A Civil Rights History: Latino/Hispanic Americans

by Andrea Faville

By the mid-1800s, land-hungry Americans had expanded westward from the original 13 colonies along the Eastern Seaboard to just beyond the Mississippi River. Emboldened with the fervor of “Manifest Destiny” — an expansionist doctrine declaring it their right and obligation to occupy all the continent — they began exploring and settling the territory that would become Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and California.

They were not the first. The land had already been occupied for millennia by the original settlers who had come to be called Indians. For more than a century, it had been the conquered territory of the Spanish Conquistadores. And for decades, it had been home to their Spanish-speaking descendants who had become Mexicans.

The Americans — or Anglos, as they would become known — pressed ahead with their quest to occupy the land from coast to coast. In 1846, they incited a conflict with Mexico, which evolved into the Mexican-American war. The final result was the U.S. annexation of about half of Mexico’s territory for a payment of $15 million.

In 1898, still in an expansionist mood, the U.S. invaded Puerto Rico and Cuban, adding them, Guam and the Philippines to American territories from the Spanish-American War.

Since then, Spanish-speaking minorities — from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, other parts of Central and South America — have continued to grow in the U.S. through immigration. And they have taken on the struggle to gain civil rights, and political and economic equality, that’s marked so much of U. S. history.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, for example, the American government seemed to be of two minds regarding immigration. In 1942, as millions of young men went off to war, the United States needed cheap labor. The government instituted the bracero program, which admitted thousands of Mexican nationals to the U.S. under contracts to work in agriculture and other seasonal jobs. Some called the program “legalized slavery.”

But in 1953, the U.S. Government launched “Operation Wetback,” a program to send people of Mexican descent to Mexico. More than 3.8 million people were deported through the operation, many of them, American citizens.

Latino and Hispanic resistance to discrimination, violence and the United States’ push-pull immigration policy began to take shape as early as the 1920s. Cannery and factory workers in the Southwest formed unions. The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) opened its doors in 1929 with the mission of fighting injustices such as racially segregated West Coast schools and discriminatory hiring practices at railroads.

In the 1960s, Latinos and Hispanics made their fight for equality even more visible, modeling their actions on the successful African-American struggle for civil rights. In 1962, Cesar Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association. In 1965, his fledgling organization started a boycott on grape growers that exploited their Latino and Hispanic workers.

Latino and Hispanic activists also pushed educational institutions to include the contributions of Latinos and Hispanics in discussions of U.S. History. Throughout the 1960s, Latino-American and Mexican-American history departments opened at many major universities.

In 1972, the Latino and Hispanic communities raised formalized their political activism with La Raza Unida Party, based in Corpus Christi Texas. Chapters gradually opened in cities across the country. In 1975, the 1965 Voting Rights Act was extended to the Southwest guaranteeing Latino and Hispanic Americans the equal opportunity to register and vote.

Today, Latinos and Hispanics — at 38.8 million counted by the U.S. Census — are the nation’s largest and fastest growing minority.

“Non-violence is not inaction. It is not discussion. It is not for the timid or weak…Non-violence is hard work. It is the willingness to sacrifice. It is the patience to win.” —Cesar Chavez

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