“we are not and never have been a civil rights organization. Personally I hate that word” (Hector Garcia, qtd. in Foley)

1949: Felix Longoria and American GI Forum

A few years after World War II ended, another Mexican American civil rights organization was founded, the American GI Forum. Significantly, the name of the organization did not include any reference to its being an organization for Mexican American war veterans. Hector García, a medical doctor who founded the American GI Forum, achieved a degree of national attention in 1949 when he challenged the Anglo owner of a funeral home near San Antonio for refusing the use of the chapel to the Mexican American family of a deceased veteran, Private Felix Longoria. Dr. García organized a statewide protest that attracted the attention of U.S. Senator Lyndon [136] Baines Johnson who offered to have Private Longoria buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., with full military honors, which the family graciously accepted. The incident established the American GI Forum as an effective civil rights advocate for Mexican Americans, even though Dr. García himself insisted, years after the Longoria incident, that the American GI Forum was not a civil rights organization but rather a “charitable organization.” As late as 1954 Dr. García claimed, “we are not and have never been a civil rights organization. Personally I hate the word.” What did Dr. García have against the phrase “civil rights”?[33]

Here it is worth noting that the phrase “civil rights” was so firmly linked in the post-World War II imaginary to the civil rights struggle of African Americans that Dr. García perhaps thought it best not to acknowledge too forcefully the American GI Forum’s own civil rights agenda. […] Robert Kennedy, like Dr. García, did not wish to alienate whites in Texas–or anywhere else–by appearing to join the struggle of black people for civil rights.[35]

By the early 1950s the American GI Forum, while still denying that it was a civil rights organization, sought to end discrimination in Texas schools, in employment, and in the use of public spaces. The core strategy depended on educating Anglos that “Americans of Spanish-speaking descent” or Latin Americans were Caucasians and that to identify them as anything but white, whether on birth certificates or traffic citations, was illegal. Making any distinction between Latin Americans and whites, he wrote, was a “slur,” an insult to all Latin Americans of Spanish descent.[36]

A decade later, Vice President Hubert Humphrey made the mistake of writing the American GI Forum to announce the government’s new program to offer summer jobs to teenagers, especially, he wrote, for “the non-white teenagers.” The AGIF Auxiliary chairwoman, Mrs. Dominga Coronado, rebuked the vice president: “If everyone in the government takes the position emphasized in your letter ([that Mexicans are] nonwhite), then it is understandable why the Mexican American is getting ‘the leftovers’ of the Federal programs in employment, housing and education.”[37] White people, she seemed to imply, do not eat leftovers.

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), 135-136.

 

  1. [33]Hector García to Gerald Saldana, Mar. 13, 1954, box 141, folder 3, Hector P. García Papers, Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi, hereafter cited as HPG.
  2. [35]While not promoting the American GI Forum as a civil rights organization in 1949, García nevertheless wrote to the Texas governor that “Texas is in immediate need of a Civil Rights Program.” Hector P. García to Allan Shivers, Dec. 4, 1949, HPG.
  3. [36]Hector P. García to Editor, Lubbock Morning Avalanche, July 18, 1956, HPG.
  4. [37]Hubert Humphrey to Dominga Coronado, June 12, 1967; Dominga Coronado to Hubret Humphrey, June 26, 1967, HPG.

“In this context, consider the pull of antidiscrimination laws in moving people to frame their identities in terms of the racial categories recognized by law” (Haney Lopez)

Civil rights law as logic now governing racial categories / WBL p.101, pp. 125-126.

The pull of antidiscrimination laws:

In both the strong and weak sense, contemporary laws continue to legitimate races. This is most evident in the continued legal reliance on rigid racial categories. Racial classification remains legally permissible and in fact necessary to efforts aimed at remedying the legacy of racial discrimination in this country. … Vindicating the rights of minorities has required maintaining a legal system that distinguishes between Whites and non-Whites.[19] The necessary persistence of racial categories in law lends legitimacy to the notion that races exist in fact, leading people to think not only of others but of themselves in racial terms. In this context, consider the pull of antidiscrimination laws in moving people to frame their identities in terms of the racial categories recognized by law. At the level of both individuals and groups, people must conform their identities to these rigid categories if they seek legal protection from discrimination. Thus, some legal scholars [126] have tried to frame Mexican American identity as a specifically racial, rather than ethnic or cultural, identity for the purposes of securing constitutional or statutory protection against discrimination.[20] It is not unreasonable to argue that “races may be defined in America in some significant part by their relationship to antidiscrimination law in addition to constituting an independent influence on that body of law.”[21] The necessary persistence of legal classifications of race gives law a continuing role in the construction of racial identities by legitimating the practice of categorization and by limiting possible conceptions of who we are.

Ian F. Haney López, White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 125-126.

DOMINGUEZ = DOMINGUEZ, VIRGINIA, WHITE BY DEFINITION: SOCIAL CLASSIFICATION IN CREOLE LOUISIANA (1986)

KELMAN = KELMAN, MARK. A GUIDE TO CRITICAL LEGAL STUDIES (1987).

Cf. on the contrary pull of naturalistic conceptions in law, but also the development of St. Francis College v. Al-Khazraji:

Naturalistic understandings of race persist as well, [101] though again not surprisingly, in law and common knowledge. Few in this society seem prepared, at the beginning of this century or now, fully to relinquish their subscription to biological notions of race. This is particularly true of Congress and the Supreme Court. Congress makes clear its anachronistic understanding of race in a recent statute that defines “the term ‘racial group’ [as] a set of individuals whose identity as such is distinctive in terms of physical characteristics or biological descent.”[64] The Court, although purporting in its recent discussions to sever race from biology, also seems incapable of completely doing so. In a 1987 case, Saint Francis College v. Al-Khazraji, the Court addressed whether a U.S. citizen of Iraqi descent could recover damages for racial discrimination.[65] Answering in the affirmative for a unanimous Court, Justice Byron White seemed initially to abandon biological notions of race in favor of a sociopolitical conception. “The particular traits which have generally been chosen to characterize races have been criticized as having little biological significance,” he wrote. “These observations have led some, but not all, scientists to conclude that racial classifications are for the most part sociopolitical, rather than biological in nature.”[66] Despite this initial rejection of biological race, however, Justice White continued, “The Court of Appeals was thus quite right in holding that [the law] reaches discrimination against an individual ‘because he or she is genetically part of an ethnically and physiognomically distinctive subgrouping of homo sapiens.'”[67] Justice White’s use of the lower court’s talk of genetics and distinctive subgroupings demonstrates a continued reliance on biological notions of race.

Ian F. Haney López, White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 100-101.
  1. [19]DOMINGUEZ, supra., at 5.
  2. [20]See, e.g., Richard Delgado and Vicky Palacios, Mexican Americans as a Legally Cognizable Class Under Rule 23 and the Equal Protection Clause, 50 NOTRE DAME LAW. 393 (1975); Gary A. Greenfield and Don B. Kates, Jr., Mexican Americans, Racial Discrimination, and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 63 CAL. L. REV. 662 (1975).
  3. [21]KELMAN, supra., 255. See also Martha Minow, Identities, 3 YALE J. L. & HUMAN. 97, 111 (1991) Minow writes: “The use of a specific notion of identity to resolve a legal dispute can obscure the complexity of lived experiences while imposing the force of the state behind the selected notion of identity.
  4. [64]Genocide Convention Implementation Act of 1987, 18 U.S.C. § 1093 (1988).
  5. [65]Saint Francis College v. Al-Khazraji, 481 U.S. 604 (1987).
  6. [66]Id. at 610, n. 4
  7. [67]Id. at 613.

“lawyers for Mexican Americans moved away from the old claim that Mexican Americans were white people” — Cisneros and Civil Rights Law (de Leon)

But newer middle-class organizations also surfaced out of el movimiento, among them the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), founded in 1968. Funded by government grants and private corporations, MALDEF–reflecting a posture between the old guard from the Mexican American Generation and the newer militancy–worked through the courts to protect Mexican-American rights. It assailed, for instance, practices that marred equal educational opportunities, such as discriminatory school funding or continued segregation. In so doing, it took several cases into the courts, among the most famous being Cisneros v. Corpus Christi Independent School District (1970).[13]

As school officials utilized the accepted Mexican-American classification of “white” as a subterfuge in school desegregation and continued the pattern of excluding Mexican Americans from Anglo schools, lawyers for Mexican Americans moved away from the old claim that Mexican Americans were white people. Attorneys adopted the position that Mexican Americans must be recognized as an “identifiable ethnic group.” This new categorization would circumvent the ploy used by Anglo-controlled school boards of using Tejanos (classified as white) to “integrate” certain schools. The Mexican-American community was gratified when in June 1970, a federal district judge ruled that Mexican Americans could be considered an identifiable ethnic minority and that the equal protection of the law guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment applied to them. Though the case was appealed, in 1973 the United States Supreme Court acknowledged the separate legal status of Mexican Americans. For MALDEF, the decision provided an important legal mechanism for its desegregation cases.[14]

Arnoldo de Leon, Mexican Americans in Texas, 129.

(footnotes to follow)

  1. [13]San Miguel, “Let All of Them Take Heed,” pp. 177-181; García, Chicanismo, p. 11.
  2. [14]San Miguel, “Let All of Them Take Heed,” pp. 177-181. Guadalupe San Miguel, Jr., “Mexican American Organizations and the Changing Politics of School Desegregation in Texas, 1945-1980,” Social Science Quarterly, 63 (December, 1982), 710.