“We Were Too White to Be Black and Too Black to Be White,” Tyina L Steptoe (2016)

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Tyina L Steptoe (2016) – We Were Too White to Be Black and Too Black to Be White

 

128ff: “Letter from Chapultepec” and the question of race and skin color

  • “The tenth point of the manifesto related directly to ethnic Mexicans and the question of color. People of Mexican descent, they wrote, ‘are called “brown people,” “greasers,” et cetera and of course want to be called white.’ … The term brown people marked them as a nonwhite group, which could hurt their claims to whiteness in a place that considered anyone with African roots ‘colored.'”

149ff: “Letter from Chaptultepec” praised by and used as model by black branch of YWCA

  • “More problems arose when the African American branch of the YWCA discovered the letter and used it for their own purposes: ‘They heard about our [i.e. ethnic Mexicans’] problems and they said, “We have some problems too,”‘ said Estela Gómez of members of the black branch that contacted her. ‘”You did a great thing writing all of those things down.”‘ The African American women asked club officers Cortés and Gómez if they could publish the letter in their organization’s magazine, the Occasional Papers (“a quarterly publication for Negro [YWCA] branches”), and they agreed.’

143-146: segregation and Houston ship channel dockworkers

  • “the Mexican was a whole lot more decent man than the Negro”
  • “IF we let this union fall through our jobs will go to the Negroes”

1936, El Paso: Bureau of Vital Stats reclassifies Mexicans as “colored” population (Foley)

In 1936, in El Paso, Texas, white city officials challenged the traditional classification of Mexicans as whites in the city’s birth and death records. The county health officer, T. J. McCamant, and Alex K. Powell, the city registrar of the Bureau of Vital Statistics, adopted a new policy of registering the births and deaths of Mexican-descent citizens as “colored” rather than “white.”[14] Both McCamant and Powell claimed that they were simply following the regulations established by the Department of Commerce and Bureau of the Census and that officials in Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio used the same classification system.[15] McCamant also acknowledged that changing the classification of Mexicans from white to colored automatically lowered the infant mortality rate for whites in a city where Mexicans comprised over sixty percent of the population, most of whom were poor and suffered higher rates of infant mortality than did whites. Because the El Paso Chamber of Commerce had hoped to market El Paso as a health resort for those suffering from tuberculosis and other ailments, it became [131] necessary to disaggregate Mexicans from the white category on birth records and to move them into the colored category, thereby automatically lowering the infant mortality rate for “non-Hispanic whites.”

The Mexican American community of El Paso, as well as Mexicans across the border in neighboring Juarez, became furious over this racial demotion and mobilized to have their whiteness restored. Members of the El Paso council of the League of United Latin American Citizens and other community leaders immediately filed an injunction in the Sixty-fifth district court. Cleofas Calleros, a Mexican American representative of the National Cahtolic Welfare Council of El Paso, wrote to the attorney representing the twenty-six Mexican Americans who had filed the injunction, “Is it a fact that the Bureau [of the Census] has ruled that Mexicans are ‘colored’, meaning the black race?”[16]

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), 130-131.
  1. [14]Herald-Post, Oct. 6 and 7, 1936; La Prensa (San Antonio), Oct. 10, 1936; and New York Times, Oct. 21, 1936, in Cleofas Calleros Collection, University of Texas at El Paso, hereafter cited as CCC. All references from this collection are from box 28, folder 1 (“Color Classification of Mexicans”). See also Mario García, “Mexican Americans and the Politics of Citizenship: The Case of El Paso, 1936,” New Mexico Historical Review 59 (Apr., 1984): 187-204. García, who based his article on the same file from the Calleros collection, argues that Mexican American leaders used the controversy over racial classification of Mexicans “to show Anglo leaders that Mexicans would not accept second-class citizenship.” (p. 201). While that is no doubt true, García mistakenly argues that Mexican Americans used the politics of citizenship rather than race in forging racial identities as whites. As Caucasians, Mexican Americans asserted their own racial superiority over African Americans and other “people of color.”
  2. [15]Mr. Calleros to Mr. Mohler, memo, Oct. 9, 1936, p. 1, CCC.
  3. [16]Ibid., p. 2.

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]

“The American community has no social technique for handling partly colored races” (Handman, 1930, qtd. in Foley)

Most Anglos in the Southwest did not regard Mexicans as white, but they also did not consider them to be in the same category as “Negro.” Before 1930s many Mexicans themselves simply thought of themselves as “Mexicanos”–neither black nor white. In 1930 a sociologist, Max Handman, commented: “The American community has no social technique for handling partly colored races. We have a place for the Negro and a place for the white man: the Mexican is not a Negro, and the white man refuses him an equal status.”[6] As Handman explained, “The Mexican presents shades of color ranging from that of the Negro, although with no Negro features, to that of the white. The result is confusion.” No one has been more confused than whites themselves over the racial status of Mexicans, because some Mexicans look undeniably “white,” while others look almost as dark as–and sometimes darker than–many blacks. “Such a situation cannot last for long,” wrote Handman, “because the temptation of the white group is to push him down into the Negro group, while the efforts of the Mexican will be directed toward raising himself up to the level of the white group.” Mexicans, according to Handman, would not accept the subordinate status of blacks and instead would form a separate group “on the border line between the Negro and the white man.”

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), 127.
  1. [6]

“five or six other Mexicans joined me … some Americans were murdering Curbier” (Seguín)

accused of treason; extralegal violence; refers to self, compas as “Mexicans” vs. “Americans”

Having observed that Vásquez gained ground on us, we fell back [94] on the Nueces River. When we came back to San Antonio, reports about my implausible treason were spreading widely. Captain Manuel Flores, Lieutenant Ambrosio Rodriguez, Matías Curbier and five or six other Mexicans joined me to find out the origin of the false rumors. I went out with several friends, leaving Curbier in my house. I had reached the Main Plaza when several persons came running to inform me that some Americans were murdering Curbier. We ran back to the house where we found poor Curbier covered with blood. On being asked who assaulted him he answered that the gunsmith Goodman, in company with several Americans, had struck him with a rifle.

Juan N. Seguín, A Revolution Remembered: The Memoirs and Selected Correspondence of Juan N. Seguín, edited by Jesús F. de la Teja (Austin, Texas: State House Press, 1991), 94-95.

“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.

“Most Anglo Americans who went to Texas came out of the hierarchical, slaveholding culture of the South … Sanchez’s experience represented the difficult relationship between the Tejano settlers and the Anglo American newcomers” (Buitron)

Most Anglo Americans who went to Texas came out of the hierarchical, slaveholding culture of the South that retained in many respects the feudal traditions of deference that vanished in the northern states, where individualism and small-scale capitalism held sway. Persons who visited Texas, however, found Anglo Texas to be the dregs of that system, the refugees from debt, dishonor, and economic repression.

[11] Jose Maria Sanchez, a soldier in the Mexican army, formed an unfavorable opinion of the Anglos that were pouring into Texas after Mexican independence. The new government allowed in Americans and Europeans, provided they observed Mexican laws. Very quickly, Mexicans like Sanchez had second thoughts about their decision when he encountered settlers such as Jared E. Groce, who was “a man of 45 to 50 years of age. He came from the United States to establish himself on the eastern bank of the Brazos River in order ot avoid paying the numerous creditors that were suing him. He brought with him 116 slaves of both sexes, most of which were stolen. These wretched slaves are the ones who cultivate the corn and cotton, both of which yield copious crops to Mr. Groce. But he is a man who does not enjoy his wealth because he is extremely stingy, and he treats his slaves with great cruelty.” Finally, in a grievous breach of the etiquette of hospitality, Sanchez and his other Mexican friends were forced to camp overnight outside of Groce’s home.[39] From this and his visit to the settlement of San Filipe De Austin, Sanchez concluded “the Americans from the north are in general, in my opinion, lazy people of vicious characters.”[40]

Sanchez’s experience represented the difficult relationship between the Tejano settlers and the Anglo American newcomers. Migration into Texas was part of an expansion of sixty years duration, rooted in the Scotch-Irish settlement of the Appalachian South.

Arnoldo de León, They Called Them Greasers: Anglo Attitudes toward Mexicans in Texas, 1821-1900. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983., 10-11.Buitron[/ref]

  1. [39]Jose Maria Sanchez, “A Trip to Texas in 1828,” trans. Carlos E. Casteñeda, Southwestern Historical Quarterly 29 (April 1926): 270-281, quoted in David J. Weber, Foreigners in their Native Land (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press 1973), 83. It is worthy of reiteration that this slight, which could not have been accidental, took place while Texas was a part of Mexico, and that Sanchez was a member of the Mexican government.
  2. [40]Ibid., 81. For another opinion of the quality of Anglo immigrants to Texas, see the observations of the Abbé Emmanuel Domenech in Montejano, Anglos and Mexicans, 31-32.