Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Mexicans Made America—in So Many Ways. Why Do We Treat Them as Alien Invaders?

By John Tutino 

John Tutino is a professor of history and international affairs in the School of Foreign Service and director of the Americas Initiative at Georgetown University.

Mexicans have contributed to making the United States in pivotal and enduring ways. In 1776, more of the territory of the current United States was under Spanish sovereignty than in the thirteen colonies that rejected British rule. Florida, the Gulf Coast to New Orleans, the Mississippi to St. Louis, and the lands from Texas through New Mexico and California all lived under Spanish rule, creating Hispanic-Mexican legacies. Millions of pesos minted in Mexico City, the American center of global finance, funded the war for U.S. independence,
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leading the new nation to adopt the peso (renamed the dollar) as its currency.

The U.S. repaid the debt by claiming Spanish/Mexican lands: buying vast Louisiana territories (via France) in 1803; gaining Florida by treaty in 1819; sending settlers (many undocumented) into Texas to expand cotton and slavery in the 1820s; enabling Texas secession in 1836; and provoking war in 1846 to incorporate Texas’s cotton and slave economy—and acquiring California’s gold fields, too. The U.S. took in land and peoples long Spanish and recently Mexican, often mixing European, indigenous, and African ancestries. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo recognized those who remained in the U.S. as citizens. And the U.S. incorporated the dynamic mining/grazing/irrigation economy that had marked Spanish North America for centuries and would long define the U.S. west.

Debates over slavery and freedom in lands taken from Mexico led to the U.S. Civil War, while Mexicans locked in shrunken territories fought over liberal reforms and then faced a French occupation—all in the 1860s. With Union victory, the U.S. continued its drive for continental hegemony. Simultaneously, Mexican liberals led by Benito Juárez consolidated power and welcomed U.S. capital. U.S. investors built Mexican railroads, developed mines, and promoted export industries, including petroleum. The U.S. and Mexican economies merged; U.S. capital and technology shaped Mexico while Mexican workers built the U.S. west. The economies were so integrated that a U.S. downturn, the panic of 1907, was pivotal in setting off Mexico’s 1910 revolution, a sociopolitical conflagration that focused Mexicans while the U.S. joined World War I.

Afterwards, the U.S. roared in the 1920s while Mexicans faced reconstruction. Though the U.S. blocked immigration from Europe, the nation still welcomed Mexicans across a little-patrolled border to build dams and irrigation systems, cities and farms across the west. When the Great Depression hit in 1929 (begun in New York, spread across the U.S., and exported to Mexico), Mexicans became expendable. Denied relief, they got one-way tickets to the border, forcing thousands south—including children born as U.S. citizens.

Mexico absorbed the refugees thanks to new industries and land distributions—reforms culminating in a 1938 oil nationalization. U.S. corporations screamed foul, and FDR enabled a settlement; access to Mexican oil mattered as World War II loomed. When war came, the U.S. needed more than oil. It needed cloth and copper, livestock and leather—and workers, too. Remembering the expulsions of the early 1930s, many resisted going north. So the governments negotiated a labor program, recruiting braceros in Mexico: paying for their travel, and promising decent wages and treatment. Five hundred thousand Mexican citizens fought in the U.S. military; sent to deadly fronts, they suffered high casualty rates.

To support the war, Mexican exporters accepted promises of postwar payment. With peace, accumulated credits allowed Mexico to import machinery for national development. But when credits ran out, the U.S. was subsidizing the reconstruction of Europe and Japan, and Mexico was left to compete for scarce and expensive bank credit. Life came in cycles of boom and bust, debt crises and devaluations. Meanwhile, U.S. pharmaceutical sellers delivered the antibiotics that had saved soldiers in World War II to families across Mexico. Children lived—and Mexico’s population soared: from 20 million in 1940, to 50 million by 1970, to 100 million in 2000. To feed these growing numbers, Mexico turned to U.S. funding and scientists to pioneer a “green revolution.” Harvests of wheat and maize rose to feed growing cities. Reliance on machinery and chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, however, cut rural employment. National industries also adopted labor-saving ways, making employment scarce everywhere. So people trekked north, some to labor seasonally in the bracero program, which lasted until 1964, and others to settle families in once-Mexican regions like Texas and California and in places north and east.

Documentation and legality were uncertain; U.S. employers’ readiness to hire Mexicans for low wages was not. People kept coming. U.S. financing, corporations, and models of production shaped lives across the border; Mexican workers labored everywhere. With integrated economies, the nations faced linked challenges. In the 1980s, the U.S. lived through “stagflation,” while Mexico faced a collapse called the “lost decade.” In 1986, Republican president Ronald Reagan authorized a path to legality for thousands of Mexicans in the U.S., tied to sanctions on employers that aimed to end new arrivals. Legal status kept workers here; failed sanctions enabled employers to keep hiring Mexicans—who kept coming. They were cheap and insecure workers for U.S. producers, subsidizing profits in challenging times.

The 1980s also saw the demise of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, and the presumed triumph of capitalism. What would that mean for people in Mexico and the U.S.? Reagan corroded union rights, leading to declining incomes, disappearing pensions, and enduring insecurities among U.S. workers. President Carlos Salinas, a member of Mexico’s dominant PRI Party, attacked union power—and in 1992 ended rural Mexicans’ right to land. A transnational political consensus saw the erosion of popular rights as key to post–Cold War times.

Salinas proposed NAFTA to Reagan’s Republican successor, George H. W. Bush. The goal was to liberate capital and allow goods to move freely across borders, while holding people within nations. U.S. businesses would profit; Mexicans would continue to provide a reservoir of low-wage workers—at home. The treaty was ratified in Mexico by Salinas and the PRI, and in the U.S. by Democratic president Bill Clinton and an allied Congress.

As NAFTA took effect in 1994, Mexico faced the Zapatista uprising in the south and then a financial collapse before NAFTA could bring investment and jobs. On top of this, the Clinton-era high-tech boom caused production to flow to China. Mexico gained where transport costs mattered—as with auto assembly. But old textiles and new electronics went to Asia. Mexico returned to growth in the late 1990s, though jobs were still scarce for a population nearing 100 million. Meanwhile, Mexican production of corn for home markets collapsed. NAFTA ended tariffs on goods crossing borders while the U.S. continued to subsidize corporate farmers, enabling agribusiness to export below cost. Mexican growers could not compete, and migration to the U.S. accelerated.

NAFTA created new concentrations of wealth and power across North America. In Mexico, cities grew as a powerful few and the favored middle sectors prospered; millions more struggled with marginality. The vacuum created by agricultural collapse and urban marginality made space for a dynamic, violent drug economy. Historically, cocaine was an Andean specialty, heroin an Asian product. But as the U.S. leaned on drug economies elsewhere, Mexicans—some enticed by big profits, but many just searching for sustenance—turned to supplying U.S. consumers.

U.S. politicians and ideologues blame Mexico for the “drug problem”—a noisy “supply side” argument that is historically untenable. U.S. demand drives the drug economy. The U.S. has done nothing effective to curtail consumption or to limit the flow of weapons to drug cartels in Mexico. Laying blame helps block any national discussion of the underlying social insecurities brought by globalization—deindustrialization, scarce employment, low wages, lowered benefits, vanishing pensions—that close observers know fuel drug dependency. Drug consumption in the U.S. has expanded as migration from Mexico has slowed (mostly due to slowing population growth)—a conversation steadfastly avoided.

People across North America struggle with shared challenges: common insecurities spread by globalizing capitalism. Too many U.S. politicians see benefit in polarization, blaming Mexicans for all that ails life north of the border. Better that we work to understand our inseparable histories. Then we might move toward a prosperity shared by diverse peoples in an integrated North America.

John Tutino
Georgetown University

John Tutino is the author of Making a New World: Founding Capitalism in the Bajío and Spanish North America (Duke University Press, 2011) and The Mexican Heartland: How Communities Shaped Capitalism, a Nation, and World History, 1500–2000 (Princeton University Press, 2018). He is the editor of and a contributor to Mexico and Mexicans in the Making of the United States (University of Texas Press, 2012).

Further Reading - Border Essentials

Featuring dozens of compelling images, this transformative reading of borderland and Mexican cultural production—from body art to theater, photography, and architecture—draws on extensive primary research to trace more than two decades of social and political response in the aftermath of NAFTA.

This compelling chronicle of a journey along the entire U.S.-Mexico border shifts the conversation away from danger and fear to the shared histories and aspirations that bind Mexicans and Americans despite the border walls.

Visit the companion website www.borderodyssey.com to access maps, photographs, a film, audio, and more.

By Chad Richardson and Michael J. Pisani

Now thoroughly revised and updated, this classic account of life on the Texas-Mexico border reveals how the borderlands have been transformed by NAFTA, population growth and immigration crises, and increased drug violence.
Edited by Harriett D. Romo and Olivia Mogollon-Lopez

Bringing together leading scholars from Mexico and the United States in fields ranging from economics to anthropology, this timely anthology presents empirical research on key immigration policy issues and analyzes the many push-pull facets of Mexico-US migration.

Escobar examines the criminalization of Latina (im)migrants, delving into questions of reproduction, technologies of power, and social justice in a prison system that consistently devalues the lives of Latinas

Using oral histories and local archives, this historical ethnography analyzes how and why Mexican American individuals unevenly experienced racial dominance and segregation in South Texas.

Using the U.S. wall at the border with Mexico as a focal point, two experts examine the global surge of economic and environmental refugees, presenting a new vision of the relationships between citizen and migrant in an era of “Juan Crow,” which systematically creates a perpetual undercaste.

A timely exploration of the political and cultural impact of U.S. naturalization laws on Mexicans in Texas, from early statehood years to contemporary controversies.

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