Los Mexicanos de Michigan: Claiming Space and Creating Community through Leisure and Labor, 1920-1970



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This dissertation chronicles how Mexicanos struggled to make a home in Michigan. From the time Mexicanos entered Michigan in the 1920s, they found themselves living and working within a racialized space that benefited from their labor in the fields and factories, but that sought to render them invisible in mainstream society. In the minds of most Anglos, Mexicanos were first-class laborers and second-class citizens. This degraded view of Mexicanos helped erect powerful figurative boundaries of social, economic, and political exclusion that led to their persistent marginalization. Economically, Mexicanos were relegated to fieldwork or the worst jobs in factories. In the community, segregation and racism existed in public spaces, housing, and education, precipitating additional affronts to their civil rights.

This study examines how Michigan Mexicanos actively negotiated, constructed, and molded the space around them, redefining how and where they belonged. It argues that because Michigan Mexicanos never constituted a numerically significant population in any one area, they pursued belonging via leisure spaces and labor unionism. By gathering together for activities such as celebrations, sports, movies, and music, Mexicanos claimed physical and social space within Michigan’s cities and towns, connected with other Mexicano communities across the state, and constructed their own sense of identity and community. Within the labor arena, Mexicanos embraced interethnic union activism in the United Auto Workers (UAW), pushing it to address their needs when the union fell short in curtailing lingering racism in job placement and promotion.

This study also argues for the need to break the rural/urban divide when examining Mexicanos. There was often great fluidity between the two arenas. In gathering for leisure and cultural activities, Mexicanos cemented translocal, intrastate, and intraregional networks that strengthened communities and helped remake their cultural identities. Taking advantage of Michigan’s dual economy, by participating in both industrial and farm work simultaneously, helped to subsidize the family income and maintain economic viability. In sum, Michigan Mexicanos adapted remarkably to their environment by finding which mode of leisure and/or labor worked the best, enabling them to demand inclusion and pass on a better standard of living to the next generation.



Mexican Americans, Midwest, Michigan, Mexicanos, Leisure, Labor, Communities, Celebrations, Sports, Baseball, Football, Basketball, Identity, Culture, United auto workers (UAW), Music


Portions of chapter 1 and 2 appear in: Olmsted, Brett,”Mexican Fiestas in Central Michigan: Celebrations and Identity Formation, 1920-1930,” Michigan Historical Review 41, no. 2 (Fall 2015): 33-57.