Becoming Mexican American

by George J. Sanchez

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Mexican Immigration to Los Angeles During the First Half of the Twentieth Century

George J. Sanchez’s 1993 book Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900–1945, is essentially an ethnic, cultural, and historical examination of Mexican immigration to Los Angeles during the time period. Sanchez describes the early waves of migration in the 1890s, when many Mexicans moved to the US to find better employment opportunities (mainly in mining and agriculture), and touches upon the political climate of Mexico during the first two decades of the twentieth century, when the country was torn in two by the Mexican Revolution.

Thus, the Mexican migration to Los Angeles culminated during the Great Depression, as hundreds of thousands of Mexicans, especially teenagers and adolescents, attempted to escape the violence in their home country.

During the revolutionary period, wartime violence and economic upheaval did not escape children. Adolescents were particularly vulnerable to its repercussions . . . Data from the sample of Los Angeles migrants indicates that 43.7% of the individuals who left Mexico between 1900 and 1930 crossed the border between the ages of thirteen and twenty-four.

Sanchez also explains the border situation, describing political borders as merely “social constructs.” He mentions that, during the first few years of the twentieth century, the borders were more open and liberal; however, as the number of migrants increased, so too did border regulations and restrictions. This forced many Mexicans to stay in Los Angeles permanently, which resulted in the formation of a deeply rooted Mexican American community.

The Experiences and Socioeconomic Position of the Mexican American Community

Sanchez describes the attempts of the Mexican American community to create and establish a singular cultural and ethnic identity. On one hand, the American government tried to assimilate the Mexican immigrants to American culture in various ways. On the other, Mexican government officials insisted that Mexican immigrants should not abandon their native traditions and culture, as they hoped that the immigrants might potentially return to their home country and use their newly acquired skills, knowledge, and funds to contribute to the socioeconomic development of Mexico. (Sanchez calls this the “New Nationalism.”)

As a result, Mexican Americans were somewhat forced to learn how to be both Mexican and American at the same time. They maintained their identity and cultural heritage, and worked to honor their origins—but they also adapted to American culture, lifestyle, and fashion.

My own study of Mexican immigrants to Los Angeles between 1900 and 1945 focuses on the related questions of cultural adaptation and ethnic identity, utilizing new perspectives from other disciplines and from cultural studies. I argue that the emphasis on the Chicano history on bipolar models that have stressed either cultural continuity or gradual acculturation has short-circuited a full exploration of the complex process of cultural adaptation.

In the final chapters of the book, Sanchez describes how many Mexican Americans struggled to keep their jobs and provide for their families, which is why some of them began returning to Mexico in hopes of finding better living conditions. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, over 30% of the Mexican immigrants who had moved to Los Angeles decided to return to their homeland. Those who remained, however, tried to be more socially and politically active in order to improve their socioeconomic status. Their main goal was to prove that the Mexican American population deserved equal rights and to halt unjust discrimination and unfair treatment. Thus, they managed to adjust to the American standard of living and established the Mexican American community in the United States.

The Importance of Family, Tradition,...

(This entire section contains 728 words.)

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Music, and Religion

Sanchez also mentions that the Mexican American community valued family and tradition above everything else. Because they were a minority in Los Angeles, Mexican Americans tended to stick together, and they expressed their cultural identity in numerous ways. For instance, they incorporated their native cuisine into American cuisine and introduced many of their native foods to the US citizens. They also expressed themselves through music, art, and literature. During the late 1930s and early 1940s, many Mexican American musicians tried to merge traditional Mexican and Latin folk music and Spanish rhythms with American jazz, soul, and even classical music, creating a unique symbiosis of sounds and melodies. As far as religion is concerned, Sanchez states that the Mexican American community was (and still is to this very day) predominantly Roman Catholic; however, some have since converted to Protestantism.