Last Updated on November 26, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1214
Zeferino Ramirez of Los Angeles wore suits and ate meals that were “largely American style,” had converted to American Protestantism, and decorated his home with photos of both American and Mexican subjects. Yet, at a public meeting in Los Angeles in 1927, Ramirez, a community leader of local Mexican immigrants, openly balked at the suggestion of naturalization in the US. The contradictions in Ramirez’s behavior highlight the nuances that went into the making of a Mexican American identity in Los Angeles between 1900 and 1945. In Becoming Mexican American (1993), George J. Sanchez argues that the formation of this identity cannot be fully explained by either assimilationist or revisionist histories. Instead, Sanchez explores the Mexican American identity from the varied perspective of the immigrants themselves. He also situates the migration in the transnational context of developments in both Mexico and the US in the first half of the twentieth century. Further, Sanchez extensively uses statistical analysis and personal histories to illustrate the complexities of the Mexican American or Chicano identity, while cognizant of James Clifford’s words:
Cultures do not hold still for their portraits.
Sanchez begins discussing the Mexican migration from the period beginning at the turn of the century. Agricultural growth in California and the development of a railroad network interlinking Mexico created an unprecedented demand for labor in both countries. While American railroad officers solicited Mexican workers along railway stops, Mexican laborers, too, were keen to explore more lucrative sources of income. Early on in this migration, the border between the US and Mexico was not defined in the popular imagination. For most Mexican workers, migration to the US simply meant moving further north in search of work, one stop away from cities like Guadalajara. The international border only became more meaningful after the restrictive immigration laws of 1917 and the creation of the new role of the immigration inspector, which gave the official “almost limitless power” over “the friendless, the foreigner.”
Ironically, the prohibitive restrictions at the border forced many migrants to shed their "cyclical" migration pattern and instead settle in Los Angeles for years at a time, increasing the discomfort of the white populace. Thus, border restrictions played a part in shaping the idea of the Mexican migrant as an “alien” who needed to be either removed or reformed, leading to the start of the “Americanization” project in Los Angeles.
Along with Americanization in the US, the new nationalistic project in Mexico also influenced the social behavior of Mexican immigrants, as Sanchez notes in part 2 of his book. Americanization refers to the reform movement by white Progressives during the 1920s to integrate Mexicans into mainstream America. Since most single men were still not "settled" in the US, reformers targeted Mexican wives and mothers to send children to English-language schools and help their families adopt a Protestant work ethic. However, Sanchez notes that the ideal of Americanization was never realized in practice. As it manifested, the goal of the project became to produce a well-trained labor force of household workers for the white population, with one reformer recommending Mexican girls study sewing instead of academic subjects starting from the third grade.
Parallel to Americanization, a new nationalism was emerging south of the border. According to Sanchez, the Mexican Revolution of 1910–1920, which overthrew the regime of Porfirio Diaz, had an unlikely outcome. Instead of radical reformists like Emilio Zapata, leadership was claimed by the middle class, which used nationalism to disarm revolutionary sentiment among Mestizo and Indian...
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