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Race Relations in the U.S. Southwest

In this excerpt from his book A Different Mirror, historian Ronald Takaki describes the relationships between Mexicans and white Americans in the Southwest. Using quotations from the period, Takaki shows how ordinary Mexicans and Americans understood the racial rules that governed their interactions with one another.

Included as laborers, Mexicans found themselves excluded socially, kept at a distance from Anglo society. Like Caliban, they were isolated by the borders of racial segregation. Their world was one of Anglo over Mexican. Even on the large cattle ranches of Texas where Mexicans and Anglos lived together and formed loyalties and sometimes even friendships, integration did not mean equality. J. Frank Dobie, for example, described one of the workers on his family's ranch. This "old, faithful Mexican" had been employed on the ranch for over twenty years and he was "almost the best friend" Dobie had. "Many a time 'out in the pasture' I have put my lips to the same water jug that he had drunk from," he remembered fondly. But Dobie added: "At the same time neither he nor I would think of his eating at the dining table with me."

Racial etiquette defined proper demeanor and behavior for Mexicans. In the presence of Anglos, they were expected to assume "a deferential body posture and respectful voice tone." They knew that public buildings were considered "Anglo territory," and that they were permitted to shop in the Anglo business section of town only on Saturdays. They could patronize Anglo caf├ęs, but only the counter and carry-out service. "A group of us Mexican s who were well dressed once went to a restaurant in Amarillo," complained Wenceslao Iglesias in the 1920s, "and they told us that if we wanted to eat we should go to the special department where it said 'For Colored People.' I told my friend that I would rather die from starvation than to humiliate myself before the Americans by eating with the Negroes." At sunset, Mexicans had to retreat to their barrios.

In the morning, Mexican parents sent their children to segregated schools. "There would be a revolution in the community if the Mexicans wanted to come to the white schools," an educator said. "Sentiment is bitterly against it. It is based on racial inferiority. . . ." The wife of an Anglo ranch manager in Texas put it this way: "Let him [the Mexican] have as good an education but still let him know he is not as good as a white man. God did not intend him to be; He would have made them white if He had." For many Anglos, Mexicans also represented a threat to their daughters. "Why don't we let the Mexicans come to the white school?" an Anglo sharecropper angrily declared. "Because a damned greaser is not fit to sit side of a white girl."

In the segregated schools, Mexican children were trained to become obedient workers. Like the sugar planters in Hawaii who wanted to keep the American-born generation of Japanese on the plantations, Anglo farmers in Texas wanted the schools to help reproduce the labor force. "If every [Mexican] child has a high school education," sugar beet growers asked, "who will labor?" A farmer in Texas explained: "If I wanted a man I would want one of the more ignorant ones. . . . Educated Mexicans are the hardest to handle. . . . It is all right to educate them no higher than we educate them here in these little towns. I will be frank. They would make more desirable citizens if they would stop about the seventh grade."

Serving the interest of the growers, Anglo educators prepared Mexican children to take the place of their parents. "It isn't a matter of what is the best way to handle the education here to make citizens of them," a school trustee in Texas stated frankly. "It is politics." School policy was influenced by the needs of the local growers, he elaborated. "We don't need skilled or white-collared Mexicans. . . . The farmers are not interested in educating Mexicans. They know that then they can get better wages and conditions."

Source | Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1993), 326-327.
Creator | Ronald Takaki
Item Type | Book (excerpt)
Cite This document | Ronald Takaki, “Race Relations in the U.S. Southwest,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 16, 2017, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/2191.

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