Prejudice Against Hispanic Americans

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Prejudice Against Hispanic Americans

Hispanic is a term that generally refers to individuals and groups who possess cultural or genetic links to people of Spanish-speaking origin. Usually this lineage in the Americas is traced to 1450, when Spanish explorers and conquistadors (soldiers) settled much of Central America, Mexico, and the southwestern region of what became the United States. Hispanics are also referred to as Latinos, a term understood to primarily include Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans. However, Dominicans, South Americans, and Central Americans are also a part of this group.

This chapter will examine the historical experiences of Hispanics in the United States, their fight against prejudice (a negative attitude, emotion, or behavior towards individuals based on a prejudgment about those individuals with no prior knowledge or experience) for equality and civil rights, complicated immigration (the movement of people from one country to another with the intention to reside permanently in the new country) issues that continued into the twenty-first century, and the successes and struggles of a group that has contributed much to the American story.

The Mexican-American War

Tensions between the United States and Mexico grew steadily in the early nineteenth century as Americans began migrating west. The migration was largely triggered by U.S. president Thomas Jefferson's (1743–1826; served 1801–9) purchase in 1803 from France of a vast region west of the Mississippi River and east of the Rocky Mountains. Known as the Louisiana Purchase, the addition instantly doubled the size of the United States. The idea of "Manifest Destiny"—that the North American continent was a God-given gift to the American people and it was their destiny to expand westward—began to take root during this period. Manifest Destiny was a feeling of national exuberance after successfully defeating the British in the War of 1812 (1812–14) and having all the lands of the Louisiana Purchase available for exploration and settlement. The rapid expansion involved both violence and nonviolence alike. In 1835 and 1845, the U.S. government offered Mexico $30 million to purchase California. Both times the offer was declined. Americans became frustrated at their inability to expand the borders of the nation. In addition, many Mexicans living in California resented the Mexican government's attempts to regulate trade with Americans in the territory. They wanted freedom to conduct business with the Americans as they wished.


Spanish word referring to a neighborhood largely inhabited by people of Hispanic ancestry.
Spanish word meaning worker.
A major consequence of prejudice by treating differently or favoring one social group over another based on arbitrary standards or criteria.
A term that generally refers to individuals and groups who possess cultural or genetic links to people of Spanish-speaking origin. Hispanics are also referred to as Latinos, a term understood to primarily include Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans. However, Dominicans, South Americans, and Central Americans are also a part of this group.
A person who leaves his country of origin to reside permanently in another.
A negative attitude, emotion, or behavior towards individuals based on a prejudgment about those individuals with no prior knowledge or experience.
Prejudice against people of a particular physical trait, such as skin color, based on a belief that the physical trait primarily determines human behavior and individual capabilities; social and cultural meaning is given to skin color or whatever other trait is considered important.
Sending an individual, usually a prisoner of war, immigrant, or refugee, back to his country of origin.
Using laws or social customs to separate certain social groups, such as whites and blacks or women and men.

Frustration, resentment, and disagreement between Americans and Mexicans was nothing new in Texas. After Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the Mexican government offered people the chance to populate the northern part of the country to provide a buffer from anticipated U.S. expansion efforts. The new settlers had to take an oath of allegiance to Mexico and convert to the national religion of Catholicism. Thousands of Americans jumped at the offer. However, the American settlers soon became frustrated with what they saw as the inefficiency and lack of interest in the new frontier settlements by the Mexican government. In 1835, the Texas settlers revolted and gained their political independence as a republic the following year. However, many Mexicans refused to recognize the Treaty of Velasco that had stopped the fighting and gained Texas's freedom from Mexico. They claimed that the defeated Mexican general Santa Anna (1794–1876) had no legal authority to negotiate or sign a treaty with the Texan forces. The treaty provisions included the removal of the Mexican army from Texas and the return of prisoners and property such as horses and slaves taken by Mexican forces.

Violent border disputes erupted. Many Americans sympathized with the Texans while at the same time developing harsh prejudices and stereotypes (oversimplified prejudgments of others using physical or behavioral characteristics, usually exaggerated, that supposedly apply to every member of that group) toward the Mexican people. In 1845, the United States admitted Texas as the twenty-eighth state. The United States now claimed that the southernmost U.S.-Mexican border was the Rio Grande River. The next year, the new border became the issue of an international dispute and war between Mexico and the United States followed.

Despite suffering several defeats in major battles and the capture of much of its land, the Mexican government refused to give in. U.S. Army general Winfield Scott (1786–1866) executed what was at that point in time the largest amphibious (by land and water) assault in military history at Veracruz, Mexico, on March 9, 1847. The Americans captured Mexico City in September 1847.

Parts of Mexico join the United States

After several months of negotiations formal hostilities between the two nations officially concluded when the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo was signed on February 2, 1848. The treaty's terms gave the United States the vast territory of Upper California and New Mexico, including present-day Arizona. This area included what are now the states of California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming. In addition, Mexico formally recognized the state of Texas while fixing its southern border at the Rio Grande. The United States paid Mexico $15 million, recognized the prior existence of large land grants made to settlers by the Mexican government in the Southwest, and offered U.S. citizenship to Mexicans already living in the area. The U.S. government also took responsibility for resolving all claims (formal requests for payment for losses) made by American citizens against the government of Mexico.

The U.S. government later revised the treaty, however, and removed the portion about recognizing the earlier Mexican land grants. Nearly five hundred thousand Mexicans found themselves renting their own land from the United States. As American settlers claimed these lands the U.S. court system made it easy for many Americans to evict Mexicans from what had been their land. As a result, many Mexican-Americans became tenant farmers (farmers renting their land from another person) or field laborers working for white landowners. They lived apart in Spanish-speaking enclaves known as "barrios" (the Spanish word for neighborhood). Retail shops and places of entertainment were also segregated, as were schools. The schools for Mexican American children lacked the funding and supplies that schools for white children enjoyed. There were also few teachers able to speak Spanish.

Immigration wave and U.S. policy

During the early 1900s, the economy of Mexico struggled and became progressively worse. Anger and resentment within the Mexican population toward its government ultimately resulted in the revolution of 1910. The conflict sent Mexico spiraling into political, economic, and social upheaval for a decade. The chaos and lack of job opportunities led thousands of Mexicans to look to the north as a means of escape.

Between 1910 and 1930, over 680,000 Mexicans immigrated to the United States. Most settled in the Southwest and found employment as laborers in factories and mines, on railroad lines, farms, and ranches. During U.S. participation in World War I (1914–18) in Europe, thousands of Mexican Americans served in the military under the American flag. Those who stayed behind took advantage of the booming wartime economy. They found employment as highly skilled laborers in construction and industry. While Mexican immigrants made great strides in the United States, housing and employment discrimination (treating one social group differently than another based on arbitrary standards or criteria) against them abounded and continued following the war. Many immigrants formed organizations and labor unions (an organized group of workers joined together for a common purpose, such as negotiating with management for better working conditions or higher wages) to combat prejudice and discrimination. Among those was a coalition group called the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the oldest Hispanic organization in the United States, formed in 1929.

In response to the massive arrival of immigrants, the U.S. government passed legislation to restrict immigration and control legal entry into the country. In 1917, Congress passed a law requiring all adult immigrants to demonstrate the ability to read and write in at least one language. The Bureau of Immigration established the U.S. Border Patrol in 1924 to guard against illegal immigrants filtering across the Mexican border. As a result of the tougher legislation, increased border security, and the onset of the Great Depression (1929–41), Mexican immigration declined. The Great Depression was a severe economic crisis that started in the United States in late 1929 and soon spread throughout the world. Throughout the 1930s, the Depression led to decreased business activity, high unemployment, and social unrest in many places. Only thirty-three thousand Mexican immigrants arrived in the United States during the 1930s while many stayed in Mexico where the economy was growing despite the Depression elsewhere in the world.

Still, prejudices against Mexican immigrants ran high. Many Americans believed that Mexican immigrants slowed the economy by holding low-paying jobs while native-born citizens suffered from high unemployment. Because of this growing prejudicial attitude and the potential problems it might cause, the governments of the United States and Mexico cooperated on a program of repatriation (returning immigrants to their original homeland).

Despite the program's objective of returning Mexican Americans to Mexico in a cooperative manner, many were involuntarily (against their will) deported by the United States. Those who were removed from the United States included many who had been citizens for as long as ten years. Their children were American citizens because they were born in the United States. They had no interest in living in Mexico. Many Mexican Americans—most notably in California—were placed in detention camps (guarded temporary camps with minimal provision for life's necessities). They reported harsh treatment such as beatings at the hands of government officials. By 1939, the United States had deported about 500,000 Mexican Americans. Those who remained faced segregated public facilities and schools that frowned upon use of the Spanish language. With the start of war production in 1939 in preparation for World War II, jobs became available again and the deportation efforts came to a close.

No longer needing Mexican workers, the U.S. government attempted a repatriation policy again in the 1950s. This time, the program focused on "wetbacks" (an ethnic slur used to describe illegal Mexican immigrants), immigrants who had remained in the United States after the war to earn higher wages. Mexico eventually pulled out of its agreement to the program because of the often harsh work conditions and racial discrimination the Mexican workers faced. Still, even more illegal immigrants flooded Texas and caused resentment among native-born Texans who were being displaced in the workforce, even if many of the jobs were those they considered too menial for them.

In July 1954, the U.S. government used the Immigration and Nationalization Service (INS), the U.S. Border Patrol, and the armed forces to begin a search and seizure operation into homes and businesses to find and remove illegal immigrants from Texas, a strategy named Operation Wetback. The government claimed that over a million illegal immigrants were sent back to Mexico, though no firm figure was ever confirmed. The program wound down late in 1954. The U.S. government continued to patrol the borders into the twenty-first century and sent many illegal aliens back to Mexico and other countries. Yet millions of immigrants successfully got through by crossing the border in remote areas or through illegal smuggling operations. The issue again became the subject of intense national debate in Congress and throughout the nation in 2006.

World War II contributions

Despite the difficulties and barriers placed in front of them as a group, Mexican Americans continued to make progress within American society and contribute to the nation's economy and arts, while gaining a stronger voice in the quest for full equality.

As was the case in World War I, Mexican Americans answered the call to service as the United States became involved in World War II. More than three hundred thousand Mexican Americans served in the armed forces during the conflict. Close to five hundred thousand Hispanics served, including fifty-three thousand Puerto Ricans. Hispanics serving in U.S. forces around the world earned thirty-nine Medals of Honor during World War II, more than any other ethnic group. U.S. general Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964) described the 158th Regimental Combat team, a group comprised of mostly Mexican Americans and Native Americans from Arizona, as one of the greatest teams ever sent into battle.

Similar to World War I, the manufacturing industry opened new job opportunities for immigrants who were not with the military overseas. In addition, agricultural labor was in great demand during the war years as many American fieldworkers joined the military services and went overseas. Cooperating again on immigrant policy, the United States and Mexico established the bracero program. The program, developed in 1942, allowed braceros (day laborers) to legally enter the United States for seasonal work on farms and railroads. The program continued until 1964, bringing in almost five million workers from Mexico, even though working conditions were known to be often harsh such as working in the fields for long hours for low pay.

Civil rights

Hispanics who had served with honor and distinction in World War II had no desire to resume lives filled with prejudice and employment barriers for themselves or their families. Following the war, many political, business, and civil rights organizations formed to help fight discrimination, segregation (using laws or social customs to separate certain social groups, such as whites and people of color) and racism (prejudice against people of a particular physical trait, such as skin color). Two of the more prominent groups were the Mexican American Political Association and the American GI Forum. These early groups grew into larger and more influential groups such as the National Council of La Raza (see box) that organized in the 1950s and 1960s.

The plight of immigrant workers in the agricultural industry captured the nation's attention during the 1950s and 1960s thanks to the efforts of Cesar Chavez (1927–1993), who was born in Yuma, Arizona, near the Mexican border. Chavez spent most of his life working on farms for low wages alongside fellow Hispanic immigrants in California, including Dolores Huerta (1930–), who was instrumental in helping Chavez organize. Working conditions were less than adequate. Chavez began organizing workers into a union in order to demand higher pay

National Council of La Raza

Organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League helped with passage of civil rights legislation by bringing national attention to the racial prejudice that had long been plaguing African Americans. However, no such organization existed for Hispanics in the United States through much of the twentieth century. Much of the progress of the African American civil rights movement, while certainly improving conditions for racial minorities in general, was not felt as broadly within the Hispanic American community since the focus had been on African Americans.

Into this void stepped a group of young Mexican Americans living in Washington, D.C., in the early 1960s. Calling themselves the National Organization of Mexican American Services (NOMAS), they worked to provide technical assistance to the Hispanic civil rights organizations scattered about the country and to bring them together as a united group. Armed with a grant from the Ford Foundation to conduct the first major study of Mexican Americans, NOMAS researchers found that working-class organizations and national advocacy groups needed to grow in order to serve Mexican Americans better. Meetings to organize Mexican Americans led to the formation of the Southwest Council of La Raza in Phoenix, Arizona, in February 1968. It soon grew into a national organization known as the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) in 1972. NCLR established a national office in Washington, D.C.

In the late 1970s, NCLR director Raul Yzaguirre (1939–) was instrumental in developing NCLR's programs and goals. Yzaguirre secured a continual core funding pledge from the Ford Foundation, a private organization dedicated to ending social injustice in the world. He also expanded the group's reach to all Americans of Hispanic descent rather than only Mexican Americans, began to acquire federal funds for private development, and assisted Hispanics with such issues as financial counseling. Yzaguirre focused on research and development of social policies aimed at benefiting Hispanics. He started the Policy Analysis Center, which studied issues such as immigration, welfare, education, and health care. The NCLR also began a public awareness effort geared toward presenting a positive image of Hispanics in the mainstream American media.

The policy initiatives of the NCLR changed following passage of federal welfare reform legislation in 1996. The legislation gave individual states the power to determine who should receive a broad range of public services. As a result, NCLR shifted many of its programs to the state level while continuing to maintain an influential presence in Washington, D.C., where it opened the Raul Yzaguirre Building as its headquarters. The NCLR's federal policy initiatives focused primarily on immigration reform legislation.

and better working conditions. This union eventually became known as the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). It was the first farm workers' labor union.

In 1965, Chavez and Huerta urged cooperation with another union, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, in refusing to work for grape growers in Delano, California. In 1966, the two unions merged to form the United Farm Workers. The group chose a Mexican Aztec eagle as its symbol. The nonviolent strike, modeled upon the techniques and strategies of Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948), lasted five years. It resulted in a nationwide boycott (an organized effort to not buy certain products or use certain services in order to express disapproval with an organization) of California grapes that severely affected the industry. Chavez and the United Farm Workers garnered the support of influential political figures like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) and U.S. senator Robert F. Kennedy (1925–1968) of New York. After five years the boycott ended in 1970 as the workers reached an agreement with the growers on improved working conditions.

Another grape boycott led by the United Farm Workers in the 1970s led to Congressional passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975. At the time a national public opinion poll showed that seventeen million Americans supported the grape boycotts. The law allowed for a collective bargaining by agricultural workers. Collective bargaining involves negotiations between representatives of employers and workers to reach agreement on working conditions, wages, and job benefits. Chavez remained active in workers' rights until his death in 1993. Chavez received numerous awards for his leadership including Mexico's highest award, the Aguila Azteca (The Aztec Eagle), in 1991.

Groups such as the United Farm Workers and National Council La Raza continued to advocate for equal rights and beneficial governmental policies on behalf of Hispanic Americans into the early twenty-first century.

Caribbean immigration and migration

Puerto Rican migration

While the U.S. government was attempting to curb Mexican immigration in the 1950s through policies such as Operation Wetback, there was significant immigration from Puerto Rico as well as Cuba. While Puerto Ricans were primarily looking for employment, Cubans were fleeing the Communist dictatorship (a form of government in which a person wields absolute power and control over the people) of Fidel Castro Ruz (1926–). (Communism is a system of government where the nation's leaders are selected by a single political party that controls all aspects of society including all economic production. Private ownership of property is eliminated.)

In 1898, the United States claimed the island of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War (1898) (in which the United States gained control over the Spanish colonies of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines). Puerto Rico's citizens could enter and exit the United States without restriction. Despite historical animosity (hostile resentment) toward the U.S. government for its indifferent (showing little interest) policies toward the island in the mid-twentieth century, many Puerto Ricans viewed the United States as a land of opportunity.

Between 1940 and 1960, economic recessions (period of lesser economic activity) on the island of Puerto Rico motivated over half a million residents to move to the United States in search of employment. Most Puerto Ricans gravitated to New York City in large part because of a campaign by New York mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. (1910–1991) to recruit Puerto Ricans to work in the city's factories. By 1960, almost 70 percent of Puerto Ricans living on the American mainland resided on the east side of Harlem in barrios of overpriced, substandard housing. Prejudice-driven discrimination existed. In many restaurant windows signs read "No dogs or Puerto Ricans allowed." Job opportunities proved not as plentiful as Puerto Ricans had hoped. Discrimination and suspicion of Puerto Ricans increased after a pair of Puerto Rican nationalists seeking to establish their country as a separate nation attempted to assassinate U.S. president Harry S. Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53) in 1950. They acted in protest of American policies toward Puerto Rico.

Many other Puerto Ricans settled in large cities such as Chicago to work in industrial factories. Because of the unstable Puerto Rican economy, some 20 percent of the island's 3.5 million people were living in the United States by end of the twentieth century.

For those Puerto Ricans immigrating to the United States, unemployment remained very high. Being U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans were eligible for welfare benefits. Suffering a high unemployment rate, Puerto Ricans became trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and joblessness. In addition, the free movement back and forth from the island to the U.S. mainland contributed to a disruption of families and the lack of a foundation upon which to build a steady employment history.

As the American economy shifted to a more automated production of goods and services, the demand for lower-skilled jobs lessened. The new centers of employment increasingly left urban areas where Puerto Rican communities existed. Many Puerto Ricans found themselves isolated from the new economic sector and lacking the skills to compete in the new economy reliant on computer technology. Unemployment among Puerto Ricans hovered around 50 percent higher than the national average by the end of the twentieth century. The poverty rate was almost four times higher.

Persistent prejudice

Puerto Ricans reported that they continued to be victims of prejudice and discrimination, especially by law enforcement officials, in terms of police brutality and sentence discrimination. One of the first Puerto Rican riots in a major city occurred in Chicago in 1966 in response to the city's police shooting of a Puerto Rican man. The riots lasted two days. Puerto Rican leaders and city officials came together to establish positive programs and communication between members of the community and law enforcement to help prevent further incidents. The Puerto Rican community organizations that resulted from the riots allowed community concerns such as education, housing, health, and employment to be addressed. Puerto Ricans remained active in Chicago politics afterwards.

Puerto Rican Day parades have been held in the United States since 1958. The largest and most popular is the parade held in New York City every June. Aside from its celebration of Puerto Rican culture, the event has also provided opportunities for clashes with authorities over specific issues. For example, tensions between the Puerto Rican community and the police ran high in 2000 when the parade had an anti-U.S. theme that protested American military testing of weapons off the waters of Puerto Rico. The following year, police presence at the parade was high. Many Puerto Ricans accused the police of assaulting women and the city of reducing the number of marchers allowed in the parade. Groups such as the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights legally pursued the complaints and publicly advocated equal treatment. The efforts were successful in raising public attention to cases of police brutality against Puerto Rico Americans in New York City and provided a lasting avenue for Puerto Ricans to pursue cases in which they believed they were treated unfairly in the criminal justice system.

A movement in both the U.S. and Puerto Rico to make Puerto Rico the fifty-first state of the union has existed since the 1950s. However, Congressional legislation has never gone very far since referendums (votes) held in Puerto Rico have always been won by those favoring the island's current political status. Since the early 1990s opinions on statehood within Puerto Rico are split nearly down the middle. Into the twenty-first century, inhabitants of the island of Puerto Rico continued to enjoy many of the benefits of American citizenship though they remained ineligible to vote in federal elections.

Fleeing a dictator

The Cuban experience in the United States has dramatically differed from nearly any other immigrant group in American history. In 1956, Cuban nationalist Fidel Castro led a guerilla (an irregular military unit invasion of the island nation successfully overthrowing the government of Fulgencio Batista (1901–1973), an oppressive dictator. Castro and his followers believed that the Batista government was influenced too heavily by the United States in matters of business and politics. Castro's revolt eventually led Batista to abandon his government and his country. In 1959, Castro began transforming Cuba from an island paradise into a stark Communist state.

Castro pursued the nationalization (placing private business under control of the government) of Cuban businesses and agriculture leading some supporters, particularly the wealthy members of the upper and middle classes, to abandon their belief in Castro's vision. Castro was now seen as a direct threat to their economic well-being. Castro also began seizing control of U.S. business holdings in Cuba and formed a business and military alliance with the Soviet Union, the bitter global enemy of the United States. Soon Castro had established a dictatorship.

Between 1959 and 1962, about two hundred thousand Cubans fled the island for the United States. During the 1960s, the total number of Cuban immigrants in the United States reached five hundred thousand, as Castro's dictatorship became increasingly totalitarian (a highly centralized form of government that has total control over the population). Cuba was a place where free political speech and demonstrations were met with imprisonment or execution. As Castro's grip tightened, many Cubans escaped the island on homemade rafts and boats at considerable risk to reach the United States.

Cuban immigrants quickly settled mainly in south Florida. Because the first wave of Cubans to land on American shores were educated and wealthy, they adapted very easily to American life. The U.S. government furthered the ease of adaptation by granting political asylum (place of safety from some form of persecution). It offered federal assistance in finding homes, made potential job contacts, and helped businesses get established. Also, Cuban immigrants were the only immigrant group allowed to claim U.S. citizenship after only one year on American soil. Many future Cuban immigrants were relatives of this first group. They found a ready-made network of connections to help them adjust to life in a new country.

Taking immediate advantage of the opportunities afforded to them, Cuban immigrants quickly established themselves, most notably in Miami and the surrounding area in Dade County. The economic base was built around banking and small business. Many prominent business owners planned ahead for the day Cuba was once again a free-market nation. Twenty-five percent of all banks and five of the ten most successful businesses in Dade County were owned and operated by Cuban immigrants. The education achievement level among Cuban immigrants matched the U.S. national average. Unemployment and poverty rates were significantly lower than those of other Hispanic groups in the United States.

Not every aspect of Cuban immigration to the United States went smoothly, however. In 1980, Castro emptied his prisons of criminals and the mentally ill and shipped them to the United States on boats leaving from the Cuban port of Mariel. The United States allowed the boats to dock at Miami, but government officials were shocked at the number of people and criminal element of the passengers. Many of the people, including the mentally ill, were eventually deported back to Cuba while some criminals faced imprisonment in the United States.

U.S. policy toward Cuban immigrants stiffened in the mid-1980s. The government announced that only long-term political prisoners and close relatives of Cuban Americans would be granted entry into the United States. This policy was later relaxed. In 1994, thousands of Cuban refugees attempted to land on U.S. soil. They were taken to military bases in the country of Panama and off the coast of Cuba at Guantanamo Bay. Most were settled in the United States, but because of their sheer number, many others were returned to Cuba.

Despite some of the difficulties involving Cuban immigration, Cuban Americans enjoyed more success and prosperity than any other group of American immigrants. While some in Florida, notably African Americans, objected to the increasing Latinization of Miami, the city and surrounding area took pride in joining American and Cuban culture and business so successfully.

Discrimination as a group

While the experiences in America of the different groups that make up the larger population of Hispanics in America vary greatly, some aspects of that experience are common in general and offer a broader perspective.

The rapidly shifting American economy of the late twentieth century made it difficult for people without the benefit of higher education to adjust to their new country and move forward. Hispanics were twice as likely to be living at or below the poverty level in America as non-Hispanic white Americans. Only about 6 to 8 percent of Hispanics attended college, and Hispanics earn only about 60 percent of the income that white Americans earn.

Elementary and secondary education remained areas of concern for Hispanic Americans into the early twenty-first century. Because many Hispanic children were primarily taught Spanish in the home and perhaps English as a second language in the schools, the barrier between students and teachers remained a problem much as it was during the first wave of significant Mexican immigration to the United States in the early twentieth century.

Many educators and administrators supported a bilingual (two-language) movement that gained strength in the late 1960s. However, few school districts experimented with bilingual education. It took a 1974 decision by the Supreme Court in Lau v. Nichols to require public schools to address the language problem for all students, not just Spanish-speakers, regardless of their first language. The decision required educators to provide instructions in the student's native language. Illiteracy rates among Hispanics, which were measured at a beginning elementary education level, were seven times higher than that of white Americans.

Several Hispanics felt they were singled out by law enforcement officials because of the ethnic heritage and darker skin. Police harassment was a common complaint at events such as Puerto Rican heritage parades in large cities. Many Hispanics believed U.S. Border Patrol officials and Texas Rangers, a statewide law enforcement agency, dealt with them unreasonably. In addition, there was very little affordable legal aid available to Hispanics who had legal problems in the United States aside from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Moreover, many court officials, lawyers, and judges did not speak Spanish. This caused problems at court hearings as confusion sometimes led to harsh consequences, such as tougher sentences than otherwise might occur.

Political and cultural progress

While Hispanic Americans have faced prejudice and hardship in the United States, many were still able to take advantage of the opportunities America afforded. They gained seats in the highest councils of American government and business.

Alberto Gonzales (1955–) was sworn in as the eightieth attorney general of the United States on February 3, 2005. Prior to being appointed as the nation's highest-ranking law enforcement official, Gonzales served as counsel to Republican president George W. Bush (1946–; served 2001–) and was a justice of the Supreme Court of Texas. In addition, in November 2004 President Bush nominated Cuban-born Carlos M. Gutierrez (1953–) as secretary of commerce. He was confirmed two months later. Gutierrez had previously served as the youngest chief executive officer in the history of the Kellogg company at forty-six years of age.

U.S. senator Mel Martinez also was born in Cuba and fled Communist rule to live in America at age fifteen. He became the first Cuban-born U.S. senator when he took office in January 2005. Robert Menendez (1954–), who grew up as the son of immigrants in tenement housing (older multi-storied apartment buildings often in poor condition), became a U.S. senator representing New Jersey in 2006 after serving in the U.S. House of Representatives. Many Hispanic Americans served in the U.S. House of Representatives and in state legislatures across the nation by the late twentieth century. Governor Bill Richardson (1947–) of New Mexico was perhaps the most prominent Hispanic American state governor in the early twenty-first century having earlier gained national attention as foreign ambassador and U.S. secretary of energy during the administration of Democratic president Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001).

Hispanic Americans also gained wide respect and reverence in American popular culture. Musical acts such as Gloria Estefan, the late Selena, Shakira, and others sold millions of albums. Benjamin Bratt became a popular actor in the early twenty-first century, starring on television and in film. Jennifer Lopez successfully combined a musical career with an acting career. Comedic acts such as George Lopez star in television.

As have African Americans, many Hispanic American entertainers have become international celebrities, such as Cuban-born Gloria Estefan in music and actor Jimmy Smits of Puerto Rican heritage in film. However, critics often pointed out that some comedic entertainment did nothing but reinforce negative stereotypes of ethnic groups, perhaps most notably the movies by Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong. While that may have been the case at times, there is no doubt that Hispanics had an increasing presence in the music and entertainment industries while gaining more and more power in politics and business.

The ongoing question of immigration

In early 2006, hundreds of thousands of Hispanic immigrants marched in protest rallies across the United States. They were in opposition to legislation before the U.S. Congress that they believed would unfairly restrict immigrants and jeopardize their well-being.

At issue was the question of illegal immigration, long a source of contention between immigrant groups and the U.S. government. Frustrated citizens living near the American-Mexican border began volunteer patrols (calling themselves Minutemen in homage to New England patriots of the Revolutionary era) to search for illegal immigrants attempting to cross the border. These groups notified U.S. Border Patrol when they spotted individuals attempting to illegally enter the United States. They did not advocate or practice violence against the illegal immigrants, but their participation and willingness to use their spare time patrolling the border spoke to the passion the immigration issue aroused.

Many citizens, including legal immigrants and naturalized citizens who had gone through the citizenship process, opposed any sort of amnesty (granting official forgiveness to a large number of people for some illegal act) for illegal immigrants. They wished to impose financial and other penalties on the substantial number of employers who hired illegal immigrants at low wages. However, thousands of immigrants, both documented (holding an official paper allowing entrance) and undocumented, joined together to protest what was perceived as a nationalist passion within the United States against Hispanics. Defenders of the immigrants, arguing that Hispanic illegal immigrants performed work that Americans would not normally do because the wages were so low, charged that Hispanics should not be singled out by anti-immigrant groups simply because of their ethnicity. This been the case throughout history with most immigrant groups. Illegal immigrants numbering about eleven million in the United States in 2006 worked predominantly in service positions, such as cooks, construction laborers, hotel housekeepers, grounds workers, and agricultural laborers.

The first mass protest in the spring of 2006 took place in Los Angeles on March 25. Tens of thousands in other large cities, such as Chicago, New York, and Detroit, quickly followed suit. Perhaps the largest rally was held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on April 10 of that year. It included prominent speakers such as U.S. senator Edward Kennedy (1932–) of Massachusetts and prominent Hispanic American leaders. Many speeches were delivered in Spanish and marchers waved Mexican flags. Some protestors called for a Reconquista, or taking back of land the United States acquired in the treaty that ended the Mexican-American War.

Protestors objected to the passing of a resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives regarding immigration reform. The resolution ignored the wishes of the administration of U.S. president George W. Bush (1946–; served 2001–). Bush called for a guest worker program and a legalization process for illegal immigrants already living and working on U.S. soil. President Bush and others believed that deporting illegal immigrants was inhumane and would drastically impair the economy. Instead, the House language, championed by U.S. representative James Sensenbrenner (1943–), a Republican from Wisconsin, included requirements for a massive fence along the southern U.S. border and an increased border security presence. In September 2006 Congress passed a bill authorizing construction of part of the proposed fence, but did not provide sufficient funds at the time to accomplish the task.

The U.S. Senate considered a compromise bill of its own that would have allowed illegal immigrants two years to begin the citizenship process, but the bill failed to pass.

The continuing lure

Hispanics continued to flock to the United States in search of opportunities that were not available in other nations. The high rate of immigration and the high birth rate among Hispanic immigrants made this group the fastest growing minority in the United States. According to the 2000 U.S. Census report, in the 1990s the Hispanic population grew sixty times faster than the total population of the nation. The census indicated that Hispanic Americans had become the nation's largest minority, slightly passing African Americans.

As the immigration debate of 2006 indicated, many non-Hispanic citizens of the United States resented the perception of illegal immigrants avoiding the law, the seeming lack of enthusiasm by Hispanics for assimilating into American culture by learning and speaking English, and the apparent willingness of U.S. lawmakers and politicians to not strictly enforce the immigration laws in hopes of attracting votes from the growing Hispanic population. Still others believed that illegal immigrants should be granted amnesty and a chance to participate in the process of becoming a legal citizen of the United States.

Use of the English language, historically an important issue, was no less so in the early twenty-first century. Twenty-five states passed legislation making English the official language of those states. A movement was building to pass a constitutional amendment making English the official national language, a symbolic gesture aimed against immigrants. Yet this language issue was merely a sidelight of the overall economic issues that were central to the illegal immigration debate.

The Hispanic American experience in the United States has long been one of struggle and triumph, and it continued to evolve into the twenty-first century. While issues such as use of the English language, educational opportunity, access to healthcare, proposed immigration laws, and strong racial and ethnic prejudices continued to pose difficult questions to be resolved by government and citizens alike, Hispanic Americans had broken barriers to personal success and contributed richly to American politics, business, and culture.

For More Information


Aguirre, Adalberto, and Jonathan Turner. American Ethnicity: The Dynamics and Consequences of Discrimination. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1998.

Bruns, Roger. Cesar Chavez: A Biography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005.

Dalton, Frederick J. The Moral Vision of Cesar Chavez. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2003.

Eisenhower, John S. D. So Far from God: The U.S. War with Mexico, 1846–1848. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.

Ferriss, Susan, and Ricardo Sandoval. The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement. New York: Harvest/HBJ, 1998.

Libal, Autumn. Cuban Americans: Exiles from an Island Home. Philadelphia: Mason Crest Publishers, 2006.

Meier, Matt, and Feliciano Ribera. Mexican Americans, American Mexicans: From Conquistadors to Chicanos. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.

Shusta, Robert, Deena Levine, Philip R. Harris, and Herbert Wong. Multicultural Law Enforcement. Englewood, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1995.


Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. (accessed on November 29, 2006).

National Council of La Raza. (accessed on November 29, 2006).

United Farm Workers. (accessed on November 29, 2006).