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Cultural Conflict and the Battle of the Sexes in Hispanic American Newspapers

Posted on 09/18/2013

In recognition of National Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from September 15 to October 15, we are presenting this article by Nicolás Kanellos, published previously  in The Readex Report:

Cultural Conflict and the Battle of the Sexes in Hispanic American Newspapers
By Nicolás Kanellos, Brown Foundation Professor and Director of Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage, University of Houston

Among the various types of writing in early-20th century Hispanic American immigrant newspapers was a genre essential in forming and reinforcing the attitudes of Hispanic communities. It was the crónica, or chronicle, a short, weekly column that humorously and satirically commented on current topics and social habits. In Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries, the crónica had already been cultivated extensively and had helped to define national identity over the course of the 19th century.

In America, however, the crónica came to serve purposes never imagined in Mexico or Spain. From Los Angeles to San Antonio and even up to Chicago, Mexican moralists assumed pseudonyms (in keeping with the tradition of the crónica) and, from this masked perspective, wrote scathing satirical commentaries in the first person. As witnesses to both American and Mexican culture, the cronistas were greatly influenced by popular jokes, anecdotes and speech, and in general, their columns were a mirror of the surrounding social environment.

Cronistas battled with religious fervor to protect Spanish language and Mexican culture against what they saw as Anglo Saxon immorality. This was done not from the bully pulpit but rather through sly humor and a burlesque of fictional characters.

Using such pseudonyms as El Malcriado (The Brat), Kaskabel (Rattle Snake) and Chicote (The Whip), the cronistas literally whipped the Hispanic community into conformity, commenting on and poking fun at the common folks' mixture of Spanish and English and their naïve awe of Yankee technology. The cronistas saw traditional Mexican and American lifestyles as directly conflicting, down to each culture's food, clothes and even furniture. Those who most blatantly defied their Hispanic culture were labeled agringados and renegado, that is, gringo-ized and renegades (originally, the term renegade referred to those who denied Christ). Mexican Americans especially were portrayed as traitors beyond hope, and were also referred to as the derogatory pocho, a term meaning, in effect, non Mexican. As cronista Daniel Venegas wrote, "Can there be any greater evil than that of these damned souls who, to pass as Gringos, refuse to speak their own language, reneging even their country of birth? I don't think so."

Among the cultural elites who disseminated this nationalist ideology was political refugee Julio G. Arce, a newspaper publisher from Guadalajara who was so disillusioned with the Mexican Revolution that he took up exile in San Francisco. In 1919, Arce was able to buy a local newspaper that he re-baptized Hispano América.

In his new newspaper, Arce began writing "Crónicas Diabólicas" (Diabolical Chronicles), which became the most widely syndicated column in the Southwest due to its accurate reflection of life in the Mexican immigrant community. As was the convention in such local color columns, Arce's pseudonymous alter ego, Ulica, reported weekly on his adventures and observations in the local community. His columns drew attention to Mexicans who, for example, only remembered their heritage during the celebration of Mexican Independence Day, or Mexicans who pretended to be Spaniards in order to assume greater social prestige and avoid discrimination. By and large, Ulica assumed an elite stance, acting as a self-appointed conscience for the Mexican immigrant community. Like other educated commentators, he revealed his upper class resentment of working class Mexican immigrants who, on one hand, were fascinated by Yankee technology, know how and economic power; and on the other were poor, ignorant representatives of Mexican national culture. Ulica's particular talents lay in caricature, in emulating the colloquialisms and popular culture of the working class immigrant and in satirizing the cultural conflict and misunderstandings encountered by greenhorn immigrants from the provinces of Mexico.

Ulica's favorite and most popular target was the poor Mexican woman who had emigrated from the interior provinces. It was these poor, uneducated female characters who consistently received the brunt of Ulica's attempts to stem the tide of acculturation and support the survival of the Hispanic family and its culture in an alien environment. In his story, "Inacio y Mengilda," Ulica narrates the apocryphal tale of a Mexican immigrant woman who defenestrated her husband and was acquitted by the courts. The woman, Mengilda, testifies in court in provincial and uneducated Spanish that she was frustrated with her "encevelizado" (uncivilized) and "impropio" (an Anglicism meaning improper) husband. According to her testimony, Mengilda went to all lengths to dress and eat stylishly, as is called for in the United States, but her husband resisted. He insisted on taking his shoes off and going barefoot at home; he wouldn't get his hair cut in ese rape aristocrático que se usa por acá (that very aristocratic shaved style that is used here); and, for food, he only consumed "cosas inominiosas" ("ignominious things," mispronounced as Mengilda ineffectually tries to use big words to put on airs).

Frustrated with her husband's lack of culture, Mengilda threw him out the window. Then, if that wasn't enough, she threw a monkey wrench at him, splitting his skull. The poor man expired on the street below. After an eloquent defense by her lawyer, who insists that she is just a poor foreigner struggling to better herself and become cultured in the United States, Mengilda is exonerated by unanimous decision. Here, narrator Ulica breaks in to emphasize to the reader that this is just one of a legion of incidents that happen every day in the United States. As soon as pretty compatriot women arrive, he says, they find out that they are the bosses in this land, and their husbands must remain shy of heart, short on words and with still hands (meaning that they cannot beat their wives anymore). Ulica concludes that this is why it is so common to see a Mexican husband carrying the baby in public, along with packages from the store and grocery bags, ambling along sad, meditative and crestfallen, as if he feared possible sentencing to San Quentin for rebelling against his wife.

In another of Ulica's crónicas, "Repatriación Gratuita" (Free Repatriation), it becomes clear that one of the main motivations to control and isolate Mexican/Hispanic women is the fear of exogamy. In this outrageous story, Ulica creates Mrs. Blackberry, a Mexican woman who has just married an Anglo after divorcing her Mexican husband because he refused to wash his face with gasoline to whiten it: "Lo dejé por prieto, por viejo y porque no tenía olor en los dientes como los 'americanos fines'" (I left him, because he was dark, old and his teeth didn't smell nice like those refined Americans). In this anecdote, greater freedom for women, higher class aspirations through association with the white race and American materialism all come together to entice the vain and ambitious Mexican woman to abandon both her ethnic culture and her husband.

While Ulica was undoubtedly expressing a bourgeois sensibility in censuring Mexican women for adopting supposed Anglo-American customs, his point of view was by no means exclusive to his social class. Another immigrant journalist, Daniel Venegas, who identified himself as a working class Mexican immigrant, expressed similar views in his satirical newspaper, El Malcriado (The Brat). It is ironic that Venegas, who identified with the working-class immigrant, would not make common cause with working-class women. This is clearly seen in El Malcriado, which he single handedly wrote, illustrated and typeset.

In the 17 April 1927 edition, Venegas drew a caricature of a poor waitress with her toe protruding from her huarache, poking fun at the waitresses who delivered food orders up and down Los Angeles' Main Street in dirty, broken down shoes, smelling up the sidewalk so badly that they overcame the fragrance of the food they carried. On the front page of the same issue, Venegas drew a scene of two flirtatious Mexican flappers getting their hair bobbed in a men's barber shop under the banner headline of "¡Cómo Gozan los Barberos Rapando las Guapetonas!/Se Pasan los Días Enteros Papachando a las Pelonas." (The Barbers Love to Cut the Hair of these Beauties!/ They Spend the Entire Day Caressing Flappers).

Mexican immigrant writers were by no means the only Latinos to satirize the dangers of assimilation, cultural annihilation and exogamy. Hispanic immigrant newspapers in New York, catering to a diverse community of Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Spanish and others, also utilized the crónicas in a similar fashion. Standing on a platform of their Hispanic cultural background, the predominantly male cronistas often attempted to influence the community in tightening the already tight reins on Hispanic women.

New York's Gráfico, published by a consortium of tobacco workers, writers and theatrical artists, was first edited by Alberto O'Farrill, an Afro Cuban actor and playwright. In addition to editing Gráfico, he served as its chief cartoonist and also as a frequent cronista who signed his column "Ofa," the name of the mulatto narrator whose main preoccupation was finding work and keeping life and limb together. Almost every issue from Gráfico's first year of publication displayed an O'Farrill cartoon depicting American flappers. The cartoons make apparent the sexual attraction that Latino men felt for these women, whose morals were supposedly looser than those of Latinas. Almost all the cartoons show American flappers with flesh peeking out of lingerie, and at least two have purposefully ambiguous legends with double entendres to titillate. In one (3 July 1927), a flapper is reclined in an unlady like position on an overstuffed chair, holding a basket of flowers in her lap. The legend reads, "Lector ¿No te da el olor?" (Reader, doesn't the smell hit you?). In another (27 March 1927), a flapper is raising the skirt of her dress in front of a parked car while a man is reclining with a cigarette lighter at her feet. The legend reads, "Buscando el Fallo" (Looking for the Problem), but the man's eyes are clearly looking under the woman's dress.

A much more serious note on the subject of Hispanic women adopting the American flapper lifestyle was sounded by Jesús Colón, one of the most important Hispanic columnists and intellectuals in the New York Hispanic community.

Colón was a life long progressive thinker and later in his career even penned feminist style essays long before such thinking became "politically correct." However, upon assuming the convention of cronista and taking on the moralistic persona of his pseudonym "Miquis Tiquis," which he used in Gráfico in 1927 and 1928, Colón nevertheless joined his colleagues in attacking Hispanic women for assimilating to the loose morality of American women represented by flapper dress and attitudes:

Reader, if you would like to see the caricature of a flapper, you only have to look at a Latina who aspires to be one. The Yanqui flapper always makes sure that her ensemble of exaggerations looks chic, as they say in German (sic). They also possess that divine jewel of finely imitated frigidity. That disdainful arching of their eyes that upon crossing their legs almost to... to... it seems not important to them that they are being watched. Seeming frigidity, that's the phrase. That would be Latin flapper likes to be looked at, and to attract attention paints her face into a mask. Two poorly placed splashes of rouge on the cheeks and four really noticeable piles of lipstick on the lips. They criticize new fads; then they adapt them, to the extreme of exaggeration. (Author's translation)

In summary, the graphic and written records published by moralists and satirists in Hispanic community newspapers illustrate not only the preservation of traditional moral attitudes that these papers pushed, but also how such attitudes applied pressure on families to conform to old gender roles and resist the social change that the new American host culture made imminent. The pressure placed on women in this conflict of cultural roles and mores was probably greater than they ever felt in the homeland.

The cronistas perceived greater competition for Latinas than existed back home, there being fewer of them in the immigrant community. More importantly, these writers also saw that American women enjoyed greater freedom and self determination. While the Roaring Twenties saw the liberalization of women's roles and their entrance into the work place in the United States, it was also a period of massive immigration. Before 1930, nearly a million economic and political refugees from Mexico—many from highly conservative segments of the population—entered the United States. The first reaction of the Mexican immigrant writers was not to acclimate but rather to resist liberal influence by tightening men's control over women.

Hispanic male writers on the east coast, while not as severe as the Mexican writers in the Southwest, also censured women for Americanizing. Meanwhile, perhaps less moralistically, they allowed themselves to be titillated by the perceptibly freer American sex roles, openly depicting this behavior in cartoons and crónicas. Of course, in both groups—the Mexicans in the Southwest and the Latinos in the Northeast—Hispanic women were seen as the center of the family and the key to survival of the community, culture and language. But it was men doing the seeing, and they controlled the media: publishing houses, newspapers, theaters, etc. It was these very men who self-appointed themselves the consciences of the immigrant communities through their popular crónicas

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