Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

Mexican Americans as
minority, immigrant, or both

related terms and sites: mestizo, race / ethnicity

American speech may refer to Mexican Americans as either immigrant or minority without making our course's distinctions between these terms.

In this case everyone may be right, as Mexican Americans in the USA may combine immigrant and minority narratives or identities, or they develop a new type of ethnic identity that exceeds or varies these familiar divisions.

Mexican Americans as immigrants

Popular American culture and media see Mexican Americans as immigrants through discussion of border security, documentation issues, demographics, and potential political impacts.

Justification of Mexican Americans as immigrants:

For centuries Mexican people have continually crossed and recrossed a shifting border between Mexico and the USA.

Mexican immigrants make up the largest group of current immigrants to America (though current rates of Asian immigration are higher).

Mexican Americans face many challenges similar to other immigrant groups, e.g. assimilation to a new language and culture, generational change, availability of well-funded public schools, culture shock, nostalgia, etc.

Mexican Americans as minorities

Mexican Americans in the Southwestern U.S. were once conquered and dispossessed like American Indians and are thus a minority, so that

When Mexican Americans immigrate to states like Texas, California, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada, their identity as immigrants is complicated by the fact that these lands once belonged to Mexico. (See Mexican-American War, 1846-48)

The nearness of the Mexican border with the United States may mean less detachment from their home country for Mexican Americans, potentially leading to mixed attitudes toward assimilation.

Proximity to the USA has exposed Mexican Americans, like other New World immigrants, to political, economic, and cultural aspects of American society  making them careful of negatively assimilating to family breakdown, women's rights, etc., in addition to American military aggression and cultural and economic imperialism.

Traditional extended families (often fragmented or dysfunctional) with traditional gender roles are more common in minorities than in dominant culture. Brevity of childhood, beginning work early to support family, and early child-bearing ("age at first birth") are contrary to the American dominant culture's extended childhoods, but this may result from class more than ethnicity.

Family breakdown may be intensified by government immigration regulations that separate families, resembling family disruptions suffered by American Indians (boarding schools, forced migration) and African Americans (families separated by slave market and for dehumanizing purposes).

If minority identity in the USA is primarily symbolized by the color code of black = minority and white = dominant, Mexican Americans fall mostly in-between as brown.

Different dominant-culture settlement patterns led to greater rates of intermarriage in Mexico and other Latino states between whites and people of color. (See mestizo.) Thus Mexican Americans may be minority in a genetic sense.

Since American society distinguishes "minorities" by "race," Mexican Americans and other Hispanics / Latinos further frustrate familiar black-white or dark-light divisions for minority & dominant cultures. Mexican Americans may be any color or appearance, though the variable mestizo mix of European and Indian is most familiar.


Distinct historical backgrounds of North American and Central American immigration.

The materials below partly describe how Mexican Americans are neither simply immigrant or minority but something different that is still evolving in culture and consciousness.

Mexican Americans combine cultural features that may align with minority or immigrant identity, but these features vary geographically, by class, and by history.

North America primarily settled by Northern European immigrants (English, Germans, Dutch, French, etc.), who are Protestant Christians. (Dominant or "Settler" culture of USA)

Protestant settlers more likely to bring wives, families (esp. New England).

Mexico and Central America settled primarily by Spanish colonizers from souther Europe, who are Catholic Christians.

Catholic explorers and colonizers more likely to be all-male expeditions (soldiers, priests, administrators).

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Distinct racial relations and attitudes result.

North American white settlers tend not to intermarry with American Indians or, later, African Americans. (Some intermarriage occurs on frontiers, and there's always plenty of inter-racial sexuality, much of it exploitative, but children of these relations are consigned to minority communities.)

As a result, North American society officially regards races as pure, permanent, and separate—often prescribed by God or nature and associated with different classes or social purposes (e.g., ownership, labor).

Early North America and USA until recently regards race as "black or white," with little attention to in-between.

Spanish soldiers take Indian women as sexual partners or wives, resulting in larger mixed-race population than in North America. See Mestizo.

Instead of ethnic identity as "black or white," ethnic identity is more like a spectrum, with the broad center as "brown." See Mestizo.

Central America and Mexico have plenty of color prejudice, and as in North America, people with European skin and features dominate media, financial, and other institutional power, but gradations are more graduated or permeable?

USA as black-and-white

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Latin America as spectrum centered on brown

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Different migration patterns.

North America as westward progress, manifest destiny: East to West. 

Mexican and Central American immigration to USA as North-South

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Mexican Americans as minority in USA:

Historical: Conquest and annexation by the United States of Mexican territory in 1800s is historically analogous to conquest of American Indian lands in earlier centuries. (Involuntary contact with dominant culture)

(+ Minority status in Central America: American Indians were often enslaved or otherwise exploited by Spanish colonizers.)

Racial / ethnic mix: Partial American Indian descent of many Mexican Americans associates them with American Indian minority status.

Color code: variation from "white = good" can cause negative stereotyping.

Traditional extended families (however fragmented or dysfunctional) with traditional gender roles are more common in minorities than in dominant culture. (tradition / modernity)

Brevity of childhood, beginning work early to support family, and early child-bearing ("age at first birth") are contrary to dominant culture's extended childhoods, but this may result from class more than ethnicity.

Gender inequality reinforced by Spanish conquest: Since the model of mestizo marriage was Male Conquistador + Female Indian, standard gender inequalities are reinforced by racial or ethnic inequalities, creating "double minority" status.


Mexican Americans as immigrants to USA:

Historical: Since most of "New Spain" became part of the USA, Mexican immigration to former parts of Mexico and other parts of the USA has taken place in several waves, responding to unrest in Mexico:

  Mexican Revolution of the 1910s

Mexican debt crisis of the 1980s-90s

NAFTA in 1990s

need for cheap manual labor in the USA, especially during war-time (e.g. Bracero program during WW2).

Racial / ethnic: mestizo identity connects not only with minority Indian but also with dominant-culture European identity.

 Intermarriage is a primary driver of assimilation. Since intermarriage is inherent in the Mexican American or mestizo identity, Mexican Americans appear to adapt easily to intermarriage with other ethnic groups within the USA.


Wild card: Mexican Americans are unique among immigrants because of proximity to homeland, shifting border, cultural contact, which both expedites and complicates issues of assimilation.