Mexicans in the Making of America

Today more than one of every ten Americans claims Mexican descent or heritage. In 2017 Mexican-origin people accounted for 63 percent (thirty-five million) of the nation's total Latino population. By 2050 the Latino share of the nation's total population is projected to increase from 18 percent to 30 percent, when over one in four US residents will be Latino. [1] In seven of the ten largest cities in the United States—New York, Los Angeles, Houston, San Diego, Phoenix, Dallas, and San Antonio—Latinos now outnumber African Americans, and they already outnumber non-Hispanic whites in Los Angeles, San Antonio, and El Paso. In 2003 the US Census Bureau reported that Hispanics had surpassed the population of African Americans to become the nation's largest minority group. In 2010 it reported that one of every four babies born in the United States was born to a Latina mother-a milestone that has made Latinos a “hot ticket” for businesses eager to capture their growing market share. The United States now has the second-largest population of Latin Americans in the world. Only Mexico’s (112 million) exceeds the US Latino population. [2]

Not surprisingly, then, the overwhelming numbers of Mexican-origin Latinos in the United States are what drives the media, politicians, pundits, and the public to focus almost exclusively on the problem of immigration from Mexico. In recent decades Mexican immigrants no longer confine themselves to the border states, but seek job opportunities in the South, Midwest, New England, and especially non-metropolitan New York. In the South, for example, where their numbers have increased dramatically in the last two decades, particularly in North Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia, and Alabama, it is not uncommon to find grits and frijoles, hash browns and huevos rancheros on the same menu-or where, as one scholar put it, “the gumbo of Dixie gives way to the refried beans of Mexico.” [3]

While the media has paid much attention to immigration and the nation's changing demographics over the last fifty years, particularly the problem of undocumented migrants from Mexico (and more recently from the Northern Triangle of Central America), the history of Mexicans in the US has only recently begun to be given its central place in the history of the nation from the pre-colonial era to the recent past. Unlike immigrant groups from Asia, Africa, and Europe, Mexicans have lived for hundreds of years-thousands, in the case of North American Indians-before the first Anglo-American settlers crossed the Mississippi River into the present-day American West.

“Spanish Exploration, 1513–1543,” printed in Neil Foley, Mexicans in the Making of America (Harvard University Press, 2014), p. 14. Courtesy of Neil Foley.The time-honored narrative of US history begins with the voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492 to the islands of the Caribbean (he never set foot in the present-day US); the founding of the first English settlement in Jamestown in 1607; the pilgrims who established the colonies of “New England” shortly after they arrived in 1620; and the thirteen colonies that declared their independence from England in 1776. We learn about the establishment of slavery in the South; the decimation of Native communities and “removal” from their land; and the westward expansion of the new nation, where it came into collision with the newly independent nation of Mexico—a vast stretch of territory from San Francisco to the Yucatán Peninsula. But this history of the United States told from the perspective of Anglo settlers migrating westward across the continent does not tell the story of indigenous and mestizo people (mixed-race offspring of Spaniards and Indians) migrating from south to north-from Latin America, particularly Mexico-centuries before the late-arriving pilgrims. It seems that Mexicans became part of US history only when “observed,” like quantum particles, by Anglo-Americans (“Remember the Alamo”).

Long before the arrival of Anglo-American immigrants in Texas, Spanish settlers, Indians, and mestizos had founded Santa Fe (1609), El Paso (1659), San Antonio (1718), and Los Angeles (1769). In Florida the Spanish founded Saint Augustine in 1565-the oldest continuous European settlement in the continental United States. As journalist Tony Horwitz put it, “If Americans hit the books, they’d find what Al Gore would call an inconvenient truth. The early history of what is now the United States was Spanish, not English, and our denial of this heritage is rooted in age-old stereotypes that still entangle today’s immigration debate.” [4] Or as the American author and essayist Richard Rodriguez aptly put it, “We were here when here was there.” [5] The point is that Mexicans, who are of indigenous ancestry, are not “immigrants” in North America, any more than are the Apaches in New Mexico and Arizona. Mexicans became “immigrants” after the US-Mexico War in 1848, when Mexico was forced to cede the northern half of its territory to the US, which includes the present-day states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Nevada, and Utah; and parts of four others (Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma). Mexicans crossing the new border became immigrants (or “legal aliens”) in their own land, which is why many ethnic Mexicans often invoke the popular maxim “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.”“Mexican Territorial Loss, 1836−1848,” printed in Neil Foley, Mexicans in the Making of America (Harvard University Press, 2014), p. 30. Courtesy of Neil Foley. What makes the Mexican American experience different from trans-Pacific and Atlantic migrations is the proximity of the US to Mexico. The 2,000-mile border defines the limits of territorial sovereignty of the two countries, but it is also a geopolitical construct that divides a region that for centuries had been the home of Native peoples and mestizos. Many Mexicans on the US side of the border continue to maintain ties to Mexico that include family, traditions, and religious and cultural practices as well as preferences for food and music. Mexican culture in the Southwest and other parts of the US thus continues to be reinforced by generations of Mexican Americans and the migration of Mexicans-authorized and unauthorized-despite the recent decline in their numbers as a result of economic growth in Mexico, declining birth rates, and increased enforcement at the border.

It's commonplace to note that America is a “nation of immigrants” who helped build America. They still do, as virtually every economic study shows. So if Mexicans have been living in the US Southwest long before the United States was the United States and provided much of the labor to develop the region, why do so many Americans today believe that Mexican immigrants represent a grave threat to our nation unlike that of any other immigrant group in our nation's history? Is it because “they take our jobs” or is it something more disturbing, more menacing, like “they are changing our culture instead of us changing them”? Do they fear that Mexican immigrants, unlike most immigrants from Europe, do not assimilate as quickly into the American mainstream, if at all? Or that they come in such large numbers, many of them illegally, that they threaten to overwhelm Anglo culture in many cities where they already outnumber blacks and non-Hispanic whites?

These fears are fed by the dramatic demographic changes since the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, which led to unprecedented immigration, based on “family reunification” preference, from Asia and Latin America. For many Americans, immigration from non-European countries threatens to transform America into something radically different, “alien,” and fundamentally un-American. They worry that the unparalleled numbers of Mexican immigrants will “Mexicanize” us rather than our Americanizing them. They worry that America will become a bicultural, bilingual nation that has lost what Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington called its “core Anglo-Protestant culture”—forgetting that preeminent cities like Los Angeles, New Orleans, San Antonio, New York, Chicago, and Miami long ago ceased being Anglo-Protestant cities, if indeed they ever were. Still, many Americans firmly believe that only strict enforcement of our 2,000-mile border with Mexico will prevent the United States from entering a period of rapid decline and loss of their identity as “true” Americans. [6]

Since 9/11 and increased enforcement on the border, the illegal entry of Mexicans has been reduced but by no means eliminated. The majority of the 5.4 million unauthorized immigrants from Mexico did not cross the border illegally; they overstayed their visas. The construction of a 700-mile fence after passage of the Secure Fence Act in 2006 has shifted the migration channels to over 1,000 miles of unfenced border, much of it in the Sonoran Desert and along stretches of the Río Grande. Now Mexicans risk dying in the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico, or drowning in the Río Grande to have a shot at the American Dream. They also risk apprehension by the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), deportation, and in recent years, jail terms in detention centers.

As Latinos, and Mexican Americans in particular, continue to move, however slowly, into the mainstream of American life, they will become ever more central to American culture and society throughout the twenty-first century. For more than a century, Mexican immigrants and their US-born Mexican American offspring have been making and remaking America, literally building and servicing it, especially in the West, as well as doing all the things that other Americans do, like raising families, working hard, paying taxes, buying homes, fighting wars, and in other ways contributing to the well-being of the nation, much like other immigrant groups and their descendants throughout American history. Their path to acceptance as bona fide Americans has not been easy, but generations of Latinos in the United States, particularly Mexican-origin people, have made their mark on American culture and politics, and will continue to do so in important ways for the rest of the twenty-first century.


[1] Antonio Flores, “How the U.S. Hispanic Population is Changing,” Pew Research Center, Sept. 18, 2017, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/18/how-the-u-s-hispanic-population-is-changing/ , accessed January 8, 2019. Parts of this essay are drawn from my book Mexicans in the Making of America (Harvard University Press, 2014).

[2] “Percent Hispanic of the U.S. Population: 1970 to 2050,” United States Census Bureau, www.census.gov/newsroom/cspan/hispanic/2012.06.22_cspan_hispanics.pdf; and Gretchen Livingston and D’Vera Cohn, “The New Demography of Motherhood,” Pew Research Center, May 6, 2010, pewresearch.org/pubs/1586/changing-demographic-characteristics-american-mothers.

[3] Norma Klahn, “Writing the Border: The Languages and Limits of Representation,” in Common Border, Uncommon Paths: Race, Culture, and National Identity in U.S.-Mexican Relations , ed. Jaime E. Rodríguez O. and Kathryn Vincent (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1997), 134.

[4] Tony Horwitz, “Immigration-and the Curse of the Black Legend,” New York Times, July 9, 2006.

[5] Richard Rodriguez, Brown: The Last Discovery of America (New York: Viking, 2002), 109.

Samuel P. Huntington, “The Hispanic Challenge,” Foreign Policy (March-April 2004): 30–45.


Neil Foley is the Robert H. and Nancy Dedman Chair in History and the Co-Director of the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University. He is the author of The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas (University of California Press, 1997); Quest for Equality: The Failed Promise of Black-Brown Solidarity (Harvard University Press, 2010), and Mexicans in the Making of America (Harvard University Press, 2014).