George Sanchez revisits his seminal text, "Becoming Mexican American" at the Autry on Sunday (Photo by Tessie Borden)
George Sanchez revisits his seminal text, "Becoming Mexican American" at the Autry on Sunday (Photo by Tessie Borden)

George Sanchez: Disentangling Mexican-​American Identity

George Sanchez believes those who try to “protect” their culture from “attack” or “invasion” — as immigration restrictionists do today and as Chicano Power warriors tried to do in the sixties and seventies — are like a thirsty man trying to catch water with a sieve. In other words, they fight a losing battle.

George Sanchez revisits his seminal text, “Becoming Mexican American” at the Autry on Sunday (Photo by Tessie Borden)

Sanchez, professor of American studies, ethnicity, and history at the University of Southern California, in 1993 published Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900–1945, a seminal work on ethnic identity that he revisits this Sunday at the Autry’s Becoming Mexican American and Beyond, a one-​day conference exploring contemporary Latino ethnic identity.

Ethnographers used to think Mexican and American cultures were distinct from each other, without any common threads, he said.

“The scholarship particularly coming out of the seventies and eighties sort of drew some stark distinctions between Mexican culture on the one hand and American culture on the other,” Sanchez said. “If you were into assimilation you wanted to say, ‘Well, lets’ have them move on and become American.’ If you wanted to retain Mexican culture, you talked about it as if it was a sacrosanct sort of separate entity, very distinctive. So people at that time would debate what allowed people to retain their culture, what allowed people to move on to another culture. But it was very much a separate either-​or kind of scenario.”

None of that picture resonated with what Sanchez had seen growing up in Los Angeles, in his own blended household of immigrant Mexican parents and U.S.-born offspring. What he saw in them was a much more complicated relationship with both cultures, in which they blended them, took from each as needed, and even recast some parts.

“My father had this incredible music collection of albums, a whole bunch of Mexican artists. Mariachi, but also contemporary stuff, trios, everything. He was very proud of this,” says Sanchez, by way of example. “At the same time, the news comes up (on Spanish-​language television), and a Mexican politician came on, and he’d yell at the TV.”

In other words, the fact that he was a proud Mexican man didn’t keep him from criticizing aspects of his homeland which he found frustrating, like the way politics got made. It also didn’t keep him from appreciating or criticizing aspects of his life in the United States.

“It was a complicated portrait of what it meant to be related to Mexico,” Sanchez said. “(And) it wasn’t just us children that were born in the United States, with no connection to Mexico, that were changing. They were changing. They’d always changed. That’s what happens.”

Late in college, Sanchez began thinking about these questions and trying to predict where they might lead him.

“My feeling was that the way that culture was being described was much too flat, much too generic,” he said. “And it didn’t give either for the changing of Mexican culture nor for the ways that immigrants themselves sort of took whatever they wanted from U.S. culture, incorporated that, repackaged it, thought about it a different way, (even) thought about it as Mexican-​American or Mexicano.”

Sanchez talked with me this week about the book’s influence on the mainstream view of culture (Photo by Tessie Borden)

Sanchez said he witnessed this picking and choosing as his family moved from one neighborhood of Los Angeles to the other. He was born in East Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights, a neighborhood that we today think of as quintessentially Mexican-​American. But when Sanchez was a kid, there were also strong Jewish, Italian-​American and Japanese American communities. Later, they moved to South Los Angeles, which was predominantly African American.

“African American culture has always influenced Mexican culture in Los Angeles,” Sanchez said. It was hard for him to believe that none of these strands would have had an influence on either his own sense of identity or that of his parents.

“It just seemed more fluid,” Sanchez said. “We didn’t have a good sense yet of how culture actually shifts and changes. And I wanted particularly not to only concentrate on the U.S.-born but on the immigrants themselves.”

So Sanchez set out to write a book that would give all of this cultural mixing a historical perspective. And he began with the earliest generation that could really be called bi-​cultural — those who arrived in Los Angeles at the beginning of the twentieth century, in an effort to escape the Mexican Revolution.

There was also much about the 1930s, the topic he had actually chosen for his senior thesis.

“A lot of the biggest cultural shifts and changes that I saw on the ground in Los Angeles happened in the 1930s, and it happened for a number of reasons,” he said “You have repatriation, so one-​third of the Mexican community goes back to Mexico. So I was interested in what effect that had on the people that stayed.”

During the 1930s, U.S. immigration authorities rounded up about 500,000 people of Mexican descent, regardless of whether they were legally in the country, and deported them to Mexico, in some instances filling boxcars in trains headed south. The roundups took place mostly in states with large populations of Latinos, including California, Texas, Colorado, Illinois and Michigan.

“The other part of that is that it was happening in the Depression,” Sanchez said. “One of the ways in which people talk about immigrant cultural change is to always talk about upward mobility that somehow when immigrants do better they shift and they change and they become more like Anglos. But the fact that the cultural change was happening in the Depression meant that there was very little upward mobility. And whatever shift I was seeing was not happening because people were making more money or moving out of communities, but it was happening inside of communities that were still poor, still working class, and were remaining put. They weren’t moving to some suburb. ”

For example, Mexican immigrants and Mexican-​Americans were marrying among themselves, and moving across the Los Angeles river to start families. So the East Los Angeles we think of as the heart of Mexican tradition here was something brand-​new in the thirties. Those couples were trying to move away from the then “traditional” Mexican neighborhoods downtown. Further, they generally married earlier than couples did in Mexico, even though the common perception was that marrying early was the traditional Mexican thing to do.

“People were finding their own space that they could feel comfortable in, and it was quite different,” Sanchez said. “I argue that one of the ways young people got out of their houses was by saying ‘I’m doing the traditional Mexican marriage very early’ … When in fact that was something new in the United States, but they were ascribing it to traditional Mexico. So the ways people use Mexico as a kind of reference point is not always truthful.”

Sanchez uses these and other examples in other areas of political and social life to illustrate precisely the fluidity and ambivalence of cultural identity among Mexicans and Mexican-​Americans in the early part of the twentieth century. So why revisit Sanchez’s study in 2011?

Sanchez says many of his students, either U.S.-born or Mexican-​born, who “when they talk about culture, they put it up on a pedestal somewhere.” So they identify as Chicano or Mexican-​American, but they do things that they themselves don’t consider Chicano or Mexican-​American, like listening to, say, rap music.

“When one claims it, makes it one’s own, and then celebrates it and incorporates it, that is fundamentally Chicano culture and Mexican-​American culture,” Sanchez said. “What I want to do more than anything else in my work is to allow young people to understand the decisions they make are part of Mexican-​American culture. That they themselves actually control what that culture is and is going to be.”

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About the author

Tessie Borden is a former newspaper journalist. She writes about the arts in light of the cultural and political history of the Americas, the American West and California.