Mexicans in the U.S: 20th Century Migration

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The Mexican immigration to the U.S. between 1890 and 1965 has been called one of the most significant demographic phenomena in the history of the Americas. This Mexican migration took many forms and contributed greatly to the growth and development of the United States as a nation. The first movement to el norte (the north) took place after the 1910 revolution in Mexico when farmhands, shepherds, miners and cowboys felt a call to go north in search of better and higher paying work. Going northward was sought out by poor men and women who were unable to find decent work within their borders. They left Mexico looking for a land of milk and honey, where they could raise their children properly and prosperously.

Mexicans began relocating first to the Southwest United States to find employment, taking advantage of their agricultural traditions wherever they could. However, with the expansion of the railroads in the early 1920s and with the shortage of labor workers caused by WWII, Mexicans took
advantage of growth of the railroad system and went to work as track maintenance workers around the country. Between 1920 and 1930, a large migration began to take place from the Southwest to industrial cities all across America. Mexicans began to find employment not only in agriculture and steel factories in the Midwest, but they also found jobs with companies further north such as the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company and in Pennsylvania.

Mexicans in Rhode Island

The earliest documents that mention the Mexican community in Rhode Island is from a headline of a 1938 article in the Providence Journal that states that there were “not more than 15 Mexicans in Rhode Island.” The story continues and says that “brisk business with that country” warranted the appointment of Edgar L. Burchell as Mexican consul in Rhode Island. Having been appointed in 1924, 14 years prior to this article, Burchell set up an office at 42 Westminster Street in Providence, where he also served as “immigration officer, diplomat, tourist agent and tax collector.” According to the article, Burchell was the first Mexican Consul in Rhode Island.

Burchell's consulate covered Rhode Island and the city of Fall River, but had concurrent jurisdiction all over New England. Rather than make the trip to Boston, where the only other Mexican consulate in New England was located, many Mexicans or Americans looking to travel to Mexico, came to his office for whatever services they needed.

The article goes on to say: "It doesn't seem strange to Mr. Burchell that there are so few Mexicans in the state. What is strange to him is that there are any at all. There are large Mexican colonies in such cities as Detroit and Chicago, drawn by such well-advertised opportunities as the automobile in industry and the stockyards. "

Where other consulates, representing the interest of thousand of foreign born, are constantly besieged for advice and help, in 1938, Burchell reported that only five Mexican nationals visited the Westminster street consulate that year. All were in trouble, seeking aid. The story states that "Mr. Burchell obtained hospitalization for one who needed it; got jobs for two others and the other two homesick for their native land he repatriated."

By the mid-1940s research shows no signs of a Mexican Consulate office in Providence, so it is assumed that Mr. Burchell and the US Government no longer felt the need to keep it open. Research shows that to date, that has been the only Mexican consul in the state.

The Bracero Program

World War II fueled migration by Latinos to the United States. As defense industries grew and many workers went off to war, industries experienced acute labor shortages. Temporary workers were brought from Puerto Rico and Mexico through the
Bracero Program, a 1942 labor agreement between the U.S. and Mexico.

Although the
Bracero Program brought Mexicans to the United States to work primarily in agriculture, some workers were also employed in various industries. Over 100,000 contracts were signed between 1943 and 1945 to recruit and transport Mexican workers to cities all around the United States for employment on the railroads.

A newspaper article in 1944 showed that Rhode Island got its share of Mexicans from the
Bracero Program to work on the New Haven Railroad. In January of 1944 the Providence Journal-Bulletin notes: “60 importations from South of the Border settled down at a labor camp in East Greenwich … to help meet a labor shortage suffered by the railroad in this area.” By March of that same year, another 82 Mexicans arrived to alleviate the manpower shortage of railroad workers not only in Rhode Island but in neighboring states – 97 of the men were assigned to engine house duties in Providence, East Hartford, Springfield and New Haven, and the rest were put to work in East Greenwich “engaged in track maintenance work.”

Unlike other cities, where it was reported that Mexican laborers were found living in substandard conditions in “box car camps,” the newspaper article noted that the Rhode Island laborers, who were given a six-month contract, lived 20 in a large dormitory, reportedly slept in comfortable “double-deck bunks” and were provided “a hearty meal” on a daily basis.

Agriculture Workers

In the 1940s and 50s, there was an abundance of jobs in meat-packing plants, utility companies, construction, trucking and eventually in agricultural trades such as sugar-beet fields in Michigan and tobacco, vegetable and fruit fields in New England. These jobs were the kind that did not require special skills or the ability to speak English. Rhode Island had its share of agricultural farms in South County and Middletown during this time, and with it came a need for cheap labor and dedication. Mexican workers and other non-English-speaking immigrants, who were available to provide this labor were hired to do this work. Research finds that farms in North Kingstown, Middletown and Portsmouth employed seasonal migrant field workers from Puerto Rico and México. Today that practice continues, but the workers hail mainly from Guatemala and other Central American countries.


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VICTORIANO ASTORGA of Atotonilco, Durango and Lucas González of Jalisco, part of a group of 60 laborers from Mexico Cty and vicinity, are shown awaiting their turn for outfitting in warm reclaimed Army clothes at East Greenwich, yesterday. This morning the whole group will go to work for the New Haven Railrod as track and maintenance crews. -- Providence Journal photo, January 1944
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