Martha Menchaca

The Mexican American Experience in Texas: Citizenship, Segregation, and the Struggle for Equality

University of Texas Press, 2022

432 pages


Reviewed by Debjyoti Ghosh

Though sometimes left out of the political imaginary, Mexican Americans have experienced both past and present Othering. Indeed, many people in the US still view Mexican Americans as outsiders. Populist politicians and popular depictions, too, feed particular sorts of paranoia about the foreign Other, often depicted as the undocumented Mexican migrant. What is interesting is that several parallel political events in the 1800s created geo-political waves in frontier politics, which became the precursor to the treatment of Mexican American people today. For centuries, Mexican Americans have been battling it out in different arenas in order to gain social and political equity and equality. In her book, The Mexican American Experience in Texas, Martha Menchaca manages to knit together a complex narrative around the Mexican American experience by highlighting significant events of the Mexican American struggle, particularly in Texas. Menchaca begins with the history of Mexicans settling in the area of Texas during the Spanish Colonial days up until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Her in-depth research is spread across seven chapters that take the readers through the systemic inequalities and Othering that Mexican people have had to deal with from the time of the Spanish conquering of Mexico in 1521 through the Civil Rights Act in the US in 1964. She further presents how the battle against social inequality and racism rages on into the present.

The first two chapters, “The Pobladores and the Casta System” and “New Racial Structures: Citizenship and Land Conflicts,” offer a wealth of history on how the racial divisions and social inequalities were first put into place and later used by the Texan government under the auspices of the United States of America. They give a succinct record of the various rules and regulations created by the Spanish Crown in order to dominate their colonized lands in New Spain. The roadmap put out at the time was a case of ensuring Spanish superiority over all natives. The Limpieza de Sangre certificate was initiated to require Spanish people who were born in New Spain to prove their purity of blood in order to gain entry into high-level offices. Exemptions granted to children born of legitimate marriages between Indigenous noble women and conquerors were put under the Casta systemBoth religious and secular bodies started using similar protocols for allowing and disallowing people from joining their organizations. However, when the Bourbons became the rulers of Spain, they shook up the system, trying to steer people in their favor, and, inadvertently, many previously strict racial regimes were watered down. At the same time, records were still kept of people who were mixed (the mestizaje), Indigenous, Spanish born in the colonies (the Criollos, and born in Spain but residing in the colonies (the Peninsulares). The records fed the myth of the purity of the Criollos that sustained their claims to higher offices and chosen occupations.  

Among other historically relevant topics, such as the resettlement of Texas and the need for new settlers, Menchaca also highlights Spain’s stance on the manumission and emancipation of enslaved people. At the time, Spain had recently taken over Louisiana from France. Louisiana had a lot of slave-owners, who, under French law, had the right to do so. However, Texas, at the time, as a region, had few slave owners. The new Spanish laws affected the Louisiana slave-owners adversely yet safeguarded runaway enslaved people as well as ensured that all people born of enslaved people in Texas were born free. Mexico’s call for independence saw many of the previous laws being dismantled. At the same time, the anti-slavery campaign took hold quite strongly. Several Anglo-American settlers were upset with this—they worked a loophole around it. Enslaved people were being brought into Texas in the guise of indentured labor—where they were made to sign themselves and their offspring over to indentured labor for life.

In a few decades from Mexico’s own independence, Texas became independent of Mexico. Citizenship was granted to all residents as long as they were not Black nor Indian. Land grants that had existed from before were to carry on, but racial restrictions were put on who could recertify them. In a new, largely Anglo-American-run nation Mexicans were rendered a minority. Also, the new republic was keen on pushing out all Afromexicanos. Black people, in particular, were being pushed out under the threat of incarceration and re-enslavement. Tribal people were being moved out to make space for new settlers. The idea was to create a hierarchy where the so-called superiority of the Anglo-Americans was utmost. Barely a decade after its independence, Texas was annexed as the 28th State of the United States of America. Menchaca highlights the plight of the Mexican people in this new situation—constantly having to defend their status as citizens, as land grant holders from the previous regime, and subject to racism and bullying at the hands of the Anglo-American settlers as well as the new US administration. They were victims of violence, with little recourse to justice—unless, of course, one had the financial means to wage expensive legal battles.

The next three chapters, “Violence and Segregation, 1877-1927,” “Challenging Segregation 1927-1948,” and “The Path to Desegregation, 1948-1962” give a roadmap on the type of de jure segregation that started being practiced against Mexican Americans, how it was challenged in the early 1900s, and the pathway to desegregation. This was a mix of legal battles, social movements, and the work of some extremely important Mexican American activists. Menchaca goes in-depth into the type of segregation that was ordered by the Texas Supreme Court and later the Texas legislature. This later translated into segregation in both residential and school spaces.  Menchaca also explores the violence and corruption of the Anglo-American rangers who were in cahoots with the Anglo-American landowners. Land-grabbing was rampant, and most of it was being given to private entrepreneurs. At the same time, there was a lot of jurisprudential and legislative back and forth. Despite many efforts, the courts sided with segregation and exclusionary laws.

As the world came out of the Second World War, two leading Mexican American civil rights organizations had emerged: League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, and the American GI Forum. Menchaca looks at their involvement in pushing the legal system as well as enforcing desegregation rules where local legislators were making every effort not to.  Other organizations that came to the fore were the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, and the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, which had previously spoken up against the mass incarceration of Japanese American people after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Later, the more progressive members of LULAC broke off to form the Political Association of Spanish-Speaking Organizations, or PASSO. The desegregation of educational institutions saw some of the biggest challenges in implementation. Despite US Supreme Court rulings, there were specific moves to stop or slow down desegregation of schools, with wordings by state legislatures ambiguous enough to use race as a classifier but leave it unsaid.

In the final two chapters, “Institutional Desegregation, Social Movement Pressures, and the Chicano Movement” and “Mexican American Social Mobility and Immigration,” Menchaca looks at how, despite Texas slowing down desegregation of schools and public spaces, the military managed to enforce desegregation rules on all properties that were located on military property or where there were military bases. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, it was expected that things would change for the better, but Texas refused to budge. This led to Mexican American youth getting together with civil rights activists. They came to be known as the Chicano movement, a reference to Aztec culture. MAYO, the Mexican American Youth Organization, and La Raza Unida Party (RUP) were the main organizations representing the Chicano movement. For the next two years, several segregation policies were dismantled, but it was only with segregation policies for the private sector being taken down that segregation theoretically ended. However, segregation carried on in many schools for three more decades. Socio-economic mobility, too, did not change much until the early 1980s.

With her book, Menchaca gives a succinct account of how, throughout their history, Mexican American people have been forced to rise to the defense of their citizenship, their rights, and their beings. She has gathered historical, legislative, and jurisprudential data that showcases the indefatigable efforts of the activists and supporters, and the constant thwarting of efforts at times by all wings of the state. What Menchaca has managed to do beautifully is not just collate data about the civil rights’ journey of the Mexican Americans but also demonstrate how many humans were deeply involves, even at times when it would have been easier for them to look the other way. Her talent comes to the forefront in the way she has analyzed an extremely complex history of five centuries of colonization, domination, and Othering that have culminated in today’s moment.