Opening Hours: Wednesday through Monday 12–5pm | Closed Tuesday

Planting the Seeds of Racism and Moving Away from Gender Roles

Planting the Seeds of Racism and Moving Away from Gender Roles / Sembrando las Semillas del Racismo y Alejándose de los Roles de Género

Hello, my name is Pedro Enrique Puentes. I am a second-year history graduate student at California State University, Northridge, and a curatorial intern at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes. As a member of the curatorial team, my main concentration is to research the development of the Chicano Movement and the creation of bilingual education in Los Angeles for LA Plaza’s permanent exhibition, LA Starts Here! My work has focused on documenting Mexican-American and Latin-American communities’ experiences in Los Angeles from the 1960s to the 1990s.

In my research, I’ve analyzed court cases, educational policies, propositions, and so-called “Mexican schools” to highlight Latinx youth’s historical struggles within public schools. My contribution to this project has pushed me to dig deeper into Chicana/o and Latinx leaders who have played a significant role in creating political and social awareness in our communities. This internship at LA Plaza has solidified the value of public history programs and broadened my research and archival skills.


From the 1930s through the 1940s, Mexicans experienced racial agendas and policies that targeted them and created stereotypes that followed their children into the mid-to-late twentieth- century in California. Mexicans made up 13.5 percent of the population in Los Angeles County in the late 1930s.[1] Many Mexicans worked unskilled or semi-skilled jobs, and they endured poor working conditions, overcrowding, lack of medical benefits, and low wages. These jobs were a stark contrast to the higher pay and health benefits when they worked on the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Cheap labor is always economically beneficial for businesses, but it exploited their employees by paying them lower wages in order to make a higher profit.


The idea of seeking Mexican immigrants as a source of cheap labor would be impacted by the Immigration Act of 1924. The Act limited the yearly immigration to quotas of only 2 percent of each nationality’s total number already in the United States.[2] This act also limited the number of visas to those seeking work in the United States.  Furthermore, following the passage of this act, politicians relied on public health discourses to target “unrestricted Mexican immigration” that “might affect the country’s health standards.”[3] This “racialized and criminalized” Mexicans who were seeking to come to the United States to find better economic opportunities for their families.[4] Public health officials and politicians pushed this agenda by racially attacking Mexican families living in the United States. There was a merging of scientific and cultural perspectives. Opponents of Mexican immigration portrayed Mexicans as irresponsible, living in poor conditions, eating poorly, and struggling to overcome the language barrier.[5] These factors contributed to a racial stereotype, which politicians imposed through a biased public health agenda, and the city of Los Angeles would begin accepting this racist view of Mexican families.


Mexican American youth were finding their identity while being stuck between two societies that influenced their daily lives. They spoke Spanish and English, retained their cultural practices, and embraced their roots. By integrating American culture, many children of Mexican immigrants focused on their success in the United States, and to some extent, distanced themselves from aspects of their Mexican roots. The children of Mexican immigrants were influenced by American ways. Many did not want to continue down the path of traditional gender-specific roles, a transition made possible through education. Traditionally, girls were taught to look for a hard-working man to marry, have children, and settle into a caretaking role. However, access to education allowed them to escape that realm and move away from a traditional patriarchal society and the machismo (manly) society that Mexican parents enforced at the time. Additionally, boys were also negatively affected by machismo. Many were encouraged to be hard workers, and going to school to complete an education was not a priority. Some parents pressured their children to drop out of school and even prohibited them from attending school at all.[6] Many Mexican American youth resisted their parents’ influence, and through education, they were able to overcome the unbalanced gender roles deeply rooted in Mexican patriarchal traditions.


In the next blog post, I will follow up with Mexican American youth in public schools and how local school districts practiced racial segregation. We see the emergence of “Mexican Schools” throughout the Southwest border, which became the answer for many local school districts in California. This segregated Mexican American children from their Anglo counterparts and further promoted ideas of racial stereotypes.


Read Pedro’s previous blog post by clicking here.


[1] Douglas Monroy, Rebirth: Mexican Los Angeles from the Great Migration to the Great Depression (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 158.

[2] Natalia Molina, Fit to Be Citizens?: Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 118.

[3] Molina, 120.

[4] Molina, 120.

[5] Molina, 121.

[6] Monroy, 196.