The “Mexican Problem” Empire, Public Policy, and the Education of Mexican Immigrants, 1880-1930
Gilbert G. Gonzalez
“That Mexican” whom we have so long contemplated from north of the Rio Grande, has therefore come to live with us. With his inheriteJ ignorance, his superstition, his habits of poor housing, his weakness to some diseases, and his resistance to others, with his abiding love of beauty he has come co r our his blood into the veins of our national life. “That Mexican” nu longer lives in Mexico; he lives in the United States. The “Mexican Problem” therefore . .. reaches from Gopher Prairie
to Guatemala. – Robert N . McLean, That Mexican! As He Really
Is, Nurth and South of the Rio Grande
When Robert N . Mclean sat down to write That Mexican! in 1928, the expression “the Mexican Problem” had become a common refrain among American authors writing on Mexico and on Mexican immigrants. The term carries great significance for explaining the educational experience of the Chicano community, particularly during the 1920s and 1930s. Despite
the prevalence of an oft,recited “Mexican Problem” in the literature of the period, the matter has not attracted the attention of Chicano historians. Nonetheless, Chicano historiography has grown significantly over the
past thirty years and in the process has garnered a seat a t the national
research table. Indeed, no reliable histories of women, immigration, labor,
and community, among others, can ignore the critical presence of the Chicano community.
Despite the advances, an overriding tendency tu remain within a
regional and/or n,H1onal context courses through virtually all C hicano
The “Mexican Problem”
historical texts and limits the possibilities for a comprehensive analysis. As a result, worthwhile topics like the transnational “Mexican Problem” remain on the research margins. While historians of the Chicano experi, ence correctly seized on the need to place Chicano history at the center of the national discourse, they ignored the transnational and imperial
dimensions to that history. An imperial mindset took root with the economic expansionism of US corporations into Mexico soon after 1880, and this nationalistic mindset broadly impacted public policy toward Mexican immigrants.
This account summarizes initial explorations into the transnational factors affecting one specific aspect of Chicano history, the educational experience during that community’s formative years, 1900-30. The inves,
tigation argues for a need to expand the limited perspective dominating the field by examining patterns of nationalistic ideas elaborated by American authors (such as McLean) writing about Mexico from roughly 1880 to 1930; the significance of those writings for explicating the Chicano educational experience rounds out the review. No research on this important trans, national interaction has been undertaken, despite evidence that strongly suggests that such interaction has occurred. This study intends to move
the research forward by elaborating an innovative and useful approach for comprehending Chicano history.
This project not only continues my vital interest in Chicano edu,
cational history but also adds the transnational perspective absent from
earlier studies. In my 1990 study, Chicano Education in the Era of Segregation, I focused exclusive attention on the development of national educational theory and practice. Although the findings in that work are relevant to national educational theory and practice-IQ testing, vocational educa,
tion, and Americanization have withstood the test of time-the study
suffers from the same national limitations generally affecting Chicano
historiography. In the present study, the transnational factor will be shown
to have played as vital and important a role in the Chicano experience (and
public policy in general) as the national factor. In balancing the research
methodology, a more comprehensive and effective representation of the
Chicano educational experience will obtain.
Constructing a “Mexican Problem”
Initial research has clearly indicated that somewhere between 1880 and
1900 a defined literature devoted to Mexico assumed a substantial niche
Gilbert G. Gonzalez
among the reading interests of a~ Am~rican public u~informed about Mexico. Book tides such as Travels m M~x,.co ( 1886); M~xico: Tours Through the Egypt of the New World ( 1890); Mexico of the Twentieth Century ( l 907),
Mexico and Her People of To,day ( 1907); In lnaian Mexico ( 1908); Is Mexic~ Worth Saving ( 1920); and The Mexican Mirul: A Study of National Psychof-Ogy ( 1922) accompanied countless articles appearing in newspapers and in
popular, professional, and academic journals. From these and other works
written by a broad representation of Americans–from professional travelers to Protestant missionaries, mining engineers, and academics-emerged an
imperial image of Mexico and of Mexicans that eventually proved crucial to the defense of, and justification for, an educational program applied to
the Chicano community.
Initial review of the literature reveals a compelling pattern of cultural images constructed by the authors. This coherent set of views about contemporary Mexico is critical to our understanding of popular American views on Mexican migrants from the tum of the century to at least the Second World War. The narrative compiled by writers went something like this: Over the centuries, Mexico formed a cultural and biological hybrid, a cross between Indian and European that exemplified the worst of both worlds. In the words of one author, “It must be confessed that [mestizos] often exhibit the well-known tendency to follow the vices and weaknesses of both sides of their ancestry rather than their virtues” (Winton 1905, 25). To be sure, some dissonance appeared now and then in the assessment of Mexico’s population. “In the opinion of most observers,” added a more optimistic foreign service hand, “[the mestizo] is an improved stock as compared to the aborigines, quick to learn but inconstant in the application of the lessons taught” (Jones 1921, 18). Indians and mestizos, 80 to 90 percent of Mexico’s population, formed Mexico’s historical and contemporary dilemma.
Nothing seemed more important to understanding Mexico than its racial lines, usually described as 12 percent white, 33 percent mestizo, and the rest Indian. Only the top 12 percent were worthy of leadership. But there was much more to the analysis than that of breaking Mexico down into its essential genetic elements. Narratives examined the behavior patterns correlated with each component and eventually distilled the base qualities that made Mexico unique among nations of the world.
In scrutinizing Mexico’s historical record, and after traveling to its hinterlands and cities, authors quickly found the term Oriental ideal for cutting to the essence of the Mexican national character. Oriental allegedly
The “Mexican Problem”
defined the non-elite Mexicans and their cultural practices, and appeared in enough accounts to suggest that it had become a standard measure for com
paring the majority of Mexicans to other cultures, particularly that of the United States. For certain, readers’ attention responded to the expression. Oriental conveyed an image of an exotic, poor, strange, appealing, possibly
loathsome, and definitely subordinate people practicing an impenetrable culture. George B. Winton’s 1913 guide for American Protestant missionaries training for Mexico set the tone right up front on page 2:
Now with regard to the character of the people. They are as Oriental in type, in thought, and in habits as the Orientals themselves … we find that they are genuine Asiatics. They have some of the fatalism, the same tendency for speculation on the unpractical side of life and religion, the same opposition to the building up of industries, the same traditionalism and respect for the usages of antiquity.
A review of these writings reveals an imperial vision of the Other that closely resembled British colonial culture of the same period. British rulers marveled at their colonized subjects’ archeological achievements, yet the colonizers felt compelled to brand the modem descendants of former great societies as children, unwashed and uncivilized. Rudyard Kipling’s (1986) frustration with Indian wit defined the meaning of Oriental (and peon) for Americans as well:
the outcomes of human genius which we have been taught are to be found for the seeking, are few and very far between. It is necessary first to peruse an infinity of trivialities before we arrive at anything which may fairly be held to represent oriental thought. The rest is dream piled on dream and phantasm on phantasm-unprofitable, and to [the] Western mind, at least, foolish.
The absence of a consensus as to the exact qualities that gave Mexicans an Oriental presence seemed not to deter authors. Seemingly, the Oriental discourse engendered in Europe and applied by Americans appeared a distraction rather than a central and defining point for explaining Mexico. When it became obvious that a variety of general qualities went beyond Oriental and required a terminology that delved deeper (and more “accurately”) into the cultural uniqueness of Mexico, the term Oriental receded
into the background but certainly did not disappear. Authors did not need to search long for a more appropriate descriptive term: they found it in the Spanish word pe6n, meaning common laborer. Percy F. Martin, author of several works on Mexico, assured the reader of Mexico of the Twentieth
Gilbert G . Gonzalez
C tu that the “great deterrent to the more complete regeneration f en ry “(19 o
Mexico has been the character of the native peons 07, x) . A frustrated observer writing for the Independent asked, “Who are these peons? What is
their physical and mental condition? Are they any better, or worse, than
the Orientals or many races” (Simpich 1926, 238). The English word peon more easily connected to the realities of
Mexico. Even the newly found Oriental was eclipsed, but not eliminated, in
the growing discourse on Mexico. Peon eventually encompassed everything
that exemplified Mexican and was not remotely American, the preferred measure for comparing the Mexican to the American. Writers ultimately placed the words peon, Mexican, mestizo, and Oriental on an equal par.
However, that cultural expression constructed upon a debasement of Mexico and Mexicans and an exaltation of all things American reflected a progressive national political and cultural identity shared by broad numbers of people in the United States. That imperial identity eventually led to a continual reference to something known as the “Mexican Problem.” Indeed, one writer, C. W. Barron, saw fit to title his work The Mexican Problem (1917). Addressing a conference on Mexico at Clark University in 1920,
Professor George Blakeslee reaffirmed a common belief: “The outstanding fact is that there is a genuine Mexican Problem” (viii) . The term “Mexi, can Problem” allegedly summarized the political, economic, and cultural backwardness that prevented Mexico from peerage with the developed nations of the world. The solution to the “Mexican Problem,” argued many a writer, was the Americanization of Mexico. Mexico could not manage its own affairs without foreign tutelage, whether financial or cultural.
Thus, the cultural makeup of the Mexican population prevented Mexico from moving into a phase of modernist development. This inability constituted the “Mexican Problem,” which waited upon Americanization to resolve. The move within the literature from describing Mexico’s racial construction to a discourse upon the “Mexican Problem” and thence to the solution, Americanization (in the economic and cultural sense), eventu, ally generated a public policy discourse affecting the Mexican immigrant community during its formative years, 1900 to 1930.
The Transnational “Mexican Problem”
Ca~ey McWilliams’s North from Mexico: The Spanish,Speaking People of the United States (1949), the first historical account of the Mexican American people, served as a model for future historians of the Ch’ . 1cano experience.
The “Mexican Problem”
McWilliams argued that a major factor in establishing the syndrome of oppressive public policies exemplified in segregated schools, disproportional arrests for juvenile delinquency, and the general prejudice that infected the
dominant society was the continual recourse to the “Mexican Problem.” So
pervasive was this comprehensive conceptualization of the Mexican Ameri, can community that McWilliams selected it as the tide for the eleventh chapter of North from Mexico. He observed, “In the vast library of books and documents about ethnic and minority problems in the United States, one of the largest sections is devoted to ‘the Mexican Problem”‘ (206-7).
Mc Williams noted that a surge of publications on the “Mexican Problem” appeared at the time of the settlement of Mexican immigrants throughout the Southwest. Armed with volumes of “data/’ social workers, educators, the courts, and the police concluded “that Mexicans lacked leadership, discipline, and organization; that they segregated themselves; chat they were lacking in thrift and enterprise” (206-7). Mc Williams made a pointed criticism of a “mountainous collection of master’s theses” and dissertations that reported on alleged (and oft repeated) inferior intellectual, culturaC or biological qualities of Mexican adults and children. Unfortunately none of those learned their first lessons in Chicano history from Mc Williams, thought to investigate the intellectual origins of the “Mexican Problem.”
Evidence strongly suggests that as the Mexican community formed in the early 1900s, policy makers and academics lacking information, exper, tise, and direction that would inform public policy in relation to Mexican immigrants tapped into the materials written about Mexico. A trove of information was readily available, and investigators absorbed the literature with neither hesitation nor a critical reading. In fact, in the “mountainous collection of master’s theses” censured by Mc Williams appears a heavy reliance on the materials written about Mexico referred to earlier in this discussion. Initial explorations reveal that at least twenty,five master’s theses and doctoral dissertations written on the Mexican immigrant com, munity between 1912 and 1957 cited books exclusively focused on Mexico as authoritative sources. A major reason for this reliance was the training curriculum in colleges and universities that relied on these sources.
The well,known sociologist and expert on Mexican migrants, Emory Bogardus, of the University of Southern California, mentored a generation of school principals and school superintendents in the Southern California region. One of his first publications, Essentials of Americanization (1919), opened the chapter on Mexican immigrants with a phrase that highlighted a concern widely discussed across the Southwestern United States: “‘the
Gilbert G . Gonzalez
Mexican problem’ has developed rapidly since 1900” (179) . However, Bogardus realized that his short three-page examination of the “Mexican
problem” left much unsaid. He therefore listed a short bibliography on the
Mexican immigrant; all citations were of works on Mexico and its culture, which underscored the importance of studies of Mexico for “understand, ing” the Mexican immigrant. Bogardus followed Americanization with The Mexican Immigrant: An Annotated Bibliography ( 1929). Here we find the full
expression of the general reliance, by then, upon the literature on Mexico. In the section titled “Culture,” Bogardus listed thirty-seven books and fifty articles all written about Mexico and Mexicans in Mexico. Five years later, Bogardus published The Mexican Immigrant in the United States ( 1934 ), which included a bibliography citing much the same literature.
By the mid-1930s the “Mexican Problem” had become a standard for explaining the culture and innate nature of Mexican immigrants. There is reason to believe that the widespread segregated schooling for Mexican children was rationalized to a significant extent based on notions found in this literature. In addition, within those segregated schools, Americanization, or de-Mexicanization, was stressed above academic work.
Based on the perception of a complex of cultural impediments to
“success,” or the “Mexican Problem,” Americanization was considered the panacea for “adjusting” the Mexican immigrant and his/her children to a limited, but altogether inevitable and “natural” level of success in the United States. Thus, we see compelling evidence of a transnational set of ideas that claimed to explain the Mexican immigrants’ essential characteristics, which in turn inspired particular approaches to integrating Mexicans into American society. The chosen approaches seriously impeded opportunities for the Mexican community to alter its social and economic class position, and thus tended to maintain the existing economic functions performed by the Mexican community. In the case of American writers on Mexico, the “Mexican Problem” justified continued US economic domination over Mexico. The “Mexican Problem” relative to Mexican immigrants justified a state-engineered perpetuation of the Mexican immigrant community’s class position.
Upon completion, this study will, I hope, initiate a discourse on the intimate links among Chicano history, educational theory and practice, and patterns of imperial ideas emanating from the works of American writers
The “Mexican Problem”
delving into Mexico. This author contends that these writings cannot be
separated from the economic domination exerted by the United States over Mexico during this same period. Given the centrality of foreign capital,
primarily US capital, in Mexico’s economy over the course of the last
century, it follows that Chicano history throughout the twentieth century cannot be explained without acknowledging that factor. Consider that in
the Mexico of the period under study, much of agriculture, the railroad
system, oil production, and the mining industry were under US control. Indeed, American writers uniformly lauded the US presence and advocated increased US investments in the Mexican economy, or, as it was termed, “Americanization,” as a solution to the “Mexican Problem.”
Historians have yet to systematically analyze that pattern of impe, rialistic ideas elaborated by American authors between 1880 and 1930,
despite evidence that these writings have played an important role in national public policy. This study moves against the grain of historiographic convention that places the Chicano experience within an overly restric,
tive regional or national perspective. A transnational imperial cultural formation contoured to the specifications of US economic domination of Mexico contributed significantly to the shaping of public policy toward Mexican immigrants. Further research may well demonstrate that this
same transnational cultural configuration impacted other areas of the Chicano experience, for example, the justice system. Although this study will focus on the 1880-1930 period, a case can be made that this imperial transnational factor has been functioning throughout the twentieth century.
Works Cited Barron, C. W. 1917. The Mexican Problem. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Blakeslee, George E. 1920. Introduction to Mexico and the Caribbean, edited by
George E. Blakeslee, viii. New York: Stechert. Bogardus, Emory. 1919. Essentials of Americanization. Los Angeles: University of
Southern California Press. —. 1929. The Mexican Immigrant: An Annotated Bibliography. Los Angeles:
Council on International Relations. —. 1934. The Mexican Immigrant in the United States. Los Angeles: University
of Southern California Press. Gonzalez, Gilbert G . 1990. Chicano Education in the Era of Segregation. Philadelphia:
Balch Institute Press.
Gilbert G . Gonzalez
Jones, Chester Lloyd. 1921. Mexico and Its Reconstruetion. New York: D. Appleton. Kipling, Rudyard. 1986. “The Epics of India.” In Kipling’s India: Uncollected Sketches
1848-88, edited by Thomas Pinney, 175-78. London: Macmillan. First published in Civil and Military Gazette, August 24, 1886.
Martin, Percy F. 1907. Mexico of the Twentieth Century. London: Edward Arnold. McLean, Robert N. 1928. That Mexican! As He Really Is, North and South of the Rio
Grande. New York: Fleming H. Revell. Mc Williams, Carey. 1949. North from Mexico: The Spanish-Speaking People of the
United States. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott. Simpich, Frederick. 1926. “The Little Brown Brother Treks North.” Independent
116, no. 39: 238. Winton, George B. 1905. A New Era in Old Mexico. Nashville: Publishing House
of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. –. 1913. Mexico To-day: Social , Political, and Religious Conditions. New York:
Missionary Education Movement of the United States and Canada.
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