IEHS Online

Carolina Ortega & Bryan Winston, “Mexican Consulates and the Negotiation of Inequality in the 20th Century”

Los Angeles, CA: Bizcailuz Building, Mexican Consul, Hispanic Heritage Center, Blessing of the Animals Mural, Leo Politi, artist, 2012

In 1930 the Mexican consul in New York City wrote to the Secretaría General del Estado in Mexico City to inform the Mexican government of the upcoming Mexican Independence Day celebrations that would take place in the city. According to the letter, a Comité Patriótico Mexicano (Mexican Patriotic Committee) had formed and met on July 25, 1930 to plan the celebration. In the letter, the consul explained that the committee had decided to hold two nights of celebration: the first, taking place on September 15, would be “una fiesta popular,” a people’s party open to all, while the second, held the next day, would be by invitation only. The committee envisioned having “foreign consuls and other prominent people in New York who sympathize with our country” attend the party on the 16th.[1] Therefore, the committee, with the support of the Mexican consulate, created a classed celebration for New York’s Mexican colonia. They wanted the celebration to represent a distinguished and decorous event — that excluded the masses.

This event and the role of the Mexican consulate in planning it raises questions about how the consulate defined its mission. According to historian George J. Sánchez, one of the main roles of the Mexican consulate was to serve and protect Mexican nationals in the United States. Yet he shows that “consulate officials since the Porfiriato had generally carried more bark than bite” when it came to protecting nationals who found themselves in trouble in the U.S. Scholar Gabriela F. Arredondo demonstrates that the Mexican consulate in Chicago was just as concerned with promoting Mexican nationalism through socio-cultural events as it was with providing consulary protection for Mexicans in the area. But, as she writes, “Mexicans often perceived a consul’s inability to free jailed compatriots or to remedy other kinds of wrongs as inaction or indifference.” In the U.S. South, historian Julie M. Weise illustrates how officials opened an entirely new consulate in Memphis to oversee the contracting of bracero workers, when the existing offices in New Orleans and San Antonio failed to help braceros working in the Arkansas Delta. But as Gilbert G. González shows, Mexican consulates also intervened in agricultural strikes in California in contradictory ways — thus playing a vital role shaping the Chicano community in the United States. Mexican consulates were meant to aid Mexican nationals who resided in the United States — but they fulfilled this mission with varying success over time and space.

At the OAH in 2020, our panel aims to address the role of the consulates in shaping Mexican communities throughout the United States between the 1910s and the 1960s. We inquire about the Mexican consulate’s response, or lack of, to the needs of Mexican nationals, as well as the motivations of consuls and the Mexican state when attending to distinct migrant experiences.

Juan Mora’s dissertation 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. In particular, Mora’s paper examines how braceros in Michigan attempted to challenge labor inequalities via the local Mexican consulate in Detroit; as his work shows, they frequently found the consulate ineffective. In turn, Mora writes about how many laborers made the long journey from Michigan to the Texas-Mexico border to seek out alternative consuls and more effective consular assistance.

Carolina Ortega’s larger project traces the history of guanajuatense migration to the United States throughout the twentieth century. Although much has been written about Mexican migration, there is still surprisingly little known about its history from and in migrant sending communities. Her paper examines the underlying class inequalities that emerged during the formation of the Mexican colonia in New York City during the 1920s and the role the Mexican consulate played in aligning itself with the educated and professional Mexicans in the city who distinguished themselves from the popular masses.

Bryan Winston’s work analyzes ethnic Mexican community formation in the Midwest through migration, cultural production, interethnic cooperation and conflict, and the creation of local immigration policy. Winston’s paper focuses on how the Mexican consulates of St. Louis and Kansas City functioned as a carceral corridor, simultaneously freeing imprisoned Mexicans and facilitating their repatriation — and thus deportation — back to Mexico. But Mexican migrants challenged their disproportionate arrest rates and struggled to define the terms of repatriation through correspondence with Mexican state officials.

Including Mexican sources is critical to telling the history of Mexican migrants in the United States. Each paper uses the records of Mexican consulates; these provide a valuable resource for highlighting Mexican voices and experiences in history. But rather than telling merely an institutional story our work uses the sources to illustrate what Mexican migrants thought and encountered in their own words.

This is really important because we can get beyond and around the views of disparaging U.S. officials, social reformers, and law enforcement which are often the main source on Mexican migration in official records. The types of records vary too, including documents reflecting Mexican migrants corresponding directly with consulates and the Mexican state to report on their own experiences and Mexican officials writing up their observations on Mexicans in the United States. Consulate records allow scholars to highlight the agency of migrants themselves and their role in state formation, providing new avenues for interventions in the field.

People’s experiences with their consulates varied wildly because of differing regional and local conditions. Consulates in the U.S. southwest were numerous and oversaw smaller physical spaces, in contrast to their counterparts to the north and east who aided dispersed populations. The large consulate jurisdictions of the midwest and the conflicting class makeup of points east created challenges for consuls that southwestern consuls’ may not have faced. The state and regional spread of consulates provides fertile ground for studies of regionalism, while their nexus as communication between state and non-state actors offers opportunities for transnational studies.

Our panel only scratches the surface. Ortega’s work examines class tensions between working-class Mexicans and Mexican elites in New York. These tensions were sustained by Mexican officials who worked towards presenting a revolutionary government in both Mexico and the U.S. Mora shows the power of Mexican laborers to fight the bosses of Michigan’s agricultural fields during the Bracero program. Here, Mexican laborers are neither pawns of their government nor docile workers subject to an unfair guestworker program. Winston emphasizes how migrant-consul negotiations shaped repatriation during the interwar years and therefore binational immigration policy. In each case, transnationalism is central to these stories, helping us consider both sides of the border when looking at the experience of Mexicans in the United States.

And there are many questions left to ask. In our research, we continue to puzzle out how migrant-consul relations created the state. How did migrants demand the expansion of the state and/or how did state institutions justify their existence because of migrants abroad? And what can we learn from historians of Mexico to better understand the role of consulates in the United States? Examining consulates and their records may help bridge gaps between Americanists and Mexicanists. These and many other conversations about the centrality of Mexican migrants in shaping both U.S. and Mexican history will continue – please join us at the OAH in 2020 for a lively discussion.

[1] Letter from the Consulado General in New York to the Secretaria de Relaciones Exteriores. Archivo Histórico Genaro Estrada. Acervo Histórico Diplomático, Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores. Expediente: IV-264-51.