Hispanic Labor before the Great Depression

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Date: 2003
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 736 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1370L

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Between the late 1500s and the incorporation of northern Mexico into the United States at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, workers of Mexican birth who resided in the present-day Southwest worked largely in agricultural tasks. Most of them held land on which they grew and raised most of their sustenance, which they often supplemented by working for others. As they lost their lands after the war, the majority of them became wage laborers. They were employed as field hands, cowboys, railroad maintenance workers, ditchdiggers, and miners.

The movement of Mexican-American workers out of rural and agricultural tasks was relatively slow. As their numbers gradually increased in cities and towns, they found employment in service and manufacturing occupations. Yet, in contrast to the overall trend among whites, they experienced a marked downward mobility during the last half of the nineteenth century.

Another Hispanic group also appeared in the late nineteenth century. A small Cuban population migrated to Florida, partly in response to the independence movement against Spain, as exiles, revolutionaries, and workers. Applying skills they learned in Cuba, they were engaged largely in the tobacco industry, as field owners and workers, and in cigar factories of the State.

A new phase of the labor history of Hispanics in the United States began around the turn of the twentieth century, when employers in the Southwest, and soon afterward in the Midwest, began to recruit workers from the Mexican border. Their efforts set in motion a movement that has shaped migration patterns from Mexico throughout the twentieth century. Using labor contractors and other recruiters, they brought in workers from Mexico to perform largely unskilled, low-paying tasks. This planned labor migration quickly stimulated another pattern of individual migration that took on an independent character of its own and outpaced the rate of migration by labor recruitment. During the early twentieth century, the majority of Hispanic workers in the United States were Mexican immigrants and their children. In sheer numbers, the new arrivals soon overwhelmed the older Mexican-descent residents in most parts of the Southwest and Midwest, except New Mexico.

Mexico offered employers a reservoir of workers because of its high level of unemployment and very low incomes. The wage differential between Mexico and the United States throughout the century has always been very sharp. At present, an unskilled wage worker in the United States can earn approximately ten times as much as in Mexico, although the differences are largely offset by much higher prices for food, rent, and other living expenses in the United States.

In the early twentieth century, Mexicans were recruited largely for agricultural, railroad maintenance, and mining enterprises. Smaller numbers found employment in domestic and other service occupations, and in manufacturing. Mexican immigrant families often worked as a single unit in cotton, sugar beet, and fruit and vegetable planting, cultivation, and harvesting operations, especially in the Southwest. In other occupations, including mining, manufacturing, and most service occupations, adult workers were the rule, as child labor laws were harder to evade, restricting the employment of children.

As a result of the patterns of labor recruitment that evolved in the early twentieth century, cities and towns on and near the Mexican border, and eventually throughout the Southwest and in many Midwestern settings, developed large labor pools of Mexican workers who were available to perform unskilled, low-paying jobs throughout the year. Characteristically, the Mexican workers found employment largely in seasonal tasks and experienced high rates of unemployment and frequent changes in employers. Although many of them brought skills from Mexico, few of the tasks they performed in the United States required high levels of training or English-language proficiency to perform.

The Spanish-American War in 1898 resulted in the incorporation of Puerto Ricans into the work force of the United States. As continental-based corporations quickly gained control of the best agricultural lands in Puerto Rico, they displaced many small landholders, offering them the alternatives of wage work in the fields or unemployment. By 1930, four U.S. corporations controlled about three-fifths of sugar production in Puerto Rico, and the sugar industry was responsible for more than two-thirds of all employment on the Island.

Because of World War I, Puerto Ricans were made citizens of the United States in 1917. The war also stimulated a modest migration from the island to New York City and environs, where the new arrivals worked in textiles and other low-wage industrial and service occupations.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ2116207264