“What the evolutionary process of economic change did was to force the bulk of Tejanos into making their way as jornaleros: day laborers and other journeyman workers” (de Leon and Stewart)

1850s-1860s: de-specialization of Mexican labor -> jornaleros. Carting, Farming, Crafts -> Day labor. [Labor Compression]

On the eve of the swift Anglo in-migration into south, central, and west Texas beginning at mid-century, Mexicans held their own in terms of economic standing. In the state’s incipient economy of the 1850s, Tejanos had a share of positions in trade, transportation, and agriculture, as well as manufacturing and mechanical enterprises (see Table 3.2). As the economy developed further, however, Anglos monopolized the better positions in those sectors. Mexicanos lost their grip on them, and over time were channeled [34] and heavily concentrated into the marginal “unspecialized” labors.[2]

In 1850, for example, Tejanos dominated the freighting industry with negligible competition from Anglos (see Table 3.2). According to Frederick Law Olmsted, a perceptive observer who toured the state in the mid-1850s, Mexicans seemed to have had no other occupation than carting goods, as the entire transportation of clothes, foods, cotton, and the like between Indianola and the Matagorda Bay area appeared to have been a thoroughly Mexican concern.[3] Obviously, Tejanos earned their living in other ways, but Olmsted was not far off in his guess, for according to the census, 50 percent of Mexican American workers pursued this line of work in central Texas, the region from which Olmsted drew his generalization. By 1860, however, Tejanos still dominated the business, but they rapidly were being displaced and thrown into the pool of “unspecialized” general laborers.

A similar shift in the economic standing of Tejanos occurred in farming and ranching. In the first census, enumerators counted about one-third of Tejano obreros as farmers, but the percentage declined by one-half by 1860 and a downward spiral followed thereafter. The percentage of Anglos in the same enterprise increased sharply before the Civil War and remained a stable line of work for them in the postwar years as more than one-fourth of white workers were listed as “farmers” in 1870 and afterward. Similarly, “stockraising” ranked as one of the most reliable occupations engaging the labor of Anglos.[4]

The changes accompanying the economy’s growth also dislodged Tejanos from certain craft occupations. At mid-century, Mexicans did well as shoemakers and tailors, but they could no longer rely on these pursuits after 1860. The same applied to carpenters and blacksmiths. Moreover, Tejanos were not able to penetrate the white-collar jobs that opened up to Anglos. Lawyers, doctors, teachers, and military [35] personnel (up until the settlement of the frontier) were familiar figures in the Anglo work force, but these types were barely represented among Mexican American workers. In the mercantile trades, Tejanos also found slight chance for employment as less than 1 percent made their living as merchants or clerks. Anglos, on the other hand, consistently turned to these endeavors as promising avenues for advancement.

What the evolutionary process of economic change did was to force the bulk of Tejanos into making their way as jornaleros: day laborers and other journeyman workers. Many others were tied to menial service jobs such as laundering, cooking, and general servant work. In the ranching areas, where Anglos came to dominate the land, Tejanos relied on old ranching skills and found employment as ranch hands with little hope of betterment, and as the railroad spread across the state in the 1880s, Anglos monopolized the skilled tasks (for example, engineers and foremen), while Mexicans were relegated to laying track and performing other less desirable duties.

Arnoldo de León and Kenneth L. Stewart, Tejanos and the Numbers Game: A Socio-Historical Interpretation from the Federal Censuses, 1850-1900 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989), 33-35.

  1. [2]Anglos did not experience a comparable level of labor concentration into the marginal occupations. By 1900 only 19 percent of Anglo workers were situated in “unspecialized” jobs that appeared in the census records compared to the 54.5 percent of Tejano workers shown in Table 3.2. Specialized agricultural pursuits absorbed the largest plurality of Anglo workers (32.3 percent), and trade and transportation specialties occupied another 20.2 percent of the white labor force.
  2. [3]Frederick Law Olmsted, A Journey Through Texas (New York: Burt Franklin, 1969), p. 160.
  3. [4]Misinterpretation on the part of the census takers regarding the proper terms for different agrarian tasks may have overestimated the number of Tejanos counted as “farmers” and “ranchers,” especially after 1860. Therefore, the shift of Mexicans from farm and ranch ownership to hired labor likely was more pronounced than the statistics indicate.

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