Module 6. Our Story: Latinx Americans


World War II opened new avenues of opportunity for ethnic minoritized groups like Latinx Americans. Approximately 400,000 to 500,000 Hispanic and Latinx Americans fought in the war.  This number varies by the source because of misrepresentation or underrepresentation of groups like Afro-Latinos. Like most veterans that are people of color, they were treated badly upon return. Many were not allowed the benefits of the GI Bill, and others returned to hometowns that enforced segregation, despite service to their country.

Like many minoritized groups during this era, like women and Blacks, Hispanics and Latinx Americans found new employment opportunities due to shifts in the workforce. Better paying factory jobs drove many racial minorities into cities. Some gained employment in industrialized jobs making uniforms, bullets, planes, etc.

The shifts in the labor force also created a desperate need for agricultural workers. In solidarity during wartime, the U.S. government and the Mexican government signed a deal called the Bracero program. The program was used to bring Mexican agricultural laborers into the U.S. for work while guaranteeing them fair wages, adequate shelter, and food. This initial agreement was meant for wartime but was extended until 1964. The agreement sounded great on paper, but in practice had many issues. There were many accounts of “adequate” living conditions that were substandard at best, and numerous accounts of racial discrimination. Wage discrepancies, withheld pay, or inconsistent pay were common among Bracero workers. The workers had no say in the negotiations of labor contracts and were virtually powerless in the process from the beginning. Furthermore, even though the program was extended several years, Bracero workers were never given a pathway to citizenship. The whole program was inconsistent, unfair, and at times outright abusive. In 1954, after the director of the INS became alarmed by the presence of Mexican laborers in southern California, he initiated “Operation Wetback,” a program to deport illegal immigrants to Mexico. This initiative ignored the fact that many of these farmworkers came legally under the Bracero program, and some of those deported were American citizens.


An Official Examines a Bracero's Teeth and Mouth with a Flashlight
“An Official Examines a Bracero’s Teeth and Mouth with a Flashlight” by Wikimedia is in the Public Domain, CC0

Meanwhile, as the Bracero workers were being mistreated in the west and southwest, Los Angles found itself in an incident of racial conflict during the Zoot Suit Riots. WWII was a global conflict that had vast effects on the home front in America, including stoking racial tensions in areas like southern California. Discrimination against Latinx communities is a concept that was common in the region even before it was a state. This all came to a head because of rationing during the war.

A Zoot Suit was a type of suit that was popularized during the Harlem Renaissance. The suit included an oversized jacket with coat tails, large voluminous pants with pegged ankles, sometimes a watch chain and two-toned shoes. This look was later co-opted by the Mexican youth of the Los Angeles area. This youth culture was called the Pachuco movement.

Both young men and women participated. However, to wear a zoot suit during war time and rationing was frowned upon because of its excessive fabric; and this, coupled with rising racial tensions in the area soon erupted into violence. Although many Pachucos wearing zoot suits did not fabricate or purchase them during wartime, thereby violating rationing laws, they were still targeted as being unpatriotic and un-American.


A crowd of people looking at two men on the floor
“Victims of the Zoot Suit Riots” by Wikimedia is in the Public Domain, CC0

The origin of the riots is hard to pinpoint, but the initial act was connected to some young Pachucos and navy servicemen in Los Angles. Because the city had a military base nearby, there were often military servicemen present. The initial altercation sparked a reaction of vengeance by those in the area, and havoc was set upon anyone in a zoot suit or who appeared to be part of this Pachuco culture.




To view the riots from the perspective of the Latinx community.


Read We’re Looking for Zoot-Suits to Burn”: Mexican Americans and the Zoot Suit Riots. Answer the following questions:

  1. What reasons did authorities give for the treatment and arrest of the young men?
  2. Why did authorities behave the way they did? Were their actions justified?


Men, many of them enlisted men, packed into cars to descend upon the Latinx barrios of Los Angles to hunt down Zoot Suiters. The attackers used bats, chains, and other weapons to assail these young Pachucos. When the police were called, the ones put in jail were often the victims of the violence, the young Latinx men. The attacks lasted for six days in the summer of 1943, and would be repeated in several other major cities, each targeting Latinx youth.

After the conflicts of the WWII era, Latinx Americans, like other racial minorities questioned their value in American society. Cold War political policies sought to defend peoples abroad, but many minorities were unable to access civil rights at home. The first significant target of racial discrimination was the education system. Before the Brown v. Board decision, there was another case that challenged segregation in schools, and this was the case of Sylvia Mendez.

Mendez v. Westminster (1947)

In 1947, the case of Mendez v. Westminster, a class action lawsuit was brought against the city of Orange County, California for the practice of “Mexican schools.” In the city of Westminster, schools were established for children of Mexican descent because they were deemed as “special needs” since they were Spanish speakers. This case was tried in the U.S. Supreme court, and the practice of “Mexican schools” was deemed unconstitutional, for it was proven to instill a sense of inferiority amongst Mexican children forced to attend these schools. This case would pave the way for the monumental Brown v. Board decision that upended the separate but equal clause based on similar findings.

Hernandez v. Texas (1954)

Later, another monumental case was decided in the U.S. Supreme Court to bring clarity to the racial definition of Latinx Americans. The case of Hernandez v. Texas was litigated in 1954 by the first Mexican American lawyers to stand before the U.S. Supreme Court. Peter Hernandez was a man who was convicted of murdering another man in a fatal shooting outside a bar in Texas. The legal case was not to dispute the conviction but rather the subject of discrimination because Hernandez was denied a fair jury of his peers. Historically, Mexicans were systematically excluded from jury duty due to discrimination. However, defenders of the practice would argue that since Latinx Americans are racially categorized as ‘White’; therefore the defense claimed Hernandez was in fact fairly represented.  In the end, the court ruled in favor of Hernandez because they proved that there had never been a member of a Texas jury that had a Spanish surname. The ruling found that this type of discrimination was unconstitutional.

Both of these cases found that even though the law distinguished Latinx Americans under the racial category of White, overt racial discrimination occurred based on national origin or ethnicity. These cases determined that the Latinx community was afforded protections under Constitutional law. Although these cases sought to protect Latinx Americans, the end of segregation and discrimination was a work in progress.


Cesar Chaves speaking into a podium microphone
“Democratic Convention in New York City July 14, 1976” by Wikimedia is in the Public Domain, CC0

On the front of labor issues in the U.S., many issues needed to be addressed. The abuses of the Bracero program continued to impact Latinx communities, especially after the initiation of Operation Wetback and the deportation of many farm laborers. The work of the Farmworkers Movement grew out of the valleys of California. The famous César Chávez, a WWII veteran, rose to prominence as an activist and organizer of the National Farm Workers Association, alongside Dolores Huerta and Gilbert Padilla. This group combined forces with Philip Vera Cruz and the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee to protest the unfair labor practices of California grape growers. Their primary tactic was a consumer boycott – to refrain from buying and consuming any products that were derived from these grape farmers. Other forms of protest by the organizers included marches and Chávez’s fasting. The most notable march was led by Chávez in 1966, extending 300 miles from Delano, California to the state capital of Sacramento. In the end, labor contracts were negotiated between the growers and the farmworkers unions to increase wages and improve working conditions such as limiting the use of harmful pesticides (Ortiz, 2018).




To understand the perspective of Latinx farmworkers.


Read Letter from Delano by Cesar Chavez (1969). Answer the following questions:

  1. How does Chávez describe the farm workers movement?
  2. Was he effective in conveying his goals?


Latinx Americans continued to participate in the civil rights movements of the 1960s in Chicago in the name of the Young Lords. This movement was led by young Puerto Ricans but also involved the participation of other Latinx groups. Their organizing focused on education and community building. The Young Lords provoked the formation of other chapters active in New York City and other areas of the eastern seaboard. In NYC, the Young Lords sought to fight inequities of the conditions of minority neighborhoods in regard to infrastructure and access to government programs.

Like other civil rights movements of the late 1960s, the Brown Power, or Chicano/a movement in Southern California demanded recognition and the end of racial discrimination in the U.S. This was an extension of the farm workers movement in the California Central Valley. Additionally, the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 opened immigration to other Latin American countries, continuing the trend of diversification of American society. Along with other racial and ethnic minorities, Latinx communities struggled with identity, discrimination, and injustice into the end of the 20th century. Despite these struggles, many achieved progress in education, gainful employment, and political representation.


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Our Lives: An Ethnic Studies Primer Copyright © 2022 by Vera Guerrero Kennedy and Rowena Bermio is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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