La Yarda, Silvis, Illinois

Photograph of workers at the Rock Island Railroad yard located in Silvis, Illinois, 1925

Mexican railroad workers at the Rock Island Railroad yards, Silvis, Illinois, 1925.

Photograph of the railroad yard in Silvis, Illinois, the location of the Mexican settlement "La Yarda."

Up to 400 Mexican railroad workers lived and worked in the yards of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad Company in Silvis, Illinois, between 1908 and 1929.

Photograph of the mexican band Corporacion Musical Miguel Hidalgo, in Silvis, Illinois in 1923

Coporación Musical Miguel Hidalgo, Manuel Macías, director (standing, left); David Macías, assistant director (standing, right), Silvis, Illinois, 1923.

The formation of the Silvis, Illinois Mexican Community's first church in 1927

The Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, located in the two boxcars that had once housed the band's instruments, was dedicated on Easter Sunday, 1927.

In 1902, the Rock Island Railroad chose the small town of Silvis as the site of its largest locomotive repair shop,  a central hub of the national railroad transportation network that would eventually include a general stores department, repair shop, roundhouse, and large freight yard. Soon after, workers from Mexico began to fill the demand for cheap labor on the railway's section gangs. Martin Gomez arrived in Silvis from Leon in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico, in 1908. Once settled with a steady job on the railroad, he sent for family and friends in Mexico to join him. At its peak in the 1920s, around 400 Mexicans lived in three adjacent areas in the railroad yards in the Mexican barrio known as La Yarda. As George Edson reported to the U.S. Department of Labor, Silvis had "a veritable Mexican town of its own, fostered by the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad Company."

Edson observed that the company had established a "sort of suzerainty" over the Mexicans by designating three separate villages for its laborers in order to separate different levels of wage earners from each other. Those renting three-room cottages worked in the stores department and were classified as "clerical" rather than operative employees. They earned 48 cents an hour, a higher rate than most Mexicans and paid the company $3 to $6 a month in rent. Using wood salvaged from old freight cars, they added porches, fences, chicken houses, and even garages to their homes. Morning glories and flowering hyacinth beans climbed up porches and fence posts. According to Edson, the women in this area ran the only Mexican business in the Quad Cities, selling canned goods, haberdashery, and groceries out of the railroad stores department. (George T. Edson, "Mexicans at Davenport and Moline," 1927)

Mexicans working in the shops and roundhouse lived in a village at the west end of the yards with conditions similar to those working in the stores department.  Their wages were slightly less at a minimum of 41 cents an hour in 1927.  A third village housed Mexicans working on section and track gangs.  They lived at the east end of the yards in homes made from boxcars and coach bodies.  Their wages were lower than other workers in Silvis, but, at 38 cents an hour in 1927, they were three cents higher than other section hands in the area.  Edson provided a list of 36 names: E. Sandoval, T. Lopez, J. Rangel, C. Martinez, A Rases, V. Moreno, J. Alvarez, S. Gamineo, Z. Martel, S. Ramez [sic], J. Jara, F. Negrete, G. Munoz, I Casillas, Y. Belman, P. Sandoval, P. Raso, P. Reyna, P. Chalez, E. Chevas, L. Rangel, E. Galvan, L. Seveteno, Clofas Rangel, Jesus Corvel, G. Herrera, M. Herrera, J. Chelez, L. Feliz, J. Flores, G. Munoz, G. Costantino, G. Raso, E. Ramirez, J. Sandoval, and M. Flores.  (names spelled as Edson spelled them in his original report)

The Mexican community in Silvis flourished. Its thriving all-brass Mexican band, La Corporacion Musical de Hidalgo, played a mixture of American tunes, European classics and Mexican folk music under the direction of the Macías brothers. Manuel and David Macías lived on the other side of the Mississippi in Iowa and worked for the Bettendorf Company. They started the band in 1918 after discovering the large community of Mexicans living in Silvis of which they had previously been unaware. The band established Silvis as a cultural center, uniting Mexicans on both sides of the river. All men were eligible to learn to play an instrument and read music and two railroad boxcars provided storage space for the instruments. The railroad's paternalistic approach to its employees extended to the band which company officials J.C. Kirk, W. L. Hunker, and B.I Falkner supported and encouraged. According to Edson, they helped the Mexicans organize the band by fixing up a hall and band stand to encourage community spirit.  But the company's support stopped short of financing the band.  The "band boys," as Edson described the musicians, spent $400 of their own money to purchase instruments.

 When the community interest in the band waned, the boxcars that had once housed its instruments were refurbished to create the Lady of Guadalupe church, dedicated on Easter Sunday in 1927. The church helped Mexicans on both sides of the river in the Quad Cities maintain cultural traditions by preserving their own customs for weddings, baptisms, and funerals. 

La Yarda existed from 1908 until 1929 when the City of Silvis evicted families from the area. The residents of Silvis had demanded that the city evict the Mexicans from La Yarda on the basis that they paid no property taxes. Many stayed in Silvis, purchasing lots and moving their boxcar homes onto nearby dirt roads in the area that would later became Second, Third, and Fourth streets.

La Yarda, Silvis, Illinois