Let’s talk about sugar beets. But before we do, I must say again that I’m not an “open borders” guy. I don’t believe that every Mexican, Guatemalan or Salvadoran on Earth is untitled to U.S. citizenship.
And if we choose to build a fence or a wall or a moat along our southern border – to impose some damn order on the flow of migrants, and to show that national boundaries mean something – that’s our right. (Sounds like a good idea to me.)
What fries my beans is when certain anti-immigration types badmouth “mestizos” on a racial (or “civilizational”) basis... as if Mexicans were unassimilable, and as if white people single-handedly built this country in the first place.
The fact is, at certain points in U.S. history – when there was hard work to be done and no white people to do it – America picked up the proverbial telephone and dialed “1-800-MEXICAN.”
Consider World War I. That’s when “the great influx of Mexican labor began” in California, wrote Carey McWilliams, a prominent leftist journalist, in 1939.
“The newspapers and farm journals in 1917 contain many references to large groups of Mexicans, in units of 1500 and 2500, being brought into Imperial Valley by truck from San Felipe and Guaymas ‘to relieve the labor situation,’ ” according to McWilliams.
“The farm journals refer to the year 1920 as a ‘Mexican harvest,’ indicating that at least fifty per cent of the migratory labor employed that year was Mexican.”
When the Great Depression hit in 1929 and Mexican labor was no longer in demand – and as these migrants clogged the welfare rolls – what did America do? It rounded up and deported Mexicans by the hundreds of thousands.
But guess what? Along came World War II. As millions of young Americans went overseas to fight, and as the U.S. labor pool shifted to wartime industries, agribusiness once again dialed 1-800-MEXICAN.
“In 1942... the United States signed the Bracero Treaty which reopened the floodgates for legal immigration of Mexican laborers,” according to the website for the 1999 PBS documentary “The Border.”
Between 1942 and 1964, several million Mexicans were brought into this country as “braceros,” doing farm and ranch work on a temporary contract basis.
We can go back even further. Like to 1897, when Congress slapped a 75 percent tax on foreign sugar. What this did was to trigger a boom in the U.S. beet sugar industry. (Today, more than half the sugar consumed in the United States comes from sugar beets, not sugar cane.)
Sugar beets grow best in the cool of the Great Plains and the upper Midwest, in places like Nebraska. In an article titled “Mexicans in Nebraska,” on the website of the Nebraska State Historical Society, Ralph F. Grajeda describes the rapid growth of this industry:
“[B]y 1906, sugar beet acreage in the U.S. had more than tripled from the 135,000 acres planted in 1900. By 1920 that acreage had increased to 872,000....”
Tending and harvesting all those beets was difficult work; it was “stoop labor.” So who you gonna call?
“The increased need for beet laborers... [was] met by the regular and methodical recruiting of Mexican agricultural workers,” according to Grajeda. “In 1915 the Great Western Sugar Company recruited and transported 500 workers into its Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Nebraska sugar beet territory. By 1920 this figure had increased to more than 13,000.”
In the town of Scottsbluff, Neb., to this day, you’ll find the Mexican-American barrio on land formerly owned by Great Western Sugar and sold off to individual families.
So, here we are. Congress is trying to figure out a new immigration policy, while far-rightists paint the Mexican laboring class as an uneducable, socially parasitic, crime-prone, squalorous, drunk-driving, disease-bearing horde. (“Mestizos have an average IQ of at best 90. They are very low skilled, have very little interest in education, and their presence in large numbers will steadily drag down our economy and society to the level of a third-world, Mestizo-type society...” – Lawrence Auster, April 12, 2006)
Can’t we all, at the very least, gratefully acknowledge the hard work already done by Mexican migrants such as los betabeleros (the beet-field workers), and those laborers we summoned during and after World War I, and los braceros during and after World War II – all to the economic benefit of the United States?
(My thanks to Amando Alvarez for granting me permission to use the photograph above.)