Space for Race? The Evolution of Chicano Space in Post-WWII San Diego by Kate Berry
The creation of empowered space for Mexican-American communities north of the US-Mexico border has been, and continues to be, a hard fought battle.
A surge in Mexican migration and US citizenship after the second world war increased Mexican and Mexican-American space in the US in terms of greater population, but this population increase also contributed to the beginnings of a more concerted war on Chicano space and mobility. To temper the “problem” of increased Mexican presence in the border states, Operation Wetback, an extensive campaign aimed at swiftly ejecting all Mexican non-citizens from the country, was launched. For Chicanos this meant the continual questioning of their identity and belonging in their home communities, restricted freedom of movement for fear of unlawful deportation, and sometimes forced movement to the border when mistaken as “illegal.” As the second half of the century wore on, voices for Chicano rights grew, and efforts to obtain a more permanent space for demonstrations of Chicano pride began. Through the hard work of Mexican-American activists, places like Chicano Park in Logan Heights, San Diego, established permanent, non-deportable, spaces for Mexican-American communities in the United States.
The end of World War II and the onset of the 1950’s brought an increase in Mexican-populated space in California. As cities north of the border like San Diego, which already had a considerable Mexican-American population, urbanized, Mexican migrant workers surged to fill opening job spaces and carve out areas of their own in the north, hoping to find an economic stability that had evaded them in Mexico. At the same time, northern Mexico experienced a twin economic and population expansion, as many who traveled from central Mexico to work did not make it all the way across the border (Lorey 1993, 123-4) This is clear in both general, and economically active population statistics from San Diego and Tijuana (part of Baja California), border cities that boomed after the war, and whose economic fates were intertwined due to the working, living, and tourism patterns that beset them. As Mexican space and mobility north of the border expanded explosively, racial prejudices and immigration disputes in California shifted from their previously decentralized, day-to-day scale to a national issue.
Operation Wetback, an intensive campaign to rid the American borderlands of “illegals,” was sold to Mexican Americans by Border Control officers as a campaign to alleviate the pressures that Mexican immigrants put on their lives (namely job and wage competition), as well as a way to free these U.S. citizens from constantly being profiled as illegal and subsequently mistreated. As a result, Mexican-Americans were largely in support of the enterprise, knowing that they would have to “briefly” endure greater harassment for a supposedly better end (Hernandez 2010, 192-3). Instead of opening up a prejudice-free space for Chicano communities, however, Operation Wetback threw Chicano space into turmoil. Roberto Martinez, who later became a strong Chicano rights activist, describes how the methods of Operation Wetback continually disrupted his life, going on to state how “…nothing could have prepared me for the terror and psychological trauma of being arrested or threatened with deportation” (Read his full statement here). Any of these headlines boasting huge “roundups” of “wetbacks” could have been counting Roberto Martinez or any number of other Chicano citizens in their tallies. Anyone of Mexican descent was dehumanized by the derogatory term “wetback,” and treated as undesirable animals to be rounded up (or caught, as in “One Day’s Catch at San Ysidro” (emphasis added)) and sent away.
"We gave you our culture of a thousand years. What have you given us? A social system that makes us beggars and police who make us afraid. We've got the land and we are going to work it. We are going to get that park. We no longer talk about asking. We have the park."
- Anonymous protester
"We decided to do murals. We didn't need their permission -- we just started painting."
- Victor Ochoa, muralist
A back and forth battle between Chicano Park advocates and city and state officials in San Diego dragged out the park’s construction and highlighted Barrio Logan’s dissatisfaction with their neighborhood’s atmosphere and assets. The decision of the people to fight so strongly for the park, coming out in force to prepare the land and protest any stalling by the state, showed a powerful commitment to Chicano rights and pride. Filling it with their bodies and their artwork, Chicano Park eventually became a not only a beautiful landmark, but also a bustling, functional community center. Previously a dirty, toxin-spewing, unattractive freeway sprawl, the freeway columns now support over 75 murals and pieces of poetry championing Chicano heritage and strength. Established with incredible effort and community solidarity, the park now stands as a permanent, physical representation of Chicano space in southern San Diego.
(Similar fights are ongoing in other border areas, and the obstacles are large. Consider the case of Friendship Park, exactly on the San Diego/ Tijuana border. Currently it is just a border fence where US and Mexican citizens can meet, talk, play music, and sometimes touch through the bars of the fence. Advocates for the “park” want it developed and made into a purposeful, landscaped space, but Border Control is considering erecting another fence further back from the first one which would eliminate even the scant contact that currently exists.)
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