The history of minorities in the United States and more so in California has been one of many injustices. While some discernable improvements have been made in race relations in the state, the socio-economic and political order has not changed drastically. Thomas Almaguer is a credible Latin-American scholar, who had done some incisive analysis and research on the assimilation or lack thereof of Hispanics and other racial minorities in the state of California. The “Color Bar” he refers to in his works is the second class citizenship handed to non-white minority communities during the period starting 1941 and lasting well into the early 1960’s. What is also known as segregation, blatantly unjust as it sounds now, was a usual aspect of the life during this period. But a change in the collective conscience of the American people was on the cards, especially after the racially instigated atrocities by the German Third Reich during the Second World War. The Latinos and the African Americans are chosen as the two racial minorities of California for further discussion in this essay.
The “Openings” that Almaguer alludes to are the evident mellowing of the existing social order and the easier social integration that followed. In many ways, the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960’s was an important historical mass movement in that it galvanized racial and ethnic minorities in a show of solidarity against injustices incurred to their lot. The majority of the Latinos in California are of Mexican origins. Economic opportunities being the prime motive behind their northbound migration to the United States, the community is essentially working class – casual laborers and blue collar workers. While they may have seen relative prosperity coming from an underdeveloped Central American country, their participation in the political and economic system in their adopted land has only been marginal.
While the civil rights movement saw greater concessions given to minority communities, the Latinos were not benefited due to this change. Since large number of Latinos in California and elsewhere are illegal immigrants they don’t have any basic political entitlements that the rest of the minorities enjoy. In this regard, the “Openings” that Thomas Almaguer talks about have not been complete and comprehensive to the Latinos in California. Further, the lack of political entitlements translates into corporate exploitation, as illegal workers do not have recourse to courts for earning below the levels of minimum wages. In contrast, the African American community, which does not have a big presence in California, does fall within the purview of minimum wage legislations and to the extent are more fortunate.
The influx of Latino immigrants during the earlier part of the twentieth century was predominantly from regions such as Peurto Rico. Of course, the last two decades have seen unprecedented number of Latino immigrants to California from all parts of Central America. A good indicator of the second class status to Latinos in California is reflected in the fact that they have retained their native cultures and language even after living many years in the United States. The distinct Hispanic culture and the associated Spanish language are signs of this community’s social exclusion from the American melting pot. For example, a majority of Latinos in California still cannot speak proper English. This also has the added disadvantages of making them ineligible for white collar jobs and upward social mobility. In this regard, the fortunes of the community have not changed much over the course of the last century. They remain oppressed now as they were during the turbulent forties and fifties. The community’s lack of integration with the mainstream American culture is explained by Domiguita Velasco, a first generation migrant, thus:
“The social and cultural life of the Latino community of Oakland in the last century is a story of resilient cultural traditions. However, change and accommodation to American styles of cultural expression, from music and dance to food and ceremonial holidays, also play a part in the tale. At first, adapting to American life was not easy. The lack of corn tortillas symbolized the neglected presence of Mexicans in California at the time…so Mexicans began to build upon their knowledge of their cultural past to forge a sense of identity in the midst of living in this country” (www.museumca.org, 2008).
These cultural realities are less stark for the African American community living in California, for their arrival to America started four centuries ago. From the days of slavery and bondage, the community had come a long way toward achieving equality. In fact, the “Openings” that Thomas Almaguer talks about were first initiated by the African American community in the form of civil disobedience against segregation. The most popular example of this was the historic event involving Rosa Parks, a black woman who refused to give seat to a white American in a public transportation vehicle.