Expansion and Expulsion
The 1940s saw yet another reversal of U.S. policies--and attitudes--toward Mexican immigration. As wartime industries absorbed U.S. workers, farmers became desperate for low-cost labor and urged the government to take action. In 1942, the U.S. and Mexico jointly created the bracero, or laborer, program, which encouraged Mexicans to come to the U.S. as contract workers. Braceros were generally paid very low wages, and often worked under conditions that most U.S. citizens were unwilling to accept. Braceros were treated so poorly in Texas, for example, that for a period the Mexican government refused to send any workers to that state. The program was very popular with U.S. farmers, and was extended well past the end of World War II, not ending until 1964. More than 5 million Mexicans came to the U.S. as braceros, and hundreds of thousands stayed.
Ironically, just as one government program was pulling Mexican immigrants into the U.S., another was pushing them out. After the war, the U.S. began a new campaign of deportation, on a much larger scale than during the Depression. The expulsions lasted well into the 1950s, and sent more than 4 million immigrants, as well as many Mexican Americans, to Mexico.
Taking the Public Stage
After the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Mexican Americans enlisted in the military in significant numbers. In an on-the-street interview from December 9, 1941, a Texas man explained that "I was born in Mexico myself too, but I raised my kids and I have to fight for my country with my kids…." Mexican Americans were awarded more than 30 Congressional Medals of Honor during the war, and Second World War veterans went on to form political organizations on their return from service.
Many Mexican American civic organizations became prominent in the postwar years, including the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF).
Perhaps the best-known Mexican American movement of the postwar years was the United Farm Workers (UFW) in the 1960s and '70s. The UFW organized farmworkers nationwide and pressured employers through boycotts of non-union produce. These campaigns received widespread publicity, and the UFW's leader, César Chávez, became a well-known representative of the Mexican American community nationwide. Other activists fought for greater recognition of Mexican Americans and began to describe themselves as Chicanos and Chicanas.