The Impact Of The 1940s And 50’s Mexican American Scripts In The Economic, Political, Social, And Cultural Shifts For American-based Latinos

The 1940-50s marked a pivotal period in Latinos’ economic, cultural, political, and social development. In my paper, I will examine the impact of Mexican immigration during World War II and the counter-scripts that were developed to address the social changes of the 1950s. Also, I’ll discuss the emergence of Latinos who became “Mexican Americans”, and their new role in American culture after World War II.

The United States experienced a severe labor shortage in the early 1940s due to World War II. Many Americans were called up to serve in the armed services and the defense industries. The Bracero Program filled much of this gap by providing cheap labor to the U.S. during World War II. Due to bracero workers’ inhumane and brutal treatment, some Mexicans entered the US as undocumented “wetbacks”. This was to avoid racism and marginally improve wages. Mexico’s biggest contribution to war was not the thousands of Mexicans who served as soldiers in the US Army, but the braceros who helped keep food on American families’ tables.

The fear of the American people was sparked by the fact that there were 4.5 million braceros, excluding “wetbacks”, in the US between 1942-1964. These workers chose to settle in America instead of going back to Mexico. Neil Foley in his book Mexicans in Making of America explains how “the fear of invasion in the 50s by a wetback echoed that of 1940s when the Axis Powers threatened to invade the Americas through Mexico. And it prefigured the backlash against immigration in 1990s as well as the border fence after 9/11”. As braceros’ contracts were extended almost for an entire year, the Latino population in Southwest states grew quickly. Mexican unions began organizing and demanding equal treatment for white workers and better treatment of Mexicans in recognition of their crucial role in the preservation and web of American society during the war.

The U.S. government, despite the fact that it was uneasy about the contributions made by Mexicans, continued to oppress Mexican immigrants because of their own political, economic and ideological motives. Mexicans were a cheap workforce in the agricultural and manufacturing industries since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848. While bracero wages and wetbacks were pitiful and unfair when compared with those paid to white workers in Mexico, this income was crucial to the country’s economic health. Mexico had “hitched their economic wagon to America” (Foley 123) The U.S. saved millions of dollars by exploiting Mexico’s economic dependence and undercutting Mexican laborers.

In the 1950s, race had even greater political implications. The 1950’s were a time when many Americans were still implicitly racism. It was nearly impossible to win office in the United States without using “dog-whistle politics”, which is a strategy where racist interpretations are applied to laws and policies without explicitly mentioning races. George Wallace of Alabama was elected governor multiple times, but lost because he was “soft on the issue of race” (Lopez 1). He only won after incorporating underlying appeals to racial issues into his campaigns. Wallace recalls the campaigns he ran: “I spoke about schools, roads, prisons, taxes and couldn’t get people to listen. When I started to talk about niggers they all stomped their feet (Lopez, 14). The “Southern Strategy”, which was the only way for white men to vote, further raciallyized minorities in 1950’s American politics (Lopez).

In terms of social and ideological interests, “manifest Destiny” was the U.S.’s top priority. The Spanish speakers of dark skin in the South who were of Indian descent or “mixed-stock” were excluded from God’s plan to establish the Western frontier, spread democracy and civilization. Mexicans lived and worked in America for decades and were the backbone to the agricultural and industrial sectors. However, despite their contributions, Mexicans continued to be viewed as a subordinate race incapable to assimilating American cultures.

The U.S. tried to limit Mexicans’ freedom of movement on several fronts. For example, the Taft-Hartley Act of 52 stifled union expansion and made it difficult for Mexicans in the United States to strike, organize or form unions. Operation Wetback in 1954 consisted of immigration officials raiding fields and factories to systematically deport Mexicans. Latinos mobilized and began to resist these policies that suffocated communities and broke families. Los Angeles Committee for Protection of the Foreign Born fought against Operation Roundup (the local chapter of Operation Wetback) in Los Angeles. The United States military personnel A forum was created by the AGIF to make sure Mexican veterans could access the same benefits as U.S. veterans, like educational opportunities, jobs, and small business loans, that were available through the G.I. Bill. Bill Mora. The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) was central to the Hernandez v. Texas case, which was a lawsuit that argued Mexican Americans should not be excluded from jury duty (Foley). This case eventually resulted in the categorization of “Mexican” as its own racial group for jury selection.

This resistance against U.S. white supremacy and foreign policy is similar to that described by Natalie Molina in her book How Race is Made in America. It is a “counterscript”, or a set of new characteristics, culture, and meanings, which a particular group has ascribed themselves in response to a previous social script based on their race. Mexicans strove to establish themselves as equals and valuable workers in the workforce, rather than being seen as inferiors and “disposables”.

Social changes in America during the 1950s played a large role in the development of the counterscript. In this period, American culture was confined to rigid social roles that were used to create a feeling of security and consistency in the face tensions and fears brought about by World War II. As the future was relatively free of national catastrophes, Latinos and African Americans as well as women began to push the limits of social norms and develop their own counter scripts.

Alexander Saragoza a professor in Chicano Studies gave a recent lecture at the UC Berkeley about the various social changes of the 1950s. He explained that by mid-1950s seven million college students would have earned their degrees, compared with only one million at the time. This growth in college-educated Americans led to an increase in middle class awareness about the injustices and inequality that exist within the United States, and especially their history and treatment. As the television networks expanded and media became more prominent, Americans began to become aware of this awareness. Sal Castro became motivated to fight for Latino rights after he realized the impact of gentrification and economic disparity on diverse Latino populations in L.A.

The youth demographic was perhaps the one that resonated most with the social changes. Not Latinos or African Americans nor Asians. In the 1950s, American society underwent a cultural shift when the concept of “teenage adolescents” was created. This young adult, born after WWII, had no interest in racial, political, or economic tensions. The teenagers of the 1950s were a generation that did not want to live in 1950s America’s cookie-cutter culture, with its white picket fences, green lawns, 9-to-5 jobs, stay-at-home wives, and cookie-cutter lives. The angst of this generation cut through the tired dronings about conformity and ideologic stagnation.

The radio and television broadcasts were filled with images of teenagers dancing to rock ‘n roll music as well as prominent activists taking part in social and riotous protests. After being exposed to the images and ideas of civil rights and the spirit of rebellion that had been newly discovered, youths across the country began formulating revolutionary ideas.

As a result, while Latinos elders were too scared to confront ruthless discrimination and stereotypes, their descendants had already moved on and created their counter scripts as “Mexican Americans”. Zoot Suit Riots catalogued these counter scripts with Latinos demonstrating lawlessness, rebellion and defiance in response to injustice and accusations on the basis of race. American sailors stationed on the West Coast had been targeting Mexicans for many years to get their anger out before being sent away. But it was the Chicano men in baggy suits wearing “zoot” suits who were the ones to first fight back. Mexicans’ neoteric clothes and fiery spirits became a statement that Mexicans are assimilating while creating their own style, culture and identity. These interactions show the profound polarization in two groups of wartime young people: American Marines, colored youths from gangs and American servicemen.

The 1940s-’50s were a critical time for Latinos. They saw the growth of movements against oppressive and racial U.S. Foreign Policies. Mexican Americans’ 60s and 70s would be marked by great accomplishments as a result of newly developed counter scripts. The 40’s and 1950’s were a time of frustration for Mexicans. They experienced a shift in consciousness and mobilized to create a new identity.


  • ernestfarley

    Ernest is a 26-year-old education blogger and teacher who writes about a variety of topics related to teaching and learning. He has a passion for helping others learn and grow, and believes that education should be accessible to everyone. Ernest is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, and he has taught high school students in the United States, Mexico, and Chile.