To understand contemporary aggressive nativist, racist, and authoritarian attitudes toward Latinos, specifically Mexican Americans, one must begin historically at the end of the Mexican-American War. In 1848, many Mexicans and vast stretches of their sovereign land came under the control of the United States. As a result, at least 75,000 Mexicans were forced to decide whether or not to become U.S. citizens. Of those who voluntarily consented to U.S. citizenship, any constitutional protection afforded to them by the final amended version of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848 was minimized because the full constitutional rights of Mexicans, as U.S. citizens, were to arrive at “the proper time [which was determined] by the Congress of the United States.” As a result, and in due course, Mexicans who opted for U.S. citizenship were denied the right to vote, the title to their land, political representation, and the status of anything other than second-class citizens.
Thus, after 1848, through the Anglo-American political, legal, and territorial conquest of Mexicans, a popularized racial, cultural, and religious sense of superiority took shape among Anglos, which framed Mexicans as a group who were separate, but part of the dominant U.S. territories, and not a prized part, either. With few legal or political protections and without individual importance, Mexicans became the “Others” or foreigners. They were different because of the color of their skin, the language they spoke, the religion they practiced, and the customs they shared. As James Buchanan, then Secretary of State under President James K. Polk, put it, Mexicans were “the imbecile and indolent” race whose “bastard civilization” did not “possess the elements of an independent national existence . . . .”
With wealth and power fueling the Anglo conquest of Mexico, any resulting suffering or maltreatment of Mexican people emerged as a consequence of their racial and cultural weaknesses and not of the Anglos' unrelenting pursuit of power and territory. By classifying Mexicans as Others, not only did the Anglo-Americans justify their methodical, authoritarian, and relentless expansion with a clear conscience, but also established a national unity of insiders and an exclusion of outsiders.
Not surprisingly, the ways in which Anglo-Americans viewed Mexicans as Others found expression in verbal assaults against Mexicans, as well as in physical beatings and mob lynchings. According to several scholars, over a seventy-year period beginning in 1848, at least 597 Mexicans were lynched by mobs in the United States. Based on some estimates, Mexicans were lynched at a rate of 473 per 100,000 of population between the period of 1848 and 1879. In fact, when compared to the rate of lynchings of African-Americans between 1880 and 1930, in certain Southern states, the rate of Mexican lynchings surpassed that of African Americans; and if not, was nearly equal to it. To no one's surprise, the lynchings of Mexicans were only spurred on by the increasing number of local Mexicans who protested or who otherwise engaged in acts of resistance.
In all instances, the lynching of Mexicans was understood and accepted by the Anglo-American population to be the proper response to the non-conforming and barbaric Mexicans who allegedly were “making advances toward  white wom[e] n, cheating at cards, . . . and refusing to leave land that Anglos coveted . . . .” This was exemplified by the case of Jesús Romo, who was arrested for robbery in June 1874, taken from the custody of the arresting officers by a group of masked men, and publicly hanged. The lynching of Mexicans, a form of vigilante justice, was based on the belief in the Anglo-American community that it was a “civic virtue” to do so. To the Anglo-American people, the lynching of Mexicans was not only expected, but was also promoted for the betterment of Anglo society.
The same pattern of blithe, even celebratory, treatment reappeared a hundred years later when Mexicans were a large part of the U.S. labor force and the country entered into the Second World War. Earlier, the 1930s had seen the underhanded, mass deportations of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans to Mexico. The underlying reason for this was that local and state governments were unable to support the surplus of foreign labor, which they had requested a decade earlier to fill shortages in the growing agricultural and industrial industries. But now Mexican-Americans, from 1930 to 1940, were cast out by Anglo society. Like the U.S. territorial expansion in the 1840s, Mexican-Americans in the 1930s found themselves threatened, beaten, and viewed as foreigners or Others in a land they helped to develop and, indeed, had once owned.
By the 1940s, Mexican-Americans were welcomed back by Anglo society to fill jobs once occupied by Anglo-Americans and now vacant due to the war. However, the mistreatment of Mexican-Americans continued, fueled in part by the Bracero Program, which allowed Mexican citizens to work temporarily in the United States and help with the labor shortage. With little oversight, Mexican workers were unrelentingly subjected to oppressive working conditions and physical mistreatment.
Segregation between Mexicans-Americans and Anglos prevailed in many public facilities, including movie theatres, schools, and swimming pools , not unlike the situation between whites and African-Americans. In parts of California, Mexicans and Blacks were often only allowed to swim on Wednesdays because that was the day the pool was to be drained and cleaned. Considered cheap, dirty, and expendable by employers and Anglo peers, Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans in the United States were forced to live as second-class citizens.
Mexicans were not the only ethnic group to suffer the sting of discrimination. The Alien Registration Act in 1940, an effort by the U.S. government to prevent the much-feared overthrow of the government, required, among other things, the registration and fingerprinting of all alien residents over fourteen years old. Two years later, in 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, mandating the evacuation and internment of approximately 120,000 Japanese-Americans living on U.S. soil. Additionally, by 1942, the populations of large U.S. cities, in particular Los Angeles, grew exponentially as waves of Mexican immigrants moved in to seek employment in industrial jobs.
By 1942, the country experienced the legalized ill-treatment of the Bracero workers, the congressional fear of a communist takeover, the imprisonment of Japanese Americans, the entry into the Second World War, and the swell of migration of all races to major U.S. cities. In the wake of these powerful events, fear, anger, and distrust took hold in the minds of Anglo-Americans, particularly in Los Angeles. On August 1, 1942, in Los Angeles County, José Díaz was found dead in an abandoned reservoir, dubbed the Sleepy Lagoon after a popular song of the day. Although the L.A. medical examiner found that Diaz's injuries were consistent with a hit-and-run accident, the local police authorities speculated that his death was the result of a retaliatory beating by the 38th Street Club whose members had been beaten by a group of boys from a rival neighborhood cohort the night before. There was no indication that Díaz was part of a rival neighborhood or a participant in the assault against the 38th Street Club. Moreover, there was no forensic evidence that Díaz's death was caused by members of the 38th Street Club. Díaz was simply at a location where the members of the 38th Street Club had decided to congregate.
Immediately following Díaz's murder, local newspapers sensationalized the story and urged the local police authorities to deal with the “Pachucos” and young “hoodlums” who they claimed contributed to the alleged rampant Mexican crime wave in Los Angeles. The police arrested more than 600 Mexican youths over two nights to “‘make the streets safe for everyone.”’
Fueled by the public's paranoid fear of Mexican youth, Captain E. Duran Ayres, Chief of the Foreign Relations Bureau of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Office submitted a “statistical” report (“Ayres Report”) to the grand jury in response to Díaz's murder. Ayers sought to distinguish and explain “the Mexican problem” that plagued L.A.:
All [a Mexican] knows and feels is a desire to use a knife or some lethal weapon. In other words, his desire is to kill, or at least let blood. And, ‘[w] hen there is added to this inborn characteristic that has come down through the ages, the use of liquor, then we certainly have crimes of violence.’
The Ayres Report further explained that as descendants of Aztecs who allegedly sacrificed 30,000 victims a day, Mexican Americans were naturally cruel and violent. Therefore, the solution to the present problem of the alleged Mexican-American crime wave was imprisonment. The Ayres Report represented the official view of the Los Angeles law enforcement.
At the Sleepy Lagoon trial, none of the twenty-two Mexican youths indicted for the murder of Díaz were allowed to change their clothes or cut their hair for the duration of the judicial proceeding. None of the defendants were allowed to sit or talk with their lawyer. Furthermore, not only did the prosecution fail to prove the twenty-two Mexican youths were part of a gang, but also it failed to introduce sufficient evidence to connect any of the defendants to the murder of Díaz.
Nonetheless, the trial court found seventeen of the twenty-two defendants guilty and doled out a range of punishments for offenses ranging from assault to first-degree murder. On October 4, 1944, with the help of the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, the state Court of Appeal reversed the lower court's sentence on the grounds that the defendants' due process rights had been violated. Of the twelve Mexican-American youths convicted of first-degree murder, all had been incarcerated for a minimum of two years in prison before their official release in 1944. A year after the Sleepy Lagoon trial began, tensions between Mexican Americans and Anglos in Los Angeles continued to worsen. In particular, a series of altercations between Mexican-American youths and Anglo servicemen occurred, eventually leading to the “Zoot Suit Riots” or “Sailor Riots” over a four-day period in the summer of 1943. Beginning on May 30, 1943, a clash between a dozen sailors and Mexican-American youths broke out, ending with one sailor left unconscious. In response, approximately fifty sailors with concealed weapons sought revenge and targeted all Mexican-American youths wearing zoot suits. The sailors yelled: “Let's get the chili-eating bastards!” With the police taking the side of the sailors, Mexican-American youths were beaten and stripped of their clothing. As word spread that Pachucos could be attacked without fear of arrest, the sailors, together with two hundred allies, returned the following night in twenty hired cabs and conducted a “search and destroy” raid against all Mexican-American youths who lived in the East Los Angeles barrio.
Because the police maintained that they could not establish contact with the sailors and the press portrayed the sailors as heroes, the sailors continued to maraud for two more nights, freely assaulting any Mexican-American they saw. At the climax of the Zoot Suit Riots, approximately five thousand soldiers, sailors, and civilians took to the streets of Los Angeles seeking to assault not just Mexican Americans, but also Filipinos and African Americans.
By the time the Zoot Suit Riots had officially ended, more than 600 Mexican-American youths had been arrested as a “preventive” measure. Conversely, the sailors or the civilians who had participated in the riots and assaults were never charged with any crime because the city officials found that they had acted in self-defense.