Have you ever wondered how we arrived at this point?  How did the dairy industry and the Latino labor force become so interdependent?  Did it start in the 1980s?  1950s?  If you take a look at history, you’ll find that this story begins much earlier.

A significant portion of the Southwestern United States was once part of Spain and then Mexico before becoming a part of the United States.  California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and even parts of Wyoming, Nebraska, and Oklahoma were all once part of Mexico.  While the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 extended the borders of the United States to include 80,000 Mexican citizens, it did very little to change the culture or language of those now United States citizens.  Immigration and travel also continued across the “border” much as it had, with those working in agriculture following either animals or employment back and forth between the United States and Mexico. 

In the mid-1880s agricultural growth included a large increase in cotton production.  In Texas, expansion of cotton acreage was encouraged by the availability of Mexicano (individuals with Mexican heritage who may or may not have been citizens of the United States) labor.  Work in cotton fields led to increased migration, including entire families from Mexico.  A civil war in Mexico also led to large numbers of Mexicans immigrating across the border.  While most of these immigrants changed their geographic location, they retained their cultural identities and languages.

By the early 1900s agriculture production in the United States was increasing exponentially, as was the demand for labor.  Much of this labor was provided from Mexican Americans and Mexicans.  The first real attempt by the United States government to limit immigration from Mexico, the 1917 Immigration Act, occurred when the U. S. entered World War I.  This legislation had a huge impact on the availability of workers for both the railroad and agriculture industries.  The railroad and agriculture industries successfully pressured the government to permit continued legal recruitment of workers from Mexico for three years.

By 1926, the labor markets in the United States again lacked the necessary workers so agricultural groups lobbied for changes in immigration legislation that would allow for legal Mexican immigration.  However, the Great Depression and a shortage of work brought about the reversal of migration, with large numbers of Mexicans returning to Mexico and large numbers of Mexican Americans immigrating to Mexico. 

Even more than World War I, World War II brought about huge development of agriculture in the United States and Mexican Americans were a large part of that wartime effort.   More workers were needed.  Several Mexican-U.S. agreements sought to address the U.S. labor needs, collectively these governmental agreements are called the Bracero Programs.  The various agreements extended from 1942 through 1964.  Well over five million Mexican were recruited as workers through these programs.  Even after World War II ended, agriculture employers argued the continued need for Bracero workers because the need for agricultural workers remained high and they needed time to adjust away from reliance on Mexican labor.  While the Bracero Program officially ended, the use of Mexican labor did not waiver.  Agriculture never adjusted away from reliance on Mexican labor.  The end of the governmental agreements simply meant that the Mexican labor now crossed the border without governmental blessing and we entered the era of “illegal” immigration and “undocumented” workers. 

The dairy industry, like most of agriculture, is highly dependent on its Latino workforce.  The interdependence between these groups of people did not develop over night.  In reality, this interdependence took over a century to develop into the situation it is today.  It is critical that we understand that the present was created by the choices of the past.  If we are to be successful as we move forward, we need to examine those choices and understand how we arrived at where we are today.

Postscript:This is a highly simplified abstract of a complex time in the history of the United States and Mexico.  For an in-depth account please see: Meier, M. S. and Ribera, F. (1993).  Mexican Americans/American Mexicans From Conquistadors to Chicanos.  New York, NY: Hill and Wang

Shannon Archibeque-Engle is an undergraduate advisor in the Department of Animal Sciences at Colorado State University