Crossing the Snake

by Published on
photo by Alan Pogue
The Brown Berets, an activist group, and others protest a series of shootings of black and Latino youth by the Austin Police Department in 1974.

My two major worksAnglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1936-1986 and its sequel, Quixote’s Soldiers: A Local History of the Chicano Movement, 1966-1981—resonate with questions that grew up with me. Behind both works is my desire to understand the rise and fall of segregation in San Antonio and South Texas.

 

To a child in 1950s San Antonio, the segregation of Anglo, black and Mexican seemed like a natural division. I grew up in a West Side neighborhood in the Edgewood School District, one of the poorest in the state and later famous for its successful legal challenge of state education finance. My neighborhood was a poor, working-class enclave bracketed by poorer neighborhoods on three sides. Like much of the West Side, my barrio experienced annual floods and periodic gang violence. Menchaca Courts, a public housing project and base for the local youth gang, was a few blocks away. As adolescents, my brother and sister and I had a few run-ins consisting of rock-throwing and verbal insults with the young pachucos of Menchaca Courts.

On the fourth side, across a wide thoroughfare, was the middle-class, Anglo North Side. The avenue was Culebra, meaning “snake,” an appropriate name for the line between Anglo and Mexican. I recall as much tension crossing Culebra and walking through the white neighborhood as when walking by Menchaca Courts.

My working-class neighborhood afforded views of economic contrast: a checkered pattern within the neighborhood as many families struggled to make ends meet, obvious poverty close by—and across the asphalt boundary of Culebra, what seemed like affluence.

In a curious way, my writing reflects this neighborhood perspective. Some 20 years ago, with Anglos and Mexicans, I addressed the racial boundary represented by Culebra Avenue. I wanted to unlock the mystery of segregation. Neither sociology nor history had much to say about this mystery back then. At the time, Texas history was dominated by the likes of Walter Prescott Webb and J. Frank Dobie. If Mexicans showed up in history texts, they usually made cameo appearances as bandits, criminals or immigrants. The absence of serious treatment had fostered a popular amnesia about the Southwest and its long Mexican presence. There was no sense of contradiction in “remembering the Alamo” and portraying Mexicans as immigrants. Prominent scholars—see Peter Skerry, Mexican Americans: The Ambivalent Minority, or Samuel Huntington, Who Are We?—have even questioned whether Mexicans experienced racial discrimination and deserved civil rights protections.

Given such ahistorical thinking, I wrote Anglos and Mexicans to establish the long Mexican presence and describe the changing relations between the two peoples since “the fall of the Alamo.”

One insight came not from my doctoral program at Yale University, but from the city of New Haven where I lived. The people I identified as “Anglo” in Texas were not “Anglo” in Connecticut. My Italian-American friends, my Irish friends, my Jewish friends all distanced themselves from the term. Some were emphatic about the matter. In retrospect, this was a humorous realization, but for a 22-year-old Chicano from Texas, understanding that not all “Anglos” were alike—a misperception that issued from segregation itself—was an important discovery.

If the identity of “Anglo” carried no purchase in Connecticut, then it was a social-political construction in Texas. If that were the case, “Mexican” identity was likewise a social-political construction whose meaning could vary across space and time. The collapse of internal distinctions within the Mexican-American community—thinking all “Mexicans” were alike—was closely associated with the introduction of commercial agriculture in early 20th-century South Texas. The old Mexican ranch elite, which prided itself on its Castilian-European roots, had been displaced by the beginning of the century. The emerging elite was made up of newcomer commercial farmers from the Midwest and the South. Ignorant of Texas history, they drew no distinctions among social classes of the Texas-Mexican community, nor between Texas Mexicans and Mexican immigrants. A Mexican was simply a Mexican. The overlay of ethnicity with social class in the newcomer farm society, in which growers were “Anglo” and workers were “Mexican,” created a sturdy, 20th-century foundation for segregation.

 

While Anglos and Mexicans focused on the making of segregation, Quixote’s Soldiers focuses on the social movement that brought down its last political vestiges. In this book, I highlight the struggle for political access and social equality by a mobilized Mexican-American community during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. It is a narrative explanation of the sharp political challenge “from below” that upset the paternalistic rule of the Anglo elite, with repercussions for the rest of Texas and the Southwest. I argue that the organizing lessons learned in San Antonio continue to influence Latino politics throughout the country.

My experiences growing up in Texas led me to focus on street youths, or batos locos (crazy guys), who joined the Chicano movement. Given the popular image of these batos as gang members, their politicization intrigued me. As with my previous work, I can trace my fascination to autobiographical moments, in this case to my freshman year in college.

When I graduated from high school in 1966, I spent my freshman year at Southwest Texas State College (now Texas State University) in San Marcos. Though hardly more than an hour away by automobile, I felt I had traveled back in time. I was shocked by the blatant, oppressive segregation of the town. Perhaps better said, as an 18-year-old I was learning that segregation was not a natural phenomenon, but the accumulated result of policies and social practices. San Marcos was a Southern town then, with a Western flavor. One incident introduced me to this reality.

As a friend and I walked toward a gas station one night, by the station’s lights we could see five Anglos, in full cowboy attire and obviously drunk, pull in and demand service. The Mexican-American attendant, who had started to walk toward the car, declined to serve them after hearing racist insults. The cowboys got out of the car and threatened to show “the Meskin a lesson in manners.” My friend and I, a short distance away in the shadows, had seconds to decide what to do. Out of the dark, in a wide circle, came about 10 pachucos. They took off their belts as they walked, picking up rocks and shouting insults. The cowboys climbed into the car as the ‘chucos surrounded them and began to kick the automobile. It looked like the cowboys might get the lesson in manners. A couple batos looked for something to throw at the windshield. A cop pulled in, apparently in response to the attendant’s call. I expected the worst for the batos, but he merely separated the groups and let them go their ways. As the cowboys pulled out, one halfway leaned out a window and shouted, “Remember the Alamo!” The batos responded with a volley of insults. The commotion died down, and the batos walked into the darkness.

The drama was surreal. It was one of those moments that reinforced my curiosity about racial and ethnic relations. The resistance shown by the pachuco youth made me realize my adolescent image of pachucos as delinquents was naive. This awareness informs and guides much of my analysis in Quixote’s Soldiers.

I associate that summer in San Marcos with another moment. Striking farmworkers from the lower Rio Grande Valley marched through town, and I joined them as they made their way to the state Capitol for a Labor Day rally. It was my introduction to Austin. Later I transferred to the University of Texas, where I participated in the hectic movement of the late ‘60s. The anti-Vietnam War movement, the civil rights movement, and the emerging Chicano movement intersected on campus.  Social change was all around. Those were frenzied, creative years. Some 30 years later, I have finally written my interpretation of that period—and finished answering the questions I grew up asking about segregation.

 

San Antonio native David Montejano is professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Anglos and Mexicans in the Making Of Texas, 1936-1986, and editor of Chicano Politics and Society in the Late Twentieth Century.