Official Nebraska Government Website Nebraska State Historical Society

Mexicans in Nebraska
By Dr. Ralph F. Grajeda

The history of the Mexican people in the United States is unique among the various peoples who have immigrated to this country. In a sense it can be said that the first Mexicans did not come to this country, but that this country came to them. The United States, through its war with Mexico, extended its boundaries in 1848 to include a territory almost the size of present-day Mexico, in which lived approximately 100,000 Spanish-speaking people-most of them in the five southwestern states: Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, California, and Colorado.

The majority of Mexican Americans living today in the Midwest, however, are descendants of parents and grandparents who were part of two massive migration waves occurring since 1900: the first from 1900 to 1920, and the second from 1920 to 1930. One scholar estimates that between 1900 and 1920, the number of Mexicans immigrating to the United States equaled one tenth of the total population of Mexico.1

Victoria de Ortiz

Victoria de Ortiz came to Nebraska with her family around 1915, having been driven from their home by political turmoil. This photograph, showing her with her year-old son, Carlos, was featured in an article about her in the Lincoln Star, dated September 26, 1920. [Nebraska State Historical Society RG3357PH]

Very few Mexicans lived in the Central Plains states prior to 1900. According to an early study of Mexican immigration to the United States, there were only seventy-one Mexicans living in Kansas in 1900, and twenty-seven in Nebraska. By 1910 the Mexican immigrant population had increased enormously to 9,429 in Kansas, and 3,611 in Nebraska.2

This growth in population can be understood in light of far-reaching and complementary changes occurring in both Mexico and the United States. In one country these changes "pushed" people out; in the other the changes "pulled" them in.

The powerful event in Mexico that pushed people to the north was, of course, the Mexican Revolution, which during the period of 1910 to 1920 caused an extraordinary amount of suffering, upheaval, and confusion. Causes of revolution are always multiple and complex. As these causes are distilled to the daily life conditions of common people, however, they reduce themselves to simple and pronounced suffering.

The Mexican Revolution began in 1910, but its root causes had existed in the country for decades. The Porfirio Diaz dictatorship in Mexico (a period that lasted thirty-one years, twenty-seven of them consecutive) brought about peace, prosperity, and opportunity, but only for a select few-and that at the expense of the peasants, the workers, and the poor. At the end of the Diaz regime in 1910, probably less than three percent of the total rural population owned any land at all. There were 834 hacendados (land owners) and approximately nine million landless peasants living under a miserable debt peonage. Of the 834 hacendados, fifteen owned more than 100,000 acres each; the hacienda of San Blas in the state of Coahuila, for example, contained almost a million acres. Despite higher prices of basic necessities, the income of the peon in 1910 was about the same as a hundred years earlier.

That revolution is often described as a peasant civil uprising, in protest of the existing economic and social conditions pressing, for the most part, on the working classes, the poor, the campesinos. With the actual beginning of the armed conflict, living conditions for many became intolerable. Many became participants in the conflict. Many-lacking for work, for food, for medical services-responded as people always have under desperate living conditions: they fled their place of birth in search of those most basic needs without which life cannot be sustained, let alone be designated as human.

The major attracting force that "pulled" the Mexican immigrant to the north was the economic development in the southwestern part of the United States at this same time, and its corresponding need for cheap labor. The latter part of the nineteenth century saw the dramatic growth of agricultural enterprises and railroad construction in the Southwest. Demands of New England cotton mills, New York garment manufacturers, and the export market stimulated cotton growing in Texas in this period. The Reclamation Act of 1902 and the construction in 1904 of the St. Louis, Brownsville, and Mexican Railways encouraged ranchers in the lower Rio Grande Valley to create huge irrigation projects to grow table vegetable crops that could be shipped to large metropolitan areas on the new railroads' refrigerator cars.3

Also, in 1897 the U.S. Congress imposed a 75 percent tax on the importation of foreign sugar, thus encouraging the development of the U.S. sugar beet industry. Hence, by 1906, sugar beet acreage in the U.S. had more than tripled from the 135,000 acres planted in 1900. By 1920 that acreage had increased to 872,000, with the Great Plains region (which includes the North Platte Valley in Wyoming and western Nebraska) producing 64 percent of the total crop grown in the U.S. From 1923 to 1932 Nebraska ranked second in the U.S., behind Colorado, in annual sugar beet acreage (74,000 acres), and first in the nation in yield per acre (12.7 tons).4 The increased need for beet laborers, which these developments required, were met by the regular and methodical recruiting of Mexican agricultural workers. Additionally, many Mexicans, on their own initiative, entered the U.S. during this period, legally and otherwise.

The first of the Mexican railroad section-hands responded to railroad recruiters and crossed the border at El Paso in 1900. Living in boxcars, they began to establish small boxcar and tent communities that since have become the community barrios throughout the Southwest and the Midwest. By 1906 several carloads of workers a week were moving into southern California, establishing colonias, and then reloading for movement to locations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Oregon, Kansas, and Nebraska. In 1908, 16,000 Mexicans were recruited in El Paso alone for railroad work. By 1910, 2,000 every month were crossing the border for railroad work.5

To this day there remain a few remaining Mexican elders who, in fact, came to Nebraska through Kansas City as railroad workers for the Union Pacific and the Burlington Northern/Santa Fe. Across the breadth of the state-Sidney, Scottsbluff, Ogallala, North Platte, Kearney, Grand Island, Lincoln, and Omaha-one can find Mexican Americans whose grandfathers or other male relatives worked as railroad section-hands. Others came to the slaughter and meat-packing plants in Omaha. In 1920 there were 682 Mexicans in Omaha; in 1923 there were about 1,000. They lived in South Omaha, close to the three packing plants of that time. 6

Still others, particularly in the western part of the state, began work in the sugar beet fields around 1914, more than a decade after original experimentation with the raising of sugar beets in Hall County by the University of Nebraska. In 1905 there were only 250 acres of sugar beets in the entire North Platte Valley. In 1906 the Great Western Sugar Company started raising beets in that part of the state, and in just two years the increase in acreage warranted the building of a factory. It was at then that the Ames, Nebraska, factory was moved to Scottsbluff and enlarged.7 After that, Scotts Bluff County became the top sugar beet- producing county in Nebraska.

Worker posed with beets

Worker posed with beets harvested in the North Platte Valley near Scottsbluff, ca. 1920. [Nebraska State Historical Society F353.7-39]

Many of the beet workers came originally to the North Platte Valley as railroad hands, then, for a variety of reasons, changed jobs as more and more field work became available. After 1920 many came unassisted as betabeleros (beet workers). Many more (particularly after 1916) were recruited to this work by the Great Western Sugar Company. In 1915 the Great Western Sugar Company recruited and transported 500 workers into its Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Nebraska sugar beet territory. By 1920 this figure had increased to more than 13,000. In 1926 the Great Western Sugar Company provided transportation for 14,500 persons, employed fifty-five labor agents, and sent out advertising materials consisting of thousands of booklets, cardboard posters, hand bills, and calendars-all in Spanish. Additionally, it ran advertisements in fifteen newspapers.8

In Scottsbluff, a community developed near the Great Western Sugar refinery on land formerly owned by the factory and later sold to individual families. To this day, that area remains the Mexican American barrio in that city, bordered on the north by East Overland Drive, and on the south by South Beltline Road between Fifth and Fifteenth Avenues.

Few of these workers came to Nebraska directly from Mexico. The majority came through Kansas, others from Texas, Wyoming, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona. The reason for that enormous Mexican immigrant population growth in Kansas-from 71 persons in 1900 to 9,429 in 1910-is probably because Kansas became a passageway for the Mexican people moving north. Kansas City served as a temporary stopover and as a distribution center for Mexican workers looking for jobs in the eastern and midwestern states.

Like many of their compatriots who immigrated to the U.S., the Mexicans who came to Nebraska did not come with the intention of settling permanently. Unlike the European immigrants, Mexicans did not come to the U.S. with the idea of cutting off all connections with the old country and building permanent communities. Nor did they come into an altogether foreign environment. Mexicans from the bordering states (Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Nuevo Leon), as well as finding a climate identical to the one which they left behind, also found-in South Texas-established communities of Mexican people. For the immigrants from the central plateau region (Guanajuato, Jalisco, and Michoacan), the climate was different in the north, but the sense of dislocation must have been eased by the presence of those established Mexican communities: a Church that offered masses in Spanish, Spanish-language newspapers, Mexican music, and food. When racial discrimination was intense there existed the momentary refuge provided by the barrio. For many, the racial prejudice against them became intolerable and they returned to their country, scarred and disillusioned. Some did as they had planned: they worked in the United States, saved their earnings, and returned to Mexico after the Revolution quieted. Many, of course, remained in the U.S. as permanent residents. And many, many others were forcefully deported back to Mexico after their labor was no longer needed, during the depressions of 1921 and of 1929. As a result of massive and indiscriminate raids conducted by U.S. immigration authorities in Mexican communities throughout the U.S., more than 400,000 persons were deported back to Mexico during the early 1930s; during 1931, alone, 138,519 Mexicans were forcefully repatriated.9

Unidentified Mexican family

Unidentified Mexican family in Omaha, Nebraska, August 15, 1922. [Nebraska State Historical Society D517:21-163]

Since the 1930s, of course, Mexicans have continued to enter Nebraska. Regularly we read newspaper accounts of the arrests and deportations of undocumented meat-packing workers. The state continues to pull these people in, and in spite of the political myopia popular today, who can say that Nebraska and Nebraskans have not and do not benefit? These first immigrants during the first part of the twentieth century have done what all immigrants to this country have done: they have raised families; they have built communities; they have sent their sons and daughters to the schools to learn English. And they have sent their sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters to the nation's wars, and in substantial numbers sacrificed them to the purposes of this nation. They have endured. The narratives collected by this project are testimony to their integrity as a people.


1 Carey McWilliams, North From Mexico: The Spanish-Speaking Peoples of the United States (New York: Greenwood Press, 1968), 163.

2 Manuel Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States: A Study of Human Migration and Adjustment (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1971), 24-25. Originally published by the University of Chicago Press in 1930.

3 McWilliams, North From Mexico, 163, 168, 177, 180-83.

4 Esther S. Anderson, The Sugar Beet Industry of Nebraska (Lincoln: Bulletin 9, Conservation Department of the Conservation and Survey Division, University of Nebraska, April, 1935), 25-27.

5 McWilliams, North From Mexico, 167-69.

6 T. Earl Sullenger, "The Mexican Population of Omaha," Journal of Applied Sociology, VIII (May-June, 1924): 289.

7 Anderson, Sugar Beet Industry, 21-22, 25.

8 Paul S. Taylor, Mexican Labor in the United States, Vol. I (New York: Arno Press and The New York Times, 1970), 103, 105.

9 Abraham Hoffman, Unwanted Mexican Americans in the Great Depression: Repatriation Pressures, 1929-1939 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1974), 174-75.

This is an edited and shortened piece of the chapter written for Broken Hoops and Plains People, Nebraska Curriculum Development Center, 1976.

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