Were Mexican American Communities Safer Than Others? Some Surprising Findings From San Antonio, 1960–1980


Contradicting widespread belief, scholarly research has confirmed that Mexican American (Latino/a/x) communities have lower levels of homicide than expected, given their high levels of economic disadvantage, residential instability, and rapid population change. But scholars are just beginning to explore the various social dynamics underlying this relationship at the community level for Mexican Americans throughout modern history. This Article explores those social and economic dynamics and fills an important research void in the literature on race, ethnicity, and crime. Examining the past conditions that gave rise to Mexican American homicides in
an era when this population was ignored or avoided in the research literature permits keener understanding of the factors that shape views of crime and how ethnicity influences them. Since the 1950s, have community-level studies consistently found that economic disadvantage and immigration contribute to Mexican American violence? Does that include periods when economic disadvantage, relative to Anglo Americans (non-Latino whites), was high and immigration was low in cities where both were the largest racial and ethnic groups?

In this Article, the enduring race and crime debate centers on the Latino/a/x origin and violent crime relationship vis-à-vis Mexican Americans. This debate—whether Mexican Americans are prone to committing more crime—is revisited using census tract data (1960, 1970, and 1980). The Article starts with the premise that San Antonio resembles other cities in the southwestern United States in terms of Mexican border proximity, population growth, economic change, homicide decline, and relatively stable immigration levels.1 In sum, results from this community, different time points linking the past to the present, and discussions connecting national level trends to
community and homicides are addressed. The typical community-level finding now is that more immigration means less homicide, and that economic disadvantage contributes to violent crime. But that outcome is rarely examined in the context of the past, across different time points, and in a by-the-border city with a large native-born Mexican American population. We found that economic disadvantage persists in contributing to violent crime in a historically Mexican American city over time, perhaps even more so than in other periods, especially when the gap between Mexicans and Anglos is widest, and in an era when immigration is stagnant.

About the Author

Ramiro Martinez, Jr. is a Professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Northeastern University. He received the American Sociological Association Latin@ Section Founder’s Award (2015) for Section contributions, scholarly work, research, mentoring, and achievements. Keller Sheppard is a doctoral student in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. His research interests include police discretion, police use of force, and the community context of crime.