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Latinos in Utah

miner

Jesus Arinaz was working at the Utah Copper Company mine in 1942.

The lonely life of a strike-breaker

It was a cold morning in November 1912. Thousands of Mexicans, most of them single men, got off the train in Bingham, Utah. They had come to work in the Utah Copper Company mine—as strikebreakers.

They had come to replace miners who were refusing to work until the management improved working conditions and salaries.

Imagine the lives of these strikebreakers.

The striking miners must have despised them. And they were far from their families in Mexico, their parents, sweethearts and wives. They lived in boardinghouses and sent money and homesick letters to their families.

Most of these men stayed only until the strike was settled; then they went home.

a family outside on the grass

The Rogue Garcia family in Monticello, Utah, in 1927.

Finding work in Utah

Since then, people from many Latin America countries have come to work and live in Utah.

In the early 20th century, many Hispanic/Latinos came to San Juan County to work with sheep and other livestock.

Work on the railroad and sugar beet farming drew many Latino families to northern Utah, especially during World War I.

Agricultural work

Taking care of sugar beets is back-breaking work, from planting, to thinning, to weeding, to harvesting.  Field workers labored long hours in the heat, bent over most of the day, and they didn’t get paid very well.  Many families pulled their children out of school to help work in the fields. 

In places where many Spanish-speaking workers gathered, they lived together in colonias. But these colonias shrank when the price of sugar beets fell. When things got worse during the difficult years of the Great Depression, many more Latino workers and their families left Utah.

For those who remained, life was hard.  On top of the falling prices for sugar beets, which meant lower wages for the workers in the beet fields, a drought hit Utah in the 1930s. Farmers all over the state lost crops and income. 

Railroads and mines

men on a railcar

"Traqueros" worked to maintain railroad tracks.

Large numbers of Latino immigrants worked on the railroad or in the mines. This was hard work too! 

Men called traqueros worked in crews that repaired the rail lines and helped with their upkeep.  Some of their families lived in old rail cars that weren’t being used anymore, next to or near the tracks.

Many people lost their jobs when the Great Depression of the 1930s came, so many railroad families left Utah looking for better jobs elsewhere. For those workers who remained in Utah, many could only work a few days a week, which was not enough to feed their families. 

Who will lose the job?

When companies choose which workers they’re going to lay off today, they usually do it by seniority.  The person who was hired most recently is the first person to get laid off, and so on. 

The companies in Utah in the 1920s and 1930s did it differently.  You see, immigration was like a ladder in Utah.  The earliest immigrants, the Mormon settlers and the British and Scandinavian converts, had settled in nicely. They had been in Utah for two or three generations.  So they were at the top of the ladder, with the best jobs and educational opportunities. 

Then, as different groups like the Greeks or the Chinese or Latinos began to come in, they would start at the bottom of the ladder. The newcomers would take the dangerous, low-paying jobs in mining, agriculture, or railroads. They would work for lower pay than the group before them. 

Then the next group would come in and work for still lower pay, and force the earlier group out.

Why would the newcomers accept lower pay?

This all came with a lot of resentment and racial prejudice—usually targeted at the last group through the “door” of Utah.  So at this time, even though Utah once belonged to Mexico, one of the last groups to come in before the Depression was the Latinos, and they were the first to be fired.

Supporting each other

children

Hispanic children dressed for a festival, date unknown.

In the time of economic hardship some members of the community came together to form Centro Civico Mexicano, a place for the Hispanic community to come together in festivals and celebrations. It also became a mutual aid society. Others turned to religion, with the Guadalupe Mission serving the Catholic families and the Rama Mexicana branch of the LDS church serving the Mormons.

The Great Depression was a time of great suffering for many families in Utah, but as any economic trouble tends to do, it hit the people who were living closest to poverty the hardest.  Many families had to perform a balancing act of going without and stringing together multiple jobs in order to have some place to live, food to eat, and enough coal to get through the winter.  And on top of the economic struggles, they faced prejudice at work and in the community because of their skin color and accented English. 

Of course, along with immigrants from many places, Spanish-speaking people are still coming to the United States hoping to make a better life. Many of them face similar challenges as those faced by immigrants 100 years ago.

Learn more

Read about "The Making of Latino Families in Utah" in Beehive History 25.

Listen to Latin American music made in Utah

Colombia tierra querida
Tu eres mi amor
Las indias
Sibira querida
Rumores