Mexican Immigration in the Early Years: Helping to Build America’s Railroads
The immigration of Mexicans to the United States is not a new phenomenon. A large portion of the southwestern U.S.A. had belonged to Mexico up until the Mexican-American War of 1846-1847. But, with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848, the United States extended its frontier to the Pacific Ocean and received more than 525,000 square miles of Mexican territory that included the present-day states of Arizona, California, western Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah.
At the time of the Treaty, an estimated 82,500 Mexican citizens inhabited the states, which the United States was occupying. Sixty thousand of this number resided in New Mexico, while 14,000 lived in Texas and another 7,500 lived in California. A mere thousand individuals living in Arizona were Mexican citizens. All but two thousand of the 82,500 persons chose to accept their new status as American citizens. Seven percent of today’s Mexican-Americans are believed to be descended from this core group.
During the second half of the Nineteenth Century, a small but steady stream of Mexican labor continued to travel north. In 1880, 68,399 persons tallied in the Federal Census stated that Mexico was their place of birth. The vast majority of these lived in four southwestern states: Arizona (9,330 persons), California (8,648), New Mexico (5,173) and Texas (43,161). The number of Mexican natives tallied in the 1890 census was 77,853.
Immigration after 1900
In the 1900 Federal Census, the number of Mexican-born residents tallied in the United States reached 103,393. But eighty percent of this number was living in Texas and Arizona. The estimated number of ethnic Mexicans living in Texas was 70,000 – representing less than three percent of a total population of more than three million.
Between 1820 and 1900, the average annual number of Mexican nationals who officially immigrated to the United States was only around 350. The demographic impact of such small numbers on the Mexican-American population was very minor. However, this changed dramatically after 1900, especially in the two decades between 1910 and 1930. While much of this immigration may have been provoked by the horror of the Mexican Revolution, there were also significant incentives for American business interests to invite Mexican laborers to fill the labor vacuum.
Between 1876 and 1900, the railway trackage in the Mexican Republic had increased dramatically, with several major lines reaching the northern border zone. The historian Juan R. Garcia observed that “an unexpected outcome of this construction was that it drew thousands of Mexican workers steadily northward as the lines advanced toward the border.” Continuing with this line of thought, Mr. Garcia wrote, “For many the railroad represented employment and an avenue of escape. By 1900 Mexico‘s principal railroads were completed and connected to the major American railways lines along the border.”
In his work Rebirth: Mexican Los Angeles from the Great Migration to the Great Depression, the historian Douglas Monroy explains that “the farther north one traveled the higher the wages.” As an example, Professor Monroy pointed out that in pre-Revolutionary Jalisco, “agricultural workers received 12 cents per day, with an allotment of maize. Fifteen cents was the maximum pay per day.”
However, in stark contrast, the section hands working along the Mexican National Railway earned fifty cents per day. At the same time, the Mexican Central Railroad was paying between seventy-five and eighty cents a day in the state of Chihuahua. Railroad laborers working near the border city of Ciudad Juárez even received a dollar a day. And, as Professor Monroy concludes, “In the north of Mexico, wages were roughly double what they were in the interior.”
However, as Mexican laborers took the higher paying jobs in Chihuahua, they quickly learned that railroad laborers in the U.S. could earn $1.00 to $1.25 a day. With this incentive, many laborers simply crossed the border to take advantage of the better wages. Mr. Larry Rutter, in his Master’s Thesis at Kansas State University, pointed out that “wage differentials, especially among common labor, were so great between the two countries, that many persons could make more money by working three months in the United States than in a whole year in Mexico.”
The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1907 Gentlemen’s Agreement with Japan had led to the virtual exclusion of Chinese and Japanese laborers from the railroad, construction, and agricultural industries. As a result, American railroad companies found their most willing and able laborers in the Mexican migrants who were crossing the border in ever-increasing numbers looking for gainful employment.
According to the historian Juan R. Garcia, the author of Mexicans in the Midwest, 1900-1932, “a curtailment of immigration from Asia and the Europeans’ preference for year-round employment and higher wages had led to a severe labor shortage.” To fill the void left in their work forces, the railroad companies began an aggressive campaign to enlist Mexican labor for their work forces.
In order to find Mexican laborers for the construction of new railroads, the large American railroad companies had to recruit and transport construction workers from the border regions to their destination. Some railroads even sponsored employment agencies that met with the Mexican nationals as they crossed the border from Ciudad Juárez into El Paso, Texas. By 1910, 2,000 Mexican citizens were crossing the border each month for railroad work.
Many Mexican laborers were qualified to take on railroad jobs in the United States because of their prior experience in Mexican railroad work. In addition, many employers actively sought Mexican labor because they perceived the Mexican laborers as docile, hard-working people who did not complain about low wages and poor working conditions.
“Their desirability as laborers,” writes Mr. Garcia, “was augmented by the employers’ belief that most returned to Mexico once the job had ended. Before long Mexicans were laying tracks and constructing roadbeds for most of the major rail lines. Once this work had been completed, many remained in the United States as track maintenance crews.”
American immigration records indicate that between 1900 and 1904, only 2,259 Mexicans legally crossed the border to look for work. However, in the next five-year period from 1905 to 1909, this figure increased almost tenfold to 21,732 individual crossings. From 1910 to 1914, the number of entries increased to an unprecedented 82,588, in large part due to the depredations of the Mexican Revolution (which had started in 1910).
In 1910, the U.S. Census Bureau enumerated 221,915 Mexican-born nationals, but estimated the total “Mexican race” population at 367,510, including citizens of Mexican parents born in the United States. As the economies of the southwestern United States boomed, Mexicans flocked into the region, nearly half of them to Texas and more than one-fourth to California.
From July 1910 to July 1920, an estimated 890,371 legal Mexican immigrants came to the United States. As a result, the 1920 census recorded an estimated 740,000 Mexican Americans living in the U.S. Between 1920 and 1924, another 249,248 Mexicans entered the country, with 1924 as the peak year.
The increasing trend of Mexican immigration continued for the rest of the 1920s with 238,527 entries recorded between 1925 and 1929. During this period, Mexican immigrants would comprise 15.68% of all immigrants to the U.S. During the 1920s, six major railroads employed between 32,000 and 42,000 Mexican track workers, depending on the season. These laborers comprised 75% of the total track force.
The late author, Carey McWilliams, in his work North from Mexico, cited the period of 1900-1912 as the peak of the railroads’ recruitment of Mexicans in the United States. Nine western railroads listed 5,972 workers – or 17.1 percent of the workforce – as Mexicans in 1909. Twenty years later, these railroads employed 22,824 Mexicans, or 59.5 percent of their common labor force.
In the 1920s, the anthropologist, Manuel Gamio, conducted studies to determine where most of the Mexican immigrants were coming from. Using oral interviews and statistical date, Dr. Gamio discovered that the largest group of immigrants to America came from the Central Plateau region of Mexico, primarily the states of Jalisco, Michoacán, Guanajuato, Zacatecas and Aguascalientes, where the agricultural situation was the least favorable to the average Mexican peon.
When the provisions of the Immigration Act of 1917 introduced a literacy test for prospective immigrants crossing the southern border, the several American industries applied pressure on the American government to create an exclusion for Mexican railroad and agricultural laborers. The United States had just entered World War I and the resulting labor shortages had dramatically increased the need for Mexican labor in the U.S. In July 1918, Secretary of Labor William Wilson agreed to permit the unrestricted entrance of Mexican railroad, mining and construction workers. The waiver was valid until 1921.
Initially, most Mexican laborers were hired to work on section crews from May to October. It was assumed that many of the laborers would return to Mexico in the off-season. However, as the labor needs grew in the second decade of the Twentieth Century, more immigrants were able to find permanent employment in the railroad industry. For this reason, many Mexican laborers never returned to their native homes. Instead, they joined railroad section gangs and spread out across many parts of the United States.
Eventually, many Mexican men sent for their wives, children and siblings to join them. Small enclaves of Mexican laborers were established in many parts of the Southwest, Midwest and Northwest. These colonias (settlements), usually established near railroad centers, helped many Mexican citizens to establish new roots in the United States.
One of the most famous colonias was in Argentine, Kansas. The railroad yards of Kansas City, Kansas were crisscrossed by twelve railroads entering from many directions. Starting around 1904, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad and the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad had become important conduits for the migration of Mexican labor to Kansas City. With the influx of Mexican railroad workers into this area, a small barrio cropped up in the flood-prone Argentine District, where laborers made their homes in abandoned boxcars, provided by the Santa Fe Railroad. The railroad industry brought a steady stream of Mexican immigrants into Argentine for the next two decades. By 1927, it is believed that 91% of all track laborers in the Kansas City area were Mexican.
Colonias were also established in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Oregon, Milwaukee, Chicago, and many other parts of the United States. Many Mexican Americans today can look to these small colonias as the places where their families became part of the American mosaic. It can be said with a fair amount of certainty that the American railroad system played an integral role in the Mexican immigration that took place from 1900 to 1930.
John Schmal, a contributing columnist to HispanicVista.com (www.hispanicvista.com), is the coauthor of The Dominguez Family: A Mexican-American Journey, which discusses various components of Mexican immigration and the Mexican-American experience in Kansas City. Substantial portions of this article have been extracted from this book, which is available at:
Corwin, Arthur F. “Early Mexican Labor Migration: A Frontier Sketch, 1848-1900,” in Immigrants – and Immigrants: Perspectives on Mexican Labor Migration to the United States. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1979.
Garcia, Juan R. Mexicans in the Midwest, 1900 – 1932. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1996.
Gamio, Manual. Mexican Immigration to the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1930.
Laird, Judith Fincher. Argentine, Kansas: The Evolution of a Mexican-American Community, 1905-1940. University of Kansas, Ph.D. Dissertation, 1975.
Monroy, Douglas. Rebirth: Mexican Los Angeles from the Great Migration to the Great Depression. Berkeley: University of California, 1999.
Rutter, Larry G. Mexican Americans in Kansas: A Survey and Social Mobility Study, 1900-1970. Master’s Thesis, Kansas State University, Manhattan, 1972.
Sánchez , George J. Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900 – 1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
U.S. Bureau of the Census. Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1957: A Statistical Abstract Supplement. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1960.