Answers to the “Study Questions” in We Became Mexican American .
Introduction and Part I
Question 1. The author cites “several key ideas concerning Latinos in the United States” in his Introduction; what are they and what is your evaluation of them?
On page ix in the Introduction, the author outlines his “key ideas” concerning Latinos in the United States.
1) One is that Mexican immigration is not a new phenomenon; it is about 100 years old. The reader will note in these pages that Bernabé Gil entered the United States about 1915 or 1916 and Pascual in 1917 and that they joined other Mexican immigrants already present in the U.S. who were themselves looking for work. The frenzied controversy surrounding Arizona’s anti-immigrant legislation known as SB 1070 approved on April 23, 2010, seems to have led a lot of Americans to wake up to the presence of illegal Mexican workers in the United States when, in fact, illegal or not, they had already been in the country as a group for about two generations.
2) Another key idea is that while Mexico and the United States share a common border, they are, nonetheless, “vastly different from one another and this is why immigrating to the United States is no walk in the park” (ix). Part II in We Became Mexican American unveils what “no walk in the park” meant to the members of the Gil family.
3) Another important notion in We Became Mexican American is that scores of Mexican immigrants arrived in the U.S. in the 1920s, and by 1929 they were battered by the Great Depression. Like the author’s ancestors, they underwent overwhelming trials and tribulations as a result. Immigrants arriving in the U.S. in search of a job in more recent times, like the Great Recession of 2007-2012, undoubtedly experienced a punishing situation as well, probably worse than American citizens.
4) Arriving and finding a job in the U.S. is only the beginning of the multiple challenges that Mexican and other Latino immigrants face. Among these are the social and cultural trials of learning the ways of the host society including speaking the language at some level, English in this case, and making an effort to understand a different the cultural mind set or the ways of looking at life and valuing things and people.
In seeking student evaluation of the above, the teacher might ask: a) Did you already know that Mexican immigration reached back a hundred years? b) Do you know of anyone who might have arrived in the U.S. in the 1930s? c) Do you know when your own family arrived? d) Did your family undergo a “trial” of any kind with regard to “learning the ways of the host society?” Exploring these answers can create a positive teaching moment.
Question 2. Who is Walt Whitman and why do you think the author included excerpts from his poem? Why did the author include words from a “Chinese” novel on page 290?
Walt Whitman is a famous American poet who lived in the late 1800s. Many Americans are keen about him because he wrote about ordinary folks, especially working men, vagabonds, poor folk, doing so in a vibrant and energetic, and upbeat kind of way. The author places an excerpt from one of his poems at the beginning of “Part I The Push and Pulls” which praises unnamed “Pioneers” who leave everything behind to enter and “seize” a “fresh and strong” new world, like the characters in We Became Mexican American and like most immigrants do upon arriving in the United States.
By citing words and thoughts from Whitman, the author is integrating the Mexican immigrant experience with the overall American immigrant experience which includes Germans émigrés, Irish, Italians, and others. This is why on page 290 he also includes an excerpt from a novel about Henry, a Chinese American boy, whose father did not permit English to be spoken at home. The Gil children didn’t use English at home for the same reason either when they were growing up. Here is a commonality of many that is shared by immigrants no matter where they come from.
Ask the students: a) what do you think of Gil’s attempt to link the Mexican immigration experience with other immigrant groups to America? b) Is it helpful or useful to make these connections? Student responses to these questions can lead to more beneficial discussion.
Question 3. If Mexican immigration to the United States is described as being subject to “pushes” and “pulls,” can you detect any “pulls?” If so, what examples can you cite? Does the idea of “pushes” and “pulls” make any sense to you? Do you know any immigrants today and do they fit into this paradigm? Please explain your answer.
Established notions concerning the phenomenon of human migration include the idea that people are “pushed” and/or “pulled” out of their original communities by forces bigger than themselves. This usually includes economic forces like better paying jobs that “pull” people out of their regular habitats or famines that “push” people out including revolution and other forms of political instability.
In We Became Mexican American, Pascual Naranjo, the author’s uncle, is pushed out of his community by the bubbling up of rebellion which appeals to non-conformists like him. He is unhappy with his life as the son of peones acasillados, semi-indentured peasants, and he can’t live with the limitations this condition places on him. He wants more. This general condition, along with all of the details surrounding him and his family at the hacienda, can be considered a “pushing” factor.
The “pulling” dynamics that seem to impact Pascual, the teen ager, include the more open and vibrant economy in Puerto Vallarta (as opposed to the structured plantation life in the Hacienda Santa Rosa). The port’s economy offered him temporary work and the possibility of getting to Mazatlán which itself led to the railroad lines that took him up to the border and, most importantly, the abundance of work once he crossed the border into the United States. He had an inkling that he could find jobs easily in the U.S. but little did he know that American railroad companies would literally be lying in wait for him in the United States as soon as he crossed the frontier. Almost the exact same thing happened to his brother, Miguel, and to Carlota and Guadalupe when they reached the U.S. border. Trucks were waiting a stone’s throw away to whisk them off to pick cotton. All these are “pulling” factors. You could almost say they were yanking factors that impacted the Gil family.
Ask the students: Are the “pushes” and “pulls” operating today? A vibrant class discussion may uncover many examples, to be sure.
Question 4. Would it be fair to say that the United States economy was pulling Mexicans in during the period covered in Part I? Explain.
The answer is definitely in the affirmative. How do the students evaluate this idea?
Question 5. In this section of the book, Bernabé Pascual, Miguel, and Juárez, are described as rushing from Los Angeles to Fresno and back, searching for jobs; do you think this is different from today’s Latinos who are/or look like they are immigrants, working in the agricultural fields and sometimes even going as far as soliciting jobs near big hardware stores? Explain?
The constant search for work attributed by Gil to the male characters in We Became Mexican American is most probably very similar to the situation facing Latino workers today, be they legal or illegal.
Ask the students if they have ever talked with any Latino men who wait to get a job outside of a Home Depot or other such places, or Latinas who work as dish washers in restaurants, etc.
Question 6. Employing excerpts from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the author offers a parallel between the “Okies” arriving in California in search of harvesting jobs in the 1930s and the Gil family’s attempts to supplement its family budget in the 1940s by working in the fields too; how do you evaluate this contrast? Can you cite two or three examples as written in these pages and assess them in terms of anything similar you might know of?
Examples of parallels between the Joads (Steinbeck’s protagonists) and the Gils experience include 1) their both feeling obligated to travel in order to survive by finding work; 2) relying on hand-customized sedans-turned-into-trucks to transport the family members on the long trip, the Joads a Hudson Super Six and the Gil’s an old La Salle, and 3) the Moms deciding on what household items to leave behind and what to load into the vehicle in order to commence the long journey to the golden fields of California where both families expected to find jobs in order to survive.
Ask the students: Do you know any agricultural workers? How do you think they transport themselves from one picking job to another especially if they have children?
Question 7. Some if not most of the distress the author describes as evolving inside the Gil household in these years is attributed to cultural and social contradictions. Can you cite two or three examples as written in these pages and assess them in terms of anything similar you might know of?
Mary Gil is cited often in these pages as someone who experienced a lot of grief resulting from the cultural contradictions (Mexico vs. U.S.) inside the Gil home as related to the raising of children. She offers several examples of her frustration with her mother regarding visiting friends and going out socially. Emily also experiences great stress resulting from her mother’s inability or unwillingness to understand her student role at Santa Rosa Catholic School.
The instructor is urged to exercise caution regarding these questions because they involve parent-child relations. These may be regarded by a student as very private or encumbered with deeply held stress similar to that avowed by Mary and Emily in our book. Still, these are important issues that help understand the immigrant experience. One way of treading carefully on this question is to probe generally concerning the differences between the American way of doing things regarding the raising children, socializing with peers, dating, and so on, and the Mexican way (or Central American, etc.) and then looking for parallels in We Became Mexican American.
Question 8. Becoming an American is described in these pages as a quiet and personal process (see the Afterword too). How can you evaluate it especially in light of the author’s description of his family’s life and times in the San Fernando barrio and vecindad? In other words, can you appreciate it as it supposedly happened with the Gils? Might it be different for others? If so, how so?
This question will have more meaning for students who belong to an immigrant family but it ought to be an interesting discussion for those who have no immigration experience too. Note that the parents of the Gil children seem not to have encouraged their thinking of themselves as American. The Gil kids slowly came to the realization that they were Americans, after all, on their own and very privately. You might ask, was this your experience? Did your parents encourage you to embrace being American? If so, explain. If not, explain.
Question 9. The author is attempting to sketch out a pattern of assimilation in the Gil family by selectively comparing certain values held by the first through third generations. Do you think this makes any sense? Is it helpful in understanding the process of Americanization? Is it fair and proper to expect immigrants to America to “become Americans” the moment they receive their citizenship papers? Is it fair to assert that unskilled immigrants produce unskilled Americans?
The author identifies certain values that Guadalupe and Bernabé, the parents, expected of their children (the second generation) in Chapter 14, pp.291-292. These included religious and non-religious values. The instructor can review these values and ask if his/her students identify with them. Chapter 15 contains the author’s observations regarding the continuation or discontinuation of these values in the third generation. What do the students think of the author’s assertions? A lively discussion should result from these questions.
What do the students think of the author’s discussion of the process of Americanization? The instructor may simply ask, “What does it mean to become American?”
Some observers of American immigration insist that immigration policy ought to exclude unskilled immigrants. The Gil family shows that job skills do indeed change from one generation to another. The instructor may ask the students, should the Gil example be considered a valid response to immigration critics as identified above? Is there another way of looking at this controversial question?
Question 10. How much weight should be given to the author’s arguments about the regional experiences of Mexican Americans? Or to the author’s views about institutional racism? Or to his views of multiculturalism and racism today?
The author asserts in his “Afterword” that the Mexican American experience differs according to where you were born and raised and he contrasts Texas with southern California in the 1940s. It would be useful to have additional comparative information from Texas vs. California or some other region to fully probe this question. However, the instructor may ask if students have relatives or friends in other parts of the country and if their experience differs. It may be that regional differences no longer exist. Ask the students.
Institutional racism is a well known concept today; still the instructor might ask what the students think of the author’s arguments about it in the “Afterword” regarding the Gil family’s experience in San Fernando; remember that the Gil’s Mott Street home was “tiny.” Can students offer other examples of institutional racism where they live?
How do the students assess the author’s assertions about multiculturalism and racism in his “Afterword,” particularly as it relates to Arizona’s anti-immigration laws?