A History of Mexican Americans in California:
WORLD WAR II AND ITS AFTERMATH
World War II marked another sharp reversal in the course of Chicano history, renewing hope where the Depression had brought despair. The Depression had left in its wake a population decline, devastated communities, and shattered dreams; the war brought population growth, resurgent communities, and rising expectations.
World War II caused a tremendous labor shortage. When the military forces called for recruits, Mexican Americans responded in great number and went on to serve with distinction. Some 350,000 Chicanos served in the armed services and won 17 medals of honor. The war also brought industrial expansion, further aggravating the labor shortage caused by growth of the armed forces. Chicanos thus managed to gain entry to jobs and industries that had been virtually closed to them in the past. These new opportunities liberated many Chicanos from dependence on such traditional occupations as agriculture.
The turnaround from the labor surplus of the 1930s to the labor shortage of the 1940s had a special impact on agriculture and transportation. For help, the United States turned to Mexico, and in 1942 the two nations formulated the Bracero Program. From then until 1964, Mexican braceros were a regular part of the U.S. labor scene, reaching a peak of 450,000 workers in 1959. Most engaged in agriculture; they formed 26 percent of the nation's seasonal agricultural labor force in 1960.
Along with opportunities, World War II also brought increased tensions between Chicanos and law-enforcement agencies. Two events in Los Angeles brought this issue into focus. In the Sleepy Lagoon case of 1942-1943, 17 Chicano youths were convicted of charges ranging from assault to first-degree murder for the death of a Mexican American boy discovered on the outskirts of the city. Throughout the trial, the judge openly displayed bias against Chicanos, and allowed the prosecution to bring in racial factors. Further, the defendants were not permitted haircuts or changes of clothing. In 1944, the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee obtained a reversal of the convictions from the California District Court of Appeals, but the damage had been done. Los Angeles newspapers sensationalized the case and helped create an anti-Mexican atmosphere. Police harassed Chicano youth clubs, and repeatedly rounded up Chicano youth "under suspicion."
In the aftermath of the convictions and the press campaign, conflict broke out between U.S. servicemen in the area and young Mexican Americans who often dressed in the zoot suits popular during the wartime era. Soldiers and sailors declared open season on Chicanos, attacking them on the streets and even dragging them out of theaters and public vehicles. Instead of intervening to stop the attackers, military and local police moved in afterward and arrested the Chicano victims. Spurred on by sensational, anti-Mexican press coverage of the "zoot-suit riots," these assaults spread throughout Southern California and even into midwestern cities. A citizens' investigating committee appointed by the governor later reported that racial prejudice, discriminatory police practices, and inflammatory press coverage were among the principal causes of the riots. The Sleepy Lagoon case and the zoot-suit affair provided the basis for Luis Valdez's Zoot Suit, which in 1979 became the first Chicano play to appear on Broadway.
Despite such events as these, the World War II era proved to be generally positive for Mexican Americans and is often viewed as a watershed in their history. Progress continued after the war. The G.I. Bill of Rights gave all veterans such benefits as educational subsidies and loans for business and housing. Moreover, returning Chicano servicemen refused to accept the discriminatory practices that had been the Chicanos' lot. The G.I. generation furnished much of the leadership for post-war Mexican American civil rights and political activism.
Veterans were instrumental in the founding and growth of a variety of Chicano organizations. Among the heavily political organizations, the Unity Leagues and the Community Service Organization registered voters in California and supported Chicano candidates. These groups also engaged in such diverse activities as language and citizenship education, court challenges against school segregation, and assistance in obtaining government services. Even more overtly political has been the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA).
Chicano progress since World War II is reflected in occupational patterns. Changes in Mexican American job concentrations reflect to some extent changes in the state economy. Since 1940, California has experienced a manufacturing boom and rapid growth in such areas as government, product distribution, consumer-oriented activities, and professional services. Percentages of Mexican Americans in agriculture and unskilled labor positions have declined, while percentages in professional, technical, managerial, clerical, skilled craft, and semi-skilled occupations have risen.
The post-Depression era brought socio-economic gains for Mexican Americans, but not equality. Although percentages of Mexican Americans in professional, technical, managerial, and clerical positions have increased, they still fall far short of parity according to their population numbers. Moreover, in nearly every major occupational group, Chicanos tend to hold inferior jobs, and Chicano earnings in the same job classifications tend to be lower than those of Anglos.
Inequitable economic conditions are paralleled by comparatively low Chicano educational attainment and severe underrepresentation among elected officials. The latter has resulted partially because thousands of Mexican immigrants have lived in California for decades without obtaining U.S. citizenship. With Mexico so close, many come with plans ultimately to "return home," although these dreams often go unfulfilled. Some Mexican immigrants, although harboring no desire to live in Mexico, have refused to surrender their Mexican citizenship. In comparison to immigrants from other parts of the world, Mexicans and other Latinos have been more reluctant to become naturalized citizens.
Other factors have also contributed to Chicano electoral underrepresentation. In 1977, for example, a California legislative committee on elections partially attributed Chicanos' limited representation on most city councils in cities with significant Chicano populations to the predominant use of citywide at-large elections instead of district elections. There were no Chicano council members at all in 42 such cities in California. The committee argued that local at-large elections prevent "minority voters from exercising their potential political weight," since "their votes disappear in a sea of majority group votes." On the other hand, some contend that at-large elections make it less likely that candidates will write off minority votes as irrelevant, as can happen in ward-based contests.
When it comes to military service, combat decorations, and wartime casualties, however, Chicanos have been overrepresented in terms of population. Because of their lower educational attainment and restricted employment opportunities, Chicanos have traditionally viewed military service as a viable economic option. And since they were underrepresented in higher education, Mexican Americans did not benefit from student deferments as frequently as Anglos.
Finally, the 1970 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report, Mexican- Americans and the Administration of justice in the Southwest, documented unequal treatment of Chicanos by law-enforcement agencies and the judicial system. Among widespread abuses cited in this and other studies are the lack of bilingual translators in court proceedings; underrepresentation of Chicanos on grand juries, as judges, and as law-enforcement officers; unequal assignment of punishment and probation to convicted Chicanos; excessive patrolling of Chicano barrios; anti-Mexican prejudice among police and judicial officials; and even wrongful use of law-enforcement agencies. In the search for undocumented Mexicans, the U.S. Border Patrol has exacerbated antipathy among Mexican Americans by periodic raids on houses, apartments, restaurants, and bars in Chicano communities and predominantly Chicano places of employment.
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