Immigration

From Mexico to the United States: Immigration Waves

Mexican American immigrants in the United States played a significant role in Los Angeles.

One of the first large-scale migrations from Mexico occurred between 1910 and 1914. During this period over one million Mexican people seeking to escape the Mexican Revolution, immigrated northward into the United States. The majority of these immigrants were of indigenous decent and from poor and working class backgrounds.

A second mass migration in the 1940s converted Los Angeles into one of the most ethnically and racially diverse cities in the country. The bustling industrialization of the United States, fueled by the war effort, and a decrease in the labor force provided Mexicans fleeing poor conditions in Mexico with employment opportunities. Many Mexicans came into the United States legally in the 1940s with the implementation of the Bracero Program. This program provided a supply of workers to supplement the workforce in the United States. Although the United States desperately relied on this influx of manual labor, Mexicans were still treated as second-class citizens.

On May 1, 2006 over one million people took to the streets of Los Angeles to protest immigration reform laws. This protest was an expression of the importance and continuing impact of the immigrant Latino community in Los Angeles and the United States.

Immigrants fleeing the Mexican Revolution, 1910. (www.pbs.org/kpbs/theborder/history/timeline/14.html)

Immigrants fleeing the Mexican Revolution, 1910. (www.pbs.org/kpbs/theborder/history/timeline/14.html)

From Mexico to the Barrio: Fitting into Los Angeles

Adequate housing was not an option for Mexican residents of Los Angeles. The city was literally unprepared to provide affordable housing to the large influx of immigrants coming into Los Angeles. Mexicans found themselves forced into barrios like Chávez Ravine (now Dodger Stadium), which quickly became a segregated community. This housing shortage allowed landlords to charge high prices for substandard housing. The poor living conditions coupled with ethnic and racial segregation and discrimination sustained the social and economic isolation of Mexican Americans.

Mexican American youth coming of age in the United States during the 1940s were among the first in their families to grow up in an urban setting and confront, for the first time, the challenge of learning two languages and living in two cultures. Though born in the United States, many were still denied equal rights and privileges because of segregation and at the same time, faced pressure to culturally assimilate.

Mexican migrant farm workers in Coachella Valley, California, 1935. (museumca.org/picturethis/3_2.html)

Mexican migrant farm workers in Coachella Valley, California, 1935. (museumca.org/picturethis/3_2.html)

Emerging Chicano Street Gangs

Gangs have existed in the United States since as far back as the nineteenth century. However, during the Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial and the Zoot Suit Riots in the 1940s, gangs in Los Angeles became racialized for the first time in history. The press, law enforcement and other officials shaped public opinion by reducing gangs and juvenile delinquency to a “Mexican problem.” According to Dr. James Diego Vigil, an expert on gang culture in the United States, there were several factors that initially led to the formation of gangs among Mexican American youth. These factors include:

Alice McGrath & Sleepy Lagoon Defendants. (Contributing Institution: Dept. of Special Collections/UCLA Library)

Alice McGrath & Sleepy Lagoon Defendants. (Contributing Institution: Dept. of Special Collections/UCLA Library)

  • Segregation, which forced Mexican American youth to associate only with other members of their race and class — producing social isolation.
  • Limited access to social outlets, such as public pools and social clubs, which forced Mexican American youth to create new social venues like cruising the boulevard.
  • Pressure to assimilate by being punished for speaking Spanish at school. Mexican Americans were also placed into separate academic classes, which alienated and humiliated them further my making them seem unintelligent.
  • Estrangement from both their native Mexican background and mainstream culture in the United States. This forced them to create their own social groups.

Faced with these factors, gang life represented a safe place where youth could celebrate and reinforce their new acculturated Chicano identity.