The Great Depression

Left to right, Estefania Joyce, Richard, and John Rodriguez near the boxcars, Holy City, Bettendorf, Iowa, 1927

Estefania, Richard, and John Rodriguez, Holy City, Bettendorf, 1927.

"La Obra de una Mama," a memoir written by Martina Morado Vallejo

In her memoir, Martina Morado remembers returning to sugar beet work during the Depression.

Work assignment for the Scott County Emergency Relief

Scott County Emergency Relief work assignment card addressed to Peter Gomez, Cook's Point, Davenport, directing him to report for work at the levee at 8:00am on December 4, 1934.

Work identification cards for Peter Gomez

Estefanía Rodriguez of Bettendorf, Iowa, remembered experiencing hunger as a child during the Great Depression of the 1930s:

My mom had a pot of beans cooking and they weren't done. And I'm telling you if nobody experienced hunger, it's a real painful feeling to feel hunger. It's the first time and last time that I experienced hunger. But it had an effect on me until this day because I hate to waste food. I hate to see anybody waste food.

In Des Moines, Francisca García recalled looking for food in city dumps to feed her family after her husband lost his job.

The Depression brought hardship to Mexicans in Iowa and other parts of the Midwest who faced declining wages, lay-offs, and unemployment as companies cut payrolls and went out of business. Even though the wages of agricultural laborers had fallen by half, many families returned to agricultural labor as they competed for increasingly scarce employment opportunities.  When Julius Vallejo was laid off by the railroad, the family migrated to Minnesota to work in the sugar beet fields. The work, which involved the whole family, consisted of thinning seedlings in the spring, hoeing and weeding during the growing season, and cutting the tops off (topping) the beets at harvest time. In her memoir, La Obra de Una Mama (The Labor of a Mother), his wife, Martina Morado wrote:

After many setbacks the family had to work in the beet fields of Minnesota. In May 1939, we left in a tarp covered truck. The trip was very tiring because of a heavy rain that fell most of the way. There were twelve of us; so you see it wasn’t easy. For two years we had to work in Minnesota.

Across the United States, the Depression brought a racist backlash that led to the forced repatriation of between 400,000 and a million Mexicans, the majority from the Southwest. In urban areas of the Midwest, especially in large metropolises such as Detroit, Chicago, and Gary, Mexicans were rounded up by local government officials, sometimes assisted by the Mexican Consulate, and forced to return to Mexico. Despite this repatriation, Mexican numbers remained relatively stable in Iowa. Teresa García notes in her dissertation that the Neighborhood House in Fort Madison refused to support repatriation efforts, choosing instead to help Mexican residents by connecting them to public employment opportunities and charitable organizations. (p114) This approach was taken in other Iowa towns where, despite their status as alien immigrants, many unemployed Mexican workers and their families received relief through government programs and private charities.

When Iowa's once prosperous Bettendorf Company closed its doors in 1932, many Mexicans lost their jobs. As Ernest Rodriguez, whose father had worked as a chipper in the Bettendorf Company foundry, recalled, "It seems to me just about every family in Holy City (Bettendorf) was on relief at one time or another."  In neighboring Davenport, the family of Peter Gomez received assistance from the Scott County Welfare Department and Davenport Catholic Charities. Local programs helped supplement short-term wages earned through New Deal employment programs such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).  This was also the case in Des Moines, where Juan García found construction jobs on public buildings through various New Deal programs.

The Great Depression