Kansas Subway Map

The Period of Railroads

Europe and the United States had a voracious appetite for the products from Kansas’s plains. The acquisition of Kansas’s goods and their movement to urban markets became ever more important. In 1862 President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Bill to encourage the building of a transcontinental railroad as well as many regional rail connections.8 Although the Civil War delayed construction, rail companies were chartered and received federal land grants for every mile of rail built. The railroads lowered costs of transportation, established rail ports for acquisition and shipment of goods, and opened land for colonization.9

As a result, beginning in 1860 herds of cattle that had flourished in Spanish and then Mexican and Anglo Texas were driven to Kansas’s railheads such as Abilene and Dodge City. Entrepreneurial drovers would round up cattle and drive them to Kansas for sale in difficult and often dangerous cattle drives.10 Many of the cowboys who worked the trails were Spanish-speaking Texans as well as people from across the new border with Mexico, where there was a long tradition of herding cattle. The traditions that gave rise to the North American cowboy developed in northern Mexico an area which included Texas from where they were passed on to Anglo Americans. The Latino cowboys had their own culture and traditions, and at the same time they were foundational in building this Anglo institution.11

In the cattle drives there was cultural conflict between Anglos and Latinos. As Anglos increased their social and economic dominance with concomitant prejudice and discrimination resentment and anger bloomed among Latinos. Both the drama of the drive and cultural conflict became part of the corridor, a foundational genre of Mexican American folk song, and hence Latino literature. The Corrido de Kiansis is an example of this type of song (Kiansis was the name used in local Spanish for what is now called Kansas).12

The corrido, a type of ballad sung in Spanish, is an important genre of folk song along the U.S.-Mexican border and in the norteno music that has accompanied Mexican migrants. In it the tensions of life as experienced by Spanish speakers and Latinos in the United States are narrated and examined. The Corrido de Kiansis is the earliest complete example of the corrido form recorded, although the corrido probably already existed among the Spanish-speaking population of Texas.13

The Corrido de Kiansis has many versions. In its classic form, instead of the conflict becoming violent, as in later corridos, it was generally resolved with the Spanish subjects of the corrido demonstrating their moral worth and physical prowess and skills as superior to those of the Anglos. For example, one version told how 30 North Americans could not control 500 steers; yet, once five Mexicans arrived,/all of them wearing good chaps, and in less than a quarter-hour,/they had the steers penned up.14 Hence, the Corrido de Kiansis presented a variety of ethnic triumph at a time of substantial ethnic conflict.

The cattle drives ended in the late 1880s, when costs of shipping cattle from Texas declined, barbed wire allowed the plains to be fenced, and quarantines were enforced against Texas cattle.

The railroads opened a new period of Kansas’s Latino history. By 1890, the railroads extended into Mexico and connected with the U.S. rail network. Around the turn of the century the railroad companies began recruiting Mexican workers to fill the demand for lower-level workers.

The railroads enabled the development of agribusiness on the plains and thereby created a demand for farmworkers. Processing industries such as the sugar beet processing plant in Garden City, Kansas, which also depended on Mexican labor developed around agriculture.15 The railroads facilitated the workers’ recruitment in Mexico and transportation to the fields.16

As a result the first decade of the twentieth century saw Mexicans settle in almost every Kansas town and city that had a rail connection.17 There the migrants formed neighborhoods and built local Latino culture. Initially, it was expected that both migrant farmworkers and rail workers would return to Mexico in the off-season, but the combination of farmwork and railroad work enabled Mexican families to settle in Kansas. By 1930 Mexicans and Mexican Americans formed 1 percent of the total Kansas population and, at the time, Kansas Mexicans were one of the larger Latino communities in the United States.18 Mexicans were also the second-largest migrant group in Kansas, after the Germans. 19

Kansas’s population was highly rural, with only about 30 percent of the total population living in cities; yet, its Latino population was almost two-thirds urban.20 Mexican colonias (neighborhoods) developed in cities despite the importance of Latinos as a migrant agricultural workforce.21 The Catholic Church was a center of life, as were stores and other businesses that focused on the Mexican clientele. Newspapers, such as El Cosmopolita of Kansas City, were founded.22 Parades and civic festivals such as those celebrating Mexican Independence Day, the 16th of September, and Benito Juarez’s birthday were held. Local culture and language were built in these neighborhoods that continues to have resonance in contemporary Kansas Latino life.

Two central Mexican states of the Bajlo, Michoacan and Guanajuato, dominated migration to Kansas.23 People followed family members and others from their hometowns to settle in enclaves. From there they established connections back to their towns of origin, and people moved back and forth. A separate group of migrants passed through Kansas as part of the three main migrant farmworker streams that worked in the United States.

The Depression hit hard, and many Mexicans returned to Mexico because of the downturn and the dustbowl. As much as a quarter of the Latino population left.24 Nevertheless, during World War II demand for Mexican labor increased once again.

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