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An Excerpt From Latinos and the Liberal City in Honor of National Hispanic American Heritage Month

September 15 to October 15 is National Hispanic American Heritage Month, and in commemoration, we’re sharing an excerpt from the Introduction to Latinos and the Liberal City by Eduardo Contreras. In the book, he offers a bold, textured, and inclusive interpretation of the nature of Latino politics. Using twentieth-century San Francisco as a case study, Contreras examines Latinos’ involvement in unionization efforts, civil rights organizing, electoral politics, feminist and gay activism, and more. Latinos and the Liberal City is now available in paperback and is included in our Back to School sale featuring 50% off select titles until September 23!

Richard Camplís, Pete Garcia, and their friends in San Francisco’s Ship Scalers Union struck out on a radical course in October 1940: they refrained from endorsing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s bid for a third term as president. The six-year-old organization represented men who cleaned and conditioned ships on city wharves, and many of its members were Latinos. Scalers’ moxie, their immersion in waterfront activism, and New Deal labor legislation coalesced in the mid-1930s and contributed to the union’s growth. In 1936, the scalers had joined the left-liberal coalition that kept Roosevelt in the White House; they now chose to withhold their support. Camplís and his colleagues had by no means turned away from the New Deal or lost admiration for the sitting president. Instead, they feared that some in the liberal establishment were retreating from the government agenda or selectively choosing which segments of the working class deserved federal protection. The men’s ire in 1940 specifically stemmed from the managerial machinations at American President Lines, which had recently come under state control. Scalers found it appalling that “a Company which [was] over 90% government owned, and headed by an appointed representative of President Roosevelt, [sought] to violate the Wagner Act” by refusing to engage in collective bargaining and pursuing “court injunctions against [their] bona-fide picket lines.” The decision to abstain from endorsing FDR became, at first glance, a means to protest and garner public attention. Below the surface, though, it conveyed at least two other political messages. Scalers made clear they were not blind, uncritical devotees of the Democratic Party. These unskilled, marginal, and nonwhite workers expected the same treatment— and rights— as their skilled, better-known, and white counterparts.

Thirty-eight years later, Rosario Anaya and Roberto Lemus stood before allied crowds, one at San Francisco State University and another at the city’s Civic Center, and proclaimed the rights of all people to labor and exercise their vocations in workplaces free of harassment, irrespective of sexual identity. Sharing the stage with such political luminaries as Willie Brown and Harvey Milk, the two education professionals denounced the Briggs Initiative, a statewide proposition aiming to ban gay educators from public schools. Neither Anaya nor Lemus belonged to the Gay Latino Alliance or any other gay rights organizations. Anaya directed a language and vocational school serving Latino adults and sat on the city’s school board. Lemus spoke for the Latin American Teachers Association, one of the groups sponsoring the human justice rally at the Civic Center. Alongside local and statewide teachers’ unions, Lemus and his colleagues warned that the initiative would harm all educators. Its passage would legalize discrimination, punish school workers who discussed homosexuality in positive terms, and set a precedent for circumventing union rights. Anaya echoed many of Lemus’s sentiments. She emphasized that “guaranteeing a healthy educational environment” could and should be done without reverting to prejudice. Going further, Anaya cast opposition to the measure as a matter of human rights. The state and its institutions had a responsibility to promote humanity and well- being, she implied, rather than impose moral codes built on bigotry and exclusion.

Occurring at the temporal poles of what historians have identified as the “New Deal order” and America’s “liberal universe,” these two vignettes illuminate unexplored, and perhaps surprising, layers of Latino political history. The scalers lived in the West’s quintessential metropolis and formed part of an urban industrial workforce. Scholars and history enthusiasts alike are sometimes astonished to learn that San Francisco’s Latinos toiled in varied arenas except agricultural fields. The participation of Lemus, Anaya, and their colleagues in the anti–Briggs Initiative campaign demonstrated how they—as educators and citizens—were not consumed only with issues immediately classified as Latino causes. Their work and heterosexual Latinos’ support exposed nuanced and flexible meditations on rights, morality, and coalition building, which historians have not yet analyzed. Together, these two sketches reveal Latino politics as more intricate and less predictable than we currently appreciate. Both stories make another thing clear: Latinos have preoccupied themselves with the workings, possibilities, and limitations of American liberalism for quite some time.