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A Mecca for Mexico : BECOMING MEXICAN AMERICAN: Ethnicity, Culture and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945, By George Sanchez (Oxford University Press: $35; 367 pp.)

March 13, 1994|Jose Antonio Burciaga | Jose Antonio-Burciaga, artist and writer at Stanford University, is author of "Drink Cultura-Chicanismo" (Joshua Odell Editions, 1993)

In the spring of 1911, my father walked down a dusty street in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, to get his first photograph taken. Soon, he found himself dodging bullets: Pancho Villa and his revolutionaries were commandeering the town. My father safely reached the photo studio, but he never forgave Pancho Villa. After he had witnessed Villa carry out one too many executions, he left town to hide in arroyos from both bandits and real coyotes. For a time, he tried his hand at goat herding; then, he headed north to California.

In 1924, in San Jose de los Guajes, Jalisco, my father-in-law, Bernardino Preciado, packed a team of mules with crops for the Guadalajara market. Born in 1898, Don Bernardino had witnessed the Mexican Revolution, countless executions and rivers running red with the blood of men and horses. Don Bernardino was assaulted several times by federales or revolucionarios who took his profits and produce. The last time, he was nearly lynched for hiding his money and then lying about it.

After losing his bride to a stampeding horse, he decided to leave. With his friend Jesus Villasenor and others, he boarded a train in Guadalajara to El Paso for the proverbial journey to Los Angeles, forever the mecca of Mexican immigrants.

In Los Angeles Bernardino met Rebeca Jimenez. Originally from Guadalajara, Rebeca had been orphaned and sent to Los Angeles to live with maiden aunts. I have heard her recall vividly how she labored as a young women in the sweat factories of L.A.'s garment district. In 1931, Bernardino and Rebeca were married at the mission church in front of La Placita.

Though the Preciados are not mentioned in George J. Sanchez's monumental history, their lives span the years of trial and triumph that he chronicles so magisterially. While retrofitted with research notes to meet the demands of academia (Sanchez is an associate professor of history at UCLA), "Becoming Mexican American" also is inviting reading. Its human, compassionate voice both confirms and contradicts established history.

Synthesizing facts and anecdotes garnered from Mexican, American and Latino sources, Sanchez erects a unique bridge between Euro-American and Mexican historical perspectives. While Carey McWilliams' "North of Mexico" and Rudolfo Acuna's "Occupied America" will remain classics for their correct historical revisionism, Sanchez's book distinguishes itself by focusing on one city, with the community of Belvedere (just east of Boyle Heights) as its center.

Sanchez begins with the Mexican presence in Los Angeles before the Yankees took over in 1847. Unlike other American immigrants, most Mexicanos see themselves as returning to a land where their ancestors once lived. Their blood lines and cultural ties never were severed. Mexico, in short, never left Los Angeles.

In 1924, when Don Bernardino arrived in downtown L.A.'s Old Plaza, Pacific Electric's train tracks covered over 1,000 miles from San Fernando to Riverside and Newport Beach. Jobs were plentiful in the sun-kissed orchards, where he found a job on his second day in town. In three months he landed a better job at a tile factory. Bernardino takes pride in having built some of the tile that now adorns the Los Angeles City Hall.

Sanchez jars our memory with long-forgotten facts and figures. Between 1890 and 1930, L.A.'s population exploded from 50,000 to 1.2 million. Latinos living around the downtown Los Angeles Plaza--which lacked developed water and sewer systems--were hardest hit by the population surge. In 1924, an outbreak of Bubonic Plague in the Plaza forced the city to reform those systems.

During the 1920s, the U.S. government began a program designed to assimilate the immigrant. By 1909, professor Ellwood P. Cubberly of Stanford University had already called for a "break up of these groups . . . to implant in their children . . . the Anglo-Saxon conception of righteousness, law and order. . . ."

Well-meaning but naive women visited Mexican American homes, teaching people to eat bread instead of tortillas: "Bad diets," they argued, "led to stealing lunches and laziness."

The early 1930s were an ambivalent time for both Mexicans and Mexican Americans. Sixty-three years before Governor Pete Wilson suggested that illegal immigrants have contributed to our state's economic malaise, Herbert Hoover denounced Mexicans as the main cause for the Depression. Discrimination was legislated through the Alien Labor Act of 1931. Sanchez profiles many, including a former Army sergeant, who recall being denied work because of their skin color.

Most poignant is Sanchez's chapter on the "Repatriation" program. Sanctioned and supported by both Mexico and the United States, more than half a million Mexicans and U.S.-born Mexican Americans were either voluntarily or forcefully deported to Mexico with false promises.

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