A True Confluence of Civilizations?: The Involvement of Latin Americans in HemisFair ‘68

HemisFair, held in San Antonio, Texas in 1968, was the first and only world’s fair to be held in the American Southwest. Jerome K. Harris (a local San Antonio business owner) originally proposed the idea of a “HemisFair” that would focus on Latin America. The idea was endorsed by Congressman Henry B. González, also a San Antonio native, who is most frequently credited with the proposal for the fair. [1] The theme of the fair became “The Confluence of Civilization in the Americas”, as part of the Pan-American trend that had dominated world’s fairs since 1901 with the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. The world's fairs have been an avenue to display and share culture since Great Britain’s Crystal Palace exhibit in 1851, however, early fairs often displayed indigenous peoples or other nationalities as oddities and exotics as a way to establish superiority and cultural dominance of the Europeans and Americans who were hosting the fairs. The Pan-American-themed fairs had sought to move away from this discriminatory display and celebrate the many cultures that made up the Americas, most however were unsuccessful in portraying these cultures accurately. The potential for San Antonio to adequately represent and include the Latin Americans in their fair was incredibly high considering Texas’s heritage with Mexico and with San Antonio having the largest Mexican American population in the United States. [2] With this previous trend of inadequately representing other cultures in the world’s fairs, was the 1968 HemisFair successful in displaying the “Confluence of Civilization in the Americas” in regard to the Latin American communities? Yes. HemisFair was successful in accurately representing Latin Americans, fair organizers went to great lengths to extend diplomacy and involve Latin American countries in a world fair for the first time. Yet, despite the upward mobility middle-class Mexican Americans of San Antonio experienced from the fair, lower-class Mexican Americans found little to no benefits from HemisFair. Lower-class Mexican Americans specifically faced exclusion and discrimination throughout the organizing, building, and execution of the fair. [3]

The design of HemisFair was more inclusive than previous Pan-American fairs and organizers put substantial thought into representing the confluence, or merging, of civilizations that created the Americas. This effort is best exemplified in the logo created for the fair, a swirling circle set to the left side of an outer circle. It is symbolic of the creation of the world and men traveling West where they merge and create the “Confluence of Civilizations in the Americas”, the theme for the fair. Additionally, HemisFair had four sub-themes: The Legacy, The Harvest, The Promise, and The Folklore. “The Legacy” became the main theme, which centered around becoming citizens of the Western Hemisphere through immigration. HemisFair organizers felt that this was a common ground between people of the Americas “all of whom sprang from the same common heritage-immigration.” [4] This symbolism and focus on immigration was exclusionary to the indigenous people of the Americas but was unique in the sense that it did not assign Otherness to any ethnicity. Whereas previous fairs intended to exhibit their superiority and excellence to the people attending, HemisFair intended to celebrate the cultures, specifically Latin cultures, that established the Americas.

In addition to the inclusion of Latin Americans in the design of the fair, many middle-class Mexican Americans took on leadership positions within HemisFair’s organization committee, San Antonio Fair, Inc. (SAF). Henry B. González, the first Mexican American from Texas to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, became the face of HemisFair. [5] He proposed the idea for HemisFair and oversaw its approval by Congress. González was able to use his place on the SAF committee to incorporate more Mexican Americans into leadership positions. Two of those men, Ed Castillo and Carlos Freymann acted as public relations, interpreters, and liaisons between the US and Latin American countries to promote HemisFair. Castillo and Freymann were given the position of ambassadors to Latin American countries, their ability to speak Spanish “reaffirmed the notion of Pan-American unity and helped mediate cross-cultural interactions.” [6] Henry A. Guerra, Jr., a San Antonio radio and television personality, introduced designs for a Plaza de Libertad (Liberty Plaza) that would showcase significant figures that contributed to America’s liberation. Although his designs did not make it into the final designs for the fair, Guerra contributed significantly by serving as “international department liaison” where he facilitated participation with Latinos during the fair preparations. [7] The contribution of these men was instrumental in the success of HemisFair’s goal of confluence between the United States and Latin American countries.

Not only was HemisFair unique in its goal of equal representation of Latin America, but many Latin countries collaborated in the organization and design of the fair. The Latin American Committee was formed to ensure San Antonio’s Latino community was involved and consulted. Further, the Pan-American Public Relations Association “included two representatives from each of the twelve major ‘Latin’ civic organizations”, who were consulted on ways to accurately incorporate Mexican culture and heritage into the fair. Henry Guerra also suggested collaboration with the Mexican Consulate which later led to the creation of a Mexican American Friendship Committee. Several Mexican architects and artists as well as the Brazilian landscapist, Roberto Burle Marx, were consulted and included in the designs for HemisFair. [8] Mexican artist and architect Juan O’Gorman was commissioned to create a piece for the fair. He created “Confluence of Civilizations in the Americas” and it welcomed guests at the entrance. [9] The Foreign Participation Area was created to provide exhibition space for other countries and “numerous” Latin American countries participated. [10] Mexico acted as a major contributor and sponsor of HemisFair. They boasted one of the largest exhibits. A pamphlet from the Mexican Pavillion boats of the rich history of Mexico as well as technological advancements the country had achieved in modernity, something Latin American countries had been denied in previous fairs that only incorporated their wild and indigenous past. [11] Coincidently, Mexico hosted the Olympics later that year, which both countries used to their advantage. Mexican and American officials wanted to encourage travel between the two events. The Pan-American Highway was advertised to promote this transportation. U.S. immigration officials were instructed to practice “goodwill” towards Mexican and Latin Americans traveling to HemisFair. However, this was not always observed when it came to working-class Mexicans because of the increased illegal migration that resulted from the Bracero Program that lasted from 1942-1964. [12]

With the intentional inclusion of Latin Americans, such as The American GI Forum and League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), in the design and organization of the fair by the SAF, many Latin and specifically Mexican American organizations saw the fair as an opportunity to “achieve full integration and… first-class citizenship.” [13] Texas officials hoped that the theme and the fair itself would “ease racial tensions between civil rights groups”, this garnered the help of Mexican American and African Americans activists with the expectation of increased jobs and economic opportunities for their communities. [14] Mexican American organizations and officials sought the use of pluralism, or incorporation with other Latin American communities, to increase their social and political identities. They began identifying themselves as “Latin American” rather than “Mexican American”, as in LULAC. [15] Although LULAC and the NAACP originally supported the fair, they realized that it did not provide the job opportunities and equality that were promised. Further, younger Latin organizations, such as Chicano activists and the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO), protested the fair from the beginning because of the racial inequality it highlighted, believing that “mega-event” like HemisFair only furthered class divisions. [16]

Although HemisFair provided leadership opportunities for middle-class Mexican Americans and Latin American countries, lower-class Mexican Americans experienced discrimination and exclusion by the SAF. The construction of the fairgrounds for HemisFair created ethnic tensions as it “emerged out of a process of ethnic erasure and urban cleansing.” [17] The city was still heavily segregated, as housing segregation had not ended in Texas until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. [18] The site chosen for the fairgrounds destroyed a 92-acre multiethnic community and displaced over 2,300 residents. [19] In addition to losing their homes, lower-class Mexican Americans were largely excluded from participation in the fair because of the cost of the fair. A study done by Richard Harris demonstrates that despite the progress displayed towards the larger Latin American community in regards to HemisFair, the following generations of Mexican Americans experienced little upward mobility in socioeconomic status. Harris analyzed statistics for jobs held by different ethnicities in San Antonio and compared their annual incomes from different years throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. In the conclusion of his study, he stated, “At present, it must be concluded that San Antonio Mexican Americans have not attained equal chances for occupational success even in the city's relatively favorable environment… Judging from the evidence of this analysis, no progress has been made toward the greater occupational integration.” [21] As a result, we must conclude that lower-class Mexican Americans remained lower-class and therefore received little to no benefit for the inclusivity of Latin Americans during HemisFair.

Despite the unfortunate exclusion of lower-class Mexican Americans in HemisFair ‘68, the fair was largely successful in achieving a “Confluence of Civilizations in the Americas.” Several Latin Americans not only participated in the fair but held leadership positions. They were accurately represented by the people of San Antonio and the multiple Latin Americans that were commissioned to assist in the design of the fair. Regarding the exclusion of lower-class Mexican Americans, it is difficult to argue that the exclusion resulted from racial discrimination since the SAF went to such great lengths to justly consult many facets of the Latin American community. Further research into this argument might include data about the participation of lower-class citizens of other ethnicities to determine whether the experiences of lower-class Mexican Americans was the result of racial discrimination or simply class discrimination.