In the book Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, George J. Sanchez, associate professor of American studies, ethnicity and history at the University of Southern California, studies the historical formation of the Mexican American identity, specifically in the first half of the 20th century.
The city of Los Angeles during that time period in history was the hub of an intense and multifaceted cultural interplay between the indigenous American culture – rooted as it has been since its inception in the experience of the immigrant – and the influx of Mexican people that comprised the city’s most significant immigrant population at the time.
In choosing to focus on the years between 1900 and 1950 in Los Angeles, Professor George J. Sanchez specifically highlights a number of significant aspects that formed the Mexican American identity: war, repatriation, popular culture and Americanization programs.
The formal deportation and repatriation campaigns that took place during the Great Depression in the 1930s forced thousands of Mexicans back to the country of their birth; those who managed to stay in Los Angeles lobbied for civil and labor rights as Mexican Americans through unions and the policies associated with Roosevelt’s New Deal programs (Sanchez 12).
Professor George J. Sanchez’s broader argument on how identity is created offers a view of identity for Mexican immigrants during this time period as an amalgamation or third way between life as a Mexican and life as an American.
In George J. Sanchez’s words, “as Mexican immigrants acclimated themselves to life north of the border, they did not remain Mexicans simply living in the United States, they became Mexican Americans. They assumed a new ethnic identity, a cultural orientation which accepted the possibilities of a future in their new land” (Sanchez 12).
The purpose of this essay is to answer the question, is the Mexican American entertainer Pedro J. Gonzalez Mexican or American? This essay begins with George J. Sanchez’s supposition and builds upon it, as it employs certain events from Pedro J. Gonzalez’s life, specifically, his emigration to the United States, his deportation and his citizenship in 1985, to argue that Pedro J. Gonzalez was ultimately an American.
The essay reaches this conclusion on account of two key choices that Pedro J. Gonzalez made: the first, his choice to return to the United States following his deportation, and the second, his choice to become an American citizen in 1985 (Waldo and Sullivan 3).
This essay also argues that Mexican immigrants such as Pedro J. Gonzalez employed popular culture, particularly the corrido – the Mexican folk song – to serve as a bridge between the two cultures, and in turn the corrido came to underpin many elements of the new Mexican American identity as it formed.
Pedro J. Gonzalez was born in Chihuahua, Mexico in 1895; during his teenage years Gonzalez became a freedom fighter with other Pancho Villa supporters during the Mexican Revolution from 1910 through 1920 (Waldo and Sullivan 3).
A woman saved Pedro J. Gonzalez from a firing squad in 1919; three months later they were married and moved to Los Angeles in 1923, where he found employment as a longshoreman (Waldo and Sullivan 3). Pedro J. Gonzalez embarked on a radio career in Los Angeles as a Spanish-language radio personality in 1932, hosting his own two hour morning show on the Burbank based radio station KELW (Waldo and Sullivan 3).
The primary audience for Pedro J. Gonzalez’s radio show was the Mexican laborer getting ready for work in the morning; Pedro J. Gonzalez was also the front man for a band called Los Madrugadores (Waldo and Sullivan 3). This radio show soon operated as a news resource for the burgeoning population of Mexicans in Los Angeles – a number of whom were illiterate in both languages – and Pedro J. Gonzalez deployed th
Open conflicts soon developed between Pedro J. Gonzalez and the Los Angeles municipal power base, specifically District Attorney Buron Fitts (Waldo and Sullivan 3). In 1934, Fitts arrested Pedro J. Gonzalez on sexual assault charges; the court sentenced him to fifty years, six of which he served in the San Quentin prison (Waldo and Sullivan 3).
Pedro J. Gonzalez regained his freedom in 1940, whereupon he was deported to Mexico; he spent the next thirty years in Tijuana as a radio personality (Waldo and Sullivan 3). Despite the deportation, tantamount to exile, Pedro J. Gonzalez chose to return to Los Angeles in 1971; he applied for and received his American citizenship in 1985 (Waldo and Sullivan 3).
Choice here is the operative word when deciding what constitutes identity. Gonzalez chose willingly to return to the United States despite his fractious relationship with the authorities in Los Angeles and the hardship he faced, particularly the time he served in the San Quentin prison, an indication that he personally identified as an American, otherwise he would have stayed in Mexico.
Pedro J. Gonzalez employed the corrido, a form of folk music popular among the Mexican working classes, as a kind of political forum. In Professor George J. Sanchez’s words, “the corrido was an exceptionally flexible musical genre which encouraged adapting composition to new situations and surroundings.
Melodies…were standardized or based on traditional patterns, while text was expected to be continually improvised…corrido musicians were expected to decipher the new surroundings in which Mexican immigrants found themselves while living in Los Angeles. Its relation to the working-class Mexican immigrant audience in Los Angeles was therefore critical to its continued popularity” (Sanchez 178).
Pedro J. Gonzalez was one of the core innovators of the corrido genre, and employed the genre regularly throughout his career to communicate the distinct experience of the Mexican immigrant (Sanchez 177). According to Sanchez, Pedro J. Gonzalez “remembered composing corridos with seven other soldiers fighting with Pancho Villa in secluded mountain hideouts during lulls between battles” (Sanchez 177).
The corrido formed a cultural bridge between the Mexico that Pedro J. Gonzalez’s audience had left behind and the new identities and lives they were constructing in Los Angeles. In essence the folk songs made sense of the new surroundings for the Mexican immigrants, while maintaining a vibrant connection with the home culture.
In the book Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, Professor George J. Sanchez examines an important period of Mexican American history, the first half of the 20th century, localized in Los Angeles, as well as an important cultural and political figure from that time, Pedro J. Gonzalez.
Despite the difficulties Pedro J. Gonzalez faced at the hands of corrupt city officials, which led to a six year jail stint at San Quentin, Gonzalez’s actions – returning to the United States and applying for and receiving his citizenship in 1985 – demonstrated that he himself identified as an American.
Martin, Waldo E. Jr. and Patricia Sullivan. “Pedro J. Gonzalez.” Civil Rights in the United States. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2000. Print.
Sanchez, George J. Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los
Angeles, 1900-1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. Print.