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Images of the US-Mexican Family Between Revolution and Repatriation

Magdalena Barrera
Department of English
Stanford University
December 2001


During the turbulent decades of the 1920s and 30s, Anglo and Mexican writers, politicians, photographers and composers each had unique agendas and methods in representing the immigrant Mexican family as a cultural institution that could either help or hinder integration into mainstream US society. My work combines the research methods of history, literature, art and music in order to study images of Mexican families in newspaper accounts, novels, photography and music. Through these images, we will learn more about the complex ways in which people of the era understood processes of immigration and cultural adaptation, as well as how representations produced by both Anglos and Mexicans responded to each other.

Great numbers of Mexicans came to the US during the 1910s and 20s in order to flee the political turmoil caused by the Mexican Revolution. Many of these refugees initially considered their stay in the US to be temporary. However, as individual migrants married and began raising families on this side of the border, they questioned whether to return to Mexico at all. Much to the chagrin of the politically-conservative white Midwesterners who also moved to California and the Southwest during these same years, Mexican neighborhoods and cultural life flourished in large cities along the border. Though a distinct Mexican American way of life emerged, studying Mexicans of this era is difficult, because most of them were poor, illiterate and did not have the privilege of leaving behind records of their thoughts and experiences. Meanwhile, Anglos produced a preponderance of novels set in the Southwest, vitriolic newspaper tirades about immigration, photography that depicted filthy Mexican hovels. In light of this imbalance in representations, I ask: How can we get a sense of how Anglos and Mexicans negotiated cultural conflict in the US? What kinds of media were used to shape debates on the pros and cons of migration and cultural adaptation?

Using as a foundation the traditional Chicana/o and American Studies histories that have focused on internal and external US migration during the 1920s and 30s, I recreate their dialogue out of a variety of popular cultural texts -- novels and newspapers, songs, documentary photography -- in order to gain a sense of what was at stake for Anglo and Mexicans in upholding distinct visions of Mexican families. Some scholars might argue that cultural texts such as these are only collections of incidental and entertaining artifacts. However, I contend no single disciplinary approach can fully capture how people debated the possibilities of "becoming Mexican American" during this period. When read alongside academic histories that provide "objective" information about how many Mexicans came to the US, where they chose to live, what kinds of community organizations arose, etc., cultural texts bring to light unique and personal interpretations of historical events that are grounded in particular social locations and that enhance historical accounts.

My work reveals two important facts about American history and culture generally. First, when identity is in tremendous flux due to massive immigration, the notion of family is the first to come under close scrutiny on all sides. How and where should the "proper" family live? How should they dress? What should they eat? Anglo Midwesterners upheld Protestant visions about vice, cleanliness and labor that they sought to impose on Mexicans immigrants. Their racism is evident in journalism and documentary photography that focused on Mexican families and communities. For example, newspaper accounts that exaggerated the "dirty, tuberculosis-breeding" housing conditions of immigrant families roused and maintained anti-Mexican ire. At the same time, Mexican writers and leaders fought to duplicate family mores from Mexico; for instance, Spanish-language songs that poked fun at "lazy" and "frivolous" flappers can be seen as an attempt to warn young women not to follow American trends. Second, and evident in this latter example, when definitions of "family" come under fire, so does the definition of the "proper" woman, for in their roles as mothers and caregivers, women are often seen as the most important custodians of tradition and culture. Tellingly, young Anglo women often were sent into Mexican homes to teach housework courses under the auspices of Americanization programs. Meanwhile, Mexican women were allowed to enter the paid workforce primarily because their work was intended not to be a means to economic independence, but instead to better the family as a whole. Thus, my research restores a much-needed discussion of women's experiences in this area of immigration and American Studies.