Unit Six: Those Who Came Looking For a New Life: Hispanics, Asians, and Other Immigrant Groups

The Creation of Minority Status for Mexican Americans

As white colonists began to spread their influence across the continent, it was inevitable that they would run into the expanding Spanish empire to the south. The first major conflict was in Texas.  The United States won the war, and as a result, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in 1848.  In it, Mexico ceded much of its territory in the Southwest to the United States.  The transfer was complete in 1853 with the Gadsden Purchase.  Almost overnight, the Mexican population of this region became a minority group.  At this time land rights for Mexicans living in the new US territories were often ignored.  New laws were passed that encouraged white settlers to occupy land that traditionally been held by Mexicans.  Since court proceedings were held in English, it became difficult to challenge the loss of land in court.  As territories became states,  Anglo-Americans became the dominant group as well as the majority of the population.  Mexican culture and heritage became suppressed and eliminated from public life.  In 1855 for example, California repealed a law requiring all legal documents to be published in both English and Spanish.

How would the Noel Hypothesis apply to Mexican Americans?  It would seem that white settlers as they moved into lands occupied by Mexicans, brought with them their prejudices and racism. The white settlers (many who came from the South) could just transfer these prejudices from African Americans and American Indians to the Mexicans.  The differences in skin tone between the white settlers and Mexicans (who were often a mixture of Spanish and Indian, provided an easy marker for group membership.  The difference in religion also played a role, where most white settlers were Protestant and most Mexicans Catholic.  There was also a power differential.  As thousands of white settlers poured in to Mexican territories,  the local Mexican population  went from a dominant to a minority group.  The subordination of the local Mexican population came quickly after a large influx of white settlers.

Hispanic Americans

There was a sizable Hispanic population in what is now the United States before settlement by the English and French.  Much of the Southwestern part of the United States was won through war with Mexico. Discrimination against Hispanics began with the new territorial additions.   Hispanics contain many different ethnic groups, which in some respects makes it difficult to classify them as a distinctive group.  Throughout U.S. history, many groups of Hispanics have been discriminated against through exploitation of their labor, particularly migrant farm workers.  Hispanic Americans share a common language and some cultural traits, but they generally don’t think of themselves as a single social group.  Most Hispanics identify with their national origin group (Mexican, Cuban) rather than with a more broad term like Hispanic or Latino.

Although the individual Hispanic ethnic groups would prefer to view themselves separately, if taken together as one large entity, Hispanic Americans would be the largest U.S. minority group at 12.5% of the population.  Because of high birth rates and high immigration rates, Latinos as a group are growing rapidly.  The graph below demonstrates their projected growth over the next two decades.


Hispanics are found in all fifty states, but are located most heavily in the western section of the United States and in Florida.  The map below shows where Hispanics live by county.


As mentioned earlier, the Hispanic community is a diverse group.  The graph below shows the population by some of the larger Hispanic ethnic groups.


With all the diversity within the Hispanic American community, a few points need to be clarified. Hispanic Americans are part of an ethnic minority group (language, food) and part of a racial group (physical characteristics).  For example, many Mexicans combine European and Native American traits, while many Puerto Ricans combine white and black ancestry. Secondly, because of the diversity, group labels are important.  The term Hispanic American may be widely accepted by a majority of the members of that group than the term Latino, but both terms could be considered offensive by the Spanish speaking group that a person is addressing.  The next section below will explore some of the major American Hispanic ethnic groups separately.

Mexican Americans

The Mexican-American experience is different from the European experience in that many lived in the areas of Texas, New Mexico and California prior to them gaining statehood.  These states were part of greater Mexico at one time.  Manifest Destiny paved the way for annexation of Mexican territory. So that in the 19th century, Mexicans living in the areas mentioned above, were conquered and colonized.  At the beginning of the 20th century, many Mexicans resembled Native American tribes in that they were both small in number, spoke a different language, had different cultural customs, and were relatively impoverished and powerless. In some respects they resembled African Americans in the South in that they were exploited for cheap labor and were limited to low paying occupations.  The major difference between the American Hispanic community and African Americans and Native Americans was the close proximity of Mexico. This closeness allowed a steady population movement between the two societies that both maintained Mexican culture and slowed the assimilation  process.

Another area of cultural difference was in the concept of machismo.  Machismo is a value system that stresses male dominance, honor, virility, and violence.  Machismo can be both destructive (violence) and constructive (good provider, respected father). Although most ethnic groups contain an emphasis on male dignity, the difference for Hispanic culture is one of degree.


The history of Mexican Americans since 1900 has been one of immigration. For the last 100 years agricultural interests and businesses have benefited from Mexicans serving as a cheap source of labor. At the beginning of the 20th century movement across the border with Mexico was largely unrestricted.  With the buildup to World War I, immigration from Mexico increased. When the Great Depression hit, the demand for labor decreased and immigration slowed.  The government instituted a repatriation program aimed at deporting illegal Mexican immigrants.  During the 1930’s the Mexican American population declined 40%.

With the onset of World War II, the demand for labor increased. In 1942 a new policy called the “bracero” program was begun.  The goal of the program was to bring in from Mexico contracted laborers.  Most of the workers were employed in agriculture or other low skilled jobs. When their contract was up, they were expected to return to Mexico.  Over the program’s 22-year life, more than 4.5 million Mexican nationals were legally contracted for work in the United States (some individuals returned several times on different contracts). Mexican peasants, desperate for cash work, were willing to take jobs at wages scorned by most Americans. The Braceros’ presence had a significant effect on the business of farming and the culture of the United States. The Bracero program fed the circular migration patterns of Mexicans into the U.S.

1.  The Bracero Program 


At the same time that Mexicans were being brought in to the United States to work, other programs were started to deport undocumented immigrants.  In 1954 a program with a derogatory name, Operation Wetback, was begun.  Under Operation Wetback, the United States Border Patrol aided by municipal, county, state, and federal authorities, as well as the military, began a quasimilitary operation of search and seizure of all illegal immigrants.  Raids on homes and businesses were common, with authorities often ignoring the legal and civil rights of the deported Mexicans.  The number of Mexicans deported is believed to be close to four million.

In 1965 the United States adopted a new immigration policy which gave priority to immigrants who were family and kin of U.S. citizens.  The rate of immigration for Mexicans increased sharply after 1965.  Most of the Mexican immigrants who have arrived since 1965 have continued to seek work in low-wage, unskilled jobs.  Three points can be said about Mexican immigration.  First, that there is a connection between Mexican immigration and the political and economic interests of the United States.  Second, when Mexican immigrants arrive in the United States, they enter a system of internal colonialism.  As a group, they are economically, politically, and socially exploited. And finally,  that  immigration should serve as a reminder of how prejudice and discrimination are always present when groups compete for jobs in the labor market.

cesarchavezMexican Americans, like other groups, protested against their injustices.  Like other ethnic groups in the United States, the protest reached a peak during the 1960’s.  The Chicano Movement consisted of hundreds of organizations focusing on a variety of issues. Broadly speaking, these groups were found in barrios, schools, and prisons. The key organization representing the Chicano Movement was undoubtedly the United Farm Workers (UFW).  The United Farm Workers (UFW) was founded by Cesar Chavez, probably the best known Chicano leader of the 1960’s and 1970’s.  Cesar Chavez grew up in California and became aware of the plight of migrant workers. As a young man he became a union organizer. He was a disciple of Gandhi and advocated for nonviolent direct protest.  He used strikes, boycotts, and fasts to advance the cause of farm workers.  The boycott of grapes that began in 1965 and ended five years later forced growers to recognize the UFW as the legal representative for farm workers.

1.  Cesar Chavez (video)

Puerto Ricans

Puerto Ricans became Americans by conquest.  Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States after the defeat of Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898.  Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens in 1917.  Immigration to the United States was slow at first, but increased significantly during and after World War II.  In 1952, Puerto Rico was granted Commonwealth status and the right to elect their own governing officials and have its own constitution and government.  Although it is a Commonwealth of the U.S., and Puerto Ricans are considered U.S. citizens they still are not allowed to vote in U.S. Presidential elections.

Economics and jobs were the main reason for immigration to the United States.  Over the years, it is estimated that 3 million Puerto Ricans have immigrated to the mainland.  When Puerto Ricans first arrived they were often employed in low-skilled and low wage jobs.  Over time, they have moved into higher skill and higher paying jobs.

One problem that has caused problems for the Puerto Rican community in the United States has been the issue of race and skin color.  In Puerto Rico, racial intermarriage was common.  There wasn’t a strict, white-black split on the island that existed in the United States.  Puerto Ricans with lighter skin were given higher status in the United States compared to Puerto Ricans with darker skin.  Upon arrival in the United States, dark skinned Puerto Ricans discovered that there were still clear disadvantages to being classified as dark.

Cuban Americans

The exposure of Cubans to the United States is also related to the Spanish American War of 1898.  There were few Cubans in the United States prior to the late 1950’s.  Following the Marxist revolution led by Fidel Castro, immigration from Cuba increased.  As the result of the Communist takeover in 1959 approximately 925,000 Cuban refugees have been admitted to the United States.  The first wave settled in Miami area and were extremely wealthy and educated.  They could not return to their homeland.  Immigration continued until 1973 when the airport connection was terminated.  As second wave of Cuban immigration occurred in 1980.  The Mariel Cuban Boatlift officially began April 15, 1980 and ended October 31, 1980, with the arrival of over 125,000 Cubans to Southern Florida from Port of Mariel, Cuba.

More than 23,000 of the arriving Mariel Cubans revealed to Immigration Officials previous criminal convictions.  However, many of those convictions were for offenses that would not warrant detention under United States law.  Contrary to the media attention given to these alleged criminals and that the Mariel Boatlift was a disaster, only 2% or 2,746 Cubans were actual criminals under United States law and were not granted citizenship.  South Florida absorbed these refugees with some adjustment but without long-term affects.  Research done by economist David Card of Princeton suggests that the influx of refugees did not drive down wages or raise unemployment among existing Miami residents, but actually increased the area’s overall wealth.

Because of the similarities in climates, the majority of Cubans who have immigrated to the United States have settled in southern Florida, especially Miami.  In Miami, Cuban immigrants have created an ethnic enclave.  An ethnic enclave is a social, economic, and cultural sub-society controlled by the ethnic group itself.  Ethnic enclaves occupy a specific area or neighborhood.  The neighborhood is inhabited almost entirely by members of the ethnic group. The ethnic enclave provides economic enterprises and social institutions which allows the community to be largely autonomous and is capable of providing for its members from cradle to grave. Group members can avoid the discrimination of the larger society, as well as be free from language barriers by living and working within the ethnic enclave.  The use of the ethnic enclave by Cubans has allowed them to have a much higher rate of being self-employed than other Hispanic groups, such as Mexicans.  Overall, compared with other immigrants from Latin America, Cubans are on the average, more affluent and better educated.  This success has led the Cuban American community to experience a different type of prejudice.  Where Mexicans and Puerto Ricans are given inferior stereotypes such as being lazy, Cuban Americans are stereotyped as “too successful” and “too clannish”.

Asian Americans

Members of the Asian American community are as different in physical appearance and culture as our members of the Hispanic American community. Each group has experienced prejudice and discrimination upon their arrival.  Members of the various Asian ethnic groups are more likely to identify with their ethnic group (Chinese, Japanese) than with the term Asian American. Asians began arriving in the United States in large numbers beginning around 1850.  Most of the new arrivals found themselves working at jobs at the bottom of the economic ladder.  Many Asians have over time been able to assimilate into American culture and become successful.  This has given rise to the perception that Asians are “model minorities“.  Click on the link below  to see if the label of “model minority” is a myth or if it contains some truth.

1.  Model Minority?

2. Asian Last Names Lead to Fewer Job Interviews

According to the 2010 U.S. census, Asian Americans make up 6% of the total U.S. population — that’s about 17 million people who identify themselves as at least part Asian. However, this number represents an increase of 46% from the 2000 census, making Asian Americans the fastest growing of all the major racial/ethnic groups in the U.S., in terms of percentage growth.


Asian Americans come from a variety of cultures each with a different language, religion and cultural traditions.  That said, there are a few general traits that they seem to share.  The first is a focus on group membership instead of individual focus.  The second is the sensitivity to the opinions and judgments of others and to avoid public embarrassment.  For example, in Japan, group harmony, or “wa” is more preferable than individualism.  Finally, Asian cultures tend to be male dominated, with women designated subordinate roles.

Chinese Americans

chineseexclusionactAlthough a few Chinese immigrated in the early 1800’s, the first large wave of Chinese immigration occurred in response to the California Gold Rush of 1849.  When the Chinese first arrived, they were often praised for their strong work ethic. Many of the new Chinese helped construct our railroad system. But as soon as they were perceived by the white community as taking their jobs away, anti-Chinese sentiment grew. In Los Angeles in 1871, a mob of whites shot, hanged, and stabbed 19 Chinese to death.  Other attacks against Chinese occurred throughout the West. Chinese were banned by law from becoming U.S. citizens.  Discrimination against Chinese reached a peak when in 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed which banned virtually all immigration from China.  The ban on immigration remained in effect until World War II, when as a reward for the Chinese helping fight against Japan, a yearly quota of 105 immigrants were allowed in.  Large scale immigration from China did not resume until federal policy was revised in the 1960’s.

Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the creation of a “second generation” was delayed.  In fact, the size of the Chinese community decreased as members were lost to old age.  In addition, most of the Chinese immigrants were young males, looking to make money and then return home to China. By the end of the 19th century, Chinese males outnumbered Chinese females by a ratio of 25 to 1.  Children born to Chinese parents (and other Asian groups) became United States citizens at birth, a status for which their parents were barred.

The Chinese American community survived poverty and discrimination by living in their “ethnic enclave”.  In large urban areas such as San Francisco,  “Chinatowns” developed.  Chinatowns served as a safe haven from anti-Chinese discrimination.  By living in these ethnic enclaves, the Chinese became known as the “invisible minority”.  American Chinatowns became highly organized, self-contained communities.

With the advent of World War II, opportunities outside the Chinatowns opened up. As Chinese entered the 1950’s, many second generation Chinese left their ethnic enclave to seek success in mainstream America.

Japanese Americans

Japanese immigrants began arriving shortly after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed to fill the gap in the labor supply.  By 1910 Japanese Americans outnumbered Chinese Americans and would do so until the 1960’s.  Most Japanese followed the immigration patterns of the Chinese and settled on the West Coast.  Soon after they entered the labor force and competed for jobs, the prejudice and discrimination that was aimed at the Chinese became directed at the Japanese.  In 1907 a “gentlemen’s agreement” between the governments of Japan and the United States which limited the number of Japanese immigrants.  In exchange, schools in San Francisco, California, agreed not to discriminate against students of Japanese descent.  Most Japanese immigrants were young males who were looking to get established and then bring their wife and family over. Because of a loophole in the “gentlemen’s agreement” females were able to continue to immigrate until the 1920’s.  Thus the Japanese were able to create a second generation much faster than the Chinese.

Many of the Japanese immigrants were skilled farmers.  As their success in farming grew, so did Japanese resentment.   The Alien Land Act was passed in 1913 by the California legislature. This act prohibited “aliens ineligible for citizenship” (i.e. all Asian immigrants) from owning land or property, but permitted three year leases.  The prejudice behind this act was not successful because many of the Japanese American farmers put their titles of their land in the names of their children, who were U.S. citizens.  The Alien Land Act was just part of a larger attempt to discriminate against Japanese Americans.  Japanese Americans were discriminated against in the schools, in residential housing, in job occupations, and in public facilities such as movie theaters.

Because of the discrimination, the Japanese, just like the Chinese, Cubans and other ethnic groups, relied on the ethnic enclave. Whereas most ethnic enclaves are urban, the Japanese living in the United States also created rural ethnic enclaves. These ethnic enclaves were first established by the “Issei“, or first generation.  Many of the Issei were able to survive economically by doing business with one another.  This success was built upon by the “Nisei” or second generation.  The Nisei were more open to assimilating into American society and began creating athletic clubs, churches, and other social organizations to reflect their Americanization.  Although the second generation achieved more educational and social success, they could not translate that success into the marketplace.  Because of anti-Asian sentiment, the Great Depression, and foreign policy issues, many qualified Japanese Americans were denied opportunities for economic advancement.

japaneseinternmentWhen Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Congress declared war on the very next day.  Many Americans began to question the loyalty of Japanese Americans. The shock of the attack plus the years of anti-Japanese racism, set the stage for a massive violation of civil rights.  In February 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066.  This act gave the military broad powers to ban any citizen from a fifty- to sixty-mile-wide coastal area stretching from Washington state to California and extending inland into southern Arizona. The order also authorized transporting these citizens to assembly centers hastily set up and governed by the military in California, Arizona, Washington state, and Oregon.  By the summer of 1942, virtually all the Japanese living on the West Coast (110,000) had been placed in relocation camps.  Thus began the saga of the Japanese Internment.  Federal authorities gave Japanese families little time to collect their personal belongings.  What you could carry is what you could keep.  Farmers had to sell their land, while others lost their homes and businesses.  The internment lasted almost the full duration of the war.  Eventually, Japanese were permitted to serve in the military.  Two all-Japanese units served in Europe and became the most decorated units in American military history.  Some Japanese Americans protested their relocation from the start and began legal proceedings. In 1944 the Supreme Court ruled the internment of Japanese Americans to be unconstitutional.  In 1948, and later in 1988, Congress passed laws for economic compensation and to acknowledge the injustice down to Japanese Americans.

After World War II, many Japanese left the ethnic enclaves to enter mainstream American society. By 1960, Japanese Americans had an economic profile similar to white Americans. The economic success and high status of post World War II Japanese has contributed to the perception that Asians are “model minorities”.

1.  Japanese Internment Camps

2.  Japanese Internment Camps Video


Korean Americans

Although a few Koreans immigrated to the United States following the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, most Korean immigrants arrived following the Korean War as either refugees or as war brides.  After 1965 immigration increased substantially.  Because many Koreans are Christian, they appear to be more “acceptable” to the dominant group. by many measures Korean Americans have become economically successful.  Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that from 2008 – 2010 Koreans have the highest rate of self-employment among Asian-American minority groups.  Koreans self-employment was twice as high as any other Asian-American group.  Because many of the Korean businesses are located in deteriorated neighborhoods, populated by other minority groups, hostility and resentment have been expressed against Korean shop owners by African Americans and other minority groups.

Southeast Asians

Immigration from Southeast Asia began in the 1960’s as a result of the American involvement in the Vietnam War.  Displaced refugees and war brides were the first to arrive, but after the war ended in 1975, many Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians who had collaborated with the United States were allowed to immigrate. Many people from these groups had to wait years in refugee camps and as a result had few resources when they arrived in the United States.  The Vietnamese are the largest of the groups from Southeast Asia, and contrary to the perception of the “model minority”, they have education and income levels comparable to other colonized minority groups in the U.S.

Immigrants from India

IndianamericanImmigration from India was quite low until the 1980’s.  Today, immigrants from India make up the third largest Asian American group. Compared to other immigrant groups, Indian immigrants are highly skilled and highly educated.  These highly skilled immigrants from India are part of a worldwide movement of educated people from poorer countries to wealthier countries. Wealthy countries such as the United States benefit, while the poorer countries complain of a “brain drain”.  Indian-Americans have a high rate of business ownership.  In the 2012 book, “Life Behind The Lobby: Indian American Motel Owners and the American Dream” author and sociologist Pawan Dhingra claims that 40% of motels in America are owned by Indian-Americans.

1.  Stereotypes of India (The Daily Show)

Immigrants From the Middle East

The first generation of immigrants from the Middle East began arriving in the late 19th century. Some came to escape religious persecution in the Ottoman Empire, but most came for economic opportunity. By the 1920’s, there were an estimated 250,000 Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians in the United States. Most were engaged in commercial activities, but some worked in the industrial plants of an emergent Detroit, as well as other cities.  By the 1950s, Arab immigrants had settled in major cities across the United States. From the 1950s on, a new type of Arab immigrant began arriving – literate, qualified and bilingual. Immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s pursued white collar or professional vocations, or sought educational opportunities. This group was about 70 percent Muslim and came from across the Middle East, particularly Egypt, Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. The greater ethnic and political consciousness of the late 1960s and early 1970s became institutionalized in the 1970s and 1980s with the creation of several Arab American organizations. These organizations became increasingly necessary, as events in the Middle East, from the oil embargo to hijackings, combined with well organized media campaigns to link Arab Americans with terrorism, made Arabs and Arab Americans increasingly stereotyped and suspect to many Americans.   In the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001, Arab Americans have been  subjected to hate crimes, racial profiling and discrimination.

Although the majority of the Arab World is Muslim, most Arab Americans are actually Christians. According to a 2002 Zogby International survey, 24% of Arab Americans are Muslim, 63% are Christian and 13% belong to another religion or do not practice any particular faith. There is a misunderstanding that many Americans have, and that is equating Arab with Muslim.  The majority of the Arab-American community are Christian and not Muslim.  Arab Americans live in all 50 states, but up to 94% live in metropolitan areas. Los Angeles, Detroit, New York, Chicago, and Washington D.C. are the top five metropolitan areas with Arab American populations. The 2006–2010 American Community Survey  5-year estimates show that an estimated 1.5 million people (0.5 percent of the total population) with Arab ancestry were living in the United States.

Islamophobia-Mainstream-TopI-am-a-muslim-please-dont-hate-meMoving from ethnicity to religion, Islam has had a long history in America. Many Muslim Americans have participated in all aspects of American society, from employment, to politics, to even military service. After the 9/11 attacks, many American Muslims joined the war on terror and, as of 2012, 3,600 Muslims were on active duty in the U.S. armed forces. The perception of Muslims as the “other” – and a dangerous or suspicious other, at that – persists, stoked by post-9/11 insecurities. One of the reasons is that most Americans know little about Islam. This lack of understanding has led to Islamophobia, an exaggerated fear, hatred, and hostility toward Islam and Muslims that is perpetuated by negative stereotypes resulting in bias, discrimination, and the marginalization and exclusion of Muslims from social, political, and civic life.  Recent polling has found that American’s anti-Islamic sentiment has increased where Americans have a less favorable attitude towards Muslims and Arab-Americans.  Favorable attitudes toward American Muslims have dropped from 48 percent to 33 percent from 2010 to 2015, while over the same period favorable attitudes toward American Arabs have dropped 49 percent to 40 percent.

  1. Famous Arab-Americans
  2. Political Divide On Views Between Muslims and Islam
  3.  A Case of Intolerance:  Punish a Muslim Day


  action Movies Relevant to This Unit

Below are a list of movies that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

1.  The Joy Luck Club.  The life story of four Asian women and their daughters set in the United States.

2.   Lakota Women.   Mary Crow Dog, daughter of a desperately poor Indian family in South Dakota, is swept up in the protests of the 1960s and becomes sensitized to the injustices that society inflicts on her people.



 books03Books Relevant to This Unit

Below are a list of books that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

1. Impounded:  Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment  by Dorothea Lange, Linda Gordon (editor), Gary Y. Okihiro (editor)


2.  The Fight in the Fields:  Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement by Susan Ferriss




Farley, John E.      2005   Majority-Minority Relations  (5th Edition)  Upper Saddle River, New Jersey:   Pearson Education

Healey, Joseph F.      1998   Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Class  (2nd Edition)  Thousand Oaks, California:   Pine Forge Press

Copyright ©2006, 2014 Glenn Hoffarth All Rights Reserved


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