The Mexican Revolution and World War I
The Mexican Revolution, beginning in 1910, led to a mass migration of Mexicans to the Midwestern United States, including Iowa. As the revolution took hold, many Mexicans headed north to escape the social and economic instability the revolution brought. Martina Morado and her mother left their home in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico, to join family living and working in Horton, Kansas, a central hub of the Rock Island Railroad. Many years later, she reflected on their decision to come to the Midwest in her memoir, La Obra de Una Mama (The Labor of a Mother):
Soon after we left Mexico, the war of 1911 started. I don’t know what would have happened to me if I had not come with mother when we did. We arrived in the United States on April 11, 1910. I was thirteen years and five months old. We settled in Kansas, a place mother didn’t like much. We lived with mother’s relatives and she worked to support me and my brother. We ran a rooming house and did laundry for people. As time passed, we got used to living in this place that we found so cold.
Mexicans also came to the Midwest to fill the labor shortage caused by U.S. entry into World War I and by the introduction of quotas to limit immigration from eastern and southern European countries. Like other U.S. companies, Iowa companies responded by recruiting Mexicans. Their labor in the sugar beet fields of northern Iowa and southern Minnesota supplied the American Crystal Sugar Company in Mason City with its raw material. Their work in cement factories in Des Moines and Mason City enabled the construction industry to lay foundations for new factories and contributed to Iowa's industrial development. In the foundries of the Bettendorf Car Company, whose operations extended a full mile along the Mississippi, their labor turned out underframes for railroad carriages and contributed to the maintenance and expansion of the national railroad industry.
To help meet the acute need for labor during World War I, the owners of the Bettendorf Company turned to recent Mexican immigrants Manuel and David Macías to recruit Mexicans to work in their foundries. In this capacity, David served as an interpreter in Kansas and along the border in Texas. Accounts of the role of the Macías brothers in building the company's workforce are a well-known part of Bettendorf’s local history. They are substantiated in the field notes of George T. Edson, a reporter for the U.S. Department of Labor who passed through Iowa in the 1920s. After visiting Bettendorf in 1927, he wrote:
A rather unique group of Mexicans is to be found in this place, protegee of the mammoth Bettendorf car manufacturing company. They constitute a little colony unto themselves, and their presence is not heralded to the outside world. They were brought here as early as 1918. Later the labor superintendent, Frank Wallace, went to San Antonio, Tex., taking with him a Mexican who understood English [possibly David Macias]. . . . He instructed his Mexican assistant to tell whatever bad points there may be, as well as the good. Whatever he told these people evidently made a profound impression on them. They are kept together in a remarkable manner, sometimes suffering poverty from long periods of unemployment but sticking loyally to their location.
The U. S. Labor Department had tasked Edson with gathering information about Mexicans living in the Midwest. He visited many Iowa communities, writing in detail about his impressions of the Mexican settlements he visited and the people he met. His field notes are preserved in the Paul Taylor Papers at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. They provide valuable details that supplement family histories and photographs to enrich our understanding of this first wave of Mexican migration and settlement in Iowa.
In the 1920s, Mexican communities flourished across Iowa, as they did in other parts of the Midwest. Their residents developed strong ties in tight-knit neighborhoods, preserving local traditions from their homeland. They grew gardens and kept small livestock, maintained religious practices, formed musical bands and sports teams, and nurtured a collective sense of identity, caring for each other in times of need. These bonds would be strengthened in the 1930s as families and communities faced hardships brought by the Great Depression.