During the 19th Century, the industrial expansion that was taking place in the South attracted a huge number of Mexicans to the United States as temporal migrant workers. Industries in the South recruited and exploited the Mexicans for cheap labor. They worked in farms, mine industries, railroad companies, and in other manual jobs as well as in business in urban areas. Their huge migration to the US was due to the fast-changing wave of their economic condition in Mexico caused by the United States and other foreign capital (Rosenzweig 40).
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They were willing to take any job in order to begin earning an income, after which they could gain the basis for acquiring better opportunities with the hope of going back home when they save enough money. They did not intend to naturalize in the United States. On the contrary, they preferred to maintain their Mexican citizenship. Since they saw enormous progress in the economy of the United States and believed that their sole purpose or mission to this country was to work, make money, and quickly return to their homeland, they were more than willing to endure hardship and discrimination.
Even though they sometimes embarked on strike to voice their displeasure concerning their bad working conditions, most of them never engaged in radical actions because they were afraid of being sacked from work or even being deported. Their disinterest in the American ways of life and society allowed their employers to exploit them. However, a number of barriers made it difficult even to get the first job. The language barrier was the main challenge. Even in getting a low paying job, which required little or no English, it was difficult since employers demanded some language skills. This scenario played out not because the language was inevitable, but it served as a basis for exploitation. If you had no language skills, then you had no reason to complain if mistreated, since you were deemed unqualified in the first place.
Although the main aim of these Mexican migrant workers was to work and make money and return home, the continuous lingering economic hardship and lack of economic opportunities in their homeland forced the majority of them to remain in the United States. Victor Hernandez’s parents were among those who chose to stay in the United States. Victor is the person I interviewed by phone for this project. Victor is 72 years old and the first child in a family of six. I met Victor in 2012 in Fresno, California. I have known him for three years now. Victor and I were both members of the Knights of Columbus in the Catholic Dioceses of Fresno. Given that I am barely six years in this country, and I do not have my parents in this country, I chose to interview Victor for the purpose of this project.
According to Victor, his parents were mere laborers working on a farm near Los Angeles. Sometimes, his parents would travel to Bakersfield, which was about 45 minutes from Los Angeles. They had no car, so their employer often carried them in the truck to the farm. Victor was born in 1943, and he was the first child in his family. He attended elementary and high school in Los Angeles. He reiterated how difficult it was for his family to survive the hardship and segregation that they faced during that period. Assimilation was very hard for his parents since they spoke very little English, and they highly cherished Mexican values.
Victor stated that many Mexican families at the time were “native-born.” No matter how hard they found it living in the US, it was worth it considering the fact that their country, Mexico, was actually worse. Where they lived in Los Angeles during that period, viz. the east side of Los Angeles, comprised mostly Mexicans. Nevertheless, they still experienced discrimination and segregation at a high magnitude. During this period, Victor said that racial tension was rampant in Los Angeles. Some sort of segregated high schools existed where minorities attended.
Mexican kids were made fun of on the street by white kids. Discrimination and segregation were everywhere. His parents were treated badly, exploited, and discriminated against in the workplace. Despite being born in the US, the situation was not any better for Victor. As part of the first generation of the American-born Mexicans, he went through opposing cultural experiences, for he had to learn the cultural values of his parents, and since he was exposed to Western values through peers and education system, he ended up experiencing culture clash. Unfortunately, the policy on multiculturalism was highly neglected, and it failed to protect the immigrants’ culture.
The first generation of the American-born Mexicans, where Victor belonged, continued to face alarming discrimination. When Victor finished high school education, he moved to racially segregated neighborhood housing together with his parents and siblings. They could no longer afford to pay the rent in their current place despite his father taking a second job in a bid to supplement the meager pay of his primary job. Given that he attended segregated high school, he had limited manual and academic training to enhance his lifestyle to that of the Mexican middle class. Such segregated high schools had little academic opportunities.
For this reason, Victor ended up doing farm and industrial works, just like his parents were doing in order to support his family. His generation of the Mexican-Americans was semi-skilled, unlike its unskilled parents. Due to the semi-skilled status, such generation was still unable to assimilate into American society. They were unable to join any labor union due to their race and skill level. White American skilled workers, who made up the membership of the union, accepted few if any Mexicans for membership (Rosenzweig 23). Due to their inability to join the union, they were often vulnerable to exploitation. According to Victor, the nature in which social, political, and economic discrimination persist created what he called “institutionalized prejudices.” The American dream of him became a nightmare.
In the middle of the Vietnam War, out of frustration, Victor joined the United States Army. He joined the army in 1963 at the age of 20. His sojourn in the army was an eye-opening experience. He was surprised to see how less discriminating white Europeans are on being stationed in France after leaving Vietnam. He felt liberated and contemplated not going back to the United States. Nevertheless, due to his parents and siblings, he decided to come back home. He said that even in their army base, their white American commanders still discriminated against him. On the street of Europe, people did not care much about one’s race or color. For the first time in his life, Victor felt like a human being and important.
While in the army, Victor trained as a car mechanic. The skills he acquired in the army helped him in getting a job when he returned to the United States. On his return, he was in a position to get a job as a car mechanic in downtown Los Angeles. He said that the job paid well, at least enough to pay the bill. He worked for four years as a mechanic in the same company, most of his coworkers were whites, and some of them were ex-military men.
He could not stand the treatment that he got from his coworkers bearing in mind that he had made sacrifices for his country. Despite getting a new job, Victor realized that the pressure and stress were still mounting. Long working hours, cramped living quarters within insecure neighborhoods, and financial burdens from parents and relatives back homemade life unbearable. In addition, he had to bear with inconsistent wages, unequal treatment, and poor safety measures, yet he never complained because he thought he was there illegally. Through a friend, Victor learned about job training programs and various ways to enhance his skill level to get a better paying job.
Despite being Americanized and possessing better skills, Victor had to rely on his network of friends to secure a place in college where he could acquire better skills. In a bid to reduce the pressure, he decided to quit the job. He left his family and relocated to the city of Fresno in central California. With the money that he had saved in addition to his G.I Bill grant, he was in a position to attend the Fresno City College. In addition, he was in a position to get a part-time job while attending school. He visited his parents and siblings in Los Angeles every other weekend.
He completed his college education with an Associate degree in Auto mechanics and certificate in electronics. Immediately after his graduation, having realized that he was not getting younger, he got married to a girl that he met in college. They worked for five years and were in a position to pull their income and resources together to open up a car mechanic workshop in downtown Fresno. My brother and I happened to be two of his many customers. During the time I interviewed him, I asked him whether he has ever wanted or been a member of any labor organization. He said no, for after trying many times without success. He gave up. He stated further that after opening up his own workshop, he did not have to worry about it anymore. Even though he confessed that life at work would have been a lot better if he had succeeded in joining the union.
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He stressed that the belated working condition, incessant exploitation by his employer, and bad experience would have been reduced to the minimum if he had been a member of the union like the Anglo-Americans. I probed further to know the reason that barred him from joining any union since he acknowledged life would have been better if he had joined one. Victor said that after getting information from an American friend about the workers’ union, he was eager to experience the benefits, which seemed very helpful to any worker in American society. After trying to present his credentials, he was shocked to be informed that he did not qualify to join the workers union.
During this time, there was a persisting perception that immigrants were undocumented and existed illegally in the United States. Lacking legal status hindered immigrant families from accessing help. Even with the documents like Victor, taking the initial step to reach out for information, he faced segregation and opted to stay away from trouble by avoiding these services. This move-in turn did not eradicate the trouble. Rather it made him vulnerable to exploitation and extreme segregation.
Going back to his war experience, Victor explained that many of the Mexican Americans, including himself, saw the war as a chance to escape a series of crushing poverty, which was evident in most Mexican American families all over Los Angeles. Furthermore, being in the war offered an escape from the hard jobs provided to the immigrants. Despite his father being aware of the local Legal Aid’s Farm Workers Unit, Victor said his father was too afraid to use it. Due to the influx of Mexican immigrants, it was easy for an employer to replace a troublesome employee with another Mexican immigrant who would be glad to take the offer.
For this reason, among others, he joined the army to escape what he called excruciating economic hardship and racial discrimination. Unfortunately, joining the army was initially disappointing because the army itself was segregated, just like in the rest of the United States at that time. He went for the army training in El Paso before being to Vietnam and later France. His experience during training was bad. After deployment, he started experiencing less discrimination. Nevertheless, it was a better experience for him compared to what he saw in Los Angeles.
Even though the civil movement of the 1960s promised socio-economic freedom for all people, Victor said that the hopes could wait longer before immigrants could start benefiting from any changes. For a long time, most immigrants remained unaware that they had any legal recourse at times when they experienced segregation in schools, media, workplace, residential areas, or law enforcement entities. Due to the perceived institutionalized segregation, the Mexican immigrants continued to experience negative interactions with the law enforcement sector and particularly the police (Rosenzweig 32).
His family was often unfairly harassed during police raids, which were conducted in their neighborhoods purporting to flush out criminals. The residents described the police as the enemy who provided harassment, but not security. Victor gave a story of how his mother used to hide him in the ceiling during house inspections that sought to ensure that families with kids moved to larger households. Since his parents could not afford to move to a better house due to their little earnings, they had no option, but to defy the housing regulation for about two years, as it seemed to suppress the poor immigrants as opposed to helping them.
Having acquired better skills in college and acquainted with the American standards, Victor was optimistic about changing both his life and that of his family. Through his friends and customers, he had found a good source of information about the many social programs that could help immigrants cope with the challenges that they were facing. For instance, he says that his father’s place of work offered its employees various opportunities for self-improvement of which were rarely communicated to avoid demands from the workers and continue suppressing them. In addition, immigrants were afraid to access information or assistance about various specific segments of the law just because they were afraid of being deported or unfairly harassed. For instance, during his five years of work after college, the labor laws in Los Angelis were well defined only that he lacked the information.
With little understanding of the labor laws, Victor, as well as other immigrants, worked for long hours and were always afraid of quitting their jobs for fear of landing harder jobs and the threat of being sent back to their country of origin. When he started his own car mechanic, most of his customers were immigrants who had been involved in accidents and lacked insurance services to compensate them for the losses. Furthermore, others indicated being in accidents and failing to know how to resolve them not because of the language barrier, but because they lacked details about specific steps to follow when involved in a traffic accident. Contrary to their expectations, the traffic law enforcers did not assist them in solving their problems; instead, they victimized them because they were of an inferior race.
Following the interview with Victor, many issues emerged pertaining to how immigrants perceived their place in the United States and the corresponding expectations of the host nation. From Victor’s point of view, the problems back in Mexico were extremely harsh, and it was worth working in a discriminating environment in the United States rather languishing in poverty-stricken Mexico. After close examination of Victor’s case, one can conclude that immigrants had higher expectations about the US, but they failed to consider that during this time, Americans were trying to cope with the deteriorating economic conditions exacerbated by the war. Despite these adversities, the US was gradually becoming conscious of immigrants’ rights. Government programs that could offer better housing or healthcare were available, but they were not well integrated to cover cultural aspects. For instance, Mexicans were unwilling to seek health services because they were afraid their cultural values would be undermined.
Despite the availability of government programs, they did very little to solve the challenges that the likes of Victor were facing. Joining institutions such as the army as Victor did, was one way that helped immigrants to self-liberate. After being exposed to the European countries where discrimination was rare, Victor was in a position to shed an inferiority complex. This experience helped him to fight for his place. He later succeeded in establishing his own business. At last, he could decide his own working conditions free from the exploitation and fear of deportation. Victor’s experience revealed the misunderstanding that persisted between the immigrant and host communities.
The lack of information and fear to seek help were the key factors that increased the tension. The entire issue of segregation persisted due to these unintended tensions. However, the orientation sessions would have helped immigrant families in gaining acculturation skills as they adjusted to new environments. Even though Victor was an American-born Mexican, he went through the relatively same experience as his parents due to poor orientation platforms and the fear of immigrant communities to seek services. In conclusion, though it is unjustified to blame the American society for its role in the problems faced by Mexican Americans, it is worth noting that the United States could have done better in terms of facilitating the orientation process for the immigrants to enjoy the democratic space.
Rosenzweig, Roy. Who Built America: Working People and the Nation’s History, Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2008. Print.