Becoming Mexican American

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George J. Sanchez. Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. 400 pp. ISBN 978-0195096484.

Summary

In what has become a classic of borderlands and immigration studies, George J. Sanchez's Becoming Mexican American explores the first two generations of sustained, large-scale Mexican immigration to Los Angeles, examining the construction of a distinct culture that could be called Chicano or Mexican American--that is, neither fully a part of Mexican culture nor fully integrated into mainstream U.S.-American culture. Sanchez particularly focuses on the fluidity of culture, pointing out that immigrants came from a Mexican culture that was continually evolving (particularly during this period of revolutionary upheaval and increased nationalism) and into a U.S.-American culture far from monolithic or strictly defined. Sanchez focuses on Los Angeles to fill a hole in the historiography of Mexican immigration to the United States, which through that point had focused on later periods and/or other regions, especially Texas. Additionally, Los Angeles boomed during this period, growing from 50,000 in 1890 to 1.2 million in 1930 (88).

Sanchez tells the story in a transnational way, beginning with a glimpse at social, political, and economic conditions in Mexico in the 1890s and early 1900s, the final years of the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. For many Mexicans, especially village-dwellers, the concept of Mexico as a nation did not exist. Yet, transitions during this period, especially the growth of railroads, brought about greater internal migration; many of those who eventually immigrated to the United States began by migrating to larger towns and cities within Mexico. Sanchez next transitions to the process of crossing the border, from the relatively open border of the beginning of the 20th century--allowing for greater circular migration--to increasing restrictions in 1917, 1921, and 1924--leading to more permanent migration. Sanchez then sums up the arrival of immigrants in Los Angeles, pointing out changing patterns in where they settled.

The next section discusses the competing efforts of Americanization and Mexicanization of new immigrants. While private groups, with some official backing at different levels of government, attempted to convert new immigrants to their version of the "American" lifestyle, shifting Mexican governments, through their consulate in Los Angeles, attempted to keep immigrants loyal to Mexico, with the hope that they would eventually return with needed capital and skills.

In the next section, Sanchez focuses on family, religious, cultural, and economic life among immigrants to Los Angeles. Not surprisingly, he finds varied experiences determined by several factors: The origins of the migrants, when they came, at what age, their levels of education, where they settled in Los Angeles, and their occupations. Overall, though, immigrants to Los Angeles found limited economic opportunity and found themselves marginalized culturally. Nonetheless, economic opportunities for many remained stronger than they were in Mexico, and thus even many who had considered themselves temporary migrants remained.

The book's final section focuses on changes wrought upon the Mexican American community in Los Angeles by the Great Depression. As the country's economic fortunes sagged, people of Mexican birth or extraction in Los Angeles often became the first to lose jobs. Soon, some began repatriating (or moving for the first time) to Mexico voluntarily, while U.S. officials forced many more out involuntarily. In the end, Los Angeles lost around one-third of its Mexican American population during the 1930s. Those that remained, however, were more solidly rooted. This, as well as the advent of a generation born in the United States, led the transition to a more permanent, concentrated community in Los Angeles--one that was neither fully Mexican nor integrated into the U.S.-American mainstream but was, indeed, Mexican American.

Commentary

David McKenzie, Spring 2015

Becoming Mexican American is an extremely comprehensive, yet readable, work of transnational history. Sanchez is particularly effective in his analysis of the fluidity of culture, moving past previous works of immigration history in showing how not only U.S. but Mexican culture was transitioning at the time. This was especially the case with Mexico, which underwent a dictatorship, decade of revolution, and installation of a semi-democratic "institutional revolutionary" government during the period covered. Sanchez deftly tracks these changes in Mexican and U.S. culture and society while not losing track of the particular story he is telling--that of Mexican immigrants to Los Angeles. He also does not lose track of individual stories, using these extremely well to show the wide variations in the experiences of Mexican immigrants to Los Angeles. His sources and statistical analysis add a great deal of weight to this story, but don't bog it down in minutiae.

One would not want to read Becoming Mexican American as a comprehensive history of Los Angeles, nor of Mexican immigration to the United States, during this time period. However, this book is an invaluable contribution to the history of both, and any wider story needs to take account of Sanchez's contribution.

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