Claiming Rights and Righting Wrongs in Texas: Mexican Workers and Job Politics during World War II.
At first glance, this book's narrow focus suggests that it will interest only specialists in the history of the home front during World War II, the history of Mexicans in the United States, or the history of Texas. However, Emilio Zamora's goals are remarkably ambitious. Zamora sets out to add to the small but growing body of literature that internationalizes both the history of Mexico and the history of the United States. He also seeks to challenge dominant interpretations of the President's Committee on Fair Employment Practice (FEPC). Zamora's boldest aim is to take issue with "whiteness scholars," particularly Ian Haney Lopez and Neil Foley, who have argued that middle-class Mexican Americans such as the members of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) "made use of the official designation of Mexicans as 'White' to break with the black cause and, in some important cases, deliberately and even spitefully maintain the edifice of race." (9) Although Zamora does not accomplish all of his goals, he does raise good questions about previous interpretations.
Federal war spending led to dramatic increases in agricultural and industrial production in Texas. When the war began, Mexican workers were heavily concentrated in agriculture. Zamora shows that some Mexicans were able to leave the fields and packing sheds and secure more lucrative jobs in war industries, but federal, state, and county officials worked with organizations such as the Farm Bureau to "freeze" Mexicans into agricultural jobs and hinder their movement into industry.
Zamora clearly explains how relations between the United States and Mexico influenced the treatment of Mexicans in Texas during the war. Both U.S. and Mexican officials expressed support for hemispheric unity, but Mexican officials continued to protest discrimination against Mexicans in the United States. In 1942 representatives of both nations negotiated the Bracero Program, under which hundreds of thousands of Mexicans entered the United States as temporary workers. Mexico's government refused to allow braceros to be sent to Texas, due to the state's history of mistreatment of Mexicans. The ban prompted the Texas legislature to pass the "Caucasian Race Resolution," which declared that Mexicans were Caucasians and therefore should not face discrimination in public accommodations. The resolution did not discourage discrimination in employment or in schools, and it sidestepped the issue of discrimination African Americans. Governor Coke Stevenson also established a state Good Neighbor Commission to investigate discrimination against Mexicans and to promote better relations between Anglos and Mexicans.
LULAC continued its efforts to end discrimination against Mexicans in education and public accommodations during the war. LULAC frequently worked with Mexican consular officials to publicize and condemn incidents in which Mexicans--particularly U.S. soldiers and representatives of Mexico's government--were denied service in restaurants. LULAC leader Alonso Perales appealed to international audiences at conferences in Mexico City and at the United Nations meeting in San Francisco for a civil rights law that would protect Mexicans from discrimination. Zamora concludes that LULAC drew attention to discrimination, but its efforts did not convince Texas officials to take action.
Most historians have focused on the FEPC's efforts to end employment discrimination against African Americans. Zamora shows, however, that many Mexicans filed complaints. Zamora explains that FEPC field examiner Carlos Castaneda relied upon his connections with Mexican civil rights organizations, including LULAC, to convince Mexicans to file complaints. Zamora argues that Castaneda and other FEPC officials had to avoid the appearance of attacking racial segregation. Instead of avidly pursuing complaints by African Americans, he suggests, they employed complaints by officially "white" Mexicans to try to convince employers and unions to implement nondiscrimination policies that would help all workers, including African Americans.
Zamora provides additional support for his general conclusions about the FEPC by focusing more narrowly on oil refining on the upper Gulf Coast and the smelting and alkali industries in Corpus Christi. He argues that the FEPC failed to end discrimination in the oil industry because it could not force employers to comply with its orders and because unions and employers united to defy the federal agency. In 1943, Mexican workers in the zinc smelting and alkali industry in Corpus Christi challenged employment discrimination by appealing to the FEPC, LULAC, and the Mexican consul. The legal counsel for the American Smelting and Refining Company challenged the FEPC's methods of gathering evidence, however, and the FEPC dropped the cases. Workers at Southern Alkali filed new complaints in 1944, and Castaneda's successor, Don W, Ellinger, found against the company. The solution to the case, however, did not eliminate discrimination. The company implemented an "entrance examination" by which new hires were classified. Since this examination primarily tested a worker's proficiency in English, it may have worked to perpetuate the classification of Mexicans as common laborers.
Zamora's argument rests on an impressive array of sources, from labor market reports and FEPC records to Spanish-language newspapers and Mexican government documents. Most of the argument is supported by strong evidence. Zamora's effort to challenge the whiteness scholars, however, falls short. To his credit, Zamora mentions that Mexican workers and LULAC protested discrimination at Southern Alkali, including the fact that Mexicans were forced to eat and shower with African Americans. Zamora writes, "although they claimed their official designation as a white group to call for an end to their segregation in the nonwork area of the plant, it is difficult to determine the extent to which this constituted a strategy to wear down a part of Jim Crow, a reflection of their own racial bias, or both." (185) It is difficult to see how this protest could be simply "a strategy to wear down a part of Jim Crow." Although this part of Zamora's argument is not persuasive, his book does encourage historians to rethink old interpretations and should be widely read.
Kevin Allen Leonard
Western Washington University
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|Author:||Leonard, Kevin Allen|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2011|
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