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Researcher connects integration in postrevolutionary Mexico to U.S. civil rights movement

Thursday, April 24, 2014

LAWRENCE — The key figures who helped to integrate America's public schools in the American West all had one major theme in common.

These scholars who shaped American public education policy and public desegregation via the federal court system had all previously studied public policy in Mexico, mainly how the nation to the south attempted to integrate its various ethnic groups into a united citizenry in the wake of the devastating Mexican Revolution that ended in 1920.

"Their work shows that the Republic of Mexico became a dominant influence on American civil rights and America's renewal of nationalism beginning with World War II," said Ruben Flores, a University of Kansas assistant professor of American studies. "The south-to-north influence here will be a shock to some because we're not used to thinking about Mexico as a model that the United States copied. Historians like Daniel T. Rodgers and James Kloppenberg more often turn to Europe as a model for the United States, instead."

As part of his book "Backroads Pragmatists: Mexico's Melting Pot and Civil Rights in the United States," Flores delved deep into archival research in Mexico, New York, Tennessee and Louisiana to understand how these social scientists ultimately put theories they had studied in Mexico into practice in the American West. These scientists included educational philosopher George I. Sanchez, who worked to transform New Mexico's government agencies to fight economic marginalization in the state; psychologist Loyd Tireman, who fashioned new campaigns to improve rural education in New Mexico and Texas; and anthropologist Ralph L. Beals, who provided the rationale for integration that was used to fight the policy of segregation in California.

"I didn't have a theory about flipping the U.S.-Mexico relationship on its head," said Flores, who is also a core faculty member in KU's Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. "We usually think of the U.S.-Mexico relationship as a hegemonic one in which a stronger northern neighbor influences a weaker southern one. But in tracing the history of these single individuals, I suddenly realized that they had all been shaped by the same set of ideas in post revolutionary Mexico, before they then returned home and implemented them in the American West."

He said their influence was not accidental but came from Mexico's ambitious social and educational policies after 1920 as Mexico sought to rebuild its society in the wake of a bloody revolution in which 1 million people died.

The timing of Mexico's nation-building efforts is critical to bear in mind, Flores said, because the impulses that created the classical civil rights movement of the 1950s were set in motion in the immediate decades before. The growth of the Mexican state in the 1920s and '30s allowed Sanchez, Tireman and Beals to study the effects of government reform in Mexico, even though the philosophical roots of Mexican reform aren't typically acknowledged as influences on American history.

"If scientists talked about Mexico in a particular way, as being formative and important to them, then why did the biographers of these individuals not talk about the Republic of Mexico?" Flores said. "That missing history is what got me launched on this project."

That connection is overlooked today for a variety of reasons, he said. Economic fluctuations and government corruption began to draw more attention in the 1950s. Meanwhile, because the United States was already largely industrialized and had a more urban population, a stronger economic base amplified the effects of New Deal restructuring. And as America came out of World War II, its role in world politics diminished attention to Mexico.

"When we think about Mexico, then, it's hard to think of a moment in time like the 1920s to 1950s when the state was trying to do something constructive that drew attention from many parts of the world," Flores said.

Still, he said, the timing of post revolutionary reform movements works because Mexico instituted a strong federal government in 1920 as a way of helping to bring together Mexican society in wake of the revolution. This was prior to New Deal politics in the United States, and from the need to withstand America's growing might in the hemisphere.

"(Mexican leaders) were trying to blend all of their various ethnicities and cultures into a single group of citizens, and that's where the concept of the 'melting pot' comes up," Flores said. "In Mexico, the 'melting pot' was called the 'crisol.' I find it fascinating that they were wrestling with a project that is instantly recognizable in the United States."

One key for Mexico was a strong presidency that facilitated the project of bringing together many racial and ethnic groups beginning in the 1920s. Meanwhile in the United States, it was the involvement of the federal courts in overturning racial policies, such as Jim Crow laws, that proved central to civil rights.

"Government was understood to be a capable mediator among the various interests and ethnic groups of society in both the US and Mexico," he said. "The ultimate question was, if you do have so many different ethnicities and cultural groups, then how do you determine the right balance among them? That requires some kind of instrument, as well as a model of the relationships between them."

After the Mexican Revolution, the Mexican government established a public school system that sought to integrate scores of ethic groups spread across the country into a synthetic whole. Such integration in schools in the United States became a landmark of the American civil rights movement.

Flores said the social scientists he studied drew ideas from the public schools they observed in Mexico during the 1930s and 1940s. For example, Beals, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, used the relationship between government and the schools in Mexico as he fought segregation in the federal courts in southern California. Tireman adapted his rural education campaigns in New Mexico from the Mexican ministry of education.

The University of Pennsylvania Press is scheduled to release "Backroads Pragmatists" in June, and Flores, whose parents and grandparents grew up in Chihuahua, Mexico, is now seeking to get the book translated into Spanish and published in Mexico City so that it can be read in Mexico.

"One important lesson that I took away is that we need not be trapped by historical circumstances," he said. "The people that I have studied believed that it was important to change society through institutions that could transform group relations.  They believed that there was absolutely nothing wrong about that, either, because there was no prescribed model they felt the need to follow."