Gordon K. Mantler: For Latinos, It’s Not All about Immigration

Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice, 1960-1974, by Gordon K. MantlerWe welcome a guest post today from Gordon K. Mantler, author of Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice, 1960-1974. In a major reinterpretation of civil rights and Chicano movement history, Mantler demonstrates how King’s unfinished Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 became the era’s most high-profile attempt at multiracial collaboration and sheds light on the interdependent relationship between racial identity and political coalition among African Americans and Mexican Americans. Mantler’s book is the inaugural volume in our Justice, Power, and Politics series.

In today’s post, he reminds politicians that earning votes from the U.S.’s rising Latino population will require action on more than just immigration issues.

Comprehensive immigration reform suddenly has become a viable political issue. After the shellacking Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney received from Latinos in 2012—winning only 27 percent of their vote—the GOP has warmed to legislation that creates a “path to citizenship” for currently undocumented workers. Not all, of course, are of Mexican descent or Latino, but the grand majority of these workers are, and many politicians calculate that such legislation could be the difference between winning and losing an entire generation of Latino voters. Republicans doubled down on this when they chose U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban American from Florida, to deliver the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address.

But critics on both the left and right call this newfound Republican approach short-sighted, even offensive to Latinos, who they argue are neither monolithic nor single-issue voters. For conservatives, in particular, this argument appears self-serving, given their general support for draconian laws that seek to drive out immigrants by denying basic services. Yet recent history suggests that their critique may be correct at some level.

In the first years after the 1965 reforms that liberalized U.S. immigration policy, particularly for Latin Americans and Asians, Chicano movement activists did not focus on this issue. Rather, they identified an array of roots to explain the disproportionate poverty and discrimination people of Mexican descent endured. These issues were put on prominent display during the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, the last crusade of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The campaign sought to transform the civil rights struggle into one for human rights by mobilizing an “army of the poor” to march on Washington, D.C., and to demand the federal government’s rededication to the War on Poverty. Most strikingly, King envisioned a coalition of not just black and white, but also Mexican American, Puerto Rican, and American Indian. And members of the Chicano movement responded to the march with enthusiasm and large numbers—even after King’s assassination just weeks before the campaign was to begin.

During the campaign, Chicano movement activists seemed to stress everything but immigration status. New Mexico’s Reies Lopez Tijerina and his followers emphasized land grant rights once guaranteed through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848 that ended the U.S.–Mexican War. They wanted their land back, which they claimed had been stolen from them by white settlers in violation of the treaty. Other activists such as California’s Alicia Escalante sought a more humane welfare system that, among other things, offered forms in Spanish. Corky Gonzales of Denver demanded the inclusion of Spanish language and Mexican history in the public schools. And members of the Brown Berets, a Los Angeles–based Chicano youth group, protested police brutality and harassment. At the campaign’s climactic Solidarity Day rally on June 19, 1968, Gonzales ticked off a long list of demands that included these issues plus others such as farm workers’ unfettered right to organize and vocal opposition to the Vietnam War. Immigration remained embedded in some of these causes, such as the fragile situation of farm workers. But when placed on a national stage, activists chose to highlight different issues and identities.

Why was this? One reason was that it was not immediately clear what impact the 1965 reforms would have. Only during the recession of the early 1970s would national attention return to scapegoating a rapidly increasing Latino population for lost wages and jobs. But in 1968, activists were far more concerned with other roots of poverty and the development of a cohesive Chicano identity that stressed racial pride and control over community institutions. Another explanation could be, as one prominent Chicano scholar suggests, the ambivalence that many people of Mexican descent have to the undocumented workers in their midst. Either way, in the spring of 1968, Chicano activists chose not to stress immigration status as a source of widespread poverty.

This is not to argue that humane immigration reform, such as amnesty, should not be instituted. Of course, it should. But the argument that an endorsement of immigration reform by the GOP—or, for that matter, by many Democrats—will miraculously translate into more votes by Latinos reflects a simplistic understanding of their experience and history.

Gordon K. Mantler is a lecturing fellow and associate director in the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University.