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Michigan State University Press
Mexicans and Mexican Americans in Michigan

Mexicans and Mexican Americans in Michigan

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780870136665
Publisher: Michigan State University Press
Publication date: 04/15/2003
Series: Discovering the Peoples of Michigan Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 96
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Rudolph Valier Alvarado was Parks/King/Chavez Fellow at Eastern Michigan University and won the 2008 Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award for his compelling biography on Joe Hernandez, the voice of Santa Anita. He has published numerous book and articles, and is currently CEO and publisher of Caballo Press of Ann Arbor.

Sonya Alvarado teaches at Eastern Michigan University, and was Adjunct Lecturer at Wayne State University.

Read an Excerpt

Mexicans and Mexican Americans in Michigan

By Rudolph Valier Alvarado Sonya Yvette Alvarado Michigan State University Press Copyright © 2003 Rudolph Valier Alvarado and Sonya Yvette Alvarado
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87013-666-5

Chapter One The Making of the Mexican and Mexican American People

The origin of the Mexican people dates back to around 10,000 B.C., when Asiatic tribes crossed the Iberian Peninsula and eventually made their way down into the Western Hemisphere. The members of these tribes were nomadic hunters who followed the herds of buffalo, mammoths, mastodons, and other large animals that existed at the time. With the coming of a drier environment about 7500 B.C., the herds that had once sustained life could not find enough vegetation to support themselves; this eventually lead to their downfall. To survive, tribes hunted small animals and picked berries and wild seeds.

By 5000 B.C., tribes residing in the Puebla region of Mexico had learned how to grow plants for food. Chief among these was corn. However, they also raised avocados, beans, peppers, squashes, and tomatoes. For meat they hunted small game and raised turkeys and dogs. These developments allowed tribes to form permanent farming settlements in the southern highlands and forests, and on the rich and fertile south-central Valley of Mexico, especially along Lake Texcoco. To sustain the growing population, farmers developed irrigation techniques that allowed them to produce even more food. With the growth of villages people developed specialized skills in a number of areas. This new class of people included pottery makers, priests, and weavers, to name but a few.

By 500 B.C., villagers had erected pyramids with flat tops, on which a temple was placed. Select villages, such as Cuicuilco, near presentday Mexico City, became centers of religious activity. People came from all walks of life and from great distances to worship at these religious centers. In time these villages grew in enormous proportions and could be found scattered throughout present-day Mexico.

The first of the indigenous people to make strides toward civilization in Mexico were the Olmec Indians of the southern Gulf Coast. The civilization was to last from 1200 B.C. to 100 B.C. During this span of time, the Olmecs developed a counting system and a calendar, and carved beautiful stone statues. The Olmecs, however, were but a shadow of great civilizations to come. The Classic Period of Mexico, which lasted from A.D. 300 to A.D. 900, ushered in a number of cultures that flourished for a period of time and then mysteriously faded away, or grew small in number or influence. Among these was that of the Mayans, a group that developed extensive libraries, paved roads, originated the concept of zero, and developed hieroglyphic writing. There were also the warring Toltecs, who established an empire in the 900s with its capital at Tula, north of present-day Mexico City. After invading the Yucatán Peninsula, the Toltecs rebuilt the Mayan religious center of Chichén Itza and became an influential presence in the central and southern regions. Among their strongest influences were the worship of the feathered-serpent god Quetzalcoatl and the practice of human sacrifice during religious ceremonies.

The last of the great Mexican cultures was that of the Aztecs. The Aztec kingdom extended from the Gulf Coast to the Pacific Ocean and from the Isthumus of Tehuantepec north to the Pánuco River. Their capital was established in 1325 and was named Tenochtitlán. It was built on an island in Lake Texcoco, the site of present-day Mexico City. Rich with gold and silver, the Aztec empire grew to a population of approximately 100,000 by the time the Spanish arrived in 1519.

With the appearance of Spanish conquerors, the history of the region now called Mexico and its people were altered for all time. The Spanish not only established colonies in present-day Mexico, the Caribbean islands, and the southeastern United States, they also founded settlements in what became the southwestern United States. With the establishment of these settlements came a social order in which full-blooded Spaniards born in Spain held the highest rank, while indigenous people and Mestizos, individuals born from the mixture of Spanish blood with that of the indigenous population, held the lowest. Referred to as peninsulares, full-blooded Spaniards born in Spain held an even higher social standing than full-blooded Spaniards born in the New World, who were referred to as Creoles. To peninsulares went top government positions, which allowed them to control commerce and the distribution of the wealth accumulated from business dealings.

With time the people living under the subjugation of the Spanish elite became disheartened. Revolutions erupted, led by men like Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla and Father José María Morelos y Pavón, but they were quickly dispelled. When liberal forces gained control of Spain in 1820, Ferdinand VII accepted a constitution curtailing his power. Fearing that the new political atmosphere in Spain would mean social reforms, conservative leaders in New Spain, who were led by Vicente Guerrero, joined forces in an attempt to overthrow Spanish rule. To safeguard their position of power and their holdings on the other side of the Atlantic, the liberals of Spain sent Agustín de Iturbide to crush the rebellion. However, when Iturbide arrived in New Spain, he joined forces with Guerrero, and together they declared Mexico's independence in February 1821. This led to a number of battles between Mexican and Spanish forces that ended with the defeat of Spanish forces before the end of the year.

Free from Spanish rule, the people living in the newly established country of Mexico could not agree upon a form of government. Conservatives favored a member of Spain's royal family to serve as ruler, while liberals wanted a republic. Still a third group called for the installment of Iturbide as emperor. The matter, however, became moot after Iturbide declared himself emperor in 1822. Because of his poor leadership, Iturbide's reign came to an end in 1823, when the Mexican army, led by General Antonio López de Santa Anna, ousted him from power, and Mexico was declared a republic. A constitution was written, and two houses of government were established. Elected as the country's first president was Guadalupe Victoria, a former disciple of Fathers Hidalgo and Morelos.

Over the decades that followed, the people of Mexico struggled to maintain a stable government. At one point Santa Anna supported the formation of a republic, and he was even elected as president of the country in 1832. However, after a series of events in which Congress passed a number of liberal measures, Santa Anna took control of the country by declaring himself dictator in 1834.

In the years prior to relinquishing control of New Spain, the Spanish government had allowed Americans to settle in present-day Texas. This move was designed to counter an interest shown in the territory by a number of foreign powers, namely the French. By the time Santa Anna came to power in Mexico there were a number of Americans living in Texas. With Santa Anna's rise to power, Americans residing in Texas became concerned with the potential effect this would have on their lives and their property. After a series of failed attempts at negotiating an agreement by which their ownership of property would be recognized by the Mexican government, the American settlers revolted in 1835. This led to the defeat of the American forces at the famous Battle of the Alamo at San Antonio in 1836. However, before the end of the year Texas forces regrouped and crushed Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto. During the battle, Santa Anna was captured. To save himself, he negotiated and signed a treaty recognizing Texan independence. The Republic of Texas was to include parts of present-day Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Wyoming. The agreement led to the political downfall of Santa Anna, at least for the time being. The Mexican government, however, refused to recognize the treaty, claiming that Santa Anna had no right to enter into an agreement on behalf of the Mexican people.

The matter came to a head in 1845, when Texas was admitted into the United States. This led to a number of skirmishes along the Texas- Mexico border. To safeguard American citizens, American forces were sent into the area in April 1846. When Mexican forces attacked them, America declared war. Led by General Zachary Taylor, the American army came to occupy much of Mexico. Taylor became a national figure and was elected president in 1848. In 1847, General Winfield Scott captured Mexico City after the Battle of Chapultepec, a battle in which a number of young military students chose to leap over a cliff to their deaths rather than surrender.

Soundly defeated, the Mexican government signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in February 1848. Under the terms of the agreement, Mexico gave up its claim to present-day California, Nevada, and Utah, as well as parts of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming. Texas was also recognized as a part of the United States, down to the Rio Grande. Among other considerations, for their part, Americans paid Mexico fifteen million dollars and granted Mexicans living in territories now belonging to the United States full rights as citizens of the United States.

This meant that the more than eighty thousand Mexican Americans living in these regions could count on the United States to safeguard their civil and political rights, could worship freely, and could know that their property rights would be recognized and protected. However, the rights guaranteed them under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo were not readily upheld. Mexican Americans lost lands that had been in their families for generations, and when gold was discovered in California and the Gold Rush of 1849 sent thousands of Americans west in search of their fortune, Mexican Americans were displaced from their lands and were driven out of mining camps through intimidation and by the passage of laws that prohibited them from being financially able to hunt for gold. Even so, some Mexican Americans managed to keep control of their land, and to make headway into the new social and political order in which they found themselves. Men like Miguel Antonio Otero of Arizona, Mariano Vallejo of California, Diego Archuleta of New Mexico, and Santos Benavides of Texas prospered and became leaders in their own right, and when America's Civil War erupted in 1860, over 10,000 Mexican Americans took part , an astonishing number when it is noted that the U.S. Census of 1860 showed that there were only 26,477 Mexican Americans living in the United States.

With the end of the Civil War, Mexican Americans not only faced situations similar to those they had encountered before the start of the Civil War, but also found themselves in the precarious position of being in demand as a source of cheap labor, spurred on by the growth and expansion of the railroad, mining, and farming industries. In the railroad industry, Mexicans and Mexican Americans were needed to complete and maintain railroad lines after the depression of the mid-1870s led Congress to pass the Chinese exclusion acts in 1882, 1892, and 1902, designed to ease competition from Chinese labor. Further adding to America's need for Mexican and Mexican American labor was the Gentleman's Agreement with Japan in 1907 that excluded working-class Asians. In the mining industry, Mexicans and Mexican Americans were needed to work existing mines and the large number of copper and silver mines that were coming into being, because they could now be worked at a profit with the establishment of a railroad network in the Southwest. In the field of farming, cheap labor was needed to work the more than 1,446,000 acres that were being cultivated by 1900.

Responding to this demand for laborers were Mexicans and Mexican Americans who were drawn by the promise of good pay and the opportunities and security such money would bring to their families. So overwhelming was the Mexican response to the need for laborers in the United States that the American census of 1900 showed that there were 103,393 Mexicans in the United States, a significant increase over the 77,853 Mexicans found to be residing in the United States at the time of the 1890 census.

Time and the onrush of Mexicans who entered the United States did nothing to curtail the need for laborers. From 1900 to 1910, U.S. Census records show that the Mexican population more than doubled, to 221,915. With the start of World War I in 1914, the demand for agricultural and industrial workers soared even higher, due to a number of variables. These variables included the fact that America was the chief supplier to the Allies, the labor shortage brought on after young Anglo-Americans joined the armed forces, and the reduction of European immigrants into the United States after the start of the war. Even though American industrial concerns had made some effort to recruit Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the past, their efforts to entice Mexicans and Mexican Americans to work for them increased dramatically following the start of World War I. In towns and cities like Mexico City, El Paso, Laredo, Ft. Worth, and San Antonio, Mexicans and Mexican Americans were recruited and hired to work in the various branches of California's agriculture, the beet fields of Colorado and Michigan, the cotton fields of Texas, the copper mines of Arizona and New Mexico, and the meat-packing houses of Chicago. They were also employed by the automotive plants of Detroit, the iron foundries of Pennsylvania and New York, the Appalachian coal mines, and on railroad gangs all over the United States. So effective were recruitment efforts that according to the census of 1920, the number of Mexicans in the United States had more than doubled again since 1910, to a total of 486,418.

Mexicans and Mexican Americans took advantage of the employment opportunities being offered to them to better their lives and those of their families. In Mexico, where the population of the country had soared to over six million by the turn of the century, people were eager to land a job in the United States. Adding to their willingness to make the trek north was the lack of land available to them on which to farm, and the political turmoil that seemed to always rock the country. Most important, however, was the money that they could earn in the United States. It was not long before Mexican colonies could be found in cities like St. Paul, Milwaukee, Chicago, Gary, Toledo, and Pittsburgh. There was also a sizable Mexican colony in the industrial city of Detroit.

Chapter Two Early Mexican and Mexican American Pioneers in Michigan

When compared to most of the ethnic groups residing in Michigan, Mexicans and Mexican Americans are relative newcomers to the Wolverine State. According to the U.S. Census of 1900, there were 56 Mexicans living in Michigan. By 1910 there were 82, and while the census of 1920 found that there were 1,268 Mexicans in Michigan, historians estimate that the number was really well over 4,000 in Detroit alone. The reason for the growth of the Mexican and Mexican American population of Michigan during the decade from 1910 to 1920 has been traced to four primary factors. The first was the start of World War I, which created a labor shortage. The second was the announcement by Henry Ford in 1914 of the five-dollar day, and the third was the arrival in Detroit of Mexican railroad employees from a variety of states to do the work once reserved for men who were now serving as soldiers in Europe. The final reason for the growth of the Mexican and Mexican American population of Michigan was the economic boom that followed World War I. During this boom, the Southern and Eastern European immigrants rose up the economic ladder, which meant they moved out of jobs that were then relegated to Mexicans and Mexican Americans. The majority of Mexicans who settled in Michigan at this time hailed from the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Durango, Zacatecas, Jalisco, Guanajuato, and Michoacan, while Mexican Americans hailed from the southwestern United States, primarily Texas.

The largest number of these early arrivals resided in Detroit. However, by the time the U.S. Census of 1920 was taken, Mexicans could also be found in the towns of Saginaw (98), Flint (82), Pontiac (46), Port Huron (39), Battle Creek (25), and Grand Rapids (19). According to Catholic Church records and Ford Motor Company employment records, three-fourths of these individuals were single men, or solos, ranging in age from twenty to twenty-nine years of age, while only two percent were age forty or over. Most of those that were married sent for their families once they were settled and could afford the cost of transporting them. Employed primarily as traqueros (railroad workers) by companies such as Michigan Central, some of these early pioneers soon found themselves in line outside of Henry Ford's Highland Park plant in the hope of landing a five-dollar-a-day job. Some did, while others found work in steel mills, or other factories, such as Briggs or Saginaw Grey Iron.


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Table of Contents

The Making of the Mexican and Mexican American People5
Early Mexican and Mexican American Pioneers in Michigan13
The Great Depression and Repatriation27
Resurgence of Michigan's Mexicans and Mexican Americans33
Stepping Out of the Shadows: El Movimiento39
The Coming of Age49
The New Millennium: The Promise of Tomorrow59
The Ford Sociological Department17
Women in the Job Market23
Rivera and the Catholic Church29
Appendix 1.Early Mexican and Mexican American Organizations67
Appendix 2.Mexican and Mexican American Pioneers71
Appendix 3.Mexican and Mexican American Celebrations75
Appendix 4.Traditional Mexican and Mexican American Foods79
For Further Reference87

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