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Book Review: Mexicans in the Midwest (1900 - 1932)
by Raymundo Eli Rojas
United States history had never really given the history of Mexicans in the Midwest. Even Chicano historians have left the Midwest out of the books.
This is no more, because in Juan R. García’s Mexicans in the Midwest, 1900-1932 (University of Arizona Press), the author gives us a history that has been missing.
Giving an intricate analysis of the history of migration to the Midwest, García shows why and how Mexican immigrants came to the Midwest. Some came as railroad workers and other came to pick sugar beets. Others got jobs in the motor plants of Detroit, the meatpacking plants in Chicago, and others were elite Mexicans fleeing Pancho Villa’s war on Mexico’s rich.
This book covers Mexicans in Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, and Wisconsin. García focuses on the “Mexican Generation,” in which the Mexicans in the Midwest still had a distinctive Mexicano identity as opposed to “Chicano,” “Mexican American,” or “Hispanic.” The authors give pictures of a highly mobile people, going back and forth across the Midwest for work.
One of the things García describes is the organizing efforts, both coming from the poor and the elites of the immigrant groups. García gives a good description of assimilation. In addition, he shows how Mexican immigrant elites hypocritically looked down on the assimilation of many lower-class Mexicans into US society.
It is important to look at the Midwest in context of Mexican immigration. Unlike the Southwestern United States and California, the Midwest was never part of Mexico. Therefore, instead of being invaded and occupied by people from the United States, as in the Southwest, Mexican experience in the Midwest paralleled that of other immigrant groups. Furthermore, unlike the Southwest, Mexicans encountered African Americans and a host of other immigrant groups in the Midwest.
Like many times in the United States’ history, war created an economic boom, but the workforce was in short supply. During World War I, a workforce was needed and García explains why these particular Mexicans chose to come and stay in the Midwest. He shows the inadequate housing, high rents, unemployment, and discrimination that proliferated throughout the Mexican population during these years.
This book also focuses on women’s role in immigration to the Midwest. Women’s role is a topic that historians often ignored. Here, Garcia shows how women influence the economic and social life of the communities in which they lived.García also touches on Mexican consulates and their role. He shows how during the 1920’s, efforts were made by the Mexican government to protect its citizens in the US. However, elitist consuls stymied many of these efforts due to a lack of funding and the Mexican government not wanting to get on the bad side of the US government.
One of the most important aspects of this book is that García shows how Midwest Mexicans were not passive to the discrimination they experienced. Many made efforts to organize themselves to fight discrimination and resist political, economic, and legal exploitation. Another importance aspect is how García shows the discrimination based on color, in which tenement or boarding house owners would not rent to “dark” Mexicans but only to the “white” colored Mexicans.
The social lives of the immigrants are explained as well as the
anti-immigrant sentiment coming out of the Great Depression. This resulted in the repatriation of many Mexicans, as well as many Mexicans who were already US citizens.
García also analyzes where in Mexico the Midwest immigrants came from, showing how in 1920’s- and pre-1920-immigration 60-70 percent of Mexican in Topeka, Kansas came from Guanajuato, 20 percent of Chicago Mexicans came from Jalisco, 21 percent from Guanajuato, and 26 percent from Michoacán. 34 percent of Mexicans in Kansas City came from Michoacán.
García describes many barrios in the Midwest such as Hull House in Chicago, East Chicago, Indiana Harbor, the rail car communities of Kansas City, the “Tangas” (from Tanganciuaro, Michoacán) of Argentine in Kansas City, and many more. García shows after 1926 “a large number of pro-Cristero (a Mexican Catholic uprising in the 1920s) came to the Midwest… forming a powergroup that classed with the less ardent Catholics.”
Mexicans in the Midwest is a pleasurable read, especially for those who are interested in learning about their roots in the Midwest.
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From El Paso's Eastside, Raymundo Eli Rojas is the editor of Pluma
Fronteriza, a publication focusing on Chicano/Latino writers of the El Paso/Cd. Juarez border region. A labor and immigrant rights activists, Rojas is a graduate of UTEP and the University of Kansas School of Law. He currently lives near Kansas City.
Raymundo Eli Rojas, Editor
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