Forgotten Voices: Unveiling Latinx History in Oregon
By Jaidah Garcia
The piece has a woman with a blank face in the middle to represent the fact that not much is known about Feliciana Jimenor including her appearance. On top of her head rests a grey house. This represents the fact that she was the head of the household (according to the 1920 Census) and ran a boarding house. The responsibility of running the boarding house was her priority and that is why it is the first thing that shows up. Jimenor has hoop earrings but inside of the earrings are two drawings of the two women who live in her household (according to the Census). The faces of the women are also blank due to the lack of information on them as well. Wrapped around the neck of Feliciana Jimenor are the train tracks that traqueros worked on. There are also the silhouettes of traquero workers “working” on the tracks. This represents that she is tied to the traquero culture and the responsibility of assisting the traquero workers rests on her shoulders.
Known for its scenic landscapes, progressive values, and thriving cultural scene, Oregon is home to rich and diverse communities. Among them, the Latinx community has emerged as an influential and integral part of the state’s social fabric. Dive deep into the void of Oregon’s Latinx history and you’ll discover a group of individuals who have made significant contributions to the state’s history, economy, and cultural heritage, and they were called traqueros.
According to Jerry Garcia (Oregon Encyclopedia), many Latinos came to Oregon to work as laborers. This was due to the lack of work in Mexico and conditions due the Mexican Revolution. Numerous men and women left Mexico to temporarily search for job opportunities, better wages, economic security and to raise their families in the United States. According to Jeffrey Marcos Garcílazo, Mexican track workers, also known as “traqueros,” made valuable contributions to the growth and development of Oregon’s railroads. Traqueros were recruited to meet the growing labor demands of the expanding rail industry. They were often recruited by railroad companies seeking cheap and reliable labor for railroad construction projects.
The traqueros workforce included individuals of different age groups, from young adults to the older generation. Many traquero workers were in their late teens or early twenties when they started working on the railroads in Oregon. As Garcílazo notes, these young individuals often sought job opportunities to support themselves and their families. They were typically physically capable and willing to undertake the demanding labor required for railroad construction, maintenance, and operation. The middle-aged individuals, often in their thirties, forties, and fifties usually had previous experience in labor-intensive jobs or migrated from other industries. They brought valuable skills and knowledge to the railroad workforce and contributed to the development and expansion of the rail networks. The older traqueros, usually in their fifties or older, often had long careers in the railroad industry. They were well respected, and their experience and expertise were often valued, and they played important roles in various aspects of railroad work.
According to Garcilazo, traquero workers worked ten hours a day while being paid ten cents an hour. The work often involved lifting heavy objects, working in extreme weather conditions, and enduring long hours of manual labor such as construction, repair, maintenance, digging ditches, shoveling rocks, grading roadbeds, placing spikes, and cutting the overgrown grass and weeds on the tracks. Traqueros also removed snow and ice and repaired damage done by water and weather. Typically, it required seventy-five men to lay a mile of track per day. (Garcílazo 2012, 59).
Horrible accidents occurred with lost fingers, smashed feet or hands, busted limbs. Some foremen preferred to hire men with missing fingers because it signified experience. Workers frequently injured themselves so much that discussing the conditions was not socially allowed or approved of. Railroad workers were predominantly male. According to Irene Campus Carr (1992), it was not until the late 1930s and during World War II that some women worked with the men in the scrapyard. Some women found jobs working besides the men on the tracks but were paid half the wage for the same hours of work and risks. It became known that railroad companies preferred to hire traqueros over their white counterparts due to their willingness to tolerate most conditions that other workers could or would not withstand. (Garcílazo 2012, 63-67)
Racist attitudes towards traqueros came to fruition. According to Garcílazo, managers and supervisors of railroads often believed that traqueros were inferior due to letting themselves be exploited. It was also believed that traqueros were naturally dirty and accustomed to living in poor living conditions, which is also why they were such great railroad workers. (Garcílazo 2012, 667)
Boarding Houses and Box Car Communities:
According to Garcia, traqueros formed close-knit communities and established mutual aid societies that provided support and solidarity. These were in the boarding houses and boxcar communities. Boarding houses were either company owned (“rent free”) or privately owned. The boarding houses had 12 by 16 foot rooms and in these rooms two families or six to eight men would live in the singular rooms. The boxcars were often created from the scraps traqueros found on their work site. They had no electricity, no running water, no plumbing, no insulation, etc. There was also a huge risk of exposure to diseases such as: smallpox, influenza, measles, etc. Boxcar communities and boarding houses tended to include families rather than lone workers. Boxcars made convenient temporary housing for both traqueros and railroad employers due to the cars being able to be transported to where labor was needed. (Garcílazo 2012, 115-126)
In “Mexican Workers in Aurora: The Oral History of Three Immigration Waves, 1924-1990” written by Irene Campos Carr, there was a huge emphasis on education. Many traqueros wanted to make sure that their children got an education and learned how to speak in English. Many traqueros and Latinos themselves attended night school while working during the day. (Carr 1992, 36-37).
Feliciana Jimenor was a widow, originally from Mexico, who immigrated to Huntington, Baker County, Oregon in 1917, according to the 1920 Census. As head of the household and boarding house, Feliciana Jimenor played a crucial role in supporting and organizing those in her care by managing the living quarters and ensuring the availability of suitable housing. She oversaw the cleanliness, maintenance, and allocation of living spaces within the labor houses, handled the financial aspects, and provided meals. Feliciana Jimenor likely acted as mentor/advisor to those in her community. She provided emotional support, guidance, and assistance with various aspects of their lives. She would have been knowledgeable about local resources, including job opportunities, healthcare, legal aid, and educational opportunities.
Feliciana Jimenor had two women living under her roof, Fana Gomez and Mary Guzman, ages eighteen and nineteen, who had no recorded occupation. It is suspected that the two women were involved in domestic work. This included tasks such as childcare, cooking, cleaning, agriculture, or work as seamstresses. The nine men living under Jimenor’s roof were also railroad and other workers. Fana Gomez was likely married to Pedro Gomez, another roomer who worked on the railroad (was a traquero). According to Carr, many couples married young and would almost immediately migrate to the United States. For most married couples having double income was the best way to support themselves and save money, support their families back in Mexico, and improve their homelives in the United States. (Carr 1992, 46)
The 1920 Census for Feliciana Jimenor reports that she had two grandsons. The grandsons of Feliciana Jimenor grew up in a household and community that maintained a strong connection to Mexican culture and heritage. They were raised with traditions, language, food, music, and religious customs that reflected their family’s Mexican roots. They grew up surrounded by a network of extended family members, neighbors, and fellow traqueros and their families. The family might have experienced financial hardship due to the low wage and irregular employment.
The Latinx community is an understudied community. U.S Latinx history is too often swept under the rug. Through mere existence, determination, and cultural preservation, Latinx individuals and their families continue to carry on the strength. Despite, the belief in the American Dream that does not exist and the unfair treatment, instead of solely complaining, they rolled up their sleeves and went to work so that their predecessors have a chance of a better life. They all supported each other by staying in communities. Latinos in the United States were determined to work united for the betterment of the Latino community. That determination has been passed through generations and is being shown currently. In 2023, there was a Latino truck drivers boycott in Florida. Latino truck drivers had requested that truck drivers do not take any shipments into Florida in protest of the new bill that had been implemented in Florida (Bowden, 2023). This bill introduced penalties and restrictions on illegal immigration in Florida, such as requiring employers to use E-Verify to verify workers are eligible to work in the U.S. Latinos are continuing the work that individuals like Feliciana Jimenor started.
About the Author
Jaidah Garcia participated in Professor Kimberly Jensen’s Spring 2023 Oregon Women’s History course as a student in the Honors Program at Western Oregon University. She is a Psychology and Sociology major. She is also passionate about advocating for the Latinx community.
1920 United States Federal Census Oregon Baker Huntington District 0018 Sheets 2A, 1B.
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