Dorothea's Reviews > Labor Rights Are Civil Rights: Mexican American Workers in Twentieth-Century America

Labor Rights Are Civil Rights by Zaragosa Vargas
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Oct 23, 2011

it was ok
Read from October 23 to November 07, 2011

Some advice for people who are thinking of reading this book:

(1) Despite the subtitle -- "Mexican American Workers in Twentieth-Century America" -- this book actually focuses on the Great Depression, WWII, and a few years immediately before and after this period. So if you want to read about Chavez organizing farm workers, you will need a different book. In fact, even if you want to learn about the Bracero Program (which began in 1942) you should probably find another book -- Labor Rights Are Civil Rights gives a lot of excellent context to this program and has some interesting things to say about how it got started, but doesn't spend more than five pages on it.

(2) Unless you have extraordinary powers of reading comprehension and memory, if you do decide to read this book and want to get a lot out of it, I really recommend buying a copy so that you can write in it. I really regretted having a library copy, because picking out the most important ideas would have been so, so much easier if I had been able to underline sentences and write notes in the margin.

That is actually my first complaint about Labor Rights Are Civil Rights -- in a way I fear is all too common in academic writing, Vargas makes the basic narratives and themes of his history much more difficult to understand than (I think!) they ought to be. It feels a bit strange noticing and complaining about this, but those organizational techniques that my high school English teachers went on about, like topic sentences at the beginning of paragraphs and transitions to guide the reader from one subject or argument to another, would have really helped here. There just aren't enough cues -- I found it impossible to read quickly, because often the most important piece of information was buried in the middle of a paragraph. Even the section headings weren't much help in telling me what to look for in a section.

The disorganization is aggravated by a less than elegant writing style, which suffers from a plague of adverbs apparently meant to heighten the drama (writers, please don't do this).

I think of myself as a good reader, and I was interested in the subject matter, but I found this book frustrating and difficult. Vargas is obviously a good historian, but I wish he had been assisted by more careful editing from the Princeton University Press, which published Labor Rights Are Civil Rights.

Okay, now to get round to the content...

There is a LOT of interesting material in this book. It focuses on Texas, New Mexico, California, and Colorado, where during the 1930s and 40s Mexicans and Mexican Americans worked in coal mining, cotton and sugar beet farming, and war production during WWII, as well as (especially for urban women) garment and cigar manufacture and domestic labor. Classism and racism of Anglos in these states kept most Mexicans and Mexican Americans in terrible poverty, dependent on jobs with low wages, foul working conditions, and fewer opportunities for organizing.

Because the companies that hired Mexicans and Mexican Americans found it advantageous to have an oversupply of these workers (who would then compete with each other for jobs rather than cooperating to insist on improvements), they developed lots of tactics to keep the workers available and dependent. For example, during the Depression beet farming companies made agreements with welfare agencies that Mexican-American workers would be made eligible for aid in the off season, but once planting or harvesting time came around they would be removed from the rolls. The workers and their families stayed in the area, but weren't dependent on the companies for help between seasons. This strategy had the added benefit of aggravating Anglo resentment ("they take our jobs and get public aid" even though the jobs were so bad that most white people didn't want them, and the entire situation was managed by the companies) so that working-class solidarity wouldn't develop between the two groups and Mexican Americans would remain vulnerable.

Then there was the collaboration among businesses, law enforcement, local and state governments, and anticommunist groups to stop Mexican and Mexican-American workers from organizing. Naturally, deportation of labor leaders (and even ordinary workers who expressed interest in a union), often regardless of whether a person was legally allowed to be in the U.S., was a common tactic.

Labor Rights Are Civil Rights goes into a lot of detail about the many struggles of Mexican and Mexican-American workers to organize, the role of the Communist Party in organizing (especially in the 1930s), and how these attempts were affected by communism, fascism, war production, and U.S.-Mexico relations.

As the title indicates, it does an especially good job of hammering in the connection between labor rights for Mexican and Mexican-American workers and their struggles for justice in other areas of life -- against police brutality, housing and educational discrimination, segregation, etc. For much of this period there was no national civil rights organization for Mexican Americans, and this work was often done by labor unions instead. The CIO, despite its patchy record, was often a major force behind civil rights activism for Mexican Americans in the southwest. It was clear that labor and civil rights couldn't be separated -- not when housing discrimination kept workers far away from desirable jobs and the jobs themselves were often formally segregated.

I did have some problems with the content, though. Please bear in mind that Vargas knows 1,000,000 times more than I do about Mexican-American history, so he might have some very good reasons for doing the things that bothered me, that I'm not knowledgeable enough to pick up on.

I was a bit bothered by the nomenclature. Especially in the first half of the book, Vargas often uses "Mexican" (not "Mexican American") to mean all of the following people who are living and working in the United States: Mexican citizens who went through a legal process to be in the U.S.; Mexican citizens who came to the U.S. without a legal process; naturalized U.S. citizens who were born in Mexico; U.S. citizens who were born in the U.S. to recent Mexican immigrants; U.S. citizens whose families had always lived in the region that was once part of Mexico but is now part of the U.S.

There are a lot of very good reasons not to obsessively distinguish between all these groups. Racist Anglos didn't distinguish, and their actions affected everyone. All of these groups worked together against racism and for labor rights. Vargas says in a footnote that during the 1930s and 40s, "'Mexican' ... was the preferred term of self-reference of Spanish-surnamed people of the Southwest and Midwest," so that was probably what most of the people in this book were calling themselves. ("Chicano" wasn't in use then.)

However, there were a lot of times when Vargas was writing about something in which citizenship status really mattered, and I could really have used more clues as to whether the people affected by it were likely to be U.S. or Mexican citizens.

Calling everyone "Mexican" also disappears the people who came from other Latin American countries. I have absolutely no sense from Labor Rights Are Civil Rights of whether there was any significant non-Mexican Latino working-class population in the southwest at this time, but surely there were some. I did notice that a few of the leaders -- Luisa Moreno, who was deported to Guatemala, and Nicaraguan Humberto Silex, for example -- were not Mexican. Also, in some quotations by contemporary civil rights and labor leaders, they use the more inclusive phrase "Latin Americans," not "Mexicans."

Where I live in North Carolina, there are a lot of Latinos from places that are not Mexico. I've grown up hearing bigoted Anglos complain about "the Mexicans," and here one can understand this as a slur, because not only is it said with prejudiced intent, but it lumps a lot of different groups, including part of my own family, under one incorrect term. It seems reasonable that this wasn't the situation in the southwest in the 1930s and 40s, but I still felt a bit uncomfortable reading it over and over again in Labor Rights Are Civil Rights. (Since publishing this book, Vargas has become a professor at the University of North Carolina, so he probably has a lot of interesting things to say about the contrast between these two situations!)

Vargas' use of "Mexican" obscures another problem that I think (in my state of probably dangerous too-little-knowledge) the book has. When I started reading it, I expected that in order to describe Mexicans and Mexican Americans' unique contributions to the labor movement, Vargas would explore the ways in which Mexico at this time was politically and culturally different from the U.S. For example, the 1917 Mexican constitution stated the right of workers to organize -- way in advance of any federal recognition for unions in the U.S. The presidency of Cardenas from 1933 to (I think) 1940 was especially important for Mexican workers' rights. I also have the impression that communism, which was crucial to pre-WWII labor organizing in the U.S., was slightly more accepted in Mexico at this time. I was expecting to learn that many Mexican immigrants had been radicalized by the Mexican revolutions that had occurred within their lifetime, and perhaps by a more populist political atmosphere. I wanted to understand why increasing industrial production and better rights for workers in Mexico during the 1930s still left so many Mexicans desperate enough for work that they crossed the northern border with or without permission to work in horrendous conditions for U.S. agribusinesses.

Vargas hardly mentions any of this at all. He does note that when Cardenas became president the Mexican consuls in the U.S. were less likely to help deport labor leaders and more likely to support better conditions for Mexican workers; and that the Mexican government was initially reluctant to agree to the Bracero program because it knew how badly Mexican workers were already being treated in Texas. There is an interesting section about Sinarquismo, a fascist movement in Mexico that tried to influence Mexican and Mexican-American workers in the U.S. But Vargas really doesn't discuss how the political climate of Mexico influenced ordinary workers who came from Mexico or who communicated with relatives in Mexico. Maybe this really wasn't important. But surely, even if I am completely wrong about this, it was worthwhile to say "Mexican-American workers were not significantly influenced by events in Mexico," and why?

My sense that Vargas is in some ways ignoring the Mexican background of his subjects grew when I noticed that he does not really unpack the idea that large numbers of Mexican-citizen workers coming into the U.S., especially through the Bracero program, hurt the Mexican Americans who were more established there. Despite thoroughly establishing the argument, earlier in the book, that anti-immigrant bigotry against Mexican Americans is really the fault of the big businesses that deliberately imported a surplus of Mexican workers, when discussing the Bracero program and the workers who were brought in or came in outside of the program at the same time, he says things like, "Mojados depressed the entire Texas state economy and impeded the efforts of all workers to improve their lot." To me, it seemed like after an entire book spent defending Mexican Americans, Vargas's compassion ran out. He even titles this section "Mexican American Workers Confront Braceros and the Wetback Tide" -- using "wetback," which is a slur, uncritically, and setting up "Mexican American workers" and "braceros" as parties in conflict. There was conflict, but I was really disappointed by how it got simplified, and how the guilty role of corporations was diminished, especially after all the previous work Vargas had done to show how complex earlier situations were. And again, perhaps I was only hoping to read about something that wasn't actually the case, but what about the possibility of Mexican Americans and Mexicans organizing and cooperating across the border and across citizenship and class lines to make things better for everyone?
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