Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

League of Revolutionary Struggle (Marxist-Leninist)

The Struggle for Chicano Liberation


II. The Chicano people from 1900 to the present

The rise of U.S. imperialism in the late 19th century had a profound effect upon the Chicano people.

For one thing, the U.S. imperialists steadily tightened their grip over Mexico. U.S. investments in the country controlled its economic life and, along with domestic reaction, contributed to the ruin of millions of Mexican peasants. Increasing numbers of Mexicans migrated over the border to survive. The great Mexican revolution of 1910 was directed in part against the Yankee imperialists and involved millions of Mexicans in struggle.

The rise of imperialism also resulted in the intensification of national oppression for the Chicano people in the U.S. Racist campaigns were conducted against the Chicanos. Chicano and Mexican workers in the U.S. became a significant sector of the working class, and were brutally exploited by the capitalists. All of these experiences led to a heightening of the consciousness of the Chicano people and widespread struggle against their oppression. (This aspect of Chicano history will be covered mainly in Chapter III.)

The Mexican Revolution and the first great migration

In 1884 Porfirio Diaz became president of Mexico and for the next 30 years ruled the country in the interests of the big Mexican landlords and foreign imperialists. Millions of peasants lost their land and became impoverished. The country fell more and more into debt to foreign governments and banks. The imperialists stole tremendous wealth from the country. By 1911 the value of U.S.-owned mines in Mexico was estimated at $223 million, and the British at $44 million. Mexican ownership was negligible. U.S. monopolists such as the Hearsts, the Guggenheims and Rockefellers held considerable wealth and power in Mexico.

All of this caused increased dissatisfaction among the Mexican people and in November 1910, the Mexican Revolution broke out. The Mexican people demanded “Land and Liberty” and produced revolutionary heroes such as Emiliano Zapata and Francisco “Pancho” Villa. The northern provinces bordering on the U.S. in particular became centers of revolution.

The struggle in Mexico proved to be long and bloody. For ten years civil war raged. An estimated 1 million people lost their lives in a country of 15 million.

This upheaval and the impoverishment of Mexico set off a great migration of Mexicans across the border to the U.S. From about 1910 to 1930 over one million Mexicans entered the U.S.

These migrations coincided with the tremendous expansion of the economy in the Southwest. Mining and ranching operations continued to develop, but the greatest growth came in cotton production and agriculture. In 1902 the federal government started land reclamation projects and irrigation works which eventually turned much of the Southwest into rich agricultural land. Millions of previously arid acres were turned into orchards, sugar beet fields and vegetable fields. Cotton production spread throughout Texas.

Chicano and Mexican workers were the main labor force which developed these industries. During the first several decades of the 20th century, Chicanos and Mexicans became 80% of the agricultural workers, 90% of the railroad laborers and 60% of the miners in the entire West. In Texas alone, during the Depression years, as many as 400,000 Mexicans and Chicanos were migrant workers (70% of the total migrant force) traveling back and forth across the state.

These newly arrived Mexicans settled almost exclusively in the borderland areas. Ninety percent stayed within the general area of the Chicano nation. They settled down next to their Chicano brethren because they spoke the same language, lived in a similar fashion and shared many cultural similarities. The Anglo rulers treated the Chicanos and the Mexicans in the same way. Over a period of time, therefore, the Mexicans became amalgamated with the Chicano people. Within a generation or two, almost all distinctions between Chicanos and Mexicans disappeared.

Thus the large migrations of Mexicans actually served to help build up the Chicano nation. The migrations increased the population in the historic centers of Chicano concentration, reinforcing the common language and culture. Rather than dissipating over time, the Spanish-speaking population in the Southwest grew over the decades. The Chicano population swelled from over 200,000 in 1900 to at least 1.5 million in 1930. “The tendency of Spanish-speaking people to concentrate in the Southwest appears to be permanent and cumulative.”[1]

This Mexican migration should not be seen in the same way as the immigration of other peoples to the U.S. The border over which they crossed had been unstable from its very beginning when set up in 1848. Crossings were made back and forth regularly. Border wars raged for the three decades immediately following annexation and again flared up in 1908-1925. “No Mexican is really an ’immigrant’ in the Southwest. The key to this distinction is to be found in the nature of the ’border’ which separates Mexico from the United States – one of the most unrealistic borders to be found in the Western Hemisphere.”[2]

It must be remembered that these migrations were into a territory that had been a part of Mexico and taken from her in war. Many in Mexico had never really reconciled themselves to the annexation. As late as 1943, maps were still used in Mexican schools which designated borderlands as “territory temporarily in the hands of the U.S.”[3] The reminders of Mexican heritage were all around: the names of geographic features (Rio Grande), city and state names (El Paso, San Antonio, Colorado, New Mexico, etc.) among others.

Along with the large migration of Mexicans into the Southwest, Chicanos and Mexicans began in 1916 to move out of the Southwest into the Midwest and other parts of the country. Many of them were first recruited out of the Southwest to work in the sugar beet fields in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and other midwestern states. Others were recruited to work on the rail lines and simply stayed on in the Midwest when the lines had been completed. Also due to the labor shortage of World War I, industrialists attracted the Mexicans and Chicanos to the industrial cities like Chicago, Detroit, Gary, St. Louis, Kansas City and Pittsburgh. By 1928, 20,000 Mexicans and Chicanos lived in Illinois. They were forced to take on the dirtiest and lowest paying jobs, live in barrios and received the worst education, medical and social services.

Outside of their area of concentration in the Southwest, these Mexicans and Chicanos became a national minority. As time went on, the Chicano and Mexican settlements in the big northern cities continued to grow so that today, Chicanos and Mexicans form significant portions of the population in many midwestern cities.

National oppression

The turn of the century also witnessed a heightening of national oppression for Chicanos. From 1908 to 1925, a virtual war broke out along the entire border as the revolution took place in Mexico. No one knows how many American, Chicano and Mexican civilians were killed during these years, but some estimate anywhere between 500 and 5,000. An article in an American journal at the time stated:

The killing of Mexicans . . . through the border in these four years is almost incredible .... Some rangers have degenerated into common man-killers. There is no penalty for killing, for no jury along the border would ever convict a white man for shooting a Mexican .... Reading over the Secret Service records makes you feel almost as though there were an open game season on Mexicans along the border.[4]

The New York Times stated in a November 1922 editorial, “the killing of Mexicans without provocation is so common as to pass almost unnoticed.”

Then in 1929 the Great Depression hit the U.S. and the entire capitalist world. Tens of millions of workers were laid off; wages were cut by over 50%; industrial and agricultural production was drastically cut. The U.S. bourgeoisie, who for the previous two decades had encouraged massive Mexican migration, now turned on the Mexicans and Chicanos, treating them as though they were now “superfluous,” and launched the most massive deportation campaign seen in U.S. history up to that time.

The government conducted huge roundups of Chicanos and Mexicans in the Midwest and Southwest. It didn’t matter whether one held U.S. citizenship or not – between 1929 and 1939 some 500,000 persons were literally “railroaded” to Mexico.

The capitalists also used deportation as a weapon against civil rights and labor militants among the Chicano people. This actually had been nothing new. As early as 1917 in Bisbee, Arizona, the Phelps-Dodge Company helped round up 1,200 striking miners, primarily Chicanos, forced them at gunpoint into cattle cars, and shipped them into the middle of the Mexican desert where they were left stranded.

Many Chicano and Mexican workers had become very active in the mine and agricultural struggles during the 1920’s and 1930’s. The struggle at the Gallup-American Company (a subsidiary of Kennecott Copper Company) in New Mexico illustrates the use of deportations as a weapon.

In the mid-1930’s several thousand Mexican coal miners struck the company. The area was placed under martial law for half a year. During this time, 300 miners settled on company-owned land and set up living quarters. Eventually they were forced off the property and an ensuing riot left over one hundred miners arrested. In response a Mexican miner named Jesus Pallares organized the Liga Obrera de Habla Espanola, which quickly grew to 8,000 members. The organization led struggles which succeeded in gaining some victories for the miners. But in the end Jesus Pallares was arrested and deported to Mexico.

The use of deportations against the Chicano and Mexican people was used again later in the 1950’s and is being used today.

As the Depression wore on, more and more Chicanos and Mexicans left the especially depressed rural areas and came into the cities. The majority of Chicanos gradually became city dwellers.

In the urban areas the masses of Chicanos found only poverty and discrimination. They faced segregated housing (in colonias), education, and even public parks, swimming pools and movie houses. It was common practice in the Southwest to allow Chicanos into parks, pools and theaters only on certain days of the week so that they would not mix with Anglos. Until World War II again created a labor shortage in industry, Chicanos and Mexicans were able to find jobs only in low paying agricultural work, foundries, mines, garment factories and the service industry. Many Anglo businessmen put out signs declaring “Only White Labor Employed Here.” In this way the capitalists kept Chicanos and Mexicans down, while pitting white workers against other nationalities.

When world war finally did break out, some 500,000 Chicanos entered the armed forces and went overseas to fight fascism. Back home, the Chicano people continued to suffer national oppression. A couple of incidents in Los Angeles during the war years dramatized the position of Chicanos in the U.S.

In the fall of 1942, the infamous “Sleepy Lagoon Case” took place, in which the police railroaded 17 young Chicanos into a murder trial. The press sensationalized the event and launched a chauvinist campaign against Chicanos portraying them as “crime-bent .’’ The trial went on until January 1943 and became a focus of struggle for the Chicano people against racism. At first nine of the defendants were convicted of murder. But through the efforts of the Chicano and progressive movements, the entire case, which by then had received national attention, was thrown out of court for “lack of evidence.” The Sleepy Lagoon Case became a symbol of the official persecution of the Chicano people.

Soon after the end of the trial however, in the summer of 1943, the “Zoot Suit Riots” broke out, incited by a racist media campaign. For a week, sailors and marines rampaged through the Chicano barrio of Los Angeles and attacked all the young Chicanos they could get a hold of, especially those who dressed in the so-called “Zoot Suit,” The Los Angeles riot sparked off similar attacks against Chicanos, Blacks and Pilipinos in other cities across the country, including San Diego, Chicago, Harlem and Detroit.

At the same time that the Anglo capitalists encouraged these attacks on Chicanos, they brought hundreds of thousands more Mexicans into the country to fill the labor shortages caused by the war. The U.S. government put together the “bracero” program under which it would contract Mexican workers to labor in the U.S. exclusively in the agricultural sector. The Department of Agriculture itself was the official “employer,” while the workers would be contracted out to an agribusiness company as a “subemployer.” From 1942 to 1947 about 220,000 braceros were imported into the U.S.

Later, during the 1950’s, the number of braceros increased to as high as 450,000 in a single year. While they were supposed to return to Mexico after their work was completed, many remained in the U.S.

The U.S. government agreed that it would respect the rights of the braceros but, in fact, they were paid less than the minimum wage, had no right to form trade unions, and had no protection from the vicious exploitation of the growers. Many Chicanos in the U.S. opposed this program as a form of superexploitation aimed at both the braceros as well as Chicano labor in the U.S. The bracero program caused divisions between Chicano and Mexican workers by forcing them to compete for the same jobs, with the result that the wages and working conditions of both suffered.

In the midst of the bracero program, the federal government also launched another huge deportation campaign against Mexicans and Chicanos called “Operation Wetback.” The U.S. deported two million people to Mexico from 1953 to 1956. As in the deportation campaign during the 1930’s, deportation was used as a weapon against labor militants, and as these were the McCarthy years, many Chicano and Mexican communists and leftists also were deported under this campaign. The campaign, of course, was accompanied by a wave of chauvinist propaganda which blamed Chicanos and Mexicans for all the economic and social problems of capitalism.

Despite this, the continuing impoverishment of Mexico caused increasing numbers of Mexicans to migrate across the border to the U.S. Beginning in the post-war years up to today, there has been one of the greatest population migrations in human history over the U.S.-Mexico border. Most of these have been “illegal aliens” who have continued to settle primarily in the Southwest. By 1978, due to these migrations and natural population growth, the Chicano and Mexican population in the U.S. had increased to around 10 million in number.


After annexation by the U.S., the Southwest went through a radical transformation. The Spanish-speaking and Indian peoples were subdued by force, their land and property stolen, and their rights denied in all spheres of life. At the same time the patriarchal feudal economy of the area was largely wiped out and capitalism rapidly developed in the area, breaking down the economic isolation of the different areas of the Southwest and linking them into a single economic unit, dominated by the U.S. bourgeoisie. This entire historic process transformed the Spanish-speaking people of the Southwest into a new nationality – into Chicanos. They composed an oppressed nation, part of a large multinational state dominated by the Anglo-American capitalist class.


[1] Carey McWilliams, North From Mexico, (New York: Greenwood Press, 1968), p. 57

[2] Ibid., p. 59

[3] Ibid., p. 103

[4] Ibid., p. 112