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Migrant Workers

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Black and white photograph of a Mexican American migrant farm worker harvesting asparagus near Owatonna, ca. 1955.

A Mexican American migrant farm worker harvesting asparagus near Owatonna, ca. 1955.

Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, migrant workers, mainly from Mexico, have played a vital role in Minnesota’s economy, often working in low-wage farming and food-processing industries.

Prior to colonization in the Americas, Indigenous peoples migrated across the continent. In what is known today as the Midwest United States, it is believed Natives traded and traveled up and down the Mississippi River, reaching sites as far away as the Caribbean. For example, in Wisconsin, archaeologists have recovered shells found only in the Caribbean. This serves as evidence of Indigenous people’s advanced technology and trade systems.

When settler-colonialists arrived in the Americas, they created human borders that restricted previous migratory patterns. After the Spanish-American War, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 restructured the south to create our present-day US–Mexico border. In 1924, Border Patrol was established, heightening the enforcement of the borderlands. Despite the nation’s boundary, people from Mexico, Central America, and South America continued to migrate to the United States —with and without authorization—in hopes of better opportunities.

Since its inception, the United States’ economy has relied on migrant labor. Whether it was the forced enslavement of Africans or the recruitment of Mexicans and Chinese, the country depended on low-wage workers to bolster its agricultural and industrial systems. During the early twentieth century, Mexican nationals and US citizens of Mexican descent served as the foundation for migratory labor in the Midwest.

Mexican migrant labor to the Midwest was fueled by the railroad, sugar beet, and meat packing industries. The first to initiate hiring Mexicans in Minnesota, railroad companies often went into Mexico or Texas to recruit workers. The housing arrangements provided by the railroad companies were atrocious. According to a 1927 national housing survey, boxcars provided by the Burlington Railroad Company in Inver Grove Heights, a St. Paul suburb, were the worst in the entire nation. Even decades later, in 1946, a survey conducted by the International Institute reported that of all St. Paul residents, Mexicans lived in the poorest conditions.

The largest industry to hire Mexican migrants was the sugar beet companies. The most prominent company, American Beet Sugar, was founded in 1899 and changed its name to American Crystal Sugar in 1934. American Beet Sugar recruited Mexican workers, known as betabeleros, from neighboring states and along the US–Mexico border with the promise of housing and credit at neighborhood stores.

In northern Minnesota and North Dakota, the Red River Valley’s rich soil generated a vast number of sugar beet farms. The majority of beet workers came from Texas. This movement from Texas to Minnesota became a common migratory pattern and continues in the twenty-first century. During Minnesota winters, American Beet Sugar encouraged Mexicans to move to urban areas, such as St. Paul, where they would remain until the following beet season. This allowed them to appease white, rural Minnesotans who feared having a stationary Mexican population living near them after the harvest season.

Compared to other Midwestern states, whose migrants were mainly single men, Minnesota early on had a high concentration of women and child migrants due to the lack of enforced labor laws. This changed the social fabric of the state. Mexican women contributed to the economy by working outside of the home and becoming positive role models for their children.

Like farm labor, factory work bolstered migration. Urban Midwest cities saw migration growth due to the expansion of the meat packing industry. After World War I, meatpacking plants dominated employment of Mexicans in St. Paul. This trend increased migration to urban areas, moving families away from farms to the West Side neighborhood. Meatpacking industry jobs were considered the most stable and sought after because they were year round. In the twenty-first century, these positions continue to flourish and attract numerous migrant workers to maintain the factories.

Migrant workers have faced several challenges in Minnesota. First, they often work in awful labor conditions. In the early twentieth century, prior to the Jones–Costigan Amendment (also known as the Sugar Act of 1937), child labor was common. Laws did not specify a required minimum wage for farm labor. After the amendment was passed, migrant children under the age of fourteen were no longer allowed to work in the fields. Children between the ages of fourteen and sixteen were allowed to work only limited hours.

Despite legislation to improve labor conditions, the enforcement of these policies is difficult. Due to their transient life and precarious migration status (sometimes workers do not have documentation to work or their visas expire), migrant workers are viewed as a vulnerable population. Employers take advantage of this situation by not providing humane living conditions and failing to pay workers for their labor. This is called wage theft.

Second, migrant workers sometimes experience racial and class discrimination. Even if migrant workers are US citizens, they are stereotyped as foreign because of their racial identity. Workers’ families are also subject to discrimination. Children of migrant workers who attend schools and participate in youth activities are not always welcomed by their peers. Often, these experiences create feelings of isolation, especially if families only stay in the area for the short growing season.

Discrimination against migrant workers decreases and heightens depending on the country’s political moment. For example, during the Great Depression, starting in 1929, thousands of Mexican migrants and US citizens of Mexican descent were forced to leave the US and move to Mexico. Because the country was in an economic crisis, they were seen as less valuable than other Americans.

A decade later, during World War II, the United States suffered a depletion of low-wage workers. In 1942, the Bracero Program was created to solve this problem. A partnership between Mexico and the US, the program brought millions of Mexicans to the country as migrant workers to labor in the fields and factories. Several thousand worked their way to Midwestern states, including Minnesota.

In spite of these struggles, migrant workers are resilient and contribute to Minnesota’s economy. In the early 2000s, it was estimated that 20,000–30,000 migrants traveled to Minnesota every year to work in the food processing plants and farms. In order to support this vibrant population, several organizations were created throughout the state. One prominent group, Centro Campesino, was formed in the fall of 1998 by migrant workers in Southern Minnesota. As a member-based organization run for and by farm workers, Centro Campesino strives to empower workers to create systematic change. The continuous demand for low-wage labor ensures migrant workers and their families will continue to shape Minnesota, especially the rural areas, well into the twenty-first century.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
  • Bibliography
  • Related Resources

Gonzales, Sandra M. “Aztlán in the Midwest and Other Counternarratives Revealed.” In Latinos in the Midwest edited by Rubén O. Martinez,17–31. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University, 2011.

Norris, Jim. North for the Harvest: Mexican Workers, Growers, and the Sugar Beet Industry. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2009.

Valdés, Dionicio Nodín. Al Norte: Agricultural Workers in the Great Lakes Region, 1917–1970. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991.

——— . Barrios Norteños: St. Paul and Midwestern Mexican Communities in the Twentieth Century. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of a Mexican American migrant farm worker harvesting asparagus near Owatonna, ca. 1955.
Black and white photograph of a Mexican American migrant farm worker harvesting asparagus near Owatonna, ca. 1955.
Black and white photograph of Mexican American migrant farm workers harvesting asparagus near Owatonna, ca. 1955.
Black and white photograph of Mexican American migrant farm workers harvesting asparagus near Owatonna, ca. 1955.
Black and white photograph of Mexican American migrant farm-worker children playing, ca. 1960.
Black and white photograph of Mexican American migrant farm-worker children playing, ca. 1960.
Black and white photograph of Mexican American migrant farm-worker children playing, ca. 1960.
Black and white photograph of Mexican American migrant farm-worker children playing, ca. 1960.
Black and white photograph of a Sugar beet worker near Fisher, Minnesota, photographed by Russell Lee in October 1937.
Black and white photograph of a Sugar beet worker near Fisher, Minnesota, photographed by Russell Lee in October 1937.
Black and white photograph of Sugar beet cultivation in the Red River Valley, ca. 1940.
Black and white photograph of Sugar beet cultivation in the Red River Valley, ca. 1940.

Turning Point

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the booming sugar beet industry requires an influx of migrant laborers to work the fields. This increase in migrants to Minnesota forever changed the state economically and socially.

Chronology

1848

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo is signed, establishing the present-day US geographic territory.

1899

American Beet Sugar Company is created.

1924

Border Patrol is established; workers can no longer travel freely to and from the US along the southern border.

1937

Congress passes the Jones–Costigan Amendment, also known as the Sugar Act of 1937. The amendment limits child labor and creates a minimum wage for farm workers.

1942

The Bracero Program begins.

1964

The Bracero Program ends.

1994

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is signed into law, depleting Mexico’s economy and causing more forced migration north.

1998

Centro Campesino is established to advocate for migrant workers in southern Minnesota.