Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans, and Vagabonds

Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America

By Gregory Rodriguez Pantheon, $26.95

In 1519, a group of Spanish soldiers who had been sent to explore Mexico heard an extraordinary rumor. A sailor, Gonzalo Guerrero, had drifted there on a wrecked ship eight years earlier and was living among the Indians. He had married an Indian woman, with whom he had three children, and was tattooed and pierced. Odder still, he intended to stay put. Hernán Cortés, the leader of the expedition, was furious. "It will never do to leave him here," he said.

What Cortés took to be a slight against Spanish civilization, Gregory Rodriguez hails as a vision of this country's future. Guerrero was the first settler here from what became Mexico, and his children were the first mixed-race Mexicans. But only narrowly: Cortés himself soon took an Indian lover, as did many of his men. Gradually Spaniards and Indians (and later blacks) blended to create a mongrel nation.

Mexico became a counterpoint to the caste society that developed in its northern neighbor. Then it began to permeate and change that society.

By 2001, Hispanics -- most of them Mexicans or descended from Mexicans -- had become the second-largest ethnic group in the United States. This worried blacks, who were thus relegated to third place. It also alarmed some whites, who felt that Hispanics were failing to conform to U.S. mores.

In an influential book, "Who Are We?," published in 2004, Samuel Huntington, a Harvard University professor, argued that Mexicans threatened Anglo-Protestant traditions. "Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans, and Vagabonds" is a much shrewder, less paranoid work. Yet, in some ways, it reaches a similar conclusion.

Victory in the Mexican-American war in the late 1840s led to the first big influx of Mexicans to the United States. Perhaps 100,000 were absorbed as their territory was annexed. That outraged nativists. William Wick, a congressman from Indiana, said he did "not want any mixed races in our Union, nor men of any color except white, unless they be slaves."

In a clumsy way, Wick had identified the problem with Mexicans: How would they fit into a system that drew a sharp distinction between blacks and whites?

This has remained a puzzle ever since. It complicated attempts to segregate the races in the early 20th century. One Texas drugstore clerk explained that Mexicans, unlike blacks, were allowed to drink at the soda fountain. But if they wanted a table they would be seated apart from whites. In the 1960s and 1970s Mexicans' uncertain status bedeviled attempts to create a civil rights movement as potent as the black one was.

Another problem that some in this country saw with Mexicans was that they retained ties to the mother country. Or, at least, some did. In 1897, a group of Mexican-Americans in El Paso refused to observe Mexico's independence day, explaining that it meant nothing to them. The local Spanish-language newspaper condemned them, calling them "Agringados" (Americanized). Dolores del Rio, a Hollywood star, said fiercely in 1928: "Never will I become an American citizen. Never!"

Yet most Mexicans did become American -- a transition symbolized, for many, by the loss of the mother tongue. Even in the ghettos the march of English was relentless. New arrivals spoke mostly Spanish, their children were bilingual and their grandchildren spoke almost no Spanish.

If such adaptations are not always obvious, it is because Mexicans -- unlike Africans, Italians or Germans -- never stopped coming to this country in large numbers. Immigration took off in the 1920s, when about 1,000 people a day were arriving in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, with the intention of entering the United States. Farmers quickly came to depend on workers from the south, and lobbied the government to let more in.

At times this fascinating story is too neatly told. Even in the old South, Anglophone America was not as strictly divided by race as Rodriguez supposes. Yet the conclusion of this excellent book is surely right. In the next few decades one of the strongest forces shaping this country's culture -- perhaps the strongest force -- will be Mexican.