Iowa Subway Map

Latino Migration to Iowa: 1900-1920s

The movement and development of the Latino population in Iowa is primarily a Mexican affair until the late twentieth century. Several factors contributed to the movement of the first Latinos to Iowa. The migration of Mexicans beyond the borderland regions can be traced to the economy of Mexico which drove down wages at the beginning of the twentieth century, the displacement caused by the violent phase of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), increased demand for labor in the U.S.-Mexican border region, competition for labor along the border region, the development of the sugar beet industries in the northern plains, and the demand for labor in the railroad industry. As these factors coalesced in the early twentieth century, Latinos migrated and were recruited into places like Iowa.

Using a variety of sources such as municipal and church records, oral histories, census data, community studies, and local and regional newspapers, it is possible to determine the arrival of Latinos to Iowa. Historically there has been a trend in census data to undercount the Latino population, which is due to neglect and marginalization of that group. The U.S. census counted 509 first-generation Mexican Americans in Iowa in 1910, 616 Mexicans in 1915, and by 1920 the number has risen to 2,560. Fort Madison, located in southeastern part of Iowa, probably has one of the earliest Latino communities in the state, dating back to at least 1906, possibly even earlier. The Fort Madison Daily Democrat reported that on September 16, 1906, Latinos in the community celebrated Mexican Independence Day, and by 1922 fiesta committees were meeting on a regular basis. These types of celebrations indicate an organized and settled Latino population in Fort Madison. This period also coincided with the Santa Fe Railroad’s chief recruitment of Mexican labor. Evidence also indicates that Latinos resided in Iowa prior to U.S. involvement in World War I (1917-1918). During this era newspaper articles reported that because of language barrier, some Latinos were unaware they were required to register for the draft, which included resident aliens. Although Latinos could be found working in a variety of sectors in Iowa during the early twentieth century, such as packinghouses and cement factories, two industries employed the largest number of Latino workers namely, the sugar beet and railroad industries.

As the flow of migrants was disrupted and immigration restrictions were placed on Italians, Greeks, Poles, and Hungarians because of World War I, Latinos began to emerge in increasing numbers in the second decade of the twentieth century. In Iowa, Latinos were located in such places as Des Moines, Mason City, Davenport, Muscatine, Sioux City, Fort Madison, and Bettendorf. As early as 1915 The Bettendorf Company, which made train equipment, began to recruit and hire Latinos. Latinos worked in a variety of industries such as steel mills, highway and building construction, tanneries, and brick houses. The first Mexican

The Diaz family is an excellent example of the early arrival of Mexicans in Fort Madison, Iowa, ca. 1920s. Courtesy of the Iowa Women’s Archives, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. sugar beet workers in Iowa arrived in 1917, but they were more noticeable in the early 1920s. The American Sugar Beet Company recruited some of the first Mexicans to Mason City. The Iowa Valley Operating Company (formerly known as Iowa Valley Sugar Company) recruited Mexican workers to its Belmond sugar refinery. Indeed, these companies were partly responsible for creating the first permanent Latino communities in Iowa by encouraging the workers to remain throughout the year to save on recruitment and transportation costs.

Take for example the family of Ila Plasencia, whose father came to Iowa in 1918 to work in the rock quarry in Earlham, Iowa. Ila was born February 18, 1927, in Earlham, and her family eventually moved to Des Moines when her father received work at Hawkeye Portland Cement. The family of Lucy Prado, who was born January 1, 1929, arrived in Fort Madison around 1918 from the state of Guanajuato. Her father, Manuel Salazar, and mother, Ezekia Mendes-Salazar, met in Fort Madison in the early 1920s. Manuel Salazar worked for the Santa Fe Railroad, a company that provided boxcars for individuals and families to live in.

By the early 1920s Mexican sugar beet workers could be found in Mason City, Belmond, Lakota, Fort Madison, and Britt. Many of these initial Latino workers were from Mexico, more specifically from the states of Michoacan, Guanajuato, Jalisco, Aguascalientes, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosl, Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, and Coahuila. However, a large segment of this population was U.S. born and arriving from Colorado, Texas, and New Mexico. According to one source 2,018 Latino workers were recruited to work in Iowa in 1926. At the local level, Mason City, located in north central Iowa, illustrates the movement of Latinos into the region. In 1920 Mason City had a Latino population of approximately 113 individuals; this number had increased to 455 by 1928, because of the need for labor in the sugar beet plantations, cement companies, and packinghouses. Mexicans also picked other crops. For example, in the Quad cities area of Iowa and Illinois (Davenport, Bettendorf, Moline, and Rock Island) onions were the prevalent staple harvest. In Pleasant Valley and Bettendorf, Iowa Mexicans worked on such farms as Shutter’s, Clements’s, and Blessing Garden.

Another strong indicator of a permanent Latino presence is the emergence and development of organizations catering to the community. The early twentieth century saw a number of organizations and government entities facilitate the transition for Latinos from transient to permanent members of the community. The most widespread type of such organizations was the mutual aid societies (mutualistas). Las comisiones honorificas (honorary commissions) were organizations fostered by the Mexican consular office in order to keep pace with the growing Latino population in such places as Iowa. In many cases these comisiones whose members were exclusively males acted as de facto consular offices, addressing the needs of the community and looking into cases of discrimination, exploitation, and abuse.

Another role of the comisiones was to teach Latinos how to adapt to their new environment. Several sources report the appearance of La Cruz Azul Mexicana (the Mexican Blue Cross) in the 1920s, a charitable organization run by females and the counterpart to the comisiones. The primary role of the Blue Cross was to raise money for financially needy Mexican families, ensure the welfare of the Mexican population that fell on hard times, and in some cases provide transportation back to Mexico.

A specific Iowa example of an honorary commission was the Bettendorf Latino community of the 1920s. Latinos living there celebrated religious and national holidays and created community institutions. David Macias arrived in Bettendorf in 1915 and became a community organizer and religious and social leader. Like the members of the comisiones and Cruz Azul, Macias understood the trauma of the recent Mexican migrant, and through personal involvement and the establishment of local organizations he helped ease the new arrivals into the community. By 1925 the overall Latino population in Iowa was approximately 2,597. By the late 1920s the Latino population had increased nationally and became more dispersed geographically. As the Great Depression settled in during the early 1930s Latinos became the scapegoats for the economic ills of the country. As panic set in, prejudices easily rose to the surface with local, regional, and national public officials, creating campaigns to drive Latinos out of their areas, including Iowa.

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