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[Essay] Mexican Americans in Houston

[Essay] Mexican Americans in Houston

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Published by Jaime Puente
This essay researches and discusses the formation of identity for Mexican Americans in Houston, 1929-1939
This essay researches and discusses the formation of identity for Mexican Americans in Houston, 1929-1939

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Published by: Jaime Puente on Aug 08, 2010
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Mexican Americans in Houston:Facing Adversity and Becoming American during the Great Depression, 1929 -1939
Historians have documented and interpreted the civil rights struggle in America for themany different groups who, by the necessity of their condition, sought betterment of their lives.The story of one such group, Mexican Americans, is a testament to the complications causedwhen the worth of any one person or community is defined by subjective factors like skin color,nationality, and class. Many people of Mexican descent, both citizens and non-citizens, weresubject to the same discriminatory practices that plagued black Americans in the late nineteenthand early twentieth centuries. Across the nation, leaders of the growing colonias realized theneed to shield themselves from the ills of American society.
It is for this reason people of Mexican descent, during the Great Depression, began to assert their identity as Americans toprove their claim to citizenship and thereby resist the social, political, and economic oppressionthat permeated their existence. The climate in Houston during this time, the years 1929 to 1939,provides a useful context to explore the methods Mexican Americans used to alleviate the painsof discrimination. To understand how the group settled on their course of action, one must firstexamine the historical background of the diverse region.The first account of a person with a Spanish surname in the Houston area is that of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, the explorer that shipwrecked near Galveston in November1528.
Spanish presence in the Gulf did not have a long-lasting impact on the region outsideof defending the conquest from Mexican rebellion in the early nineteenth century. The presenceof Mexican people in the Houston-Galveston area, however, emerges in what historianArnoldo DeLeon calls the "Mexican period of Texas history, 1821- 1836." During this timethe Mexican government granted Stephen F. Austin the rights to the first Anglo settlementsin the area, spanning the length of the Buffalo Bayou. The influx of approximately 300 Anglofamilies solidified an American presence and caused significant strife between agents of the
Mexican government and the new settlers. By the spring of 1836 the rise of the Texas Republicestablished a new era of Anglo dominance in the region.
Although people of Mexican descentlived in what is now Houston before the Texas Revolution, as well as after, they could not claima significant role in the progress of the infant city.The 1836 battle at San Jacinto, an event of legendary proportions in the minds of manyTexans, marked a time when the image of Mexican people was at its lowest. The use of capturedMexican prisoners, as well as black slaves, to begin developing what is now Houston contributedto the degenerative effect of the conquest on Anglo perceptions of Mexican Americans.
 In the period after Texas gained independence, the Mexican population in Houston remainedsmall because before the railroads arrived the dominant white population discouraged theiremployment in positions other than the most menial type such as cooks, farmhands, andlaborers.
Thus the group essentially disappeared from significant historical record until theend of the nineteenth century. Around that time the politics of Mexico began to spill into theUnited States through the violence of the Mexican Revolution. Cities in northern Mexico andborder towns along the Rio Grande became deadly places for people who became caught upin the fighting. The beginning of the twentieth century witnessed many middle class Mexicansmoving in large numbers from Mexican cities such as San Luis Potosi, Coahuila, and NuevoLaredo, to the United States. The many Texas Mexicans living in South Texas along the borderalso felt the need to move further north to cities such as San Antonio and Houston to escape thebrutal fighting that occurred on a daily basis. The violence that drove families north well intothe second decade of the twentieth century had brutal effects on the perceptions Anglos hadof Mexicans and Mexican Americans, but it was not the only draw into the United States.
The completion of the ship channel in 1914 created the perfect environment for an industrialboom that capitalized on the recent discovery of oil and quick access to the cotton industry,bringing many Mexican migrants to the city. The prime position of Houston as the interchange
for Texas products to the world created a labor market that, as historian F. Arturo Rosalesdescribes, “could not be met by the resident population of the state.”
The overwhelmingneed for immigrant labor during World War I brought people from various parts of Mexico towork in the rail yards, ship channel, and oil refineries in the Houston area. The type of workand opportunities offered at the time were not enticing to the professional class of people whoended up in established colonias of San Antonio and Los Angeles.
The transient attitudes of the transplanted middle and upper classes maintained a desire to return home, fueled by a strongMexican nationalism that did not recognize the importance of citizenship and Americanism inthe United States. The leaders of the 1920s Mexican American community believed that theycould gain the favor of Americans by presenting the best of Mexico’s culture and showingthat they too could be proud of their heritage. Strong ethnocentrism characterized MexicanAmericans at the time and served as feeble attempts to find a place in their new, if onlytemporary, home. The development of a bustling Mexican American economy in the SecondWard and Magnolia neighborhoods of Houston spurred by the prosperity of the booming oileconomy, as well as the abundance of work in the rail yards and ship channel became a hallmarkachievement for the largely immigrant community.
Despite the success of the new communityin Houston during the “roaring 20s,” the problems of the Jim Crow South could not be escapedand would prove in the next decade to be terribly difficult to overcome.Houston's place in the Jim Crow South is as significant as any other major city in theDeep South. De Leon describes the bigotry Mexican Americans faced at the time because “JimCrow codes applicable to black people extended to Mexicans.”
Barred from services andestablishments specified for Anglos, the Mexican American community suffered deplorableconditions in their neighborhoods. Despite upward social mobility, many were forced to remainthere because unspoken agreements in white society kept real estate agents from selling tothe undesirable ethnic group.
Not allowing Mexican Americans to buy homes in districts

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