top of page

"Mexican" Jobs

There is a long and well established history of segregation in the work place in the United States. In Camille Guerin-Gonzales’ book, Mexican Workers and American Dreams, these discriminatory practices are documented as they relate to Mexican Americans or Mexican immigrants seeking work in the United States. “By the early 1900s, railroad companies reserved skilled, high-wage, and year-round jobs for white workers and drew primarily from a pool of Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants, as well as African Americans, for low-wage, seasonal, manual labor jobs”.[1] This practice was not only employed by the railroad industry but, for the purposes of this post, I will focus on how these anti-immigrant and discriminatory practices affected Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants’ quality of life.

Employers in the railroad industry routinely “hired workers for specific tasks by racial, ethnic, and in many cases, gender identification.”[2] Workers from different ethnic groups were often pitted against each other and were segregated for the purposes of keeping the peace and to prevent groups from organizing.[3] Employers stereotyped ethnic groups and developed the practice of preference hiring of certain groups for specific jobs. An “immigration inspector in El Paso, Frank W. Berkshire, wrote to the commissioner general of immigration in 1910 that employers often spoke of Mexican workers in terms of their ‘docility and orderly law-abiding habits’.”[4] They were also said to be “peaceable and industrious in character.”[5] Whereas Japanese workers had earned the reputation of being “hard to get along with, very unreliable, and cared little for agreements as to terms of service and wages.”[6] For these reasons, Mexicans became the preferred labor force for railroads over Japanese, African American, Greek, Italian, and Russian workers.[7]

This segregation worked both ways. The Topeka State Journal reported in 1918 that “the white man in railroad track work has disappeared. The railroads are retaining their good white men as foremen and roadmasters but few Americans can be found to handle the pick and shovel in the ranks.”[8] Whites were thought to be more prone to protest seasonal work, poor living conditions and low pay so railroad companies refused to hire them for these manual labor jobs.[9] This reinforced the notion that there were some jobs reserved for whites and others that only Mexican Americans or Mexican immigrants would be granted.[10]

This relegation of employment along racial lines of Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans “kept most Mexican workers improvised, unable to acquire more advanced skills or to use the skills they had, and unable to establish stable lives except at great personal cost.”[11] There was a great wage disparity among unskilled laborers and those who worked in the train yards. Track workers earned $1.00 per day in 1910 whereas skilled workers in Chicago could earn as much as $5.20 per day, however those higher payer jobs were seldom acquired by Mexican laborers.[12]

Migration placed an undue burden on Mexican laborers who were required to move from place to place to keep up with laying or repairing tracks. This was expensive and strained the already stretched thin financial resources. The type and cost of housing, food and water was also determined by racial identity and type of employment. White workers “enjoyed better quality dwellings and, in having access to free housing, they also earned an added wage to their already higher wage scale.”[13] In contrast, Mexican workers were required by pay for food, water, and fuel to commissary companies and were general housed in boxcars or temporary structures.[14] As far as healthcare was concerned, there seemed to be little difference between the services provided to American workers versus Mexican workers because services were few. All workers were required to support, through payroll deductions, the hospitals that were provided by the railroad companies. [15]

These racially motivated employment practices consigned Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans to an underclass. Americans persisted in viewing them as “temporary foreign workers” who were sojourners and inferior.[16] The economy conditions related above prevented them from settling into communities and establishing stable lives contributed to this notion of inferiority. These attitudes provided the justification for preventing Mexican Americans to enter into the mainstream of American society, and in fact, provided the rationale for the deportation program in the following decades.[17]

These racially motivated attitudes still persist in the work place today. Those with ethnic sounding names are discriminated against, whites are promoted more often to managerial positions and certain jobs are still relegated to people of color. A possible solution for these biased practices would be to conduct employment searches anonymously, based solely on one’s qualifications. In the current election cycle, the topic of jobs and immigration is a hot button issue which should be tempered with facts rather than rhetoric.



Guerin-Gonzales. Mexican Workers & American Dreams: Immigration, Repatriation, and California Farm Labor, 1900-1939. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996.

[1] Camille Guerin-Gonzales, Mexican Workers and American Dreams: Immigration, Repatriation, and California Farm Labor, 1900-1939. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996), 53.

[2] Guerin-Gonzales, Mexican Workers, 52.

[3] Guerin-Gonzales, Mexican Workers, 52.

[4] Guerin-Gonzales, Mexican Workers, 51.

[5] Guerin-Gonzales, Mexican Workers, 52.

[6] Guerin-Gonzales, Mexican Workers, 52.

[7] Guerin-Gonzales, Mexican Workers, 52.

[8] Guerin-Gonzales, Mexican Workers, 53.

[9] Guerin-Gonzales, Mexican Workers, 53.

[10] Guerin-Gonzales, Mexican Workers, 54.

[11] Guerin-Gonzales, Mexican Workers, 56.

[12] Guerin-Gonzales, Mexican Workers, 56.

[13] Guerin-Gonzales, Mexican Workers, 59.

[14] Guerin-Gonzales, Mexican Workers, 59.

[15] Guerin-Gonzales, Mexican Workers, 60.

[16] Guerin-Gonzales, Mexican Workers, 75.

[17] Guerin-Gonzales, Mexican Workers, 75.

Single post: Blog_Single_Post_Widget
bottom of page