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Senior Thesis on Mexican Migrant workers in Imperial County, California during the Great Depression

Elizabeth Hixson, Class of 2006

My thesis examines Imperial Valley, California (the county east of San Diego), approximately between 1930 and 1940, and focuses on social issues, specifically labor organization and education of Mexican migrant workers, in an attempt to show how conditions changed from an atmosphere of restricting immigration to importation of Mexican labor during the Bracero program of World War II.

When I applied for a research grant from the Evalyn Clark Memorial Travel Fund, I knew I wanted to do research on the border between the United States and Mexico sometime during the 1930s. I proposed to go to Berkeley, California, and research at the Bancroft Library, and to go to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York. My plans changed, however, and I decided not to go to the FDR Presidential Library. Instead, I spent about two weeks at the Archives in the University of Colorado at Boulder. Colorado may seem like an unusual place to do research on Imperial County, California, but I managed to find some interesting sources on agriculture in general, and also discovered a unique connection between the Boulder area and Southern California that may not figure into my thesis but is intriguing nonetheless. I will go into more detail about this later.

I completed my trip to Berkeley at the beginning of summer break. The Bancroft Library was a trove of useful sources for my thesis, as a majority of my primary sources came from there. Time was short, and the reading room at Bancroft (as it is referred to) was usually crowded. I found myself flipping through sources quickly and marking many pages for photocopying. I found three unpublished Federal Writers’ Project manuscripts and the Paul Schuster Taylor collection to be very useful. Bancroft also held a dissertation by James Gray on Imperial Valley labor disturbances circa 1930, which forms the basis for an entire chapter of my thesis. My work at Bancroft helped me to decide to focus on Imperial Valley rather than all of Southern California, and provided me with many useful documents from the 1930s and late 1920s.

After my time in Berkeley, I lived in Boulder, Colorado, for two months of the summer. I first went through my sources from Bancroft. Once I had determined what I still needed to find, I went out to the library. University of Colorado’s Norlin Library was very large, but I eventually found the Archives. I met the Head Archivist and made arrangements to come in for two weeks and research. I looked through parts of the Great Western Sugar Company and the Colorado State Federation of Labor collections, as well as the Shell Oil Local Union files for Long Beach, California. Shell Oil, which was geographically more relevant, was not helpful to my search. However, the Great Western Sugar Collection included a company journal directed at farmers that taught them how to instruct their laborers. Some of the illustrations from the journal, Through The Leaves, will be very useful to my thesis. As well, Through the Leaves included an article about water diversion from the Colorado River and Boulder Creek to Southern California. It urged Colorado farmers to protect their water, because more water meant healthier and larger beets. This is the connection from Colorado to California that I mentioned earlier. Who would have thought that Colorado and California were so connected?

What’s more, hidden in the Colorado State Federation of Labor (connected to the American Federation of Labor) was the perfect book for my research. Mexicans in California: Report of Governor C. C. Young’s Mexican Fact-Finding Committee was published in 1930 by the state government. It included statistics on the Mexican population and has a section on Imperial County itself. This report will help me see the California State Government position on Mexican migration more clearly. Outside of the Archives, I also found that the University of Colorado was a full Government Documents Repository. I was able to copy a hearing from the House of Representatives Committee on Immigration and Housing relating to Mexican seasonal agricultural workers from 1928, which will give me the Federal Government’s official viewpoint on the migrants. Since Vassar is not a full repository, it is unlikely that I would have found this document here.

Thanks to my work at Berkeley and in Boulder, I was able to find practically everything I needed to start writing. Had I not been able to travel, I would not have been able to write this thesis. I learned a lot about working in archives and how to research in a real archive. I was able to get one-on-one attention in the archives at Boulder, and the archivist brought me to see the stacks of boxes and the document preservation room. I not only learned how to use archives but how archives function. Overall, the experience of being a researcher made me feel part of a larger community of scholars and gave me a glimpse of what it would be like to work on a long term historical project, which is great if I decide to pursue a higher degree after Vassar. I am so thankful to have been able to use this fund for my research!