Although the title is somewhat misleading, this is a well-conceived study of Mexican workers in southern Texas during the first two decades of the twentieth century. In the tradition of Thompson, Gutman, and other proponents of the (not so) “new labor history,” Emilio Zamora reconstructs the political culture of working-class Mexicans and seeks to correct the prevailing view that Mexicans did not take an active part in determining their own history. In contrast to historians like Mario García, who argue that Mexicans were, for the most part, content with their position and reluctant to voice their concerns for fear they would lose their jobs, Zamora asserts that “Mexicans actively sought to improve their condition as a minority, and a bottom segment of the working class, by forming the organizations and regional and interethnic alliances necessary to accommodate varied aspirations and group interests within the community (p. 4). Through a variety of tactics, including withholding labor, community-based organizing, the formation of Mexican trade unions, and sporadic armed confrontation, Mexican workers creatively responded to racism and demeaning working conditions by drawing on their cultural identity to forge a sense of community.
Drawing on a variety of archival materials, Spanish- and English-language newspapers, government documents, and trade union materials, Zamora makes clear that labor leaders enlisted workers in mutual aid societies, unions, and other associations by fostering an “all-inclusive Mexicanist identity. The chapter on the mutualistas is excellent. Organizers like the spiritualist poet Sara Estela Ramírez urged the workers to unite and preached the values of mutuality—emphasizing fratemalism, altruism, and reciprocity. The mutualistas offered a safe haven from the workplace where Mexican cultural preferences and values were stressed. This identity was also sustained by a porous border that permitted an ongoing cross-fertilization between exiles escaping the violence of the Mexican Revolution and their compatriots working on commercial farms throughout southern Texas, or in factories and businesses in border towns like Laredo and El Paso. Interestingly, Zamora contends that Anglo unions left Mexican associations to their own devices during the first two decades of the century and, along with the federal government’s repression of the PLM and socialist unions, thereby indirectly contributed to a sense of “Mexicanness” among the workers.
The argument begins to break down, however, when the author tries to explain why, if these organizations were so successful at fostering a sense of community, many Mexican workers so quickly abandoned their own unions and associations and joined the AFL during the 1920s. For Zamora, the answer is not the evolution of an assimilationist Mexican American community in the Southwest but rather a pragmatic response by Mexican leaders to changing political and economic conditions.
Finally, a common criticism of this genre of labor history is that it all too often reflects the goals and aspirations of the leadership, not the rank and file. If Zamora’s work proves no exception, it provides a nonetheless illuminating view of working-class culture along the border at the turn of the century.