Tuesday, October 20, 2015

When Mexicans First Came to Grinnell

With immigration now much in the news in this the 50th anniversary of the 1965 immigration act, it seems a good time to think about the history of immigration to Grinnell, especially the role that Mexicans played in Grinnell's immigration history. As you might expect, many of Grinnell's early residents were immigrants: according to the 1895 census, about 6.6% of the 3332 people then living in Grinnell were foreign-born; even more were children of parents who were foreign-born.  And, as was true in much of the rest of the country, almost all Grinnell's immigrants had come from Canada or northern and western Europe—in late nineteenth-century Grinnell, there were no Latino immigrants whatsoever.  By 1915, a slightly larger percentage—about 6.8%—of the town's 5000+ residents was foreign-born, and, as before, the great majority of the newcomers had journeyed from northern and western Europe.
Some Points of Origin for Mexican Immigrants to Grinnell
One change, however, was already evident in 1915 Grinnell: a dozen Mexicans were part of that year's census. Most had been born in central Mexico (Guanajuato and Michoacán), worked as section hands for the railroad, were single, and lived in Grinnell only temporarily, soon moving off with the job or to still another job.  Only the 1920 Grinnell census discovered Mexican families who had settled in Grinnell. Most of the new arrivals, like their predecessors, had been born in central Mexico, and came to Grinnell to work for the railroad, or for labor-intensive industry like Iowa Light, Heat and Power.  A few of these Mexicans lived out their lives in Grinnell and subsequently were buried in Hazelwood Cemetery, adding their names to Grinnell's stories.
Gravestone for Tony and Mary Torres, Hazelwood Cemetery.
So far as the records can confirm, the first Mexicans who found their way to Grinnell crossed into the United States around 1910 or soon thereafter.  For example, Fidencio Estrada, whom the 1915 census located in Grinnell, had crossed into Texas on the El Paso Electric Railway in October, 1910. Already in his twenties then, Estrada reported his last residence as having been the little town of Calvillo, Aguascalientes, north of Guadalajara. How he found Grinnell we don't know, but in 1915 he worked as laborer in Grinnell's brick yard, reporting that in the preceding year he had earned only $400 total. By 1920 he had left Grinnell for points unknown.
El Paso Electric Railway at Santa Fe Street International Bridge linking Ciudad Juarez with El Paso, TX
Also counted in 1915 Grinnell was "Joe" Garcia, who gave his age as 30. He, too, identified himself as a laborer, although exactly where Garcia labored the census card does not say. If we can believe his report, in 1914 he had earned even less than Estrada, telling the census-taker that he had accumulated only $250 in 1914 wages. Like Estrada, Garcia deserted Grinnell by 1920, having moved to Des Moines where that year's census found him living in a boarding house at 403 E. Locust. Garcia evidently did not tell the census worker what year he immigrated, so it is difficult to know for sure his origins. But one José Garcia who crossed the US border in 1912 might be the same man who worked in Grinnell and Des Moines: reporting his age as 27 when he appeared in Laredo, Texas, he would be 30 in 1915, just as Grinnell's Garcia was. Likewise, the 1912 immigrant reported his home as San Francisco del Rincón in Guanajuato, not far from the hometowns of other Mexicans then living in Grinnell.
Grinnell Herald, December 1, 1916
The 1915 count does not remember Refugio Garcia, but the December 1, 1916 Grinnell Herald reported that "Repujio [sic] D. Garcia, a Mexican," had died in the city hospital November 29. The paper did not identify any relatives, mentioning only that Garcia had been buried in "the Catholic cemetery." But if the Herald meant to point to the Catholic section of Hazelwood, no gravestone or burial record survives to confirm that destination and nothing provides any additional biographical detail. However, when the 1915 census-takers visited Creston, Iowa, they found there a Refugio Garcia, age 35 and Mexican, who was a "railroad laborer." Perhaps this was the man who soon after the 1915 census in Creston came to Grinnell, only to die there. (What the paper meant by the man's "chaotic" domestic relationships we may never know.)

Census officials also did not find Jesús Negrete in 1915 Grinnell, but we know that he was there by 1916 when he figured in a crime story reported by local newspapers. Perhaps as an indication of how "foreign" the Mexicans appeared to white Grinnell, the newspapers were not sure of the names involved, and only later could report that "Pete" Negrete had been the victim of a knifing in a house at 717 Spring Street that he shared with another Mexican. By the time he registered for the draft in 1918 the 19-year-old Negrete was living at 1902 2nd Avenue, adjacent to the railroad tracks by Penrose Avenue (probably in a railroad facility of some sort). Born in León, Guanajuato in 1898, Negrete had found his way north to work for the Rock Island railroad.  When he left Grinnell is not clear, but before his 1939 death in Fort Worth, TX, Negrete had crossed back and forth from Mexico several times, apparently without ever returning to Grinnell.

Also part of Grinnell's small Mexican community in 1915 was Estéban Contreras, only 20 years old and single. Apparently born José Estéban Contreras in Cuautitlán de Romero Rubio in 1895, Contreras worked for the railroad, and seems to be the same person whom the 1920 census found in Fort Madison, Iowa, still working for the railroad. According to the 1915 report, Contreras had earned $400 the preceding year, which he'd evidently spent elsewhere as he told the census-taker that he had immigrated to the US in 1913, but had been in Iowa only a few months.

Frank (Francisco?) Eskey (?) likewise entered the United States in 1913, but had apparently come straight to Iowa—at least he reported to the 1915 census that he had been in the United States and Iowa both for two years. At age 38 he was older than many of Grinnell's other Mexicans, but, like most others, he was single and worked as a laborer, earning only $300 in 1914. Given the name reported in the census—apparently an anglicism—learning where Eskey hailed from is impossible, and tracing his future whereabouts just as difficult. Nevertheless, the 1920 census knew no one by that name in Grinnell.

Even older than Eskey was Prestianos Ramirez; at the time of the 1915 census he reported his age as 44. Ramirez was also distinguished from his fellow Mexicans in having his wife ("Rebecca," according to the census card) living with him in town. Ramirez identified himself as a laborer, although his 1914 reported earnings were miserly—only $100, according to the census, which may explain why his wife also worked. Ramirez evidently hailed from Salamanca, Guanajuato, as his brother, Felix Ramirez, living in 1918 at 2nd and Broad in Grinnell and working for the railroad, gave this place of origin when he registered for the US draft. By 1920, however, none of the Ramirez family was still resident in Grinnell.

"Frank" Fields, who entered the US in 1909, represents a special case. Evidently Fields only arrived in Grinnell after the 1915 census, for his name does not appear among that year's census cards. Instead, his name first surfaces in the columns of  the Grinnell Herald of January 25, 1918: describing Fields as "colored," the newspaper reported that he had entered a plea of guilty to the charge of having raped "two little colored girls" in Grinnell, for which he was sentenced to life imprisonment in Fort Madison, where the 1920, 1925, 1930, and 1940 censuses all found him. But Fields was born Mexican—at least that was what he reported from prison when in 1918 he registered for the US draft; he said the same to all the census-takers who came to Fort Madison, and identified both his parents as Mexican-born.
Still more Mexicans—about 30—resided in 1920 Grinnell.  As before, most worked for the railroads, and some bunked in freight cars that stood on railroad siding. By 1920, however, a distinctly more familial image developed around Grinnell's small Mexican community.  In addition to the single men known earlier, several Mexican families took up residence in Grinnell, bringing to Grinnell's schools an ethnic difference not much in evidence earlier.
Drawing of proposed new power plant for Iowa Light, Heat & Power, Grinnell Register, Aug 10, 1916; so far as I know, this building was never constructed

One man who gave signs of settling down in Grinnell was Joseph (José) Torres, who worked at the Iowa Light, Heat and Power plant.  Born in Mexico in 1886, Torres entered the United States in 1912 or 1913, leaving his wife and children behind. Only in 1917, by which time he was already settled in Grinnell, did he arrange for his wife, Adela, and their two children, Simon and Sarah, to join him. The family occupied a house at 305 Park Street (now demolished), and Simon and Sarah began school in Grinnell, learning English as best they could. In March, 1919 Adela gave birth to a third child, but what happened to the baby girl is unclear—the 1920 census does not include her, nor do available Iowa death records. By 1930, however, "Joe" Torres was gone from Grinnell, along with his family, some of whom returned to Mexico.
Simon Torres ca. 2000 (photo from Dave Adkins, "Grinnell Ramblings and More: The Family Named Torres of Grinnell"

Border records confirm that Simon Torres, the six-year-old son of "Joe," crossed into the United States the first time in 1917, and at that time reported his birthplace as Matamoros, Tamaulipas, on the southern banks of the Rio Grande, across the river from Brownsville, Texas. It seems likely, however, that the Torres family had only settled there temporarily when José decided to enter the United States. As the record of José's brother, Antonio, shows, the family originated in Michoacán in central Mexico. Indeed, Simon's obituary reported that he had been born in Morelia, Michoacán, so Matamoros must have been only a temporary address where the family could wait until summoned.

After the family left Grinnell, Simon returned to Mexico, then later re-entered the US, working at jobs in Texas and California. When in 1943 he enlisted in the US Army he was living in Fresno, CA, but after the war he returned to Grinnell where he worked many years in construction for Allen Latcham. Between his early days in Grinnell and his later return, Torres had married and perhaps had had children, but he spent his last years in Grinnell apart from his family, and died in Grinnell in 2004.
Gravestone for Simon Torres, Hazelwood Cemetery, Grinnell
Antonio Torres, a brother to José, was born in 1890 in Quiroga, Michoacán, Mexico, and entered the United States in 1910. According to Dave Adkins, "Tony" arrived in Grinnell by train in 1914, and, having inadvertently missed his train after lunch, went in search of work in Grinnell, landing a job shoveling coal for Iowa Light and Power. The attractions were such that Torres never left.  Within two years of his arrival, Antonio married Mary Seely, who had been born in Excelsior Springs, MO and raised in a Seventh-Day Adventist home.  What brought her to Grinnell is unknown, but she and Tony enjoyed more than fifty years of marriage, making their home at 703 Summer Street. Apparently no children graced the Torres household, but for some years Tony's dad, Eugenio, lived with them at their Summer Street home before his 1953 death.
Gravestone of Eugenio Torres at Hazelwood Cemetery.
"Frank" Duran also worked for Iowa Light, Heat and Power. Like the Torres family, Duran had his wife (Cresencia) and child (José) living in Grinnell with him, occupying a house at 622 East Street (now demolished). José Francisco Duran entered the US at Laredo, Texas in September, 1917, giving as his birthplace Guadalajara. This might have been Grinnell's "Frank," despite the fact that Duran told the 1920 census-taker that he had entered the country in 1916. The 1925 Iowa census found all members of the Duran family still residing in Grinnell.

The largest family among early Grinnell's Mexicans was headed by "Frank" Espinosa who, with his wife, Salome, provided for five children, all of whom lived in a rental house at 628 State Street. Francisco Espinosa is not an unusual name, so it is difficult to say with confidence when and where Grinnell's Espinosa entered the US. The 1920 census claims that the entire family immigrated in 1918, but the closest match to Espinosa's age among the surviving border crossings dates to October, 1916 when a 42-year-old Francisco Espinosa headed to San Antonio, TX, coming from Pénjamo, Guanajuato.

Jesus Fregoso was 52 when he entered the US at Laredo, TX, along with his wife, Refugio, so they had been in Grinnell only briefly when the 1920 census was taken, living in a railroad car on a siding near East Street. Jesus was born in La Barca, Jalisco state, about 70 miles from Guadalajara and perhaps a bit closer to Pénjamo. In recent years La Barca has become known as the site of several mass murders connected to the Mexican drug cartels, but in Fregoso's day the city had not yet acquired this nasty reputation.

Living in another railroad car closer to High Street were José and Augustina Almaguer, who declared to the 1920 census-taker that they had immigrated in 1916. Apparently they were already living in Grinnell by late autumn, 1917, because on November 15 of that year Augustina gave birth to a child who died three weeks later, and was buried December 8, 1917. Hazelwood cemetery, however, preserves no record of the unnamed Almaguer baby, who may have ended up in an unmarked grave in potter's field near the cemetery's southern border.

Ursulo Escamilla was born in Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico in 1888. The 1920 census found him, his wife, Inocencia, and their young child, Luis, in Grinnell where Escamilla worked for the railroad.  Evidently the family did not stay long in Grinnell, as their names did not appear in the 1925 census; in fact, border crossing records from that year show Escamilla re-entering the US from Mexico, and his name appears in the same source again in 1935, by which time Escamilla and family were living in Menasha, WI; in those years Ursulo worked for the Soo Line railroad in Neenah, WI.

Of course, not all members of Grinnell's small Mexican community enjoyed the presence of their families. For example, Daniel Ochoa, age 25 in 1920 and working as section hand for the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad (CRI&P), was rooming at 624 State Street. Like the Torres family, Ochoa hailed from Michoacán, telling the US draft registry official in 1918 that he had been born in La Piedad, Michoacán. Ochoa's hosts were Quirino and Paulina Flores. Quirino was 41 at the time of the 1920 census, and, like Ochoa, worked for the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad; Paulina, whose age the census reported as 70, was Quirino's mother, and it was she who kept house at 624 State Street. Flores entered the US in 1916, reporting that he had been born in San Francisco del Rincón, Guanajuato in central Mexico.
624 State Street, Grinnell (2013 photograph)
Like Ochoa, the Alvarez brothers—Pedro and Luis—who in 1920 were bunking together in a railroad car on a siding near Second Avenue, hailed from Michoacán.  Pedro, age 38, was about ten years older than Luis, but both had immigrated in 1917. For a time Luis had worked for the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad in Kansas City, where in 1917 he registered for the US draft. But by 1920 he was living side-by-side with his brother, both working for the CRI&P railroad in Grinnell.

It seems strange to think about all these folk who lived and worked here a century ago, but who left only the scantest trace in the records.  Clustered in railroad cars on sidings or living in a few small houses, speaking only Spanish in an English-speaking world, Grinnell's first Mexican immigrants must have lived fairly lonely lives, working hard for low wages—a formula that is still familiar to  today's Mexican immigrants.

Although the origins of some remain unknown, it is interesting to note that the majority of Grinnell's first Mexicans came from central Mexico, especially from Michoacán and Guanajuato.  So far as the records can confirm, few lived in the same towns or shared close kinship. But somehow, crossing the border in Texas and traveling far into the US heartland, they landed in Grinnell. Some experienced great pain here, burying newborns in the soil of a foreign land; some collided with the law, and at least one spent the rest of his life in prison at Fort Madison; but most worked, got by as best they could, and then left, either to return to Mexico or else to seek work in yet another yanqui settlement. For them Grinnell represented no more than a few pages—perhaps a few paragraphs—of a much longer story with a distinctly different plot.

For a handful, however, Grinnell became a new home. Men like Tony and Simon Torres authored entirely new stories here. Sadly, the public record of those lives remains slim, and their stories barely visible, the concluding pages inscribed on gravestones in Hazelwood Cemetery.

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