“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.

1936, El Paso: Bureau of Vital Stats reclassifies Mexicans as “colored” population (Foley)

In 1936, in El Paso, Texas, white city officials challenged the traditional classification of Mexicans as whites in the city’s birth and death records. The county health officer, T. J. McCamant, and Alex K. Powell, the city registrar of the Bureau of Vital Statistics, adopted a new policy of registering the births and deaths of Mexican-descent citizens as “colored” rather than “white.”[14] Both McCamant and Powell claimed that they were simply following the regulations established by the Department of Commerce and Bureau of the Census and that officials in Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio used the same classification system.[15] McCamant also acknowledged that changing the classification of Mexicans from white to colored automatically lowered the infant mortality rate for whites in a city where Mexicans comprised over sixty percent of the population, most of whom were poor and suffered higher rates of infant mortality than did whites. Because the El Paso Chamber of Commerce had hoped to market El Paso as a health resort for those suffering from tuberculosis and other ailments, it became [131] necessary to disaggregate Mexicans from the white category on birth records and to move them into the colored category, thereby automatically lowering the infant mortality rate for “non-Hispanic whites.”

The Mexican American community of El Paso, as well as Mexicans across the border in neighboring Juarez, became furious over this racial demotion and mobilized to have their whiteness restored. Members of the El Paso council of the League of United Latin American Citizens and other community leaders immediately filed an injunction in the Sixty-fifth district court. Cleofas Calleros, a Mexican American representative of the National Cahtolic Welfare Council of El Paso, wrote to the attorney representing the twenty-six Mexican Americans who had filed the injunction, “Is it a fact that the Bureau [of the Census] has ruled that Mexicans are ‘colored’, meaning the black race?”[16]

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), 130-131.
  1. [14]Herald-Post, Oct. 6 and 7, 1936; La Prensa (San Antonio), Oct. 10, 1936; and New York Times, Oct. 21, 1936, in Cleofas Calleros Collection, University of Texas at El Paso, hereafter cited as CCC. All references from this collection are from box 28, folder 1 (“Color Classification of Mexicans”). See also Mario García, “Mexican Americans and the Politics of Citizenship: The Case of El Paso, 1936,” New Mexico Historical Review 59 (Apr., 1984): 187-204. García, who based his article on the same file from the Calleros collection, argues that Mexican American leaders used the controversy over racial classification of Mexicans “to show Anglo leaders that Mexicans would not accept second-class citizenship.” (p. 201). While that is no doubt true, García mistakenly argues that Mexican Americans used the politics of citizenship rather than race in forging racial identities as whites. As Caucasians, Mexican Americans asserted their own racial superiority over African Americans and other “people of color.”
  2. [15]Mr. Calleros to Mr. Mohler, memo, Oct. 9, 1936, p. 1, CCC.
  3. [16]Ibid., p. 2.