Tracing the History of Chicana/o Labor and Migration (November 2022)

This essay first appeared in the November 2022 issue of Choice (volume 60 | issue 3).


In 1908, Victor Clark published a government report entitled Mexican Labor in the United States, which provided a nativist and racist view of the experience of Mexican laborers in the United States at the time. His report led to the publication of more nativist and racist scholarship and popular articles by Anglo-American writers and scholars in the early twentieth century, including pieces by Wallace Thompson, Max Handman, Robert Foerster, and Emory S. Bogardus. These men all developed negative representations of Mexican migrant workers in the United States, contributing to the notion of a “Mexican problem,” the general idea that Mexicans were inherently inferior and must Americanize in order to progress.

Gilbert G. Gonzalez, in Culture of Empire, disputes these symbolic representations by arguing that the development of a community of Mexican American workers was the political and ideological product of American imperialism. His book debates the concept of the Mexican problem by challenging nativist and hegemonic interpretations of this population by Anglo-American intellectuals and writers, such as those previously mentioned.

This bibliographical essay will use Gonzalez’s research as an ideological framework to contextualize major historical interpretations of the experiences and the patterns of labor and migration among the Mexican American community living in the United States, often referred to as Chicana/o. There are various scholarly frameworks for understanding the construction and evolution of Chicana/o labor and migration historiography. One influential approach uses a Mexican working-class perspective. Since the late 1960s, historians of Chicana/o labor and migration adhering to this framework have argued that new historical and ideological paradigms would enhance understandings of the working-class Mexican population’s experiences in the United States. This bibliographical essay will analyze the specialization of Chicana/o labor and migration historiography by focusing on its major interpretations and areas of focus within the field. Moreover, it will provide new scholarly perspectives for the future direction and construction of Chicana/o labor and migration.

About the Author:

José G. Moreno is associate teaching professor of ethnic studies at Northern Arizona University. He received his PhD in American studies and Chicano Latino studies from Michigan State University.