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.