Mexican and Mexican American migrant farm workers expected conditions like those pictured above as they sought farm work in California and other states in the early 1900s. At that time, the Mexican Revolution and the series of Mexican civil wars that followed pushed many Mexicans to flee to the United States. Many U.S. farm owners recruited Mexicans and Mexican Americans because they believed that these desperate workers would tolerate living conditions that workers of other races would not.
Mexican and Mexican American workers often earned more in the United States than they could in Mexico's civil war economy, although California farmers paid Mexican and Mexican American workers significantly less than white American workers. By the 1920s, at least three quarters of California's 200,000 farm workers were Mexican or Mexican American.
As this rapid shift of Mexico's working population occurred, the first labor agreement between the United States and Mexico was formed. Mexico required that U.S. farm owners provide legal contracts for all Mexican workers guaranteeing conditions such as wages and work schedules. The U.S. government, in turn, enforced the border between the United States and Mexico, checking that all Mexican immigrants had the proper work contract so they would not be exploited.
As the Great Depression took a toll on California's economy during the 1930s, however, Mexicans and Mexican Americans became targets for discrimination and removal. White government officials claimed that Mexican immigrants made up the majority of the California unemployed. White trade unions claimed that Mexican immigrants were taking jobs that should go to white men. In reality, a new supply of white refugees desperate for jobs was flooding California from the Midwest, making up the majority of the unemployed.
At the same time that wages were dropping due to the new white refugee labor, established Mexican and Mexican American farm workers had become a threat by banding together, often with other non-whites, and organizing strikes to protest lowered wages and worsening living conditions. Agriculture in the United States was crippled due to the ongoing Dust Bowl drought in the Midwest, while California was relatively untouched - the farm owners had a chance to profit immensely from the supply of cheap labor, but not if these protests succeeded.
California state and local governments responded to white farm owner pressure and implemented "repatriation" plans to send Mexican immigrants back to Mexico in busloads and boxcars. Many Mexican Americans were also sent out of the United States under these programs, there being no differentiation between Mexicans and Mexican American U.S. citizens. Mexican American U.S. citizens who were children at the time were also deported to Mexico along with their Mexican parents.
Despite a hundred years of effort, economic exploitation** of farm workers of all races continues to this day in California and across the United States. As long as farm owners can continue forcing people to live in such conditions, the farm workers' struggle seems doomed to continue.
*repatriation (returning someone to his or her country)
**exploitation (using someone in a way that helps you unfairly)
The Migrant Experience
A complex set of interacting forces both economic and ecological brought the migrant workers documented in this ethnographic collection to California. Following World War I, a recession led to a drop in the market price of farm crops and caused Great Plains farmers to increase their productivity through mechanization and the cultivation of more land. This increase in farming activity required an increase in spending that caused many farmers to become financially overextended. The stock market crash in 1929 only served to exacerbate this already tenuous economic situation. Many independent farmers lost their farms when banks came to collect on their notes, while tenant farmers were turned out when economic pressure was brought to bear on large landholders. The attempts of these displaced agricultural workers to find other work were met with frustration due to a 30 percent unemployment rate.
Summary: Many migrant workers went to California to find work due to farmers losing land from financial issues.
At the same time, the increase in farming activity placed greater strain on the land. As the naturally occurring grasslands of the southern Great Plains were replaced with cultivated fields, the rich soil lost its ability to retain moisture and nutrients and began to erode. Soil conservation practices were not widely employed by farmers during this era, so when a seven-year drought began in 1931, followed by the coming of dust storms in 1932, many of the farms literally dried up and blew away creating what became known as the "Dust Bowl." Driven by the Great Depression, drought, and dust storms, thousands of farmers packed up their families and made the difficult journey to California where they hoped to find work.
Summary: Thousands of farmers made their way to California in hopes of finding work due to soil and draught issues on their farms.
Why did so many of the refugees pin their hopes for a better life on California? One reason was that the state's mild climate allowed for a long growing season and a diversity of crops with staggered planting and harvesting cycles. For people whose lives had revolved around farming, this seemed like an ideal place to look for work.
Summary:Many migrant workers went to California to find work due to financial issues farmers faced with losing land.
Although the Dust Bowl included many Great Plains states, the migrants were generically known as "Okies," referring to the approximately 20 percent who were from Oklahoma. The migrants represented in Voices from the Dust Bowl came primarily from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri. Most were of Anglo-American descent with family and cultural roots in the poor rural South. In the homes they left, few had been accustomed to living with modern conveniences such as electricity and indoor plumbing. The bulk of the people Todd and Sonkin interviewed shared conservative religious and political beliefs and were ethnocentric in their attitude toward other ethnic/cultural groups, with whom they had had little contact prior to their arrival in California. Such attitudes sometimes led to the use of derogatory language and negative stereotyping of cultural outsiders. Voices from the Dust Bowl illustrates certain universals of human experience: the trauma of dislocation from one's roots and homeplace; the tenacity of a community's shared culture; and the solidarity within and friction among folk groups. Such intergroup tension is further illustrated in this presentation by contemporary urban journalists' portrayals of rural life, California farmers' attitudes toward both Mexican and "Okie" workers, and discriminatory attitudes toward migrant workers in general.
California was emphatically not the promised land of the migrants' dreams. Although the weather was comparatively balmy and farmers' fields were bountiful with produce, Californians also felt the effects of the Depression. Local and state infrastructures were already overburdened, and the steady stream of newly arriving migrants was more than the system could bear. After struggling to make it to California, many found themselves turned away at its borders. Those who did cross over into California found that the available labor pool was vastly disproportionate to the number of job openings that could be filled. Migrants who found employment soon learned that this surfeit of workers caused a significant reduction in the going wage rate. Even with an entire family working, migrants could not support themselves on these low wages. Many set up camps along irrigation ditches in the farmers' fields. These "ditchbank" camps fostered poor sanitary conditions and created a public health problem.
Arrival in California did not put an end to the migrants' travels. Their lives were characterized by transience. In an attempt to maintain a steady income, workers had to follow the harvest around the state. When potatoes were ready to be picked, the migrants needed to be where the potatoes were. The same principle applied to harvesting cotton, lemons, oranges, peas, and other crops. For this reason, migrant populations were most dense in agricultural centers.
As World War II wore on, the state of the economy, both in California and across the nation, improved dramatically as the defense industry geared up to meet the needs of the war effort. Many of the migrants went off to fight in the war. Those who were left behind took advantage of the job opportunities that had become available in West Coast shipyards and defense plants. As a result of this more stable lifestyle, numerous Dust Bowl refugees put down new roots in California soil, where their descendants reside to this day.
A History of Mexican Americans in California: REVOLUTION TO DEPRESSION: 1900-1940 The first three decades of the twentieth century saw rapid growth in the size of the California Chicano population. However, the stage for this growth had been set by years of social and economic changes in Mexico and the United States.
Development of mining and industry in northern Mexico, as well as building of north-south railroad lines, attracted large numbers of Mexicans to the northern part of the country in the late nineteenth century. There they learned new industrial, mining, and railroad skills that would be useful later in the United States. The railroad also provided a quicker and easier means of travel to the north. At the same time, economic pressures were mounting. Many small landowners were losing their holdings to expanding haciendas, while farm workers were increasingly and systematically trapped into peonage by accumulating debts.
Finally in 1910, political opponents of President Porfirio Diaz revolted. He was quickly overthrown, but replacement of his government did not end the Mexican Revolution which spread throughout the country and took on deep social and economic, rather than merely political ramifications. The resulting chaos drove thousands of Mexicans north. Beyond physical proximity, the United States offered jobs — in industry, in mines, on railroads, and in agriculture — and all at wage levels far higher than those in Mexico. World War I further increased the demand for Mexican labor.
In the 1920s, the pace of emigration increased, spurred in part by the short but violent Cristero Revolution (1926-1929), while the U.S. economy continued to expand and attract Mexican labor. Nearly one-half million Mexicans entered the United States on permanent visas during the 1920s, some 11 percent of total U.S. immigration during that decade. Thousands more entered informally, before passage of restrictive regulations. Even after establishment of more stringent immigration rules and procedures, thousands continued to cross without legal sanction. Many of them were ignorant of the required legal processes; others sought to avoid the head tax, the expense of a visa, and bureaucratic delays at the border. Coyotes — as the professional labor contractors and border-crossing experts were known — often received commissions from U.S. businesses. They began the industry of smuggling people and forging documents that continues to the present.
Most Mexican immigrants settled in the Southwest. By 1930, more than 30 percent of Mexican-born U.S. residents lived in California. They entered nearly every occupation classified as unskilled or semi-skilled. Chicanos became the bulwark of southwestern agriculture. By 1930, manufacturing, transportation, communications, and domestic and personal service had become the other major sectors of Chicano employment. Chicanos made up 75 percent of the work force of the six major western railroads. They also held blue-collar positions in construction, food processing, textiles, automobile industries, steel production, and utilities. In California during the 1920s, Chicanos constituted up to two-thirds of the work force in many industries.
A small Chicano middle class developed, often oriented toward serving the Chicano population. The growth of barrios and colonias fostered expansion of small businesses such as grocery and dry-goods stores, restaurants, barber shops, and tailor shops. Small construction firms emerged. Chicanos entered the teaching profession, usually working in private Chicano schools or in segregated public schools.
Many factors kept Chicanos in a marginal status. The geographical isolation of employment sites, particularly in railroading, agriculture, and agriculturally related industry, often reduced opportunities for Chicanos to gain familiarity with U.S. society through personal contact. Chicanos also encountered various forms of segregation. These included maintenance of separate Anglo and Mexican public schools, restrictive covenants on residential property, segregated restaurants, separate "white" and "colored" sections in theaters, and special "colored" days in segregated swimming pools. Numerous government agencies, religious groups, and private social service organizations, however, made special efforts to assist in the acculturation of Chicanos by providing instruction in the English language, U.S. culture, and job skills.
The dramatic increase in Mexican immigration affected Chicano residential patterns. Thousands settled in older barrios, causing over crowding and generating construction of cheap housing to meet the sudden demand. In some barrios, Mexican immigrants attained such numerical dominance that U.S.-born Chicanos became a minority within a minority. Immigrants sometimes formed new barrios adjacent to historical Chicano areas or new colonias in agricultural or railroad labor camps.
The growth in the size and number of Chicano communities fostered the growth of community activities. In the early twentieth century, there was a major increase in Chicano organizations, particularly mutualistas (mutual aid societies). Some adopted descriptive or symbolic names, such as Club Reciproco (Reciprocal Club) or Sociedad Progresista Mexicana (Mexican Progressive Society). Others selected names of Mexican heroes, such as Sociedad Mutualista Miguel Hidalgo (the father of Mexican independence), Sociedad Mutualista Benito Juarez (the famous Mexican Liberal president), or Sociedad Ignacio Zaragosa (the victorious Texas-born general at the Battle of Puebla, 1862).
Membership varied. Some organizations were exclusively male or female; others had mixed membership. Most developed as representative of the working class, but others were essentially middle or upper-class, or reflected a cross-section of wealth and occupations. Although each mutualista had its special goals, they all provided a focus for social life with such activities as meetings, family gatherings, lectures, discussions, cultural presentations, and commemoration of both U.S. and Mexican holidays.
Most provided services, such as assistance to families in need, emergency loans, legal services, mediation of disputes, and medical, life, and burial insurance. Some organized libraries or operated escuelitas (little schools), providing training in Mexican culture, Spanish, and basic school subjects to supplement the inferior education many Chicanos felt their children received in the public schools. Mutualistas helped immigrants adapt to life in the United States. Many mutualistas became involved in civil rights issues, such as the legal defense of Chicanos and the struggle against residential, school, or public segregation and other forms of discrimination. Some engaged in political activism, including support of candidates for public office. At times, mutualistas provided support for Chicanos on strike. Coalitions of Chicano organizations were formed, such as La Liga Protectora Latina (Latin Protective League) and El Confederacion de Sociedades Mexicanas (Confederation of Mexican Societies) in Los Angeles.
In addition to mutualistas, a variety of other cultural, political, service, and social organizations were developed in the early twentieth century, as communities grew or were formed. Possibly the most turbulent Chicano organizational activity of that era was in the labor sphere, where Mexicans played ironically conflicting roles. Because of depressed wages and unemployment in Mexico, Mexican workers could earn more in the United States, even by accepting jobs at pay levels that Anglos refused. Employers thus used Mexican labor to hold down pay scales, and often reached across the border to recruit Mexicans as strikebreakers. Because of the antipathy Mexicans generated in these roles, and also because of the biases of union leaders, local chapters of U.S. labor unions often refused to accept Chicanos as members, or required them to establish segregated locals.
There were Mexican strikers as well as strikebreakers, though. Chicanos were in the forefront of agricultural strikes. In 1903, more than 1,000 Mexican and Japanese sugar-beet workers carried out a successful strike near Ventura. In 1913, Mexican workers participated in a strike against degrading conditions on the Durst hop ranch, near Wheatland, Yuba County. Although the intervention of National Guard troops and the arrest of some 100 migrant workers broke the back of the strike, the Wheatland events contributed to establishment of the California Commission on Immigration and Housing, and recognition of the oppressive living and working conditions of agricultural laborers.
Throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s, Mexicans heed or participated in a number of agricultural strikes throughout California. Mexicans struck Imperial Valley melon fields in 1928 and 1930. In 1933, El Monte strawberry fields, San Joaquin Valley cotton fields and fruit orchards, Hayward pea fields, and many other locales were affected. Strikes spread to Redlands citrus groves in 1936, and to Ventura County lemon groves in 1941. Mexicans also challenged the related food-processing industry through strikes by lettuce packers in Salinas in 1936, cannery workers in Stockton in 1937, and others.
Chicanos created a number of their own unions. El Confederacion de Uniones Obreras Mexicanas (CUOM, Confederation of Mexican Labor Unions) was formed in 1928. Among its goals were equal pay for Mexicans and Anglos doing the same job, termination of job discrimination against Chicano workers, and limitation on the immigration of Mexican workers into the United States. At its height, CUOM had about 20 locals and 3,000 workers.
In the early 1930s, Chicanos established some 40 agricultural unions in California. The largest, El Confederacion de Uniones de Campesinos y Obreros Mexicanos (CUCOM, Confederation of Mexican Farm Workers' and Laborers' Unions), created in 1933, ultimately included 50 locals and 5,000 members. Most of these unions later joined the American Federation of Labor or the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
The Great Depression brought a dramatic population reversal among Mexican Americans. Tabulated immigration to the United States from Mexico fell from nearly 500,000 during the 1920s to only 32,700 during the 1930s. At the same time, official figures indicate that some half- million persons of Mexican descent moved to Mexico.
The Depression displaced millions of American workers, and the drastic midwestern drought dispossessed thousands more, many of whom headed for California. As a result, California Chicanos not only lost their jobs in the cities along with other Americans, but also found themselves displaced from agricultural jobs by Dust Bowl migrants. Whereas before the Depression Anglos had composed less than 20 percent of California migratory agricultural laborers, by 1936, they had increased to more than 85 percent.
The shrinking job market caused Anglo attitudes toward Mexicans in the United States to change. Previously welcomed as important contributors to an expanding agriculture and industry, Mexicans now were seen as "surplus labor." No longer considered the backbone of California agriculture and invaluable contributors to other employment sectors, Mexicans instead were viewed as an economic liability, and had become objects of resentment as recipients of scarce public relief funds.
The government's solution was the Repatriation Program. In cooperation with the Mexican government, which had regretted the loss of so many able workers, U.S. federal, state, county, and local officials applied pressure on Mexicans to "voluntarily" return to Mexico. At times, this procedure resulted in outright deportation. Mexican aliens who lacked documents of legal residency, including many who had entered the United States in good faith during an earlier period when immigration from Mexico was a more informal process, were particularly vulnerable. Among the victims of the process were naturalized and U.S.-born husbands, wives, and children of Mexican repatriates, who had to choose between remaining in the United States or maintaining family unity by moving to Mexico.
The Depression era also sharpened long-existent Chicano distrust of government, particularly its agents of law enforcement. During the Depression, the use of violence to break strikes and disrupt union activities was widespread and added to Chicano antagonism toward law-enforcement officials. The Repatriation Program further increased Chicano distrust of government.