1930: U.S. Census guidelines on counting “Mexicans” as “not definitely white, negro, Indian, Chinese, or Japanese” (Foley)

Third, the U.S. Census had always counted persons of Mexican descent as whites, except in 1930, when a special category was created for “Mexicans.” The question of Mexican racial identity became especially acute during the immigration restriction debates of the 1920s. This broad exemption from immigration quotas led to the historic congressional debates in the 1920s by restrictionists determined to close the door to Mexicans. The Bureau of the Census decided that beginning with 1930 it would establish a new category to determine how many persons of Mexican descent resided in the United States, legally or illegally. Before 1930 all Mexican-descent people were counted simply as white persons, because the racial categories at that time included Negro, White, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese. The 1930 census [130] created, for the first time in U.S. history, the separate category of “Mexican,” which stipulated that “all persons born in Mexico, or having parents born in Mexico, who are not definitely white, negro, Indian, Chinese, or Japanese, should be returned as Mexican.” This meant that census workers determined whether to record a particular Mexican household as “white” or “Mexican.” About ninety-six percent of Mexican-descent people were counted under this new category of mexican; only four percent were counted as white.[13] Mexicans had, for the first time in U.S. history, been counted as a nonwhite group. The government of Mexico as well as numerous Mexican Americans protested this new classification. Bowing to pressure, the U.S. government abandoned the category of Mexican in the 1940 census but sought other means of identifying the Latino population, by identifying those with Spanish surnames or households whose dominant language was Spanish.

Neil Foley, "Partly Colored or Other White: Mexican Americans and Their Problem with the Color Line," in Beyond Black and White: Race, Ethnicity, and Gender in the U.S. South and Southwest, ed. Stephanie Cole and Alison M. Parker, 123-144 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 204), 129-130.
  1. [13]

“in Texas and other parts of the American West … the number one race problem … the threat to whiteness came principally from … Mexico, not from Africa or African Americans. … Blacks, whatever else they might be to whites, were … not ‘alien'” (Foley)

Familiarity of African-American vs. alienness of Mexican as ethnic outgroup, Southern culture. / BB&W 127.

By the middle of the 1930s it was clear in Texas and other parts of the American West that African Americans did not constitute the number one [127] race problem, as they had historically in the states of the South, including East Texas. In the West the threat to whiteness came principally from Latin America, particularly Mexico, not from Africa or African Americans. African Americans, after all, were not “alien” or foreign, and whites had a long history of dealing with blacks. In Texas and other southern states, whites and blacks had grown up together in the same towns, even if Jim Crow laws prevented them from sitting at the same lunch counters or attending the same schools. Blacks, for their part, shared much of southern culture with whites, whether on cotton farms or in Baptist churches. Indeed, African Americans in Texas shared wit hwhites the experience of being displaced from their farms by Mexican immigrants whose language, religion, and customs differed from those of both blacks and whites.

Blacks, whatever else they might be to whites, were therefore not “alien,” a word reserved by nativists to describe immigrants. Although many Mexicans had lived in Texas long before Stephen Austin established the first Anglo settlement in 1822, Anglos still regarded Mexicans as alien culturally, linguistically, religiously, and racially.

Neil Foley, "Partly Colored or Other White: Mexican Americans and Their Problem with the Color Line," in Beyond Black and White: Race, Ethnicity, and Gender in the U.S. South and Southwest, ed. Stephanie Cole and Alison M. Parker, 123-144 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 204), 126-127.

“‘White’ is an idea, an evolving social group, an unstable identity subject to expansion and contraction, a trope for welcome immigrant groups, a mechanism for excluding those of unfamiliar origin, an artifice of social prejudice… ‘White’ is not a biologically defined group, a neutral designation of difference, an objective description of immutable traits, a scientifically defensible division of humankind, an accident of nature unmolded by the hands of people.” (Haney Lopez)

Becoming White, then, is not an either/or proposition, but rather it is an uneven process, resulting in racial identities that change across contexts and time. Thus, in the 1920s eastern and southern Europeans could be White for purposes of naturalization, but still racial inferiors in the close context of immigration and the more general milieu of social relations. […] Recall now the question that opened this book. Judge [107] Smith in Shahid asked: “Then, what is white?”[81] The above discussion suggests some answers. Whiteness is a social construct, a legal artifact, a function of white people believe, a mutable category tied to particular historical moments. Other answers are also possible. “White” is an idea, an evolving social group, an unstable identity subject to expansion and contraction, a trope for welcome immigrant groups, a mechanism for excluding those of unfamiliar origin, an artifice of social prejudice. Indeed, Whiteness can be one, all, or any combination of these, depending on the local setting in which it is deployed. On the other hand, in light of the prerequisite cases, some answers are no longer acceptable. “White” is not a biologically defined group, a neutral designation of difference, an objective description of immutable traits, a scientifically defensible division of humankind, an accident of nature unmolded by the hands of people. In the end, the prerequisite cases leave us with this: “white” is common knowledge. “White” is what we believe it is.

Ian F. Haney López, White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 80-81.


  1. [81]Ex parte Shahid, 205 F. 812, 813 (E.D.S.C. 1913).

“The issue was not immigration, it was Mexicans…” – demography, fertility, “mongrelization” (Haney Lopez)

WBL p. 142ff

The racial animus behind Proposition 187 is painfully evident in the imagery and language used by the proponents of the measure. Consider the questions posed in rhetorical support of S.O.S. in the official state ballot pamphlet:

Should those ILLEGALLY here receive taxpayer subsidized education including college?

Should our children’s classrooms be over-crowded by those who are ILLEGALLY in our country?

Should our Senior Citizens be denied full service under Medi-Cal to subsidize the cost of ILLEGAL ALIENS?[56]

Even in the context of a ballot pamphlet, where one might expect carefully considered advocacy, the structure and language of these questions betrays the stark us-versus-them distinctions that mark racial divides, creating an unbridgeable gulf between “them,” the illegal aliens, and “us,” the taxpayers, parents, and senior citizens. Undocumented people, whether tourists who overstayed their visas or wage laborers who crossed the border for work, are cast as a single, homogenous, undeserving, uppercase [143] OTHER bent on victimizing the variegated but relatively defenseless and lowercase “we.”

Not surprisingly, the less-restrained public campaign for Proposition 187 echoed and amplified these overtones of racial bias. In the public campaign, the issue was not immigration, it was Mexicans. In television commercials linking his bid for reelection to support for S.O.S., California Governor Pete Wilson repeatedly ran prime-time images of people running in pandemonium through a Tijuana-San Diego border checkpoint, powerfully transforming the anti-immigrant initiative into an anti-Mexican campaign.[57] As Elizabeth Martínez writes, “Wilson has almost single-handedly made the word ‘immigrant’ mean Mexican or other Latino (and sometimes Asian). Who thinks of all the people coming from the former Soviet Union and other countries?”[58] Wilson is not alone in race-baiting through the language of immigration reform. Evidence of racial bias also abounds in the comments of others who support restrictionist immigration policies. One grass-roots organizer argues that with immigrants, “[i]t’s like animals. When there’s scarcity, they don’t breed. When there’s plenty, they breed.”[59] A founder of the prominent restrictionist lobby, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, asks: “Will the present majority peaceably hand over its political power to a group that is simply more fertile? . . . On the demographic point, perhaps this is the first instance in which those with their pants up are going to get caught by those with their pants down!”[60] A 1992 Republican presidential hopeful stated “that immigrants ‘mongrelize’ our culture and dilute our values.”[61] The divisive rhetoric of us and them, the repeated depictions of Mexicans rushing across the border, and the invective about breeding and mongrelization all slander the reality of immigration to this country in the hostile terms of racial inferiority. This language completely disregards the reality [144] Gerald López seeks to remind us of, that when it comes to immigration, “They are we.”[62]

In light of these xenophobic comments and the long history of nativism in the United States, it is difficult to conclude that anything but racism provides the primary force behind anti-immigrant measures such as Proposition 187. Nevertheless, it must be noted that the vast majority of those supporting such legislation insist that they are not driven by racism. Thus, the proponents of the S.O.S. initiative stress that race is irrelevant to their concerns, and that they are solely interested in curtailing the flow of undocumented migration. […]

Ian F. Haney López, White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 141-143.
  1. [56]Illegal Aliens, Ineligibility for Public Services. Verification and Reporting. Initiative Statute, CALIFORNIA BALLOT PAMPHLET, GENERAL ELECTION, NOVEMBER 8, 1994, at 54.
  2. [57]Elizabeth Kadetsky, Bashing Illegals in California, THE NATION, Oct. 17, 1994, at 416, 421.
  3. [58]Elizabeth Martínez, Seeing More Than Black and White: Latinos, Racism, and Cultural Divides, Z MAGAZINE, May 1994, at 56, 58.
  4. [59]Amy Chance, Controls Defended as Economic, Not Racist, SACRAMENTO BEE, Jan. 24, 1993, at A10, quoted in Kevin Johnson, Los Olvidados: Images of the Immigrant, Political Power of Noncitizens, and Immigration Law and Enforcement, 1993 B.Y.U. L. REV. 1139, 1165 n.95.
  5. [60]Amy Chance, Illegal Aliens Increasingly Blamed for State’s Problems, SACRAMENTO BEE, Jan. 24, 1993, at A1 (quoting John Tanton), quoted in Johnson, supra, at 1165 n.95.
  6. [61]Bill Ong Hing, Beyond the Rhetoric of Assimilation and Cultural Pluralism: Addressing the Tension of Separatism and Conflict in an Immigration-Driven Multiracial Society, 81 CAL. L. REV. 863, 870 (1993) (quoting David Duke) (citation omitted).
  7. [62]Gerald López, Undocumented Mexican Migration: In Search of a Just Immigration Law and Policy, 28 UCLA L. REV. 615, 713 (1981).

“Fiestas patrias celebrations … [and] various kinds of entertainment nurtured ‘mexico de afuera'” (De Leon)

From “Corridors North, 1900-1930.”

Habitually, the immigrants also used Mexico as a compass for proper behavior. Journalists advised parents, for example, to teach children the ways of propriety, to make sure that they abide by United States law, and to instill in them racial pride. Cultural and recreative clubs emphasized the need for the preservation of Mexico’s good name, as well as its customs and traditions. Fiestas patrias celebrations, which went back to [74] the 1820s in Texas, became yearly rituals for the display of allegiance.[32] Various kinds of entertainment nurtured “méxico de afuera” (Mexico in the United States). Theatrical presentations were provided by companies relocated to Texas because of the Mexican Revolution, and the music popular in northern Mexico (such as the accordion-led ensemble called the conjunto) was diffused by the newcomers throughout the state.[33] The Immigrant Generation proclaimed the concept of “Mexican” proudly and patriotically upheld the honor of the homeland.

Conversely, many of the recent immigrants held denigrating views towards the United States and even Mexican Americans, who, despite their efforts to Americanize, were still treated as second-class citizens by white society. Recent immigrants singled out the women, criticizing them for mimicking American customs and fashions. The newcomers referred derisively to Tejanos who adopted American habits as pochos.[34]

Arnoldo de Leon, Mexican Americans in Texas, 73-74.

  1. [32]De León, Ethnicity in the Sunbelt, pp. 33-34, 37, 38; Lowrey, “Night School in Little Mexico,” p. 39.
  2. [33]Nick Kanellos, “Two Centuries of Hispanic Theatre in the Southwest,” Revista Chicano-Riqueña, XI (Spring 1983), 23-25, 35; Nick Kanellos, A History of Hispanic Theatre in the United States (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), pp. 180-181, 198, 199-200; Manuel Peña, The Texas Mexican Conjunto: History of a Working Class Music (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985), pp. 29, 35-36, 38.
  3. [34]Manuel Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States (New York: Arno Press, 1969), p. 129.

Ricos y Pobres in the 1920s, the Mexicanization of the Tejano elite (de León)

For the most part, those who came to Texas from Mexico descended from the class of poor folks. These economic refugees were the ones to cause the aforementioned dilemma of the 1920s: they worked cheaply and performed labor shunned by whites yet were seen as a social danger to the country because of their alleged illiteracy, propensity to commit crime and cause disease, and reluctance to acculturate.

An upper class of ricos (wealthy people) and a middle class of professionals also fled northward, hoping to stay in Texas temporarily until politics stabilized in Mexico. These included exiles whose ties to the Porfirian order made their stay precarious in Mexico; others were landowners trekking to Texas to escape the wrath of vindictive peasant armies. [72] In the 1920s, the political emigrés were followed by refugees escaping the turmoil in Mexico created by the anti-Catholic administration of President Plutarco Elías Calles. Though not as significant in number compared to the bulk of immigrants who descended from the lower class, the ricos could be influential due to their backgrounds as people of education and means. These families were to be found in the lower Rio Grande Valley, San Antonio, Laredo, El Paso, and Houston.

In Texas this corps of elites played significant roles in ethnic enclaves. They promoted a Mexican past through the distribution of Mexican books, magazines, musical records, and Spanish-language newspapers from Mexico City. They sponsored speaking engagements and theatrical performances and editorialized or extolled the virtues of la patria (Mexico, their native country). Meantime, they formed their own clubs and held exclusive cultural activities. They maintained a commitment to preserving Mexican nationalist sentiments within the community of immigrants.[24]

Arnoldo de León, Mexican Americans in Texas: A Brief History, Second Edition. Wheeling, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, 1999. 71-72.

  1. [24]García, Rise of hte Mexican American Middle Class, pp. 240-241, 234, 103, 104; Richard A. García, “The Mexican American Mind: A Product of the 1930s,” in Mario T García, History, Culture and Society (Ypsilanti: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingue, 1983), pp. 76, 78.

“The debate turned on both economic and racial convictions” (De Leon, Mexican Americans in Texas)

The debate turned on both economic and racial convictions. The antirestrictionists advanced the economic argument that U.S. agriculture [69] could not survive if government interrupted immigration. Growers maintained that immigrants worked hard and did not demand the high wages wanted by Anglos. Antirestrictionists also tried to assure those fearing social ruination that the “Mexican Problem” was manageable. They conceded that Mexicans were a degenerate people and posed some moral and political dangers to the country, but that Mexicans were, all in all, docile and law-abiding, and insisted that their presence could be controlled by restricting their employment opportunities to the fields, where they would not jeopardize the fabric of white society.[10]

Small-scale farmers and Anglo field hands, conversely, challenged the notion of free admittance into the country, for immigrants were willing to work for less, keeping American cotton pickers from making “honest” wages. Labor unions also sought to arrest easy entry into the country, fearing that Mexican immigrants might, once across the border, reject farm work and seek employment in industrial capacities. A cast of politicians, educators, concerned citizens, and racists further argued that racially backward Mexicans disrupted the American way of life and caused disease, crime, and other problems.[11]

By the end of the 1920s, the restrictionists triumphed over the antirestrictionists as the United States government directed consuls to exercise greater controls in granting passports to Mexicans. Though the number of entrance visas granted to Mexicans fell after 1929, by then the depression had begun to hamper immigration northward from Mexico.[12]

Arnoldo de Leon, Mexican Americans in Texas: A Brief History, 2nd ed. Wheeling, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1993/1999. 68-69.

  1. [10]Ibid. [Montejano], pp. 183, 188.
  2. [11]Ibid., pp. 183, 189, 179, 190; Neil Foley, The White Scourge […] pp. 52-55
  3. [12]Montejano, Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, pp. 182, 190; Corwin, Immigrants–and Immigrants, p. 146.