In this episode, we learn more about the barriers to voting faced by Mexican Americans in the years after World War II. As the anniversary of the 19th amendment approached in 2020, news reports celebrated the event as a milestone in voting access. Yet, many women, especially women of color, remained disenfranchised for decades after the amendment’s ratification.
In the western United States, Mexican American women faced numerous obstacles in their attempts to vote. For example, some counties in Washington State still required literacy tests, even after they were supposed to be banned by the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA). English-only elections also continued to take place well into the 1970s.
To learn more about this history and to understand how Mexican Americans in Washington State challenged discriminatory laws we interviewed Dr. Josué Q. Estrada. Dr. Estrada is a historian at Central Washington University, who studies the history of Latinx voting rights in the United States. His research documents the ongoing attempts to limit political participation in rural Yakima County in the years before and after passage of the VRA. Determind to expand voting access, Mexican Americans filed suit in the court system and pursued grassroots organizing campaigns to expand voter registration, with women playing a key role in both efforts.
Ballot Blocked Episode 5: Mexican American Voting Rights
This episode examines the barriers to voting faced by Mexican Americans in the Pacific Northwest. In Washington State, for example, some counties required that voters pass a literacy test, even after they were supposed to be banned by the 1965 Voting Rights Act. To learn more about this history and to understand how Mexican Americans challenged discriminatory laws we interview Dr. Josué Q, Estrada, a professor of history at Central Washington University.
Eleanor Mahoney: Welcome to Ballot Blocked, a history of women's fight to access the vote. I’m Eleanor Mahoney. In this six-part series, we talk to historians and scholars to learn about women’s path to the ballot, from the period of the Civil War, through the women’s suffrage movement, the Civil Rights movement, and the 2020 election. It’s a story of courage and perseverance, of disappointments and hard-won victories. Some of the people you will hear about are well-known, their names on monuments and memorials. Others may have received less recognition, but their achievements are no less impressive. The history of women’s voting rights isn’t a progressive or linear narrative. Passing legislation is only one step along the way to the ballot box. The laws must be enforced and that takes more organizing and more struggle. New barriers to voting access are still being created today. One hundred years after the 19th amendment barred states from denying the vote based on sex, the fight for social, economic, and political equality continues. Ballot Blocked explores how we got here and asks where we might be going next when it comes to voting rights. In this episode, we learn more about the barriers to voting faced by Mexican Americans in the years after World War II. As the anniversary of the 19th amendment approached in 2020, news reports celebrated the event as a milestone in voting access. Yet, many women, especially women of color, remained disenfranchised for decades after the amendment’s ratification. In western states, Mexican American women faced numerous obstacles in their attempts to vote. In Washington State, for example, some counties still required literacy tests, even after they were supposed to be banned by the 1965 Voting Rights Act. English-only elections also continued to take place well into the 1970s. To learn more about this history and to understand how Mexican Americans in Washington challenged discriminatory laws I talked to Dr. Josué Estrada. Dr. Estrada is a historian at the University of Washington. He studies the history of Latinx voting rights in the United States. He’s also the director of Gear-Up, a federally funded college readiness program for low-income students at Central Washington University in Ellensburg. Dr. Estrada told me that the epicenter of voting rights organizing wasn’t in big cities like Seattle. Instead, it was in more rural areas like Yakima County, east of the Cascade Mountains. Mexican Americans had been living in Yakima County for decades, but still faced significant challenges when it came to voting. Voter suppression was built into the system, as Dr. Estrada explains. Josué Estrada: Part of my study examines Mexican American voter suppression in Washington, and how the community challenged the state's literacy tests to be able to register and vote. And I'm also looking at how local politicians, institutions, and the legal court system responded to their movement. Now, the voting rights struggle here in Washington state was different than in the South. And that's for many reasons. It had to do with the fact that the Mexican American community had unique challenges. It wasn't just English literacy tests that blocked them from the ballot, but also English-only elections. And so the Mexican American movement to further democratize the state does begin in Yakima County, and it's located about two and a half hours east of Seattle. Eleanor Mahoney: Mexicans and Mexican Americans made their way to Yakima County throughout the 20th century. They were hired by growers who needed labor for their farms. Many came to the region as guest workers through the Bracero program. It was a mid-century initiative that allowed farms to employ men from Mexico on temporary contracts to make up for the World War II labor shortage. Growers in Washington also recruited Mexican Americans from other states, to come to the Pacific Northwest to harvest crops By the 1960s, Mexican Americans made up a little less than 10 percent of Yakima County’s population. In interviews conducted by Dr. Estrada, community members recalled the discrimination they faced before and after coming to Washington State. Josué Estrada: I had the opportunity to interview folks that specifically came, were recruited from Texas to come into Washington State. And then what they let me know was that they experienced less discrimination in Washington State than they did in Texas. Now, they didn't say, hey, everything was great here in Washington State, but certainly the overt racism was less, but they continued to experience different challenges in the community. At one point, I interviewed one individual who did see that there were signs posted here throughout the Yakima Valley that said, ‘no Mexicans, no dogs’ allowed here in the area. So, there was certainly racism and discrimination, but at the same time you had these growers that wanted to bring these folks into this area, so they created, at least, a space for them to feel a sense of community and feel welcomed in this place. And then there were other institutions, of course, that helped to transition them into this space. And one of those was the Catholic Church. They were able to have Spanish-speaking priests give Mass. And we can see through the church records that after the 1960s, most people were baptizing their children, and we see the growth of communities there. Eleanor Mahoney: The arrival of growing numbers of Mexican Americans in Yakima County coincided with significant changes to federal election laws in the United States. Congress passed and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act or VRA into law in 1965. The VRA’s primary purpose was to address the systemic and oftentimes violent disenfranchisement of African American voters in the South. In other regions of the country, however, its immediate effects were more limited, including in the Pacific Northwest. Josué Estrada: The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a significant civil rights law. Now, the legislation temporarily suspended literacy tests, it prohibited the enforcement of new voting rules without pre-clearance from the federal government, and also allowed for the appointment of examiners to ensure that persons could register and vote without issue. Now, for Mexican Americans in the American West, however, it was powerless to protect them. This was because the safeguards of the Voting Rights Act were largely limited to six Deep South states and focused on African Americans who were subject to Jim Crow segregation and discriminatory voting restrictions, including literacy tests. Now, Washington State was not included under the coverage of the Voting Rights Act because of the trigger formula. Eleanor Mahoney: Dr. Estrada’s last point is important. When the Voting Rights Act became law in 1965, it included a provision, section 4, which is sometimes called the “trigger formula” or “coverage formula.” The provision applied to jurisdictions that maintained a test or device as part of their voting processes. For example, a requirement to pass a literacy test prior to casting a ballot. The Voting Rights Acts suspended such tests - but with an important caveat. The law’s protections would only be applied or triggered in places where voter turnout was under 50 percent in the last general election or where less than 50 percent of persons of voting age were registered to vote. Neither of these conditions were present in Yakima County. So that left disenfranchised Mexican American voters there without any recourse when it came to challenging discrimination at the polls. Josué Estrada: And in 1964, we see that 64 percent of the county's population voted, so the law didn't apply here in Washington state. But it didn't stop Mexican Americans from trying to file a lawsuit against the county to enforce the Voting Rights Act. The United States Census also wasn't tracking the number of Spanish-speaking, Latino, Mexican American voters at this time. So, there was no data to say these people are being denied the vote, but when we look at the historical record and we look at this lawsuit that was filed, absolutely people were being disenfranchised using the state's literacy test. Washington's literacy test wasn't exceptional. It was really used to target non-White voters. And Washington's literacy test was, essentially, you had to be able to speak English and read English, and that was it. And so who administered the test? It was usually the county clerks. You would see the county clerk when you would go to city hall and pay your bill. So that was the person, the gatekeeper, so to speak. In total, I think there were about, around 20 states in the country that had English literacy tests. In the American West, there were four states that had literacy tests. And along the Eastern coast, there were a number of states that had English literacy tests. And they were essentially adopted in the Northeast to kind of restrict the participation of immigrants that were arriving there in the East Coast. And in the South, they were absolutely being used to target and disenfranchise African Americans. In the American West, a little differently, they were initially used to target Chinese and Indigenous people, but then, as we see in our story, they were repurposed to attack Mexican Americans. Eleanor Mahoney: Because of the requirements of the coverage or trigger formula, the Voting Rights Act didn’t protect Mexican American voters in Washington State from literacy tests. The law only banned literacy tests in places where voter suppression could be documented at higher rates. Puerto Rican organizers in the Northeast fought successfully for an exception to the law for people educated in Spanish at schools in Puerto Rico. But that exception didn’t apply to Spanish-speaking voters with a Mexican background, as Dr. Estrada explained. Later in the 1960s, though, Mexican American organizers were able to gain momentum in their efforts to challenge voter suppression in Washington State. Two groups that played a key role in these efforts were the United Farm Workers union and the Mexican American Federation. Josué Estrada: A number of factors are going to align that are going to move the Mexican Americans to revolt against these literacy tests, the white local establishment, and they're going to demand that they want to be recognized as integral citizens of Washington State. And in this year, 1967, we see the formation of the Mexican American Federation, and also the United Farm Workers union. And they're founded to politically mobilize the Mexican American community. Now, the Mexican American Federation, they're going to encourage Mexican Americans to vote, to run for elected office, and take a stand on political issues to influence local and state governments. A top priority for them is going to be that they want to register all Mexican American people eligible to vote in the state. And the epicenter of this voter registration effort is going to be Yakima County. The Mexican American Federation estimates that they're going to be able to register about 4,000 people. Now, on the other hand, Washington's United Farm Workers union, they are organized, or they're working there in the Yakima Valley, to unionize laborers. They want to improve the health and living conditions of folks. And they're also there to provide legal help to farm workers. And they're going to recruit the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU. So, it's a fascinating time. You have, the Mexican American Federation is attempting to register folks, and they come to find out that Mexican Americans are being asked if they can read and speak English. Now, while there are some that are able to speak English, others have trouble reading the language, and these folks are not going to be allowed to register. And they also observed that there's people who can't speak English, and these folks are immediately turned away. Eleanor Mahoney: The number of Mexican Americans registered to vote in Yakima County got a boost from the combined efforts of the ACLU, Mexican American Federation, and the United Farm Workers union. But the total remained suppressed, largely owing to literacy tests. The practice of requiring such tests wasn’t new in 1968, but the willingness of activists and community members to challenge their continued use marked a significant turning point. Josué Estrada: In 1968, what ends up happening is that in early 1968, the Mexican American Federation, they're going to set up a meeting with a Yakima County auditor, Eugene Naff. And they're going to request that he appoint Spanish-speaking registrars to help people register to vote. They explained that women and men attempting to register are United States citizens, and that the Voting Rights Act has outlawed literacy tests. Naff is going to find out that Washington's exam has not been banned. And so, he refuses to make any changes. One of his reasons for denying the appointment of Spanish-speaking registrars is because he believes that it's going to privilege Spanish speaking Americans. And if you appoint Spanish speaking Americans, next thing you're going to have is the Filipinos and Indigenous people, the Chinese, they're going to want their own registrar. So, he's dead set on not appointing any Spanish-speaking registrars. It's at this point where the Mexican American Federation, they're going to reach out to the United Farm Workers union, who is also working there in the Yakima Valley, and they're going to connect them with the ACLU, who is going to file a lawsuit against the county. They're going to make the case, the Mexican American Federation and its plaintiffs will make the case that Mexican Americans are being racially discriminated against and are being deprived of their right to vote in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Now, the outcome is not going to be good. After a year of litigation, in May 1969, a three-panel judge, in their opinion to the court, ruled against the plaintiffs and the Mexican American Federation. The judges are going to collectively agree that a simple inquiry on the registration form, can you speak and read English, is not a test, and could not conceivably result in discriminatory practices. And that is the ruling that they come up with. Eleanor Mahoney: The 1969 ruling was a bitter disappointment. But it did not stop efforts to end voter suppression in Yakima County. Lawyers for the ACLU planned to challenge the judgement, taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary. In the end though, Congress would act first, banning literacy tests across the country in 1970. Josué Estrada: After the decision comes down, the ACLU, they're ready to file a landmark lawsuit to make the case that Mexican Americans are being discriminated against, and they're going to make a case against English literacy tests. But as they're gathering their evidence, they begin to also work and make connections with MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. And they're going to reach out to their lawyers and say, hey, we have a case here that can potentially be a Supreme Court decision that's going to include Mexican Americans. But what ends up happening is that in 1970, the Voting Rights Act is renewed for an additional five years, and it's going to ban literacy tests throughout the country. Eleanor Mahoney: Large organizations, like the United Farm Workers, the Mexican American Federation, and the ACLU, played a role in fighting voter suppression in Washington State. But it also took individual acts of courage to bring the injustice to light. Mexican American women, in particular, helped lead the campaign to abolish literacy tests in Yakima County. Fifty years had passed since the 19th amendment became law, but its full promise had yet to be realized. Josué Estrada: So Mexican American women were important leaders in the fight for voting rights and to further democratize Washington State. While the 19th amendment granted women the right to vote, Mexican women who had limited English skills continued to be denied this right. But there were women such as Jennie Marin and Marta Cantu, who wanted to register and vote, and joined this struggle here in Washington State. And they added their names to the lawsuit against Yakima County. They were mothers, working-class women, and they stated that they wanted to vote so that farm workers could earn better wages. They used interpreters. Using interpreters, these women explained that they came from migrant farm-working backgrounds, and so their families traveled throughout the country constantly, and it certainly affected their ability to stay in school and improve their English skills. Marta Cantu said, for example, in her deposition statement, that her family traveled to Illinois, Michigan, and different parts of the Pacific Northwest. I also found Jennie Marin's testimony to be very powerful as she demanded the right to vote. She used her identity as a mother whose son had served four years in the Navy. She was getting across this fact that she could send her son to war, but she herself was unable to vote. It's also important to note that these were brave women. They risked being ostracized by their community members who maybe didn't agree with the Mexican American Federation lawsuit. And they also might be turned away by employers for joining the suit. And so there was also that level of potential retaliation that these women faced as well. Eleanor Mahoney: The nationwide elimination of literacy tests in 1970 marked a significant victory in the fight for voting rights. But it didn’t mean that the struggle was over for Mexican Americans in Washington State. For example, English-only ballots continued to be the norm in many jurisdictions, limiting access and participation. Josué Estrada: We talked about how, after 1970, the Voting Rights Act was renewed. That particular law, in 1970, when it was renewed, it banned English literacy tests throughout the country, right? But there were other factors that continued to be used to deny Mexican Americans the ballot. And after the lawsuit, what we find out also, is that the Mexican American Federation also ceased to exist. And the United Farm Workers union, they continued to help to register people to vote, but their resources were limited. And then states and counties, they weren't required to provide Spanish language assistance. And we talked about that during this time, the United States Census had not started to collect voting data on Mexican Americans, so it was difficult to track if their numbers had increased after 1970. But what I did is, I looked at the county’s candidacy filing records, and I also didn't see any upsurge in the number of Spanish-surname people running for office, so it's likely that the number of registered voters didn't significantly increase after 1970. Now, in 1975, the Voting Rights Act's protections were extended to Latinos and certain counties needed to provide multilingual ballots. But in Yakima County, after 1975, the struggle still continued there. And in 2012, Mexican American residents there in the county's largest city, Yakima, Washington, filed a lawsuit, challenging its at-large election systems. And this lawsuit forced the city to create seven single-member voting districts. And this was the catalyst for a historic election that got three Latinas elected to the city council for the first time. And this was in 2015. And one of those Latinas was elected as the mayor of the city. So it was an incredible, incredible feat. And it was as a result of the Voting Rights Act. Because the lawsuit, again, used the Voting Rights Act to challenge these at-large election schemes, which were denying, or which were suppressing the Latino vote there in Yakima County. Eleanor Mahoney: The history of voting rights in the United States doesn’t always follow a straight path. Access expands in one place or for one group, only to contract for others. The experiences of Mexican Americans in the Pacific Northwest reflect this fitful pattern, as Dr. Estrada’s research demonstrates. Josué Estrada: If we look at voting rights histories, they tend to chart a progressive narrative. The franchise continues to get widened, and we're headed towards universal suffrage. But when we dig deeper and examine the history, say, for example of Latino voter suppression, we see that that happens in fits and starts. It's a result of people mobilizing to enforce these regulations or to broaden civil rights legislation that is so critical to making the vote accessible to everyone. And, in this particular case, what we see is that Mexican Americans in Washington state were really exposing the limits of the Voting Rights Act. It was really tailored toward African Americans, but they're saying, hold on a second, we're also being denied the right to vote, but our challenges are unique. And I think this is what the benefit of studying the history of Latino voter suppression is, in Washington State, is we see that literacy tests, or just one device, was not a region or race-specific tool to restrict the franchise. In the Pacific Northwest, they were enforced to limit non-White voters' access to the ballot. And like I said, they're again, exposing. This movement exposed those limits of the Voting Rights Act, and Mexican Americans in Washington State were making the case that they were also being discriminated against. And I think the big thing that I see is that their movement then sparks a national movement to broaden the coverage of the Voting Rights Act. And this happens in 1975. I think political scientists have examined Latinx voter turnout, and they continue to explain that their numbers are lower than Whites and African Americans, and they cite that a large number are not naturalized, that many are undocumented, and voter apathy to explain this phenomenon. But what my work does is, I make the case that Mexican American voter suppression must be understood within a historical context, and that national, state and local factors need to be considered to more fully understand Latinx voter turnout. So, you have, in one case where there in Yakima County, beginning of the 1960s, they've been struggling to participate, engage, and be part of the electoral system there. But you had one barrier that was set up and that was literacy tests. And then after that is eliminated, then you have English-only elections, and then no access to Spanish language ballots. And then you have at- large elections, and then redistricting, which continued to limit their access to the ballot. So, unless we can take into account these factors, we're going to continue to see that those numbers are lower than whites and African-Americans, but not take into account the systemic factors that have led up to this, the lower voter turnout. Eleanor Mahoney: It took 50 years for the promises of the Voting Rights Act to fully reach Yakima County. And, in the end, it was by way of a pragmatic reform forced by a lawsuit: ending at-large elections for city council seats. After the change was put into effect, three Latinas took office and the city council started to look a lot more like the city it represents. Dr. Estrada’s research demonstrates that voting rights legislation is often a midpoint in the fight for ballot access, rather than the final destination. Laws have to be interpreted and enforced at all levels of government, a process that takes time, effort, and education. The history of the 19th amendment demonstrates this all too well, with many women denied suffrage long after its ratification. In our next and final episode, we’ll get special insight into how the activism of the last century reverberates in our world today. Dr. Sylvea Hollis, a professor of History at Montgomery College, interviews Dr. Brittany Webb, the Evelyn and Will Kaplan Curator of Twentieth Century Art and the John Rhoden collection at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts or PAFA in Philadelphia. They discuss the exhibit Taking Space: Contemporary Women Artists and the Politics of Scale, on view at PAFA from January 21, 2021 to September 5, 2021. Dr. Webb curated the exhibit, along with her colleague, Jodi Throckmorton.
- Credit / Author:
- Eleanor Mahoney
- Date created:
- 2021-08-12 00:00:00.0