Early Latino Presence in West Virginia’s Mining Communities
In the early 1900s, West Virginia boasted a prospering economy based on coal mining and an incipient zinc industry. The successful finds of important coal deposits in West Virginia led to the opening of various mines throughout the state. Coal, the primary energy source for America’s industrial economy at the time, required an abundant labor source to keep up with growing demand. West Virginia’s solution was the recruitment and importation of workers among them Spaniards and Mexicans who arrived in West Virginia’s coal and zinc mining towns in the first decades of the twentieth century.
Migrants from Spain’s northern regions of Andalusia and Asturias were among those who came to West Virginia to work in the mines. Upon arriving in West Virginia, many Spaniards found that the physical environment was similar to the hilly landscapes that they had left behind; this helped ease their transition. Moreover, many of the men recruited from Andalusia and Asturias had labored in zinc and coal mines in their natal home and so were also familiar with the work.
Spanish migration steadily grew in the early 1900s, though migration appears to have peaked by the 1920s. Fayette, Harrison, Logan, and Raleigh counties, located in southern West Virginia, became the principal destinations for Asturians and Andalusians working in the mines.1 In addition to the coal mines, some Asturians were also employed in a zinc smelter plant located in Harrison County.
The lives of the young men who migrated to West Virginia were largely centered around the mines (or, in the case of zinc, the processing plant). In the towns that developed around the mines, Spanish migrants worked not only in the mines, but also in other occupations as stone masons, machine runners, engineers, bricklayers, and mechanics. Others became merchants operating small stores and barbershops. As migrants brought their wives and family, the women also took on important roles in the community: running boarding homes, doing laundry, selling food, and partaking in other jobs. In time Spanish migrants and their families thrived in the region.