The U.S.-Mexico border, especially the shared border of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, was in many ways transformed by the effects of World War II. This study examines change or continuity brought about by the war. The border region reflected many similarities to the national reaction to the upheaval of World War II. Yet there were dramatic differences as well. Examples of continuity and change are examined through the lens of border relations, labor and the economy, Mexican Americans, border women, and health on the border.
Wartime relations between El Paso and Juarez reached a zenith of good will and joint support. But most of the rest of Mexico exhibited continuing attitudes of indifference or sometimes hostility toward the United States. Organized labor reflected national efforts to better union workers' lives. Yet otherwise, most El Paso workers, including salaried workers like teachers and nurses, earned wages that were significantly lower than national averages. The reputation of El Paso as a cheap labor city remained intact. Mexican Americans across the Southwest were victims of some degree of segregation and discrimination. Texas was the home of segregation on all fronts, except along the border. In El Paso, there was some upward mobility; for example, as much as 14 percent of the local College of Mines student body was Mexican American, compared to only 1.6 percent at the University of Texas at Austin. Nonetheless, most openings to social, economic and political power were unattainable by Mexican Americans in the 1940s. Significant change did not begin to come about until the end of the 1950s.
Job opportunities for women were not as widespread as elsewhere in the country. There were no large defense industry plants to hire women workers, and El Paso remained classified as “sufficient work force” throughout the war. There were new opportunities for local women in “male jobs,” but most of these jobs were “for the duration” and reverted to the men as they came marching home. Both on the border and across the country continuity was very much a part of postwar life for women. Health in El Paso improved during the war years, as it did across the country. But the city's mortality and morbidity rates remained abysmally high compared to national or even Texas averages.
This social history discusses a period of significant change for the border region and, at the same time, points up both the similarities and differences along the U.S.-Mexican border and patterns nationwide. Today, as well as during World War II, El Paso and Juarez experience both change and continuity that reflect national trends; yet both cities can be significantly different than the two nations they border.