Traqueros: Mexican Railroad Workers in the United States, 1870-1930


Perhaps no other industrial technology changed the course of Mexican history in the United States—and Mexico—than did the coming of the railroads. Tens of thousands of Mexicans worked for the railroads in the United States, especially in the Southwest and Midwest. Construction crews soon became railroad workers proper, along with maintenance crews later. Extensive Mexican American settlements appeared throughout the lower and upper Midwest as the result of the railroad. The substantial Mexican American ...

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Perhaps no other industrial technology changed the course of Mexican history in the United States—and Mexico—than did the coming of the railroads. Tens of thousands of Mexicans worked for the railroads in the United States, especially in the Southwest and Midwest. Construction crews soon became railroad workers proper, along with maintenance crews later. Extensive Mexican American settlements appeared throughout the lower and upper Midwest as the result of the railroad. The substantial Mexican American populations in these regions today are largely attributable to 19th- and 20th-century railroad work. Only agricultural work surpassed railroad work in terms of employment of Mexicans.

The full history of Mexican American railroad labor and settlement in the United States had not been told, however, until Jeffrey Marcos Garcílazo’s groundbreaking research in Traqueros. Garcílazo mined numerous archives and other sources to provide the first and only comprehensive history of Mexican railroad workers across the United States, with particular attention to the Midwest. He first explores the origins and process of Mexican labor recruitment and immigration and then describes the areas of work performed. He reconstructs the workers’ daily lives and explores not only what the workers did on the job but also what they did at home and how they accommodated and/or resisted Americanization. Boxcar communities, strike organizations, and “traquero culture” finally receive historical acknowledgment. Integral to his study is the importance of family settlement in shaping working class communities and consciousness throughout the Midwest.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Traqueros is a significant contribution to the scholarly literature of United States labor history, Chicano social history, and ethnic labor history.”—Juan Gómez-Quiñones, author of Chicano Politics

Traqueros is particularly important because of the originality of the research from numerous archives. Several interviews further enrich the work. Highly recommended.”—Dionicio Valdés, author of Barrios Norteños

“Jeffrey Garcílazo’s book is a signal contribution to the field of Mexican American history—it will long stand in the historiography as the first book in this area of Chicano history from which later efforts will depart.”—Roberto Calderón, author of  Mexican Coal Mining Labor in Texas and Coahuila, 1880-1930

“A meticulous researcher, Garcilazo has gathered a stunning array of archival materials on Mexican railroad workers. From his sources, he reconstructs episodes of daily life from lonely encampments to spontaneous strikes. His arguments on economic stratification, ethnic enclaves, family ties, and identity are solidly grounded in primary documents. Never overstepping the bounds of his evidence, Garcilazo situates traqueros within the larger context of American working class history and his keen insights have retained their currency over the passage of time.”—from the foreword by Vicki L. Ruiz

"Garcilazo found a fascinating story of labor migration, community formation, familial relations, and social history. . . . The writing is top notch. . . . In writing the first comprehensive treatment of the traqueros, Garcilazo has broken considerable new academic ground."--Montana: The Magazine of Western History

"Garcilazo has made a powerful contribution to the historiography of the railroads as well as the history of Mexican workers in the United States. . . . [I]t is refreshing at a time when analyses of the rise of big business and railroads operate at a level of abstraction that has left the picks and shovels of common laborers barely discernible. Traqueros are an invisible labor force no longer."--H-SHGAPE, H-Net Review

"[Traqueros] makes an important contribution to our understanding of migratory workers and the social conditions of working class family life, and it offers a detailed and nuanced portrait of railroad work in the era of Mexican immigrant dominance in southwestern track work."--Southwestern Historical Quarterly

"Traqueros is the first large-scale investigation of the substance and breadth of traqueros' experiences at work and in their 'boxcar' communities. . . . [Garcilazo's] years of dedicated research have yielded an intimate yet comprehensive portrait of Mexican immigrant track men and their communities."--Journal of American History

"Garcilazo's study provides valuable and innovative insights into the contributions of traqueros in building U.S. railroads, the nation's first big business. In so doing, his work provides new understandings of the origins of the nation's Chicano community."--Journal of Arizona History

"In his work, Garcilazo accentuates the strength, resilience, and resoluteness of many traqueros determined to earn a living and make a better life for themselves and their families. The workers resisted the dehumanizing treatment inflicted upon them, while retaining their sense of identity and culture. Drawing on a wide range of sources, including personal recollections, Professor Garcilazo's book is a worthwhile introduction for those who are new to the fields of Mexican immigration and labor history in the pre-Depression era of the United States."--Great Plains Quarterly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781574414646
  • Publisher: University of North Texas Press
  • Publication date: 1/28/2013
  • Series: Al Filo: Mexican American Studies Series , #6
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 797,831
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

JEFFREY MARCOS GARCÍLAZO received his doctorate from the University of California at Santa Barbara and was assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine, before his untimely death in 2001. VICKI L. RUIZ is professor of history and Chicano/Latino studies at the University of California, Irvine.

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Read an Excerpt


Mexican Railroad Workers in the United States 1870 to 1930
By Jeffrey Marcos Garcilazo

University of North Texas Press

Copyright © 2012 Xista Juanita Garcilazo, Gonzálo Tomas Garcilazo, and Tonantzin Dolores Garcilazo
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-57441-464-6

Chapter One

Railroads and the Socioeconomic Development of the Southwest

In popular lore of the American West, only Chinese and Irish workers built the railroads, laying track, digging tunnels, and building trestles and bridges. Indeed, this picture of track work in the West is true for the transcontinental railroad of 1869, but not for the decades to follow. During the late 1800s, virtually all types of native-born and immigrant labor worked on the tracks in this region at one time or another. However, by the turn of the century, Mexican immigrant labor far outnumbered all other groups of immigrant and or native-born labor on the tracks in the Southwest. In order to understand the twentieth-century experience of Jesús Ramírez, whose words opened this study, and of the hundreds of thousands of other people of Mexican background who found work on American railroads, we must first understand the prevailing social and economic conditions under which Mexicans lived during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

The U.S.-Mexican War (1846–1848) and the annexation by the United States of Mexico's northern borderlands shaped the socioeconomic relations between two peoples and cultures. The impact of this war tossed people of Mexican background into a similar social trajectory in the United States as other non-white peoples especially American Indians and Africans. Ultimately, this chapter also discusses the emergence and impact of the railroads on the development of the Southwest. The present study borrows from and complements other studies that deal with the relationship between core and peripheral economies. In so doing, this study aims lower. Indeed, it examines the base of this relationship: the relationship between non-white conquered Mexicans (and immigrants) and the larger issues of working-class and labor history in North America. Finally, this chapter explains the social transformation of ethnic track labor and why by the 1880s track labor became synonymous with racial subordination.

Long before the Mexican immigrant diaspora and before the first railroad spike was driven anywhere in North America, the American Indian and mestizo people of the Mexican borderlands were the travelers and traders of the region (1492–1821). Before them, people whom some anthropologists call the Anasazi (800–1492), crisscrossed northern Mexico (today's Southwest) and Great Plains region for trade and to hunt and sometimes battle. As a frontier region, Athapascan Indians, Spanish colonists, Tlaxcalan Indians and mestizos from central Mexico populated northern Mexico and shared the colonial legacy of mestizaje. Indeed, the Europeans and racial mixes added to the already diverse indigenous inhabitants. Speaking of the nineteenth century, Deena González argues, "Biculturalism evolved throughout Mexico's frontiers into a complex system of communication based on more than the blending of races. Santa Fe [was] built on the legacy of racial mixing and cultural borrowing while conforming as well to another aged pattern of inter-Mexican migration."

The indigenous routes of trade that crisscrossed the region during the pre-colonial period are perhaps the most significant legacy of the Indian people of the Southwest. For instance the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (AT&SF) Railroad built the line that connected the United States with Mexico along the Rio Grande (Rio Bravo to Mexicans), the major artery of trade originally established by indigenous peoples and later used by Spanish and Mexican travelers and traders. During the Mexican period, the Chihuahua and the Santa Fe trade expanded the pre-colonial trading patterns in this area and connected Santa Fe, New Mexico with Ciudad Chihuahua and St. Louis, Missouri. The Santa Fe Railroad also laid track roughly along the same route as the old Santa Fe Trail. Thus the extension of American railroads into the Southwest does not represent a total break with the past, but rather a form of both continuity and change.

Historian Mario García sums up the significance best in his important book on the Mexicans of El Paso, Desert Immigrants: "Although the railroad brought modernized transportation, it did not represent a total break with the past. The railroads were built on the Spanish and Mexican trails that crisscrossed the Southwest Railroads and the Socioeconomic Development of the Southwest and made El Paso a commercial stop on the Old Spanish Trail." In addition, the pre-colonial indigenous trade routes preceded the Spanish and Mexican periods. El Paso historian, Owen White, possessed a different view of Mexican influence on the railroad. White wrote, "El Paso got the railroads with their shops and their payrolls because the Americans in the town went after the business, while the Mexicans of Ysleta and Socorro sat around following the shade from one side of the house to the other." Such images tinged with Manifest Destiny die hard.

The U.S.-Mexican War (1846–1848) marked the early manifestation of nineteenth-century Anglo notions of racial superiority and imperial greed. The invasion of Mexico's northern territory and the conquest and invasion of Mexico City itself, resulted in the annexation of slightly more than half of Mexico's land and the imposition of American culture and laws on the people of the Southwest. After military conquest of both the Southwest and Mexico City, in exchange for the paltry sum of fifteen million dollars and an additional sum for reparations, the United States gained what is now the states of Texas, New Mexico, southern Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California. In 1849 alone, three times this amount was recovered in gold from California.

In the minds of most Euro Americans, their victory over Mexico reinforced the notion of white supremacy and Manifest Destiny. This conquest opened the Southwest to American technology and markets, which in turn made Mexican labor in the newly conquered lands available for appropriation.

For Mexicans, the experience of conquest and subordination shifted and recreated new patterns of social relations between Mexicans and Anglos throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century. Of course, it must be quickly added that some Mexicans, especially los ricos, the frontier elite (who usually self-identified as Spanish), experienced the conquest differently. Los ricos had more to lose in the form of land and personal wealth. Some collaborated with Anglos in order to retain their wealth and privilege. Late nineteenth-century immigrants, on the other hand, did not experience the conquest themselves although they certainly had knowledge of it; therefore, Mexican immigration after 1880 represents a major watershed in the political makeup of Mexican origin population in the United States.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo promised among other things that Mexican rights to property, culture, and customs would be respected. Original inhabitants had one year to decide to leave the annexed territory or remain in their homes and automatically receive American citizenship with full rights and privileges. Unfortunately for the vast majority of Mexicans, even the self-identified Spanish gente de razón (people of reason or status), eventually found themselves subjected to racial/ethnic discrimination, political manipulation, and cultural alienation. In 1853, the Gadsden Purchase placed the region of southern Arizona within the boundaries of the United States for the ostensible purpose of direct railway linkage with California. However, a more compelling motive for the Gadsden Purchase lay in the potential profits of mine operators. In 1924, one historian observed: "That sixty mile drop in the line gave the United States the control of the richest Copper deposits in the world ..." The discovery of copper and other metals in southern Arizona later yielded high profits for Eastern capitalists.

This pattern of land loss and alienation has been discussed elsewhere, but the following passage from a New Mexican newspaper in 1881 is typical of the kind of attitude and activity that effectively alienated Hispanos and Mexicans from wealth: "A Mexican has found a new coal vein a few miles out from Las Vegas in [the] direction of Los Alamos. Some lively Yankee should hunt up the outcrop and lay claim to the location." And while the war with the United States marked an important watershed for Mexico and its people, social inequality and cultural institutions continued into the second half of the nineteenth century.

Ironically, while railroads often laid track upon the former Mexican trade routes, railroad penetration into the West marked the end of an era for other indigenous peoples, the Plains Indians. In 1883, General William Sherman stated, "These roads enable us to send soldiers to threatened points at the rate of five hundred miles a day, thus overcoming the space in one day which used to require a full month of painful marching." At the end of his military career, he further claimed:

A vast domain, equal to two-thirds of the whole United States, has been thus made accessible to the immigrant, and in a military sense, our troops may be assembled at strategic points, and sent promptly to the place of disturbance, checking disorders in the bud.

Railroads and the Socioeconomic Development of the Southwest Railroads routinely provided arms for its track crews in order to quell Indian resistance. In 1866, Chief Red Cloud, of the Sioux nation, personally warned railroad engineers in Wyoming to turn and leave. He said, "We do not want you here. You are scaring away the buffalo." To preserve their culture and stall the encroachment of the "bad medicine wagon," Indian bands attacked track crews and cut telegraph lines. Some white men mistakenly thought that Indians "had a mortal fear of telegraph wires and rails. They would follow the road for miles if need be to find a bridge where they could cross under, for nothing would induce them to cross the track at grade." Of course, given the rate at which the military killed off and relocated Indian tribes, the Indian fear of railroads is understandable.

The idea of "mission" resonated widely among Euro Americans who rationalized the demise of indigenous cultures. In 1911 a writer for Santa Fe Magazine summed up the importance of this "mission" of the Santa Fe Railroad: "its mission has been to supplement the historical achievements of Houston, Kearney, Carson, Stockton, Fremont, and Custer, and to cooperate with the true American spirit in building an industrial empire upon the foundations of military conquest." Eighty years later the historian Ronald Takaki offered a markedly different assessment: "The railroad and the forces it represented—the expansion of white settlement, civilization, and the market—made it apparent ... that the Indian of the 'past' had no place in technological America."

Mexicans and Indians represented obstacles to the railroad and America's hegemony over the West. The official justification for the United States Congress to support the building of the first transcontinental railroad consisted of:

(1) That it was a political necessity, and would prevent the loss to the Union of the Pacific States; (2) That it was a military necessity, and would enable the Government, by the rapid movement of troops, to resist the invasion of a foreign enemy; (3) That it would end the Indian wars; (4) That it would furnish a cheaper and more rapid means of transportation for mails, troops and munitions of war; and (5) That it would lead to the development of the resources of the vast and then unpeopled territory between the Missouri and Sacramento Rivers.

Indeed, with the majority of the population of the West Coast "consisting chiefly of Mexicans," Congress expressed concern about the possibility that Mexicans would retake the conquered lands. Politically, the railroad reinforced the solidarity of the loyal states of the Union and, according to historian Yen Tzu-Kuei, some government officials feared that strong Southern sentiment in California "might be used to place the new state in the Confederacy or to bring about its return to Mexico." Hardly a generation had passed since the end of the U.S.-Mexican War and Congress feared Mexican insurrection in the conquered lands. Thus, the extension of the railroad and the ability to move troops into the West was almost a necessary prerequisite for white settlement and Anglo American hegemony.

While the completion of the first transcontinental railroad (1869) was certainly a magnificent feat of engineering and labor—especially by the Chinese who built east across the Sierras and the Irish who built west from Omaha—it symbolized for many the end of the frontier. Indeed, for the first ten years of its life it was more a symbol of American industrialization than it was completely operational and commercially profitable. Hastily laid rails and trestles that swayed in the wind made heavy use unsafe. Among other obstacles, winter snow drifts proved especially halting to the frequency of successful train shipments. According to one historian of Chinese labor, "Westbound railroad freight, even in the peak years of 1880, never equaled one-third of the tonnage of import by sea." Until the construction of the Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe Railroads in the Southwest, mining, agriculture, and ranching production plus extensive trade between the East and the West coast was limited.

The notion of the Southwest as boundless untouched country resonated widely throughout the United States. And even though the Census Bureau officially declared the frontier filled up by 1890, newspapers and railroads in the Midwest encouraged entrepreneurial white settlers to build their homes and fortunes in the Southwest. For example, in 1881, the Silver City Chronicle summed up the impact of the railroad on the West:

When the railroad passed thru Utah it sounded the death knell of polygamy; ever since it has been dying, slowly dying. When the M. K. & T. [Missouri, Kansas & Texas] road was allowed to cut in twain the five Indian nations to our east, the red inhabitant could no longer bar the doors against his pale Railroads and the Socioeconomic Development of the Southwest faced brother. When the A. T. & S. F. road shall have passed down and along the banks of the Rio Grande from Wallace to El Paso, then the days of pointed stick plowing virtually ends in the rich valley of the Nile of America. A new era is dawning. The sharp, far-seeing Yankee is dropping down here and there, and more are coming. They will look from the car window at this rich vine-growing and grain-producing land and will possess much of the same. Enterprise backed with push is following in the wake of the Great Bonanza Civilizer.

Thus by implication the Chronicle lumped together Mormons, Plains Indians, and the "stick plowing" inhabitants of the Rio Grande region, presumably Mexicans and Pueblo Indians, as dull, anachronistic and short-sighted decaying threats to the Great Bonanza Civilizer. In this one quote, monogamy, racial homogeneity, and technological innovation ring as the reigning ethos of the day. In 1905, twenty-four years later, the El Paso Daily Times echoed much the same sentiment:

The dawn of the greater southwest is at hand. The railroads traversing the vast undeveloped sections of Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico, are completing preparations for one of the greatest campaigns for territory upbuilding in the history of the country.... The success of the movement will depend largely upon the willingness of desirable immigrants to move to the untouched fields for future homes and fortunes.

In other words, the Times believed that the original inhabitants of the Southwest were unfit to bring progress.

The perception of Mexicans and things Mexican in the Southwest was, like the land, to be overturned and harnessed. The following account of a traveler aboard a Southwest bound Santa Fe train parallels the above views:

As we rushed along, gangs of Mexicans—track-menders—in tall, pointed straw hats, which appear in the East only on the covers of cigar boxes, stepped aside to let us pass. Strange brown little birds scattered like chaff, but fell behind in their race with us.

The author probably did not consciously intend to equate Mexicans with "strange brown little birds"; nonetheless this passage suggests that the writer saw both Mexican "track-menders" and "brown little birds" as failures in the "race" with Anglo American locomotive technology. These views represented the contemporary thinking about the Southwest and the West.

The period between 1790 and 1860 witnessed inimitable territorial growth, tripling the land area of the United States. By 1879, ten years after the railroads linked the West to the East, track construction totaled fifty-three thousand miles. A decade later the rail linkage of the county totaled ninety-three thousand miles of operating line and amounted to $5.4 billion. And, of course, the railroad greatly facilitated the Americanization of the West and Southwest. According to Ronald Takaki, Euro Americans living in Indian Territory between Kansas and Texas numbered about 7,000 in 1880. Nine years later, and five years after the railroad reached this area, the number of Euro Americans had dramatically increased to 110,000.


Excerpted from Traqueros by Jeffrey Marcos Garcilazo Copyright © 2012 by Xista Juanita Garcilazo, Gonzálo Tomas Garcilazo, and Tonantzin Dolores Garcilazo. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of Tables and Map....................vii
Foreword by Vicki L. Ruiz....................1
1. Railroads and the Socioeconomic Development of the Southwest....................11
2. Labor Recruitment....................35
3. Work Experiences....................55
4. Labor Struggles....................83
5. Boxcar Communities....................111
6. Traquero Culture....................137
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