Mexican Americans caught in 50s 'witch hunt'

Zaragosa Vargas

In the Red Scare that followed World War II, Mexican American activists working for civil rights were harassed, intimidated, vilified and indicted as subversives.

This “maelstrom of Cold War anti-communism” undermined a labor-based civil rights coalition that might have transformed American society, said Zaragosa Vargas, a Visiting Research Fellow and professor of history at the University of California-Santa Barbara. “The paranoia over illegal Mexicans mirrored the witch hunts that were being conducted at the same time for suspected Communists. In such a repressive climate, fear of harassment and deportation had a significant deterrent effect on Mexican American activism.”

Mexican Americans whose local families went back generations were lumped with illegals by mainstream white society, and were forced into competition with contract laborers and “wetbacks.” As a consequence, the Mexican American civil rights movement that emerged during the 1950s and early 1960s was deeply altered from its earlier character and makeup, with a different base and leaders with different visions and methods.

“Largely overlooked by historians, the period of Mexican American history from 1946-1963 marks the development of civil rights among this racial minority group that soon generated its own momentum within the larger struggle being waged by blacks,” said Vargas. His current book project, A Quest for Justice: The Making of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement, will join earlier works on related subjects, including: Labor Rights Are Civil Rights: Mexican American Workers in Twentieth Century America, (Princeton UP, 2005); Major Problems in Mexican American History (Houghton Mifflin Co. 1998; and Proletarians of the North: A History of Mexican Industrial Workers in Detroit and the Midwest, 1917-1933 (UC Press, 1993).

Using an interdisciplinary approach that draws from American labor, social, cultural and ethnic history, the new book “negotiates a half century of history, a broad swath of geography, and a large cast of characters to provide the first in-depth history of the variety of ideological and strategic stances that existed within the postwar Mexican American community and the ways these differences affected the course of local movements for social justice.”

The study begins with a discussion of the suppression of the early Mexican American civil rights movement by Cold War anti-communism, which Vargas describes as key to the full understanding of the Mexican struggle. “Progressives who raised the banner of social justice were trapped and often swept up by the Cold War dilemma – you had to identify with either the Communist or anti-Communist left by declaring support for or opposition to the Soviet Union.”

The Red Scare crackdown on dissenters led to deportation frenzy. “Surveillance of even conservative Mexican Americans became a practice, while efforts to disrupt the organizing of Mexican Americans continued. U.S. Immigration, Border and Customs agencies conducted quasi-military campaigns of search and seizure, while government associations functioning under the draconian and xenophobic ‘Operation Wetback’ and ‘Operation Terror’ committed appalling violations of human and civil rights.”

In L.A., the battle for control of the Mexican American civil rights effort was between liberal and socialist leaders, and Communists and their allies. The progressive anti-Communists won, essentially destroying the leftist cause. Vargas argues that, “the dissolution of the Mexican American left created a situation in which struggles for racial justice were able to proceed provided that movement demands were couched within the confines of liberal discourse.”

During the 1950s, the “decade of the wetback,” the number of illegals coming from Mexico increased by 6,000 percent. “To many activists, cheap labor displaced native workers, increased labor law violations and discrimination, and encouraged racist public discourse about illegal aliens and the rise in crime, disease, and other social ills. Mexican Americans greatly feared that the influx of workers from Mexico would endanger their marginal foothold in America.”

Some Mexican American organizations worked to stop the Bracero Program and to pass stricter regulations on future immigration from Mexico in order to protect legal residents from competition that “enabled employers to cut back on workers’ pay, benefits, and working conditions.”

In the Southwest in the 1940s, the struggle for rights occurred mostly through the courts, but this changed with the involvement of grassroots organizations made up of working class people with experience in previous civil rights efforts. They began with voter registration, then pressed for equality in housing, education, and the workplace.

The 1960s brought an emphasis on pluralism in dealing with racial and ethnic diversity, said Vargas, with cooperation between Mexican Americans and certain labor unions and African American groups.

“The modern Mexican American civil rights movement developed without a ‘name’ leader, varied widely in scope, aims, and organization, and was felt equally and in the same ways in all corners of American society. Nevertheless, I conclude that it produced a militancy that valorized racial politics and identity in a uniquely American context and created a host of complex consequences, one of which was the revitalization of working class activism in the cause of advancing justice and equality for Mexican Americans, the nation’s second largest racial minority group.”