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Five Key Moments in Latino History of the 20th Century


Latinos have such a long and meaningful history in the U.S. that it’s difficult to narrow down into a concise summary. Rather than break down all of the milestones in Hispanic history, this overview highlights five key moments from the 1940s to the 1990s. The events that unfolded in the 20th century will undoubtedly influence the course Latinos in the U.S. take for years to come. Learn more about the advances Hispanics have made and the obstacles that threatened to thwart their progress.



1. Zoot Suit Riots

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In spring 1943, Chicano youth and white serviceman in Los Angeles routinely butted heads. By May, a riot broke out when soldiers accused Mexican-American youth of stabbing a sailor. In response, 500 sailors and civilians attacked Chicano youth leaving an Aragon Ballroom dance. In late May a fight between servicemen and Chicano youth broke out in downtown L.A, leaving one soldier seriously injured. Fifty sailors exacted revenge by attacking anyone they saw wearing zoot suits, a popular style among Mexican Americans. The rioting spread across the city, with about 5,000 soldiers and civilians taking part. On June 8, military officials managed to curb most of the rioting, and the City Council banned the wearing of zoot suits in public.


2. Desi Arnaz Appears on "I Love Lucy"

Loren Javier/Flickr.com

In 1951, Cuban-American Desi Arnaz became the first Hispanic to star in a network television show—“I Love Lucy.” Playing bandleader Ricky Ricardo with wife Lucille Ball, Arnaz gave the U.S. public a taste of Latin culture. Although CBS execs hesitated to green light him for the show, “Lucy’s” ratings quickly allayed fears. The show topped the ratings for years. While the Ricky Ricardo character may have fit some stereotypes, it marked a departure from the exotic Latin characters popularized by Carmen Miranda. “He played a Latino who had a steady job; they lived a middle-class way of life,” Fordham University Professor Clara Rodriguez told NPR. “He introduced a character which wouldn’t have been very different if he had not been ethnic.”



3. Chicano Students in Los Angeles Stage Walkout

An estimated 20,000 Chicano students in Los Angeles left class in March 1968 to protest inequities in education. The students had a litany of complaints against school officials, such as being banned from speaking Spanish in school, being taught a Eurocentric curriculum and being guided toward blue collar jobs rather than college. Due to the boycotts, the Los Angeles Unified School District changed its policies. Chicano history classes were added to the curriculum, and there was more college outreach to Hispanics. Forty years later, Chicano students in L.A. organized a boycott in commemoration of the 1968 protest. Participants said Latino students still suffer from inequality such as high dropout rates and lack of resources.

4. Baseball Legend Roberto Clemente

Eric Beato/Flickr.com

Roberto Clemente was born on Aug. 18, 1934, in Puerto Rico. With a father who worked as a sugarcane worker, Clemente came from humble beginnings. But that would change when he began playing baseball professionally. He played on the Montreal Royals, minor league team of the Brooklyn Dodgers. After one season with the Royals, Clemente made his major league debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1955, he became the first Latino player to score 3,000 hits. He also played in the 1971 World Series. An activist and athlete, Clemente was on a plane to deliver goods to survivors of the Nicaraguan earthquake in December 1972 when the plane crashed and he died. Afterward Clemente was voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.


5. California Passes Proposition 187

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During an economic downturn in the state, undocumented immigrants became scapegoats in California. They were responsible for stealing jobs, bilking the system and breaking the law, according to advocates of the 1994 ballot initiative Proposition 187. To curb undocumented immigration, the proposition aimed to require government workers--teachers, healthcare employees and police--to report “illegals.” Also the proposition aimed to stop the undocumented from receiving public services such as schooling. Californians backed the measure 59 to 41 percent. But 73 percent of Latinos in the state opposed it. Prop. 187 was later struck down for being unconstitutional. Still, it set the path for anti-immigrant legislation such as Arizona’s SB 1070.


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