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.

“an analysis of the persons with mixed Spanish-Anglo surnames shows that this group, taken as a component part of the Tejano population, declined in the years between 1850 and 1900” (de León and Stewart)

1850-1900: Intermarriage – decline in “persons with mixed Spanish-Anglo surnames” as an index of decline in intermarriages or “blending into white society” generally:

Indeed, other evidence suggests that the urban Tejanos resisted adopting an Anglo American way of life with equal or greater intensity than their compatriots in the countryside….

First, an analysis of the persons with mixed Spanish-Anglo surnames shows that this group, taken as a component part of the Tejano population, declined in the years between 1850 and 1900. The presence of persons with mixed surnames is indicative of a propensity toward structural assimilation since such surnames would result from a variety of Tejano behaviors aimed at blending into the white society. Such behaviors may have ranged from intermarriages or interethnic sexual relations to simply modifying one’s name to better fit the Anglo mold. What statistics show is that the extent of such assimilating behavior decreased. In 1850, for example, for every 100 persons in urban environments with Spanish surnames, there were 14 with mixed Spanish-Anglo surnames. By 1900, this number had dropped to just 3, and in rural areas the trend was the same.[15] Thus, to the extent [89] that mixed names resulted from conduct aimed at merging into white society, then resistance to such behavior increased both in cities and in rural settings during the nineteenth century.

Arnoldo de León and Kenneth L. Stewart, Tejanos and the Numbers Game: A Socio-Historical Interpretation from the Federal Censuses, 1850-1900 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989), 88-89.

  1. [15]There were 11 persons with mixed Spanish-Anglo surnames for every 100 Spanish surnames in rural areas in 1850. By 1900, the number of mixed surnames dropped to 1 per 100 Spanish surnames. Admittedly, other factors such as the leveling out of the sex ratio among Anglos between 1850 and 1900 may have influenced this decline in the number of mixed surnames. Nonetheless, we take it also to be an indication of the increased degree of resistance to assimilation on the part of the Mexicans of Texas.

“Mexicans are different to negroes and are recognized as Americans.” “Money Whitens” (Montejano)

From David Montejano, Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836-1986, 84-85:

Landed Mexicans represented the complicating factor in the Mexican-Anglo relations of the frontier period. Even during the worst times of Mexican banditry, the permanent Mexican residents who were landowners were seen as “good citizens” while the large “floating” population temporarily employed on ranches were seen as sympathizers of the raiders.[27] Similar distinctions were made in the less dramatic, daily encounters. For example, in her first trip to Corpus Christi in 1870, Mrs. Susan Miller of Louisiana stopped at the State Hotel and “was horrified to see Mexicans seated at the tables with Americans. I told my husband I had never eaten with Mexicans or negroes, and refused to do so. He said ‘Mexicans are different to negroes and are recognized as Americans. However, I will speak to the manager and see if he will not put a small table in one corner of the room for you. He did so and we enjoyed our meal.”[28] Evidence of inconsistent patterns at times comes from ironic sources. They indicate, nonetheless, that not all Mexicans were seen or treated as inferior. In fact, most pioneers, especially merchants and officials, were quite adept at drawing the distinction between the landed “Castilian” elite and the landless Mexican. Thus, L. E. Daniell, author of Successful Men in Texas (1890), described the physical appearance of prominent “Canary Islander” José Maria Rodríguez as “five feet nine inches in height, complexion dark, but not a drop of Indian blood in his veins.” As if to emphasize this point, Daniell added that Rodríguez had ïn his veins the blood of the most chivalric Knights that made the Olvie of Spain respected wherever a Knightly name was known.”[29]

The well-known aphorism about color and class explains the situation on the Mexican frontier–“money whitens.” The only problem for upper-class Mexicans was that this principle offered neither consistent nor permanent security in the border region. Certainly it did not protect them from the racial opinion of many Anglos. One descendant of this upper class described their reaction as follows: “Now that a new country has been established south of the Rio Grande they call our people Mexicans. They are the same people who were called Spaniards only a short time ago. Some say the word in such a bitter way that it sounds as if it were a crime to be a Mexican. My master says he is one, and is proud to be [85] one. That he is a member of the white race, whether he be called Mexican or not.”[30]

[N.B.: The closing quote is from a 1935 “folk history” of the area told from the perspective of a Mesquite tree.]

 

  1. [27] Dobie, Vaquero of the Brush Country, p. 69; Graf, “Economic History,” p. 625.
  2. [28] Miller, Sixty Years, pp. 15, 175.
  3. [29] Daniell, Types of Successful Men, p. 340.
  4. [30] Zamora O’Shea, El Mesquite, p. 59.