Mexican Migration in Nebraska, 1920-1960

 Lourdes Gouveia Ph.D. Director, Office of Latino/Latin American Studies and Professor of Sociology, University of Nebraska-Omaha.

The complete history of Nebraska, its peoples and its communities, remains an unfinished product.  As with all histories, Nebraska’s dominant foundation narrative is sprinkled with immigration myths and has evolved over time. It is a veritable amalgam of selective memories, incomplete information and the power of some to privilege their preferred accounts while rendering invisible those of marginalized others.  Such is the case with the century-old presence and uncalculated socio-cultural footprint of people of Mexican origin in the state.  Fortunately, a renewed interest in immigration, and the unprecedented growth of the Latino population since the 1980s, has encouraged researchers and community organizations alike to begin the arduous process of filling the large gaps in the history of Nebraska and of its Mexican-origin population. This book is the latest testimony of those efforts.

In 2015, there were more than 140,000 people of Mexican origin in Nebraska.  Their presence dates back to at least 1910.  Mexicans from central Mexico came first as railroad hands, then worked in the beet fields of western Nebraska. They were recruited by companies, governments and landowners to fill the needs of an expanding economy. True, the Mexican revolution (1910-1920) was an important catalyst of immigration, coupled with the fact that the 30-plus years of Porfirio Díaz’ dictatorship that triggered the revolution had left 97 percent of the land in the hands of less than 1 percent of the population. However, as migration scholars convincingly argue, without the intervention of powerful recruiting agents, the individual actions of displaced peoples could not alone account for how these migration streams first formed.  

Omaha did not figure prominently among the top destinations for Mexican workers and their families until the 1920s, after the annexation of South Omaha and when meatpacking evolved into the city’s major economic engine.  The Mexican-origin Hispanic population grew exponentially during this decade, from less than 100 in 1910 to more than 2,000 by 1929. By the end of this decade and the beginning of the 1930s, however, the Great Depression and the forced repatriation of Mexican immigrants and native-born alike had cut Omaha’s Mexican-origin population by more than half. Many went back to work in a booming sugar beet industry in western Nebraska. Their numbers began to slowly recover in the 1950s when a second generation of U.S.-born children of Mexican immigrants accounted for their largest growth.  Census questions varied from decade to decade and make it nearly impossible to say for certain how many Mexican-origin people or Latinos/Hispanics were here by then.  By the 1960s, the slow climb of this population into professional and skilled occupations had become increasingly evident. By 1970 there were 7,055 persons of “Spanish Language” in Douglas County according to the U.S. census. Meatpacking’s golden era waned by the end of that decade and Mexican in-migration to the state was reduced to a steady trickle until the early 1990s when a new wave of migration tied to meatpacking recruiters formed once again.     

The histories and numbers we can thus far piece together for the Mexican population between the 1920s and the 1960s offer a portrayal of a people who both experienced and resisted powerful forces of social and economic change. “Resilience” is a word that appears often in interviews with old-timers published by the Nebraska Historical Society.  Musical and other cultural traditions fueled that resilience.  These traditions are still unknown to many in the state. Today, with publications of books such as these, Nebraska has a chance to recover part of its history.

South Omaha Arts  •