From South Texas to the Nation: The Exploitation of Mexican Labor in the Twentieth Century by John Weber
John Weber has written an approachable and chronologically ambitious book about the exploitation of Mexican labor in the United States from the late nineteenth century to the present. Through thorough archival and secondary research, the author examines how, during the early twentieth century, Mexican and Mexican American laborers, along with Anglo farmers, transformed South Texas from an isolated ranching region "to become a laboratory for economic development and modern labor relations" (4). In this laboratory, Anglo farmers constructed a strictly segregated society that restricted the socioeconomic as well the physical mobility of Mexican origin people. Segregation and continual migration from Mexico "helped launch an agricultural boom built on low wages during the 1910s and 1920s" (7). Such a labor system only increased in importance during the following decades. Indeed, employers across the nation sought to recruit from the region's labor pool and replicate its exploitative labor practices. Thus, Weber argues, "South Texas became an important model for agricultural interests throughout the nation" (7).
Weber opens his narrative with the demographic and economic changes that railroads, land speculation, capitalist investment, and the Mexican Revolution brought to northern Mexico and South Texas. In [End Page 354] South Texas, two revolutions and two population movements intertwined, the author asserts, to implant capitalist agriculture in the region. Refugees fleeing the Mexican Revolution created an oversupplied labor pool in South Texas. At the same time, Anglo farmers gradually entered the region, attracted by increased railroad connections and land advertisements that used "[t]he availability of cheap, exploitable labor" as a primary selling point (48). By eventually eliminating Mexican Americans from the South Texas political system, Anglo farmers further disempowered wage laborers from launching their own agricultural revolution: the emergence of a castelike agricultural society with ethnic Mexicans on its bottom rungs and an "ever-expanding labor supply helped to maintain a wage scale in South Texas lower than anywhere else in the nation" (53). One of the country's most productive farming areas emerged from this agricultural revolution. Hence, growers from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest aimed to recreate the agricultural patterns of South Texas by recruiting from its ethnic Mexican labor pool from the 1910s onward.
Although hindered by the desires of South Texas farmers (who wanted continual migration from Mexico while limiting laborers' movement beyond South Texas), other farmers throughout the nation, nativists, and government officials at all levels, Mexican people still resisted oppression. During the 1930s "the Mexicans and Mexican Americans of South Texas launched a series of challenges to the political and economic system that had been built on their backs" (153). Weber skillfully surveys a wide range of social justice struggles, including the successful strike of the Catholic Workers Union of Crystal City, pecan workers' organizing, and the activist Emma Tenayuca's demands for equity in San Antonio's public works projects.
Weber closes his narrative with an analysis of the Bracero Program (1942–1964) and Mexican labor in the United States since the 1960s. The author convincingly argues that "the Bracero Program took the spirit of the deeply unequal labor relations of South Texas and spread them to the rest of the nation" (185). Moreover, since the end of the Bracero Program, Mexican workers in the industrial and service sectors have increasingly faced the denial of basic rights and low wages. Today "the entire nation looks more and more like Texas" for low-wage workers (222).
From South Texas to the Nation demonstrates how northern Mexico, South Texas, Mexican migration, labor relations, agriculture, and the contemporary U.S. economy are interconnected. In this way, Weber has made a notable contribution to labor, Chicana/o, Mexican, and U.S. history. [End Page 355]