CALIFORNIA COLLECTION: Mexican Americans – “400,000 Mexican-American Voters” (1955)

From: The Chicago Jewish Forum
Vol. 14, No. 1, Fall, 1955.

June 8, 1954, the date of California’s Primaries, marked the beginning of a new chapter in the state’s political life. For the first time a representative of California’s largest minority, the Mexican-Americans, ran for a state-wide office on the ticket of one of the two major parties. Edward R. Roybal, Los Angeles’ first Mexican-American Councilman, was the only Democratic nominee for Lieutenant-Governor. Even though he was not well known outside Los Angeles County and had to run his campaign on a shoestring, he received well over 900,000 votes, more than double the number of eligible Mexican-American voters in the state. On November 2, 1954, he increased his votes to one and one-half million, surpassing considerably those of the Democratic nominee for Governor, Richard Graves, who, besides being known all over California, also had considerable financial resources at his disposal.

Behind this event lies the story of the integration of California’s Mexican-American citizens into the political life of the nation’s second largest state as far as population is concerned. It is a gratifying story of living grass-roots democracy, all the more inspiring at a time when our national political scene so often looks sordid and disgusting.

The last available census, that of the year 1950, lists 636,994 persons with Spanish surnames-the only existing classification-as United States citizens out of a total of more than 800,000 such residents of California. Of these 407,310 were eligible voters, and their number has, of course, increased over the past four years. There is a great political potential in as large a block of voters as this. Yet, it has hardly been taken into serious consideration by either one of the two major political parties until recently. Compared with a state like New Mexico, where Mexican-Americans for a long time have played an active political role, that same element in California has only begun to make its weight felt in state politics. Even today only seventeen Mexican-Americans hold office as councilmen or city commissioners in all of California. There are many reasons for this fact. Perhaps the most pertinent one is the rather rigid distinction between the old Spanish-American families, who, because of their better education, might have provided a natural political leadership, and the great mass of the poorer Mexican-Americans.

When California was gradually taken over by the Yankees advancing from the North and eventually succeeding in the annexation of all of California from Mexico, these old Spanish families, some of them rather wealthy, retreated to the Southern part of the state. Here it was where they were able to maintain for some time, even after California had become a part of the United States, some semblance of their old, tradition-bound cultural life. Even after a while when much of their original wealth had gone and they were willing to let their daughters marry some rich Yankee trader, they would not have thought of mixing with those Mexican-American families who could not trace their family tree to a background of “pure Spanish blood.” Their attitude towards their less fortunate Mexican-American brothers was, and in some instances is even today, much like that of an old Southern family towards the “poor white trash.”

It is true that some of these old Spanish-Americans have played a role in the political life of Southern California, and still do, like Los Angeles’ perennial County Sheriff, Eugene W. Biscailuz. But to this day they have hardly any contact with the new, thoroughly Americanized leadership of the Mexican-Americans that has only now come into its own.
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There are some young and enterprising Mexican-American journalists who reflect the rising interest of this minority in American politics. Ignacio Lopez, who edits the weekly “El Espectador” in Pomona, is perhaps the outstanding example for this new and forward-looking kind of leadership.

While California has today over 800,000 Mexican-American residents, it is well to remember that the bulk of this large number came here only since the beginning of the century and that mass migration from Mexico to California did not occur until about 1910.

Those were the days when the West was developing fast and when manpower was scarce. Consequently, immigration laws were loosely drawn and even more loosely enforced. If a Mexican wanted to go North and settle down, he had no difficulty in doing so. He did not have to swim the Rio Grande secretly by night in order to evade the United States Border patrol, as the “wetbacks” have to do in our days. He was welcome, even sought after. The California State Chamber of Commerce carried on a highly publicized campaign among the poor Mexicans by painting the Life in the “Golden State” in the most alluring colors. There was much real poverty in Mexico then. Leaflets in Spanish compared wages paid in agriculture and industry in both countries. During this time a swarm of agents of the Chamber of Commerce roamed the Mexican countryside offering free transportation to anyone who wanted to go. Since they never mentioned the difference in living costs, they were highly successful. So great was the demand for Mexican labor that even airplanes were chartered to drop leaflets over Mexican towns and villages inviting everyone who wanted to get rich in California to pack up and come.

Most of the pilgrims into the promised land did not come with any intention to stay for good. They figured on making a thousand dollars or so by working hard for a year or two and then returning to their native land, able, at last, to buy enough land to feed their families better than they ever could have done if they stayed in Mexico.

It was not only the difference in living costs that shattered these dreams. Since most of the immigrants lacked any skill, and since their education was far from adequate, they found themselves excluded from the better-paying jobs. Discrimination in the hiring policies of California industry kept many out of jobs where they might have had a chance to improve themselves financially. Unable to afford the rents in the better parts of the city, and on top of that, kept out of these neighborhoods by restrictive covenants on the part of the landlords, they found only the slum areas open to them. There, as is always the case, they had to pay rents out of proportion to the value of the miserable hovels into which their fast-growing families were crowded. There were no street lights, no recreational facilities, and no sanitation. Their children had to go to segregated schools often miles away from their homes, with no buses serving these areas for transportation. It was an exception rather than the rule if a young Mexican-American after finishing grade school continued his education in high school. The meager income of his parents forced him at an early age to seek some kind of a job to help carry the load of the family. Health conditions were bad, with tuberculosis spreading rapidly.

Embittered and disillusioned, discriminated against and taken advantage of by greedy landlords, they naturally drew together in an atmosphere of a self-made ghetto. Unable or unwilling to learn the language of America, they were attracted by the traditional old Mexican fraternal organizations for what little time they had for a sort of social life. There an atmosphere of nostalgic glorification of the old Mexico added to the many obstacles in the way of a rapid integration of these people into the civic life of California.

It is understandable that under such conditions hardly anyone of the new immigrants showed any interest in politics and that no able leadership developed among them to help gain recognition and consideration for their legitimate demands. Few bothered to take out citizenship papers, and many did not even legalize their status as residents. Thus their feeling of insecurity increased.
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As the years went by and the children of these Mexican-American immigrants grew up, the traditional fight between the generations became a familiar situation in many of their families. Like most children of immigrants, these youngsters had gradually picked up American habits. They had much less trouble with the English language than their parents and often felt embarrassed and even ashamed of them. Young people, even more than older ones, want to belong. They long for social acceptance. The culture of their Spanish-speaking homes was a hindrance rather than something to be cherished. They did not have memories of Mexico that still meant much to their fathers and mothers. At the same time, with all their desire to become real Americans, they found discrimination and an often hostile attitude on the part of the non-Mexican youth they came in contact with. The result was frustration and a self-protecting belligerence to cover up the deep sense of hopelessness which they felt towards a more and more uncertain future.

Then the depression of the late twenties hit America. The first to feel its economic and social impact were the minorities. Mexicans, Negroes, Orientals and Jews were the first to lose their jobs. Since the Mexican-Americans had been the last to arrive, their position became especially insecure. Organized labor complained that they were suppressing the wage level by taking on jobs far below the average pay. The same Chamber of Commerce that years before had paid them their fare from Mexico to California now reversed its attitude. A policy of remigration, by force if necessary, was initiated. The California Legislature even debated a bill to send all Mexican-Americans suffering from tuberculosis forcibly back to their native land. The large number of Mexican immigrants who had no legal status as residents were at the mercy of a deportation policy that had much in common with our present anti-alien policy.

Many of the older Mexican-Americans decided to leave voluntarily. Often their children, then in their `teens, refused to leave. Families were broken up in this way.

For the returnees it was quite a different homecoming from the one they had dreamed about when they set out to make their fortunes in California. The old country itself did not look as they had imagined it in the long years of their absence. Neither were they received as they had expected to be. Their teen-age children in particular met suspicion rather than friendliness from the neighbors. Their outlandish ways of life made them foreigners, and many times the hated word “gringo” was thrown at them. Some could not stand it and sneaked back over the border. But this time it was much more difficult to settle down. Unwanted, and in many cases without the supervision of their parents who stayed behind in Mexico, these young Mexican-Americans started to roam the streets without jobs, without visible support. Juvenile delinquency grew.

In the late thirties the situation grew alarming. Well-meaning individuals and organizations tried to do something for the population in the Mexican slums of East Los Angeles and elsewhere. Some brave and far-sighted Mexican-Americans tried to give community leadership but the traditional ghetto attitude prevailed and made progress painfully slow. Those were the years when hardly a month went by in Los Angeles where the papers did not report the fatal shooting of at least one young Mexican-American by some policeman, as the reports invariably put it, either “while trying to escape” or “while trying to resist arrest.” There was some occasional protest from church and welfare organizations, some proposals for improvement in the housing and sanitary conditions in the Mexican slum areas, but little was done. The city fathers did not show any interest in spending money for a district like the Ninth Councilmanic District of Los Angeles where most
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of the poor Mexicans were concentrated together with Orientals, Negroes and other minority groups in a vertiblae [sic] melting pot. The reason was obvious. The district had by far the lowest voters’ registration in the county and therefore held no promise in the way of votes that could be delivered in return for some constructive work done for it by the City Council.

In 1943 the tension had mounted to a critical point. Mexican-American youth had taken to a new fad, that of wearing the so-called zoot suits. They were characterized by tapering trousers ending at the cuff, closely fitting the ankle, and in overlong coats with highly exaggerated padded shoulders. Thus attired, the young Mexican-Americans would go in gangs to the public dance halls, maybe start a fight over a girl, or in any case, make themselves obnoxious. Soon there were riots. Some United States Marines became involved and started regular raids on the slum neighborhoods of the Mexican population.

I remember the vivid story which a sixteen-year-old Mexican-American told about that time to a group of North American high school kids at a high school institute sponsored by the Quakers. Juan, an attractive dark-haired boy with large, almost liquid black eyes, had been sitting in on the discussion for three days, hardly participating. Then when the discussion turned to the relationship of minorities with the white majority, he opened up. He told the group what life had been for him over the years until he finally had managed to enter high school where race discrimination did not prevail to the same degree as on the grade school level. He described how lonely he had felt at first upon entering high school where none of the Anglo kids talked to him, or let him participate in their games. It was the story of a frustrated kid, trying to make friends and always being shunned for no other reason than that he was a Mexican. He had witnessed some of the violent clashes of Marines with the zoot-suitors. He spoke of one particular evening when word had come to the trailer park, where hundreds of Mexican-American families lived on the Eastern outskirts of Los Angeles, that this was the night the Marines were going to make a raid. “We were ready for them that night,” he said. “If they had come, there would have been bloodshed. We were posted all over the park with guns and knives, ready to fight back. If it had not been for the padre, I don’t know what might have happened.”

The padre, the local Catholic priest, had been the only one who had gained their confidence. He promised them that everything would be all right. Alone, he went out to the gathering place for the Marines and in half an hour talked them out of their plan to raid the trailer park.

Then Juan told us about his Anglo friend, Jim. “He was the only one who treated me nice. He even fought for me twice on the schoolyard. I’ll never forget it. He had come once to our trailer. My mother made him some tortillas, and he liked them so much he came back. Then he invited me to come over to his house. At first I did not want to. But I finally came. We became friends. All our kids knew that Jim was all right. He was my friend. Maybe,” he added wistfully, “one day we all can be friends.”

That day has not come yet. There is still discrimination, and it might become a bigger problem if this country would slide into another depression. But there has been remarkable progress in the integration of California’s Mexican-Americans into the civic life of the communities where they constitute such a large number as in Los Angeles, Fresno and San Diego. Nothing has helped this progress more than the great leveling effect of World War II. It created a lack of manpower and with it the necessity of training people for higher skilled jobs, especially in industry. Mexicans for the first time got access to the better-paying jobs. Their living standards improved.
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When Mexican-American veterans started to come home from the battlefield, they were different men. So were their North-American buddies as far as their attitude towards the Mexicans was concerned. You did not ask in the Battle of the Bulge or in the jungle fighting on the Pacific Islands whether the man next to you was a Mexican-American from California or a Bostonian. Under fire men had learned to rely on each other because that reliance often meant the difference between life and death.

To the Mexican-Americans the experience of the war and its leveling effect meant a different outlook on life. They, too, had fought for their country, and now they, too, had a right to the benefits of the GI Bill of Rights. Now they, too, could buy a home and start a family, even get a college education. There was a new kind of self-confidence in them. The chip on their shoulders was gone. They were not willing anymore to take for granted the lack of street lighting, sanitation and playgrounds in the Ninth Los Angeles District where they lived. They demanded equal rights. When they found resistance in City Hall, they started to organize.

In 1947 the Community Service Organization was founded with the help of the Famous Chicago Industrial Area Foundation. Among the founders was Edward R. Roybal, a Mexican-American himself and a veteran who, like so many of these, felt the need for organization to represent their interests. He was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1916, had come as a child to Los Angeles, and had lived in the Ninth District most of his life. What he saw in his youth of the squalor of the Eastside slums, has left a mark on Ed Roybal. He was one of the few among his people who had made up his mind that he was to better himself. He worked his way through college at U.C.L.A. and later at Kaiser College where he took a bachelor’s degree in business administration. At his first job as a cost accountant of a large Westcoast firm, he succeeded in eliminating discrimination in the selection of personnel. Later he worked as Educational Director for the Los Angeles County Tuberculosis Association, and it was he who initiated the first state-wide chest X-ray drive. He took an interest in public housing, doing educational broadcasts in Spanish on this subject.

A Roman Catholic and a member of the Knights of Columbus, he worked with the Catholic Youth Organization in its program to better the relations between his people and the police. A few years later he founded the “Committee of 21” composed of seven policemen, seven social workers and seven laymen. The number of beatings of Mexican-American youth at the police precincts went down. So did the number of deaths resulting from youths shot by police.

Tuberculosis had been one of the greatest threats to the health of Los Angeles’ Mexican-American population. SLowly this problem was tackled by the City Health Department under the constant prodding of Ed Roybal. It still took years to improve this situation. According to the Los Angeles City Health Department’s statistics, as late as 1949, the rate of registered tuberculosis cases among Mexican-Americans was 840 for each 100,000, while the rate among the white Anglos was only 262. Three years later, in 1952, the rate among Mexican-Americans had fallen to 587 per 100,000, while that among the white Anglos had risen slightly to 301. Concentration of the Public Health Service in the area where most Mexican-Americans live had brought this about. Ed Roybal can claim a large part of the credit for this improvement.

Sooner or later a man of his ability and his untiring efforts in community welfare work was bound to attract the attention of the politicians. In 1947 Roybal was asked by the Democratic Party to run for the seat of City Councilman in the Ninth District. “I really was not interested in politics,” he told this writer recently, “but I wanted to find out whether one could apply the principle of community organization in the field of politics. So we tried, and, well-it worked.”
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Ed Roybal lost his first campaign in which he tolled 4000 votes-the highest vote any Mexican-American ever got up to that time in California-by the narrow margin of 370 votes. He did not give up. The Community Service Organization had grown from an original membership of 30 persons to a membership of 100. Fred Ross, Field Organizer of the Chicago Industrial Area Foundation, made his headquarters in East Los Angeles and, under his leadership, the organization soon became the most dynamic representative of the many minorities in East Los Angeles, particularly of the Mexican-Americans. Late in the same year a new constitution for the Community Service Organization was drafted. In the preamble the aims of the organization were formulated as follows:

To guard and further our democratic rights; to become aware of our responsibility as citizens; to better discharge our civic duties; to coordinate our efforts for the common good of the community; to encourage active participation of our neighbors in civic life; and to improve relations among all races, nationalities and religions.

Gradually city officials recognized the importance and growing influence of the organization by attending some of its affairs and cooperating in some of its projects.

In 1949, Ed Roybal ran again for the City Council. This time the Community Service Organization was prepared for a first-rate job of registration of the voters in the district. Within the short period of 90 days, 50,000 voters were registered. Overnight the Ninth District showed the highest voters’ registration in Los Angeles. The original opposition by the Registrar of Voters who refused to swear in deputy registrars of Mexican descent was overcome. Attempts to subject those who for the first time registered to a literary test, which often was only demanded of the Mexican-Americans for the purpose of intimidation, were promptly protested. After a day-and-night campaign, Ed Roybal won by a two to one majority over the incumbent and became Los Angeles’ first Mexican-American Councilman. He was immediately appointed Chairman of the Public Health and Welfare Committee and a member of the Veterans’ Personnel and Public Housing Committee. It was largely due to his efforts that racial discrimination was banned in public housing projects, that playgrounds, paved roads, flood control, street lighting and other long-over-due improvements were introduced in his district, and that a 24-hour service was established at the Georgia Street Receiving Hospital.

This handsome 38-year-old man with the dark complexion of his Mexican ancestors, married and the father of two children, in a way symbolizes the new type of minority leader which was born during the last twenty years in the West. It is not by accident that a man of his type should also have been among the few political figures in the last few years who have been least affected by the current hysteria. It was during Roybal’s first term in the Los Angeles City Council that his integrity and courage were put to a severe test. In September of 1950 the City Council was discussing a so-called “subversive registration bill”, the first of the kind proposed in any city in the country, under which members of “subversive” organizations were to be forced to register as such with the authorities. Even though the bill later was declared unconstitutional by the California courts, it was passed by the City Council and would have passed unanimously had it not been for a lonely, brave voice of dissent. That voice was the voice of Ed Roybal. To do so as the first and only Mexican-American Councilman demanded rare courage of conviction, indeed. At the time it looked like an act of sure political suicide. Roybal was well aware of this. Yet, he did what he felt he had to do. In a speech delivered on September 13, 1950, explaining his vote to the City Council, he had this to say:
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What I am getting at . . . is that the doctrine implicit in this ordinance carried to its logical conclusion, places every citizen and organization whose word or act resembles at any time those of the Communists at the mercy of any biased crack-pot who may decide to report the matter to the Police Department as subversive. . .

There are those who would have us believe that to preserve Democracy and fight Communism we must sacrifice our Democracy, at least temporarily. I am not one of these. I believe that now, more than ever before, we must push for more rather than less Democracy. . .

I realize, of course, that what I do here today will count for very little, since the great preponderance of opinion in this body differs from my position, and so the Ordinance before us will be passed. Nor am I in a sense be signing my own political death warrant … I have had amply time for long reflection on this matter, and I do not propose to shrink from the responsibility of my decision . . .Because today there is a great tide of terror creeping across our nation, leaving in its wake a near-chaos of hysteria and paralysis of moral principle, this tide must be stopped before it is too late. . . . Perhaps after this I am dead politically, but no matter what the consequences to me personally, they cannot equal the condemnation of my conscience were I to act otherwise.

The sincerity of his speech brought applause from the members of the Council even though not one of them had the courage to join him. In 1951 the voters passed judgment on Roybal’s performance as a public servant by re-electing him with an increased majority.

When Roybal won the unanimous endorsement to run for Lieutenant-Governor at the State Democratic Convention in Fresno this Spring, few thought of this endorsement as more than a gesture. When Roybal turned out to be an even stronger vote-getter than the Democratic candidate for Governor, both in the Primaries and in the November election, it became clear that in him California’s minorities had found a type of leader who responds to the grassroots movement of the voters. Even though he lost, he gave the G.O.P. incumbent Lieutenant-Governor a stiff fight. Roybal’s political career is only beginning.

Much remains to be done to complete the full integration of the Mexican-American and other minorities into the political life of California. It is only in recent years that Mexican-Americans have appeared as officers of the unions in the steel, furniture and clothing industries. The disgraceful spectacle of the yearly round-up of the so-called “wetbacks,” agricultural workers from Mexico who came for the harvest season and after that are herded back by the same immigration officers who closed their eyes on their “illegal” entry when the ranchers needed cheap labor, is proof for this fact.

Nevertheless, one thing is clear: California’s 400,000 Mexican-American voters have come of age politically. Their voices will be heard with increasing strength and clarity from now on. Their new and vigorous leadership can no longer be ignored.

There is hope yet in the integrating power of American democracy.

About this text:

Courtesy of Dept of Special Collections/UCLA Library, A1713 Charles E. Young Research Library, 405 Hilgard Ave, Box 951575, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1575;

Title: 400,000 Mexican-American voters
By: Hall, Martin, Author
Date: 1955
Contributing Institution: Dept of Special Collections/UCLA Library, A1713 Charles E. Young Research Library, 405 Hilgard Ave, Box 951575, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1575;
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