The Latino Movement

In post-World War II America, Spanish-speaking groups faced discrimination as well. Coming from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Central America, they were often unskilled and unable to speak English. Some worked as farm laborers and at times were cruelly exploited while harvesting crops; others gravitated to the cities, where, like earlier immigrant groups, they encountered serious difficulties in their quest for a better life.

Chicanos, or Mexican-Americans, mobilized in organizations like the radical Asociacion Nacional Mexico-Americana, yet did not become confrontational until the 1960s. Hoping that Lyndon Johnson's poverty program would expand opportunities for them, they found that bureaucrats failed to respond to less vocal groups. The example of black activism in particular taught Hispanics the importance of pressure politics in a pluralistic society.

The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 had excluded agricultural workers from its guarantee of the right of labor to organize and bargain collectively. But Cesar Chavez, founder of the overwhelmingly Hispanic United Farm Workers, demonstrated the efficacy of direct action in seeking recognition for his union. Taking on the grape growers of California, Chavez called for a nationwide consumer boycott that finally provided exploited migrant workers with union representation. Similar boycotts of lettuce and other products were also successful. Though farm interests continued to try to obstruct Chavez's organization, the legal foundation had been laid for representation to secure higher wages and improved working conditions.

Hispanics became politically active as well. In 1961 Henry B. Gonzalez won election to Congress from Texas. Three years later Elizo ("Kika") de la Garza, another Texan, followed him, and Joseph Montoya of New Mexico went to the Senate. Both Gonzalez and de la Garza later rose to positions of power as committee chairmen in the House. In the 1970s and 1980s, the pace of Hispanic political involvement increased, and by the time Bill Clinton became president, two prominent Hispanics were named to his cabinet: former San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros as secretary of housing and urban development (HUD), and former Denver mayor Frederico Pena as secretary of transportation.