Be Proud of Your Past, Embrace the Future: A Hispanic Heritage Month Reading List
Beacon Press Authors Remember Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The Forgotten Essential Workers of America: The Latinx Working Class Up Against Racial Capitalism

By Paul Ortiz

Migrant workers harvest Lettuce at Lakeside Organic Gardens in Watsonville, CA.
Migrant workers harvest Lettuce at Lakeside Organic Gardens in Watsonville, CA. Photo credit: US Department of Agriculture

The outbreak of COVID-19 is far from the first time immigrants and the Latinx community have been taken for granted as the labor force that keeps this country running. Today, they face poverty wages, the threat of infection, white supremacist violence, and/or deportation. As Paul Ortiz shows in this selection from An African American and Latinx History of the United States, they faced poverty wages, displacement, white supremacist violence, and deportation in the past. So little has changed, including the demonizing rhetoric used against them. Sound familiar? And yet, they still thrive and resist.


The reconfiguration of racial capitalism in the early twentieth century hinged upon the exploitation of agricultural workers who were fired, deported, or driven into cities when they tried to organize in defense of their interests. Local governments, growers, and vigilantes in the Sunbelt counties stretching from Orange County, Florida, to Orange County, California, put the hammer down on agricultural laborers seeking to achieve independence. Employers and their enforcers ruthlessly suppressed Mexican, Chinese, Sikh, Japanese, Indian, Italian, white, and African American farmworkers seeking to organize. In 1908, a group of armed white citizens marched into a camp of farmworkers of Indian extraction in Live Oak, California, and “burned it to the ground, beat and terrorized a hundred or more Hindus in the camp, drove them out of the community, and, in doing so, robbed them of about $2,500.” For decades, politicians in California used anti-Chinese racism as bluntly as the Democratic Party used anti-Black hatred in the South to consolidate power. Leading growers in Jim Crow Florida urged their industry to look to California for a solution to the “labor problem” in agriculture.

The birth of modern agribusiness in the United States is a chronicle of dispossession. The Texas Rangers and other law enforcement agents played a key role in the bloody process of expropriating lands belonging to Mexican and Native American people. The historian Robert Perkinson writes, “From the beginning, the territory’s pioneering lawmen did less to suppress crime in any conventional sense than to force open lands for Anglo American settlement.” Mexican victims of the Texas Rangers’ furious attacks were quite often landowners with extensive holdings: “Title challenges and outright theft led to a loss of more than 187,000 acres of land for Tejanos in the lower Rio Grande Valley from 1900 to 1910.” The historian Zaragosa Vargas notes, “The eventual violent collapse of Tejano ranching society took place in the early twentieth century, when the Texas Rangers, intermediaries in the transition to capitalism, cleaned out the remaining Tejano landowners, summarily executing more than three hundred ‘suspected Mexicans.’” Over time, the pace of land theft quickened. Native Americans suffered most grievously, losing approximately ninety million acres of land in the decades after the implementation of the Dawes Act in 1887.

Agribusiness in the Sunbelt was marked by an authoritarian pattern of social control whereby racism, patriarchy, and rule by force overwhelmed democratic institutions. Writing in 1928, the Trinidadian American sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox noted, “The Southern leadership, because of its success in disenfranchising its colored labor force, has remained a turbulent, primitive group of capitalists. It has been relatively untouched by the democratic restraints operative in other sections of the country. It can be depended upon, therefore, to throw its vast weight against organized labor and to obstruct movements to implement the democratic gains of the people as a whole.” When one extends Cox’s thesis to the entire Sunbelt, it is apparent that the disenfranchisement of farm labor lent an antidemocratic thrust to rural American politics with regressive implications for democracy that can be felt up to the present day.

In 1915, inspired by the land reforms of the Mexican Revolution, insurgent Tejanos and Mexicans promulgated the Plan de San Diego, which called for the reclaiming of land in southern Texas for Mexican people and Native Americans as well as an independent state for African Americans. The insurgents launched bloody attacks on white ranchers under banners reading “Equality and Independence,” but they were defeated, and a new reign of Ranger-led violence was initiated. It resulted in the murder of hundreds of Tejanos and “the forced displacement of thousands of Mexicans who fled for their lives across the border.”

The US Border Patrol was created in 1924, ostensibly to provide border security. However, as the historian Kelly Lytle Hernández observes, officers of the agency quickly understood immigration enforcement as labor control. Hernández quotes one Texas farmer as saying, “We tell the immigration officers if our Mexicans try to get away to the interior, and they stop them and send them back to Mexico. Then in a few days they are back here and we have good workers for another year.” Mexican laborers who regularly crossed the border between Mexico and the United States to work in Texas—for example, from Ciudad Juarez to El Paso—were sprayed with DDT, Zyklon B, and other carcinogenic chemicals by US health inspectors who used these Mexicans as unwilling subjects in experiments with different delousing treatments. Jose Burciaga, who worked as a janitor in El Paso, recalled, “At the customs bath by the bridge . . . they would spray some stuff on you. It was white and would run down your body. How horrible! And then I remember something else about it: they would shave everyone’s head . . . men, women, everybody. . . . The substance was very strong.” On January 28, 1917, Carmelita Torres, a domestic worker, organized Latinas who refused to be deloused: they shut down traffic in El Paso and protested the racial stereotype of Mexicans as disease carriers.

Employers and politicians invoked racialized stereotypes of Mexican workers to justify poverty wages and the denial of citizenship. Dr. George P. Clements, manager of the Agriculture Department of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce during the 1920s, denigrated the Mexican American worker: “He is ignorant of values; he knows nothing of time; he knows nothing of our laws; he is as primitive as we were 2,500 years ago. He does not know our language, the result being that he becomes a petty criminal through ignorant violations. . . . He rarely if ever takes out his citizenship, mixes in politics, or labor squabbles unless directed by some American group. He is the most tractable individual ever came to serve us.” Ralph H. Taylor, the executive secretary of the California Agricultural Legislative Committee, claimed, “The Mexican has no political ambitions; he does not aspire to dominate the political affairs of the community in which he lives.” Growers and state officials repeatedly emphasized that Mexican workers were preferable to any other form of labor because if they demanded rights or citizenship they could easily be deported.


About the Author 

Paul Ortiz is director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program and a professor of history at the University of Florida. He is the author of Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920, An African American and Latinx History of the United States, and coeditor of the oral history Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South. He lives in Gainesville, Florida.