Historian Cynthia Orozco has a new book out titled Agent of Change: Adela Sloss-Vento, Mexican-American Civil Rights Activist and Texas Feminist, which excavates the importance of a feminist figure of the Mexican American Civil Rights movement, adding to the scholarship that unearths the “forgotten” history of women’s importance in major American social movements. In today’s episode we’ll be exploring the Mexican-American Civil Rights movement of the early to mid-twentieth century and two women important to that movement, Adela Sloss-Vento and Alicia Dickerson Montemayor, whose work to establish women as authoritative figures in the Mexican American Civil Rights movement paved the way for the Chicana Movement of the 1960s and 70s.
Transcript for LULAC, Adela Sloss-Vento, and the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement
Researched and written by Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD
Recorded by Elizabeth Garner Masarik and Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD
Elizabeth: If we look for women of color in national women’s rights organizations before the 1970s, we don’t see very many. Once it was assumed that women of color did not participate in twentieth century feminism. Of course that wasn’t the case at all and the historical record is righting itself, as historians and other social scientists complicate the narrative of twentieth century feminism, arguing that feminisms were at play. Sociologist Benita Roth even titles her book Separate Roads to Feminism, showing that women of color acted in feminist ways but were not largely involved with national and white feminist organizations.
Sarah: Historian Cynthia Orozco has a new book out titled Agent of Change: Adela Sloss-Vento, Mexican-American Civil Rights Activist and Texas Feminist, which excavates the importance of a feminist figure of the Mexican American Civil Rights movement, adding to the scholarship that unearths the “forgotten” history of women’s importance in major American social movements.
Elizabeth: In today’s episode we’ll be exploring the Mexican-American Civil Rights movement of the early to mid-twentieth century and two women important to that movement, Adela Sloss-Vento and Alicia Dickerson Montemayor, whose work to establish women as authoritative figures in the Mexican American Civil Rights movement paved the way for the Chicana Movement of the 1960s and 70s.
And I’m Sarah
And we are your historians for this episode of DIG.
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Elizabeth: In Cynthia Orozco’s book Agent of Change, she examines the Mexican American Civil Rights movement, particularly the League of United American Citizens (LULAC) which is the oldest Mexican American civil rights organization in the United States, through one of its unsung leaders, Adela Sloss-Vento. Sloss-Vento confronted segregation and Juan Crow and is the only known Tejana with a body of writings including civil rights essays, opinions in newspapers, and letters to politicians that span across seven decades from the 1930s to the 1990s. Throughout her cross-generational lifetime of activism, Sloss-Vento belonged to two social movements : The Mexican American Civil Rights movement which began around 1920 and ended around 1960, and the Chicano movement, which was from the early 1960s up until about 1978.
Sarah: Adela Sloss was born in Karnes City, Texas in September of 1901 to Ancelma Garza Zamora and David Sloss who was of German and Mexican descent. As Tejanos, or Mexican Texans living on the frontera, the family spoke Spanish and identified with Mexican culture. Adela’s parents divorced, leaving her mother to raise her and three siblings alone. Because of that, she was not able to finish high school until her mid-twenties.
Elizabeth: The fact that she graduated from high school at all makes her unique already as it was rare for working-class Mexican heritage women to graduate from high school before the 1950s. But she did and soon thereafter embarked on a lifetime of public intellectualism.
Sarah: After high school Adela Sloss worked in the San Diego, Texas mayor’s office and then for the Edinburg tax collector’s office (both cities in South Texas) before she married Pedro Vento in 1935 at the age of 34. She had a daughter, Irma, in 1938 and a son, Arnoldo, in 1939. The family moved to Corpus Christi, Texas in 1943 and later to Edinburg, Texas.
Elizabeth: Sloss-Vento began working for the Hidalgo County Jail as a matron in 1949 in order to help pay for her children’s college educations. (They both went on to earn PhDs.) Throughout her entire adult life she was actively engaged in public intellectualism, writing extensively about, and advocating for, Mexican American Civil Rights.
Sarah: She also maintained active correspondence with several Mexican American civil rights activists and founders of the League of Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Alonso Perales, J. Luz Saenz, and J.T. Canales. Although she is largely overlooked, she was honored in the 1960s and 1970s as a LULAC “pioneer.”
Elizabeth: Sloss -Vento operated in South Texas during the era of Juan Crow, where segregation and white supremacy reigned supreme. “No Negroes, Mexicans, or Dogs Allowed” signs were visible on restaurants and other businesses where prejudices were most acceptable. The Rio Grande Valley, the Valley for short, was the heart of American agribusiness and exploitation of Mexican heritage farm laborers. In terms of the economic situation, there was barely an emerging Tejano middle class by the 1920s. Most people were working class and those people who were farm workers were extremely exploited.
Sarah: Additionally, she’s operating in an extremely patriarchal society. As a woman in the time period, working outside of the home was usually in domestic service. In the Valley, most women working outside of the home would have been farm workers and in cities like San Antonio they would have been in the garment industry, laundries, or other light industry like pecan-shelling or canning. All of these were low-paying jobs. When Adela Sloss started her activism around 1927, there was not a single Latino in the state legislature and Latina representation in politics was practically non-existent. Most of the mayors, even in the Valley, were not Hispanic, so there was an absence of decent political representation for Mexican heritage residents.
Elizabeth: However, even though she’s navigating one of the most oppressive eras of our history she was still able to shine as a public intellectual and confront the lack of political power of Mexican Americans in south Texas. Sloss-Vento excelled in journalism, writing numerous op-eds and letters to the editors for various Spanish language newspapers in the Texas Mexico borderlands. She also excelled as a writer in that she wrote to numerous politicians, to U.S. presidents, to Mexican presidents, to congresspeople, and to local leaders. She became a major civil rights leader- not so much through official organizations but through her writing and advocacy.
Sarah: But Adela Sloss-Vento is not only a political actor worthy of historical study, she’s also an important figure because she acted as an archivist of the Mexican American Civil Rights movement in South Texas. She kept meticulous records of the movement as she saw it, cutting out newspaper clippings about Mexican American civil rights events and saving them for posterity. She preserved much of her correspondence with important Mexican Americans in the movement as well, allowing future historians to trace the network of activists working in South Texas and throughout the United States. In 1977 at the age of seventy-five she wrote the first biographical book about leader Alonso Perales who was a founder LULAC, the third Latino attorney in the state, and a U.S. diplomat.
Elizabeth: Adela Sloss-Vento’s feminism shone through when she assisted burgeoning historian Cynthia Orozco in the early 1970s when she was a student. Sloss-Vento helped Orozco access her personal archives and connected her with Alonso Perales’ papers, which were held by his widow Martha Pareles. In believing that women like Orozco were capable of this important historical and archival work, Sloss-Vento was not only a movement actor but became a conduit for advancing the historical study of Mexican heritage peoples living in the United States, as her assistance helped Orozco launch her career as a preeminent historian of Mexican heritage people in the United States. Orozco’s 2009 book No Mexicans, Women, or Dogs allowed, is one of the premier texts documenting Juan Crow in Texas and the rise of the Mexican American Civil Rights movement and LULAC.
Sarah: In Orozco’s new book Agent of Change, she says that it wasn’t until after 2011 when Alonso Perales’ papers were finally organized and archived at the M.D. Anderson Library at the University of Houston, that Orozco realized how essential Adela Sloss-Vento was to the civil rights movement in Texas. Orozco writes that Sloss-Vento never hinted at her own importance to the movement but was instead adamant that Perales and other male leaders be highlighted in Orozco’s earlier examination of LULAC and the Movement. However, once Orozco saw the network of correspondence in the Perales papers that showed the centrality of Sloss-Vento, she was able to see how selfless Sloss-Vento was in her advocacy and her importance to the story.
Elizabeth: Right, so this is a really important point to make here about advocacy and preserving history. Perales died in 1960. His papers were not properly archived until 2011. It’s only at that point that one of the premier historians of the Mexican American civil rights movement is able to see previously overlooked connections. So this says a lot about still – the dearth of women’s voices and people of color’s voices in the archives-and how important it is to preserve those voices.
Sarah: Absolutely. Ok, so let’s dive into the general history of the Mexican American Civil Rights movement…
Elizabeth: The League of United Latin American Citizens was founded in February of 1929 in Corpus Christie, Texas by Mexican American men. This was an effort to join various Mexican heritage civil rights organizations into one national entity in order to act with more authority and strength, much in the same vein as the NAACP. By 1940 LULAC chapters had reached into four states and Washington, D.C. Today it is a national organization with chapters in every state.
Sarah: However, 1929 and the founding of LULAC was not the beginning of the Mexican American Civil Rights movement, but a continuation of Mexican heritage organizing along the frontera throughout the 1910s and 1920s. Building on the organizing of middle-class Mexican heritage Texans, or Tejanos, movements for basic human rights and dignity were championed by families such as the Idar family who were very active in Mexican and American politics. Nicassio Idar owned and published the Spanish-language newspaper La Cronica, printed in Laredo, TX throughout the 1910s. His son Eduardo wrote articles covering the area from Brownsville to the Rio Grande Valley, while his daughter Jovita and her brother Clemente worked in publishing and as staff writers at various Spanish-language papers throughout South Texas. Clemente Idar was the first AFL organizer for Mexican-Americans in the Southwest. Eduardo Idar was one of the founding members of LULAC. Throughout the 1920s many different organizations formed to advocate for the rights of Mexican heritage peoples in Texas and the U.S. Two of the groups that formed were named the Order of the Sons of America and Order of the Knights of America.
Elizabeth: The Order Sons of America (Orden Hijos de America) (OSA) began in 1921 in South Texas by eight young Tejanos, three of whom were World War I veterans. By the OSA’s first meeting, one hundred and fifty men attended the event. By 1929 the OSA had seven chapters across Texas. The OSA formed to “work for the intellectual and social progress of the Spanish speaking community residing in the United States.” Its stated purpose was “the intellectual, musical, educational and physical development of its members, by the promotion of economic and educational conditions among members and their families.” The OSA’s political agenda included fighting for the right for Mexican Americans to serve on juries, to sue European Americans in court, and to use all public facilities. Here’s a snippet of the stated purpose of the OSA from its 1922 constitution:
We declare it the duty of citizens of the United States of Mexican or Spanish extraction to use their influence in all the fields of social, economic, and political action to secure the fullest possible enjoyment of all rights, privileges, and prerogatives granted to them under the American Constitution and to accomplish this we believe that a national organization should exist.
Sarah: Tensions arose among some members of the OSA, which spawned three new organizations: the Order Sons of Texas, Club Protector México-Texano (México Texano Protective Club), and the Order of Knights of America. The Order of Knights of America was a splinter group of the OSA, which formed when some younger members left the OSA in San Antonio to form their own organization. These younger men, including John C. Solis, one of the original founders of the OSA and a later founder of LULAC, wanted more direct action and freedom from the political machines running South Texas.
Elizabeth: Attorney Alonso Perales and schoolteacher J. Luz Saenz, among others, attempted to merge these and other organizations at a meeting in Harlingen, TX in 1927, known as the Harlingen Convention. Two hundred Mexican and Mexican American Civil Rights activists, all men, met to discuss organizing against racial discrimination. This was an attempt to unite the various groups across Texas and expand. A new group emerged from this meeting called the Latin American Citizens League, or LAC. The group was also called the Mexican American Citizens League. According to Orozco, Sloss-Vento’s archive is the best documentation of the 1927 Harlingen Convention.
Sarah: Two years later in 1929, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) formed from the merger of the Corpus Christi council of the Sons of America, the Alice council of the Sons of America, the Knights of America, and the Latin American Citizens League in the Valley and Laredo. LULAC’s initial goals were “to develop within the members of our race the best, purest, and most perfect type of a true and loyal citizen of the United States of America…” and “to eradicate from our body politic all intents and tendencies to establish discriminations among our fellow citizens on account of race, religion, or social position as being contrary to the true spirit of Democracy, our Constitution, and Laws.”
Elizabeth: The 1929 LULAC constitution established English as the official language of the organization but the group strongly advocated for bilingualism, fighting against laws in Texas that barred the speaking of Spanish in public schools. The first president of LULAC was Ben Garza. Manuel C. Gonzales was vice president, Andrés de Luna was secretary, and Louis Wilmot was treasurer. The major architects of the LULAC constitution were J.T. Canales, Eduardo Idar, and Alonso Perales.
Sarah: LULAC became the first permanent organization on behalf of civil rights for Mexican Americans. Many of its founders were veterans of WWI and an emphasis on U.S. citizenship was of extreme importance and contributed to one of the group’s most controversial decisions- to limit its membership only to U.S. citizens. This is different from past civil rights organizations that sought to garner strength from all Mexican heritage peoples. LULAC leaders feared that Mexican nationals had different political goals than citizens. Additionally, the emphasis on citizenship was a means to convince European descent Americans of Mexican American’s “worthiness” of respect and equal rights within their citizenship. Many LULAC members wanted to create a distinction between recent Mexican immigrants and Mexican American citizens, believing that Mexican Americans would be treated better if they could distinguish themselves from the new immigrants who were often less well-educated, poorer, and didn’t speak English. (This was changed in 1986, when LULAC membership was opened to any person living within the United States.)
Elizabeth: Non-citizens were not the only Mexican heritage people excluded from LULAC in the early years, so were Mexican American women. Although not explicitly banned, women were not welcomed to join LULAC although they were active participants in the organization from the beginning. The LULAC constitution specifically referred to male members only. In 1932 and possibly earlier, women organized ladies’ auxiliaries in Texas. Orozco questions whether these ladies groups existed simply because the men excluded the women and were an affirmation of LULAC’s masculine character, or if female segregation was a strategy of empowerment on the part of the women themselves, a la Estelle Freedman in her foundational essay “Separatism as Strategy.”
Sarah: In 1932, two men submitted a resolution to allow women to participate and be official members of LULAC. The supreme council agreed that a Ladies LULAC should exist and in 1933, women were allowed to form official councils called Ladies LULAC. The first Ladies Council was formed in Alice, Texas and in 1934 LULAC created the office of ladies organizer general to manage the women’s chapters. It wasn’t until the 1950s that local LULAC chapters begin to organize in gender integrated councils.
Elizabeth: Adela Sloss-Vento supported LULAC and was writing about Mexican American civil rights at the time. She was also corresponding with many of its founding members, but she never joined a Ladies LULAC council. Nevertheless, she wrote about Ladies LULAC members as “women fighters.” Her article in the Del Rio newspaper La Avispa, entitled “Barco de LULAC” (LULAC ship), described how the women of LULAC were moving the ship forward and fighting against segregation. Yet she never questioned the separation of the sexes nor sexism in the organization.
Sarah: Sloss-Vento was a supporter of LULAC, advocate for LULAC, but was silent about the segregation of women within the organization. It’s an irony that Orozco’s book Agent of Change explores- why didn’t she join ladies LULAC? She was actively engaged in promoting the league, she was very close to its founders, particularly Perales, and she was engaged with the civil rights issues that LULAC was involved with. Orozco comes back to this question again and again and postulates various reasons – perhaps Sloss-Vento did not want to overextend herself, perhaps as a public intellectual she felt herself to be superior in intellect to other women in Ladies LULAC, or perhaps her work and family obligations kept her from participating? She did have toddlers after all!
Elizabeth: Regardless of why Sloss-Vento didn’t join a Ladies LULAC council, she participated in the public intellectual conversation. Cultural scholar Homi Bhabha imagined a “third space,” theorizing the interstitial space between colliding cultures as a liminal space where “something new and unrecognizable, a new area of negotiation of meaning and representation” can be created. Feminist historian Emma Pérez furthered this idea of the “third space” by exploring the ways in which Mexican- descent women have subverted patriarchy and white supremacy in this interstitial space. Orozco argues that Sloss-Vento also “found creative ways to participate in the male- defined Mexican American civil rights movement and the white- male- controlled Democratic politics in Texas” by creating and working within a “third space.”  I love thinking about Sloss-Vento in this “third space” way because I think it lets us view her in a way that typically “political actors” are not viewed in. She didn’t lead major organizations. She didn’t run for office. She didn’t organize in any large capacity with other women in clubs or organizations. Instead she engaged in public intellectualism as her own island, writing op-eds for newspapers throughout south Texas; shooting letters off to elected officials and leaders of LULAC; all done between changing diapers and getting dinner on the table. Seeing political action in this “third space” or third way, lets us see politics and activism in ways we typically don’t recognize as such.
Sarah: Despite the fact she is a mother and a wife, and later works as a jail matron in the Hidalgo county jail in Edinburg, Sloss-Vento continues her activism mostly as a writer in her home. She fought for decades and decades in the civil rights movement, but behind the scenes so-to-speak. She is a feminist in that she’s a worldly thinker and she does not confine herself to writing about the home or “women’s issues,” but uses her pen on behalf of La Raza while never seeking recognition for herself. (La Raza was a popular self-referent term used by Mexicans and Mexican Americans throughout the early to mid-twentieth century, which literally translates to “the race.)
Elizabeth: However, she also participated in the movement in more “traditional” ways as well. In the early 1940s she helped organize an independent political club in the Valley, whose aim it was to help Mexican Americans register and pay the poll tax so that they could vote. At that time there was still a massive underrepresentation of Mexican heritage politicians in office, so the goal was to elect more Latinos to represent them.
Sarah: While Sloss-Vento never ran for office herself, she was an active participant in some Texas political campaigns. During Lloyd Bentsen’s 1948 Congressional run (Lloyd Bentsen was Michael Dukakis’ running mate for vice-president on the 1988 Democratic ticket), Bentsen actually reached out to Sloss-Vento in 1948 for her support because he recognized her as a political actor and organizer in the Valley. She did not support him however, because she saw him as aligned with exploitive agribusiness. But this is significant because politics in Texas at this time did not include women much at all, not until the 1970s at least.
Elizabeth: An important woman in the Mexican American civil rights movement who was not solely acting in this “third space” was Alicia Dickerson Montemayor. At the height of her activism she was a mother, a wife, a business owner, and a fierce feminist advocate for women in the civil rights movement. In 1937 Montemayor was elected to the third-highest position in LULAC, of vice-president general. She was the first woman elected to a national office that was not specifically designated for a woman. In her writings for LULAC News and other publications, she championed women’s strength and advocated for more women to become involved in the civil rights movement. She urged the creation of more Ladies Councils and pushed for more women’s involvement in the organization in general.
Sarah: Alicia Dickerson Montemayor was born in Laredo, Texas in 1902 of mixed Irish and Tejana heritage. She grew up in a middle-class, bilingual home and excelled in school and youth sports. She attended some college while she worked as a clerk for Western Union. In 1933 she became a social worker during the height of the Great Depression. Being bilingual was a great advantage and she worked to help Mexican Americans access welfare rolls. She worked for the Department of Public Welfare in Laredo and larger Webb county. Her job took her into Cotulla, a city about 70 miles northeast of Laredo. The white county judge there refused to give her a key to her office because she was a “Mexican” so she worked out on the front lawn of the county courthouse under a tree until the judge finally relented and gave her office key. She continued to experience racism in her job, with white welfare recipients refusing to work with her. She encountered so much hostility, the welfare office had to assign her a bodyguard. While in Cotulla, Montemayor also pushed back against the practice of segregated masses at the Catholic church, which held a 7am mass for “Mexicans” and a 9am mass for “whites.” 
Elizabeth: Montemayor was instrumental in starting a Ladies LULAC council in Laredo in 1936, consisting of middle-class Mexican American women. Between 1937 and 1940 she held three national LULAC positions, the previously mentioned vice-president general, then associate editor of LULAC News, and the general director of Junior LULAC, the auxiliary organization for youth.
Sarah: During her tenure in national office, Montemayor worked diligently for more
involvement of women in LULAC and the development of more ladies’ councils. In the very first article she wrote for LULAC News, she stressed the need for more women’s involvement in the organization, addressing “Sister LULACS,” noting that “our brothers need a good big dose of competition… Now that our brothers have given the women a chance to show them what we can do, let all the Ladies Councils that are active now try and revive the Dormant Ladies Councils, and the Ladies Organizers and Governors try and get more Ladies Councils to join our League so that we may prove to our brothers that we can accomplish more than they can.”
Elizabeth: In the article, “Women’s Opportunity in LULAC” she wrote, “The idea that ‘the women’s place is in the home passed out of the picture with hoop skirts and bustles, and now it is recognized that women hold as high a position in all walks of life as do the men.” She insisted women should be “in that position where she can do the most for the furthering of her fellow women.” In 1938 she wrote an essay called “Son muy hombres (?)” (They are so Male?), where she blasted the sexism of the organization. She wrote there “has been some talk about suppressing the Ladies Councils of our League or at least to relegate them to the category of auxiliaries.” She maintained that men “fear that our women will take a leading role in the evolution of our League; that our women might make a name for themselves in their activities; that our MUY HOMBRES might be shouldered from their position as arbiters of our League.” She went on to add that even if all of male LULAC officers did not agree with this move, they weren’t actively resisting it.
Sarah: Montemayor wrote more articles for LULAC News than any other woman in the organization’s history. In reminiscing about her time in leadership Montemayor said, “The men just hated me… I guess men don’t think women can do anything.” Montemayor left LULAC around 1940 and went on to be a celebrated folk artist. Adela Sloss-Vento was the only other woman who wrote a feminist essay for LULAC News in the 1930s. She never commented on Montemayor’s advocacy within LULAC, nor did she question the gendered segregation of the organization. Maybe this was why she never officially joined LULAC even as she supported it in her public writings.
Elizabeth: During the 1930s, LULAC focused on getting Mexican Americans registered to vote and concentrated on litigation to improve the conditions of Mexican Americans, most notably school desegregation lawsuits but also lawsuits to get Mexican Americans admitted onto juries.
Immigration and the Bracero Program
Sarah: As we mentioned earlier, LULAC and a few earlier Mexican American civil rights organizations only admitted U.S. citizens. Throughout the 1920s in the Southwest, mining and agribusiness industries grew. The agricultural lobby played a large part in promoting and expanding Mexican migration into the U.S. In 1924 a very restrictive immigration act, the Johnson Reed Act, took effect. This act severely limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States through a national origins quota. The quota provided immigration visas to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census, meaning that the calculations used to decide on the quotas were based on numbers that included large numbers of people of west European descent whose ancestors had been part of much earlier waves of immigration. As a result, the percentage of visas available to individuals from the British Isles and Western Europe increased, but newer immigration from other places like Southern and Eastern Europe was limited. The Immigration Act of 1924 completely excluded immigrants from Asia. Because of pressure from the agricultural lobby, Mexico was exempt from these immigration quotas. And of course, just because Mexican immigration was exempt from the quotas didn’t tamp down white racism. One congressman complained, “What is the use of closing the front door to keep out undesirables from Europe when you permit Mexicans to come in here by the back door by the thousands and thousands?”
Elizabeth: What the Immigration Act of 1924 did however, was create a more robust border between the U.S. and Mexico. In the early 20th century, it wasn’t a crime to enter the U.S. without authorization. The U.S. could deport unauthorized migrants, but it couldn’t prosecute them. The “Border Patrol” was formed in 1924, initially to control the “hoards” of eastern European and Chinese immigrants that the white mind feared would circumvent immigration quotas by entering the U.S. via the Mexico and Canadian border. These fears created policies to implement stronger controls at both borders. Initially the U.S. Mexican Border Patrol consisted of former cowboys and small ranchers. Most were young men and had military experience and according to historian Mae Ngai, many had ties to the Ku Klux Klan. One Border Patrol agent said that the training consisted of, “they just give you a .45 single action revolver with a web belt- and that was it.” During the late 1920s the number of deportations of Mexican immigrants who had not obtained a visa, rose from 1,751 in 1925 to over 15,000 in 1929. The Border patrol started enacting sweeps and stopping Mexican laborers on roads and farms, resulting in a Los Angeles Spanish language newspaper to proclaim that the aggression would “de-Mexicanize southern California.”
Sarah: And remember too that there were many people that lived in border towns where one half of the city was on the U.S. side and one half on the Mexican side. Laredo is one, you have Laredo and Nuevo Laredo or El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. These are cities that cross over the border. There were (and are) people in these towns who cross into the U.S. for day labor, or people traveling as temporary visitors, or migrants working for just an agricultural season. So there were varying types of legal entry that Mexican citizens might have while traveling in the U.S., making Border Patrol and U.S. immigration agents cast more suspicion on Mexican workers and travelers.
Elizabeth: Although Mexican nationals did not face the quota, they had to pass certain entry requirements such as a head tax and a visa fee, which pushed some to avoid legal immigration into the U.S. Inspections of immigrants at the Mexican border now included bathing, delousing, and a medical inspection. To put this into perspective, U.S. immigration officials had stopped doing these kinds of inspections and delousing at Ellis Island just a few years before. European and Mexican immigrants who arrived on first-class trains were actually allowed to forgo these humiliating inspections. So this was a way to police the bodies of poor and working-class immigrants, making some actively work to circumvent these fees and inspections.
Sarah: In 1929 Congress passed the Immigration Act of March 4, 1929, making it a crime for some people to cross the border. Unlawful entry into the U.S. could result in fines and prison time. Historian Kelly Lytle Hernandez finds evidence that although this law applied to all immigrants, its intent was to control immigration from Mexico. Those that were prosecuted for crossing the border throughout the 1930s were over 80% Mexican nationals. This law, which created the “illegal alien,” further spurred discrimination against Mexican immigrants and spurred the pejorative term “wetback,” which referred to “illegal” border crossers.
Elizabeth: During the 1940s and 1950s, agribusiness expanded with the aid of the Bracero program. This was an agreement between Mexico and the U.S. during the years 1942 to 1964 that encouraged Mexican manual laborers to work in the United States. During the 1940s the U.S. was still recovering from the Great Depression while also sending many of its potential laborers off to war in Europe, so the idea was that braceros would come to the U.S. to temporarily work. In the first year, about 215,000 braceros came to work for agribusiness while another 75,000 went to work on the Southern Pacific railroad along with 20 or so other railroads. The program lasted until 1964 and during this period approximately 4.6 million Mexican nationals came to work in the U.S. as braceros.
Sarah: However, the Bracero program was a means by which agribusiness could exploit the labor of Mexican immigrants. In exchange for their labor they were supposedly guaranteed a minimum wage of 30 cents an hour during the 1940s and 50 cents an hour during most of the 1950s. They were also guaranteed proper shelter, water and food, sanitation, full repatriation to Mexico, and guaranteed work for 75 percent of their contract period. But despite all of these protections that Mexican workers were supposed to have, many braceros faced an array of injustices and abuses. Mexico blacklisted the state of Texas from the Bracero program in 1943 because of the exploitative employment practices of Texas agriculture businesses. LULAC played a major role in highlighting these abuses and the banning of braceros in Texas for a time because of these abuses. However, this resulted in Texas growers bypassing the Bracero program and hiring farmworkers directly from Mexico for lower pay and “off the books” so to speak regarding immigration status- fueling the so-called, derogatorily named “wetback problem.” Approximately two million Mexican men entered the United States as legal braceros, but many others, particularly those family groups of women and children who were excluded from the program, entered the U.S. “illegally.” Also, low wages in the official bracero program pushed some laborers to seek unauthorized work in the attempt to earn higher wages.
Elizabeth: Adela Sloss-Vento took up the issue of the exploitation of bracero labor. In 1947 she wrote a critique of the program in the Harlingen Star newspaper, arguing that “the wetback cheap labor is not only a threat to the economic welfare of our lower and middle classes, but also to our influential chambers of commerce.” Elsewhere she wrote Mexican immigrants “…worked for 75 cents or a dollar a day. Later they were paid 20 cents an hour. In later years some earned $3.00 a day to operate a tractor. These were starvation wages.” Her basic premise was that the low wages braceros and Mexican immigrants accepted ended up driving down the wages of Mexican American citizens. In a letter she complained that Mexican Americans were “forced to leave homes in the Valley by the hundreds every year, to harvest the crops of the Northern states where they can get better wages.” In a letter to the editor of the Valley Evening Monitor entitled “Cheap Labor Does Not Pay in the Long Run” she wrote, “Cheap labor ruins the health of workers, of their wives and children. It deprives the children from obtaining an education.” Sloss-Vento used the terms “illegal” and “wetback” to differentiate between Mexican American citizens and immigrant laborers. She wanted Mexico and the U.S. to work harder to stop the flow of unsanctioned immigration while she also wanted the exploitation of Mexican immigrants by U.S. agribusiness to stop.
Sarah: In 1949 Sloss- Vento began her employment at the Hidalgo jail in Edinburg. There she witnessed firsthand how the Bracero Program and immigration impacted the Valley. The Bracero Program brought many Mexican nationals into the Valley, including women. She was hired as the warden of women, a position created because many immigrant women were being detained. The Hidalgo County jail had about seven hundred inmates during the so- called Wetback Lift, an operation in the early 1950s to return unauthorized immigrants to Mexico. Historian Kelly Lytle Hernandez highlights how the Bracero Program “ignored the possibility that Mexican women, children, and family groups would also participate in labor migration to the U.S.” She argues that the Bracero Program created a gendered two-tier system of labor migration to the U.S. She says “The bracero era was a crucial period during which millions of husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers were lifted into legal streams of migration, while women, children, and families were left to cross the border without sanction.” In 1953 the El Paso Border Patrol reported that 60 percent of all apprehensions in the region were of women and children.
Elizabeth: In 1954 the U.S. government deployed “Operation Wetback,” which officially entailed the removal of some unauthorized immigrants by the government. This was a quasi-military operation headed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and aided by local authorities and the military, with the intent to search out and remove unauthorized immigrants. On July 15th, the first day of the operation, over 4,800 men, women, and children were arrested and deported. The operation lasted through the summer and into the fall when funding ran out. The INS reported that 1.3 million people were apprehended in the program, but official numbers do not support this total.
Sarah: Various Mexican American organizations and individuals opposed the Bracero Program or any form of temporary labor in the United States and supported campaigns like Operation Wetback. The American G.I. Forum, a civil rights organization made up of Mexican American veterans, and the Texas State Federation of Labor (AFL) coproduced an investigative study that examined the issue of “illegal” labor and the Bracero Program in Texas. This study, entitled “What Price Wetbacks?” stated that undocumented workers and official braceros displaced U.S. workers. George I. Sánchez, a past LULAC president and UT Austin professor, referred to “wetbacks” as a “serious problem” and noted that “Spanish- speaking Texans” were being displaced. Gus García of San Antonio, an important member of LULAC and the American G.I. Forum as well as an attorney who was integral in Mexican American school desegregation cases, commented on bracero labor saying, “thousands upon thousands of South Texas families will continue to be uprooted year after year from their homes and forced to wander about the country, seeking a living or at least a subsistence wage.” The Texas Congress of Industrial Organizations’ Latin American Committee praised the INS for “tightening the border” during “Operation Wetback” but they deplored the aggressive tactics of INS agents, such as using dogs to track down migrants.
Elizabeth: In her position at the Hidalgo County Jail, Sloss-Vento experienced first-hand these aggressive deportation methods. She wrote about the state of many women who wound up in her jail, “What could I do? I gave them the funds so they could return to their families…I did not have the heart to see a near cadaver without funds return to Mexico. I gave her the funds to return home…” We can see in Sloss-Vento’s writing that even Mexican Americans who were against undocumented immigration and the Bracero Program were against it on humanitarian grounds. Hernandez calls this a Faustian bargain however, citing Eduardo Idar Jr., speaking to the American G.I. Forum saying that “there may be occasions when some of our legal residents and American citizens may be asked to present identification… our people must be made to realize that the officers not only will be discharging a duty imposed on them by law but the successful discharge of that duty in cleaning out the wetbacks will react to the betterment of employment and economic opportunities for our people.” Hernandez characterizes this “bargain” as Mexican Americans having to accept the surveillance and suspicions of Border Patrol officers with the promise that “full incorporation into the American dream was just around the bend if only they could sacrifice a bit to get there.”
Sarah: LULAC members supported American institutions, political philosophy, and capitalism, but they protested the discrimination that prevented their full participation. Past support by LULAC and the American G.I. Forum for programs like Operation Wetback and increased INS and Border Control has opened historical actors like LULAC up to scrutiny. A lot of the early scholarship of LULAC was written starting in the late 1970s by scholars who were or had been part of the Chicano movement. Their view of LULAC was one of middle-class accommodationists, which is a fair assessment in many ways. Rather than challenging American racial hierarchies, particularly the black/white divide, many Mexican American political leaders worked to construct themselves as Spanish and therefore “white.” Many school desegregation cases were based on this argument. Chicano activist historians loathed what they saw as a middle-class, assimilationist, and accommodationist movement.
Elizabeth: Later scholarship, most notably by Cynthia Orozco and others, has taken a new look at LULAC, without viewing this early civil rights organization through the lens of the Chicano movement. Orozco argues that only recently have historians addressed LULAC within the historical context of the 1920s, eschewing the “idealized, romanticized, and essentialized La Raza and the working class” that earlier historians viewed the organization. She argues that scholarship did not “fully comprehend the meaning or spectrum of resistance to racism.” Instead, the Mexican American Civil Rights movement, organizations like LULAC, and individuals like Adela Sloss-Vento need to be studied with an eye toward the “multiple, shifting, intersecting, and contradictory identities” that arise in the face of “changing historical circumstances and specific situations and contexts.”
Elizabeth: In writing this episode I wanted to do a few things. I wanted to highlight Orozco’s new book about Adela Sloss-Vento, Agent of Change, while also giving a bit of history on the Mexican American Civil Rights movement. I think it’s a good time to pose the question: why does learning about Sloss-Vento matter? Sloss-Vento did not join LULAC, yet she was integral to its founding. She did not serve in any official leadership capacity, yet she was definitely a leader. So I appreciated learning about her more because it is a lesson in reevaluating or questioning who is “important” or worthy of historical study.
Sarah: I’m going to do a long quote from Orozco here because she lays out how historical actors become overlooked.
Until recently most scholars have not known of Sloss- Vento despite her self-published 1977 book. However, in 1979 Martha Cotera, a Chicana librarian and historian who began writing in the 1970s, contacted Sloss- Vento about her papers. She responded but remained mute about her archive and discussed only Perales with Cotera. The Rio Writers’ book One Hundred Women of the Rio Grande Valley, published in 1983, should have included Sloss- Vento but missed her. José Ángel Gutiérrez, Michelle Meléndez, and Sonia Noyola’s book Chicanas in Charge on trail- blazing political Tejanas missed her. Sloss- Vento had even mailed a copy of her book to Gutiérrez, a leader of the Texas Chicano movement, but he ignored her. Likewise, Francisco Arturo Rosales did not include her in his works on the Mexican American civil rights movement, nor did Matt Meier and Margo Gutiérrez in their encyclopedia of the movement. Why is she unknown, forgotten, and ignored even after writing a book? Or has she been silenced, as suggested by the literary scholar Laura Garza?
Elizabeth: This again brings up the question of “importance.” Sloss-Vento was a female, non-college educated, Mexican American woman acting as a public intellectual. She held no official titles like Dr. or Esquire. She didn’t have the freedom of movement that middle-class men had. She was a working-class woman who was also a mother, a wife, and worked outside of the home. She was writing in the Valley, in various newspapers intermittently, and in both Spanish and English. This makes it very hard to see her overall collective contribution. In fact it was only with the visibility of the Perales archive coupled with her own that Orozco was able to grasp how significant Sloss-Vento was as a public intellectual to Latinx heritage. Scholar Donna Kabalen de Bichara argues that Sloss-Vento’s “act of writing can be seen as an attempt to contest the limits imposed on the speech act of women at the beginning of the twentieth century.” I have to agree and I think that thinking about Sloss-Vento in this “third space” is a great way to understand her contributions to women’s rights and Mexican heritage civil rights.
Sarah: In fact, for me at least, one of the most fascinating things about Sloss-Vento was her dedication to preserving all of this history! When she knew she was dying she made sure to lock all of her archival materials in a chest to preserve them. She understood the value and importance of the work all of these activists were doing for Mexican American civil rights. She spent the last years of her life working to preserve Mexican American history and to raise Alonso Pareles to the level of remembrance that she felt he deserved. She wrote the first biography about him and spent immeasurable time trying to get statues of him erected and schools named after him. Yet, she never sought out recognition for her own accomplishments but only worked to build up other movement leaders. This again, is a reason she is overshadowed in the existing historical literature. So at the end of the day, this is really a call to historians to be responsive to women, particularly historical actors who are navigating the “third space.”
Elizabeth: We also have to listen to the silences so to speak, Orozco speaks to this in her first book No Mexicans, Women, or Dogs Allowed, when she states “Historians have assumed that because men founded LULAC, gender as a tool of analysis is of use only when women became members in 1933. Men in the OSA and LULAC, however, lived gendered lives and had various gender ideologies about men’s and women’s political participation. So she’s saying that a gendered analysis of something doesn’t have to happen only when women are involved, or trans people are involved. Men are gendered too. And if an organization looks completely male, is it really? Sloss-Vento shows how the male-dominated early days of LULAC were in fact not what they appeared to be.
So that’s it for today. Special thanks to Cynthia Orozco and the University of Texas Press for sending us a copy of Agent of Change.
Sarah: Follow us on Twitter and Facebook at dig_podcast. Check out our cool swag on T-Public. Visit us at digpodcast.org for show notes and further reading.
Bichara, Donna M. Kabalen. “Expressions of Dissent in the Writings of Adela Sloss Vento.” Editors Donna Kabalen de Bichara and Blanca López de Mariscal. Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage, Volume IX. 2015. pp. 191-207.
Freedman, Estelle. “Separatism as Strategy: Female Institution Building and American Feminism, 1870-1930.” Feminist Studies, Vol. 5, No. 3. 1979.
Hernandez, Kelly Lytle. Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol. University of California Press. 2010.
Kaplowitz, Craig A. LULAC, Mexican Americans, and National Policy. Texas A&M University. 2005.
Márquez, Benjamín. LULAC: The Evolution of a Mexican American Political Organization. University of Texas.1993.
Ngai, Mai. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton University Press. 2004.
Orozco, Cynthia E. No Mexicans, Women, or Dogs Allowed: The Rise of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement. University of Texas Press. 2009.
Orozco, Cynthia E. Agent of Change: Adela Sloss-Vento, Mexican American Civil Rights Activist and Texas Feminist. University of Texas Press. 2020.
Orozco, Cynthia E. “Alice Dickerson Montemayor: Feminism and Mexican American Politics in the 1930s,” in Elizabeth Jameson, Susan Armitage, eds., Writing the Range: Race, Class, and Culture in the Women’s West. University of Oklahoma Press. 1997.
 Texas Secretary of State, Articles of Incorporation, Order Sons of America, January 4, 1922, quoted in Cynthia Orozco, No Mexicans, Women, or Dogs Allowed: The Rise of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement, (University of Texas Press: 2009), 74.
 Quoted in Orozco, No Mexicans, 2.
 Orozco, No Mexicans, 209; Estelle Freedman, “Separatism as Strategy: Female Institution Building and American Feminism, 1870-1930, Feminist Studies, Vol. 5, No. 3, (Autumn, 1979): 512-529.
 Orozco, Agent of Change: Adela Sloss-Vento, Mexican American Civil Rights Activist and Texas Feminist, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2020), 50.
 Orozco, Agent of Change, 9.
 Orozco, “Alice Dickerson Montemayor: Feminism and Mexican American Politics in the 1930s,” in Elizabeth Jameson, Susan Armitage, eds., Writing the Range: Race, Class, and Culture in the Women’s West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997), 441.
 Quoted in Orozco, “Alice Dickerson Montemayor,” 447.
 Quoted in Orozco, “Alice Dickerson Montemayor,” 447.
 Quoted in Orozco, “Alice Dickerson Montemayor,” 447-448.
 Quoted in Orozco, “Alice Dickerson Montemayor,” 450.
 Quoted in Hernandez, Migra!, 38.
 Quoted in Mai Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 68
 Quoted in Mai Ngai, Impossible Subjects, 70.
 Quoted in Orozco, Agent of Change, 64-65.
 Kelly Lytle Hernandez, Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 127.
 Quoted in Orozco, Agent of Change, 71.
 Ngai, Impossible Subjects, 160.
 Quoted in Orozco, Agent of Change, 77.
 Quoted in Hernandez, Migra!, 177.
 Hernandez, Migra!, 177.
 Orozco, No Mexicans, 3.
 Orozco, No Mexicans, 7.
 Orozco, Agent of Change, 17.
 Donna M. Kabalen de Bichara, “Expressions of Dissent in the Writings of Adela Sloss Vento,” in eds. Donna Kabalen de Bichara and Blanca López de Mariscal, Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage, Volume IX (Houston: Arte Publico Press, 2015): 191-207.
 Orozco, No Mexicans, 9.