Essay on How the Mexican American Migrant Workers Were Affected by the Great Depression

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1845 words
University of California, Santa Barbara
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Research paper
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The great depression of the 1930s had a significant impact on Mexican migrant workers. Mexican American workers came to the United States during and before the great depression to work as a result of unemployment in their own country brought about by the Mexican revolution and a series of Mexican civil wars (Balderrama and Rodriguez 12-14). They would take any opportunity that came to them. Migrant workers were faced with numerous challenges working in the United States primarily in the farming sectors. Many U.S farm owners recruited Mexican American migrant workers because they were desperate workers and would tolerate harsh living conditions that normal workers would not. The Great Depression in the 1930s was a true revelation of how the Americans viewed the Mexican population, most of whom worked as laborers in the farms in the Southern states of the U.S. Before the Great Depression, the US had set up policies that encouraged Mexican to immigrate to the US and become a source of cheap labor, working in deplorable conditions that most of the US citizens found unacceptable (Garza 26-48). However, when the economic situation became precarious they were forcefully deported in an attempt to open up more jobs for the American citizens.

Mexican American workers often earned more than they could in Mexicos civil war economy although in comparison this was significantly lower than what white American workers earned. This led to a rise in a number of Mexican American migrant workers. In California for example about three-quarters of California farm workers were Mexican American Migrants (Gratton and Merchant 944-975). The Mexican American migrants population rapidly increased due to the demand for low wage unskilled labor in growing the U.S economy.

Over cultivation of farmland to compensate for an overall drop in market prices mixed with lack of proper soil conservation methods led to the environmental disaster in Americas Great Plains. These resulted in the phrase from the bread basket to dust bowl which was coined from the fact that these plains were a bread basket before the great depression, but as a result of poor farming methods, effects of the drought turned it into an area of dust storms. The drought destroyed acres of land forcing white farmers to sell their land. The desertification arose from years of agricultural mismanagement (Gratton and Merchant 944-975). To grow their crops they had to clear up the natural ground cover. With the absence of rain the fertile topsoil turned into dust and due to lack of trees and other windbreakers dust storms were frequent. The dust storms blotted the skies choking humans and livestock.

As this rapid shift of Mexicos working population occurred, there was need for a labor agreement between the United States government and Mexico. Mexico required that the U.S farm owners provide legal contracts to the Mexican American migrant workers with a guarantee of conditions such as wages and work schedules. The U.S government on its part enforced the border between Mexico and the United States verifying if all Mexican immigrants had proper work contracts to avoid exploitation by farm owners (Massey 12-26). The great depression took its toll on the economy, and this led to a series of events where Mexican American migrants were targets of discrimination. By now most of the immigrants had already been granted citizenship alongside their children. The demand for minority labor suddenly ended with the onset of The Great Depression. The severity of these effects felt more when the stock market crashed in 1929 leading to unemployment. There was competition with the whites for the scarce available jobs regardless of how low paying the jobs were. Mexican American migrants were considered as part of the economic problem. They were accused of taking jobs from the white Americans and absorbing government relief funds. With millions of white Americans out of work, the Republicans decided to get rid of Mexican Americans and anyone with a Mexican sounding name under the leadership of California state senator Joseph Dunn. They came up with an ideology that jobs should be for real Americans which in essence was a racial stance. Local governments were trying to incorporate white Americans into the job market, and the solution was to get rid of Mexican Americans, and this was implemented because they were not real Americans which in real sense was not true (Massey 12-26). Under the direction of the Hoover administration federal immigration agents, county sheriffs, and local police approached deportation of the Mexican American migrants with the precision of a military operation launching raids and massive roundups of Mexican Americans including U.S citizens of Mexican descent were picked up and taken into custody during street sweeps. Mass arrests were done in public without arrest warrants or valid reasons for arrest. Also, door to door operations was carried out demanding proof of legitimate residency and failure to remove proper papers resulted in discriminatory arrests and jailing quickly.

Wages were dropping due to the new white refugee labor established Mexican American farm workers were slowly but steadily becoming a threat by banding together with other non-whites and organizing strikes to protest lowered wages and worsening living conditions. Agriculture, in particular, was badly hit especially due to the dust bowl drought effects and as a result crippling the economy. With California, untouched farm owners had a chance to benefit immensely from the supply of cheap labor, but this was affected by the protests (Massey 12-26). Racial harassments by government agencies were widespread and were characterized using intimidation tactics that included beatings. The racial discrimination also resulted in inhumane acts like torture, Mexican Americans were denied bail for release from jail, and the detained were kept in custody until the next deportation means of transport back to Mexico. The intended purpose of these unwarranted raids was to create chaos and a climate of fear in the Mexican American communities nationwide.

As a result, many Mexican Americans decided to leave on their own to avoid further negative consequences. A congressional committee known as the Wickersham committee investigated the deportation practices and issued a report denouncing government tactics in the deportation process, but the Hoover administration denied any wrongdoing and successfully maintained public support. The pressure from white farmers resulted in repatriation or the return of Mexican Americans to their own country. More than 60% of those deported were, in fact, American citizens (Massey 12-26). Approximately 400,000 to 1,000,000 American Mexicans were forcibly removed and sent packing to Mexico in boxcars and busloads.

As a result of population migration to the Great Plains called the Okies, the rural population dropped significantly by up to 40%. The State of California had comparatively mild climate allowing for extended growing seasons, staggered planting and harvesting cycles ensuring plenty of employment opportunities in the form of farm work. In 1931 approximately 1500 migrants arrived daily in the State of California. Hostility was vented on the Mexican American migrants by some of the residents. An example is the police chief at the time sent 100 officers to the border to turn the Dust Bowl refugees back (Moloney 7-10). The removal of undocumented aliens was believed to have the effect of reducing relief expenditure and free jobs for native-born citizens. Loss of relief payments led to thousands of Mexican American migrants relocating to Mexico.

The FSA or Farm Security Administration a division within the Department of Agriculture sought to remedy the health and sanitation problems migrant workers dealt with every day. As a result of low wages, Mexican Americans lived in ditches and ramshackle huts. Water was a major problem. These temporary shelters placed a challenge to the local governments in that there spread of diseases especially to children. Another major hurdle was insecurity. Vigilantes attacked the migrants burning down their form of shelters.

A new deal was put in place for the Mexican American migrants. The FSA established camps for migrant workers in California, the CCC and WPA, provided the unemployed Mexican Americans with relief jobs. However, most of them did not qualify for relief assistance as they did not meet the necessary residency requirements. On top of that agricultural workers were ineligible for benefits under workers compensation, Social Security, and the National Labor Relations Act (Monte-Sano 1256-1258). Many migrants found temporary stability in the camps provided. These camps provided the migrants with housing, food, and medicine as well as protection from criminal elements that took advantage of the vulnerability of migrant workers. These camps made specifically for Mexican Americans and created a haven from violent attacks. The camps also provided a benefit of bringing together farm families and as such increased community ties. Residents began organizing their fellow workers paving the way for labor movements later in the century.

Though there were many migrants and minority groups, Mexican Americans were targeted and widely blamed for exacerbating the overall economic downturn due to the proximity of the Mexican border, the physical distinctiveness of mestizos and easily identifiable barrios. The forcible movement has widely been seen as ethnic cleansing due to its nature of ignoring citizenship, and as such it meets the modern standards of ethnic cleansing. Although farming was an important source employment for Mexican American migrants, they slowly shifted to industries. They include mining and ranching. The growing American railway network was another important source of employment for the Mexican American migrants. Mexican American migrants provided a cheap source of labor. The railway was vital to the Mexican American migrants in that it provided mobility. They often used this means of transportation to move their families further North and East of the U.S.

Mexican Americans who organized against the raids carried by the whites were considered communists or radicals. In some instances, they were subjected to judicial proceedings that lacked interpreters and often ended up as a kangaroo court setting. Child labor was another effect of the great depression on the Mexican American migrants. Due to their nature of living in harsh conditions poverty was widespread resulting in child labor cases to supplement households sources of income (Monte-Sano 1256-1258). Demand for unskilled labor was a major factor in recruiting child workers. Child labor was a cheap source of income hence a common practice during the Great Depression. Child labor by virtue of being cheap increased profit margins as a result subjected children to work under unfavorable conditions. The impacts of child labor on Mexican American migrants included health issues resulting from undernourishment and poor working conditions. Illiteracy was common among the Mexican Americans as a result due to child labor.

Effects of repatriation forced families to a transition from comfortable lifestyles to conditions of extreme poverty. Lack of proper housing, food, plumbing and access to education created hardships for many who had been deported either forcibly or coerced to move.There were wages issues as a result of the Great Depression. For instance, in the case of Mexican Americans who chose to stay in the United States faced economic hardships as farm wages significantly reducing from $2.55 to $1.40 in 1933. Some laborers made fifteen cents an hour.

Faced with the challenges of racial profiling and discriminations, l...

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