Considering the title, Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945, one would assume that George Sanchez’s book would be a history about the growth and development of a unique Chicano culture in Los Angeles between 1900 and 1945. However, the scope of the book becomes increasingly far-flung as the narrative progresses, much to the detriment of the author’s stated intention of examining cultural change in Los Angeles. Instead, Sanchez’s book shallowly covers multiple topics and areas, from labor history to radio programming, from rural villages in central and northern Mexico to El Paso, TX and points beyond, leaving the reader with the impression that much ground has been covered, but not in detail on any given subject. Despite the wide range of topics covered, Sanchez uses a variety of records and information from numerous fields of research to support his arguments, including Mexican consular documents, American government records, transcripts of oral testimonies from Mexican immigrants, and letters to provide a broad understanding of the factors that impacted Mexican immigrants to Los Angeles and their descendants.
One of the areas where Sanchez’s work excels is in his depiction of the social and economic interconnectedness of Mexico and the southwestern United States as a result of pre-existing Mexican communities in the area as well as through labor migration that led to cyclical and, eventually, additional permanent settlement. Part I of Becoming Mexican American… describes this process and is, in effect, a transnational historical narrative. Sanchez states that he wants to show that the culture that immigrants brought with them to the United States was not stagnant, but was rather a vibrant, complicated amalgamation of rural and urban mores that developed in Mexican villages in in the second half of the 19th century. However, this does not come through clearly in his writing. For one, the implication is that rural laborers somehow came to possess urban culture while migrating along rail lines for work. Additionally, it implies that laborers arrived in Los Angeles with a fully formed and static culture. It seems more reasonable to say that the process of cultural change that took place in Los Angeles was a continuation of what began in small rural villages in central and northern Mexico.
Sanchez’s comparison of labor migration within Mexico and the United States builds on the idea of regional interconnectedness. He demonstrates this primarily through his discussion of the Mexican rail system that connected northern Mexico more fully to the U.S. than it did to the rest of the country. The opportunities for labor created by the rail system pulled manual laborers away from their homes to travel and work on the rails. As they reached areas closer to the border with the U.S., they saw opportunities to perform the same labor for higher wages. However, this discussion, along with the highly detailed habits of border checkpoint guards, does not seem highly relevant to the topic of the development of a unique Chicano culture in Los Angeles.
Certainly, the openness of the border led to continued migration into the U.S., part of which created the community in Los Angeles, but why was a third of the narrative devoted to what feels like only partially relevant background information. It would have been more useful if the author had provided a brief overview of this topic and then spent more time explaining what the culture of Mexicans in Los Angeles was and how it developed over time. For example, Sanchez devotes an entire chapter to religion, but never goes further than saying the immigrants practiced what Catholic priests in the U.S. considered “folk Catholicism”. What is folk Catholicism? Exactly what were their beliefs and how did they contrast to mainstream Catholicism? Similarly, why did Sanchez spend so much time describing propaganda to encourage Anglos to move to Los Angeles? Why should we care what a Mexican intellectual who is not a resident of Los Angeles thinks about racial homogeneity in relation to the topic of this work? Also, why does Sanchez treat buying a radio as a special sign of cultural development? Is it not normal for people to be interested in purchasing devices that make their lives more comfortable, like the sewing machines he notes were prominent in rural Mexican households in Mexico?
While Sanchez’s book clearly has a lot to offer in terms of in-depth research about regional migration and labor history, most of what he presents is only coincidentally relevant to the community in Los Angeles and how their view of themselves and their position in relation to other inhabitants in the city changed over time. One is left with the feeling that certain sections of the book were originally meant to be stand-alone articles and that an original, cohesive text was supplemented by partially relevant, sometimes dense, textbook-style prose that was book-ended with an argument to attempt to tie everything together.