Mexican Americans in Kansas
Mexican Americans have become a significant part of the populations of the United States and Kansas within this century. Today Kansas is one of five states outside the Southwest to be comprised of more than one percent Mexican Americans.
The Mexican presence in Kansas is older than the state itself. Mexicans regularly passed through this area since the mid-19th century as cowboys on cattle drives from Texas or as wagoners on the Santa Fe Trail. Permanent communities of Mexican immigrants did not form in Kansas until the beginning of the 20th century. The period from 1900 to 1930 marked the largest influx of Mexican immigrants to the state. As has been the case with all movements of newcomers to the United States, this wave of immigrations was fueled by conditions in the home country.
Until the turn of the century the rural economy of Mexico was based on a system in which peasants were bound as virtual serfs to the owners of large estates, or haciendas. Shortly after the turn of the century, however, the traditional forms of agriculture practiced in many parts of Mexico began to give way to commercial agriculture directed toward export crops. This was the case in the central highland states of Mexico where the Mexican Central Railway opened large areas to national and international markets. For this reason the highland states of Michocan, Guanajauto, Zacatecas, and Jalisco contributed many immigrants at this time. As the agricultural economy changed, there was a reduced need for agricultural labor and a shortage of available land. Two major depressions in the first two decades of the 20th century only added to the economic hardship of rural Mexicans.
Starting in 1910 an additional incentive for emigration came with the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution. The violence and social disruption that ensued encouraged many to seek a better life elsewhere.
Conditions in the United States favored Mexican immigration as well. At a time when life was becoming harder for workers in Mexico, the economy of the western United States was growing, and due to the Chinese Exclusion Act 1882/1902, the Immigration Act of 1907, and the National Origins (Quotas) Acts of 1921 and 1924, Asian and Eastern European immigrant labor was severely limited. These conditions allowed Mexican immigrants to fill positions to curtail the labor shortages in mining, agriculture, and railroads. At first the greatest number came to Kansas to work as laborers on the railroads, with many employed by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. But other industries such as the sugar beet farming in Finney County, the meatpacking plants in Kansas City, and the salt mines in Hutchinson, Lyons, and Kanopolis also hired the transplanted workers.
The number of Mexicans in Kansas grew to 13,770 by 1920. Most of these men were hired to work from May until October. The majority then returned to their homes and families in Mexico during the off season. Some, however, remained in the United States throughout the year where they found employment as agricultural workers to supplement their railroad contracts.
In time, Mexican immigrants began to move into the railroad shops and to acquire jobs with a greater degree of permanence. This was of benefit to workers who wanted to bring their families to the United States and establish a permanent residence which formed authentic Mexican American communities. During the First World War Mexicans entered factories to fill the labor shortage caused by men leaving their jobs for the military, the interruption of immigration from Europe,and the massive growth in industry for the war effort.
As more Mexican immigrants came to reside permanently in Kansas, the nature of their communities began to change. The inclusion of entire families in the communities caused them to become broader and more diverse in composition. Although the neighborhoods, or barrios, as they are known in Spanish, were usually very small, they became a place where the residents could shop, go to church, eat, and socialize with friends without having to go more than a few blocks from home.
Culturally, it was not difficult for Mexicans to maintain ethnic traditions in their neighborhoods. In the beginning, contact with other ethnic groups was limited because of language barriers and prejudice. Often the barrios were located close to the railroad yards in which the residents worked. For this reason other, more established ethnic groups chose not to live in or near the barrios. This added to the sense of isolation and reinforced traditional practices. For example, in Topeka in 1920, a large group of young Mexican men formed a support group called the El Diamante Club. They sponsored a baseball team and a football team, and held dances at the Metropolitan Hall. The club offered classes in English, Spanish, and arithmetic.
However, upward mobility came slowly for the Mexican American population in Kansas. They suffered racial discrimination which prevented access to better housing, jobs, and education, in part because of their desire to preserve their own culture. In 1925 only 6 percent of Topeka's Hispanics owned their own housing, compared to 95 percent by the 1960s. Most of the early workers lacked the training and language skills to advance beyond low paying positions requiring manual labor. The young men often had to leave school to help support their families. In a break with tradition, women often found work outside the home to supplement their incomes.
At the end of the depression, war once again created a labor shortage and Mexican American workers made new gains. An increasing number of the immigrants applied for U.S. citizenship and a large proportion of the Hispanic population fought in World War II. More than 300 Mexican Americans from Topeka enlisted. Fifty-two men from the Mexican American community in Florence, Kansas, a town of 800 people, joined the service. This raised their status in the communities and gave them access to veteran's benefits like the G.I. Bill, although they still faced discrimination when they returned home.
Hispanics are the fastest growing ethnic group in Kansas. One of the most recent growth areas has been in the meatpacking businesses that starting moving to southwest Kansas in the 1960s. From 1970 to 1980 the Hispanic population in the state increased by 35 percent. The latest arrivals are employing the same strategies that the earlier immigrants used to nurture their new communities.
Through time, Mexican immigrants and their descendants have become represented in all parts of American society. Although some of their traditions are have fallen out of use, many more survive to provide a sense of cultural identity and continuity with the past. Now, it is not a sense of separation that reinforces the traditions, but the desire of Mexican Americans to retain the cultural practices of their parents.
Traditions 1993 © KSHS
Entry: Mexican Americans in Kansas
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: August 2012
Date Modified: July 2013
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.