The U. S. Conquest and Exploitation of the Mexican People
Richard D. Vogel
(Permission to copy granted.)
A ghost from the past is haunting America. But this ghost is no phantasm—it is the emergence of millions of Mexicans and Mexican Americans, descendants of the people who were dispossessed of their land and denied their birthright in the southwestern United States, who are growing in power and hungering for justice.
The present population of Mexico is about 105 million people with a full 40 percent living in poverty. There are an additional 23 million residents of Mexican origin (including at least 8.8 million Mexican-born) in the United States. Almost 73 percent of them live in the border states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas—originally Mexican territory. Beginning in the late 1980’s, and continuing into the 1990’s there has been a significant migration of Mexicans into new areas of the U.S. as the demand for their vital labor power has grown. In the past twenty years, nearly 9 million Mexicans have migrated, both legally and illegally, to the United States in search of a better life. The current estimate of undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. is between 3 and 4 million with another 300,000 to 400,000 crossing the border each year. And there is no end of the migration in sight. Mexico’s National Population Council predicts that the Mexican-born population in the U.S. will at least double by 2030, reaching 16 to 18 million.
Mexican immigrants work the most dangerous and lowest paid jobs in America. Seventy-two percent of all legal Mexican immigrants and 91 percent of all illegal Mexican immigrants work in low-paying blue-collar or service occupations. Despite their thrift and hard work, 61 percent of all legal Mexican immigrants and their U.S. born children and 74 percent of all illegal Mexican immigrants and their U.S. born children live at or under the U.S. poverty level. The current average annual income for legal Mexican immigrants is 57 percent that of white Americans, while illegal immigrants have to live on only 41 percent. Even after 20 years of working in the U.S., the income of Mexican immigrants is less than 60 percent that of white workers. But despite their economic status in America, year after year they continue to send a significant share of their earnings back to relatives in Mexico.
Mexican citizens who cross the border legally every day to work, shop, or visit family line up at checkpoints on the militarized border that partitions their original homeland: Tijuana/San Diego, Mexicali/Calexio, Nogales/Nogales, Agua Prieta/Douglas, Ciudad Juárez/El Paso, Ciudad Acuña/Del Rio, Piedras Negras/Eagle Pass, Nuevo Laredo/Laredo, Reynosa/McAllen, and Matamoros/Brownsville. An estimated 1 million people a day legally cross the border in both directions. The largest border crossing in the world is at Tijuana/San Diego where an estimated 50,000 people live on one side of the international boundary and work on the other. The Ciudad Juárez/El Paso crossing is almost as busy. Presently, 12 million people live along the Mexico-U.S. border, and the population is expected to double in the next ten years.
Between official points of entry, the U.S. Border Patrol, the U.S. Coast Guard, occasional units from the U.S. Army and Air Force, numerous state and local police agencies (including the notorious Texas Rangers), gangs of Anglo vigilantes, and armed landowners patrol the international border to check the flow of desperate Mexican migrants.
Mexicans who attempt illegal crossings also face formidable man-made and natural obstacles. Miles of concrete and steel barriers erected to block their passage have diverted the flow of immigrants from the safer areas near civilization into the wastelands of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts and deserted stretches of the broad and treacherous Rio Grande. Though the border is monitored 24 hours a day by surveillance cameras, night-vision scopes, and seismic sensors, the migrants get through. Unknown numbers of Mexican immigrants die of heat exposure or drowning every year. Scores more die or are injured in traffic and railroad accidents. The toll taken on the travelers by traffickers, vigilantes, and common criminals goes unreported. Over a million Mexicans are turned back annually, but, because there is little economic opportunity in Mexico, many return to try again. American border watchers estimate that it would take an army of 20,000 Border Patrol Agents and an expanded system of formidable fences and other barriers to stem the flow of Mexicans who brave illegal crossings.
The unstoppable migration from Mexico to the U.S. is one the largest movements of workers and their families in the modern age. This mass migration from the underdeveloped South to the affluent North is the specter from the past that is haunting America.
To be sure, there are other ghosts of history still lingering the U.S. There are the shades of the Native American nations—people exterminated or driven to the edge of extinction for their land and exiled to the wastelands of America. And there are the African American people, mostly descendents of the survivors of slavery, some assimilated, even prospering, and many, their cheap labor no longer needed by U.S. capitalism because of its global runaway shops, ghettoized in the cities or incarcerated in the vast prison system of America. These people, too, hunger for justice. But it is the Mexican people who present a unique challenge to American capitalism, a system of exploitation that has historically targeted national minorities in its unrelenting quest for profit.
Two elemental factors have affected the history of Mexicans in the U.S.: first, unlike both the African American and Native American people, they have had sanctuaries—the borderlands of the American Southwest and Mexico itself—places to recuperate from the relentless exploitation and regenerate, and, second, their labor power remains essential to American capitalism. These two factors have saved the Mexican people from the dismal fate of so many Native and African Americans.
Mexicans and Mexican Americans have endured over a century and a half of exploitation and oppression and are emerging as a powerful force—a force that is already changing the social, economic, and political landscape of North America. Stolen Birthright: The U.S. Conquest and Exploitation of the Mexican People is a history of the expropriation of over one half of the landmass of the republic of Mexico by the United States and the historic and continuing exploitation of that country and its people. Contrary to the official histories written on both sides of the border, this inquiry leads to an affirmation of the Mexican people.
Part I: Conquest
“The right of conquest has no foundation other than the right of the strongest.”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract
Land and Wealth
The production and division of wealth are the cornerstones of every human community. The economic base of a society determines how and where people live and work, what they eat and wear, with whom they form relationships and the nature of their social interaction, and their health, education, and welfare. Societies are rich or poor because of a variety of factors: the abundance or scarcity of natural resources, the demographics of the population, the culture and technology of the community, but, historically, the primary sources of the wealth of nations have been land and labor.
During the early 19th century, when the conflict between the United States and Mexico began, most wealth was produced by agriculture and arable land was in great demand. The United States, a new nation then, was growing geometrically. The initial population of less than 4 million in 1776 had increased to 7 million in 1810 and nearly 13 million by 1830. It was largely a population of poor European immigrants who were hungry for land. Territorial expansion, held in check by the British government before the American Revolution, became a juggernaut after independence, crushing the indigenous population in its path and challenging the claims of all other nations on the North American continent.
The early immigrants, predominately Anglos, displaced the indigenous peoples by force and legal manipulation. In addition to the overt wars against the Native Americans, the Anglo-Americans undermined Native culture by degrading the status of the land from being the foundation of the community to just another marketable commodity. The indigenous practice of communal trusteeship of land was replaced by the concept of land as private property. Native people who were not swept aside by the first wave of invading Anglos were granted title to a fragment of their ancestral land and evicted shortly thereafter. The armed forces of the various states and the national government enforced these land expropriations. Resistance to the Anglo takeover was severely punished and, in many instances, resulted in genocide. Alienated from their communal lands, the indigenous people fell into rapid decline. Their fate was sealed when attempts to enslave them and exploit their labor power on Anglo-owned plantations failed. Of no use to the new masters of the land, the native people of America were either removed to reservations or exterminated.
The 19th century was the era of the great American land-grab. Northern capitalists and mid-western land speculators exploited the demands of poor European immigrants for subsistence farms by concocting the myth of Manifest Destiny (the claim that white people had the exclusive right to occupy North America) and promoting the invasion and occupation of the American West. Southern land speculators and slaveholders, who sought large tracts of land for the establishment of plantations, dominated and directed territorial expansion in the South and Southwest. Profiteering from land sales to poor freemen and agricultural commodity production utilizing slave labor created immense fortunes. Many of the richest and most powerful Americans of the time, including many U.S. presidents, profited from both forms of exploitation.
To the people of Mexico both the practice of land speculation and the institution of slavery were anathemas. Like their indigenous neighbors to the north, most Mexicans never treated land as a commodity, and, as early as 1810, Father Hidalgo, the patriarch of Mexican independence, advocated death to any man who would enslave another. It is this contradiction—irreconcilable views on the basic issues of land and slavery—that brought the Anglos and Mexicans into conflict and ultimately led to the invasion and conquest of Mexico.
U.S. Imperialism in the South and Southwest
The United States conducted an extended campaign of territorial acquisition against its southern neighbors in three premeditated and ruthless military operations—the expropriation of Florida from Spain in 1819, the covert political and military machinations in Texas that ultimately led to annexation in 1845, and the infamous War of the United States on Mexico in 1846 that ended with the ignoble Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The Gadsden Treaty of 1854, secured by bribery and extortion, transferred even more Mexican territory into U.S. hands. The great American land-grab was one of the most successful in history—by the end of this thirty-five year period the United States had stolen more than 2.6 million square kilometers (over one million square miles) of land and the birthright of the Mexican people. The driving force of American imperialism in the South and Southwest was to establish an empire for the institution of slavery.
An Empire for Slavery
Andrew Jackson—Indian exterminator, land speculator, U.S. Senator, seventh President of the United States, and lifetime slaveholder—was the Machiavellian champion of the southern U.S. slave empire that inevitably came into open conflict with Mexico. The expansion of slavery required increasingly more land and the territory occupied by the Indian nations of the Southeast became the slaveholders’ first target. Jackson’s takeover strategy was simple but effective. First, land-hungry immigrants would be encouraged to settle in the coveted territory. When these settlements met resistance from the indigenous inhabitants, military force would be used to punish the defenders and force them to cede their land to the United States. As soon as a treaty was in effect, the government would turn the land over to the slaveholders and speculators who would reserve the best parcels for plantations and sell the rest at exorbitant prices to the hoard of poor European immigrants that would flood into the new territory.
Jackson implemented his takeover strategy during the Creek War of 1813-14. Under steady assault from whites in their native homelands, the Upper Creek indigenous nation began to fight back, raiding the encroaching settlements. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that runaway slaves found sanctuary with the Upper Creeks and often joined the ranks of their warriors. Jackson, then a general in the U.S. Army, organized and led a punitive expedition against the Upper Creek nation. At the culminating Battle of Horseshoe Bend, he pitted his army of 3,300 well-armed U.S. Army regulars, state militiamen, and both Cherokee and Lower Creek allies, against 1,000 Upper Creek warriors who were making a final stand to defend their homeland. The Upper Creeks fought bravely, but over 800 of them were slaughtered. In the aftermath of the battle, Jackson forced his Lower Creeks allies, as well as the defeated Upper Creeks, to sign a treaty with the United States that surrendered nearly 8 million hectares (20 million acres) of land in what later became the slave states of Alabama and Georgia. It was also at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend that Jackson noticed a wounded young lieutenant named Sam Houston whom he adopted as a protégé and who would later become an undercover agent in Jackson’s scheme to steal Texas from Mexico and add it to the U.S. empire of slavery.
The expansion of slavery into Florida was the driving force behind the First Seminole War of 1817. The inhabitants of northern Florida, the Seminoles, were themselves refugees from Anglo oppression and wholeheartedly offered sanctuary to fugitive slaves. These runaways established their own villages among the indigenous population and became known as Black Seminoles. Their freedom and prosperity were intolerable to southern slaveholders who demanded the return of their human property. Again General Jackson mobilized his troops and championed the cause.
Jackson invaded the Spanish territory of Florida in 1817 with three goals: to capture and return the Black Seminoles to their former owners, to encourage immigrants and poor southern whites to occupy the land, and to harass the Spanish in preparation for an impending U.S. takeover. General Edmund P. Gaines, another future player in Jackson’s scheme to steal Texas, had pursued runaway slaves into Florida the year before. When the Black Seminoles surrounded at Fort Negro on the Apalachicola River refused to surrender to Gaines, he shelled the fort with heavy artillery, killing over 300 men, women, and children. At the conclusion of his brutal siege, Gaines returned the survivors of the massacre to their former masters.
Jackson’s campaign in Florida was much more ambitious than Gaines’s brutal foray. Jackson staged his invasion from Fort Scott and established a fortified base at Fort Negro. From there, he marched his army to St. Marks and seized the Spanish fort where he arrested a Scotsman by the name of Alexander Arbuthnot who traded with the Seminoles and whom Jackson suspected was an English spy. Two days later, Jackson headed for his next objective, Suwannee, the feared and fabled mecca for runaway slaves. He was exasperated when he got there—forewarned, his prey had vanished into the safe haven of the deep swamp. Jackson blamed his failure on the Scotsman Arbuthnot and an Englishman named Robert C. Ambrister and summarily hanged them both. Although Jackson’s brash action sparked an international uproar and he was brought up on charges in the U.S. House of Representatives, his imperialistic adventures had strong backing in the U.S. and he was exonerated.
Jackson failed to recover or punish any runaway slaves in the First Seminole War, but his harassment of Spain was successful. Faced with the prospect of losing Florida to the land-hungry Americans without any compensation, Spanish foreign minister Luis de Onís signed a treaty with the Secretary of State John Quincy Adams in 1819 ceding Florida to the U.S. in return for official recognition of Spanish claims to Texas, California, and the vast territory of New Mexico. The acquisition of Florida added 151,670 square kilometers (58,560 square miles) to the American empire of slavery and another 34,817 square kilometers (13,443 square miles) to the American West. Thirteen years later, as President of the United States, Jackson would subvert the Adams-Onís Treaty in order to expand the empire of slavery into Texas.
Stephen F. Austin, founder of the first Anglo-American colony in Texas, was well aware of the danger that the liberal Mexican republic presented to the U.S. empire of slavery. In a letter written to his cousin, Mary Austin Holley, on the eve of the Texas insurrection against Mexico, Austin confided his ambitions for the Mexican territory:
Texas must be a slave country. It is no longer a matter of doubt. The interest of Louisiana requires that it should be, a population of fanatical abolitionists in Texas would have a very pernicious and dangerous influence on the overgrown slave population of that state…. A great immigration from Kentucky, Tennessee etc, each man with his rifle or musket, would be of great use to us—a very great use indeed.… To conclude—I wish a great immigration this fall and winter from Kentucky and Tennessee, every where, passports or no passports, any how. For fourteen years I have had a hard time of it, but nothing shall daunt my courage or abate my exertions to complete the main object of my labors—to Americanize Texas. This fall, and winter, will fix our fate—a great immigration will settle the question.
In Texas, the Mexican dream of a democratic republic that would include Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans—a dream that came to life after independence from Spain in 1821—clashed with the nightmare of a racist Anglo-American society founded on exploitation and slavery and bent on expansion and the eradication of all opposition. The Anglo invaders of Texas later canonized as revolutionary heroes were a gang of land speculators, slaveholders, slave traders, and Indian killers. Austin, the first of the land speculators in Texas, took slaves with him when he immigrated there in 1821 and did more than any other American to establish and defend the institution of slavery in Mexican Texas. James Walker Fannin, who established a slave plantation at Velasco and commanded the presidio at Goliad under a bloody pirate flag, was personally involved in the illegal African slave trade from Cuba. James Bowie, the notorious knife-fighter and murderer, was a land speculator and unscrupulous slave trader who made his fortune by subverting the ban on the slave trade in the U.S. Bowie bought captured slaves from the pirate Jean Laffite in Galveston and sold them for immense profit in Louisiana and Mississippi. William Barret Travis, later commander of the ill-fated Anglo garrison at the Alamo, entered Texas illegally and, immediately upon his arrival, began trading in slaves. As an attorney, he attempted to secure the return of runaway slaves from Louisiana who had been granted asylum in the Mexican fort at Anahuac. David (Davy) Crockett, former U.S. congressman and Indian killer who had participated in the massacre of the Creek town of Tallussahatchee under Andrew Jackson, went to Texas seeking his fortune in land speculation. And last, but not least, there was Sam Houston, who entered Texas in 1832 as an undercover agent for Jackson (who had been elected President of the U.S. in 1828) and was rewarded handsomely for his part in the American takeover of Texas—he became a wealthy landowner and slaveholder with an illustrious political career in the Republic of Texas and, after annexation, as a U.S. Senator from the State of Texas.
The strategy employed to steal Texas was the one tested and proven in the Southeast and Florida—first to occupy and then to seize political control by threat or force of arms. Mexico fell into the trap when it opened Texas to immigration in 1821 by granting contracts to empresarios (Austin was the first Anglo-American empresario) who were to settle the land and supervise the immigrants. At that time, the U.S. economy was in a deep depression, and the prospect of inexpensive land attracted new immigrants and poor Americans to Texas where the head of a family, male or female, could claim 1,865 hectares (4,605 acres) of land at a total cost of $184 (about four cents per acre) payable in six years. This contrasted sharply with the cost of undeveloped land in U.S. territory at the time—$1.25 per acre for 80 acres ($100), payable to the land speculators at the time of purchase.
Mexico’s land offers were more than generous, but there were strict limitations on the immigrants—Mexican law required them to actually work the land and specifically prohibited land speculation. Initially, the law allowed immigrants to bring slaves with them, but it declared that children born to slaves in Mexican territory would be free at the age of fourteen. The law also prohibited slave trading in Mexican territory. When Austin received a permit to settle 300 families in Texas in 1821, the floodgate was opened, not only to Anglo-American immigration, but to slavery and land speculation as well. By 1829 the free population of Texas was approximately 20,000, and the slave population numbered about 1,100.
The Anglo colonists in Texas were divided into two camps—the majority were subsistence farmers and ranchers willing to live and work with their Mexican neighbors. These colonists were, by and large, loyal Federalists who wanted to establish an independent state within the Mexican republic. The minority camp of Anglo colonists—the slave owners and land speculators—feared for their fortunes under Mexican law and saw annexation by the United States to be their only hope.
General José María Tornel, who investigated Texas for the Mexican government in 1828-29, saw trouble coming and identified the danger posed by the lawless Anglo immigrants. He knew how important the rich territory was to the future of the Mexican people and clearly understood the corrupting influence of slavery and land speculation: “The land speculators of Texas have tried to convert it into a mart of human flesh where the slaves of the South might be sold and others from Africa might be introduced, since it is not possible to do it directly through the United States.” Mexican President Guerrero’s subsequent edict of 1829, abolishing slavery in the republic, galvanized the Anglo slaveholders and land speculators and paved the way for open insurrection.
Help was waiting for the conspirators in the U.S. White House. President Jackson, who could not aid the conspiracy openly because of the raging debate over slavery in the United States and the legal restraint of the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819, initiated the first covert action against a foreign nation in U.S. history. To execute his plan he utilized Sam Houston, his political protégé and agent inside Texas and General Edmund P. Gaines, now the military commander of the Southwest Division of the U. S. Army.
Jackson’s Texas scheme was a refinement of the strategy that he developed in Florida. After Mexico repeatedly refused to sell Texas to the U.S., Jackson laid the foundation for his covert takeover plan by openly asserting that the Adams-Onís Treaty had been written incorrectly and that the actual border between the United States and Mexico was not the Sabine River (which was clearly marked as the international boundary on the original treaty map) but the Neches River 139 kilometers (86 miles) to the west. Jackson’s agents openly encouraged Americans to occupy this “disputed” territory. If the Mexican army could be lured across the Neches, Jackson would order General Gaines to cross the Sabine to engage the enemy in order to “protect American lives and territory”. The war would be on and the U.S. would begin the conquest, not only of Texas, but also as much of Mexico as the army could seize. The vast Mexican lands of Upper California and New Mexico, in addition to Texas, had long been coveted prizes.
The political situation was already tense in 1832 when Sam Houston, coming directly from a meeting with President Jackson in Nashville, entered Texas and immediately joined the faction of Anglo colonists advocating war with Mexico. He set up a law practice in Nacogdoches and became a delegate to the colonists’ Convention of 1833. For the next two years, he agitated unrelentingly for war. Under intense pressure from other Jackson confederates, the Consultation of 1835, the second convention of the colonists, appointed Houston to the post of Major General and authorized him to organize a regular army and prepare it for war.
The showdown with Mexico came when General Santa Anna crossed the Rio Grande at the head of the Mexican army to quell the mounting insurrection in the North. Contrary to Texas legend, Houston had no intention of fighting Santa Anna—his job was to bait him. As soon as Houston took command of the Texas army at Gonzales, he ordered a retreat. News of the defeat of the Anglo garrison at the Alamo and rumors that Santa Anna intended to free all of the slaves in Texas and encourage them to occupy the lands of their former masters precipitated a mass exodus towards Louisiana. In what became known as The Runaway Scrape, the panicked Texans, under the shepherding of Houston, drove their cattle and slaves towards Nacogdoches, located across the Neches River and inside Jackson’s “disputed” territory.
As soon as President Jackson received a dispatch on the situation in Texas, he ordered General Gaines to muster his forces and prepare to cross the Sabine. Gaines was ready. He had scouted the site of his ambush carefully—San Augustine, located 45 kilometers (28 miles) insideMexican territory. The fate of Texas—perhaps all of Mexico—would be decided in battle deep in the dense pine forest 58 kilometers (36 miles) east of Nacogdoches. The odds were in Gaines’s favor; Santa Anna’s troops would be exhausted from the long march and operating in unfamiliar terrain, while Gaines’s troops were fresh and armed with superior weapons. In addition, Gaines would enjoy the tactical advantages of cover and surprise.
The trap was set and baited but never sprung. The Texas colonists in The Runaway Scrape discovered Jackson’s plan. They realized that if they followed Houston to Nacogdoches the control of Texas would fall into the hands of the President and his cabal of slaveholders and land speculators. When the Texas militia spurned Houston and turned back to confront Santa Anna, he had no choice but to follow them. The defeat of the Mexican Army at San Jacinto sealed the fate of Texas. Shortly after the surrender of Santa Anna, the land speculators and slaveholders of Texas called for immediate annexation by the U.S., but their call went unanswered because of the opposition by abolitionist forces in the U.S. Senate. Texas would not officially become part of the U.S. empire of slavery for another nine years.
The Texas land grab was frenzied. Granting Mexican land to whites had begun a month before the Battle of San Jacinto. Under the Constitution of 1836, all heads of families living in Texas on March 4, 1836, “except Africans, descendents of Africans, and Indians”, were granted 1,865 hectares (4,605 acres) of land, while single men were granted, 598 hectares (1,476 acres). In the following year, the Republic of Texas parceled out more land as the spoils of war—2.6 square kilometers (one square mile) of land was granted to each and all persons who had participated in the Battle of San Jacinto, men who had been wounded the day before, or those who has been detailed to guard the baggage train. Additional bounty warrants were granted to all men who had participated in the siege of Bexar, either of the two Goliad campaigns, the battle of the Alamo, or to their survivors. Later laws provided generous land grants to attract new settlers and encourage slavery. Despite the disputed borders to the west and south, the Texas insurrection transferred another one million square kilometers (over 390,000 square miles) of Mexican territory into Anglo hands.
The seizure of Texas proved to be a boon to the southern empire of slavery. Although there is no reliable census of the Anglo population in early Texas, tax rolls indicate that the slave population expanded from an estimated 5,000 in 1836 to 22,555 in 1845, an increase of over 450 percent. Just five years later, in1850, slaves outnumbered freemen in six east Texas counties and represented between 25 and 50 percent of the population in 29 others. By 1861, when Texas seceded from the United States and joined the Confederacy, the slave population, which had grown more rapidly than that of free citizens, was approaching 200,000.
The Dispossessed: Exile and Repatriation
The Mexican population that remained in the Texas republic faced open hostility and the constant threat of violence. Many families were forced to abandoned their land, cattle, and possessions and flee for their lives. Regardless of their social status, no Mexicans in the territory were safe. The family of Martìn De León, empresario and founder of the prosperous Mexican colony at Victoria on the lower Guadalupe River, fled to Louisiana after Agapito, one of the sons, was murdered by Mabry B. “Mustang” Gray, who was caught rustling De León cattle, and, Fernando, another son, was wounded in a similar confrontation. Other prominent Mexican residents of Victoria, including the Benavides and Carbajal, families were driven from their farms and ranches into exile.
Juan Seguín, who had organized the Mexican unit of the Texas militia that served as a the rear guard of Sam Houston’s retreating army and fought bravely at the battle of San Jacinto and who was the only Mexican to serve in the senate of the Texas republic, came under Anglo assault and eventually had to flee to safety in Mexico and take his family with him. By the end of the 1840’s over 200 prominent Spanish families that had lived in San Antonio since the early 1800’s, were gone, their properties seized by whites. The only sanctuary for refugees in the interim republic was in the Mexican settlements along the Rio Grande, especially in the lower river valley.
Armed conflict between Mexico and Anglo-Texas continued throughout the period between the insurrection in 1836 and the invasion of Mexico ten years later. Mexico did not accept the loss of Texas, and the Texans sought to expand their territorial claims through military action. The Mexican army entered Texas in 1842 in an unsuccessful campaign to recover the lost territory, and the Anglo-Texans sent an expansionist expedition into the territory of New Mexico in 1841 that resulted in a fiasco at Santa Fe. Anglos also launched a punitive expedition into the Mexican state of Tamulipas in 1842 that ended in disaster at Ciudad Mier. Ultimately the fate of Texas was not sealed until the United States waged all-out war against Mexico in 1846-1848.
Slavery continued to be a hot issue on the southern frontier. Runaway slaves from the plantations of east Texas and Louisiana knew that freedom awaited them across the Rio Grande. And even though patrols of Texas Rangers, bounty hunters, armed vigilantes, and the natural barrier of the south Texas chaparral stood between them and freedom, the slaves continued to flee, often with the aid of sympathetic Mexicans. The runaways were granted asylum in Mexico and gunfights were not uncommon when gringo slave hunters crossed the river in pursuit of their fugitive prey. Continued pressure to defend and expand the southern empire of slavery was the primary factor in the U.S. decision to invade and conquer Mexico.
The U.S. War on Mexico
The United States War on Mexico of 1846-1848 was the first U.S. war of aggression against a sovereign nation and the defining event in U.S.-Mexico relations. The ruthlessness of the U.S. invasion shocked even the European nations that had been at war with their neighbors for centuries. Ulysses S. Grant, who served in Mexico under both Generals Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott, commanded the Union forces in the American Civil War, and later became the eighteenth President of the United States, unconditionally condemned the war in his Personal Memoirs. He denounced it, “…as one of the most unjust wars ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”
The U.S. War on Mexico was the culmination of a thirty-year campaign of rapacious American imperialism in the South and Southwest. This invasion was planned and executed by the U.S. to silence Mexico’s claim to Texas and to expropriate as much of the southern republic as it could seize by force of arms. It was the war on Mexico that Andrew Jackson failed to provoke in 1836. And last but not least, it was a war intended to extend the U.S. empire of slavery into Mexico. The southern U.S. slave aristocracy instigated and commanded the invasion. The U.S. President at the time, James K. Polk was a political protégé of Andrew Jackson. Both the President and General Zachary Scott, the supreme U.S. field commander, were from slaveholding families in the South. General Taylor, who initiated the invasion of Mexico and later became U.S. president himself, actually owned a slave plantation in Mississippi. The majority of the U.S. Army officers who served in Mexico was from the American South and, if not slave owners themselves, enthusiastically supported the institution. And although the conquest of Mexico did not ultimately extend the U.S. empire of slavery, it did guarantee the survival of the institution in Texas until the U.S. Civil War.
The U.S. War on Mexico was inevitable because Mexican officials absolutely refused to sell their northern territory despite repeated offers by the United States to buy it. Once the leaders of the U.S. finally understood that the Mexican people would never sell their birthright in North America, they were committed to war and sought a pretext to justify their aggression. Although Jackson’s “disputed” territory strategy failed in Texas in 1836, President Polk employed it to create a pretext for war in 1846. The “disputed” territory this time was the 145-kilometer (90 mile) wide strip of land between the Nueces River and Rio Grande in south Texas.
Historically, the Nueces, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico at Corpus Christi, was the northern border of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. President Polk urged the Republic of Texas to claim the Rio Grande, which runs south and roughly parallel to the Nueces and empties into the Gulf at Matamoros, as its southern boundary. Polk knew that Mexico would go to war over the annexation of Texas, and dispatched U.S troops under the command of General Taylor to Corpus Christi on the edge of the “disputed” territory. In his Personal Memoirs, Grant explained the mission of the U.S. Army in south Texas, “We were sent to provoke a fight, but it was essential that Mexico should commence it.” The plan worked. The U.S. annexed Texas in February of 1846, and Polk immediately ordered Taylor to proceed to the Rio Grande. One of Taylor’s patrols skirmished with a Mexican detachment and lost over twenty soldiers, including eleven dead, five wounded, and several captured.
Polk immediately called for war. In his bellicose message to the U.S. Congress, the President announced that, “American blood had been shed upon American soil”. To counter strong opposition to the war, Polk coupled his war bill to a law appropriating money to support Taylor and the soldiers who were imperiled by Mexican resistance. A “no” vote would be construed as a betrayal of the troops in the field.
Polk got his declaration of war.
The American strategy was to wage total war against the Mexican people that would only end with unconditional surrender. The U.S. Navy blockaded the ports of Mexico in order to isolate and weaken the nation while the Army conducted land operations. The initial invasion of the undefended northern territories of the republic was swift and Machiavellian. U.S. agents were sent ahead of the military forces to infiltrate Mexican communities and bribe key officials in order to divide and conquer. Where resistance to the invasion did occur, it was dealt with by draconian measures. To terrorize the population of New Mexico into submission, the U.S. Army shelled the ancient Pueblo de Taos and two leaders of the local resistance were captured and summarily executed—a guard murdered Tomás Baca, an Indian prisoner of war, before he could be brought before a military court, and Pablo Montoya, a citizen of Mexico, was illegally charged with treason to the U.S. and hanged.
From the beginning of the invasion, America’s overwhelming advantage was manifest—the U.S. possessed superior firepower that field commanders were willing to use against both military and civilian targets. The United States had been born in blood in 1776 and had been preparing for war since the U.S. Military Academy was established at West Point in 1802. After studying the results of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, the American high command realized that future conflicts would be decided by artillery and set about developing the latest in guns and tactics. The invasion of Mexico would serve as a proving ground for the new American war machine.
Superior firepower proved decisive in every major engagement of the U.S. War on Mexico. Equipped with inferior arms and insufficient supplies, Mexicans forces offered spirited resistance, but long-range artillery shells battered their fortifications and barrages of shrapnel and grapeshot mowed the defenders down. Despite heavy losses, the Mexican army was able to halt the American invasion in northern Mexico. It was the siege of Veracruz that broke the spirit of the Mexican republic.
The Siege of Veracruz
With American forces checked in the north, President Polk decided to strike at the heart of Mexico. Veracruz, the primary seaport on Mexico’s Gulf Coast and the gateway to Mexico City, was the initial target of General Scott’s campaign in the South. In America’s first major sea invasion, over 200 vessels landed more than 10,000 soldiers, three batteries of field artillery, and thousands of tons of ammunition and equipment on Mexican soil. Scott encircled the city of 15,000 people, including a garrison of 3,360 Mexican soldiers, cut off the food and water supplies, and began a devastating 21-day siege.
Unwilling to risk American lives in an infantry assault, General Scott decided to bombard Veracruz into submission with his massive artillery batteries. The cannonade commenced at 4:15 P.M. on March 22, 1847, when a barrage of 250-millimeter (10 inch) mortar shells from the shore batteries showered down on the Plaza de Armas in the center of the city. At 5:45 P.M. the U.S. assault was augmented by artillery fire from a flotilla of two steamers and four schooner-gunboats anchored safely a mile away near Point Hornos. To hasten the fall of the city, Scott had a naval battery of three12 kilogram (32 pound) cannons and three 200-millimeter (8 inch) guns brought ashore and put into position the following day. When the battery opened fire on the morning of the 24th the effects of the heavy cannon balls could be seen at once. The walls of the fortress at Veracruz began to crumble and shrapnel from the bursting shells raked both the military and civilian population inside the city. It was a terrible sight but the worst was yet to come.
The terror of the siege increased later in the day when American rocketeers launched forty Congreve’s rockets into the city in an attempt to set it on fire. On the 25th, they followed up with a barrage of ten new Hale rockets. Highly inaccurate, these experimental missiles rarely hit the intended targets but, upon impact, ricocheted randomly through the city streets causing many civilian causalities and substantial collateral damage.
The destruction and carnage inside the walls of Veracruz were extensive. Firing ceased temporarily at 5:00 P.M. on the 25th when a Mexican officer emerged under a flag of truce and delivered a proposal for the evacuation of the women and children from the city. Scott denied the request and resumed the bombardment that continued undiminished through the driving wind and rain of a particularly vicious storm that occurred during the night. On the morning of the 26th, Scott again refused a request to allow the evacuation of civilians but did begin negotiations for the capitulation of the city. He continued to demand unconditional surrender and got it on March 27.
Veracruz was in shambles. During the four-day bombardment, American shore artillery had fired 6,700 shot and shell, a total of over 173,000 kilograms (463,000 pounds) of munitions, into the city. Nearly one-third of the missiles (half of the total weight) were massive 250-millimeter (10 inch) mortar shells that impacted haphazardly or exploded in the air, showering razor-sharp shrapnel on soldiers and civilians alike. The American navy had fired another 1,800 rounds of heavy artillery at the city. The final tally of death and suffering at Veracruz was as lopsided as the battle itself. Mexican officials estimated 400 to 500 civilian and 600 military casualties inside the city—the Americans lost thirteen men killed and fifty-four wounded.
Captain Robert E. Lee, a young American artillery officer who would later command the Confederate forces during the American Civil War, participated in the siege of Veracruz and recorded his memories of the event:
The shells thrown from our battery were constant and regular discharges, so beautiful in their flight and so destructive in their fall. It was awful! My heart bled for the inhabitants. The soldiers I did not care so much for, but it was terrible to think of the women and children.
Captain Lee was not the only one horrified by the siege of Veracruz. The nations of Western Europe condemned both the savagery of the siege and the naked imperialism of the United States. But the U.S. wasn’t deterred by international outrage; the invasion immediately headed inland towards the heart of Mexico.
To The Halls of Montezuma: The Fall of Mexico City
After the fall of Veracruz, Scott directed his massive invasion force toward Mexico City. Mexican defenders engaged the American invaders at various points along the march but were always out-gunned and unable to stop the advance. Constant guerrilla harassment delayed Scott’s forces, but could not prevent the assault on the capital of the Mexican republic.
The fate of Mexico City was decided at Chapultepec castle, located 3 kilometers (2 miles) west of the city gates. In order to demoralize the Mexican defenders and terrorize the inhabitants of the nearby capital, Scott moved four artillery batteries into position and bombarded Chapultepec throughout the day of September 12, 1847. The ground assault began the next morning with a concentrated two-hour shelling of the castle, followed by a storm of grape, canister, and shrapnel aimed at the Mexican soldiers stationed outside the walls. Units from four U.S. Army divisions participated in the attack on the citadel that was defended by only 832 infantrymen plus some artillerymen and engineers and a handful of teenaged military college cadets. The castle fell on September 13th after a fierce hand-to-hand battle. Mexican causalities included many wounded whose throats were cut by the Americans and six youthful cadets of the military college at Chapultepec—Francisco Márquez, Agustín Melgar, Juan Escutia, Fernando Montes de Oca, Vicente Suárez, and Juan de la Barrera—who fought the good fight and leapt to their deaths from the tower of the citadel rather than surrender to the Americans. They became known as the legendary Los Niños Héroes, martyrs of the unrighteous war.
Los Niños were not the only martyrs to the Mexican cause who died at Chapultpec. At 9:30 A.M. on the last day of the siege, at the very moment that the American stars and stripes replaced the Mexican tri-color over the castle, U.S. Colonel William Selby Harney gave the order to hang thirty Irish-Americans and Irish immigrants of the Batallón de San Patricio who had deserted from the U.S. Army to fight on the Mexican side and had been captured at the Battle of Churubusco. The bodies of these men, who been kept waiting on the gallows in full view of the castle with nooses around their necks since dawn, were later cut down and buried by other San Patricios who had been flogged and branded. A marble plaque honoring these Irish- American soldiers overlooks the San Jacinto Plaza in the Mexico City suburb of San Angel.
After the fall of Chapultepec, Scott moved his forces to the gates of Mexico City proper where American artillery again won the day. Scott’s campaign of shock and terror worked—the citizens of Mexico City realized that they were at the mercy of an enemy who didn’t believe in mercy. On September 14th, in order to spare the city the fate of Veracruz and Chapultepec, Mexican authorities persuaded General Santa Anna to withdraw the Mexican army and appealed to the American general for favorable terms of capitulation. Scott, with his mighty guns aimed at the heart of Mexico, demanded unconditional surrender. Fully informed of the tragedy at Veracruz, and with the carnage of Chapultepec smoldering within sight, the Mexican officials yielded.
To celebrate the capture of Mexico City, Scott staged a triumphant military parade to the Grand Plaza the following day. When Mexican resistance fighters sniped at U.S. troops headed to the plaza, American artillerymen shelled the houses from which the fire originated with a 200-millimeter (8 inch) howitzer. Sporadic sniper fire against the invaders in the city continued until September 17th when the last resisters were rooted out and killed. Again, American artillery had prevailed—in the battle for the heart of Mexico the U.S. lost only 130 men compared to the deaths of over 3,000 Mexican defenders.
The war was essentially over, but resistance continued after the fall of the capital.
Mopping-up activities took several more months and claimed more Mexican lives. In Puebla, four thousand guerillas attacked the U.S. garrison and kept it under siege for twenty-eight days—but again the contest was decided by American firepower. Widespread acts of resistance continued but were ruthlessly suppressed. Throughout the entire U.S. campaign in Mexico, guerrilla actions against the invaders met tough measures—initially Scott had issued standing orders that local Mexican officials be held responsible for the apprehension and delivery to American forces of any and all Mexicans who killed or wounded Americans. If the guilty parties were not delivered, a $300 fine was levied on the personal property of the nearest mayor. After the fall of Mexico City, Scott toughened his policy against resistance even more. American soldiers were ordered to show no quarter—captured guerrilla suspects were to be put to death with “due solemnity” after a mock trial by three U.S. Army officers. These summary executions took place all over Mexico and helped extinguish the last flames of resistance.
Scott’s ruthless campaign that began in Veracruz and penetrated the Valley of Mexico to the Halls of Montezuma won the war. The Americans inflicted more than 7,000 casualties on the Mexican army and took over 3,700 prisoners. In addition, the invading army seized at least 75 cannon and 20,000 small arms, effectively disarming the young Mexican republic. American historians who chronicle the conquest do not offer estimates of the number of civilian casualties or the extent of the collateral damage of the U.S. War on Mexico.
Los Diablos Tejanos
No history of the U.S. conquest of Mexico is complete without an account of the atrocities committed by the notorious Texas Ranger companies, dubbed Los Diablos Tejanos by the Mexicans they terrorized. These paramilitary gangs conducted a campaign of death and destruction in the Mexican countryside that left a legacy of hate that survives to this day. The vast majority of the 700 Rangers who volunteered for service in Mexico were jobless desperados from the Texas frontier who would do anything for money. They were recruited and led by Texans who were seeking revenge for what they considered wrongs committed by Mexicans at the Alamo, Goliad, Santa Fe, and Mier.
Los Diablos killed and pillaged indiscriminately. Armed with the latest rifles and revolvers, and wielding vicious Bowie knives, the Rangers operated beyond the control of the U.S. Army from the day they reported for duty. Dispatched as scouts in northern Mexico by General Taylor, the Texas mercenaries roamed the countryside, raiding villages, plundering farms, and shooting or hanging unarmed Mexican citizens.
On July 9, 1846, George Gordon Meade, a young army officer who, like Grant and Lee, served as a general during the U.S. Civil War, wrote a scathing report on Ranger misconduct in his area of responsibility:
They have killed five or six innocent people walking in the street, for no other object than their own amusement…. They rob and steal the cattle and corn of the poor farmers, and in fact act more like a body of hostile Indians than civilized Whites. Their officers have no command or control over them.
The Corpus Christi Company of Texas Rangers under the command of “Mustang” Gray, the man who murdered Agapito De Léon at Victoria, was among the worst of Los Diablos. Dr. S. Compton Smith, an outspoken critic of the Texas Rangers, was unsparing in his denunciation of Gray and his company:
Texas Rangers…were mostly made up of adventurers and vagabonds…. The gang of miscreants under the leadership of Mustang Gray were of this description. This party, in cold-blood, murdered almost the entire male population of the rancho of Guadalupe, where not a single weapon, offensive or defensive, could be found! Their only object was plunder!
When General Taylor learned of the massacre at the rancho Guadalupe and other atrocities committed by the Rangers, he tried to rein in the Texas volunteers by threatening to arrest all 700 of them. The Rangers, to a man, ignored the general, and he backed off. After all, the reign of terror conducted by Los Diablos Tejanos against the Mexican peoplehelpedparalyze resistance to the invasion and aided in the conquest of Mexico.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
Mexico ultimately lost the war because of the ruthless application of superior firepower against both military and civilian targets by U.S. Army and Navy forces. It began as a war of attrition that American field commanders were willing to escalate into a war of annihilation. Hostilities officially ceased in late October of 1847, and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 2, 1848, formally ended the conflict. The U.S. War on Mexico secured Texas as part of the southern empire of slavery and took nearly half of the original territory of The Republic of Mexico as spoils of war. Mexico was forced to cede Upper California and the territory of New Mexico(later to become the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming) to the U.S.—a total land area of 1,370,154 square kilometers (529,017 square miles). Including the land of the Spanish cession and the annexation of Texas, by 1848 the U.S. had expropriated a total of 2,567,111 square kilometers (almost one million square miles) of land from its southern neighbor.
Lost to Mexico were the fertile coastal plains of Texas and California and the bountiful high plains of the Edwards and Colorado plateaus and the Llano Estacado, vast areas that have produced enormous wealth in minerals, oil, beef, cotton, corn, sugar, and other agricultural commodities. Gone were the fecund Central Valley in California, Gila River Valley in Arizona the Mesilla Valley in New Mexico, and Rio Grande Valley in Texas, cornucopias that would come to feed so much of the U.S. population. Stolen from the Mexican people were the treasures of the Sierra Nevada, the lower Rocky Mountains, and the upper portions of Sonora and Chihuahua that have produced copious amounts gold, silver, copper, and other minerals. Expropriated were the important rivers and abundant forests of the American Southwest. Annexed to the U.S. were the key seaports of California and Texas—San Francisco, San Pedro, San Diego, Port Isabel, Corpus Christi, and Galveston—all destined to become thriving centers of commerce and industry. Denied to Mexico were the important trade centers of Sonoma, Santa Clara, San Juan Bautista, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, San Fernando, Los Angeles, La Mesa, San Gabriel, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, El Paso, San Antonio, and Laredo—the Spanish names protest the theft.
And, for some Americans, half of Mexico was not enough. President Polk himself was disappointed in the final terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. He wanted to partition Mexico along the 26th parallel due west from the mouth of Rio Grande all the way to the Pacific Ocean, an annexation plan that would have included almost all of the current Mexican states of Coahuila, Chihuahua, Sonora (with its important seaport of Guaymas), and most of Baja California. Additionally, he wanted that area of Mexico lying east of the Sierra Madre Oriental down to, and including, the port of Tampico (the present Mexican states of Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas). Polk considered the coastal plains of Tamaulipas to be fertile ground for slave plantations. All in all, the U.S President coveted, and almost secured, another 886,000 square kilometers (336,000 square miles) of Mexico as spoils of war.
There were many North Americans who wanted even more than that. A powerful faction of U.S. politicians, land speculators, and northern capitalists called for the annexation and enslavement of all Mexico. On November 10, 1847 the Whig Party in the U.S. published its program for the defeated republic:
It is, therefore, declared, for the peace and quiet of this land, [Mexico] for the happiness of these people, and to end the effusion of human blood, that the United States, from this day forward, ends the war—assumes the entire conquest of Mexico—annexes it to the United States, and the people are required to repair to their respective homes, and there await the call of the proper authorities of their different States to organize their several State Constitutions, which, if Republican, will be accepted into the Union…. All in default, acting contrary to this manifesto, be traitors, whose lives and property will be confiscated.
Many of the American field commanders who participated in the invasion of Mexico supported total annexation. Brigadier General William J. Worth, a rabid expansionist and racist, was quite explicit:
That our race is finally destined to overrun the whole continent is too obvious to need proof…. After much reflection I have arrived at the conclusion that it is our decided policy to hold the whole of Mexico—The details of occupation are comparatively unimportant—I mean by occupation, permanent conquest and future annexation….
However, internal contradictions in the United States stymied the movement for the annexation of all Mexico. The issue of slavery continued to dog the U.S. Free soil advocates were afraid that the conquered nation would become slave territory and vehemently opposed annexation. Land speculators and northern capitalists were anxious to acquire all of Mexico and sell it for a profit as they had the American Midwest and South and sided with the annexationists. Slaveholders were split on the issue—some advocated unfettered expansion, while others feared that if all Mexico were annexed, it might be as free soil. The result was a bitter political struggle in the U.S. Senate. In the end, the expansion of slavery, which initially drove U.S. imperialism in the South and Southwest, was the issue that tipped the balance against the annexation of all Mexico.
The U.S. War on Mexico proved to be devastating enough without total annexation. The thirty-five year campaign against Spain and Mexico brought to a climax in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed slavery in Texas and expanded the United States from the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. Americans like to dress up the land-grab and call it “Manifest Destiny”, but history shows it for what it really was—naked aggression by a superior power that robbed the Mexican people of their birthright in North America and crippled the future of their young republic.
The Fate of the Conquered
The struggle for the ownership of the land in the stolen territories did not end with the conclusion of the war. Although the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo recognized the legitimacy of Spanish and Mexican land grants and offered the Mexican inhabitants in the ceded territories American citizenship, the influx of land-hungry and ruthless whites resulted in widespread oppression that sparked mass exile and repatriation. The exile of Mexican citizens from Texas that began after the Anglo takeover of 1836 intensified after the war in 1848. Besieged refugees abandoned their farms and ranches and moved across the Rio Grande to the old Mexican towns of Paso del Norte, Guerrero, Mier, Camargo, Reynosa, and Matamoros and established the new towns of Nuevo Laredo, Mesilla, and Guadalupe.
The Spanish-speaking population fared no better in post-war California. Descendents of the original Spanish settlers, known as Californios, faced problems similar to those of their compatriots in Texas and additional pressure from the gold rush of 1849 which attracted over 100,000 newcomers to the territory, including more than 80,000 whites from the U.S., 8,000 Mexicans from the state of Sonora, and 5,000 South Americans, mostly miners from Chile.
Much trouble in the goldfields of California stemmed from the fact that both the Sonorans and the Chileans were better miners than the whites and became targets of resentment and persecution. The Foreign Miners’ Tax Law of 1850, passed by the California legislature, required foreigners to buy mining permits for $20 a month (a huge sum of money in those days). The legislation was intended to make the Mexicans and Chileans abandon their claims and reduce them to the status of wage laborers. The law, however, proved to be unenforceable and the work of disenfranchisement had to be completed by white lynch mobs and gangs of gunmen. Several of the local and regional leaders of these gangs knew how to get the job done—they had been Rangers in Texas or the War on Mexico before joining the California gold rush.
Anglos in California denounced the Mexicans who fought back as bandits. The intensity of the local conflict is reflected in the legend of the bandit Joaquín Murieta, who created havoc in the Anglo community in revenge for the murder of his wife and brother and theft of his gold mine by Anglo claim jumpers. Whether or not Joaquín Murieta actually existed is not important—the historical cases of Juan Flores and Tiburcio Vásquez, bandidos caught and hanged by white vigilantes, are testimony to the desperation and rage of the dispossessed Mexicans in California.
Within a decade, most Chileans and many Mexicans in California were repatriated. The Mexican population that stayed in California, followed by their descendants and succeeding generations of new immigrants from Mexico, provided the labor power to develop the state’s wealth much as their compatriots in Texas did.
At first, the future of the Mexican population in the territory of New Mexico looked bright. Numerical superiority, representational government, and the rights guaranteed in The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo initially offered Mexicans the possibility to hold on to their land, but ultimately the Anglo ranchers, land speculators, and eastern and foreign capitalists won out. After two decades of lynching, land wars, and lawsuits, most native New Mexicans, like their compatriots in Texas and California, found themselves displaced and landless.
The Gadsden Purchase: Back For More
Not satisfied with the vast territorial concessions of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the U.S. demanded more land from Mexico in 1852. The discovery of gold in California renewed American interest in what remained of Mexican territory in the Southwest. Knowing that silver and gold are often found near deposits of common metals, American capitalists and speculators set their sights on the northern states of Sonora and Chihuahua which both had rich deposits of copper. The boundary set by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had left Mexico in possession of the Santa Rita copper mine in upper Chihuahua and other known copper deposits across northern Sonora. In addition, the flat land south of the Gila River would provide an easy route for a southern U.S. trans-continental railroad. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, like the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819, stood in the way of American profiteers and had to be broken.
U.S. President Franklin Pierce appointed James Gadsden, a wealthy railroad tycoon from the South, as Minister to Mexico and sent him to negotiate armed with a carrot and a sword. The carrot included a purchase offer of up to $25 million for the land and a $200,000 bribe for Santa Anna, then president of the prostrate republic. The sword was the threat of another invasion.
The sword was poised to strike. Again, the U.S. employed the strategy that had proven so successful in Florida and Texas—Anglo immigrants had been infiltrating across the Rio Grande and settling in the Mesilla Valley in the state of Chihuahua since the end of the war. Before Gadsden began negotiations, American soldiers were moved upstream from El Paso to a strategic position where they could quickly cross the river to “protect American lives”. Santa Anna was aware of the situation in the Mesilla Valley. Knowing the ruthlessness of the Anglos and not immune to personal bribes, he took the money and instructed his ministers to sign whatever terms that the American Minister offered.
Gadsden returned to Washington with a treaty that cut deeply into remaining Mexican territory. This new treaty moved the international boundary from the Gila River approximately 200 kilometers (125 miles) south to its present location. This radical surgery cut off the tops of the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora, transferring another 78,000 square kilometers (30,000 square miles) of the Mexican republic to the United States. The U.S. ended up paying only fifty-three cents an acre for the land that became part of the states of New Mexico and Arizona. Santa Anna’s sell-out so enraged the citizens of Mexico that he was ousted from office and had to spend the next twenty years of his life in exile.
As in the case of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, there were many powerful Americans who wanted to exploit the weakness of Mexico to take more. Gadsden had compelled the Mexican government to sign three drafts of the treaty. The first draft, the one that Gadsden and his rich cronies lobbied for, set the international boundary on the 30th parallel from a point in the middle of the Rio Grande 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of the present Ojinaga-Presidio river crossing due west to the Gulf of California. This draft also ceded all of Baja California to the U.S. and would have swallowed up approximately 341,000 square kilometers (132,000 square miles) more than the draft that was finally adopted. The same issue that had foiled the annexation of all of Mexico likewise defeated the most onerous draft of the Gadsden Treaty—the expansion of the southern empire of slavery in the U.S.
The Gadsden Treaty ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1854 completed the American land-grab in the American Southwest. By the end of the thirty-five year campaign against Spain and Mexico, the United States had dismembered her sister republic to the south, stealing more than 2.6 million square kilometers (over one million square miles) of land. In modern context, the final damage assessment to Mexico is staggering—over one third (33.8 percent) of the land area of the lower forty-eight U.S. states is former Mexican or Spanish territory. Subtracting the land ceded by Spain still leaves over 31 percent of the land of the lower forty-eight U.S. states originally belonging to Mexico.
The Gadsden Treaty ended the great American land-grab but did not end the exploitation of Mexico. From the end of the war in 1848 to the present day, the U.S. has used its dominant position to systematically plunder the resources of its southern neighbor and exploit the labor power of the Mexican people.
Part II: Exploitation
Mexico never had a chance to recover from the war of 1846-1848. The brutal military conquest not only denied the people of Mexico their birthright in the Southwest, but it permanently crippled the economy, social structure, and culture of the surviving southern portion of the republic. In addition to the actual injury of the war, during the century and a half since the conquest the U.S. has used its position of power to subordinate Mexico to its own predatory interests, systematically plundering the resources of its southern neighbor, utilizing it as a private market for U.S. products and investment capital, and relentlessly exploiting the labor of the Mexican people. The exploitation of Mexican workers as a reserve army of labor for U.S. capitalism has been especially onerous. The labor repression and exploitation that was initiated soon after the military conquest of 1848 continues to this very day.
Capital and Labor
In capitalist economies, private capital employs wage labor to produce commodities for the market. Some production costs, such as the price of raw material, rent, taxes, etc., are relatively fixed costs. The cost of labor, on the other hand, can vary widely for a number of reasons. In most industries labor is a significant element of production, and, therefore, the cost of labor determines the profitability of those enterprises. The price paid for wage labor is, therefore, the basis of struggle between the working class that lives by the sale of its labor power and the capitalist class that owns the means of production and hires the workers. Wage laborers try to maximize wages, most effectively through collective bargaining and, if necessary, by striking. Capitalists, on the other hand, embrace anything that drives down the cost of labor. Among the tactics historically used by employers are: union busting, strike breaking, replacing workers by machines, dividing the workers against each others by race, age, gender, or ethnicity, and, locating production in regions where the cost of labor is low. To keep wages as low as possible and profits up, capitalism establishes and maintains a reserve army of labor—marginal workers who are hired during periods of economic expansion, paid substandard wages, and fired during economic downturns.
American capitalism has used Mexican workers as a reserve army of labor since the conquest. The proximity of the Mexican labor pool to points of production insures a plentiful supply of workers during boom times and facilitates repatriation during economic downturns. The international border is no barrier to this exploitation—U.S. capitalism targets Mexican workers in both countries. As migrants working in the U.S., or as employees of American firms in Mexico, Mexican workers have been excluded from minimum wage requirements, health care benefits, workman’s compensation insurance, and social security plans. Moreover, government health and safety regulations have failed to protect them, while the education and social services that they and their families have received in both Mexico and the U.S. have been minimal. Because of these inferior wages and working conditions, Mexican labor has been a source of enormous superprofits (profits obtained over and above those squeezed out of native workers) for American capitalism.
The American bourgeoisie has jealously guarded these superprofits. At the end of the nineteenth century, U.S. companies regularly enlisted the aid of hired thugs, local law enforcement officials, and state agencies like the Texas and Arizona Rangers to protect their superprofits through the overt suppression of Mexican labor. Since the early 20th century, American capitalists have relied on the federal government to regulate the reserve army of Mexican labor. The U.S Border Patrol was founded in 1924 to control immigrant labor and continues to act as a gatekeeper for U.S. capitalism, opening and closing the border to Mexican workers as the needs of the U.S. economy dictate. Immigration law and government policy have alternatively encouraged Mexican workers to immigrate or subjected them to mass repression and deportation to meet the needs of U.S. capitalism. Furthermore, in order to insure a cheap supply of Mexican labor, the U.S. government has periodically intervened in the domestic politics of Mexico.
Trabajadores del Norte
Large-scale exploitation of Mexican labor began with the U.S. annexation of northern Mexico. Between 1850 and 1880, more than 55,000 Mexican workers migrated to the U.S. to become field hands in regions that had originally been Mexican territory. Significant numbers of Mexican workers were also employed in the U.S. mining and railroad industries. In fact, 60 percent of the miners and railway crews in the American West and Southwest during this period were Mexicans. From the very beginning, both the wages and working conditions of Mexican workers in the U.S. were well below those of white workers.
Anglo settlers and capitalists flooded into the annexed territory, and by 1860, just six years after the Gadsden Purchase, the new economic order of the American Southwest was already established with Mexican workers and their families at the bottom. Although both the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Gadsden Purchase guaranteed pre-war property rights, most Mexican landowners lost their property and either repatriated or sank into the ranks of the Mexican working class of the Southwest. Like their landless immigrant compatriots, they had to earn their living as wage laborers—carpenters, blacksmiths, freighters, servants, miners, manual laborers, or field hands—and, always and everywhere, at wages less than those paid to white workers.
Mexican workers proved to be essential to the expansion of cattle ranching and agricultural production from California to Texas. Indeed, Mexican labor fueled the southwestern agricultural revolution that took place between 1900 and 1920 and contributed to America’s overall development. However, it was World War I that spiked the demand for Mexican labor in the U.S.
World War I and the Demand for Mexican Labor
World War I began a contest among the imperial powers of Western Europe over the exploitation and division of the world. The industrial revolution and development of capitalism demanded access to raw materials and markets around the world and brought the industrialized nations into military conflict. The U.S., whose primary interests lay in dominating the western hemisphere and penetrating the Far East, was dragged into the conflict because of its economic ties to western Europe, primarily England. When the lucrative wartime trade with England was disrupted, the U.S. declared war on Germany. America’s participation in World War I created a colossal demand for war products and an acute labor shortage at the same time. By 1918, the peak of the war, the U.S. was dispatching 150,000 troops a month to serve in Europe, a manpower drain that produced an unprecedented domestic labor shortage.
During this crisis of capitalism and war, legal immigration quotas for Mexico were ignored in order to meet the growing manpower needs in the U.S. From California to Texas, immigration officials did not interfere with the labor recruitersthat operated freely on both sides of the border to procure Mexican workers for American business. The initial employment opportunities were low paying agricultural jobs, but as soon as immigrants could find a way, they moved into higher paying service and industrial jobs. They proved to be able workers, performing well as machinists, mechanics, carpenters, painters, and plumbers. Mexican immigrants, both legal and illegal, contributed not only to the war effort, but also to the overall economic development and prosperity of the United States during 1920’s. They did not, however, have a future in the nation that they helped to create.
The Great Depression and Mass Deportations
During the late 1920’s, declining profit margins sparked a worldwide crisis in capitalism known as The Great Depression. The stock market crash of 1929 paralyzed American industry and produced historically high unemployment rates. Mexican and Mexican American workers, along with African Americas and other minorities, were vulnerable elements in the reserve industrial army and among the hardest hit. The political backlash to the widespread economic hardships of the time, which should have been aimed at the capitalist system of exploitation, fell instead on minority workers and their families. Mexican immigrants, welcomed as laborers during the economic boom of the war years, were scapegoated during the depression and subjected to racist attacks and severe immigration restrictions.
Congressman Eugene Black from Texas, testifying before the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1929, argued that a strict quota system should be imposed on Mexicans because, in his words, they were, “germ-carriers, inassimilable, a people who are with us but not of us, and not for us.” They had, he argued, a large “percentage of moral and financial pauperism, incapable of development away from that condition, whose influence is forwarding the breaking down of our social fabric….”
Senator Box, also from Texas, wrote a bill to restrict Mexican immigration to the U.S. and forwarded an equally bigoted argument: “The ruling white classes of Mexico, numbering comparatively few, whatever their number are, do not migrate. There is another large class of people of Mexico who are sometimes called ‘greasers’ and other unfriendly names, the great bulk of them are what we ordinarily call ‘peons’, and from this class we are getting this great migration. It is a bad racial element.”
The anti-immigrant hysteria generated during the Great Depression helped defuse the political time bomb of mass unemployment in the U.S. and led directly to the mass deportation of Mexicans. Between 250,000 and 350,000 Mexican workers and their families, many of which included American born children (and therefore American citizens), were deported over the next decade. The Mexican population in the U.S. dropped an estimated 40 percent during the ten-year period. The state of Indiana lost three-fourths of its Mexican population, and another twelve states—Colorado, Illinois, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Utah, Wisconsin, and Wyoming—all lost over half.
The impact of the mass deportations on Mexican immigrants was devastating. Deportees routinely lost their personal property, automobiles, homes, businesses, and other investments in America. In many cases, they were not even allowed time to pick up paychecks or close out savings accounts before they were deported. The reactionary deportation campaign divided families and decimated communities. Children of migrants were torn from their schools, neighborhoods, and friends and shipped off with their parents or other relatives, and sometimes on their own. Deportees and their families were routinely transported to the nearest border town and force-marched across the international bridge by armed Border Patrol Agents or National Guard troops and warned never to return.
Mexico, which had been in deep financial depression since 1911, was unprepared to receive the flood of deportees, most of whom were destitute when they arrived. The social and economic consequences of already high unemployment in Mexico became ruinous under the crushing pressure of the mass deportations from the U.S. Neither jobs nor basic social services were available to the repatriated.
Thus Mexico, which had been a primary source for cheap labor during the war, became a dumping ground for the problems of American capitalism. And while U.S. politicians gloated about fulfilling their patriotic duty to protect America from “undesirable foreign elements” few Americans were willing to look at the human consequences of U.S. policy for Mexico. One concerned depression-era observer of the mass deportations, however, asked a key question: “Are Mexican immigrants to be sent for again when prosperous times return, to be treated as ‘cheap labor,’ and then returned penniless to poverty-ridden relatives?” The Bracero Program that was instituted during World War II provided an affirmative answer to that question.
Bienvenido, otra vez!
World War II and the Bracero Program
World War II, a global conflict of widespread death and destruction that eclipsed the horrors of World War I, was a direct result of the Great Depression and, at the same time, rescued the crumbling system of world capitalism. U.S. imperialism, which had seized the Philippines and targeted China, was drawn into the conflict when Japanese forces attacked the American navy at Pearl Harbor in 1941. One again, in time of crisis, American capitalism turned to Mexico to meet its manpower needs.
Ernesto Galazar, the Mexican consulate official assigned to Washington D.C. at the time that the Bracero Treaty was signed in 1942, explained the connections between the war and the labor agreement. Anticipation of war production, he observed, had increased the demand for agricultural workers in the U.S. while military recruitment and industrial expansion were straining both local and national labor supplies. Galazar, giving a Mexican voice to American demands, announced that Mexico was a “natural reserve” of agricultural and railroad maintenance labor for the U.S. and added that Mexico desired to cooperate in America’s war effort by providing manual labor.
Whether or not Mexican workers “desired” to cooperate in the U.S. war effort, they contributed much to the American economy. During World War II and the Cold War that followed it, as many as 5 million Mexican nationals were imported to work in the U.S. During the peak period, over 400,000 Mexicans signed contracts and crossed the border each year. The city of El Paso alone witnessed an annual passage of 80,000 Mexican workers.
The experiences of braceros entering the U.S. through El Paso were typical for Mexican workers employed throughout the Southwest. Workers recruited in Mexican urban centers like Chihuahua signed contracts with the U.S. government and then traveled by train to Ciudad Juárez where they waited until immigration officers stamped their permits and escorted the across the border. From El Paso, they were shipped to a processing and holding compound at Fabens, in the Rio Grande Valley, where they were dusted with DDT powder and fed their first meal in America, typically cheap lunch meat or peanut butter on day-old bread. At Fabens, area farmers and ranchers came to inspect the braceros and hire the ones they wanted. The men were then transported to farms and ranches in Texas and New Mexico where they lived and worked for the duration of their contracts.
The labor camps where braceros were quartered were isolated and derelict, seldom meeting the living standards guaranteed for workers by the Bracero Agreement. The typical dirt-floored cabins lacked indoor plumbing, often electricity, and, sometimes, even glass in the windows. Wood-burning stoves were provided for cooking and heating, but finding fuel was the responsibility of the tenants. Company stores in the larger labor camps sold goods to braceros at inflated prices and returned a large proportion of their wages to their employers.
The health care and occupational safety protection promised to Mexican workers under the Bracero Agreement were the same as those guaranteed to native agricultural laborers, which, in effect, were none. Braceros were frequently ill because of poor sanitary conditions and injuries on the job, and those who did receive medical care in the U.S. were more often treated by a veterinarian than a physician.
Working conditions for braceros were harsh. The contractual workday began at 6 A.M. and ended at 5 P.M. and consisted of fieldwork (picking cotton, harvesting produce, or weeding or thinning crops with a backbreaking, short-handled hoe) or tending livestock. The men often had to do additional chores around the farm in the evenings and on Sundays but were seldom paid for the extra work. The minimum wage cited in the Bracero Treaty was 30 cents per hour, and in the mid-1950’s a good cotton picker could make 30 dollars a week. Jesús Campoya Calderón, a bracero from San Diego, Chihuahua reported that during one season, “I worked for four months, seven days a week, at least 12 hours every day and I took home almost 300 dollars.” He added, “Those were very good days….”
Once a week, braceros were taken to a local town to buy groceries and cigarettes or send money back home, but they were not welcomed socially. Despite the considerable amounts of money that Mexicans spent in rural communities, they were refused service in many public places of business such as cafes, barbershops, and movie theaters unless the municipality had a segregated “Mexican Town” to accommodate them.
Under the terms of the treaty, braceros were permitted to bring their families with them, and, after they got established, many workers sent for their loved ones. The social conditions faced by immigrant families in the U.S. were appalling—in the segregated communities of the Southwest, Mexicans were not welcomed by white churches and, in many districts, their children were not allowed to attend public school with white children. In the most bigoted communities, Mexican patients were not admitted to local hospitals.
Notwithstanding the poor treatment that braceros and their families received in the U.S., many of them did not return to Mexico at the end of their contracts—life as illegal immigrants in the States offered greater economic prospects than returning home.
By the late 1940’s, immigration from Mexico was slowing down, but the U.S. war against North Korea in 1950 sparked another labor shortage that was filled by a revival of the Bracero Program in 1951. However, the severe economic recession that followed the Korean War, like the Great Depression, caused a backlash and led to the most reactionary policy that the U.S. has ever instituted against Mexican people in the U.S.—Operation Wetback.
Hasta la vista!
The second wave of mass deportations of Mexican workers and their families took place soon after the Korean War. The discharge of tens of thousands of U.S. servicemen and a post-war recession created high unemployment rates and reduced the demand for cheap migrant labor. The official response of the U.S. government to the displaced Mexican workers was Operation Wetback. Retired Army General Joseph Swing, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) under President Eisenhower, conducted the roundup and deportation of Mexican migrants as a military campaign. Swing reorganized the command structure of the Border Patrol along military lines, outfitted agents in new forest green uniforms, obtained modern vehicles, and issued new and more powerful weapons. The general utilized his newly formed Mobile Task Force to intimidate the migrant community and maximize the effectiveness of his command. Swing also enlisted the aid of local, county, state, and other federal authorities, including military units, in Operation Wetback.
Mobile Task Force raids began in California in 1953 and moved to Texas in mid-July of 1954. From the Rio Grande Valley, the Task Force headed north to the mid-western states that had sizable Mexican populations. Though Operation Wetback officially targeted only illegal immigrants, many legal residents were caught up in the dragnet and ended up in Mexico just like during the sweeps of the Great Depression. In contrast to the depression-era deportations that dumped the immigrants at the border, during Operation Wetback the INS transported the deportees on busses, trucks, trains, and ships deep into the heart of Mexico in order to make it more difficult for them to return to the U.S. Unauthorized immigrants apprehended in the Midwest were flown to Brownsville and deported from there. Many Mexicans were transported from Port Isabel to Veracruz in crowded and filthy ships. The boatlift, however, was terminated when seven deportees jumped overboard from the Mercurio and drowned. Their tragic deaths provoked a mutiny and lead to a public outcry in Mexico. Deportations dropped off in the fall of 1954 when INS funding ran out.
It is difficult to estimate how many Mexicans were driven from the U.S. by Operation Wetback, but the INS claimed 1,300,000, five times as many immigrants as were displaced during the Great Depression. The San Antonio district of the INS, which included all of Texas outside of El Paso and the Trans-Pecos area, officially reported that it had apprehended more than 80,000 undocumented Mexicans, and officials estimated that an additional 500,000 to 700,000 immigrants in the district fled the country in fear of the Mobile Task Force. The exact toll of Operation Wetback will never be known, but the impact on the Mexican community was destructive. Again, as in the 1930’s, families were uprooted and ruined, and immigrant communities were destroyed. And again, as during the Great Depression, deportations to Mexico helped defuse the political time bomb of mass unemployment in the U. S. and rescue America capitalism a second time.
The Bracero Treaty was officially repealed 1964 after the widespread abuses of the program were exposed and sparked a political uproar on both sides of the border. However, the exploitation of Mexican labor has continued unabated. Mexican immigrants both legal and illegal continue to toil in the homes, fields, and factories of America. The termination of the Bracero Program also set the stage for a bold new strategy for the exploitation of Mexican labor—U.S. capitalism moved production across the border into Mexico.
Hecho en México:
Capitalism relentlessly seeks the cheapest labor it can find in order to maximize its profits, and U.S. capitalism is no exception to the rule. American industry began a runaway shop movement in the late 1950’s that relocated much manufacturing from the heavily unionized Northeast and Midwest to the American South in order to exploit cheaper, non-union, white, African American, Mexican American, and Mexican labor. In the mid-1960’s, U.S. employers crossed the border into Mexico to take advantage of the large pool of unemployed Mexican workers created by the termination of the Bracero Program. The Mexican government, under the pressure of mass unemployment and unwilling to reform Mexico’s economy, accommodated the U.S. by adopting the Border Industrialization Program (BIP) in 1965, which permitted the establishment of maquiladoras on the Mexican side of the international border. These businesses were allowed to import components tariff-free for assembly in Mexico and then re-export the finished products, with a nominal tariff, back to the United States. Maquiladoras were granted further tax advantages. Foreign-owned companies that located in Mexico and employed Mexican workers were required to pay only a 5 percent housing tax on wages and a few token fees to the Mexican government.
The exploitation of Mexican workers through the maquiladora system, now 40 years old, continues to be a source of massive superprofits. Capitalists, always focused on the bottom line, save up to 75 percent on labor costs as compared to American workers and avoid all of the social costs of industrialization that they would have to pay north of the border. American firms have responded to the lure of cheap labor and tax advantages enthusiastically—by 1990 there were more than 1,500 maquiladoras exploiting more than 400,000 workers operating in Mexican cities along the border. By 1995, these numbers more than doubled and the plants had begun spreading into the interior of the country. In June of 2001 the number of maquiladoras peaked at 3,763. At that time, 1,347,803 Mexican citizens were working in foreign-owned plants, mostly American, inside of Mexico.
Overall, the exporting of industrial jobs to Mexico has been a boon to American capitalism, pushing corporate profits to all-time highs. In addition to cheap labor and low taxes, the Mexican maquiladora industry offers foreign employers additional advantages including subsidized rates for electricity and water, state financed industrial parks, and lax enforcement of labor and environmental laws. And key to the continuing exploitation of Mexican workers, the government of Mexico guarantees “a climate of labor peace” by controlling unions and preventing strikes or slowdowns by maquiladora workers.
Though American business has reaped huge profits from the maquiladora system, the effects on Mexican workers have been mixed. While many jobs have been created, current wages and working conditions in the maquiladoras resemble those in the U.S. a hundred years ago. The typical maquiladora workday consists of 9 to 9 ½ hours of tedious assembly work at monotonous, repetitive operations conducted at accelerated rates under inadequate working conditions. The majority of workers are women in their teens and early twenties because they are easier to intimidate and work for less than men. Sexual harassment on the job is common and abuses are seldom punished. Employers give women pre-employment and periodic on-the-job pregnancy tests and fire pregnant women in order to avoid paying maternity benefits. Workplace health hazards are rampant, but workers, fearing for their jobs, seldom complain. To make matters worse, Mexican social security law, in practice, does not recognize occupational illnesses so workers receive no compensation if their health is ruined on the job. It is not surprising that the maquiladora employee turnover rate is estimated to be 20 percent per month.
To make matters worse, wages have been steadily declining in the maquiladora industries from $1.38 per hour in 1982 to less than $.50 an hour in 2001. The current maquiladora minimum wage of $3.50 per day is below subsistence level income even in Mexico. With the prevailing high prices of goods and services along the border, it takes four to five times the current minimum wage to pay for an average family’s basic needs.
The issue of the environmental pollution created by the maquiladoras is an international scandal. Many toxic materials prohibited in the U.S. are widely used in Mexico because there is no legislation to control them. In fact, many U.S. industries relocate to Mexico primarily to be able to use these materials with impunity. Environmental problems extend far beyond the factory sites. Inadequate toxic waste disposal in Mexico has led to the contamination of the air, land, and both surface and ground water. The Rio Grande, which receives much of the contaminated run-off from border maquiladoras, is used to irrigate crops on both side of the border. The resulting environmental pollution is causing widespread health problems in the lower Rio Grande valley and producing a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that rivals the marine wasteland at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
Ciudad Juárez: Snapshot of a Maquiladora City
Ciudad Juárez offers a stark picture of the political, social, and environmental impact of the maquiladorasystem in Mexico. This city of 1.3 million citizens has about 340 maquiladoras that employ more than 150,000 workers. But the influence of the maquiladorasextends beyond their immediate employees. Many other jobs in the city are in businesses and public agencies that service the maquiladorassuch as housing, food services, police and fire protection, public works, and public schools that teach the children of maquiladora employees.
In Ciudad Juárez, as everywhere, economic power translates into political power. In this city where half the population lives in homes without sewer service, municipal administrators have made accommodating foreign-owned factories their top priority. The official 2010 development plan for the city focuses on paving projects and the development of roads between the maquiladoras and the border crossings, while ignoring the social services that impact the quality of everyday life for Mexican citizens.
Family life, the foundation of every community, has deteriorated under the influence of the maquiladoras. About half of the families that reside in the two and three room adobe houses in the working-class neighborhoods of Juárez are headed by single mothers, many of whom toil long hours in the maquiladoras for subsistence wages. The resulting stress on families has lead to chronic problems of poor health, family violence, and child labor exploitation. Children suffer the most. Because of the lack of child-care programs, kids are often left home alone all day and fall prey to the worst aspects of street culture, such as substance abuse and gang violence. Ciudad Juárez, by any measure of social progress, is moving backward rather than forward under the influence of the maquiladora industry.
Environmentally, the city is a catastrophe. Ciudad Juárez, with its persistent smog, vast solid waste dumps, and contaminated surface water (all exacerbated by the maquiladoras) is the worst pollution point along the entire 3,033-kilometer (1,885 mile) length of the Rio Grande.
Boomtowns and Busted Workers
The situation in Ciudad Juárezis not exceptional. The millions of jobs that have been created along the border since 1965 have sparked a mass migration to the North, but the lives of Mexican workers have not improved under the reign of the maquiladoras. Since the 1982 economic crisis in Mexico, wages have declined and working conditions have deteriorated in the maquiladora sector, mirroring the stagnation of the Mexican economy at large. The U. S. was quick to exploit the crisis. During the oil boom of the 1970’s, finance capitalists from the North had extended easy credit to the Mexican bourgeoisie who went on an unbridled spending spree that mortgaged the future of the country. The economic bust in the early 1980’s offered U.S. and other creditors a golden opportunity. Through the World Bank and World Trade Organization (WTO), they insisted on the devaluation of the peso and the imposition of financial austerity programs on the country in order to repay the outstanding loans and, at the same time, tighten their control over the Mexican economy.
The domestic austerity programs imposed on Mexico were promoted under the slogan “short-term pain for long-term gain”. The Mexican government, afraid of losing credit from the North and unwilling to reform the economy to benefit working class Mexicans, agreed to the following austerity programs that freed up money for debt repayment and opened Mexico to further U.S. penetration and exploitation:
- To cut social spending. The Mexican government increased fees for medical services, resulting in less treatment, widespread suffering, and needless deaths among the poorer segments of the Mexican population. The government also increased public school fees, a move that forced many poor parents to pull their children, especially girls, out of school. This austerity program also required a reduction of pension payments, shifting the burden of debt to the disabled and elderly.
- To shrink government. Because the government was the largest employer in Mexico in the early 1980’s, this change resulted in massive lay-offs and increased nationwide unemployment. The poor, hit hardest by this program, became desperate to work at any wage.
- To increase interest rates. This economic policy cut off loans to small farmers and businessmen, crippling the domestic economy and increasing unemployment across the country. This policy shift dramatically expanded the ranks of the poor.
- To eliminate regulations on the foreign ownership of resources and businesses. This change allowed U.S. capitalists to gain control of key industries such as mining and allowed them to penetrate deeper into the heart of Mexico. To attract more investment from the U.S. and other rich nations, the Mexican government secretly pledged not to enforce labor and environmental laws against foreign businesses.
- To eliminate tariffs. This reform undermined Mexican-owned industries and opened the markets of Mexico to U.S. and Canada. Unable to compete against advanced and, in many cases, government subsidized North American producers, many domestic industries had to shut down and lay off their workforce. This policy hit Mexican agriculture especially hard—well over a million small farmers were wiped out.
- To privatize government-owned enterprises. This economic policy transferred many assets owned by the Mexican people to private, often U.S., ownership. The transportation, communication, and mining industries were hit the hardest. State enterprises were sold at a fraction of their actual worth, and their transfer to private ownership resulted in higher prices and reduced services to the poor.
- To reduce government subsidies for bread, petroleum, fertilizer, etc. This change increased the cost of living in Mexico beyond the resources of average citizens and exacerbated the distress of the poor.
- To reorient the Mexican economy away from domestic production and toward export production through tax incentives. This move threatened food security, increased the exploitation of natural resources by foreign interests, and increased Mexican dependence on expensive imported food and manufactured goods.
The “short-term pain for long-term gain” slogan used to justify the U.S.-imposed austerity programs has proven in practice to be long-term pain for Mexican workers and long-term gain for U.S. capitalism. One major result of the programs has been a mass migration of desperate Mexican workers to the maquiladora cities on the U.S.-Mexico border. Between 1980 and 2000, the populations of Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, Ciudad Acuña, Reynosa, and Matamoros more than doubled. The population booms at Mexicali, Nogales, Piedras Negras, and Nuevo Laredo were not far behind. The advantage to U.S. capitalism was swift and substantial—by 1983 two thirds of the foreign investment in Mexico was concentrated in the maquiladoras and, in one year (between 1982 and 1983), wages were cut in half (from $1.38 to $.67 per hour). The superprofits realized by America firms helped pull the U.S. out of its own economic crisis and attracted even more American capital to Mexico. Between 1982 and 1987, the number of maquiladoras and the maquiladora workforce nearly doubled. During the same period, because of the skyrocketing populations, and because the maquiladoras paid such low wages and so few taxes, social conditions continued to deteriorated in the boomtowns along the border.
The maquiladora system has proven so advantageous to U.S. capitalism that every American president of the last four decades has actively sought to expand the program and push it ever deeper into Mexico. A major milestone in the U.S. quest to further exploit Mexico and her people was the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1994.
The Impact of NAFTA on Mexico
The indigenous people of Chiapas knew what the NAFTA treaty would do to the resources and working people of Mexico and greeted it with an armed uprising against the government that had collaborated with the U.S. by ratifying it. The Declaration of War issued by the Zapatista National Liberation Army shows that the peasants understood the long history of exploitation and betrayal in Mexico:
We are the product of 500 years of struggle: first against slavery, then during the War of Independence against Spain, then to avoid being absorbed by North American Imperialism, then to promulgate our constitution and expel the French Empire from our soil, and later the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz denied us the just application of the Reform Laws, and the people rebelled and the leaders like Villa and Zapata emerged, poor people just like us. We have been denied the most elemental preparation so that they can use us as cannon fodder and pillage the wealth of our country. They don’t care that we have nothing, absolutely nothing, not even a roof over our heads: no land, no work, no health care, no food, no education. Nor are we able freely and democratically elect our political representatives, nor is there independence from foreigners, nor is there peace nor justice for ourselves and our children….
The Zapatista rebels knew that “free trade” is not free. “Free trade” has always been the primary economic weapon of imperialism. It is a policy of unrestricted trade that favors more industrialized over undeveloped nations. Through NAFTA the U.S. has furthered pillaged the wealth of Mexico and expanded its exploitation of the Mexican people. To gain support for the treaty, bourgeois politicians of the U.S., Mexico, and Canada promised their citizens economic growth that would fuel business and job opportunities, increase trade, extend environmental protection, end illegal immigration, and strengthen democracy in North America. Contrary to the political rhetoric, the impact of NAFTA especially on Mexico, the weakest of the three nations, has been disastrous:
- Although the unprecedented surge in trade and foreign investment in Mexico (mostly U.S.) produced 500,000 jobs in manufacturing between 1994 and 2002, the agricultural sector, where a fifth of all Mexicans still worked at the implementation of the treaty, lost 1.3 million jobs in the same period. The net effect has been increased unemployment and dislocation of workers in Mexico.
- Though labor productivity and profits have increased dramatically throughout this same period, real wages for most Mexicans are lower today than they were when NAFTA took effect, continuing the trend that started with the U.S. imposed austerity programs of the 1980’s. Current estimates indicate that since the passage of NAFTA wages have decreased by 30 percent while the cost of living in Mexico has increased by 250 percent. Rather than improving the lives of Mexican workers, most of the new wealth created by NAFTA has flowed to the North as superprofits for American capitalism.
- The environment of Mexico that suffered extensive damage from the maquiladoras has deteriorated further under NAFTA. The Mexican government estimates that annual pollution damages over the past decade exceeded $36 billion per year. This damage to the environment is greater than the economic gains from the growth of trade and the growth of the domestic economy combined.
- NAFTA has not stemmed the flow of poor Mexicans into the U.S. in search of jobs. In fact, there has been a dramatic rise in illegal migration to the North despite the U.S. militarization of the international border.
While American capitalism has profited handsomely from NAFTA, the lessons of the devastating impact of the treaty on the people of Mexico have not been lost on other nations of the South. The ongoing U.S. attempt to spread its tentacles of exploitation throughout the hemisphere through CAFTA (The Central American Free Trade Agreement) and FTAA (The Free Trade Areas of the Americas) is meeting with spirited resistance.
The current and chronic economic crisis of Mexico, the latest result of the historical U.S. exploitation of the Mexican people that dates back to the conquest, has produced a critical situation that the U.S. ruling class and their Mexican collaborators never anticipated and are unable to deal with—despite the unrelenting exploitation that poor Mexicans have been subjected to on both sides of the border, they are gradually but inexorably reclaiming their birthright in North America.
Part III: Éxodo:
Reclaiming the Mexican Birthright
One would expect a saga of ruthless conquest followed by six generations of relentless exploitation to have a bitter ending—but not so in the case of the Mexican people. America’s continuing exploitation of Mexico, especially during the last twenty years, has created a challenge to the basic structure of U.S. capitalism that will have to be dealt with sooner or later. The undermining of the Mexican economy through the rise of the maquiladoras, the imposition of austerity programs, and NAFTA have sparked one of the greatest mass migrations of workers and their families in history. The central feature of this migration is that it has developed an inexorable momentum of its own—it simply cannot be stopped.
The ruling classes on both sides of the border, preoccupied with their own narrow economic interests, do not understand the consequences of this central fact. Border observers have documented that the maquiladora system has not proven to be an effective deterrent to unauthorized migration, but has, on the contrary, accelerated the migration of Mexican workers to the U.S. Even defenders of NAFTA know that the treaty has caused massive economic dislocations in Mexico and fueled further unauthorized immigration to the U.S., but choose not to address the issue. After all, the Mexican ruling class is as grateful to be free of their unemployed workers as the U.S. is to exploit them.
In sum, the shortsighted policies of the ruling classes on both sides of the border have created the situation that exists today. All of the official bi-lateral border commissions and so-called “think tanks” that seek to influence public policy come up with the same conclusion—since the mass migration to the North can not be halted, it needs to be managed—managed of course, to the advantage of the bourgeoisie on both sides of the border.
But there is no indication that the exodus of Mexican workers to the U.S. is manageable. The internal migration in Mexico has amassed a population of 4 to 5 million poor people in the maquiladora cities along U.S.-Mexican border at a time when U.S. capitalism is relocating many of their Mexican plants to Asia in pursuit of even lower wages. Unemployment is rising and wages are falling along the border while the poor from the countryside continue to arrive daily. These destitute people massed on the border cannot stay were they are—they are being pushed North by the poverty in their hometowns and villages and being pulled across the border by the prospect of a better life in the U.S. In 2003, the average annual salary of a maquiladora worker was just over $2,500 compared to almost $20,000 for Mexican immigrants working in the U.S. Authorized or not, the mass migration will not be stopped.
Despite all of the obstacles facing the migrants, the prospects of making a successful journey to the North are excellent—according to the current estimates of both the Mexican and U.S. governments, 22 to 23 million persons of Mexican origin (including about 8.8 million Mexican-born) presently live in the United States, and 54 percent of the Mexican-born have arrived there since 1990. Modern U.S. immigration law intended to impede Mexican immigration has actually promoted it. Both the 1965 Immigration Act, which ended racial discrimination and stressed family-reunification, and the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which offered amnesty to established illegal immigrants, made it easier for Mexicans to become U.S. citizens. And today, as in the past, unauthorized immigration greatly surpasses legal immigration and continues almost unchecked.
Truly, a critical period in the history of both nations is at hand.
Essential Workers for U.S. Capitalism
Although Mexican workers, both legal and illegal, have had to take the most undesirable and lowest paid jobs that American capitalism has to offer, they have become essential workers in the U.S. economy. In the 1990’s alone, the number of Mexican immigrant workers in the U.S, grew by 2.9 million, a 123 percent increase in this segment of the labor force. Employment of Mexicans continued to climb in the traditional areas of the Southwest, but the growth rate was greatest in the East South Central states. Nationwide, 19 percent, or one of every 5 workers, joining the U.S. labor force during the decade was from Mexico.
The above estimates do not include the large number of Mexican immigrant workers who are employed in the informal, or underground, economy in the U.S. These unreported jobs are concentrated in manufacturing, construction, restaurant, and retail services. Other areas of underground employment include auto cleaning, landscape maintenance, hotels, janitorial, and domestic services. Underground employment is widespread, especially in the Southwest, but difficult to estimate. The Economic Roundtable of Los Angeles estimated that between 9 and 29 percent of the L.A. County labor force worked in the local underground economy in 2002. That percentage translated to between 400,000 and 1.5 million workers out of the total work force of 4.1 million in the county. The underground economy is just as significant in San Diego, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, Denver, Colorado Springs, Albuquerque, Oklahoma City, El Paso, San Antonio, Ft. Worth, Dallas, Houston, and Corpus Christi. The overwhelming majority of these workers are from Mexico.
Despite systematic exploitation in the U.S., Mexican workers have been remarkably successful, moving up in the ranks of the working class and establishing viable communities throughout the American Southwest and across the nation at large. These growing communities have become so successful and vital that, beyond being self-supporting, they are sending significant amounts of money back to their families in Mexico. The trend of these remittances has skyrocketed in the last twenty years, reaching a record total of $13.3 billion in 2003, the third largest source of foreign revenue in Mexico.
At the present time, the Mexican immigration debate is relatively muted. U.S. capitalism has access to the low-cost Mexican reserve army of labor on both sides of the border, while Mexican workers have prospects for jobs and hope for the future. Immigrant communities in the U.S. are viable and prospering. The Mexican elite, hoping to export all of their domestic troubles, is presently advocating an open border policy. While not advocating an open border, U.S. capitalism has left the door ajar.
But under capitalism, crisis is always right around the corner. The big question about the future of Mexicans in the U.S. remains unanswered—What will happen to the Mexican community on both sides of the border when the U.S. economy slows down? Wages will fall and unemployment will rise. The quality of life for all workers in the U.S., rapidly deteriorating, will fall to even lower levels. U.S. capitalists may be able ignore the consequences of widespread economic and social dislocation south of the border, but not inside the U.S. With family savings at all time lows and current public welfare programs cut back to almost nothing, crime and social conflicts will increase. The history of the U.S. suggests that when the demand for cheap Mexican labor drops the pressure to repatriate Mexican workers and their families will increase. Mass deportation was the response during the Great Depression and the post-Korean War recession, but the chances of such a reactionary policy working now are slim.
The Mexican community in modern America is unlike that of the past. In the decades of the 1930’s and 1950’s, most Mexican immigrant workers and their families in the U.S. lived in rural areas and worked seasonal agricultural jobs. They were easy to identify, roundup, and deport. Because they were so vulnerable, there was little resistance to the assault. Indeed, the immigrants themselves knew that their stay in the United States was temporary and many left the country voluntarily as soon as anti-immigrant campaigns were mounted.
The Mexican community in the U.S. today, by way of contrast, is settled on a permanent basis. Though many Mexican workers continue to toil in the fields of the Southwest, the modern Mexican community is much more diverse and more deeply rooted than in the past. The Mexican community in America is now 95 percent urban and living in established families with strong roots in the community. Because being born in America grants citizenship, most children in the Mexican community, even those with illegal parents, are U.S. citizens. Current estimates place the number of U.S. born children to Mexican parents at about 8.2 million. In addition, members of the immigrant Mexican community, both authorized and unauthorized, have taken advantage of economic and educational opportunities to establish themselves firmly in U.S. society. It is unrealistic to expect the current Mexican population in the U.S. to submit to summary deportations like their earlier compatriots were compelled to do—they have both motive and means to resist dispossession.
Another 50 Years of Mass Migration
The impending political crisis surrounding Mexican workers and their families in the United States will not be a repeat of the past. Regardless of the level of demand for Mexican labor in the U.S., both Mexico’s National Population Council and the U.S. Census Bureau predict another 50 years of mass migration. Both government agencies currently estimate a doubling of the Mexican-born population in the U.S. by 2030 and a slightly lower, though substantial growth rate through 2050. By mid-century, Mexicans will be the largest minority group in America and an absolute majority in several major cities of the Southwest. With these numbers, the Mexican community in the U.S. will shake American society and U.S. capitalism to their roots—Mexican workers are no longer a reserve army of cheap labor that can be summarily discharged from duty and sent home.
History is on the march. The ongoing Mexican exodus to the U.S. is erasing the arbitrary line that has divided the American Southwest since the disgraceful Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Gadsden scam. Every Mexican immigrant in the United States today, legal or illegal, and every Mexican man, woman, or child who crosses the border, legally or illegally, into the U.S. to work and build a better life is reclaiming a share of the Mexican birthright in North America denied to his/her people for over a century and a half.