Though the Spanish crown nominally controlled present-day Arkansas for most of its colonial period, Spanish culture exerted little influence on this early frontier society. The beginnings of slavery-based plantation agriculture in the antebellum years more critically influenced the future course of Arkansas’s Latino history. Though no significant Latino communities existed in the state until the twentieth century, Arkansas’s early patterns of agriculture, labor, and African American history help explain the course of its Latino history.
As Reconstruction faced its final death knell in the South at the turn of the twentieth century, African Americans remained subject to violence and coercion that kept them available as a labor source. Thus, Latino migration to the South as a region was low through the mid-twentieth century. Yet, in periods of African American migration out of the state, farmers and other employers have looked to Latin American migrants and U.S.-born Latinos to meet their labor needs.
Mexican workers first came to Arkansas in the 1920s to pick cotton and mine aluminum ore. While their presence in the central Arkansas mining town of Bauxite lasted only a decade, their arrival to work the rich soil of the delta region of northeast Arkansas initiated a half century of migrations. Because the Arkansas Delta was late to mechanize production, Mexican and Mexican American workers stayed in the area through the 1960s, making Arkansas more dependent on Mexican labor than any southern state besides Texas. By the 1970s, most Latino workers in Arkansas were passing through on their way to harvest crops on the Atlantic Coast or in the upper Midwest.
Finally, Latinos have played a critical role in Arkansas’s new service economy, moving to every part of the state and powering the state’s massive chicken-processing industry. At the turn of the twenty-first century, a Latino middle class was also establishing itself in Arkansas.