“His point was that the vast majority of El Paso Mexicans, who were not of the middle class, did not think of themselves as white and that El Paso blacks also did not regard Mexicans as white” (J. Hamilton Price, quoted and discussed in Foley)

J. Hamilton Price on Mexican protests of whiteness, non-coloredness. Followed Jim Crow patterns for colored, not white, people. / BB&W, p. 133.

Amidst all the protests that classifying Mexicans as “colored” insulted Mexicans on both sides of the border, little was heard from the African American community of El Paso, which, although small (less than two percent), could not have appreciated the Mexican community’s insistence that being classified in the same racial category as “negro” was the worst possible affront to Mexican racial pride. However, one El Pasoan, J. Hamilton Price, who was either African American or posing as one, wrote a long letter explaining how both blacks and whites in El Paso were roaring with laughter over the Mexicans’ exhibitions of wounded dignity.[29] Price wrote that local blacks did not consider Mexicans white, nor did they consider them to be superior to blacks. Furthermore, if Mexicans considered themselves superior to blacks, he wanted to know why Mexicans in El Paso ate, drank, and worked with people considered racially inferior. He went on to list the numerous ways in which Mexican behavior departed radically from Anglo-white behavior with respect to blacks. “One sees daily in this city,” he wrote, “Mexican boys shining the shoes of Negroes. If Mexicans are racially superior to Negroes,” he continued, “they shouldn’t be shining their shoes.”[30] It is worth listing all the behaviors Price described to indicate how ludicrous he found the Mexican claim to whiteness:

  • Some of the Mexican men had their hair made wavy to look more like the curly hair of Negroes.
  • In local stores Mexican clerks addressed Negro clients as “Sir” and “Ma’am.”
  • In local streetcars Mexicans occupied the seats reserved by law for Negroes.
  • Many Mexicans in El Paso preferred Negro doctors and dentists to those of their own race.
  • Many Mexicans were employed on ranches and in the homes and commercial establishments of Negroes.
  • Mexican boxers competed with Negroes in Juarez and would compete with them in El Paso, if it were permitted.
  • Mexican soccer players avidly played against Negroes, and many of the players on the Mexican teams were Negroes.
  • In some of the Mexican bars and small restaurants Negroes were as well received as Mexicans themselves.
  • Four out of five clients of Negro prostitutes were Mexicans.
  • In El Paso and Juarez many Mexican women were married to Negroes.

[134]Price wrote that the offspring of Mexican and black marriages were so numerous in El Paso that they were called “negro-burros,” literally, “black donkeys.” In Mexico, according to Price, many of these mixed-race persons were considered Mexican and occupied important positions in Mexican social circles. They often frequented the best theaters, restaurants, and Mexican hair salons, married Mexican women, and, if Democrats, were able to vote in the Democratic primaries in Texas, which otherwise barred blacks from voting. His point was that the vast majority of El Paso Mexicans, who were not of the middle class, did not think of themselves as white and that El Paso blacks also did not regard Mexicans as white. Price, angered by the manner in which Mexicans objected to being labeled as “colored,” ended his long leter with some racial invective of his own: “Though once pure Indians,” he wrote, “Mexicans had become more mixed than dog food–undoubtedly a conglomeration of Indian with all the races known to man, with the possible exception of the Eskimo.”[31]

Price’s letter brought a series of angry rebuttals from Mexicans who denounced Price as a coward for using a pseudonym–they could not find his name in the city directory. One writer, Abraham Arriola Giner, accused Negroes of deserving their inferior status for having tolerated oppressive conditions that no Mexican ever would. He boasted of the high level of culture attained by his Indian ancestors and belittled Negroes as descendants of “savage tribes” from Africa where they practiced cannibalism and did nothing to improve their lives. He reminded Price that American Negroes, as former slaves, did not have their own country or flag and that there was no honor for those who did not understand the meaning of liberty. In  afinal stroke of racial arrogance, Arriola Gina wrote that Mexicans would never tolerate any race claiming to be superior to Mexicans because “such superiority does not exist.”[32]

Neil Foley, "Partly Colored or Other White: Mexican Americans and Their Problem with the Color Line," in Beyond Black and White: Race, Ethnicity, and Gender in the U.S. South and Southwest, ed. Stephanie Cole and Alison M. Parker, 123-144 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 204), 133-134.
  1. [29]El Continental, Oct. 14, 1936, CCC. An editorial appearing opposite Hamilton’s letter stated that the letter appeared to be written “por un negro” and that although vulgar (“grosera”), the editor decided to publish the letter to express a different point of view.
  2. [30]El Continental, Oct. 14, 1936, CCC.
  3. [31]Ibid.
  4. [32]Ibid., Oct. 16, 1936.

6 thoughts on ““His point was that the vast majority of El Paso Mexicans, who were not of the middle class, did not think of themselves as white and that El Paso blacks also did not regard Mexicans as white” (J. Hamilton Price, quoted and discussed in Foley)”

  1. Elders in my family (black Texans) still regard Mexican-Americans plainly as “white”. Even a Mexican with dark skin was “white” to them – the same as Anglo-Americans. I found that odd as a child, but I didn’t understand the history of this at the time.

    1. Hi William, thanks for the comment; that’s really interesting. What part of Texas are they from, if you don’t mind my asking?

      1. They are from East Texas (around Houston).

        Anyway, I have previously had long discussions with them about this because I always wondered where “hispanic” people went during segregation in Texas. I got blank stares from them like I was asking a ridiculous question.

        They swear that Mexicans/Tejanos (who they called “Spanish-Americans”) are white, and in the days of segregation, they went to schools with whites and sat in the white section, drank from white water fountains, etc. I found it all hard to believe at the time.

        They also added that they thought it was crazy that “Spanish” people are being considered minorities today because that’s not what they were before the civil rights movement when they were growing up.

        Anyway. Very interesting blog.

        1. Hey William, thanks! That’s super-helpful. My father (a white man who grew up in the Hill Country and then in urban San Antonio) remembered some social segregation directed against Tejanxs in the city as well as African-Americans (for example, in swimming pools) and a lot of residential segregation, but also that there were exceptions carved out for the (small number) of wealthy elite Mexican families, and that Tejanxs in general also often had access to “white” sections in other places (e.g. in movie theaters), and were not segregated out of white public schools.

          From what I can gather, segregation practices in Jim Crow Texas, even more so than in the rest of the South, tended to be very extensively tailored to each particular locale, so the practices around San Antonio turned out different from those in Houston, both tended to be very different from those in Corpus and rural South Texas, from West Texas etc. (Deliberate creation of segregated “Mexican Schools” and extensive anti-Mexican segregation in downtown businesses, restaurants, etc., was in particular very heavily entrenched in the farming counties south of San Antonio, rare in urban San Antonio and in parts of East Texas with larger African-American populations.)

          For what it’s worth, there may well have been a big difference between the city of Houston itself and the surrounding area, but there is a lot of really interesting discussion of how Texas Mexicans navigated racial boundaries and ambiguous racial status in segregated Houston (mostly covering the period around the 1930s-1950s) in a chapter of Tyina L. Steptoe’s book Houston Bound called “We Were Too White to be Black and Too Black to Be White.” I have a copy I put up here for my reference, if you’re interested.

  2. One thing I notice is that people who were alive then say something entirely different than what new literature is claiming today. The stories are so different. It’s really confusing.

    For whatever it’s worth, my family in Dallas also says that Mexicans were white, and they say that as if it were complete common knowledge that anybody would know and there was no ambiguity on the matter whatsoever. “You’ve gotta be young if you don’t remember when Mexicans were white.” White Texans say the same things because they remember always going to school with Mexicans and other Latin-Americans when they were growing up during segregation.

    What’s more, the “hispanic/latino” category did not historically exist. Nobody was ever “Latino” before. Officially, there were two races in Texas, white and black. Spanish Texans were part of the white community.

    Why do we call people “hispanic” or “Latino” today if that’s not what anybody was considered before? And why are they minorities if they were not minorities before? How did the largest minority group today come to be minorities in the first place?

    This is something a lot of people wonder about, and I’ve never heard an explanation of how and why this happened. Even elderly people who remember when Mexicans became minorities don’t know why it happened. They say things like “I don’t know, they just made that up.”

    How exactly did Tejanos become people of color?

  3. Hi, Radgeek.

    I recently asked around about “Mexican Schools” in Texas and most people (who grew up in the 50s and prior) had never heard of them and don’t remember ever seeing one, explaining that Mexicans always went to segregated white schools. They added that when integration happened in the 60s, blacks were integrated; Mexicans had always been in white schools and had always been able to go anywhere that was designated for whites only.

    I did find one woman who knew of Mexican Schools, but she explained that that was remedial education that was based on language (not race segregation), and that they existed in just certain rural districts – and only for elementary school students. She also clarified that Mexican schools were part of the white school system.

    I think the notion that Tejanos and/or Mexican-Americans were ever subject to Jim Crow laws anywhere in Texas is being invented today, similar to how many people today are claiming that the Irish were slaves. Mexicans went through different kinds of social exclusion, e.g special needs education, separate dances for Mexicans in white schools, etc, but that was unrelated to Jim Crow laws. People today are calling that race segregation when that’s not what it was then.

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