1900 - 1930 MEXICANS IN L.A.

Mexican Immigrants to The City of Angels

By Lonewolf

During the in-between years 1900 – 1930, only about 15% of Mexican immigrants to L.A. came directly to the city after crossing the border. Most Mexican immigrants had their initial experiences with American life elsewhere. Few Mexicans crossed into the United States at the California border, the overwhelming majority entered through Arizona or Texas, with El Paso serving as the port of entry for close to 60% of all immigrants who eventually settled in L.A.

Many of those who crossed at El Paso made that city their initial home. Each of the eight railroad lines which passed through town, had set up maintenance shops employing hundreds of Mexican workers. El Paso served as a HUB for the transportation of laborers for the mining, cattle-raising, construction, and agricultural industries of the Southwest. Recruiters were also sent from far and wide to entice workers into signing up for work with their faraway companies, offering better wages and transportation ready for them in the form of rail cars. Given El Paso’s role as a railroad terminus, it was relatively easy for workers to head elsewhere when economic conditions turned sour or when enticed with a better offer.

In 1900, San Antonio, Texas contained the largest number of Mexican residents in the entire Southwest, the region developed rapidly around agriculture and construction of Military Bases. But followed by intense racial discrimination, strict segregation and low wages, Mexicans began to move out in large numbers to California and elsewhere, in search of higher paying jobs. So great was the exodus that employers in this region had so much trouble keeping their work force that they went so far as to try and preventing Mexicans from purchasing automobiles and prohibiting out-of-state labor recruiters in order to keep their workers both plentiful and immobile.

Along the Arizona border, the towns of Nogales, Naco and Douglas, served as entry points for skilled immigrants from Mexico, in particular miners and industrial factory laborers who were fleeing the chaos of Mexico’s Revolution and the crackdown on organized labor. Many were recruited directly from Mexico and were brought in on special trains financed by agricultural growers and the smelting companies. So many came with their families that by 1927, Mexicans made up 60% of Arizona’s mine industry labor force. Many of those who worked in the agricultural sector moved on to the Imperial & Coachella Valley’s of Southern California, adding and mixing in with the Filipinos and Japanese making a living there with the original inhabitants.

By the late 1920s, one-third of the labor force of the Imperial Valley was from Old-Mexico origin, and by 1928 that figure rose to 55%. Continued migration into California spread northward into the San Joaquin Valley, where Mexicans formed the largest single ethnic group among farm workers as early as 1920.

The advantage of free travel offered by recruiters and railroads managed to not only add large numbers of Mexican’s to the Southwest but also dispersed them through out the land that the United States government had originally tried to steal and re-populate by promoting and inviting large numbers of immigrants from other countries and ethnic groups such as Turk-Jews, Filipinos, Chinese, Japanese, Russian-Molokans, Greeks & Lithuanians, but that’s another story for another time, for now back to City of Angels.

Many Mexican immigrants, after several years’ experience in migratory labor, punctuated by the occasional trips to Mexico to rejoin family, began searching for more stability and an opportunity for employment in a more congenial atmosphere, and increasingly they looked to the urban areas of the Southwest. Los Angeles appeared to offer migrants much of what they desired. The movement into L.A. from agricultural areas did not necessarily mean a change in occupation because; agriculture remained a principal industry in L.A. well into the late 30s. Bean fields dotted the west side along Wilshire Boulevard, celery fields in Culver City, vegetable farms in the South Bay, strawberry fields in Hawaiian Gardens and citrus groves in nearby Orange County. For many Mexican immigrants to L.A. agricultural labor proved to be their first job in the area, moving on to combine it with industrial labor to provide for a year-round income.
The construction of an inter-urban railway network, which by 1913 had grew to cover an area stretching from the San Fernando, east to Riverside and south to Newport Beach, gave greater mobility for city dwellers to commute to the fields.

Mexican immigrants also chose Los Angeles because it already contained a large community with a longstanding tradition, and many residents were present in the city to welcome newcomers that would aid in their adjustment. From thereafter, Los Angeles Mexican community has been consistently dominated by successive waves of immigrants from Mexico.

The increasing number of Mexican immigrants became overwhelming for the Anglo community in L.A. who began to distort the Spanish and Mexican past of the city by developing their own historical version depicting Spanish-Mexican California past history as a lost civilization of a simple pastoral society, a “mission myth” as it was called. Then the romanticized version of the Spanish missions came to distort the Mexican reign in the region, and completely glossed over the Mexican heritage and its influence.
A clash of cultures between Mexicans and Anglos had taken an upswing from here on after, and many in the Spanish community separated themselves from the Mexican community at this time, relocating themselves along with the Anglos to the west side neighborhoods that today we know as West Adams, Hancock Park, Brentwood Heights and Hollywood, leaving the Downtown area to become fought over by the undesirables.
Los Angeles officials by depicting the city’s Mexican heritage as quaint, inflicted a particular kind of obscurity onto Mexican descendants of prior eras by appropriating and then commercializing their history, and this version in combination with the reduction in numbers of native-Californios, further reduced an insignificant constituency the historical life of native-Angelinos, thus even though they had fore-shadowed the social position of later Mexican immigrants, the newcomers were oblivious to a fact largely irrelevant to their current predicament.
Yet, remnants of native-Mexican Angelinos remained in the core of the burgeoning city.
The most important of these was centered around the Plaza of La Reyna de Los Angeles (founded in 1781), which had served as the central gathering place for the Mexican community. This was the communal place where they would gather for church, ceremonies, fiestas, bullfights & tardeadas (rodeos), and political discourse.
After the American takeover, the Plaza had taken a less sanctified aura because the American gold seekers had turned the streets and courtyards into dens of gambling, vice, and crime, but after large numbers of immigrants re-settled the Plazita barrio, it once again became a functioning part of the Mexican community. The Plaza was then used as a wholesale market for growers of vegetables and fruits, and in this form it was a familiar sight to the continuing immigrants coming into the city.
This barrio surrounding the Plazita became known as Sonora Town on account of the rowdy reputation of a gang of Mexican immigrants from Sonora’s mining camps, who claimed the streets for themselves and not the rowdy Anglos who still wished to control the area.
The city grew, quadrupling in population, from 319,000 residents in 1910, to 1,240,000 by 1930. Los Angeles life and culture was completely transformed in the face of rapid Mexican settlement and urbanization.

As the city grew, the Mexican-immigrants social and cultural center moved away from the Plaza area in a eastward and northward direction. As the Anglo-Americans increasingly settled in the expensive western parts of the city between downtown and the Pacific Ocean, leaving the immigrants to settle the eastern fringe as well as the barrios directly west and south of the Plaza, they devised racially restrictive “covenants” by real estate brokers and land owners intent on keeping non-Anglo Protestants neighborhoods clean of “undesirables”, designed, not just against Mexicans but also to keep-out Blacks, Asians, Jews, and any other foreign-born non-Anglo’s Protestants.

Increasingly isolated from the rest of the city, the Plaza provided shabby but welcome living quarters for newcomers.
While most newcomers where from Mexico, the Plaza also attracted large numbers of other foreign-born, especially immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. Over 20 different ethnic groups became represented in the Plaza community during the early part of the century.
After 1910, the increased need of Los Angeles industrial employers, requiring even more cheap immigrant laborers for their manufacturing factories, auto assembly, meat packing, and steel plants, persuaded more and more immigrants to move out to the city outskirts, elbow room was needed and affordability became primordial.

By and large, Mexicans lived in almost every part of the city, the largest concentration were in La Plazita (Sonora Town),

and in South Central along Main Street and Central Avenue (Clanton Street Barrio),

followed by the Russian Flats area directly east of the L.A. River, down the hillside of Boyle Heights (Los Flats Barrio),

Boyle Heights & Brooklyn Heights (El Cerquito / LiL Fence Barrio),

and outside the city limits in Belvedere (East L.A./Monterey Park – La MaraVilla Barrio).

Elysian Park / Chavez Ravine (Palo Verde Barrio),

ChinaTown (Alpine Street Barrio),

Lincoln Heights (La Trebol / E’S Clover Barrio),

North Main Street / Mission District (Dog Town Barrio),

Watts (La Colonia Barrio),

and along Temple Street going west (Temple Street Barrio) – North Westlake Park – later renamed MacArthur Park.

In almost every section of Los Angeles where Mexicans lived, they “shared” neighborhoods with other ethnic groups. The Plaza community was home to many different ethnic groups, the largest being Chinese in China Town & Japanese in LiL Tokyo, Italians in Lincoln Heights, Asians in the Mission / Union Station District, Russian Molokans in Boyle Heights, Jews in Brooklyn Heights, Filipinos in the Temple Street Neighborhood, Blacks in Belvedere, but the most diverse ethnic community of the era, was what today we refer to East South Central, surrounding the area around ALL NATIONS CHURCH (not to be confused with All Nations Street on the East Side).

The All Nations Church neighborhood located between Main Street & Central Avenue, was populated by 40% of all Blacks in the city, right along Central Avenue which contained the largest community of Blacks in the whole Western United States, nevertheless the rest of those residents belonged to various other ethnic groups of people such as Spaniards, Italians, Greeks, Turks, Russians, Hungarians, Lithuanians, Dutch, German, Swedes, Danes, Portuguese, Jews, poor White-Americans & of course La Raza.

Despite the original inhabitants’ origins of Los Angeles, the English language prevailed in the daily commerce and business world of the city, and despite the many familiarities to their homeland, Los Angeles to the many immigrants, was indeed a strange new environment, in stark contrast with their rural and beloved Mexico.
Angelinos were exceptionally mobile, and to any newcomer venturing into Los Angeles between 1900 and 1930, the burgeoning metropolis struck them as alien and inhospitable.
Few Mexican immigrants could have understood that L.A. was just as alien for the majority of the Anglo-American residents as it was for them, for in 1900, no more than 1/3 of the Anglo population had began life (born) in California, and this figure dropped to only 1/4 by 1930. Nine out of ten Anglos had been in L.A. less than 15 years. Los Angeles Anglo population consisted primarily of people new to the region, yet even the Anglo-Americans new to the region took it as their mission to assimilate and integrate the Mexican newcomers into their version of American culture and society. The so-called progressive reformers developed programs that would transform the values of the Mexican immigrants; these efforts often amounted to one newcomer trying to change another while neither was particular familiar with the local conditions and customs.
Anglo migrants came from the Midwest and from the American heartland, fresh from farms and rural towns, lured to the West Coast by the energetic Chamber of Commerce’s conscious advertising strategy for industrial growth opportunity by stressing the availability of land, markets, workers and the weakness of trade unions. The Chamber of Commerce wooed successfully corporations such as the Ford Motor Company and Goodyear Rubber Company along with many others.
Los Angeles by 1929 surpassed all other western cities in manufacturing, the city grew from a population of 50,000 in 1890, to 1.2 million by 1930, and its diversity when compared to eastern cities, represented a wider range of cultures and peoples.

However, it was the middle-class mid-westerner, who dominated the public culture and politics. These were the settlers who had been lured by the Chamber of commerce to populate the Los Angeles basin with the help of real estate “agents” who carved out former farm and ranch land into suburban plots.
These mid-westerners brought with them a Protestant world-view, which not only opposed parochial schools; but also viewed Mexican & Filipino immigrants as embodiments of evil and repudiated their Catholicism as well as their occasional pleasure in drink. They brought with them the 'Cross of Gold' branding foreigners as a lower class, and they had little compunction about using politics to advocate their beliefs. With the resources to make a 1500 mile journey, they were a special lot, rejecting cities like Chicago or New York, cities teeming with impoverished European immigrants and crowded ghettoes, and embracing the dream-life of a “pastoral suburbia” that California offered. This distinct anti-urban ethos, and their attitude of ruralizing the city based on the scattering of the population and urbanizing the countryside of Los Angeles with an endless expansion, failed to take into account the predominat Mexican culture already that already existed through out Los Angeles, and as the dream of a suburban paradise faltered, many Anglos turned to politics for a solution to their heightened anxieties concerning teh Mexicans and their culture. Anglo-American leaders and businesses began to support radical methods and efforts that would produce loyal, obedient employees instilled with their version of Americanism.

The philosophy that Mexican immigrants traditions and customs were impediments to their rapid integration into American life, was a view extensively promoted by the “progressive reformers” who developed strategies and programs that would break up the Mexican communities, with the goal on hand to implant and assimilate into their children, so far as can be done, the "Anglo-Saxon conception of righteousness, law and order, and popular government".
These same progressive reformers envisioned that the opening of the Panama Canal would bring an influx of European immigrants to California that would surely undermine the growth of the Mexican community; coupled with a virulent campaign against unrestricted Mexican immigration.

Politicians, academics, reporters and others who believed in the racial superiority of Anglo-Americans considered all foreigners as undesirables, but the introduction of large numbers of Mexicans from south of the border, with their makeup of Negro and Indian mixed blood was considered by them to represent an unstable element to democracy and they called for immigration restriction on racial grounds. v v v v

‘The endless streets crowded with the shacks of illiterate, diseased, pauperized Mexican, taking no interest whatsoever in the community, living constantly on the ragged edge of starvation, bringing countless numbers of undesirable citizens into the world with the reckless prodigality of rabbits’….

^ ^ ^ ^ Was the voice of the progressive reformers in L.A.

Mexican culture in Los Angeles was carefully scrutinized in the 1920s and found wanting, subsequently Mexicans became the primary targets of discriminatory practices and programs. Protestant social activists of the time, saw their role as awakening the growing Anglo-American population of Los Angeles to the dangers represented by poorer, ethnic newcomers to the region. Organized labor viewed Mexican immigrants as cheap competitors with “American” workers, they argued that Mexicans would not be content with farm labor and would soon attempt to enter the trades. Employers developed a practice in which immigrants were targeted and segregated into “gangs” according to their ethnic groups, with only the foreman as an English speaker, therefore keeping the undesirables in minor positions of labor, with the contention that “white” laborers would not and should not perform certain work.
Other employers in particular railroad, agricultural, and mining companies (who were no less racist), defended unrestricted Mexican immigration on “economic grounds”, stressing that the cultural traits of Mexicans, rejected by Anglos actually benefited American society. The Mexican worker, they argued, embodied the perfect, docile employee, had no interest in intermixing with Americans, and invariably returned to Mexico once his labor was no longer needed.
Whatever their position on the Mexican immigration issue, Anglos had to face the fact that Mexicans were the dominant ethnic group of all the migrants to Los Angeles, and it gradually became apparent that influencing the home life of married men, particularly those with children, might yield the desired results of a determined Americanization work.

After 1920, Americanization efforts shifted from employment sites and migratory camps into the schools and community centers, the shift would center on immigrant “women” and their children.

-"The Americanization of the women is of most importance. They are harder to reach but are more easily “educated”. They can realize in a moment that they are getting the best end of the bargain by the change in relationships between men and women which takes place under the new American order…Go after the woman.
The “children” of these foreigners are the advantage, not the Naturalized foreigners, these are never 100% Americans, but the “second generation” may be… Go after the woman and you may save the second generation for America."

The mechanization by which Mexican immigrant women were to be "educated" was placed on full throttle, and Mexican women became the target for a variety of reasons. First, they were assumed to be the individuals primarily responsible for the transmission of “values” in the home, and Americanization advocates were interested in the contribution they could make in transforming their families’ habits from those of a rural, pre-industrial lifestyle to a “modern” American one.
Targeting mothers was crucial to the overall strategy of Americanization, which by focusing on the strategic position of the mother in the Mexican family, Americanizers hoped to have an impact on the second generation. This ideology was infused with the traditional Anglo belief in the exalted role of the mother (in Anglo culture) in shaping the citizenry of the Republic. The conclusion was that if the Mexican home remained the “sacred institution” guarded by stolid traditions of centuries, and the home remained a fortress, then Americanization specialists would not be able to accomplish their mission.

The most potent "weapon" used to imbue the Mexicans with Anglo values was the English language and all social reformers cited the ability to speak English as a fundamental skill necessary for “assimilation”. Getting the woman out of her home, therefore, became a priority because reformers saw this as the only method by which they could succeed in altering her values.
Americanization teachers targeted Mexican women to help alleviate the shortage of housemaids, seamstresses, laundresses, and service workers. Americanization programs were busy training Mexican women to perform these tasks. Teaching the Mexican mother proper Anglo homemaking skills was meant to solve two problems at once: a happy and efficient mother would create an environment suitable for “molding” workers to the industrial order, and her newfound homemaking skills could be utilized in the cheap labor market outside the home. Reformers encouraged Mexican women to give up their penchant for fried foods, their too frequent consumption of rice and beans, and their custom of serving all members of the family-from infants to grandparents-the same meal, the “modern” Mexican woman should replace tortillas with bread, serve lettuce instead of beans, and broil instead of fry. Malnourishment in Mexican families was not blamed on lack of food or resources, according to Americanizers, but rather on “not having the right varieties of foods containing constituents favorable to growth and development.”
Within the rubric of Americanization efforts, food and diet management became a tool in a “control” system intended to construct a well-behaved, productive citizenry. In the eyes of the reformers, the typical noon lunch of the Mexican child, which consisted of “rolled tortillas with no filling,” could easily be the first step to a lifetime of crime. With no milk or fruit to whet the appetite, the child could become hungry and might subsequently take food from the lunch boxes of more fortunate children. Thus the initial step in a life of thievery is taken, so it was their theology.

None of the potential gains made by these programs could be considered noteworthy if Mexican women continued to bear too many children. Limiting the growth of the Mexican population was therefore a concern voiced by these progressive reformers who sounded the alarm pointing out the higher birth rate of Mexicans over Anglos, and instilled in the Anglo population the fears of “race suicide”, which to this day remains ingrained in Anglo-American minds. With this fear, came another rallying cry to stave off “unrestricted” population growth, which was portrayed as a vestige of Old World ways that must be abandoned in a modern industrial setting. Family planning then became focused on implanting a "limited family size" attitude into the minds of Mexican women in order to defeat the Mexican “invasion”.
But family limitation also created new possibilities for female employment by freeing Mexican women from the demands of continual childrearing, and the traditional obligations that barred them from wage labor outside the house. As the industrialization in the Los Angeles’s economy developed, so too did the demands for cheap labor performing tasks that had traditionally been performed by women inside the home. While the garment, laundering, domestic service, and food preparation industries gradually relied more on women’s work in the market place, employers in the region had fewer workers because of the restrictions placed on Asian immigration, and because Black migration to Los Angeles was still quite low. Moreover, demand of the Anglo middle class for these services increased, exacerbating further cheap labor supply.

Despite all the traditional objections to Mexican women working outside the home, Americanization programs actively promoted their entrance into these “sex-segregated” occupations. This commercialization of traditional female forms of labor made it easier for Americanizers to advocate instruction in such tasks without “appearing” to upset the social order within the Mexican family. For example, skilled needlework was viewed in Americanization programs as a talent passed down through generations of Mexican women, and reformer teachers argued that needlework instruction should replace “academic” courses for Mexican girls in school. Yet despite the progressive reformers and teachers advocating a liberalization of Mexican women from their traditional role in the family, the Mexican women continued to stand firmly in line with their native culture.

As national attention increasingly turned toward restricting future immigration from Mexico, and with little concrete evidence to prove that their efforts had effectively resolved the “Mexican problem,” Americanizers shifted their focus, and they began calling for and end to unlimited Mexican immigration under the slogan that Mexicans were “causing an immense social problem in our charities (social services), schools and health department.

The saga continues…

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