Which were the most important Civil Rights for Hispanics in the twentieth century?

The Hispanic community in the United States in the period was diverse, and no easy definition other than that of language covers its different conditions and attitudes. It was made up of chicanos, Mexicanos, Mestijzos, Cubanos, Filipinos, Puerto Ricans and people from every American republic south of Canada and west of the Antilles. It was, for some, urban, for others, agricultural, and rarely settled or integrated; for some in New Mexico, for instance, language rights were not pre-eminent; for others, trade union rights were not a key to their everyday metropolitan success.

On top of this apparent confusion, the nature of ‘civil rights’ is also apt to confuse. For instance, most modern civil rights flow from Congress, as it takes up its duty to explain the meaning of the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the constitution with legislation such as the Equal Opportunities Act and the Voting Rights Act. The Constitution of the United States contains no general provision for human rights, nor any provision for non-citizens, and is of course a document that regulates and limits a federal body. The ‘due process of the laws’, and the fourteenth amendments emphasis on the federalization of the bill of rights in many but not all instances to bind the states, only applies to citizens born or naturalized in the United States.

Nevertheless, on examination, four major abuses of the Hispanic community in general can be discerned, which required a legal response that had to be based on civil rights. Firstly, the use of people as immigrant labour, to be exploited and discarded, was a matter of concern right through the period, from the employment of Vaqueros in Texas and the southwest through the Bracero programme of world war two, to the actions undertaken in ‘operation wetback’ in the 1950s. Because people who either entered or were employed in the United States did so under a Treaty with mexico over the border, then the behaviour of the federal government towards them was reviewable by the Supreme Court. In reviewing how they were treated, the court could have read a civil right to fair treatment or to non-discrimination into federal behaviour, particularly since some of those affected could have been American citizens or the parents of American citizens. That it did not do so was probably a result of prevailing attitudes in society towards Hispanics, coupled with a judicial restraint.

The Supreme Court did attempt to deal with a second abuse of the Hispanic community, which occurred as segregation struck at young Americans who wised to study in white schools. In court cases such as Menendez, the court ruled that, for the purposes of segregation, Hispanics were white, not black, and in a small way, dealt with educational discrimination. It would be difficult to treat this as the most significant of the discriminations faced by the Hispanic community, however.

A third set of civil rights that were important to Hispanics were those that tended to restrain the police in States and which affected the courts at federal and state level. A person charged or tried has, the court decided in the nineteen sixties, the right to a lawyer, to fair rules of evidence, to a reading of their rights, and to due process of law leading to a fair trial before a jury. These are civil rights grounded in the first, fourth, fifth, eighth and fourteenth amendments to the constitution. It is striking, though probably coincidental, that the Supreme Court chose to uncover and regenerate them after a great deal of neglect in the Miranda v Arizona case. Though this case affected ethnic minorities in particular, and all citizens in general, it is not of course ‘an Hispanic case’, especially since to call it such would tar people by association. Miranda was a deeply unsavoury character who could never have become a rallying point, although racists tried to make him so.

Though access to justice and fair treatment were important—arguably more so than the political right to organize a party like La Raza Unida by 1972 in Texas, for instance—the fourth, key civil right for Hispanics in the period was probably the right to organize trade unions and to strike.

Hispanic advances in the twentieth century did not begin with marches on Washington, except indirectly. They began, in Texas, Florida and California, with the determination of individuals such as Cesar Chavez to protect the interests and working condition of itinerant lettuce-growers, and fruit-pickers, and others performing back-breaking labour for the ultimate benefit of America’s new supermarkets and convenience stores. This entailed the exercise of civil rights that could not be restricted to citizens alone, such as the right to withdraw labour, the right to make political coalitions and to trade votes with people associated with the 1968 Kennedy campaign and the 1972 McGovern one, and the right to accumulate funds and to call legally for boycotts of particular goods or suppliers. Collateral to these rights were the right to access state welfare and driving licence systems on the presumption of legal status or citizenship, and the right not to suffer undue punishment if found to be an illegal immigrant but to be subject to a proper legal process.

On all of these rights, the American political system ‘delivered’. It is noticeable that Hispanics used them more than African-Americans, even though Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy attempted to give a poor workers’ direction to the Civil Rights movement after 1965. It is also noticeable that they were key to Hispanic success in the United States, more than an attempt (comparable to that of the more successful Natice Americans) to encourage Spanish-language laws or affirmative action or the development of community enclaves.

However, it is also apparent that moves to organize Hispanic trade union power ultimately only dealt with a serious, indeed mortal, aspect of the Hispanic experience, which was exploitation within various labour systems. These moves did not regularize the status of immigrants, and lead to amnesty of longstanding illegal immigrants; nor did they regularize the status of Puerto Rico, which took congressional action; nor did they alter the abandonment of Cuban and Mexicano communities to ‘community leaders’ often with an agenda of exclusive and limiting identity politics comparable to those of black nationalists.

These things were dealt with politically, and in part by the social and economic mobility of the United States, They ran alongside the fact that many immigrants were prepared to enter the US illegally and make its low costs and supply chains possible regardless of rights or the law. They also altered with the separate and fissile nature of Hispanic urban integration at the end of the period, as some groups embraced education, affirmative action, or economic mobility and moved into the American mainstream. The Hispanic experience was therefore distinct, but distinguished in part by the civil rights relating to labour; and that is why they were the most important civil right for the Hispanic community.


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