The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1991, Volume 37, Number 2
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Mexican Americans: Leadership, Ideology, and Identity, 1930-1960.
By Mario T. Garcia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989. Sources. Notes. Illustrations. Index. 364 pages. $35.00.

Reviewed by Michael Raul Ornelas, Professor of Chicano Studies at San Diego Mesa College.

Chicano scholars have typically characterized the Mexican American generation as politically acquiescent, elitist, and defensive. Not so, according to Dr. Garcia’s latest work. Not only does Garcia challenge this notion but succeeds in painting a far more complex picture. This was not a politically monolithic generation. Instead, according to Garcia, the Mexican American generation included a diversity of political conviction. They promoted a variety of strategies to end racial and economic oppression while making sometimes token pleas for cultural pluralism. Garcia’s appeal is for an accurate historical interpretation free from the mechanical application of a present-day perspective.

Utilizing Marvin Rintala’s concept of a political generation, Garcia illustrates the impact of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War on Mexican American movements and leaders during the period 1930-1960. Largely in response to this era of heightened patriotism, organizations such as the League of Latin American Citizens (LULAC) adopted defensive positions, promoted elitism and challenged conditions that hindered their upward mobility. Their efforts frequently met with limited success and achieved moderate gains for their community. Some Chicano scholars may find comfort in this analysis since it conforms with the principal notion of a politically passive and accomodationist generation. Yet other organizations such as the Asociacion Nacional Mexico-Americana (ANMA), the Spanish Speaking Congress and the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers utilized mass working-class movements as a means to eradicate racially and economically oppressive conditions. They envisioned their goals in international terms, and assumed much more militant and progressive positions than Chicano scholars have previously concluded.

Garcia’s work is conveniently divided into three broad sections. Part one focuses on middle-class and politically moderate organizations such as LULAC. Garcia frequently reminds the reader, in light of the historical context and intransigence of many institutions, of the limitations inherent in their positivistic philosophy. Part two is devoted to a re-examination of labor and leftist organizations in the Mexican American community. Their radical to reformist political solutions to oppressive economic conditions demonstrates not only Mexican American political heterogeneity but the conviction that they were pivotal participants in evolution of their people. Part three explores the contributions of Mexican American intellectuals, including historian Carlos E. Castaneda, educational psychologist George I. Sanchez and linguist George L. Campa. Garcia’s synthesis of their works, particularly of Castaneda’s positivist perspective is refreshing and accessible even for the uninitiated. The Mexican American generation had a diversity of political convictions and strategies while maintaining faith that American society would ultimately accommodate them on full and equal terms with all other Americans.

Garcia uncovers some relatively renowned movements and leaders. Eleuterio Escobar and his School Improvement League of San Antonio are noteworthy for their persistent efforts against the sluggish pace of school reform. Ignacio Lopez, editor of El Espectador, employed a muckracking style on behalf of the Mexican American community of Southern California to desegregate public facilities and schools through moral persuasion then threats of economic boycotts. Mexican American women such as Josefina Fierro de Bright also receive notoriety for elevating gender discrimination to the level of racial discrimination in organizations like the Congress of Spanish Speaking Peoples. After all, as Garcia admits, history is written about people. And its leaders were usually successful at forging an organic relationship with the Mexican American community. Through their efforts the Mexican American community gained visibility and shaped an identity of its own. As a result of Garcia’s study our vision is clearer and certain to enhance the debate on Chicano antecedents.