Mexicans in Bauxite
The Great Migration of African Americans out of the South prompted some Arkansas farmers and employers to seek Mexican laborers immediately following World War I. The Pittsburgh Reduction Company (later known as Alcoa) recruited Mexican, Italian, and Chinese workers, in addition to African Americans, to mine aluminum ore during the interwar years. By the end of 1920, it had recruited 655 Mexicans to live and work in Bauxite. The company built segregated housing for its workers, naming the respective areas Mexico Camp, Africa Camp, and Italy.
While the company received some criticism for hiring Mexican rather than native-born workers, Mexico Camp housed Mexican and Mexican American families in Bauxite through the early 1930s. The local newspaper began publishing a Spanish-language page to cater to this relatively settled community of Mexican workers. Mexicans in Bauxite were separated from both whites and blacks, despite the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo’s promise to consider Mexicans as whites under the law. Mexicans in Bauxite’s Mexico Camp attended Mexican-only schools, shopped at Mexico Camp’s own branch of the company store, and used recreational facilities separate from blacks, whites, and Italians.
When ore production nearly stopped in the early years of the Depression, Mexicans were the first to be laid off. While the company transported many workers back to Laredo, others were stranded and had to return to Texas or Mexico at their own expense.
Mexicans in the Arkansas Delta
For most of the twentieth century, the fate of Arkansas’s Latinos and its cotton were intertwined. Rapid Mexican migration to the United States during the 1920s and the expansion of this migration beyond Texas, to locales such as California and the Midwest reverberated in Arkansas, albeit on a drastically smaller scale. Indeed, it was Californian and Texan farmers’ access to plentiful Mexican labor that Arkansas farmers hoped to emulate.
The Lee Wilson Plantation, which dominated Mississippi County, Arkansas, was the most active in pursuing Mexican laborers. The Depression notwithstanding, baptism records suggest that small numbers of ethnic Mexican families lived and worked in the Arkansas Delta throughout the 1930s. Largely ignored by white and black society, these migrants neither received the benefits of the New Deal nor suffered the forced deportations that affected Mexican communities elsewhere. World War II, however, would bring thousands of Mexican workers to the same parts of Arkansas, generating deliberate attempts to exclude them from white society.
World War II and the Bracero Program
In 1942 the U.S. and Mexican governments negotiated a guest worker program that would come to be known as the Bracero program. While the program is best known for its presence in the Southwest, Arkansas at times trailed only California and Texas in the number of braceros recruited. This was due primarily to the state’s unusually slow pace of mechanization, as well as the migration of both white and African American rural workers to cities during World War II. Braceros began arriving in Arkansas in the late 1940s; by the early 1950s, they had become ubiquitous throughout the Arkansas Delta. Between 1952 and 1964, Arkansas farmers employed 251,298 braceros in picking cotton, in addition to an unknown number of Tejanos.1 Statistics available from 1957-1959 suggest that braceros performed a quarter of the cotton-picking labor in Arkansas during that period.2
The arrival of thousands of Mexicans to the Arkansas Delta forced the question of whether these racially ambiguous newcomers would be treated as whites, blacks, or something else under the region’s Jim Crow system. Initially, Mexicans’ exclusion from white institutions was widespread, though not universal, varying from town to town and establishment to establishment. In both Osceola and Marked Tree, workers complained to the Mexican consulate in Memphis that they were being excluded from white restaurants and forced to sit with blacks in movie theaters. Said one proprietor in Osceola, We have a very high class trade that would leave if my place was filled up with Mexicans. I would close up before I would serve them.3 Police in Marked Tree would stake out bars where Mexicans were served to make arrests, regardless of whether individuals had caused any particular disruption.