Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor
By the Sweat of Their Brow: Mexican Immigrant Labor in the United States, 1900 – 1940.
By Mark Reisler. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1977. Bibliography. Index. 298 pages. $14.50.
Reviewed by Luis Leobardo Arroyo, Acting Assistant Professor, Department of History, University of California, Davis. Co-editor of Aztlán,special issue (1976), on “Labor History and the Chicano” and author of “Notes on Past, Present, and Future Directions of Chicano Labor Studies” (1976).
Once again Mexican immigration to the United States is a hotly disputed subject of public and governmental concern. That this is so only underscores the timely and welcome contribution made By the Sweat of Their Brow to the small, but growing, literature on Mexican immigration. Reisler has explored several salient aspects of the Mexican immigrant work experience during the early decades of the century in American society. Primarily, the author is intent on understanding how society received and treated the immigrant. This he does well. The chapters on the politics and economics of federal immigration policy formation are excelient. The present jumble of immigration laws, legislation, and policy becomes more comprehensible when viewed as the historical outcome of conflict between diverse economic and social interests, and not the results of dispassionate lawmakers extending the helping hand of liberty to the unwanted. This is perhaps best shown by the lobbying and administrative process which resulted in an open border policy during World War I. Also noteworthy is the examination of American attitudes toward the Mexican. Belief in the cultural and racial inferiority of the Mexican was widespread, shared by proponents and opponents of Mexican immigration alike. To all, the Mexican was “always the foreigner and never the citizen,” a person qualified to labor for Americans, but not fit to become one. None of the above interpretations, of course, are original. But never have they been so well documented as in this book. The extent and diversity of the sources, including government archival material and manuscript collections is truly impressive.
Ironically, however, it is the very nature of these impressive sources that accounts for the book’s weaknesses. The sources used cannot provide the cultural, social and economic data needed to analyze adequately the conditions under which the immigrants lived and worked. The chapter on the urban-industrial experience focuses on the Mexican in Chicago. Although the chapter is a well-written summary of the extant literature, it is superficial and does not tell us much of the incorporation of Mexicans into the steel, meat-packing and railroad industries, nor of the problems of urban life. A more incisive criticism, however, is for his use of Chicago to illustrate the urban experience. Why not Los Angeles, El Paso, or San Antonio? Cities whose economies and social structures were very different from those of Chicago and where much larger urban populations of Mexicans were and are located. Nor does Reisler tell us much of trade union activity. We learn little of the Mexicans’ participation in the AF of L craft unions, the TUUL unions, and in the CIO industrial unions; the discussion of Mexican agricultural unions in California is well-done, but does not go beyond what is already known.
Much research waits to be done. Appropriately, social historians are now busily studying the Mexican in a number of southwestern cities. Until their results are known, any historian attempting to write a comprehensive history will encounter the same problems that Reisler did. By the Sweat of Their Brow in many ways represents a summing up of one era of scholarship. Its limitations indicate the directions in which Chicano scholarship is already proceeding: urban, labor, social and cultural history. Future research will undoubtedly alter sharply the profile provided by Reisler. For now By the Siveat of Their Brow is a welcome summary of the extant literature and a highly readable account that can be used in a number of college level courses.