Perspective on the Frontier

Houston Institute for Culture 
Stolen Birthright: The U.S. Conquest and Exploitation of the Mexican People [1 of 6]
By Richard D. Vogel

A ghost from the past is haunting America. But this ghost is no phantasm -- it is the emergence of millions of Mexicans and Mexican Americans, descendants of the people who were dispossessed of their land and denied their birthright in the southwestern United States, who are growing in power and hungering for justice.


Part I: Conquest - Land and Wealth

    U.S. Imperialism in the South and Southwest
    The U.S. War on Mexico
    The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

Part II: Exploitation - Capital and Labor

    World War I and the Demand for Mexican Labor
    The Great Depression and Mass Deportations
    World War II and the Bracero Program
    The Maquiladora Industry
    Boomtowns and Busted Workers
    The Impact of NAFTA on Mexico

Part III: Exodo - Reclaiming the Mexican Birthright

    Essential Workers for U.S. Capitalism
    Another 50 Years of Mass Migration

The present population of Mexico is about 105 million people with a full 40 percent living in poverty. There are an additional 23 million residents of Mexican origin (including 8.8 million Mexican-born) in the United States. Almost 73 percent of them live in the border states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas -- originally Mexican territory. Beginning in the late 1980s, and continuing into the 1990s there has been a significant migration of Mexicans into new areas of the U.S. as the demand for their vital labor power has grown. In the past twenty years, nearly 9 million Mexicans have migrated, both legally and illegally, to the United States in search of a better life. The current estimate of undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. is between 3 and 4 million with another 300,000 to 400,000 crossing the border each year. And there is no end of the migration in sight. Mexico's National Population Council predicts that the Mexican-born population in the U.S. will at least double by 2030, reaching 16 to 18 million.

Mexican immigrants work the most dangerous and lowest paid jobs in America. Seventy-two percent of all legal Mexican immigrants and 91 percent of all illegal Mexican immigrants work in low-paying blue-collar or service occupations. Despite their thrift and hard work, 61 percent of all legal Mexican immigrants and their U.S. born children and 74 percent of all illegal Mexican immigrants and their U.S. born children live at or under the U.S. poverty level. The current average annual income for legal Mexican immigrants is 57 percent that of white Americans, while illegal immigrants have to live on only 41 percent. Even after 20 years of working in the U.S., the income of Mexican immigrants is less than 60 percent that of white workers. But despite their economic status in America, year after year they continue to send a significant share of their earnings back to relatives in Mexico.

Mexican citizens who cross the border legally every day to work, shop, or visit family line up at checkpoints on the militarized border that partitions their original homeland: Tijuana/San Diego, Mexicali/Calexio, Nogales/Nogales, Agua Prieta/Douglas, Ciudad Juárez/El Paso, Ciudad Acuña/Del Rio, Piedras Negras/Eagle Pass, Nuevo Laredo/Laredo, Reynosa/McAllen, and Matamoros/Brownsville. An estimated 1 million people a day legally cross the border in both directions. The largest border crossing in the world is at Tijuana/San Diego where an estimated 50,000 people live on one side of the international boundary and work on the other. The Ciudad Juárez/El Paso crossing is almost as busy. Presently, 12 million people live along the Mexico-U.S. border, and the population is expected to double in the next ten years.

Between official points of entry, the U.S. Border Patrol, the U.S. Coast Guard, occasional units from the U.S. Army and Air Force, numerous state and local police agencies (including the notorious Texas Rangers), gangs of Anglo vigilantes, and armed landowners patrol the international border to check the flow of desperate Mexican migrants.

Mexicans who attempt illegal crossings also face formidable man-made and natural obstacles. Miles of concrete and steel barriers erected to block their passage have diverted the flow of immigrants from the safer areas near civilization into the wastelands of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts and deserted stretches of the broad and treacherous Rio Grande. Though the border is monitored 24 hours a day by surveillance cameras, night-vision scopes, and seismic sensors, the migrants get through. Unknown numbers of Mexican immigrants die of heat exposure or drowning every year. Scores more die or are injured in traffic and railroad accidents. The toll taken on the travelers by traffickers, vigilantes, and common criminals goes unreported. Over a million Mexicans are turned back annually, but, because there is little economic opportunity in Mexico, many return to try again. American border watchers estimate that it would take an army of 20,000 Border Patrol Agents and an expanded system of formidable fences and other barriers to stem the flow of Mexicans who brave illegal crossings.

The unstoppable migration from Mexico to the U.S. is one the largest movements of workers and their families in the modern age. This mass migration from the underdeveloped South to the affluent North is the specter from the past that is haunting America.

To be sure, there are other ghosts of history still lingering the U.S. There are the shades of the Native American nations -- people exterminated or driven to the edge of extinction for their land and exiled to the wastelands of America. And there are the African American people, mostly descendents of the survivors of slavery, some assimilated, even prospering, and many, their cheap labor no longer needed by U.S. capitalism because of its global runaway shops, ghettoized in the cities or incarcerated in the vast prison system of America. These people, too, hunger for justice. But it is the Mexican people who present a unique challenge to American capitalism, a system of exploitation that has historically targeted national minorities in its unrelenting quest for profit.

Two elemental factors have affected the history of Mexicans in the U.S.: first, unlike both the African American and Native American people, they have had sanctuaries -- the borderlands of the American Southwest and Mexico itself -- places to recuperate from the relentless exploitation and regenerate, and, second, their labor power remains essential to American capitalism. These two factors have saved the Mexican people from the dismal fate of so many Native and African Americans.

Mexicans and Mexican Americans have endured over a century and a half of exploitation and oppression and are emerging as a powerful force -- a force that is already changing the social, economic, and political landscape of North America. Stolen Birthright: The U.S. Conquest and Exploitation of the Mexican People is a history of the expropriation of over one half of the landmass of the republic of Mexico by the United States and the historic and continuing exploitation of that country and its people. Contrary to the official histories written on both sides of the border, this inquiry leads to an affirmation of the Mexican people.


Copyright 2004 by Richard D. Vogel.

Richard D. Vogel is a retired teacher who writes about current social and political issues. Other articles by the author are available at