Mount St. Mary's College - Cultural Fluency
Mount Saint Mary's College

Center for Cultural Fluency

Mexican Americans

History & Current Issues

Before distinctions were made between "Mexican" and "American," there were indigenous peoples who lived in the areas that are now politically defined as Mexico and the United States. The culture of these indigenous peoples continues to play a role in the lives and values of many of those who consider themselves Mexican American. There was a long tradition favoring the Spanish side of Mexican culture over the indigenous side, but that value system was challenged by the Chicano movement of the sixties and seventies which emphasized and embraced the roots of pre-Columbian greatness.

Mexican AmericansAccording to the 1990 census, 2,519,514 people of Mexican origin live in Los Angeles County. A few are descendants of the original forty-four non-indigenous settlers of Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuncula who came from New Spain (Mexico) in 1781. In 1821, Mexico won its independence from Spain and governed California until the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848. At that time the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo was signed, promising the rights of citizenship and land ownership to the Mexicans living in the territories that became part of the United States. In reality, many rights were denied and land was confiscated.

The first wave of Mexican immigration into what had become the United States occurred during the mid 1800's when many came as farm hands, shepherds, cowboys, and miners. From 1910 to 1917 the second wave arrived seeking refuge from the turmoil of the Mexican revolution. By the 1920s, Mexicans had replaced the Chinese and Japanese as the most important source of agriculture labor in California; Mexicans made up 70 to 90 percent of the workers on the southwestern railroads. By 1925, Los Angeles had the largest Mexican population outside Mexico City, which remains true today.

During the depression of the 1930's, an estimated half a million Mexican Americans, including those whose families had been living in the U.S. for centuries, were deported to Mexico. Most were never fully integrated into Mexican society, and many returned when labor shortages developed during World War II. At that time, the United States instituted the Bracero program to encourage Mexicans to work in the fields on a seasonal basis.

In 1943, an incident later called the Zoot Suit Riots would form the catalyst for one of our nation's worst race riots. On June 3, eleven sailors on leave became involved in a brawl with a group of men in a predominantly Mexican Los Angeles neighborhood. This "attack" on members of the U. S. armed forces outraged white residents and aroused the rest of the ship's crew stationed in Los Angeles. The next day 200 sailors hired a fleet of taxis, circled Mexican American neighborhoods, and beat up any Mexicans youths they could find. Many African Americans and Filipino Americans were also attacked. Police did nothing to the sailors, and arrested the Mexicans.

Because Mexican American teenagers at the time adopted the dress fashion known as "drapes," resembling the zoot suits worn by young men in Harlem, they were called "zoot-suiters," and were typecast as hoodlums. The press claimed that the Mexican zoot-suiters were planning retribution on the white residents, so on June 7 hundreds surged into the streets of Los Angeles, beating and stripping off the clothes of Mexican American youths. Other riots broke out in major cities during that summer. A citizen's committee appointed by then Governor Earl Warren determined that the riots were caused by police practices and inflammatory newspaper articles. Shortly thereafter, the Los Angeles Commission on Human Rights was established to prevent future outbreaks of hate crimes.

By 1956, 25 percent of all farm labor in the United States was Mexican American, and most were working for subhuman wages, living in poor conditions, and possibly suffering from exposure to dangerous pesticides. Pubic Law 78 gave them some protection and Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and other members of the Farm Workers Union would fight for more. Today Mexican Americans have moved into prominent positions in all areas of business, politics, and the arts. It has certainly not been an easy or just journey.

Current Issues

Given the tremendous differences within the group known as Mexican Americans, it is almost impossible to list all the important current issues. For many recent immigrants, the most immediate concern is how to assimilate. For the second generation, often the more important issue is how to maintain a Latino identity. Many at the pinnacle of their professions struggle with the fine points of acculturation and, in some cases, the glass ceiling of limited advancement opportunities due to prejudice and discrimination. The principal of Esperanza School in the Pico-Union area, for instance, struggles with the appropriate language development program to provide for her group of students who have arrived from Chiapas and the Yucatan and speak an indigenous language, not Spanish. Ramon, a classroom teacher and graduate student at Mount St. Mary's College, has just reverted to using the non-Anglicized form of his name, now that he does not have to worry about being tracked into non-college prep classes as he once did.

How safe is it to be Mexican American? Roberto Rodríguez has just published his story of the police brutality he suffered as a reporter. His only crime was to witness and photograph police attacking a defenseless man on Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles in 1979. How far have we come if court injunctions can prohibit family members living on certain blocks in Los Angeles from gathering socially because they might be involved in gang activities? When Proposition 187 passed in 1994, denying undocumented workers public education and emergency medical care, many of Los Angeles' high school youth walked out of their classes in protest. They and their families seemed to have become "the enemy." The legality of the proposition is still being contested.

After the last elections, the Los Angeles Times headlines bubbled with predictions about the new strong Latino voice in politics. It is time to analyze how to support that voice in all aspects of our society, but most importantly in our schools where we need to teach the truth, and encourage, rather than discourage, development of students who are honored for being both American and Mexican.


Banks, James A. Teaching Strategies for Ethnic Studies (6th ed.). 1997. Allyn and Bacon. ISBN 0-205-18940-7.

Kanellos, Nicolás. The Hispanic Almanac From Columbus to Corporate America. 1994. Visible Ink. ISBN 0-7876-0030-X.

Novas, Himilce. Everything You Need to Know about Latino History. 1991. Plume. ISBN 0-452-27100-2.

Pitt, Leonard and Dale Pitt. Los Angeles from A to Z: An Encyclopedia of the City and County. 1997. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-20274-0.

Rasmussen, Cecilia. Curbside L.A.: An Offbeat Guide to the City of Angels from the Pages of the Los Angeles Times. 1996.The Los Angeles Times. ISBN 1-883792-11-8.

Rodríguez, Roberto. Justice: A Question of Race. 1997. Bilingual Press. ISBN 0-927534-69-X.

Cultural Connections

The mestizaje nature of Mexican culture, that is, the intermingling of indigenous and Hispanic traditions, has led to the inclusion of some recommendations that might also be included on a Native American list.

Chicano Resource Center
East Los Angeles Public Library
4801 East 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90022
Operated by the Los Angeles County Public Library system, this resource center contains an outstanding collection of materials about Mexican and Mexican American cultures and people. Beautiful oversized art and pictorial anthropology books, music CD's, videos, film strips, current subscriptions to Latino magazines, and a vast clipping file compliment the nonfiction and fiction collection that is mostly on the high school and adult level. (Bilingual and Spanish children's books are available in the regular library shelves adjacent to the Resource Center.)

Cultura Latina Bookstore
4125 Norse Way
Long Beach, CA 90808
310.982.1515 phone
201.982.1518 fax
A Latino bookstore and more! Almost any book in print about Latino culture and experience is available here. The bookstore's newsletter reviews recent works by Latino authors and announces readings and book signings. An art gallery featuring Latino artists completes the cultural ambiance.

El Pueblo De Los Angeles State Historic Park
845 North Alameda Street.
Los Angeles, CA 90012
This 44 acre state historic park includes the oldest building in the city, Avila Adobe, and several other historic buildings, as well as the open Mexican market along Olvera Street. Free walking tours of the park are conducted on Tuesdays-Saturdays starting at 130 Paseo de la Plaza, and all are welcome at the Sunday service at La Placita Church. The park's Visitor Center is in the Sepulveda House which features an interpretive display on the history and culture of the pueblo.

Espresso Mi Cultura
5625 Hollywood Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90028
Located in the heart of Hollywood, California, Espresso Mi Cultura Books and Coffee is a full gourmet coffee bar, community art gallery and bookstore featuring titles about or by Latinos/as and Latin & Indigenous America.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art
5905 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Works of art from the pre-Columbian Americans are on view in the Boone and Pauley galleries. These galleries feature objects from the major Mesoamerican culture areas including Olmec, Teotihuacán, Maya, and Aztec civilizations. The chronological span ranges from 1200 B.C. to A.D.1519. 

Museum of Latin American Art
628 Alamitos Ave.
Long Beach, CA 90802
This small museum showcases the work of Latin American artists and film makers. Exhibits rotate, so give them a call. In the summer they run an art camp for children ages 6-16.

Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
900 Exposition Park
Los Angeles, CA 90007
Ancient Mayan artifacts are on display in the pre-Columbian collection. A members loan service (Th 2:30-4:30, Sa 10-1) located in the hands-on Discovery Room allows members to borrow museum quality artifacts including the excellent classroom study kit, "Visiones del Pueblo."

Plaza de la Raza
3540 North Mission Road
Los Angeles, CA 90031
Fronting a small lake in Lincoln Park, Plaza de la Raza provides a theater, classrooms, and office space, and serves as a cultural and educational center for the Latino community. Call for program listings.
Mexican Americans
Plaza of Mexican Heritage-Forest Lawn Cemetery
6300 Forest Lawn Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90068
Precise replicas of artifacts and sculpture are on display in the sculpture garden adjacent to the small but informative museum in this unexpected location. The fascinating histories of the Olmec, Zapotec, Teotihuacan, Toltec, Maya, Aztec, Huastec and Totonac civilizations are introduced.

Self-Help Graphics & Art
3802 Cesar E. Chavez Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90063
Self-Help Graphics & Art is a non-profit visual arts center serving the predominantly Latino community of Los Angeles. Artistic programming includes printmaking and silkscreen workshops, youth art programs, and an on-site exhibition space and store. Annual highlights include the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations and exhibitions in November and the annual print sale at the end of June.

Southwest Museum
234 Museum Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90065
The collections of this museum represent Native American cultures from Alaska to South America and include important collections of Mesoamerican Pre-Columbian pottery and textiles as well as Hispanic folk and decorative arts.

Tia Chucha's Café Cultural
12737 Glenoaks Boulevard #22
Sylmar, Ca 91343
Where art and minds meet- For a change.
Resources include great books; workshops on the arts and literature; spoken word, musical, and theatrical performances; an art gallery and workspace; and a technological center to help bridge the digital divide in our communities. Recently opened by author Luis Rodriguez, his wife, Trini and business man-Chicano activist, Enrique Sanchez.

UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History
Box 951549
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1549
Exhibits rotate and often include Mexican emphases. Explores art and material culture primarily from Africa, Asia, Oceania, Native, and Latin America, past and present. It's a good idea to get on their mailing list.



El Mercado del Este de Los Angeles
3425 East 1st Street just East of Lorena
East Los Angeles, Ca. 90063
(323) 268-3451
Easy access for the uninitiated to the Mexican community is through El Mercado (The Market). Parking is plentiful and well-directed by signs and attendants. Three floors make up this enclosed market, and vendors in outside stalls sell sweets and aquas de frutas.

Some time during your visit you might want to look for the three examples of outdoor art by José-Luis Gonzalez that decorate the exterior of the market. In the rear of the parking lot is a mural portrait of Edward James Olmos, commissioned for the cover of Time magazine on July 11,1988, the year the Hollywood film Stand and Deliver was released. On the east side of the market, Mr. Gonzalez completed a tile mosaic of a Mayan warrior reaching toward the sun, and on the side facing Lorena is a glazed ceramic tile Mayan Rain God in bas-relief .

Entering the market on the bottom floor, you will enjoy stalls with Mexican music, clothing, hats, shoes, ceramics, and botanicas as well as a travel agency and electronics and pager booths. Going up to the middle floor, you will find more of the same, but food enters the picture. A grocery store offers a large selection of Mexican spices and corn husks as well as specialty items such as churro mix. Adjacent to the grocery store are long counters of seafood and meat where one can buy fish, octopus, and chorizo, the spicy Mexican sausage. Shoppers can take a break here or get a bite to eat at one of the many small restaurants that open into the market.

The top floor is where one goes to dine with friends and family and hear the mariachi bands that play every day until 1:30 a.m. Posters around the market advertise which band is playing at which restaurant. Since the restaurants all open to the center of the market, this floor as well as the floors below are filled with festive music.

If you care to wander a bit outside the market, across 1st Street is El Centavito, a well-stocked party supply and piñata store. Continuing east on 1st Street is Tamales Lilianas at 3448 1st , (213.780.0829), an excellent place to pick up your holiday tamales. They are open every day from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Journey Directions:

From the 10 Freeway, exit South on Soto Street. Continue for a couple of miles and turn left on 1st Street. Once you cross Lorena, you will see signs directing you to turn left into a parking lot before the market (El Mercado). Along the way you might notice some hints of the neighborhood's past, including the Tenrikyo Church dating from the World War II years before the Japanese Americans were removed from this area to be placed in Internment Camps. Keep your eyes open for murals and colorful decorations in this neighborhood such as the three murals on the corner of Soto and Cesar Chavez across from King Taco. King Taco is not a bad spot either, unless you hate delicious tacos and other things muy sabroso.