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Reclaiming Their Stolen Birthright Mexicans in the American Southwest

By Richard D. Vogel

Copyright © 2012 by Richard D. Vogel

Permission to copy granted


History is being rewritten in the American Southwest -- the growing Mexican population is reclaiming their birthright denied by the US conquest and partition of Mexico 165 years ago.  When it finds its voice, this community will be a power to be reckoned with.

(Author’s note:  This essay is an update to Stolen Birthright: The U.S. Conquest and Exploitation of the Mexican People posted online eight years ago.)

Stolen Birthright

“The Colossus of the North”

A full decade before the United States invaded its neighbor to the south in 1846, the leaders of both nations openly recognized the consequences of US imperial expansion for the young Republic of Mexico.

On May 25, 1836, ex-US president John Quincy Adams lambasted the US House of Representatives about their intent to conduct war against Mexico:

“And again, I ask, what will be your cause in such a war?  Aggression, conquest, and the reestablishment of slavery where it has been abolished.  In that war, sir, the banners of freedom will be the banners of Mexico; and your banners, I blush to speak the word, will be the banners of slavery…, I cannot doubt that Mexico will be the greater sufferer by the shock.  The conquest of all Mexico would seem to be no improbable result of the conflict….” i

Writing in 1837, General José María Tornel ii, the Secretary of War of the Republic of Mexico, described the United States as “the Colossus of the North” bent on possessing the entire continent from the banks of the Saint Lawrence River to the Isthmus of Panama, and predicted the outcome of the impending conflict for his nation:

“The loss of Texas will inevitably result in the loss of New Mexico and the Californias.  Little by little our territory will be absorbed, until only an insignificant part is left to us.”

Map 1 illustrates the accuracy of Tornel’s prediction.

Map 1
Map 1

Texas and the territory seized from Mexico in 1848 (a total of 1.4 million square kilometers, or 530 thousand square miles) represented nearly one half of the original land mass of the Republic of Mexico.  The 1853 Gadsden Purchase, made under threat of US reinvasion, added 30 thousand square miles (77,000 square kilometers) of land to the total.  These spoils of war became the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, and portions of Colorado and Wyoming.  This former Mexican territory constitutes 31% of the land area of the lower 48 states of the continental United States. 

Map 1 is a portrait of the stolen birthright of the Mexican people(Click here to view a map of the Republic of Mexico before partition.)

The juxtaposition of Map 1 and Map 2 is mind-blowing.

Map 2
Map 2

Map 2, published by the US Census Bureau, shows that the current Hispanic population in the United States is concentrated overwhelmingly in the former northern territory of the Republic of Mexico.  The highest numbers of Hispanics (mostly Mexicans) are located in southern California and Arizona, throughout the state of New Mexico, and across Texas in a wide corridor along the Rio Grande from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico.

The correlation of maps 1 and 2 is remarkable -- superimposing Map 1 on Map 2 reveals an almost perfect fit. 

Table 1 supplements Map 1 by offering additional information about the Hispanic population of the American Southwest by state.

Table 1

According the latest census figures, Hispanics now constitute more than one third of the entire population of the Southwest.  In 2010, 82.5% of all Hispanics in the Southwest lived in California and Texas, with 49.3% of the total in California alone.  Hispanics currently represent 46.3% of the population of the State of New Mexico.  The greatest concentrations of Hispanics in the Southwest are in southern California at 43.5% of the total and in south Texas at an overwhelming 85%. 

One fifth of the Hispanic population of the region resides in 10 key cities:

Table 2

Table 2 shows that in San Antonio, El Paso, and Laredo, the Hispanic population constitutes a clear majority.  Further analysis of the census data establishes that Hispanics are the largest ethnic group in the key cities of Los Angeles, Houston, and Albuquerque.
It is clear from Map 2 and the 2010 Census data presented in Tables 1 and 2 that the Mexican community in the American Southwest is reclaiming its birthright by peopling the territory that was stolen from Mexico by the emerging American empire in the middle of the 19th century

Knowing how this unprecedented event occurred is vital to understanding the core issues faced by the Hispanic community in the region today.

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The Great Migration

The greatest migration of workers and their families in human history took place in North America between 1980 and 2007.  During that twenty-seven year period, between 10 and 12 million people from Mexico alone relocated to the United States.  Like the waves of immigrants that came to the US before them, the Mexicans were seeking a better life for themselves and their families.

Chart 1 illustrates that massive movement of people.

Chart 1

The Great Migration was a virtual flood of workers from south of the border in response to the rising demand for cheap labor in the United States.  The mass migration began with an average of 220,000 immigrants a year arriving from Mexico in the early 1980s and rose steadily to over half a million per year in the late 1990s and almost 600,000 a year in the early 2000s.

The impact of this migration was profound -- the unprecedented growth of the US economy during the last two decades of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st was made possible by the availability of cheap labor supplied by both documented and undocumented immigrant workers from the south.

The two trends within the Great Migration depicted in Chart 1 merit a closer look. 

In the late 1980s, a de facto open-border policy was instituted by neoliberal politicians in the United States to facilitate this massive relocation of labor demanded by the US economy.  Under a policy of free trade labor, undocumented immigration from Mexico skyrocketed while the stream of documented immigrants dwindled steadily from 82% of total immigration in the beginning of the period to 16% by the end.  This major change in immigration policy reflected the neoliberal contingency plan to deport as many Mexican workers as possible when their labor was no longer needed -- exactly what happened during the Great Depression and severe economic recession of the 1950s. Operation “Endgame”, the beginning of the current neoliberal policy to “deport all deportable aliens”, was authorized in the aftermath of the economic recession of 2001, instituted in 2003, and originally scheduled to be completed by 2012.

The Great Recession of 2008 ended the Great Migration.  The hitch in the neoliberal strategy is that mass deportation is no longer a viable option like it was in the past for two reasons: 1) even though there has been a wide-spread backlash against undocumented immigrants, their cheap labor is still in high demand and the economic recovery of the United States, in fact, depends on it; and 2) the extensive financial, social, and sweat equity built up by undocumented immigrants gives them a legitimate claim to remain.

Vested Interests

Unlike the immigrants who were deported in the past, many of the undocumented workers in the US today have vested interests in their communities and the nation at large.  This equity is composed of three different types of investments:

  • Financial equity that includes investments in homes, businesses, and other real property. 
  • Social equity that consists of the presence of citizen children and extended families and membership in valuable community networks.
  • Sweat equity that takes into account unpaid labor invested in communities and taxes paid for social services that have not been provided. 

Mexican immigrants, undocumented as well as documented, have contributed as much to the economy and nation at large as any immigrants of the past.  The legacy of the Great Migration, based on the equity that undocumented migrants have built up in the United States, is the right of those hard-working immigrants who have led upstanding lives to remain as legal residents with a path to citizenship. 

The Great Migration is only part of the story of Mexicans reclaiming their stolen birthright.  Between 2000 and 2010, there were more Hispanic births in the United States than there were arriving Hispanic immigrants -- opening a demographic window of opportunity for the Hispanic community that offers both clear opportunities and serious risks.


The Demographic Window of Opportunity

The Hispanic population of the United States has increased by an unprecedented 246% in four decades and accounted for 56% of the nation’s growth from 2000 to 2010.  This growing population trend is presented in Chart 2.

Chart 2

Hispanics, the nation’s largest minority group, are facing an expanding demographic window of opportunity today.  A demographic window of opportunity is a period of time when the proportion of working-age individuals is large, opening up the prospect for significant economic advancement.  The facts are encouraging:

  • The 2010 Census counted 50.5 million Hispanics in the United States compared to 35.3 million in 2000, a 43% increase over the last decade. 
  • This population is significantly younger than the population of the nation at large -- the median age for Hispanics in 2010 was 27 compared to 42 for non-Hispanic whites.
  • The Hispanic child population increased significantly from 12.3 million in 2000 to 17.1 million in 2010, a 39% increase during the decade.  By 2010, Hispanic children ages 17 and under accounted for 23.1% of that age group in the nation at large. 
  • Currently, about 50,000 Hispanics turn 18 every month, insuring a steady supply of new workers and prospective voters.
  • The growth rate of the Hispanic community has slowed since the end of the Great Migration, but the current natural increase of the Hispanic community guarantees that it will be one of the fastest growing segments of the US population and workforce for decades to come.

The economic opportunities offered by this window of opportunity are great but so are the risksHigh unemployment rates and low education levels -- both of which are clear threats to the Hispanic community -- can turn its growing population of young people into a demographic liability. 

How quickly Hispanics find a voice to address the core issues facing their community will determine their future.


Core Issues

While the civil rights of minority US citizens were secured in the post-World War II period iii, current social and economic trends in the American Southwest and the nation as a whole indicate that powerful political groups controlling government at all levels are not willing to legalize undocumented immigrants or dedicate the resources necessary to provide for the healthcare, education, and general welfare of the Hispanic population.  These are the core issues facing Hispanics today.

Immigrant Rights 

A divided community cannot prosper.  No one knows this better than the Hispanic community in the United States.  Four decades of a free trade labor policy championed by neoliberal politicians has created the largest population of undocumented immigrants in the world – an entire class of people that has to live and work under burdensome restrictions.  Undocumented immigrants living and working at substandard levels undermine the social and economic conditions of the Hispanic community and the entire nation.

Divided families cannot surviveNo families know this better than those with one or both parents who are undocumented and children who are US citizens.  Detention and deportation either splits the family or, if the children stay with their parents, can deprive them of their birthright of US citizenship.  The situation of undocumented young adults who were brought into the country as children and face deportation is equally unjust. iv     

Legal residency with a path to citizenship is the only equitable solution to the problems of the divided Hispanic community and threatened families.  Legalization of workers and their families who migrate for economic reasons is the egalitarian counterpart of the free movement of capital and commodities across international borders in the modern age of globalization.  People matter as much as profits. 

The issue of immigrant rights is inseparable from the problems of the inadequate healthcare, education, and general welfare of the Hispanic community.


Healthcare, Education, and General Welfare of the Hispanic Community v

In the critical area of healthcare, the Hispanic community is the most underserved in the nation.  In 2009, 25.9% of residents of Mexican origin and 23.8% of Hispanics overall did not see a healthcare professional during the year compared to 14.4% of blacks and 12.0% of whites.  Almost one-third (32.4%) of all Hispanics were not covered by any form of health insurance during 2009, compared to 21.0% of blacks, and 15.8% of whites.

The education of Hispanics is being systematically neglected.  Only 57.4% of Mexicans (62.9% of all Hispanics) in the United States have finished high school, compared to 84.2% of blacks, and 87.6% of whites.  In the area of higher education, the primary path to success for working people in the modern world, the disparity is even worse – only 10.6% of Mexicans (13.9% of all Hispanics) have completed college compared to 19.8% for blacks, and 30.3% of whites.

The general welfare of any group or community is, of course, determined by the economic circumstances of that group.

Chart 3 illustrates the crisis of economic security for minorities in the United States.

Chart 3

The inequalities of wealth in the US documented in Chart 3 are crushing:

  • The median wealth of Hispanic households is less than 6% of the median wealth of white households while that of black households is a paltry 5%.

Additional details behind the figures in Chart 3 are sobering:

  • About a third of Hispanic households (31%) and black households (35%) had a zero or negative net worth in 2009, compared to 15% of white households.  The Great Recession of 2008 had the greatest impact on Hispanic households, reducing their net worth a drastic 66% compared to 53% for blacks and 16% for whites.
  • About a quarter of all Hispanic (24%) and black (24%) households had no assets other than a vehicle compared to just 6% of white households.
  • The same growing inequality that plagues the nation at large is ravaging the Hispanic community.  In 2009, the top 10% of the Hispanic community owned 73% of all Hispanic household wealth, up from 56% in 2005.

Clearly, the time has come for the Hispanic community to find a voice to defend its interests.

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Finding a Voice

The growing Hispanic community in the United States is varied with substantial concentrations of Cubans in Florida and Puerto Ricans and Dominicans in the Midwest and Northeast, but the vast majority resides in the Southwest and is of Mexican origin.  It is this Southwest community that offers a critical proving ground for a Hispanic civic revolution.  Finding a regional voice will enable groups and individuals to unite around common interests and become a force to be reckoned with.  The tools to do this are readily available.  Information technology and social networking provide the means to build virtual communities to mobilize support for political initiatives in the region and around the nation.

Possible political initiatives range from direct political actions like the Occupy movements of 2011 and 2012 to the establishment of a regional organization founded and operated as a non-connected political action committee (PAC), the growing choice of groups that want to be heard but are excluded from mainstream political debate.  The legal restrictions placed on non-connected PACs are the source of their strength.  Because they can’t accept donations from any contributor for more than $5,000 a year, they have to appeal to a broad base and can develop a voice for common people.

MoveOn.Org Political Action, one of the most successful non-connected PACs operating in the US today, is a good example of the type of organization that could successfully further the interests of Hispanics in the American Southwest.  Its mission statement is provocative:

“ Political Action, one of the largest Political Action Committees in the country, brings real Americans into the political process.  We conduct major campaigns, using advertising and the media, the most dedicated volunteers, rallies and vigils, petitions and the best field staff in the country in our continuing work to ensure adequate healthcare is available to all Americans, to promote green energy solutions, protect vital programs families depend on such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and fight for an economy that works for all Americans.”

How far such a PAC could go defending the interests of Hispanics is limited only by the dedication and hard work of the community itself.

Mexicans are rapidly approaching critical mass in the American Southwest.  How and when they finish reclaiming their stolen birthright will be a pivotal event in the history of 21st century America.

One thing is undeniable -- Mexicans are a resilient people whose remarkable history is still unfolding.

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(Author’s note: For an in-depth history of the relationship between the United States and Mexico see Stolen Birthright: The U.S. Conquest and Exploitation of the Mexican People.)

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iQuoted by Tornel, see note ii.

ii“Relations Between Texas, the United States, and the Mexican Republic”, Tornel’s unflinching account of the causes and consequences of the conflict was translated by Carlos E. Castañeda in 1928 and published in The Mexican Side of the Texas Revolution.  Almost all of the Anglo commentators on the events of the times and subsequent developments have been apologists for US imperialism.

iiiFor an excellent history of the oppression that Mexican Americans suffered in the American Southwest and their efforts to defend their communities, see Civil-Rights Movement.

ivThe Dream Act, pending federal legislation that would allow qualifying undocumented youth to become eligible for a 6 year long conditional path to citizenship that requires completion of a college degree or two years of military service, is an important initiative on this critical issue.

vThe following discussion is based on data published by the US Census Bureau and the Pew Hispanic Center.