El Salvador
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by Cesar Garcia

Context for Mexican Immigration

History and Government

Mexico was the cradle of several highly evolved pre-Columbian civilizations, including Olmec, Toltec, Mayan, and Aztec. In 1521, the Spaniard Hernan Cortes conquered the Aztec Empire, setting the foundation for the viceroyalty of New Spain. Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1821 with the initial leadership of the priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla. Agustin de Iturbide became emperor after the war, and Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna proclaimed Mexico a republic in 1822.

Guadalupe Victoria became the first president of Mexico in 1823. Santa Anna was elected president in 1833, and established a dictatorship. The Mexican-American war in 1846 ended with the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Mexican cession of California, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and parts of Wyoming and Colorado. This treaty and the independence of Texas in 1836 reduced the Mexican territory almost in half.

President Benito Juarez conducted liberal reforms in 1855, removing the power and properties of the Catholic Church. The French invasion in 1861 culminated with the execution of the French emperor Maximilian of Austria in 1864. Modernization, economic exploitation of the peasants by landowners (latifundistas), and the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz (1877-1880 and 1884-1911) concluded with the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917).

Under the banner of “Land and Liberty” and the leadership of Emiliano Zapata in central Mexico and Francisco Villa in the north, the rebellion sought to redistribute land to poor peasants and establish democratic elections. In 1929, revolutionary and reformist politicians founded the Revolutionary National Party. It was renamed in 1946 as the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and held monolithic power until the year 2000.

In 1938, President Lazaro Cardenas expropriated all foreign oil wells in the country. This strained the relationship with the U.S. until an agreement was reached in 1941. After World War II, the Mexican government’s emphasis was economic growth, which was accelerated by the production of crude oil. By the late 1970s, Mexico was the world’s fourth leading oil producer, but with the fall of oil prices it also acquired an immense external debt. The external debt has been renegotiated several times in past decades. In the 1980s, in spite of austerity measures adopted by President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado, the economy contracted and the standard of living deteriorated considerably. In September 1985, two major earthquakes hit Mexico City and surrounding areas killing between 5,000 and 10,000 people and leaving another 300,000 homeless.

In 1994, Canada, the U.S. and Mexico formed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Tariffs on imports will be gradually removed in a 15-year period. The assassination of Luis Donaldo Colosio in Tijuana in 1994, resulted in the presidential election of PRI candidate Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, Colosio’s campaign manager. The divisions within the PRI, general discontent, and the increased popularity of the National Action Party (PAN) culminated in the election of the PAN candidate Vicente Fox as President of Mexico in the year 2000.

The government of Mexico is a Federal Republic with a bicameral congress. Presidential terms last six years with no re-election.


The GDP of Mexico in 1998 was $815 billions, with a per capita income of $8,300. Extreme income inequality and high inflation create severe hardship among the Mexican people.

Under austerity plans imposed by the International Monetary Fund, many collective farms (ejidos) and public enterprises have been privatized. Thousands of U.S. maquiladoras (corporations) have reduced their work forces in 2000 and 2001. Under NAFTA, it is estimated that 15 million campesinos (farmers) will lose their jobs in 2000-2010 as U.S. agribusinesses under-sell Mexican corn growers. These economic pressures lead to growing immigration to the U.S.

Mexican Immigration

The severe economic pressures causing the migration of Mexicans to the U.S. include the sharp difference in the economies of Mexico and the U.S., the availability of jobs in the U.S. during times of economic expansion, the high unemployment rate and economic fluctuations in Mexico, deep external debt and excessive international borrowing, monetary crises caused by devaluations of the peso, and competition favoring U.S. corporations under NAFTA. Mexicans also came to the United States to escape civil war during the Mexican Revolution and to escape religious persecution during the Cristero Rebellion, a bloody war between some state governments and the church in western Mexico from 1926 to 1929. The immigration of Mexicans to the southwestern United States was also influenced by the existence of large Mexican communities in this region. More recently, since 1994 the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas has probably contributed to the migration of inhabitants from southern Mexico.

Under the 1986 amnesty program, over two million undocumented Mexicans received green cards. Millions more have entered the U.S. legally since then, and it is estimated that three to four million more undocumented Mexicans live throughout the U.S. in 2001, including tens of thousands in Santa Clara County.

Social Characteristics of the Mexican People

Ethnic and Religious Diversity

Ethnic groups in Mexico are mestizo (Indian-Spanish) 60%, Amerindian or predominantly Amerindian 30%, white 9%, and other 1%. About 89% of the Mexican population is Roman Catholic, 6% is Protestant, and 5% practice other religions.

Family Life

The family has great importance for Mexicans. Family well-being and reputation come first, and family is also the first source of help and support in a time of crisis. Families can be comprised of nuclear families, extended families, and compadres (Godparents). Decision-making authority rests with the father or oldest son. Mothers are very influential in children’s lives. Elders are respected and most of the time cared for at home. Loyalty, solidarity and reciprocity between family members are expected. The roles of males and females in the family are dictated by traditional norms and values, but these are changing with the growing number of working women.

Health Care Practices

In 1995, the Social Security Program provided health care for 50% of the Mexican population. Many of the remaining 50% received health care from a variety of government agencies or private doctors. The focus on present time as well as the high cost of medical treatments prevent many Mexicans from seeking preventive health care. This care is also more available in urban areas than in rural parts of Mexico. For many, God is believed to be the mandating force in future health.

Curanderos (folk healers) are a popular and more economical source of health treatments, especially in rural areas of Mexico. Some ailments commonly cured by curanderos, sobadoras (masseuses), and yerberos (herbalists) include: caida de mollera (sunken fontanelle), empacho (intestinal obstruction), and mal de ojo (evil eye).

Traditionally, Mexican families take care of their disabled members. This includes people with mental retardation, which is more stigmatized than physical disabilities. There are more facilities for the care of people with mental disorders in larger cities. There is still considerable stigma and skepticism among Mexicans in seeking assistance from mental health professionals.

Educational System

The Secretariat of Public Education controls the entire education system. Public education in Mexico is free and secular. Primary and secondary education is compulsory up to age 16. The government provides free textbooks and workbooks to all primary schools. The literacy rate in 1995 for males was 89.5% and 87.2% for females. Only a small percentage of the student population completes a university education.

Mexicans in Santa Clara County


Around 75% of Mexicans in the random sample reported leaving Mexico due to economic hardships, and one-third reported coming to the U.S. to reunite with family members or to obtain an education. This group had lived in the U.S. an average of 18 years and 16 years in Santa Clara County.

Of Mexicans in the random sample, 92% stated that Spanish was the language they use the most, 6% used English, and 2% used both languages. The average age for the random sample was 40 years, and 80% of the respondents lived in San Jose. In regards to school years completed, 28% of Mexicans in the random sample completed 1 to 6 years, 45% of them completed 7 to 12 years, and 27% of them completed 13 years or more. The average household size for this group was 5 people.

Of Mexicans in the public benefits group, 83% cited economic difficulties as the reason for leaving Mexico, and roughly one out of three of these Mexicans came to the U.S. to reunite with family members or to take advantage of educational opportunities. This group had lived in the U.S. an average of nine years and in Santa Clara County an average of seven years.

About 96% of respondents in the public benefits group stated that Spanish was the language they used the most, 3% used English, and 1% used both languages. The average age for this sample was 33 years, and 75% of them lived in San Jose. The public benefits survey also revealed that 34% of the respondents completed between one and six years of school, 45% completed between seven and 12 years, and 21% completed 13 years or more. Households for this sample had an average size of 6 people. The income distribution for both samples was the following:

                      $10K & less    $10K-30K    $30K-50        $50K-70K    $70,001+
Random Sample        10%            33%        29%            18%            11%
Public Benefits           46%            36%        11%              5%              2%

Interpersonal Communication

Mexicans commonly use the formal Usted mode of speaking with the elderly, married women, and strangers, and are generally reserved in formal or new settings. Signs of respect such as standing to greet people and shaking hands are very important in social interactions. Relationships with family and friends show warmth and expressiveness. Embracing is common, and kissing is also a popular greeting practiced among women.

Emotional Support

The top three sources of emotional support for Mexicans in the random sample were spouses 56%, friends 43%, and relatives 21%. In this group, the providers of care for children under 12 years of age were mothers 56%, fathers 42%, and to a lesser extent babysitters. For Mexicans in the random sample group, the most preferred ways of caring for seniors and disabled people were at home by family members, or at home by trained caregivers.

In contrast, 31% of public benefits recipients stated they frequently have no one to talk to about their emotional problems, 30% talked to spouses, and 29% talked to friends. Child care providers for respondents in this group were mothers 63%, fathers 28%, and grandparents 16%. The top choices for the care of seniors and disabled family members for this group of Mexicans were also at home by a trained caregiver, or at home by a family member.


Mexican dress is westernized and highly influenced by U.S. styles. However, for special occasions, the most traditional outfit used by Mexicans is the charro outfit for men and the china poblana outfit for women. Men use pants lined with silver or shiny buttons on the sides, jackets tailored with shiny ornaments, and a round wide-brimmed sombrero. Women wear a white peasant blouse and a red skirt with ornaments of different colors. There are other traditional outfits for the different regions of Mexico.


The most basic ingredients in the Mexican cuisine are corn, beans, and rice. Dishes vary according to the region of the country. Even dishes with the same name can be prepared differently, such as red and green enchiladas. Corn is used to prepare numerous foods like tortillas, tamales, sopes, gorditas and pinole, and drinks like pinolillo and atole. Tacos are probably the most common dish in Mexico. Contents can vary from cheese to the most delicious beef and fish meats. Other famous dishes are mole (chicken covered by a very tasty red sauce), menudo (a stew prepared with beef stomach and feet), ceviche (small pieces of fish or shrimp cooked with lemon juice and seasoned with onions, cilantro, and peppers), birria (another beef soup-like stew with red peppers) chiles rellenos (chiles stuffed with cheese, covered with flour and egg batter and fried), and pozole (soup-like stew with hominy, spices, and pork stew meat).

Religious Traditions and Holidays

Religious traditions are very influential in Mexico’s culture. One of the most common traditions in Mexico is the celebration of fiestas patronales in honor of the community’s patron saint, accompanied by ferias that add the elements of entertainment and food. Another important tradition is related to Lent and Holy Week (March-April), when many people abstain from eating red meats on Fridays, or from having or doing something they enjoy (sacrificios). El Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead on November 2) is also a very important day for Mexicans. They spend most of the day at cemeteries, remembering loved ones who have died and preparing altars in their honor. Many Mexican neighborhoods celebrate nine posadas prior to Christmas. These “processions” represent the pilgrimage of St. Joseph and Virgin Mary prior to the birth of Christ.

Other popular holidays celebrated in Mexico include New Year (January 1), Los Santos Reyes (Wise men, January 6), Day of love and friendship (February 14), Benito Juarez’s birth (March 21), Day of the Child (April 30), Labor Day (May 1), Battle of Puebla (Cinco de Mayo, May 5), Mother’s Day (May 10), Teachers’ Day (May 15), El Grito de Independencia (Independence Day, Evening of September 15), All Saints Day (November 1), Day of the Revolution (November 20), Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12), and Christmas Evening (December 24).

Challenges in Santa Clara County

The most pressing needs identified in the random sample were ESL classes 68%, legal help with immigration issues 45%, medical care 42%, dental care 40%, and eye care 30%.

For Mexicans in the public benefits group, the highest needs were ESL classes 75%, medical care 73%, dental care 70%, immigration legal help 55%, and eye care 51%.

A series of focus groups were conducted with different subgroups of the Mexican community in Santa Clara County: youth, low-wage workers and seniors. The key problems they identified in the Mexican community were undocumented immigration status; discrimination in most areas of life (including the police and judicial system); low wages; lack of affordable housing; lack of access to health, food and child care programs; the language barrier; and inappropriate schedules or insufficient ESL classes. In addition, Mexican seniors voiced the need for higher payments from Social Security; subsidized housing and utilities; more complete and efficient medical coverage; and more attention, understanding, and respect from family members and health service providers.

Participants overwhelmingly suggested a new amnesty as the solution that can provide the most benefits, such as higher wages, less discrimination in jobs, access to housing, and access to health and food programs. They also indicated a need for adjusting wages to the cost of living in Santa Clara County, building affordable housing for all, creating health programs for the working poor regardless of immigration status, receiving information on Spanish TV and radio about how to access available services, and increasing the number of ESL classes with appropriate schedules.


Only 41% of Mexicans in the random sample felt respected when stopped by the police. Other negative aspects were also associated with this experience. For instance, 29% of the group felt scared, 28% felt mistreated, and 26% felt they did not know their legal rights. The top five sources of discrimination for Mexicans in this group were employers 33%, police officers 29%, co-workers 23%, social workers or eligibility workers 23%, and job interviewers 19%.

Public benefit recipients presented a similar picture when stopped by the police. Forty seven percent of them felt scared, 44% were unable to communicate well, 34% did not know their legal rights, and only 32% of them felt respected. For this group of Mexicans, the main sources of discrimination were co-workers 25%, employers 23%, DMV officials 21%, social or eligibility workers 21%, and bus drivers 17%.

Barriers to Education, Services & Benefits

Mexicans in the random sample reported that they have the following barriers that prevent them from obtaining education, services and benefits: Not knowing enough English 49%, not enough time 39%, scheduling problems 38%, lack of information 34%, and immigration status 32%.

For Mexicans in the public benefits sample, the obstacles preventing them from obtaining education, services, and benefits were not knowing enough English 64%, immigration status 49%, lack of information 40%, no affordable child care 35%, and no transportation 31%.

Employment and Working Conditions

Occupational Data and Barriers

Common occupations among participants in the random sample were homemakers, custodians, business owners, gardeners, and transportation workers. Occupations in Mexico for this group included farmers, homemakers, and various jobs in the service area.

Roughly half of the respondents in the random sample said that limited English skills were the main reason for the difference between previous and current occupations. Other reasons reported were having a better current job 39%, lack of employment training 35%, not having a license or credential in the U.S. 29%, and the lack of funds 17%.

In the public benefits group, participants reported current occupations such as homemakers, custodians, food service workers, and retail workers. Occupations in Mexico for respondents in this group were homemakers, service workers, and administrative assistants.

Sixty two percent of public benefits recipients cited limited English skills as the main reason for the difference between their occupations here and in Mexico. Other reasons mentioned were not having a license or credential in the U.S. 50%, lack of employment training 35%, having a better current job 31%, and lack of knowledge of occupational requirements in the U.S 22%.

Working Conditions

Mexicans in the random sample worked an average of 40 hours a week. Not surprisingly, 61% of families in this group had two or more people employed. Only 30% of the participants reported just one person employed in the family. Furthermore, 14% of Mexicans in this group had two or more jobs in order to meet their needs. Negative working conditions in the random sample survey were lack of medical benefits 52%, no sick leave 47%, no paid vacation 41%, and no pension or retirement plan 38%. Those with union membership (36%) generally did not suffer these conditions.

Conversely, participants in the public benefits survey worked an average of 33 hours a week. In regards to the number of people working in these families, 40% had one person employed and an additional 43% had two or more people employed. The majority of Mexicans in this group (71%) had one job; however, 25% of them had two or more jobs. Common working conditions for public benefits recipients included lack of medical benefits 65%, no sick leave 62%, no paid vacation 56%, and no pension or retirement plan 50%. Nearly 40% worked for businesses with fewer than 25 employees.

Small Businesses

Only 11% of the random sample reported that anyone in their family was self-employed or owned a business. For the public benefits group, this percentage was reduced to 4%. The top five obstacles in starting a business for both groups were not knowing legal and permit requirements, information on how to get started, getting a loan, learning English, and knowing what business idea might be successful.

Public Benefits in the Mexican Community

Knowledge and Adequacy of Benefits

Mexicans in the random sample had different levels of knowledge about the requirements for public benefits. Forty one percent of them understood the requirements for MediCal, 25% for food stamps, 15% for Supplementary Security Income (SSI), 10% for CalWORKs, 10% for General Assistance, and 8% understood the requirements for the Cash Assistance Program for Immigrants. Among families of respondents to the random survey, 20% had someone in the family receiving MediCal, 8% receiving SSI, and 6% receiving food stamps.

Understandably, Mexicans in the public benefits group were more familiar with the requirements for the different public benefits. For MediCal, nine out of ten respondents knew these requirements, half of them knew them for food stamps, about one third of them knew them for CalWORKs, and only 15% of them knew the requirements for General Assistance. In the Mexican public benefits group 85% reported someone in the family receiving MediCal, 40% of these families had someone receiving food stamps, 23% were receiving CalWORKs, and 19% had someone receiving SSI. Three out of four respondents considered that learning English was the most challenging barrier to become self-sufficient.

Culturally Competent Services

According to Mexicans receiving public benefits, four out of five respondents attended MediCal orientations in Spanish. Eighty six percent of these participants received phone calls from MediCal personnel in Spanish, and nine out of ten received written materials in Spanish. For food stamps programs, 76% of the respondents attended orientations in Spanish, 80% received phone calls in Spanish, and 82% of them received written materials in Spanish. For CalWORKs programs, 63% of them attended orientations in Spanish, 68% received written materials in Spanish, and 74% received phone calls in Spanish.

Educational Access in Santa Clara County

K-12 Education

About 54% of adults in the random sample survey and 73% of adults in the public benefits sample had children under the age of 18 in school. Of the respondents in both groups, two-thirds expressed a desire for bilingual (English/Spanish) education for children. English-only education was supported by one out of four respondents in the random sample and by one out of five respondents in public benefits survey. The top three services received at schools were the same for participants in both surveys. In the random sample, 69% attended parent meetings, 66% received information in Spanish, and 64% participated in lunch or breakfast programs. In the public benefits survey, 68% received information in Spanish, 64% attended parent meetings, and 63% participated in lunch or breakfast programs.

Employment Training

Mexicans in the random sample received employment training mostly involving basic skills such as ESL classes, general education, and custodial or technical occupations. These participants received their training mainly through adult education programs, and secondarily through private businesses or institutes.

Public benefits recipients received employment training in areas such as ESL or general education, and occupations like food service worker and technician. Sources of employment training for this group included adult education centers, community colleges, and community agencies.


In rating their own English skills, 6% of the random sample rated their English as excellent, 22% as good, 50% as average, 18% as poor, and 5% believed they had no English skills. This group of Mexicans endorsed weekend ESL classes (47%), ESL classes closer to home (35%), and better class schedules as helpful ways of learning English.

Of Mexican public benefits recipients, 4% considered their English skills as excellent, 8% as good, 36% as average, 20% as poor, and 32% as non-existent. Participants in this group suggested ESL classes closer to home (54%), better class schedules (43%), and weekend ESL classes (42%) as helpful in improving their English skills.


Forty four percent of Mexicans surveyed in the random sample were naturalized citizens. The most pressing needs in this area were citizenship classes 50%, legal advice 34%, and help filling out application 32%. In the public benefits group, only 11% of the respondents were naturalized citizens. Of these respondents, 46% needed citizenship classes, 42% help to fill out the application, and 41% needed English literacy classes in Spanish.

Communication and Outreach in the Mexican Community

The families of Mexicans in the random survey obtained important information from Spanish TV 80%, Spanish radio 54%, church 39%, English TV 36%, family 32%, and friends 29%. The five most popular information-related devices in the homes of these participants were TVs 99%, telephones 97%, radios 95%, VCRs 83%, and computers 44%.

Similarly, Mexicans in the public benefits group obtained important information from Spanish TV 86%, Spanish radio 55%, friends 30%, family 26%, and church 25%. Their homes had the following devices: TVs 99%, radios 90%, telephones 89%, VCRs 67%, and computers 16%.

Mexicans in Action: Claudia Olivares

Mexicans participating in both surveys reported being actively involved in their communities. About 54% of the random sample group was involved in religious groups, 33% in school or parent organizations, 26% in community organizations, and 19% in neighborhood organizations. In the public benefits group, 51% were involved in religious groups, 44% in school or parent organizations, 18% in neighborhood organizations, 10% in community organizations, and 10% with an informal group of friends. Voter registration was 38% for the random sample and 7% for the public benefits survey.

Mexicans in Santa Clara County dramatically increased their voting power and influence in the 1990s. While only 976 Mexicans voted in the November 1990 election, 8,752 voted in the March 2000 election. In December 2000, the number of Mexicans registered to vote in Santa Clara County was 19,946. The primary cities of residence were San Jose, Sunnyvale, and Santa Clara.

Claudia Olivares, a 22-year old college student, is one of the tens of thousands of Mexicans living in Santa Clara County. Her mother, younger brother and sister immigrated to San Jose nine years ago. Her family had great difficulty finding housing when they arrived. The exorbitant prices of rents and the low wages of her mom’s jobs forced them to rent rooms from other families, moving ten times in a two-year period.

Cerebral palsy during birth left Claudia paraplegic, but her optimism and her charming personality make her a highly positive influence on the people around her. In spite of all the obstacles, Claudia graduated from high school and her academic achievements earned her two scholarships. Claudia is currently attending both a community and a Christian college. In college, she has received two more scholarships that will assist her in completing her education. Her career goal is to become a counselor in Juvenile Hall.

Claudia’s accomplishments are particularly impressive since she has overcome not only language barriers and hurdles that physically challenged people face, but also discrimi-nation. For instance, she stood up for her rights against a professor who made discriminatory remarks against her and other Mexican students. She is a volunteer at the Juvenile Hall meetings, where she talks to teenagers to motivate and counsel them. Claudia’s mother also deserves much credit. She transports Claudia everywhere in her car, a car with no modifications for the wheelchair.

In 1999, Claudia and her mother were recognized for their efforts in a highly inspirational talk show on national Spanish TV. Claudia represents living proof of the popular Mexican phrase “Sí Se Puede” (you can do it). Everyone in Santa Clara County should feel fortunate to have hard-working and motivated persons like Claudia.