Civil rights have been the beacon of our constitutional history, how we treat and respect others has been the cornerstone of American democracy, yet despite this constitutional and moral obligation, modern day anti-Hispanic rhetoric continue to define who we are and what we stand for as a nation that preaches democracy. The current political fiasco has left us as a country scrambling to address new civil rights issues and, at the same time, re-discover the Hispanic presence in America and its shaping of our history. Very few Americans understand, acknowledge and respect the contributions of one of America’s greatest ethnic groups – Hispanics. Never in our history has an ethnic group redefined America as Hispanics have done and continue to do. Yet despite this astonishing contribution to American culture, Americans are often confused as to who Hispanics really are and what they represent in America.
The Hispanic presence in America dates back prior to the founding of this great nation. Hispanic culture can be traced in the United States for over 500 years when California, Mexican states, Florida and the great Southwestern states were discovered by Spanish explorers. Many of us are unaware that Hispanic culture had firm roots in St. Augustine, Florida, and in what is now New Mexico before the English arrived at Jamestown in 1607 or before the Pilgrims dropped anchor in Massachusetts Bay in 1621. Hispanic culture and its political ideas flourished well before the Founding Fathers envisioned the idea of securing their independence from Great Britain in 1776. The present day “Browning of America” and the continuous reshaping of America’s social, cultural and economic influence have defined, and will continue to shape, our country’s new civil, socio-economic, political and cultural history.
Civil rights remain the pinnacle of debates, protecting rights for all Americans, regardless of color, ethnicity, race, gender, age or sexual orientation. Defending these rights against discrimination have long been an important issue for all Americans. These rights have been tested throughout our history; without the Hispanic presence, American democracy would remain very volatile and challenging. Very few understand the profound impact of the Mexican-American War and civil rights. From its earliest beginnings, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War in 1848, created a new American empire that became the foundation of a civil rights movement that demanded that the new Americans be treated with respect. The promise of that accord was to treat former colonial Mexican settlers who chose to remain in the territory as U.S. citizens with full civil rights at a time when the majority of African-Americans were in the shackles of slavery. That test of citizenship for Mexican-Americans in 1848 became the hallmark for many of America’s promises and the challenge for democracy for all.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, arguably one of the most important legislation in our country’s history, ensured that legal barriers be torn down. Theoretically, it would eliminate barriers of discrimination against all Americans in our society. Despite the importance of this legislation, very few understand the historical foundations of the modern-day civil rights movement and the Hispanic influence that later defined it. The struggle for modern-day civil rights, equality and guaranteed rights under the constitution of the United States would not have been possible without the dedication of Dr. Hector P. Garcia. His leadership on the civil rights movement in many Hispanic communities remains silent but of great importance. Garcia fought peacefully for the dismantling of segregation signs, racism and discrimination in many Mexican-American communities in the great southwestern states in the 1940s and 50s. His non-violence philosophy was an important tool in dismantling racism and segregation years before Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin L. King Jr. took up their cause for human rights, justice and dignity. Garcia’s ideology and commitment towards justice for all later became the cornerstone for the modern day African-American struggle for civil rights in the 1960s.
The landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 brought an end to any laws that established racial school segregation by deeming those laws unconstitutional thus ending racial segregation in public schools. The court established that the state laws that had created separate public schools for African-Americans, Hispanics and white students were unconstitutional and would no longer be part of American society. Despite this historic ruling, very few understand the backbone of this landmark decision; history has failed to remind us of the importance of Mendez v. Westminster in 1947. In that case, the U.S. Courts of Appeals ruled that segregation of Mexican-American children from the public schools’ system in California was unconstitutional and violated the 14th Amendment; it paved the way for Justice Thurgood Marshall, Brown v. Board of Education, and the birth of the modern day civil rights movement in 1954. Without Mendez v. Westminster 1947, the U.S. Supreme Court would not have any precedent case to trump Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896, and the decision in Brown v. Board of Education may have been different.
Long before assuming the title of president of the United States of America, Lyndon B. Johnson’s first experience with civil rights and segregation occurred in Cotulla, Texas. He knew first-hand as a teacher what Mexican-Americans experienced as second-class citizens, being poor and living in a society without justice. Without this experience, influence and background, President Johnson’s work to promote equality and first class citizenship for all Americans; the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the War on Poverty would have no moral meaning. Without his exposure to the Hispanic conditions, his compassion for civil rights may have never been ignited. Instead, his compassion was set on fire, and the destiny of a nation changed its directions, which would eventually lead to a new country, one full of hope and promises.
History reminds us that Harriet Becher Stowe and Susan B. Anthony paved the way for women’s voting rights and civil rights in the 18th and 19th century. Yet, history has failed to remind us that Mexican-born Mrs. Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz in the 17th century defended and advocated women’s rights in a time when most women were still regulated to homemakers. She challenged the basic norm of women’s education and their rights both in her native Mexico and former southwest Mexican territories i.e. modern day California. Her vision still remains an important icon but often lost in women’s history. Without her vision, the women’s civil rights movement may have not started.
Founded in 1909, the NAACP is often referred to as the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization and has a reputation of unquestioned greatness and continuous work for equality and justice for all. Despite the NAACP’s legacy in our civil rights history, The Japanese-Mexican Labor Association founded in Oxnard, California, in 1903 became the foundation for labor and civil rights in the early 20th century. Years ahead of the formation of the Niagara Movement in 1905, the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association began paving the way for economic and social justice for many farm workers while at the same time demanding the right to be treated with respect and dignity that later became the cornerstone of the NAACP’s mission. Segregation of both Mexican and Japanese workers in the 1900s led the way to the first successful major strike against capitalists and white-ruled society.
The emergence of the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association and the civil rights movement in 1903 included non-violent strikes, protests and demonstrations that became the cornerstone of a modern day movement of the 1960s. This movement was years ahead of the NAACP’s and A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington movement in 1941. Additionally, this movement preceded the famous March on Washington in 1963, where, again, Randolph was a principal organizer for jobs and freedom. Without the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association stance in 1903, the modern day labor and civil rights movement may have not started.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965, arguably one of the most cherished and prized symbols of American democracy, guarantees the right of U.S. citizens to vote despite their color, nationality or ethnicity. Yet, lost in our history books is the Mexican-American voting rights movement, which can be traced back to the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. The treaty declared that Mexicans who chose to remain in the newly acquired American territories were U.S. citizens, guaranteeing them life, liberty and property. Despite this constitutional right, newly acquired territories began adopting legislation that denied the early Mexicans-Americans the right to vote by employing the English proficiency literacy test and property requirements. In addition, these newly acquired territories used terrorism tactics including lynching and violence against Mexican-American who tried to exercise their newly acquired rights. The terrorists’ acts occurred years before Southern states began embracing Jim Crow’s laws against the newly freed slaves or African-Americans. The treaty fueled the debates about civil rights and equality for the new Americans, specifically addressing the right to vote, which later led to the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1868. The Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship to all people born or naturalized in the United States, regardless of color or race, can be traced back to the early struggle of U.S. citizenship by Mexican-Americans, years before the great Civil War defined who we are as a nation that championed rights.
The rise of social protest and the right to petition government peacefully has been the cornerstone of American democracy not only in times of crisis but throughout our constitutional history. Social protests during the 1960s civil rights movement, Vietnam War and modern day Black Lives Matter again have challenged this fundamental constitutional right. Yet many of us are unaware that the famed social “Chicano Moratorium” movement gave rise to many of the social protests we encounter today. Though different at times, the ideology of petitioning government remains intact. Centered in east Los Angeles, the moratorium was the largest anti-war movement by any ethnic group in America. The protests and demonstrations that took place in the late 1960s and 1970s became a revolutionary movement that demanded the right to be heard. It was one of the most significant civil rights movements by Mexican-Americans who continue to define who we are and what we stand for as a country with democratic ideal. Not only did the “Chicano Moratorium” raise the level of government accountability, the movement resonated certain abiding, tragic themes and raised the awareness of war as a civil rights issue. The themes of this movement are still causing great dialogue and debates in the current social atmosphere. Without this moratorium, government accountability and awareness of war as a civil rights issue may have not started.
American history has often been told from another ethnic group perspective. In other words, had there been no Hispanics in our history; it would be impossible to conceive what America would have become without their cultural, historical and racial contributions – that make our nation and civil rights what it is today. •
Stephen Balkaran, is an Instructor in the Department of Philosophy at Central Connecticut State University