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  • Labor Rights are Civil Rights: Mexican American Workers in Twentieth-Century America
  • Susan W. Thomas
Labor Rights are Civil Rights: Mexican American Workers in Twentieth-Century America. By Zaragosa Vargas . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005. 289 pp. $32.95 hardback.

In Labor Rights are Civil Rights: Mexican American Workers in Twentieth-Century America, Zaragosa Vargas magnifies the close ties connecting immigration policy, labor activism, and civil rights. Limiting his study to the 1930s-40s, Vargas concentrates on Mexican workers in the Southwest, the mountain states, and California. He uses specific strike actions and organizing campaigns to highlight the ways in which Mexican immigrants sought to improve their working conditions as well as their social and political circumstances. Vargas argues that working class labor activism "fundamentally changed the way Mexican Americans dealt with social injustice thereafter." Lacking a [End Page 100] representative national civil rights organization, Mexican workers would use their labor organizing connections and tactics in pursuance of a broad range of rights and protections.

Vargas reminds us that the region's agricultural workforce was predominantly of Mexican origin, as was a significant portion of those who labored in the area's mines. In urban centers, women were particularly prominent in the workforce as cigar rollers, dressmakers, pecan-shellers, and domestics. Vargas closely examines the degree to which Mexican American workers suffered oppression and discrimination in all of these occupations. His discussion of women's leadership roles in organizing and strike efforts is especially strong.

The Depression brought even greater economic hardship for Mexican workers, in part because the Hoover administration scapegoated Mexicans as a cause of the economic crisis and initiated a repatriation campaign. Those Mexican American workers who remained responded to the New Deal's promises with a surge of organizing. The CIO and the Communist Party in both the U.S. and Mexico were integral to the organization of Mexican American labor. While Communists offered relief and support for workers, they also provided a highly visible target for right-wing Anglo opposition. Vargas provides detailed accounts of various strike efforts and the ways in which law enforcement collaborated with Anglo employers, the Immigration Bureau, the Border Patrol, and Mexican consuls to detain or deport strike leaders and to allow scab laborers to enter the country from Mexico.

Local administration of New Deal relief programs enabled Anglo leaders to prevent Mexicans from receiving aid and force them into the fields. Anglos saw Mexicans as equal to or lower than blacks in social standing, and they thus severely limited their access to advancement, better pay, or training opportunities in urban defense industries during World War II. National unity became the catchphrase for labor during the war years, supplanting an earlier emphasis on racial equality. Vargas argues that post-war purges of Communists from the CIO virtually ended organized labor's role in securing racial equality for Mexican workers.

Labor Rights are Civil Rights challenges the notion that Mexican American civil rights activism began with the middle class. Intended for the serious student or scholar, Vargas' account is a richly detailed and rewarding analysis that only disappoints the reader in its abrupt conclusion. Vargas has deftly explored Mexican workers' seemingly futile struggle to gain parity with whites on all levels; their struggle continues today.

Susan W. Thomas
University of North Carolina, Greensboro


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pp. 100-101
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2007
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