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Article

On August 4, 1942, the Mexican and US governments launched the binational guest worker program most commonly known as the Bracero Program. An estimated 5 million Mexican men between the ages of nineteen and forty-five separated from their families for three to nine-month cycles at a time, depending on the duration of their labor contract, in anticipation of earning the prevailing US wage this program had promised them. They labored in US agriculture, railroad construction, and forestry with hardly any employment protections or rights in place to support themselves or the families they had left behind in Mexico. The inhumane configuration and implementation of this program prevented most of these men and their families from meeting this goal. Instead, the labor exploitation and alienation that characterized this guest worker program and their program participation paved the way for fragile transnational family relationships. The Bracero Program grew over the course of its twenty-two-year existence, and despite its negative consequences, Mexican men and their families could not afford to settle for unemployment in Mexico nor pass up US employment opportunities of any sort. The Mexican and US governments’ persistently negligent management of the program coupled with their conveniently selective acknowledgment of the severity of the plight of Mexican women and men consistently required Mexican men and their families to shoulder the full extent of the program’s exploitative conditions and terms.

Article

In September 1962, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) held its first convention in Fresno, California, initiating a multiracial movement that would result in the creation of United Farm Workers (UFW) and the first contracts for farm workers in the state of California. Led by Cesar Chavez, the union contributed a number of innovations to the art of social protest, including the most successful consumer boycott in the history of the United States. Chavez welcomed contributions from numerous ethnic and racial groups, men and women, young and old. For a time, the UFW was the realization of Martin Luther King Jr.’s beloved community—people from different backgrounds coming together to create a socially just world. During the 1970s, Chavez struggled to maintain the momentum created by the boycott as the state of California became more involved in adjudicating labor disputes under the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA). Although Chavez and the UFW ultimately failed to establish a permanent, national union, their successes and strategies continue to influence movements for farm worker justice today.

Article

Ivón Padilla-Rodríguez

Child migration has garnered widespread media coverage in the 21st century, becoming a central topic of national political discourse and immigration policymaking. Contemporary surges of child migrants are part of a much longer history of migration to the United States. In the first half of the 20th century, millions of European and Asian child migrants passed through immigration inspection stations in the New York harbor and San Francisco Bay. Even though some accompanied and unaccompanied European child migrants experienced detention at Ellis Island, most were processed and admitted into the United States fairly quickly in the early 20th century. Few of the European child migrants were deported from Ellis Island. Predominantly accompanied Chinese and Japanese child migrants, however, like Latin American and Caribbean migrants in recent years, were more frequently subjected to family separation, abuse, detention, and deportation at Angel Island. Once inside the United States, both European and Asian children struggled to overcome poverty, labor exploitation, educational inequity, the attitudes of hostile officials, and public health problems. After World War II, Korean refugee “orphans” came to the United States under the Refugee Relief Act of 1953 and the Immigration and Nationality Act. European, Cuban, and Indochinese refugee children were admitted into the United States through a series of ad hoc programs and temporary legislation until the 1980 Refugee Act created a permanent mechanism for the admission of refugee and unaccompanied children. Exclusionary immigration laws, the hardening of US international boundaries, and the United States preference for refugees who fled Communist regimes made unlawful entry the only option for thousands of accompanied and unaccompanied Mexican, Central American, and Haitian children in the second half of the 20th century. Black and brown migrant and asylum-seeking children were forced to endure educational deprivation, labor trafficking, mandatory detention, deportation, and deadly abuse by US authorities and employers at US borders and inside the country.

Article

David Griffith

Guest workers have been part of the economic and cultural landscapes of the United States since the founding of republics across the Americas, evolving from indentured servants to the use of colonial subjects to foreign nationals imported under a variety of intergovernmental agreements and U.S. visas. Guest worker programs became institutionalized with the Bracero Program with Mexico, which ran from 1942 to 1964, and with the British West Indies Temporary Alien Labor Program, which began in 1943. Both of these programs were established under the Emergency Farm Labor Supply Program to address real and perceived labor shortages in agriculture during World War II. Both programs were structurally similar to programs employed to import colonial subjects, primarily Puerto Ricans, for U.S. agriculture. Although the U.S. Departments of Labor and Agriculture oversaw the operation of the programs during the war, control over guest workers’ labor and the conditions of their employment increasingly became the responsibility of their employers and employer associations following the war. Nevertheless, U.S. government support for guest worker programs has been steady, if uneven, since the 1940s, and most new legislation addressing immigration reform has included some sort of guest worker provision. Under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, for example, H-2A and H-2B visas were created to import workers primarily from Latin America and the Caribbean for low-wage work in agricultural (H-2A) and non-agricultural (H-2B) seasonal employment. In the Immigration Act of 1990, H-1 visas were added to import guest workers, primarily from India and China, for work in computer programming, higher education, and other skilled occupations. Although an unknown portion of the guest worker labor force resists the terms of their employment and slips into the shadow economy as undocumented immigrants, the number of legal guest workers in the United States has increased into the 21st century.

Article

The forced, coerced, and voluntary labor systems of the Spanish and early US–Mexico borderlands were as diverse as the territories where they predominated, and they evolved substantially over the course of three centuries. Spanish borderlands refers to an immense region that encompassed New Spain’s northern “interior provinces.” They were mostly inhabited and controlled by Indigenous peoples. In the 19th century, these provinces would become the modern border states and territories of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and Texas to the north; and Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas to the south. Thousands of Indigenous, Black, mulatto, and mestizo people worked in coerced and unfree labor systems that ranged from outright slavery to encomienda, repartimiento, and debt peonage. New labor forms emerged with expanding global trade, economic reform, and industrialization in Europe and the United States. Compensated labor coexisted alongside forced labor in the colonial period, until it came to rival and, in some cases, replace involuntary labor by the early 19th century. Yet debt peonage and chattel slavery grew in importance during the same period. Workers themselves struggled to maintain autonomy and resisted through means that ranged from flight, malingering, and migration to outright rebellion.

Article

If one considers all the links in the food chain—from crop cultivation to harvesting to processing to transportation to provision and service—millions of workers are required to get food from fields and farms to our grocery stores, restaurants, and kitchen tables. One out of every seven workers in the United States performs a job related in some way to food, whether it is in direct on-farm employment, in stores, in eating/drinking establishments, or in other agriculture-related sectors. According to demographic breakdowns of US food labor, people of color and immigrants (of varying legal and citizenship statuses) hold the majority of low-wage jobs in the US food system. Since the late 19th century Latinos (people of Latin American descent living in the United States) have played a tremendous role in powering the nation’s food industry. In the Southwest, Mexicans and Mexican Americans have historically worked as farmworkers, street vendors, restaurateurs, and employees in food factories. The Bracero Program (1942–1964) only strengthened the pattern of hiring Latinos as food workers by importing a steady stream of Mexican guest workers into fields, orchards, and vineyards across all regions of the United States. Meanwhile, mid-20th-century Puerto Rican agricultural guest workers served the farms and food processing factories of the Midwest and East Coast. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Central American food labor has become more noticeable in restaurants, the meat and seafood industries, and street food vending. It is deeply ironic, then, that the workers who help to nourish us and get our food to us go so unnourished themselves. Across the board, food laborers lack many privileges and basic rights. There is still no federal minimum wage for the almost three million farmworkers who labor in the nation’s fruit orchards, vineyards, and vegetable fields. Farmworkers (who are overwhelmingly Latino and undocumented) earn very low wages and face various health risks from pesticide exposure, extreme weather, a lack of nutritious, affordable food and potable water, substandard and unsanitary housing conditions, workplace abuse, unsafe transportation, and sexual harassment and assault. Other kinds of food workers—such as restaurant workers and street vendors—experience similar economic precarity and physical/social invisibility. While many of these substandard conditions exist because of employer decisions about costs and the treatment of their workers, American consumers seeking the lowest prices for food are also caught up in this cycle of exploitation. In efforts to stay competitive and profitable in what they give to grocery stores, restaurants, and the American public, farmers and food distributors trim costs wherever they can, which often negatively impacts the wages and conditions of those who are working the hardest at the bottom of the national food chain. To push back against these forms of exploitation, food entrepreneurs, worker unions, and other advocates have vocally supported Latinos in the US food industry and tried to address problems ranging from xenophobia to human trafficking.

Article

Emiliano Aguilar

Since the U.S. acquisition of Northern Mexico in the 19th century, Latinas and Latinos have played an ever-growing role as workers in the United States. The continued migration from Latin American countries has increased the importance of Latinas and Latinos across various economic sectors. As diverse as the Latina/o community itself, the array of jobs Latinas/os/xs have held has been enormously varied. As an increasing demographic of workers, Latina and Latino workers have also played a pivotal role in the labor movement in the United States. Their labor activism has been a response to the persistence of oppression and marginalization in the workplace. The presence of Latinas/os/xs in a variety of occupations offers a glimpse into the overall transitions of the U.S. economy, from agricultural to manufacturing to service work. Their movement from farm to factory to service work is of course not universal, as Latinas/os/xs still have a considerable presence in agricultural and industrial employment. Yet the transition from one kind of work to another remains a useful way of understanding the history of Latina/o/x labor over time. Latinas/os/xs have often stood at the forefront of shifts in the economy as they have followed the need for workers into new industries, which has placed them among some of the most vulnerable workers in American society.

Article

Entrepreneurship has been a basic element of Latinx life in the United States since long before the nation’s founding, varying in scale and cutting across race, class, and gender to different degrees. Indigenous forms of commerce pre-dated Spanish contact in the Americas and continued thereafter. Beginning in the 16th century, the raising, trading, and production of cattle and cattle-related products became foundational to Spanish, Mexican, and later American Southwest society and culture. By the 19th century, Latinxs in US metropolitan areas began to establish enterprises in the form of storefronts, warehouses, factories, as well as smaller ventures including peddling. At times, they succeeded previous ethnic owners; in other moments, they established new businesses that shaped everyday life and politics of their respective communities. Whatever the scale of their ventures, Latinx business owners continued to capitalize on the migration of Latinx people to the United States from Latin America and the Caribbean during the 20th century. These entrepreneurs entered business for different reasons, often responding to restricted or constrained labor options, though many sought the flexibility that entrepreneurship offered. Despite an increasing association between Latinx people and entrepreneurship, profits from Latinx ventures produced uneven results during the second half of the 20th century. For some, finance and business ownership has generated immense wealth and political influence. For others at the margins of society, it has remained a tool for achieving sustenance amid the variability of a racially stratified labor market. No monolithic account can wholly capture the vastness and complexity of Latinx economic activity. Latinx business and entrepreneurship remains a vital piece of the place-making and politics of the US Latinx population. This article provides an overview of major trends and pivotal moments in its rich history.

Article

The history of Mexican immigration to the United States is best characterized as the movement of unskilled, manual laborers pushed northward mostly by poverty and unemployment and pulled into American labor markets with higher wages. Historically, most Mexicans have been economic immigrants seeking to improve their lives. In moments of civil strife, such as the Mexican Revolution (1910–1917) and the Cristero Revolt (1926–1929), many fled to the United States to escape religious and political persecution. Others, chafing under the weight of conservative, patriarchal, tradition-bound, rural agrarian societies, have migrated seeking modern values and greater personal liberties. Since the last quarter of the 19th century, due to increasing numeric restrictions on the importation of immigrant workers from Europe, Asia, and Africa, American employers have turned to Mexico to recruit cheap, unskilled labor. Before 1942, Mexico minimally regulated emigration. While attentive to the safety and well-being of its émigrés, the Mexican government deemed out-migration a depletion of the country’s human capital. Monetary remittances helped compensate for this loss, contributing perhaps as much as 10 percent of the country’s yearly gross national product, vastly improving national life, particularly when emigrants returned with skills and consumer goods, seeking investment opportunities for their accumulated cash. Since the 1980s, single Mexican women have become a significant component of this migration, representing 40 percent of the total immigrant flow, employed mostly as service workers, domestics, and nannies, and less so in agricultural work. Mexicans also have gained authorized entry into the United States as highly skilled professionals, but their numbers remain relatively small in comparison to unskilled laborers. Beginning in 1942, and particularly in the 1990s, Mexican immigrants have been stigmatized as illegal aliens, subject to deportation as significant security threats to the nation; a rhetoric that intensified after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States by al-Qaeda.

Article

Puerto Rican migrants have resided in the United States since before the Spanish-Cuban-American War of 1898, when the United States took possession of the island of Puerto Rico as part of the Treaty of Paris. After the war, groups of Puerto Ricans began migrating to the United States as contract laborers, first to sugarcane plantations in Hawaii, and then to other destinations on the mainland. After the Jones Act of 1917 extended U.S. citizenship to islanders, Puerto Ricans migrated to the United States in larger numbers, establishing their largest base in New York City. Over the course of the 1920s and 1930s, a vibrant and heterogeneous colonia developed there, and Puerto Ricans participated actively both in local politics and in the increasingly contentious politics of their homeland, whose status was indeterminate until it became a commonwealth in 1952. The Puerto Rican community in New York changed dramatically after World War II, accommodating up to fifty thousand new migrants per year during the peak of the “great migration” from the island. Newcomers faced intense discrimination and marginalization in this era, defined by both a Cold War ethos and liberal social scientists’ interest in the “Puerto Rican problem.” Puerto Rican migrant communities in the 1950s and 1960s—now rapidly expanding into the Midwest, especially Chicago, and into New Jersey, Connecticut, and Philadelphia—struggled with inadequate housing and discrimination in the job market. In local schools, Puerto Rican children often faced a lack of accommodation of their need for English language instruction. Most catastrophic for Puerto Rican communities, on the East Coast particularly, was the deindustrialization of the labor market over the course of the 1960s. By the late 1960s, in response to these conditions and spurred by the civil rights, Black Power, and other social movements, young Puerto Ricans began organizing and protesting in large numbers. Their activism combined a radical approach to community organizing with Puerto Rican nationalism and international anti-imperialism. The youth were not the only activists in this era. Parents in New York had initiated, together with their African American neighbors, a “community control” movement that spanned the late 1960s and early 1970s; and many other adult activists pushed the politics of the urban social service sector—the primary institutions in many impoverished Puerto Rican communities—further to the left. By the mid-1970s, urban fiscal crises and the rising conservative backlash in national politics dealt another blow to many Puerto Rican communities in the United States. The Puerto Rican population as a whole was now widely considered part of a national “underclass,” and much of the political energy of Puerto Rican leaders focused on addressing the paucity of both basic material stability and social equality in their communities. Since the 1980s, however, Puerto Ricans have achieved some economic gains, and a growing college-educated middle class has managed to gain more control over the cultural representations of their communities. More recently, the political salience of Puerto Ricans as a group has begun to shift. For the better part of the 20th century, Puerto Ricans in the United States were considered numerically insignificant or politically impotent (or both); but in the last two presidential elections (2008 and 2012), their growing populations in the South, especially in Florida, have drawn attention to their demographic significance and their political sensibilities.