further problems for the realization of an organic society. Such occurred when the presence of large numbers of working people who descended from first- and second-generation immigrants from traditional societies and who formed the backbone of the union movement threatened the political and economic stability in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. This was especially true in the industrial Northeast where first- or second-generation ethnics comprised 75 percent of the population. The assimilative process consequently emphasized the ideological integration of these cultures into the dominant political ideology, entailing citizenship, patriotism, and allegiance to traditional American values and symbols. The integration of all social elements into a single unified and cohesive social order involved this process.

Approaches to Assimilation

At least three schools of thought engaged in the debate over assimilation. The first, the Neo-Lamarckian school, best exemplified in the sociology of E. A. Ross and the historiography of John R. Commons, rejects the possibility and desirability of assimilation on the ground that the "new" immigrants were biologically and culturally inferior to native American stock and therefore unassimilable. This anti-immigrant wing of organic theory opted instead for severe immigration restriction as the key to social integration. In so doing it helped to shape negative stereotypes and whip up anti-immigrant sentiment that undoubtedly found its way into the Americanization practice.

The approach taken by Thomas and Park essentially argued that the dominant culture would eventually replace the immigrants' Old World consciousness through a process of a "natural" assimilation combined with Americanization classes. However, effective assimilation required immigrants to be allowed to fashion their own structures, organization, and nationalistic consciousness. Following the corporate notions of Emile Durkheim, they contended that internally integrated immigrant structures were indispensable for the organic solidarity of society. As Joseph Hraba explains, eventually immigrant structures would disappear.

The new order of Park is that of Durkheim. As individuals in industrial cities are freed from the bonds of the folk past and are diffused throughout a complex division of labor, vocational interests and the economic interdependence of vocational groups replace folk identity as the expression of solidarity in modern society....

Americanization must and would take place, but it could do so on the foundation of the language, heritage, "memories," and organization of the immigrant communities. Any other approach, argued Thomas and Park, would prove counterproductive. Yet, Thomas found serious faults with the heritage of some nationalities and races and, in so doing, undoubtedly contributed to the restrictionists' arguments.

Every country has a certain amount of culturally undeveloped material. We have it, for instance, in the Negroes and Indians, the Southern mountaineers, the Mexicans and Spanish Americans, and the slums. There is a limit, however, to the amount of material of this kind that a country can incorporate without losing the character of its culture.

Staunchly opposed by Thomas and Park, the third approach involves essentially the actual practice of Americanization programs. While they did agree that immigrant folk values could not permanently adapt to the American system, they opposed any form of Americanization that did not allow for the expression of ethnic consciousness and heritage as part of the Americanization process. The practice of Americanization by and large demanded the immediate and total cultural transformation of the immigrant community. Thomas quoted a statement made in 1918 by the superintendent of New York schools as an example of the approach undergirding Americanization programs across the United States. "Broadly speaking, we mean [by Americanization] an appreciation of the institutions of this country, absolute forgetfulness of all obligations or connections with other countries because of descent or birth." Americanization early appeared as an "ordering and forbidding" exercise—intolerant and more negative than positive in its methods and objectives toward the communities being introduced into the "welcoming" society.

Americanization teachers viewed immigrant communities as threats to the well-being of society. The immigrants and their cultures became the locus of destabilizing influences in society for supporters of Americanization. With such a negative frame of mind toward the immigrant community, these practitioners launched Americanization programs throughout the Southwest.

The historians Maxine Sellers, Ricardo Romo, and Mario Garcia have linked the Mexican Americanization experience with the national Americanization effort, but our analysis stipulates that we highlight the significant differences between European and Mexican experiences. First, the Americanization of the Mexican community occurred in a legally segregated system. Secondly, it was both rural and urban, as contrasted with the European experience, which was overwhelmingly urban. Thirdly, it was heavily influenced by the regional agricultural economy, which retarded a "natural" assimilation process. Finally, immigrants from Mexico could not escape the effects of the economic and political relationship between an advanced capitalist nation, the United States, and a semicapitalist, semifeudal nation, Mexico, the latter increasingly under the political and economic sway of the United States. None of the contributory European nations had such a relationship with the United States, and thus, their national cultures tended to be judged more on an equal footing with that of the United States. The Mexican case has historically been one of a nation struggling to realize its national interests against the nationalism of a rising world power. This factor alone would have made for a significant modification in the objectives and manner in which Americanization was applied to the Mexican community.

The Americanization of Mexican Children in the School

In the first half of the twentieth century, when the Mexican community was more rural, separate, and identifiable than it is today, the schooling system constructed a cultural demarcation between a superior and an inferior culture. Assimilation, then, involved not just the elimination of linguistic and cultural differences, but of an entire culture that assimilation advocates deemed undesirable. Americanization programs assumed a single homogeneous ethnic culture in contact with a single homogeneous modern one, and the relationship between the two was not that of equals. Cultural differences explained in part the socioeconomic differences between the populations that bore these cultures. The dominant community, enjoying greater wealth and privileges, claimed its position by virtue of alleged cultural superiority. In one way or another, nearly every Mexican child, whether born in the United States or in Mexico, was treated as a "foreigner," as an alien, and as an intruder. The Los Angeles school superintendent voiced a common complaint in a 1923 address to district principals. "We have these [Mexican] immigrants to live with, and if we Americanize them, we can live with them...." The objective was to transform the Mexican community into an English-speaking and American-thinking community.

Excerpted from Chicano Education in the Era of Segregation by Gilbert G. Gonzalez. Copyright © 1990 by Associates Presses, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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Meet the Author

Gilbert G. Gonzalez is professor emeritus in the Chicano Latino Studies Department at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of numerous publications, including Guest Workers or Colonized Labor?, Mexican Consuls and Labor Organizing, Labor and Community, and Culture of Empire. Gonzalez co-directed and produced the award-winning documentary The Harvest of Loneliness.

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