FBI Surveillance of Mexicans and Chicanos, 1920-1980

Author: José Angel Gutiérrez
Publisher: Lexington Books, 2020. 380 pages
Reviewer: Douglas M. Charles ǀ November 2021

Neither of these volumes are narrative-type monographs exploring the FBI’s efforts targeting Mexicans and Chicanos from the 1920 through the 1980s. Neither are they reprints of the FBI files of these targets. Instead, these two volumes comprise detailed analyses with background histories and other complementary primary sources of nearly two dozen FBI files the author has assembled from Freedom of Information Act requests over many years. Gutiérrez’s goal is to document and recover the extent of the FBI’s surveillance efforts of these targets – the largest ethnic minority in the U.S. – efforts that have been overlooked or erased from various U.S. histories including those about the FBI.

Gutiérrez has previously written two monographs on the FBI’s surveillance of Mexicans and Chicanos, The Eagle Has Eyes: The FBI Surveillance of Cesar E. Estrada of the United Farm Workers Union of America, 1965-1975 (2019) and Tracking King Tiger: Reies Lopez Tijerina and the FBI file (2019). After completing these works, he was convinced that writing a series of monographs on every FBI target was too herculean a task for any one scholar. Instead, he resolved to produce several volumes of multi-chapter works analyzing the voluminous FBI files of bureau targets that he had in his possession. In so doing, Gutiérrez thought he could better document with a broad brush a neglected aspect of the FBI’s history. The two books reviewed herein are the first two volumes of a contemplated three-volume series. In his efforts, Gutiérrez has succeeded – indeed, is succeeding. These volumes are particularly important contributions to our ever-growing understanding of the FBI’s surveillance efforts in the last hundred years.

The first volume, FBI Surveillance of Mexicans and Chicanos, 1920-1980 (2020), is divided into three parts. In the introduction, Gutiérrez surveys U.S. relations (wars) with Spain and Mexico, how the U.S. government became interested in Mexicans, and the more recent post-9/11 evolution of the surveillance state. In part one (chapters 1 through 5) the author surveys the FBI’s files on Mexican artist Diego Rivera, labor organizer Josefina Fierro, writer Carlos Fuentes, asylum-seeker Hector Marroquin, and finally Yolanda and Walter Birdwell of the Mexican American Youth Organization. For each, the author offers detailed background histories, a contextual history of the FBI, and the time periods of each subject before analyzing in detail each file. Gutiérrez painstakingly goes to the extent of describing the unique types of different FBI documents (an important distinction when one uses FBI records), their lengths, file numbers, quotes from them, where redactions of information appear; he then draws general conclusions about these efforts, etc. Everything in each chapter is further referenced with chapter endnotes. For part two (chapters 6 and 7), Gutiérrez does the same as in part one, but for two organizations. The first is the civil rights group founded in the 1920s, the League of United Latina Mexican Citizens. The second is the late 1960s Young Citizens for Community Action, also known as the Brown Berets, part of the Chicano social justice movement of the time. In part three, which is chapter 8, Gutiérrez surveys government records about Operation Wetback, the racist program designed to remove Mexicans from the U.S.  Gutiérrez examines in addition to FBI records, Immigration and Naturalization Service and Border Patrol documents. A bibliography at the end, in addition to secondary sources, details the voluminous FBI files cited in the book. In sum, this is an excellent volume detailing a forgotten or ignored history in relation to the FBI and government surveillance.

In the second volume, The Eagle is Watching: FBI Files on Mexicans and Chicanos, 1940-1980 (2021), Gutiérrez extends what he accomplished so well in the first volume. It is also, effectively, broken down into three parts, but they are not as clearly segregated as in the first volume, but can be grouped by chapters. In chapters 1 through 5, he examines further FBI surveillance targets. These include Guatemalan labor activist Luisa Moreno, whom U.S. officials presumed to be Mexican; the labor organizer, activist, and scholar Ernesto Galarza; the first Chicano to become a U.S. ambassador (to Costa Rica) Ramón Telles and his wife, Delfina; Texas labor organizer Francisco “Pancho” Medrano; and musician Baldemar Huerta (known popularly as Freddy Fender). Chapters 6 and 7 cover the organizers of two groups. The first is the Texas Farm Workers Union, organized by Antonio and Raquel Orendain. The other is the American G.I. Forum, the post-World War II Mexican-American veterans advocacy group, and a look into one of its advocacy cases is provided. Chapter 8, essentially part three of the book, is uniquely significant. It examines the FBI’s Border Coverage Program from the 1950s to 1971, which appears to be part of the FBI’s illegal COINTELPRO (counterintelligence program) disruption program that then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover aimed at the Communist Party USA, and subsequently other targets by the 1960s. This little-known program, for which Gutiérrez himself has had enduring trouble wrenching files from the FBI, is even little known among FBI scholars. Gutiérrez summarizes the volume with a brief review of modern surveillance tactics, as compared to the physical surveillance, use of informants, and electronic surveillance of the mid-twentieth century. This volume ends with a bibliography similar to that found in the first volume.

Gutiérrez is exactly right that most, if not all, of this has been neglected in generalized U.S. histories as well as more specialized histories of the FBI. His volumes (and presumably forthcoming third volume), therefore, make a significant contribution to our ever-evolving understanding of the FBI and its deep interest in a seemingly inexhaustible array of subjects. If the FBI files that are the basis of these books were either eventually scanned and posted online or deposited in a library, Gutiérrez’s goal of resurrecting these histories would advance considerably. I am confident, as an FBI scholar myself, that these important works will augment future comprehensive histories of the FBI.

Douglas M. Charles is a Professor of History at Penn State University, Greater Allegheny Campus

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