Teaching Our Journal – Framing Mexicans in Great Depression Editorials: Alien Riff-Raff to Heroes

By Melita M. Garza, Texas Christian University

Editorials from the three San Antonio, Texas, newspapers studied in this article illuminate competing myths about Mexicans and immigrants that circulated in national Great Depression-era debates about the newcomer in the United States. Editorials occupy a particular role in journalism, offering an interpretive and analytical view that aims to give a media organization’s “light of understanding” to readers.

Studying the editorials of the past offers insight not only into journalistic ideas of an earlier era, but also helps us contextualize present-day events and discourse resonant with the past. For instance, examining 1930s-era narrative myths about immigration offers students a fresh perspective on national discourse about this topic that surfaced during the Great Recession (December 2007 – June 2009) and continued in its aftermath. Moreover, this article also allows students to delve into a little-used primary source, the Spanish-language press, and to evaluate it on the same plane as English-language newspapers, something rarely done.

Although the media landscape is highly fragmented in the twenty-first century, in the pre-television early 1930s, newspapers were still the primary vehicles through which news was disseminated. In part, this article relies on a conception of news as mythological narrative, a strategy in which journalists not only draw on pre-existing cultural storytelling patterns, but also dynamically reshape them.

The power of myth and the power of news both rest to some degree on the authority ascribed to the storyteller, and in the case of editorials, the myths also have the authority of the journalistic institution behind them. When the subject is immigration, this power is used to define what it means to be an American. As this article argues, that conception is richer and more complete when the perspective of the Spanish-language press is included.

 

General Questions for Discussion:

In reading this article:

  • What did you learn about the significance of La Prensa in San Antonio?
  • What did you learn about the eugenics movement and its role in inspiring William Randolph Hearst’s immigration editorials?
  • Given evidence supplied in the article, why would it be more likely that La Prensa and the English-language newspaper, the San Antonio Express, would have more points of editorial-writing commonality with each other than with Hearst’s Light, another English-language newspaper?
  • Despite the points of commonality between La Prensa and the Express, the two newspapers still showed significant differences in their editorial perspectives. How did their mythmaking and framing of immigrants differ between these two newspapers? What conditions existed both in society and in the newsroom that might have animated those differences?

 

Exercise 1

Compare and contrast the framing of immigrants in editorials found in Hearst’s San Antonio Light during the Great Depression with the way Donald J. Trump, both as candidate and president, framed Mexican immigrants. Use one of your library’s news databases to review the news coverage of Trump’s campaign.

  • How were Hearst’s “gangsters,” “hoodlums” and “undesirable aliens” translated into a more modern myth by Trump?
  • What are the similarities and differences in the “othering” between the Hearst and Trump discourse?

 

Exercise 2

While this article examines and compares editorials in local newspapers in San Antonio, Texas, an important city in the establishment of Mexican American identity, issues of immigration had and continue to have national, regional, and local significance. Look for the 1930s editions of your local or regional newspapers. You might find these on microfilm or through an online database provided by your library.

  • How did newspapers in your hometown or local region frame immigrants in editorials during the Great Depression?
  • If you find this topic was little covered, or not covered at all in editorials, what might it mean that immigrants and immigration were outside the news frame? What is the significance of being an invisible “other?”

 

Exercise 3

If you are proficient in Spanish and have access to the Hispanic American Newspapers, 1808-1980 database, peruse the collection and identify Spanish-language newspapers in other parts of the United States with digitized editions from the 1930s.

  • Compare and contrast the editorial-writing concerning immigration and repatriation in your sample with the ideas La Prensa’s opinion writers offered.
  • What conditions existed in the communities the different newspapers operated in that might account for similarities and differences in the editorials?

 

Sources

Melita M. Garza, “Sword and Cross in San Antonio: Reviving the Spanish Conquest in Depression-Era News Coverage,” Journalism History 39, no. 4 (2014): 198-207.

Elizabeth Bird and Robert W. Dardenne, “Myth Chronicle and Story: Exploring the Narrative Qualities of News,” in Social Meanings of News, ed. Dab Berkowitz (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1997), 333-350.

Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, “Ignacio E. Lozano: The Mexican Exile Publisher Who Conquered San Antonio and Los Angeles,” American Journalism 34, no. 1 (2004): 75-89.

Vicki Mayer, “From Segmented to Fragmented: Latino Media in San Antonio, Texas,” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 78, no. 2 (2001): 293.

Felix Gutiérrez, “Spanish-Language Media in America: Background, Resources, History,” Journalism History 4, no. 2 (1977): 34-41, 65-68.