CALIFORNIA COLLECTION: Civil Rights Speech – “Social Conditions of Mexican American Youth” (1943)

Ctizens Commttee for the Defense of Mexican-American Youth.

While the Rockefeller Committee concentrates on bringing the peoples of Latin-America closer to the United States, what about our good neighbors at home? The interests of cordial relationships between the Americas and the cause of national unity could be tremendously strengthened through special recognition of the problems of Mexicans in our country.

The recent much publicized Mexican juvenile “gang” activities in California is a case in point! Far from proving a “fusion-ground of two cultures,” many problems of great cultural conflict are confronting Mexican youth in our country. Delinquency is not a monopoly of any racial or national group; it is a monopoly of poverty, excessive housing concentration, of social and economic discrimination. These, far more than juvenile deliquency, characterize our Spanish-speaking minority.

There are in the United States today approximately 3,500,000 Spanish-speaking people. In general, these people are to be found in the States of Colorado, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, but some 15,000 reside in Detroit; approximately 20,000 in Chicago, and throughout the Middlewest there are perhaps 70,000. Los Angeles is the second largest Mexican city in the world, second only to the capital of Mexico.

Beginning in 1900, a great influx of Mexican occurred, “invited” as a source of cheap labor by railroad, agricultural, mining and industrial interests. Between 1900 and 1930, about 1,000,000 immigrants from Mexico entered this country.

Once here, uprooted, they encountered discrimination, and inevitably became victims of our depressions. Economic and social discrimination forced them to be segregated into cheap settlements upon their arrival. Living conditions were – and still are – extremely bad. Many of the existing Mexican shack-towns – like Hicks Camp – are those created in the first World War.

As a whole, Mexicans were restricted to certain types of labor – and this the cheapest paid. Segregation reduced opportunities for cultural adjustments. As a consequence, Mexicans seldom constitute an integral functioning part of the civic and social life of our communities.

Companies often refused to hire Mexicans on the grounds that they were not skilled workers. Schools, previously, refused to train Mexicans, stating that companies would not hire them.

How has all this affected the second generation Mexican born in this country? By reason of segregation, they are denied a place in our society. Because of the fact that their parents and older relatives are Mexican born immigrants, they are ashamed of their parents’ language, behavior, and ideals. These youths want to behave as other Americans do, but it is evident that they suffer from prejudice. Many places of amusement and recreation are closed to them; or open to them only under shameful conditions. They are restricted to poorly paid occupations. Poverty results in living in crowded and unsanitary quarters.

Recently, in Los Angeles, police arrested more than 600 Mexican-American boys and girls in one week-end … on such flimsy charges that they had to be released after several hours. Since then, hundreds of these youths have been picked up by a police dragnet – for no apparent reason. And the local press is thus enabled to turn on “crime waves.”

What was the immediate effect of the mass arrests? The entire Spanish-speaking community was stigmatized. Mexican communities in ther sections of the country suffered an increase in discrimination.

A graver effect was achieved by a section of the Latin-American press which is hostile to full Pan-American cooperation and which seized upon the publicity of the mass arrests as a means of persuading Latin-Americans that they can expect nothing but abuse from the United Nations. This group is known as the Sinarquistas, closely modeled after the Falange of fascist Spain. They were organized in 1936 by the Hitler government and maintained direct contact with the Fichte Bund in Hamburg. At one time, the movement claimed a membership of 200,000 in Mexico.

Sinarquismo still has important bases of operation in the southwestern United States – California, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. In Los Angeles the organization has an admitted membership of 800 under the leadership of Pedro Villaseñor.

The trial of the 22 Mexican-American youths for the “Sleepy Lagoon” murder aided the offense of the Los Angeles Sinarquist movement. It aided in creating an atmosphere of hostility and distrust toward the Mexican-American population. Sinarquists were able to point to the trial as proof that Mexican-Americans cannot get a fair break in “gringo” courts, therefore, why should they support the “Yankees” war?

Significant were the short-wave broadcasts from Axis radios to Latin-American countries reporting that thousands of Mexican-Americans were being placed in concentration camps in Los Angeles. In these broadcasts, over a period of months, the “Sleepy Lagoon” case was played up as a typical democratic persecution of a minority.

During the course of the trial a Citizens Committee for the Defense of Mexican-American Youth was formed with a membership that includes John Bright, representative of the Council for Pan-American Democracy; Philip M. Connelly, California State CIO Presidnet, Carey McWilliams, author of “Factories in the Fields”; Mrs. Will Rogers Jr., wife of the newly-elected congressman from California; Josephine Fierro de Bright, secretary of the Spanish-Speaking Peoples Congress; Dorothy Comingore, star of “Citizen Kane”; Charlotta Bass, editor of the California Eagle, leading Negro newspaper; Guy Nunn, Minority Groups representative of the War Manpower Commission; Leo Gallagher, noted labor attorney and LaRue McCormick, western representative of the International Labor Defense.

This Committee raised money for the Boys’ defense, organized their parents, and visited the sheriff’s office and police commission to protest the Brutal treatment of the boys. Now, through their attorney, George E. Shibley, they have entered an appeal against the verdict which found 17 of the boys guilty of crimes ranging from to assault to first-degree murder and for which they are now serving sentences ranging from one year to life imprisonment.

Other progressive steps grew out of the “Sleepy Lagoon” case. The office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs sent a special representative, Walter H.C. Laves, to investigate the conduct of the trial. Newspapers were requested to delete from their reports such inflammatory expressions as “Mexican goons” and “zoot-suit” gangsters.”

A coordinating committee was appointed by the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors, charged with the responsibility of giving the local population of Mexican extraction its rightful and full place in city activities.

Much remains to be done before the problem can be considered near solution, but the situation has definately improved within recent months.

Since the issuing of the President’s Executive Order 8802 and the work of the Minorities Division of the War Manpower Commission, discrimination in defense industries for basic jobs has virtually disappeared. What is needed now is upgrading opportunities equal with other workers and a program of vocational training.

The Office of War Information has intensified its efforts in spreading war information in the Spanish tongue among the Spanish-speaking people, and in informing the English-speaking population of the fine part played by the Spanish-speaking population in the war.

During the summer of 1942, the office of the Los Angeles County Superintendent of schools sponsored a workshop for interested teachers of Mexican and Spanish-speaking pupils. By establishing such workshops, it is believed that the participants will emerge with clearer knowledge of the scope of the problem, the conditions under which Mexican-American pupils live, and the handicaps of language and experience which they have. Such workshops will provide teachers with an opportunity to assist pupils in making proper adjustments.

The housing project program in Los Angeles City and County is just beginning to alleviate the needs of Mexican-Americans, great numbers of whom live under shocking conditions. The start has been good. Of the ten city projects, all have from one-third to one-half Mexican-Americans resident. Outstanding is Ramona Gardens, capacity 610 families, where 60% of the tenants are Mexican-Americans. One of the three county projects, Maravilla, capacity over 300 families, has almost entirely Mexican-American tenants.

Despite all the obstacles and difficulties, the Mexican-American population is participating in the war program. Hundreds of thousands of Mexican-American youths have gone as volunteers into the armed forces of the United States. Other hundreds of thousands are now at work in factories, shipyards, and fields, producing for war. They are entering the State Guard, American Red Cross, and other civilian defense organizations. One-third of the Japanese evacutated farm land in Los Angeles is being worked by patriotic Mexican laborers. In answer to the Los Angeles police and press, Mexican-American youth in that city has organized itself into Victory Clubs whose principle activities are bond selling and salvage drives.

The winning of the war demands that the entire manpower of the nation be utilized — in the armed forces, in war industries, and in civilian defense. When the Mexican-Americans are completely integrated into the political, social, and economic life of the contry, they will be in a position to make that contribution to the war effort which they are eager to make.

March 2, 1943

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