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Barrios Norteños

Barrios Norteños
St. Paul and Midwestern Mexican Communities in the Twentieth Century

A comprehensive social, labor, and cultural history of Midwestern Mexican American communities.

January 2000
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
406 pages | 6 x 9 | 20 b&w photos, 5 maps |

Mexican communities in the Midwestern United States have a history that extends back to the turn of the twentieth century, when a demand for workers in several mass industries brought Mexican agricultural laborers to jobs and homes in the cities. This book offers a comprehensive social, labor, and cultural history of these workers and their descendants, using the Mexican barrio of "San Pablo" (St. Paul) Minnesota as a window on the region.

Through extensive archival research and numerous interviews, Dennis Valdés explores how Mexicans created ethnic spaces in Midwestern cities and how their lives and communities have changed over the course of the twentieth century. He examines the process of community building before World War II, the assimilation of Mexicans into the industrial working class after the war, the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and more recent changes resulting from industrial restructuring and unprecedented migration and population growth. Throughout, Valdés pays particular attention to Midwestern Mexicans' experiences of inequality and struggles against domination and compares them to Mexicans' experiences in other regions of the U.S.


Book Award Winner
Center for Great Lakes Culture

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Mexican Inequality and the Midwest
    • Modeling Chicano Inequality
    • Mexicans and Midwestern Geography
  • Chapter 2: Reckoning with Winter
    • Last of the Immigrants
    • Urban Farmworkers
    • Organizing and the Community
  • Chapter 3: Memory of Hunger
    • The Drive to Repatriate
    • The Internal Colonia
    • Agents of Americanization
  • Chapter 4: Good Solid Workers
    • An Urban Proletariat
    • Dilemmas of Americanism
    • Dismantling the Barrio
  • Chapter 5: El Movimiento: Becoming a Little More Militant
    • Reconstructing a Barrio
    • El Movimiento and the Community
    • Agency and Agencies
    • The Struggle for Knowledge: Chicano Studies
  • Chapter 6: Completing a Circle
    • Migration and Settlement
    • Chasing the Dream
    • Mexican Menace
    • Contradictions of Culture
  • Retrospective
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Dionicio Nodín Valdés is Associate Professor of Chicano Studies at the University of Minnesota.


This is a history of Chicanos and their spaces in the urban Midwest during the twentieth century, with a specific focus on the West Side of St. Paul, "called 'San Pablo' by the Mexicans," as one English-speaking investigator observed in 1927. It stems in part from my earlier investigation of the history of farmworkers in the Great Lakes region. My original intent in Al Norte was to examine the experiences of people who came north from Mexico, Texas, and elsewhere to the fields of the Midwest, their working lives in agricultural settings, and their settlement into the cities and towns of the region. Those plans were unduly ambitious, and I was forced to concentrate on their experiences as agricultural workers. This book starts where the former ended, with the farmworkers who left the fields and the labor camps to settle in nearby cities and towns. It also examines the lives of individuals and families from Mexico and Texas who came directly to midwestern urban settings to work and live. Like my earlier book, this work is written from the bottom up, but it focuses more directly on issues of ethnicity, race, and nationality, simultaneously examining how those forces intertwined with gender and class. I focus on St. Paul primarily for strategic reasons, including accessibility to local materials. It permits me to relate a history emanating from a medium-sized urban community while addressing specific and more general aspects of Mexican life in midwestern communities framed simultaneously in local, regional, national, and international contexts.

The story of midwestern barrios reveals again that the distinction made by academics, politicians, and popular writers between rural and urban settings, and between agricultural and city life, commonly has been blurred for Mexicans since the first farmworkers came north in the early years of the century. Most of the early settlers in St. Paul originally were agricultural workers who did not cut their ties with the fields immediately. For many years they often worked and lived in rural settings when employment was available and then returned to their urban homes after the harvest ended. The experience of sharing urban and rural residences took place in many parts of the Midwest, the Great Plains, the Southwest, California, and elsewhere. Over the years workers gradually severed their ties with agriculture, and their working and living experiences became increasingly diverse. In the cities, adults could find a wider variety of employment opportunities and more stable lives, children could attend school, and together they could create a more varied social and cultural life. Unlike in rural settings, in cities the physical presence and memories of each generation of new arrivals were added cumulatively to those of its predecessors. Furthermore, the urban Mexicano population became progressively more diverse, while in midwestern agriculture the earlier farmworkers were continually being replaced, and they left few physical traces of their presence.

In the large cities, where no single industry dominated employment, agricultural and nonagricultural workers were attracted to a range of jobs in industries and services, while others were self-employed or unemployed, reflecting a much greater range of working experiences than Mexicans in the midwestern fields. While the process of class and social formation was more varied and complex than in agriculture, Mexicans in the Midwest remained overwhelmingly a working people. Although they widened their social and cultural relations in the cities, they did not attain material equality with the majority population, even after many generations.

Mexicans in St. Paul and other urban barrios were more visible than rural farmworkers and attracted greater attention from governmental authorities, institutions, and other urban residents. They retained links with their past, but their experiences at work, at home, in school, and in social and cultural activities became increasingly diverse. This social history focuses on how they created ethnic spaces and how their lives and their communities changed during the course of the twentieth century.

The colonia in St. Paul has been the heart of the Mexican community of the Twin Cities, Minnesota, and the Upper Midwest since the early twentieth century, when large-scale Mexicano migration to the region began. Although the first settlement was confined to a small neighborhood on the Lower West Side, the Mexican population expanded and the community spread out geographically. Elsewhere in the Midwest, small numbers of Mexicans moved into urban neighborhoods, industrial suburbs, and scattered small-town and rural settings. In many places, including Minnesota, Mexican farmworkers often were present for several generations without becoming permanent residents.

In this book I interpret the history of Mexicans in midwestern communities in particular, and the twentieth-century urban history of Chicanos in general. The published historical literature includes only a handful of detailed works on urban communities. It does not address whether the urban experience of Mexicans in Los Angeles, El Paso, and San Antonio, the settings most often studied, were typical; nor does it seek to establish systemic links among different communities. Academic literature on the urban Midwest is scattered and with few exceptions does not venture beyond the early years of the Great Depression. To date, not a single Chicano urban history has examined the entire twentieth century, a perspective making it possible to compare different approaches to chronology and assess change over time. Many authors have criticized linear approaches to history as being Eurocentric and male dominated, yet they commonly fail to offer alternative frameworks while making generalizations based on restricted chronologies. I am concerned about relationships among linear, sometimes referred to as "traditional" techniques (yet not all lines are straight); emphases on continuity, or a view that history does not change; as well as discontinuous and cyclical approaches.

Chapter 1 examines inequality, a constant feature of Chicano history and Chicano studies social science literature, and particularly its applicability to settings outside the Southwest. Chapters 2 and 3 deal with the first cycle of twentieth-century midwestern Chicano history, specifically the formation of Mexican communities between the early igoos and the Great Depression. In Chapter 4 I examine the second cycle, encompassing World War II and its aftermath, when midwestern Mexicans established a firm foothold in the industrial working class. Chapter 5 focuses on the Chicano Movement and struggles in communities and academic institutions that broke out erratically in time and space in Minnesota and elsewhere in the Midwest during the 1960s and 1970s. The final chapter deals with the third cycle of twentieth-century midwestern Chicano history, the final decades of the century, characterized by industrial restructuring and unprecedented migration and population growth.

During the twentieth century, popular and academic observers have been unable to agree on whether to identify Mexicans as an ethnic group, a culture, a nation, a race, or a class. Some have even suggested psychic and cultural identity crises resulting from the physical proximity of the Mexican population in the Southwest to the political border immediately to the south, a topic that would seem scarcely applicable to the more than two million Mexicans residing in the Midwest. My own concerns about the historical construction of identities are informed by Eric Hobsbawm, who suggests that "the unity of classes and nations is defined by what they have in common as against other groups, and not by their internal homogeneity," as such constructions are relational.

The variety and frequent changes in terms of identity stem from the U.S. conquest of Mexico in the War of 1846-1848, the imperfect incorporation of Mexicans into the body politic, their uneven and limited assimilation into the national cultural matrix, and the continued material inequality which informed relations between Mexicans and dominant European Americans. When European immigrant groups entered the country, they were also subjected to competing identifiers, many disparaging. Their acceptance by the dominant population was uneven. Eventually Europeans were universally treated as White, whereas the place of Mexicans has not yet been resolved a century and a half after conquest. Mexicans and other groups involuntarily incorporated into the United States struggled to claim an identity for themselves while new terms were continuously imposed from above. As a -consequence, they have experienced ambiguity, confusion, and ambivalence over how to identify themselves.

From the mid nineteenth century on, non-Mexicans created many terms to identify the conquered population and later" arrivals from Mexico, including Spaniards, Hispanos, Indians, Mexicans, peons, greasers, and the self-identities of Mexicana and Mexicano. Around the time of World War I, in Minnesota and elsewhere in the country, European American agents of assimilation inconsistently applied the term Mexican American, which bore little immediate relationship to the increasingly important border between the United States and Mexico. Rather, Americanizers were applying the term to Mexicans as they were to Irish, Germans, Swedes, and other European ethnic groups. Yet it did not stick well in the Midwest, as many outside observers confirmed, even in the 1960s and 1970s. Historian Julie Leininger reported during her research in South Bend, Indiana, that the identifier Mexican American "is not heard in the barrio as often as some other terms." In the Midwest, Mexicans responded to the term inconsistently, with acquiescence or challenge, often an indication of differential assimilation or internal class and cultural differences.

Perhaps the most concerted and forceful challenge to impositions of identity in the twentieth century was posed by youthful Mexicans coming of age in the 1960s, who reintroduced the term Chicano as a self-identifier, aware of its political, ideological, and cultural implications. They argued that to accept imposed identities, including that of Mexican American, represented a blind acceptance of a narrow U.S. "American"--more appropriately European American--way of life. Such an imposition neither understood nor respected the distinctiveness of Mexican culture on either side of the political border and allowed dominant society to create confusion and maintain control while destroying a culture. Chicanas and Chicanos believed that such an imposition was another feature of dominant ideological weaponry intent on keeping them subordinated.

Although many people considered the term Chicano new, it had a long history in the United States. In the early years of the twentieth century, working-class immigrants entering the country had used it to identify themselves in relationship to people who were not Mexicans. In 1927, Gilberto Hernández recalled that in Arizona, "we were picking cotton when I had a serious difficulty with an American who was the manager and he wished to cheat me on the weight ... We had an exchange of words and we even called each other names. Then all the Chicanada [translated in the text as "Mexicans"] came to my help and we came mighty near lynching him."

The effort by youth in the Chicano Movement to claim their own identities was only partially successful. European Americans quickly rejected the term which was not their own, while many older Mexicans who recalled its class-based context continued to view it pejoratively. Meanwhile, fearing its connotations, dominant interests in government and business soon tried to popularize other terms, particularly Hispanic. They were joined by academics who quickly imposed the term Hispanic backward in time in reference to Mexicans in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, when the elite in Mexican society more commonly identified themselves as "Español" or "Español Mexicano." Thus the scholars added confusion to the contemporary debate on identity among people of Mexican birth and descent in the United States.

In this book, I will use Mexican, Mexicana, and Mexicano to identify people of Mexican birth and descent, the most popular self-identifiers in the Midwest throughout the twentieth century. In keeping with usage popularized in the region, I will apply the labels Latina and Latino when referring to people of various Latin American backgrounds collectively. I will employ the terms Chicana and Chicano specifically to the generation of Mexicans who came of age during the Chicano Movement and to the academic literature that accompanied it, to which this story belongs.



“This is to date the most comprehensively narrated and researched work on Mexicans in the Midwest.... It clearly supersedes [past published works] and is also of higher quality, I think, than most other works published in the field of Chicano studies in recent times.”
Juan Gómez-Quiñones, Professor of History, UCLA