Until the 1960s, when San Ysidro, California, became the principal port of entry for Mexican immigrants, El Paso, Texas, served as the main gateway city for millions who crossed the Río Grande into the United States. What Ellis Island and New York are to European immigrants, El Paso is to Mexican immigrants. Generation after generation of immigrants have arrived at the “pass of the North,” some settling there permanently, others temporarily, but the vast majority fanning out in all directions into the interior of the United States. Thus El Paso is unique in the immigrant tradition that has been superimposed on the city’s long-standing Indian-Spanish-Mexican heritage. Today one readily finds many Chicanos in barrios throughout the United States who have some attachment to this urban center—or to its “twin,” Ciudad Juárez, Mexico—because of past personal experiences or current kinship ties.
During the period examined by Mario T. García, El Paso became a major transportation, smelting, trade, ranching, and agricultural center. This economic growth was closely linked to the availability of workers south of the border who were pushed out of Mexico by poverty and civil war. Most who entered El Paso came from the working classes, but after 1910 middle-and upper-class elements arrived in significant numbers, thereby adding a professional and commercial sector to the existing Mexican community.
García looks closely at the evolution of the immigrant group, paying particular attention to the impact of race and class on employment, housing, education, politics, and culture. Since most Mexican immigrants at the time were dark-skinned campesinos, the host society relegated them to the bottom rung of the occupational ladder. Segregated housing, inadequate schools, and political powerlessness became the norm for local Mexicans. As in other southwestern cities, racism played a key role in retarding the integration of the group into the mainstream. Additionally, the belief held by many of the immigrants that they would eventually return to Mexico diminished their interest in American society. They worked hard at maintaining the Spanish language and native customs through institutions such as the family, religion, and voluntary associations. Of course, the proximity to Mexico also contributed greatly toward cultural reinforcement from the homeland.
Unlike previous portrayals of Mexicans as passive subjects in a foreign environment, García paints a picture of people very much involved in forging a vibrant community, in manifesting their identity, and in fighting discrimination. Such themes as family life, male-female relations, coping with daily problems, and dealing with Anglo-American institutions are viewed from the perspective of the Mexicans. The people take center stage, and they act out the drama of adjusting to a new life. The chapter on the Mexican Revolution is especially significant because it reveals how the immigrants remained tied to events in Mexico and to revolutionary movements along the border.
In sum, this is an excellent book that focuses on an important population group in a major United States city. García makes a significant contribution to the fields of Chicano history, labor history, and immigration and urban studies. The author has used a wide variety of sources, including newspapers and oral history interviews. The organization is logical, the style good, and the documentation ample. Photos enhance the text, as does a comprehensive index. My only reservation is with the amount of detail often given, which makes the reading tedious at times. On the other hand, the lack of literature on the subject justifies the inclusion of liberal amounts of basic information.