“It is speculated as early as the 1860s Mexicans have made their way to Montana. Some as trappers, some as miners, and some as vaqueros,” Esther Rivera said. Vaqueros means cowboys in Spanish.
Ms. Rivera is a lively and active 80-year-old retiree who spoke at the Yellowstone Genealogy Forum’s meeting in a presentation called, “History of Mexican Colonias in Billings, Montana.” Born in Shepherd and a Class of ’49 Billings Senior High graduate, Ms. Rivera spoke of her own personal history and that of Mexican-Americans in the region.
Beginning in the mid-1860s, Texas cattle were often driven to northwest territories that included Montana. Because of their skill with horses and cattle, Rivera said one in seven cowboys in the U.S. steering them were thought to be Mexicans.
It wasn’t until after the 1920s, however, that an influx of Mexican-Americans and immigrants would begin to make their permanent home in the Yellowstone River Valley region as sugar beets became a profitable and sought-after commodity after the turn of the 20th century.
Although sugar beets was a durable, underground growing crop that could easily withstand the Montana environment, harvesting sugar beets required a great amount of cheap labor to maintain profitability. Mexican-American laborers and immigrants would fill the labor gap.
Rivera’s mother was from California, and her grandfather had fought in World War I. On the other side of her family tree, her father and other grandfather had fled Mexico after the Mexican Revolution from 1910-1920. She recalled her father telling stories of seeing people hanging in the street during those tumultuous years in which as many as 1.5 million Mexicans died as a result of the multi-faceted civil war.
“It was a very troubled time in Mexico,” Rivera said. “So a lot of families came across the border to get away from that.”
Starting in World War I, Mexican laborers were recruited to come to the region by other bilingual Mexican residents who lived in the area. In 1918, the Great Western Sugar Co. had bought the 1905-built sugar factory on the South Side of Billings, and wanted permanent field hands to harvest the crops in area.
“Great Western wanted families,” Rivera said of the desired recruits. Her family had eight children along with her parents. “They didn’t want single guys, really. They wanted families because it takes a family to do the beet work. I know, I grew up in beet fields, and all of us worked – brothers, sisters, mother, father. It takes a whole family to do it.”
As a result, a colonia (colony) of some 40 adobe houses would end up being built just south of the factory after 1924 to accommodate the familial workforces. Rivera described them as “small huts.” They were one bedroom, had a wood stove, an outdoor toilet, and every five houses shared an outdoor faucet that would often freeze in winter.
If more families came, tents were put up. A teacher taught the children English at the one-room school so they could later transfer to Billings’ area schools.
“The reason they built the colonias was to keep the people here,” Rivera said. “So what they wanted to do was keep them there over the winter so they wouldn’t leave, and then they wouldn’t have to recruit again.”
Some men found work at the sugar beet factory, while others’ employers would find them things to do like various odd jobs on ranches. Great Western would give advances to help out families as well.
To alleviate the cost of living, “All of the families kept a goat, pigs, chickens, and they raised gardens,” Rivera said. “We were very industrious, because we were very poor. We did the best we could.”
For summer recreation, children swam in the Yellowstone River, there was a baseball team called the Mexican Aztecs, and young men played handball against the adobe walls.
Rivera said most of the new migrants new to the area were assumed to be from Mexico by whites, even though many were Mexican-Americans born in the southwest. “That caused a lot of grief and mistreatment,” Rivera said.
In 1923-24, people from the colonia were not allowed to cross the railroad tracks after 5 p.m. because a policeman had been shot by a Mexican-American, and some businesses had signs stating, “No dogs or Mexicans allowed” in the immediate aftermath. Mexican-American children were not allowed to participate in the annual Kiwanis Easter Egg Hunt in South Park.
Minorities were not allowed to swim in the public pool at South Park either. Rivera said, “When groups lobbied for change, the city allowed minorities to swim on Thursdays because they changed the water on Fridays.”
By the time World War II came around, sugar beet harvesting jobs previously dominated by the Mexican people went to German and Italian POWs, Japanese-Americans living at the Heart Mountain relocation camp in Wyoming, as well as Mexican nationals who were previously denied work during the Great Depression.
Rivera said the local Mexican-Americans people decided they wanted to do something else besides work beets, so they started getting jobs at the railroad, packaging companies, and wherever they’d be allowed to work as there was still considerable discrimination directed at Mexican-Americans – even after many of the men served in World War II.
Younger Mexican-Americans of the generation had resolved to not have their own children grow up picking beets as they did, and a greater emphasis on schooling was instilled in the community. Advances in technology had also lessened the need for a large workforce, and non-residential, seasonal migrant workers who moved from state-to-state did the rest of the needed labor.
Previously, Mexican-American children – as well as other German or Russian immigrant students who grew up in farming families – would often lag behind in schools, because they’d miss so much of it while they helped with the harvest. Rivera said, “That school bus was pretty empty in the fall. We all went through it together.”
Rivera produced an elementary school class picture of when she grew up, and noted she and her brother were in the very back, while all the white children were in the front.
“We weren’t allowed to sit with them; there was so much discrimination,” she said.
Rivera is grateful her own children didn’t have to grow up in such an environment. “They still face discrimination, but not like we did,” Rivera said. “And my daughters never had to work in the beet field. It’s different as the generations go by.”
Although Rivera noted a South Park gazebo is due to be put up in the spring, the loss of the previous one was heartfelt by the community. “It’s always been there for us, and now it’s gone,” she said. “One day it was gone; the children’s wading pool was gone; and the big wading pool was half-filled with cement and gone. Talk about discrimination!”
As the generations go by, Rivera hopes that traditions like the annual Mexican Fiesta in South Park will endure. The event is a lot of hard work that Esther – a diligent Billings community volunteer – participates in every year to raise money for the Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish. Next year’s event will be the 60th.
“We try to keep our culture and hang on to our different celebrations. It’s getting a little harder because our young people don’t share the same feelings that we do,” Ms. Rivera said. “Things are changing, but we have to go along with the change.”