Module 6. Our Story: Latinx Americans


During the colonial development of the U.S., the Spanish continued to establish settlements throughout their territories in the Americas. In North America, of the areas that would eventually become the U.S., the Spanish controlled the west, southwest, and Florida, until about the early 19th century. Spanish speakers were, in fact, some of the earliest settlers of North America, and would remain strongly rooted in those regions throughout this nation’s history – and even today.

After the American Revolution and the founding of the nation, settlers looked to the west for more room to develop and grow. The land lust of the American settlers was felt by many groups, and among those groups perhaps the ones to have been affected most were Native Americans and Latinx populations. This land lust was justified in the notion of Manifest Destiny, a term covered in more detail in Module 2.

The control of lands from the Atlantic to the Pacific began first with Florida, which was acquired by John Quincy Adams through the Adams-Onis Treaty in 1819. The treaty was signed to settle a border dispute with Spain and an ongoing conflict with General Andrew Jackson and his invasion of Florida and attack on the Seminole Indians. This military action by Jackson was used as leverage over the Spanish to demand Minister Onis to control the inhabitants of Florida or cede the region to the United States. The Seminole tribe was considered disruptive to U.S. interests because they had a history of harboring fugitive slaves.  As discussed in Module 3, enslaved African Americans were considered property of Americans, and therefore the Seminoles were in possession of stolen property. The treaty settled differences between the nations by Spain ceding control of all of Florida and the Pacific Northwest, while the U.S. recognized Spanish control over the region later known as Texas, clarifying the borders between New Spain and the United States.

Americans soon after reneged on their promise to respect their western boundaries. By the 1820s, American farmers of the south had continued to press into western regions, growing and expanding their wealth despite what sovereign nation controlled the land. The year of 1821 was a victorious one for Mexico, for it gained its independence from their Spanish colonial masters much like Americans did in 1783. However, in forming their new nation, the Mexican government worried about their northern territories and the American influence that resided in them. The fledgling nation tightened its grip on their nation by instituting laws that would weaken the American investment farmers in the north. This legislation included the building of military forts, increasing taxes on foreigners, the abolition of slavery in 1829, and the barring of immigration across the northern border in 1830. All these actions were meant to weaken and dismantle the American influence in northern Mexico, but instead the Americans pushed back.

The path the Americans chose was in line with Manifest Destiny and the American ethos of resistance. Instead of complying with the Mexican government, Americans allied with the remnants of Spanish elites and waged a revolution against Mexico. The Texas Revolution lasted several months, and in the end, Texas gained its independence from Mexico and operated as its own independent nation from 1836 until the U.S. annexed the region in 1845. The Americans continued to till their lands with the use of slave labor as an independent territory and into 1860.

After Texas entered the Union, President James K. Polk set his sights towards the west, again in line with the concept of Manifest Destiny. In November of 1845, a diplomat was sent to Mexico to offer to buy the western territories from Mexico, and the offer was denied. But the U.S. government was relentless, and instead of cutting their losses, they claimed a border dispute to settle the matters with war. President Polk stationed a military force of 4,000 men at the disputed border line, and the Mexican government responded with its own military force.  When tensions erupted and shots were fired, Americans were killed. Polk used this opportunity to declare war on Mexico, and Congress granted his request. The Mexican American war had begun.

The Mexican American War was a very short-lived war, officially beginning in the fall of 1846 and only lasting about four months. The Americans had the advantage of attacking from both land and sea and quickly came to occupy the capital city of Mexico. During this occupation of Mexico City, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed. This treaty ceded about half of Mexico territory to the U.S.; territory that would eventually become California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, and Wyoming. This vast acquisition of land would have thousands of Mexicans faced a choice of leaving their land and homes to move within the new borders of their nation or remaining where they were to become Americans. Approximately 30,000 Mexicans would stay and represent the bulk of Latinx Americans for many years, all having to adapt and mold into American society as many more would do in the years thereafter. In their efforts to adapt and assimilate into American society, they would find themselves faced with harsh discrimination, particularly in politically charged territory like California.

After the acquisition of land from Mexico, Americans had fulfilled their goal of Manifest Destiny – they now controlled North America from the Atlantic to Pacific coasts. The consequences of achieving that goal were high, for civil war was brewing. One event that accelerated the coming war came with the process of settlement of new territories, namely the state that would become California. When the precious metal known as gold was discovered in California, a rush of eager migrants flooded into the territory during the California Gold Rush to extract the wealth that the land had to offer. As countless migrants descended on the land, a certain lawlessness was experienced by those settlers, provoking a need for structure, government, and order. Lawmakers identified a need for order and rushed into annexation and statehood. However, the delicate balance of free and slave states needed to be maintained, so a political compromise settled matters, formally called the Compromise of 1850. This negotiation contained several different concessions to satisfy differing political interests, including California accepted as a free state into the Union.


Nebel Mexican War 12 Scott in Mexico City Adolphe Jean-Baptiste bayot
“Nebel Mexican War 12 Scott in Mexico City Adolphe Jean-Baptiste bayot” by Wikimedia is in the Public Domain, CC0

During the Gold Rush beginning in 1848, and the establishment of a California state government, most non-White residents were given little consideration and rights. Generally, white California residents treated once Mexican citizens with disdain as they would treat most racially minoritized groups in California like the Chinese and the Native Americans.

As the American Civil War raged on through the 1860s, many of society’s issues were put on hold, including Latinx American labor issues and gold rush conflicts in California. From the time of land acquisition to the 20th century, the southern border remained relatively open, and migrants openly crossed to look for work when needed. Spanish speakers from Latin America were welcomed with the same xenophobia as many other migrants of the late 19th century, but many only stayed for temporarily for work, and returned home.

After the War of 1812, the U.S. had beaten the British a second time, and established itself as a fully formed nation on a global stage. Just a few years after, James Monroe issued the Monroe Doctrine, a U.S. policy that took a stand against any attempts at European colonialism in the Americas – North, Central, or South. Later, Theodore Roosevelt upheld this same policy, and reiterated the U.S. strongarm on the Western Hemisphere and the defense of any Latin American country. This policy was called the Roosevelt Corollary; and using this policy, the U.S. government intervened in many foreign affairs in countries like Venezuela, Panama, and Cuba.

Under the guise of these policies, the U.S. intervened in various political conflicts throughout Latin America in the 19th and 20th centuries. As some of these Latin American regions attempted to assert their independence from their colonial oppressors, regions like Cuba found support from their American counterparts. The Cuban Liberation Movement in Cuba was supported by a newly formed Cuban Solidarity Movement in the U.S. This movement identified the themes of liberation in Cuba similar to the abolition of slavery. (Ortiz 2018). Through their efforts, the plight of Cubans gained more awareness in America, leading to U.S. intervention in 1898.

The Spanish-American War of 1898 found the U.S. involved in an armed conflict that eventually helped Cuba gain its independence from Spain. This was a short-fought conflict that ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, wherein Spain ceded control of several territories including Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. To this day, Guam and Puerto Rico are unincorporated territories of the U.S., meaning residents of the countries are American citizens but do not pay federal taxes or have voting representatives in Congress.

By the 1910s, Mexico was suffering national strife during the Mexican Revolution. This conflict brought many Mexican nationals across the border looking for safety and opportunity, much like other migrants in the previous decades. This was an unwelcome shift for Americans that were used to temporary migrant laborers of the past. These settlers looking for permanent residences were met with harsh xenophobia. Many of the new migrants settled down in the southwest and California to work in expanding agricultural territories of Arizona, California, and Texas. This huge influx of migrants spawned a need for border control, which began in 1924.

As a counterweight to the racial discrimination of the 1920s, an organization was founded to defend Latinx peoples from institutional discrimination. LULAC, or the League of United Latin American Citizens, was formed in Texas and sought to end discrimination against Latinx Americans. In a LULAC newsletter, the writer blamed “ignorance” for the treatment of Latinx communities. For example, one of their earliest high-profile cases was to sue a school district in 1930 for segregation of Mexican children; however, the case did not rule in their favor. This case would serve as an important steppingstone for a similar lawsuit in the 1950s.


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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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