Mexican American oppression and role in the United States' free-enterprise economy

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A free market business model is one that is based on the concept of economic freedom which is the cornerstone of a capitalist economy such as the United States. A free market economy encourages producers to profitably generate the goods and services needed by manufacturers while allowing consumers to select the products and services that best meet their economic needs (Meek, et al. 77). However, in a free market environment, not everyone is a company owner and certain individuals want to supply their labour, which is often an economic resource, in return for jobs and wages. Others play the role of consumers and thus provide the market for the goods and services being produced. One group that has been fundamental to the development of the American free enterprise system as both consumers and workers are Mexican Americans who number 34.6 million, constituting approximately 10.9% of the American population (U.S. Census Bureau). Mexican-American economic, political, and cultural ties stretch back over 500 years dating back to the discovery of the Southwest, Florida, California, and the Mexican states. Economically, Mexican-Americans form an invaluable part of the broader American free enterprise, a fact evidenced by their approximately 4% contribution to the country’s GDP. Hence, Mexican Americans are evidently an asset to the free market enterprise, but just as it has been historically, they remain an underappreciated and economically disenfranchised group with average incomes 40% lower than the average for whites of non-Hispanic origin and crippling, punitive policies directed towards them.

Mexican Americans in the United States have always been the subject of negative stereotyping and blatant discrimination through policies. Most of this ill will towards Mexican Americans is rooted in the US-Mexican independence wars, the disputed ownership of various southwestern territories, and the association of this population with illegal immigration. The oppression of Mexican-Americans in the USA despite their immense contribution to the growth of American enterprise is divisible into a variety of historical periods.

The first historical period detailing this oppression is the 1840 to 1890’s period, which encompassed the Texas Revolution and the annexation of the region by the USA. This event led to the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, which culminated in defeat for Mexico and the loss of large tracts of land. The post-war terms, contained in the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty dictated that Mexicans who chose to remain in the ceded areas for a period not less totaling not than one year would obtain full US citizenship while retaining their right to property ownership (The Library of Congress 929).

However, in the period after the war, James Marshall discovered gold in Coloma, California thus sparking the California Gold Rush. During that time, over 25,000 Mexicans migrated to California many of whom were experienced miners, and thus they enjoyed massive success mining gold in the region. Ideally, this meant that these individuals should have been welcome in the area given that they were providing the much-needed labor and expertise and thus contributing immensely to the growth of free enterprise. However, this was not the case, and instead, Caucasian Americans viewed Mexican success as being detrimental to US wealth and thus intimidated the Mexican American miners through violence. During a period of twelve years between 1848 and 1860 in California, over 100 Mexican Americans suffered lynching, which demonstrated the extreme hatred towards individuals of Mexican ancestry.

During this period, however, migration from Mexico to the America was still tough because of an absence of transportation mechanisms across Northern Mexico’s the Sonoran Desert. However, the 1880’s brought with them the construction of railways, which connected Texas and California to Mexico and thus made it easier, quicker, and safer to travel. The building of these railways led to an influx of Mexican-Americans who provided railroad construction companies with cheap labor. For example in 1909, Mexican employment on railroad construction stood at only 17.1%, but by 1929, this figure stood at a massive 59% (Hoffman 7). Many Mexicans had fled their country’s stagnant economy and poverty-stricken rural life for railway construction work and readily available farm work in California and Arizona. The provision of this cheap labor by Mexican Americans was a fundamental driver of the rapid agricultural and industrial expansion that characterized this period and thus of the free market system.

The passage of the 1917 Immigration Act occasioned a huge drop in immigration from Asia as well as the Eastern areas of Europe, but there were no such restrictions on North American immigrants. The outbreak of the First World War had further exacerbated the situation since it led to an almost total halt of immigrant flow from Europe to the USA. Consequently, the USA turned to Mexican Americans to provide labor for its industries during this period. However, after the end of the war, there was constant pressure from labor unions for the passage of laws limiting Mexican immigration since the unions viewed Mexican Americans as being a threat to their members. However, because Mexican Americans provided cheap labor and accepted poorer working conditions than unionized workers did, the Chamber of Commerce was reluctant to approve any immigration reform. Additionally, because of inadequate border control enforcement, it was difficult to distinguish between Mexicans and Americans of Mexican ancestry.

However, the onset of the Great Depression led to a change of fortunes for Mexican Americans with the tide turning against them. Mexican Americans, as usual, became the first victims of job cuts with many forced to return to Mexico where the government was offering land as opposed to remaining on welfare in the USA. Additionally, the government’s introduction of the Mexican Repatriation program, which was designed to force out illegal immigrants led to massive suffering for Mexican Americans who were subjected to enforced deportations. By some estimates, up to 60% of the over 500,000 deportees during this period were American citizens with the majority having been born there (Balderrama and Rodriguez 151).

The next critical era in Mexican-American relations with the United States came in the 1940’s with the outbreak of World War II. As had been the case during the previous war, the United States suffered a significant labor shortage due to the enlistment of young people of working age in the military. Consequently, it was necessary to look for alternative sources of labor to fill this shortfall plus more men to boost the ranks of the forces. The United States again turned to Mexican Americans by introducing the Bracero program, which was a 1942 labor agreement signed between the USA and Mexico (Historical Society of Pennsylvania). Under this program, Mexicans were contracted to travel to the USA to work primarily in American firms but also in the industries. Besides this, approximately half a million Americans of Hispanic descent served in the military during this period. However, after the end of the War, a familiar pattern emerged in which Mexican Americans suffered discrimination with many ex-servicemen from the community being denied the medical services to which they were entitled. Even the Mexican Americans working in the urban centers were not spared the discrimination with many of them suffering attacks during the Zoot- Suit riots of 1943 (Historical Society of Pennsylvania). Hence, just like in previous periods, Mexican Americans despite shoring up the American free enterprise system through the provision of labor continued to suffer massive discrimination and harassment.

In the 1950’s, Mexican Americans continued to suffer from segregation and discriminatory practices from their white counterparts. This segregation was primarily characterized by exclusionary policies referred to as redlining that sought to limit the opportunities available to Mexican Americans in business thus forcing them to remain primarily in agricultural work (Historical Society of Pennsylvania). However, with the post-world war economic boom in full swing, more opportunities opened up for the previously itinerant workers, and they began to seek year-round jobs in food processing plants and establish permanent settlements as opposed to relying on the periodic agricultural jobs. With greater access to education, more Mexican Americans could obtain better jobs thus helping to reduce the economic gap.

In the 1960’s, the early benefits of the Civil Rights era began to bear fruit for Mexican Americans. With permanent residency status now secured for many of them, Mexican Americans began to transition from farm workers to college-educated professionals employed in areas such as banking, law, medicine, and engineering. Mexican Americans also began to venture into entrepreneurship opening up restaurants, bakeries, and tienditas (Compean). Additionally, their growing populations began to create a demand for Spanish-language TV stations, newspapers, and similar media. With these increased opportunities, Mexican Americans started to contribute to the free enterprise system by being entrepreneurs and producers as opposed to the previous role where they had been limited to being workers and consumers.

However, the newfound prosperity of Mexican Americans began to attract large numbers of illegal immigrants who sought to join their compatriots in the established communities in places such as Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. Because of the increasing number of these immigrants, anti-Mexican sentiments began to stir in some places with the California legislature passing a law making illegal immigrants ineligible for access to social services unless during emergency situations. However, this law was eventually declared unconstitutional because it was in contravention of anti-discrimination provisions. However, economic disparities continued to exist between Mexican Americans and other communities because of the presence of these immigrants. Without proper documentation, illegal Mexican American immigrants often accept low wages and poor working conditions because they cannot report to the authorities for fear of discovery and possible deportation. Consequently, labor exploitation, which is one of adverse outcomes of free enterprise systems, continues to afflict Mexican Americans and condemn them to an unending cycle of poverty.

In the present day, Mexico has a long-standing and highly fruitful trade relationship with the United States, a relationship that has grown exponentially since the signing of the NAFTA agreement. After Canada, Mexico is the second largest US export market while it also ranks third among the suppliers of US imports. The value of exports from the United States to Mexico amounts to over $240 billion with the bulk of these being in the form of merchandise such as computer parts, coal and petroleum products and motor vehicle parts (Villarreal 2). Mexican American immigrants alongside their descendants make up a significant and quickly growing segment of the US population especially in states such as California where over 20% of the population has Mexican roots (Grogger and Trejo 1). Mexican American immigrants provide the bulk of the workforce in the factories that produce these goods while also providing a market for the commodities. However, even with this contribution, the immigrants remain unwelcome in the country with initiatives such as the proposed border wall that is designed to keep them out.

Conclusively, it is evident that Mexican Americans are an integral element of the American population and have made an invaluable contribution to the free enterprise system that is the foundation of the American economy. The free enterprise system is premised on the private ownership of the factors of production and their exploitation to produce goods and services and sell them at a profit. In this system, people have the choice of being producers, laborers, consumers or playing all those roles. Since the onset of the system, Mexican Americans have been integral to the provision of the cheap labor that has spurred the growth of free enterprise. However, despite their vital role in keeping the system working, Mexican Americans remain profoundly underappreciated and are constantly hounded out of work and punished by an unjust system. From illegal deportations to poor wages and discriminatory laws, Mexican Americans continue to endure great injustices as the reward for their willingness to do the lowest, most maligned and yet necessary jobs in the economy.

Works Cited

Balderrama, Francisco E., and Raymond Rodriguez. Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s. University of New Mexico Press, 1995.

Compean, Mario. "Historical Overview: Mexican Americans." archive.vancouver.wsu.edu/crbeha/ma/ma.htm. Accessed 7 June 2017.

Grogger, Jeffrey, and Stephen J. Trejo. Falling Behind or Moving Up? The Intergenerational Progress of Mexican Americans. Public Policy Institute of California, 2002.

Historical Society of Pennsylvania. "Mexican Americans and World War II." Historical Society of Pennsylvania |, hsp.org/sites/default/files/legacy_files/.../mexicanamericansandworldwarii.pdf. Accessed 7 June 2017.

Hoffman, Abraham. Unwanted Mexican Americans in the Great Depression: Repatriation Pressures 1929-1939. The University of Arizona Press, 1974.

The Library of Congress. "A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 - 1875." American Memory from the Library of Congress, 2 Feb. 1848, memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsl&fileName=009/llsl009.db&recNum=982. Accessed 7 June 2017.

Meek, Sally, et al. Mcdougal Littell Economics Concepts and Choices. McDougal Littell, 2008.

U.S. Census Bureau. "American Community Survey B03001 1-Year Estimates HISPANIC OR LATINO ORIGIN BY SPECIFIC ORIGIN." 2013, factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?pid=ACS_13_1YR_B03001&prodType=table. Accessed 7 June 2017.

Villarreal, Maria A. U.S.-Mexico Economic Relations: Trends, Issues, and Implications. Congressional Research Service, 2017.

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