Sociedades mutualistas provided Mexican Americans with crucial support, especially in the early twentieth century, when barrios from Weslaco, Texas, to Gary, Indiana, had active organizations. These groups resembled the mutual-aid associations of European immigrants in that many members emigrated from Mexico, brought the mutualist model with them, and sought a familiar haven in a new land. At the same time, however, mutualistas also resembled African-American mutual aid societies in that many members were native Texans who sought refuge from discrimination and economic deprivation. The groups endorsed various political ideas, but all emphasized cooperation, service, and protection. Mexican mutualistas served as important models for the first tejano groups. By 1890 over 100 mutualist associations had been formed in Mexico, with membership approaching 50,000. El Gran Círculo de Obreros de México had twenty-eight branches in twelve Mexican states by 1875. Although the dictator Porfirio Díaz banned the Círculo in 1883, it served as a model for the Gran Círculo de Obreros de Auxilios Mutuos of San Antonio, which operated from the 1890s to the 1920s. Texas and Mexican mutualistas corresponded and attended each other's festivities until the demise of the Mexican groups during the Mexican Revolution (1910–20), at which time the ranks of the Texas mutualistas swelled. This growth continued into the 1920s, when Corpus Christi had between ten and fifteen groups, Robstown four, and El Paso ten. San Antonio's groups numbered more than twenty, with an average membership of 200. In 1926 nine of these groups formed an alliance, La Alianza de Sociedades Mutualistas. Small towns such as Pearsall also founded sociedades mutualistas or joined those already active in the larger cities.
Many of these organizations emphasized economic protection, education, and community service. They provided sickness and burial insurance, loans, legal aid, social and cultural activities, libraries, classes, leadership opportunities, and safe quarters for barrio events. Some mutualistas, however, were also trade unions. In 1917 one of the six labor mutualistas in San Antonio, Sociedad Morelos Mutua de Panaderos, staged a strike. It had lasted for a year when the United States Department of Labor mediated a settlement resulting in slightly higher wages and shorter hours. Still other mutualistas focused on civil rights. La Gran Liga Mexicanista de Beneficencia y Protección, founded in Laredo in 1911, fought, albeit with limited success, for the right of Mexican-American children to attend Anglo-American public schools. La Agrupación Protectiva Mexicana of San Antonio (1911–14) organized against lynchings and unjust sentencing, notably the Antonio Gómez lynching. The organization's successor, La Liga Protectora Mexicana (1917–20), advised farm workers throughout South Texas of their rights and attempted to strengthen state laws protecting tenants' shares of their landlords' crops. Many Mexican Texans also belonged to local branches of the Arizona association, La Liga Protectora Latina. Women participated in mutual-aid groups less than men. At least two female mutualistas existed in San Antonio between 1915 and 1930; about one-third of the others excluded women, one-third allowed women to join and hold office, and the rest formed female auxiliaries. Of the ten or so Corpus Christi mutualistas, at least one was for women.
With the advent of the Great Depression, sociedades mutualistas rapidly declined. Operating with meager funds at the best of times, they quickly depleted their treasuries in loans to unemployed members, many of whom were sent back to Mexico by local public-assistance officials. In addition, a new generation of leaders matured after World War I. Some had participated in mutualistas, others not, but most by 1930 supported new organizations such as the League of United Latin American Citizens, which limited membership to United States citizens and stressed the rights and duties of citizenship. Mexican-American mutual aid societies never regained their earlier prominence. In the 1980s only a few small ones existed. Since the 1960s, however, many of the mutualista values—among them economic cooperation, partnership of Mexicans and Mexican Americans, cultural pride, and bilingualism—have been championed by a new generation of Mexican Americans.