Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Spanish was the first European language spoken in the Great Plains. In 1540 Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and 1,800 adventurers departed from Tiguex, Nuevo Mexico, in search of the fabled Seven Cities of Cíbola. Coronado then traversed the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles, the Arkansas River, and much of central Kansas looking for Quivira, another fabled realm of gold. Coronado returned emptyhanded, but the Spanish legacy is evident in Texas place-names such as Llano Estacado, Tierra Blanca, and Palo Duro.

Permanent European settlement of the grasslands began over 300 years later in New Mexico and Colorado. Hispano homesteaders –descendants of Spaniards who settled New Mexico in 1598–migrated from the New Mexican mountains to the High Plains east of Las Vegas, New Mexico, as early as 1823. However, widespread settlement of the Great Plains did not occur until after 1848 when the United States annexed northern Mexico. After 1848 Hispanos established several towns on the New Mexican High Plains, including San Miguel, Sabinoso, and Picacho, and several southern Colorado communities, including Trinidad, Trinchera, and La Plaza de los Leones (Walsenburg). By 1900 approximately 2,000 Hispanos tended sheep and grew vegetables between the Arkansas and Hondo Rivers, an area that was part of the "Hispano homeland."

Hispano migration away from the homeland began after 1900 when European American farmers began irrigating the valleys of the Arkansas and South and North Platte Rivers. European Americans planted sugar beets along the Platte and vegetables along the Arkansas. Increased agricultural production led to labor shortages, and many Hispanos migrated from the homeland to take advantage of the relatively high wages; some migrated as far north as the Red River Valley in North Dakota. Hispano barrios established in the 1920s are still visible around sugar beet factories from Loveland, Colorado, to Scottsbluff, Nebraska.

European American farmers in Texas used water from the Ogallala Aquifer to irrigate thousands of dryland acres on the Llano Estacado and then recruited Tejano laborers from the Rio Grande Valley to work the farms. European Americans also financed railroads to connect Great Plains states, but much of the labor came from Mexico. By 1912 railroad companies were encouraging Mexican families to settle permanently on railroad property near the tracks. By 1930 Mexican railroad workers had established several barrios "on the other side of the tracks" in towns in Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, and Nebraska. Between 1900 and 1930 what we now call "Latinos"– Hispanos from New Mexico, Tejanos from South Texas, and Mexicans from Mexico–laid track and irrigation pipe and harvested crops from Wyoming to Texas. The Great Depression temporarily halted Latino migration to the Great Plains.

World War II created labor shortages that led in 1942 to Public Law 45 that authorized Mexican workers, braceros, to enter the United States as contract workers. Such contracting continued through the 1940s and was formalized by Public Law 78 in 1951. The Bracero Program recruited Mexican laborers to work in the United States at a guaranteed wage and provided transportation, food, and housing. The Bracero Program institutionalized the Hispanization of certain sectors of the Great Plains economy, especially the Llano Estacado cotton farms. By 1950, 30,000 braceros and Tejanos migrated annually to the Llano Estacado to pick cotton and vegetables. Labor shortages continued after the war because many veterans took advantage of the so-called GI Bill to get an education and leave farmwork.

Although the Bracero Program was abolished in 1964, Great Plains farmers still relied on Mexican labor. In 1965 the U.S. government amended its longstanding immigration quota policy in order to allow an increasing number of Mexican migrants into the country. After 1965 Hispanics began to diversify from agricultural and railroad work and were increasingly employed in factory jobs associated with agribusiness such as beef processing, well-drilling, and pipe-laying. Iowa Beef Processors (IBP) and Monfort (now Con-Agra), among others, needed to replace their diminishing European American workforce and increasingly hired Hispanic laborers in their plants in Omaha, Grand Island, Lexington, and North Platte, Nebraska; Garden City, Kansas; and Greeley, Colorado. IBP, for example, has worked with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to recruit workers from Mexico and has been discussing the creation of a new bracero-type program.

Diversification of the Latino occupational structure has led to the urbanization of the Hispanic population. Today Latinos live primarily in Great Plains cities–Denver, Greeley, Pueblo, Lubbock, Amarillo, Midland-Odessa, Omaha, and Kansas City. In these cities, Latino-owned businesses have altered the Great Plains urban landscape, with Mexican restaurants, Latino music shops, tortilla factories, Spanish-language theaters and radio stations, and bilingual churches.

Latinos are now an integral part of the labor force in several Great Plains economic sectors, and their cultural imprint is increasingly evident. Mexican restaurants, which not so long ago were considered exotic, are common even in small Plains towns. Around Lubbock, Texas, a "High Plains Mexican food" variant has emerged, and in the South Platte and Arkansas Valleys there is a thriving Hispano cuisine. An essential ingredient of Mexican food–chiles– are now planted extensively along the Arkansas River and handpicked by Mexican immigrants. Chile farms and chile harvest festivals around Pueblo, Colorado, are key components to the revitalization of that city. Politically, Latino participation is most apparent in the Texas High Plains and the Arkansas Valley, where Hispanics now constitute as much as 50 percent of the population. Latino mayors, sheriffs, and business leaders are common in these regions. The economic boom of the 1990s exacerbated Great Plains labor shortages, and a willing, mobile population of Mexicans with a history of migration to the Great Plains means that the sounds of Spanish will continue to be heard well into the foreseeable future.

Terrence W. Haverluk United States Air Force Academy

Haverluk, Terrence W. "The Changing Geography of U.S. Hispanics, 1850–1990." Journal of Geography 96 (1997): 134–45.

Nostrand, Richard L. "The Century of Hispano Expansion." New Mexico Historical Review 62 (1987): 361– 86.

Smith, Michael M. "Beyond the Borderlands: Mexican Labor and the Central Plains, 1900–1930." Great Plains Quarterly 4 (1981): 219–51.

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