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3 Tejanos,Mexican Immigrants, and MexicanAmerican Communities I n the early decades of the twentieth century Mexican Americans in the ranches, towns, and farms of the lower Rio Grande Valley and the Winter Garden area in Texas began expanding as far north as Montana and Minnesota. Large corporations involved in the growing and processing of beet sugar contracted with local growers for the employment of out-of-state seasonal labor, thereby introducing Mexicans into the Michigan economy. The Texas Mexicans, or tejanos, Michigan’s first Latinos, had lived in Texas for varying periods—sometimes decades, even centuries—because they or their ancestors were born there, because they had crossed the border at some earlier point, or because their arrival predated U.S. annexation of the area in . Their experience as migrant laborers, picking cotton or other crops for low wages, prepared them to work on Michigan farms, at first seasonally and then later permanently. Culturally Mexican and often predominantly Spanish speakers, they readily ventured north to the Great Lakes region and elsewhere in the United States as opportunities developed, and they customarily returned to winter in Texas. Labor recruiters targeted the huge Mexican population residing in San Antonio, the gateway to the Midwest during the s, where railways and highways from El Paso to Brownsville converged. Track work, particularly for the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, also drew many tejanos as well as immigrants directly from Mexico to Michigan, where they took jobs in agriculture, increasingly remaining in el Norte to work until the following spring, or settling into opportunities in industry. Tejanos arrived in the Michigan’s eastern “thumb” area around  to work in sugar beets, at which time a vacuum had been created in the rural Michigan workforce by the flight of Hungarian and Russian laborers to the cities. Thereafter, the Saginaw-based Michigan Sugar Beet Company brought up thousands of migrants from Texas to replace European-origin immigrants who had “settled out” from the beet fields, David A. Badillo 4 Distribution of Michigan’s Population claiming Hispanic Ancestry (1990). often after having accumulated small properties. By the  growing season, almost five thousand Mexicans had arrived in the different parts of southern Michigan, and they soon came to dominate this agricultural sector. These workers, who called themselves betabeleros, most of whom had been farmers, sharecroppers, or ranch hands prior to heading north, spearheaded the permanent settlement of Mexican Americans in Michigan. At first they came alone (often having been smuggled into the state aboard covered trucks), but later they arrived with their families, as children and all able-bodied adults effectively served as additional hands to tend the acreage.2 Growers and local residents believed that utilizing the family as the basic work unit helped ensure the “reliability” of the seasonal migrants. Betabeleros faced many forms of discrimination and exploitation by growers, who treated them as transients, to be unceremoniously returned home after each season—at company expense, if necessary. It was especially feared that they would break their contracts and wander off from the low-paying beet work in isolated communities into cities and towns, competing economically and mixing socially at the end of the season. By the mid-s, Michigan’s sugar beet work had created what one historian calls an “agricultural proletariat” of almost seven thousand primarily Mexican and tejano workers, clearly distinguished by ethnic background, language, and mode of entry from the established residents of rural and urban midwestern communities.3 Given the seasonal nature of their migration and the presence of interethnic hostility, the betabeleros realized that few opportunities existed for the acquisition of even small farms. For them, therefore, survival often meant stability, and they seized whatever opportunities existed to pursue year-round industrial work. Many remained in beet work for a season and then instead of heading South went to the booming urban centers of southeastern Michigan. As production in Michigan ’s fruit belt expanded sharply in the s, migrants expanded into the picking of asparagus, cherry, blueberry, and apple crops in western Michigan; they also moved to nearby cities and formed new colonias. Undocumented betabeleros joined their ranks, in spite of greater immigration restrictions and more tenacious, although always selective (due to the power of the growers’ lobby) enforcement. L AT I N O S I N M I C H I G A N 5 After  the disruption, violence, and dislocation of society caused by the Mexican Revolution accelerated the movement of Mexicans to the Southwest. It also spurred emigration from...


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