Roots Tracing: The Long and Complex History of Latino Immigration in America

Joanna Gallegos BELatina
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Latino immigration in the United States is something that’s been around for quite some time now. Even though some may people may now want to denounce the significance of immigration in the United States, it’s just impossible. Immigration in this country has always played an integral role in its growth. It’s no surprise that this has happened, especially since the United States has continuously piqued people’s curiosity with the attractive democracy they portray to the rest of the world. 

It’s important to keep in mind that Latino immigration is much more than the unfair narrative that is currently being spewed by many people and government officials nowadays. If anything, history has shown us that latin people have been needed to help the United States. It has also left us scattered pieces of its mercifulness and welcoming arms. Take a seat, grab a drink of your choice, and get ready as we dig a little bit on this. 

The United States comprises of many different groups. However, it was recently confirmed that the latino population is the largest minority group in the United States. In July of 2017, The Census Bureau of the United States reported that there were 18.1 percent of latinos within America. With the way that it is growing, they projected that the latino population will rise to 111 million by the year 2060. That’s a true representation of power by numbers and make no mistake, we hold that power. 

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Talking about power, out of the entire immigrant population in the United States, Mexico holds the number one spot. The Mexican immigrant population hold 25 percent of all immigrants accounted for in America. This still serves true even though the Mexican immigration population has been dwindling down in the past several years. One thing is for sure, Mexican immigration experiences have changed over the  years. 

Although no two experiences are ever the same, it is important to revisit some of the latino stories that shine light on the evolution of latino immigration in America. 

Let’s start by talking about the Juana Gallegos. She’s one of the Mexican immigrants whose made her immigration story available. Her story can be found in the archives of the National Museum of American History. 

Juana Gallegos was born in Miquihuana, Tamaulipas, Mexico in 1900. Though she loved Mexico, she had to exile herself and her family from her home country due to the grave circumstances that Mexico was going through at that time. During her era, Mexico was undergoing a lot of changes at the expense of its people. 

Joanna Gallegos BELatina
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The president of Juana’s time, Porfirio Diaz, who governed from the years 1876-1880 and from 1884 -1911. He tried to modernize Mexico by building railroad systems, plantations, mines, and telegraph lines, which seemed to be beneficial for the country’s bottom line at that moment. But his corruption and greed didn’t allow him to share the wealth with the regular people of Mexico, including Juana and her descendants. Without much surprise, Mexico’s riches were distributed among the Mexico’s elitist. The rich became richer and the poor became poorer. His recklessness led for the formation of the Mexican Revolution. So, you can imagine how violent Mexico became throughout all of this. Deaths upon deaths, but families, like Juana’s, wanted to survive this calamity. 

The Mexican Revolution was an event that had to happen to Mexico in order to get it back on its feet. Diaz had obliterated his people’s good faith in the years he ruled. The revolution destroyed almost all of his modern updates to the country, but they felt this was necessary. No one wanted association with his regimen. After rebuilding the country for years, Mexico had their first fair election and Lazaro Cardenas was elected in 1934. 

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The Mexican Revolution left a lasting impact on its people, though it’s not spoken about explicitly in schools as much. You can see the effect of the revolution on many including the muralist, Diego Rivero, who’s notoriously known as Frida Kahlo’s husband. 

Having been exposed to these trying times, Juana and her family decided to emigrate to the United States for the sake of their safety in 1923. Even though her family had political connections, they knew they couldn’t risk it. 

The exasperation this crisis created led many others with no other choice than to flee the country. Among those was Juana Gallegos future husband, Adolfo Valadez. 

Juana Gallegos ended up in San Antonio, while Adolfo Valadez initially ended up in Houston. He later traveled to San Antonio where he was rooming in a house since he had found a job in the Alamo Iron Works. 

As it is with many immigrants, we are drawn to people who have some of our similarities from the place we exiled from. In Gallegos and Valadez’s case, they both had their roots in Matehuala, Mexico among other common traits. This provoked their relationship to blossom. They married and had three children — Christina, Ninfa, and Adolfo. 

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Despite suffering through the fear that was imposed on them before emigrating to the United States did not deter them from loving Mexico. They understood that an unfit government was no grounds to erase the beautiful culture and customs they had grown up loving. Aside from that, emigrating to another place does not take away the fact that people are leaving behind their friends and the rest of their families. Because of this, they periodically took their children to their hometown once it became safer to travel back. They wanted their children to embrace their cultural roots.

Most of the times, the process of immigration is not a very glamorous one. Detaching yourself away from what you’ve always known can be one of the most difficult things to endure, but sometimes that’s all you can do.  

Even though there are several factors as to why immigration occurs, sometimes immigration is encouraged. This is exactly what happened during The Bracero Program. 

The Bracero Program originated from the fact that the United States needed help tending to their farm labor. The shortages the United States presented in their fields derived from their ongoing turmoil with the World War II. 

Prior to going to war, the United States government reached out to the Mexican government to discuss the potential need to use their workers if World War II was initiated. During this first discussion, the Mexican government declined. The United States and Mexico didn’t have the best relationship then. 

Everything changed when the Japanese struck the U.S. Navy base Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  In that moment, the U.S. government declared war on Japan, Germany, and Mexico, which was followed by the U.S. declaring war on the Axis. The Mexican government did not like this at all. 

Trying to get out of this unfavorable situation, Mexico saw this as a perfect opportunity to finally negotiate with the United States about their workers. In turn, the United States would have to halt any force towards Mexico. By providing workers to the United States, Mexico would later join the Allied war effort, which was definitely a safer route. 

Both countries were able to come to a final agreement on the Bracero Program (the word bracero is translated from Spanish, meaning ‘manual laborer’)  in August 4, 1942. 

The Bracero Program’s agreement stipulated that Mexican workers would be able to enter the United States for a temporary time, while the United States regained strength in the labor department. Aside from that, the Bracero Program explicitly stated that Mexican workers would not be able to serve in the military, there should not be any discrimination in or outside of the work premises for the Mexican workers, there was to be reliable transportation for the workers, and the workers were to be treated fairly in regards to their pay. These requirements were lining of the Bracero Program and the Mexican government expected the United States to carry them out. They did not want to put their people at risk after all. 

Once the agreement was established, Mexican workers rejoiced at the opportunity to work in the United States. The United States was paying them more than they would’ve earned in Mexico. Everything seemed fine. The United States got what they wanted and Mexico had boosted their people’s morale. In this case, latino immigration was encouraged.

In order to be considered for the Bracero Program, thousands of Mexican workers had to travel on foot to the United States. After their travel, they had to make excruciatingly long lines to be examined by the American officials assigned to determine their usefulness. One of the more significant tests American officials used to evaluate a worker’s value was to see if they had calluses on their hands. According to them, the more calluses a Mexican worker had, the more experience they had in the field. 

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If the worker passed all of the tests, they were given permission to work in the United States. Not only that, but they could go and leave as they pleased with their Bracero Program permit. 

Since most of their days were spent working American fields, the workers of the Bracero Program were given housing where they slept in a questionable environment. They were also charged for the blankets they used to sleep, something that violated the agreement. The agreement had stated that everything concerning their housing was included. 

But that wasn’t the only thing in violation of the Bracero Program agreement. 

The workers had missing wages, they weren’t getting paid what was originally agreed, and they were paying for their own food. Also, they didn’t get the transportation that was promised to them. In other words, the Americans disregarded most of the agreement. Instead, they took advantage of the braceros by exploiting them and relished on the help they were providing to the United States. But these workers were set on providing a better life to their families in Mexico, so they stayed. 

Despite all of these violations and other concerns the workers expressed, the Bracero Program was renewed and extended for 22 years. It was only supposed to last until 1947, but it finally ended in 1964. 

As you can see, Latino immigration in America has always been a constant in the United States. Remember, history repeats itself, so we should never bite the hands that has fed us.

Another symbolic part of the history of Latino immigration is the immigration of Cubans to the United States. 

Cubans have continuously been among the top ten immigrant populations in the United States since the 1970s. 

The mass exodus of Cubans from their islands began almost as soon as Fidel Castro took power. He brought communism to Cuba and hasn’t dissolved ever since. His ideologies in regards to governing their nation was one that created one of the more impoverished lands of the caribbean. In due time, Castro relinquished the freedom of expression from many of its people. He condemned people for not being who he wanted to be. His regimen was utter chaos. 

Imagine a place where you’re incarcerated or mysteriously disappeared for being gay. Or a place where political writing that disagreed with his views were not allowed. Cuba was becoming a place where you have to kneel down to Castro’s regime or face dire consequences. People were desperate to get out and with valid reasons. 

From 1959 to the early 1960’s, immigrating to the United States from Cuba was easy. Cubans were escaping their homes, their careers, and everything else that made them Cuban. Many sent their children first to the United States allowing them to stay with people they knew or with strangers others had recommended. It was a heart-breaking situation, but they knew they had to get out. 

After the initial exile wave of Cubans, Castro started regulating people traveling to the United States. It got to a point where he was limiting the people leaving the island. As time passed by, everything became more expensive and Cubans were barely earning enough money to survive. Even if many wanted to leave the island, a lot of things were playing against their favor. 

Noticing that Cuba was going through incredible disorder, the United States decided to take action. In 1966, Congress passed the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA), which stated that Cubans would become legal permanent residents once they had been present in the United States for at least one year. With such a favorable immigration policy, Cubans tried their best to get to the United States. 

Although Castro wasn’t fond of the emigration of Cubans to the United States, he sometimes lifted some of his stricter regulations to allow Cubans to leave. He would do this in an attempt to move out people who weren’t fit for his vision or to reduce the need to pay more people on the island. 

The Mariel boat lift of 1980 was one of his more well-known attempts to do this. About 124,800 Cubans were shipped off to Florida during the Mariel and this was a blessing for many. Of course, the Mariel boat lift didn’t make Castro look like a hero either. Please be clear that many people had to sneak their way into the Mariel to escape the communist oppression. 

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This event provided many Cubans the opportunity to start fresh in America. These people were given a lot of assistance from the United States, especially since the U.S. government of that time understood the dreadful experiences Cubans had to endure while in Cuba. 

As the Castro regime became more unbearable, more Cubans tried to get to the United States. They even started coming in boat rafts. This was hazardous in many ways, even if Cuba is only 90 miles away from the closest American territory. 

Seeing that boat migration was becoming all too prominent to reach the United States, the United States decided to take action again. This is when the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy came into place. 

The “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy was established in 1995 to help protect Cubans fleeing the destructive situation in Cuba. The policy said that if anyone stopped them before reaching the United States, they were to be sent back to Cuba. The policy prevented the Castro regime from any forceful action against anyone sent back to the island. But those who made it to the United States, whether by land or sea, would be allowed to stay in the United States without any issue and given refugee status. Over 65,000 Cubans entered the United States using that policy in their favor since then. 

In this situation, latino immigration was not demonized either. It was a safe process, which resulted in a lot of success stories from Cubans partaking in the American dream. 

However, after many years in place, the Obama administration eradicated the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy in 2014. But this doesn’t mean this should discourage Cubans from emigrating to the United States. The whole purpose for this was for the United States to finally try to have a healthy relationship with Cuba. So they say. 

If you want  to be taken through some of the feelings many exiled Cubans have felt (and many others uprooted from their comfort), then I recommend you read In Cuba I was a German Shepherd by Ana Menendez, Dreaming in Cuban: A Novel by Cristina Garcia, and The Memory of Silence by Uva Aragon. It’s important to get the literary side of things because it may give you a different perspective. 

Latino immigration or immigration overall is something that I’m sure not many people would want as their first choice. Before emigrating, there is usually hope. Hope that things will get better or that something will change. Unfortunately, the world is a messy place and sometimes hope is not enough motivation to continue living through certain things. I mean, who wants to uprooted or detached from what they’ve always known? Especially since what you’ve always known plays a big part on your identity. I can assure you that most immigrants has faced the distress of feeling yanked away and it’s not a pleasant feeling at all. 

I’m sure you’ve realized how much has shifted in terms to immigration, particularly Latino immigration, in recent times. But as you can tell, immigration is not really a luxury, but a need in most situations. I’m hoping that people can shift their views on immigration again. So, rather than seeing immigration as a one-sided thing, now you can see how America has also benefited from immigration and continues to do so. 

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