Mexican Consulates and the Negotiation of Inequality in the Twentieth-Century United States

Solicited by the Immigration and Ethnic History Society (IEHS).
Endorsed by the Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA) and the Western History Association

Thursday, April 2, 2020, 12:45 PM - 2:15 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Immigration and Internal Migration; Labor and Working-Class; Latino/a


This panel explores how Mexican consulates functioned as sites for Mexican nationals to negotiate social, political, and economic inequalities they faced in the United States during the twentieth century. It also examines how Mexican officials created and reinforced inequalities in their relationships with Mexican migrant communities. Panelists push the geographical boundaries of Mexican immigration history by focusing on locales outside of the Southwest, offering perspectives that complicate both scholarly understandings of Mexican consulates and the Mexican migrant experience in the United States.

Juan Mora explores the failures of the Detroit Mexican consulate to protect braceros and the migrant-created networks that secured consulate assistance from Texas during World War II and after. Mora highlights the employer-structured inequalities of Michigan's agricultural fields and the strategies migratory workers developed to improve their working and living conditions in the state. Carolina Ortega examines the underlying class inequalities that emerged during the formation of the Mexican colonia in New York City during the 1920s. Ortega reveals transnational networks of migrant-families communications as well as Mexican officials who smoothed over the reverberations of the Cristero War. Moreover, her study demonstrates how class inequality defined the relationship between the Mexican consulate and the New York community, with working-class Mexicans celebrating Mexican Independence Day separately and being subjected to repatriation at a higher rate than their professional compatriots. Bryan Winston explains how the Mexican consulates of St. Louis and Kansas City functioned as a carceral corridor, simultaneously freeing imprisoned Mexicans and facilitating their repatriation. Winston illuminates how Mexican migrants challenged their disproportionate arrest rate and struggled to define the terms of repatriation through correspondence with Mexicans state officials.

Commentary from Gabriela Arredondo promises to illuminate the unique contributions of the panel because of her familiarity with Mexican consulates and the Mexican migrant experience in the United States. Arredondo will push panelists and the audience to consider the implications of these studies and how the panel can spark novel inquiries into Mexican consulates in the United States. Overall, the panel expands scholarly interpretations of Mexican consulates and encourages others to do the same.

Papers Presented

Ineffective Consul: Agricultural Labor Inequalities and Detroit’s Mexican Consulate, 1942–1964

For Mexican farm workers recruited to work in the United States during the bracero program (1942–1964), local Mexican consulates served as the primary location where braceros sought institutional assistance from their government. As the chairman for the National Citizens Council for Migrant Labor wrote in 1948, “The only recourse Mexican workers will have is through their Consuls.” While other noninstitutional options existed for Mexican workers, the efforts of an “activist consul” could help braceros address a range of inequalities in the agricultural fields: from recovering lost wages, to improving work and living conditions, and secure other fringe benefits. The amount of support provided by a consul for intervening in bracero-related cases varied drastically from consul to consul—there was no standard reaction by consular representatives to complaints raised by Mexican nationals. During the mid-1950s, the attentiveness of Detroit’s consul to bracero concerns, at times, bordered on apathy. In fact, during this period some incidents in Michigan required the intervention of Mexican consuls in Texas. Focusing on Detroit’s Mexican consulate during the bracero program, this paper will examine how braceros attempted to challenge labor inequalities via the local consulate, as well as the frequent ineffectiveness of this institution. Furthermore, this paper will explore the migratory networks of laborers who traveled from Michigan to consuls along the Texas-Mexico border to find more effective consular assistance.

Presented By
Juan Ignacio Mora, Juan Mora, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Unlikely Migrants: Mexicans in New York City, 1924–1932

This paper argues that Mexican migrants who traveled to New York City in the 1920s experienced a different type of migratory experience than did their compatriots who traveled to the Southwest and the Midwest during this period. But as in other Mexican communities, Mexican nationals, both in the U.S. and Mexico, turned to the Mexican consulate in times of need. In Mexico they wrote to the consulate asking about their relatives in New York, while Mexicans in New York sought the consulate’s help when they faced hardships. Furthermore, the Mexican consulate played a role in conveying a positive image of Mexico within the United States, whether through the celebration of Mexican holidays or the downplaying of tumultuous events, such as the Cristero War (1926–1929) in Mexico. Despite this, the consulate aligned itself with the educated and professional Mexicans in the city who distinguished themselves from the popular masses—i.e., unskilled workers. They did so, for example, by having their own separate celebrations for Mexican Independence Day. While the consulate may have overlooked political and religious ties within the community, class served as a marker of inequality within the Mexican colonia. Class inequalities were most evident during the repatriation of Mexicans in the 1930s, when the consulate looked to steam and cargo ships as a way to transport Mexicans home. This paper focuses on New York as an unlikely destination for Mexican migrants, the Mexican colonia that formed, and the role the consulate played in the colonia.

Presented By
Carolina Ortega, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The Carceral Corridor of the Lower Midwest: Mexican Migrants, Mexican Consulates, and the Negotiation of Incarceration and Migration Control during the Interwar Years

Mexican consulates functioned as important vehicles for Mexican migrants to negotiate legal and social equality in the lower Midwest during the first half of the twentieth century. One crucial way consulates served this function was through consular officials’ interactions with local, state, and federal officials in the United States to address the imprisonment of Mexican migrants and repatriation and deportation. This paper examines how Mexican nationals in Kansas, Nebraska, and Missouri contested their incarceration and facilitated their repatriation through correspondence with Mexican consulates in Kansas City and St. Louis. Consuls and other Mexican officials intervened on behalf of Mexican migrants disproportionately incarcerated during the 1910s and 1920s. At times, consuls succeeded in commuting sentences at the expense of repatriation. This process shifted during the economic turmoil of the Great Depression, when migrants increasingly asked consulates and the Mexican state for aid to repatriate, forcing Mexican officials to become more active in migration control in the United States. The Mexican Ministry of Foreign Relations operated as a crucial participant in migration control in the lower Midwest, permitting the movement of some Mexicans while denying others the right to return to Mexico. This paper offers new interpretations of the role of Mexican consulates in the United States by centering the voices of Mexican migrants to understand their power, or lack thereof, in contesting incarceration and migration control, while simultaneously challenging scholarly assumptions of U.S.-dominated immigration policy.

Presented By
Bryan Winston, Dartmouth College

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Gabriela F. Arredondo, University of California, Santa Cruz
Dr. Gabriela Arredondo, Department Chair and Associate Professor of Latin American & Latino Studies at University of California, Santa Cruz. Received PhD in History from The University of Chicago. Co-edited volume Chicana Feminisms: A Critical Reader (Duke University Press) and Mexican Chicago: Race, Identity and Nation (University of Illinois Press). Former Director Chicano Latino Research Center/Research Center for the Americas (UCSC) and Research Fellow at Stanford Center for Study of Race and Ethnicity. Currently Executive Vice Chancellor Research Fellow (UCSC) and Organization of American Historians Distinguished Speaker. Dedicated to mentoring, teaching and training students. At work on two research projects: an historical examination of multi-racial cooperation in Latinx civil rights struggles, and a second multi-sited historical project on inter-racialism and racial formations in the Latinx Américas.

Presenter: Juan Ignacio Mora, Juan Mora, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Juan I. Mora received his B.A. in History and Latina/Latino Studies in 2013 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is currently a PhD Candidate in Modern U.S. History at the University of Illinois. His dissertation, “Latino Encounters: Mexicans, Tejanos, and Puerto Ricans in Postwar Michigan,” analyzes how Latinos in Michigan forged local, statewide, and transnational networks of postwar migration from their labor in sugar beet fields and other agricultural industries. “Latino Encounters” asks: what can examining the encounters of Mexicans, Tejanos, and Puerto Ricans throughout time and space in Michigan tell us about how notions of race are constructed, about the cultures and communities formed through migration, and about the impact of agricultural experiences on the development of urban society? The periodization for this project focuses on state-sanctioned guestworker programs that the United States engaged in with Mexico and Puerto Rico: the Bracero Program and Operation Bootstrap, respectively. He has worked as a Teaching Assistant in both the History and Latina/Latino Studies Departments. His research has generously been funded by University of Illinois’ Graduate College Fellowship, the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies Tinker Summer Fellowship, and the Diversifying Higher Education Faculty in Illinois Fellowship.

Presenter: Carolina Ortega, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Carolina Ortega received her B.A. in History and Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013. She is currently a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her dissertation, “De Guanajuato to Green Bay: A Generational Story of Labor, Place, and Community, 1926-2010,” traces the history of guanajuatense migration to the United States throughout the twentieth-century. It argues that even though much has been written about Mexican migration, we still know surprisingly little about how its history looks from and in sending communities. By beginning the story in early twentieth-century Guanajuato, one of Mexico’s most prolific (but often overlooked) sending states, her research illuminates previously ignored long-term push factors of mass migration. Moreover, the project reflects her expertise and interests in the U.S. and Latin America that seeks to bridge the disconnect between these histories and scholarship in order to better understand transnational history, labor and migration, and culture and society. Her work has been funded by the University of Illinois Graduate College Fellowship, the Tinker Summer Field Research Fellowship, the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities Fellowship, and the University of Illinois History Department ABD Fellowship.

Presenter: Bryan Winston, Dartmouth College
Bryan Winston is a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. history at Saint Louis University. Bryan's dissertation, "Mexican Corridors: Migration and Community Formation in the Central United States, 1900-1950," examines ethnic Mexican mobility, cultural adaptation, and transnational organizing in the Lower Midwest during the first half of the twentieth century. "Mexican Corridors" utilizes Mexican and U.S. archival sources, as well as oral histories and spatial analysis, to emphasize how the interconnected processes of interethnic exchange, racial formation, immigration policy enforcement, and Mexican cultural production shaped ethnic Mexican communities in the central United States. Bryan also has an article forthcoming in Nebraska History. The article, "Mexican Community Formation in Nebraska, 1910-1950," examines the importance of mobility, cultural production, and Mexican consular activities to the formation of a statewide Mexican community in Nebraska. Bryan's research has been funded by the Americas Research Network, the Nebraska State Historical Society, the Kansas Historical Society, the Center for Missouri Studies, and the University of Minnesota Libraries.