Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Fall 1981


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 1, No. 4, Fall 1981, pp. 239-51.


Copyright 1981 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


The northern and central plains states, lying well beyond the Spanish borderlands and containing no great urban metropolises, have received scant attention in published studies of Mexican migration to and Mexican labor in the United States. Although this region did not attract Mexican immigrants in large numbers, compared to California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Colorado and such cities as Chicago or Detroit, there was a dramatic increase in the number of Mexican immigrants to the plains states between 1900 and 1930. These persons filled a vital, yet generally ignored, role in the economic life of the region.1

This study examines Mexican migration to Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota. Such a spatial limitation permits a survey of migration and labor beyond the borderlands and outside the large industrial centers while providing an opportunity to investigate Mexican labor in a geographically compact area. The rising tide of Mexican migration to the northern and central plains states after the turn of the century, when conditions in both Mexico and the United States encouraged immigration, and the Great Depression, which witnessed the ebb and finally the outward flow of the vast majority of Mexicans from the region, have determined the chronological parameters of the study. This is a general spatial and occupational survey that does not attempt to present a detailed account of social conditions or wage scales.


A variety of factors coalesced during the first three decades of the twentieth century to stimulate massive migration of Mexicans across the border and subsequently into the central and northern plains. During the latter years of the nineteenth century, the Mexican peasantry had faced an oppressive combination of land-ownership concentration; debt peonage, demographic pressure, static wages, and a rising cost of living. Faced with the chilling alternatives of flight or starvation, migration was the only liberation for hundreds of poor campesinos who roamed Mexico in search of employment. The inhabitants of the populous Central Plateau-including the states of Jalisco, Michoacan, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi, and Zacatecas-most sharply felt the effects of the social and economic problems that beset Mexico, and they comprised the largest proportion of Mexican immigrants to the plains region. Between 1900 and 1910, perhaps as many as 500,000 Mexicans entered the United States. Immigration increased even more rapidly between 1910 and 1930. The Mexican revolution and its attendant physical destruction, social upheaval, agricultural collapse, and inflation produced widespread suffering and drove people from the land. Although traditional studies have credited the revolution with causing the massive exodus of Mexicans to the United States in the twentieth century, more recent works have shown that it merely intensified a movement that had been under way for over a decade.2

Concomitant with the expanding supply of highly mobile Mexican labor was the economic development of the American West and Southwest. Railroad construuction and maintenance, mining, and the enormous expansion of agriculture in this area of low population density created a mushrooming demand for workers. American laborers, whose wages and standard of living were rising rapidly at this time, disdained these opportunities when they could find more attractive and more remunerative employment elsewhere. While American workers refused to take these jobs in the West, traditional sources of foreign labor progressively diminished during the period. The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) and the "Gentleman's Agreement" with Japan (1907) effectively excluded orientals. The outbreak of World War I and the Immigration Acts of 1917, 1921, and 1924 curtailed the immigration of Europeans. As a result, railroad, mining, industrial, and agricultural interests grew increasingly dependent upon laborers from Mexico. Many employers considered Mexicans as the ideal solution to their labor problems. The Mexicans' pattern of working for brief periods in the United States and then returning home seemed to pose no threat to the "American way of life." Prior to the Great Depression, Mexican workers were routinely exempted from the restrictions imposed upon others by the various immigration acts.3