Mark Overmyer-Velázquez: Historian researching Mexican-U.S. migration

Historians in the News

Mark Overmyer-Velázquez believes current and past debates about the “problem of immigration” have never resolved the fundamental issue underlying south-north Mexican migration: the enormous economic disparities between the two countries.

“Since the beginning of the 20th century and especially in the years during and immediately following the Mexican Revolution, U.S. immigration policy has been characterized by deep ambivalence and fragmentation,” says Overmyer-Velázquez, an assistant professor of history and associate director of the Center for Oral History.

At the core of that ambivalence are the conflicting themes of U.S. demand for labor and attitudes toward race.

“On the one hand, the rapid economic development in the United States has required Mexican labor in order to continue and thrive,” he says.

“On the other, the increased number of Mexican nationals north of the border throughout the 20th century and into the present century has driven many officials to fear for the potential contamination of the perceived race-based social and cultural purity of U.S. citizenship.”

Overmyer-Velázquez is currently writing a book, provisionally titled “Bleeding Mexico White: Race, Nation, and the History of Mexico – U.S. Migration.”

The book will provide a broad historical perspective assessing the development and impact of migratory trends and practices in Mexico and the United States from the early 20th century to the present.

Overmyer-Velázquez, who has family in Mexico, the U.S., and Canada, earned a Ph.D. in Latin American history at Yale University.

While teaching Chicano studies at Pomona College in California, he noticed a dearth of information about Mexican migration.

“It struck me there was a real absence of scholarship [about migrants] until they came into the U.S.,” he says.

He says up to 10 percent of the population of Mexico has lived in the U.S., yet their migration story has been largely neglected, and requires long-range studies using Mexican archives.

Overmyer-Velázquez says his new book will examine the reasons for Mexican migration to the U.S., including Mexican state agrarian reforms, land tenure changes in the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz, and the Mexican Revolution.

A backlash occurred during the 1930s, when, he says, a “xenophobic response” in the U.S. caused problems for about half a million Mexicans and Mexican Americans, who were put on trains and buses and “racially displaced” (sent back to Mexico) against their will. The deportation/repatriation stems in large part, he adds, from the Depression, which began in 1929.

Also emblematic of the era was an announcement in 1936 by the city registrar of El Paso, Texas, that Mexicans would henceforth be registered as “colored” in birth and death records, a radical shift from their previous designation as “white.”

Conditions improved after World War II, when Mexican and U.S. policies encouraged temporary labor migration with bilateral bracero (guest worker) agreements, leading to a Golden Age of migration between 1942 and 1964.

“The modern period starts here, because people ended up staying without legal documentation,” says Overmyer-Velázquez....

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