Job scarcity may have hindered Mexican-Americans' migration to Palm Springs

  • August 20, 2011

By Bruce Fessier

Anthropologist Lowell Bean finds it hard to believe that no Mexican- Americans were born in Palm Springs before 1925.

After all, the Coachella Valley was part of Mexico before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War in 1848.

“Indian women all over Southern California had been marrying Mexicans or Spanish since the 1780s,” said Bean, a Palm Springs resident and former California State University, East Bay professor. “It seems odd.”

But Bean and Wayne Cornelius, founder of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego, agree that Palm Springs has less of a Mexican influence than most cities in the American Southwest because so few Mexican-Americans settled here before the 1930s.

“Mexicans couldn't find jobs here,” said Bean. “Until there were jobs, there was no reason to come here unless they intermarried.”

Cornelius believes the absence of a large Mexican-American population before World War II can be traced back to the earliest explorations of California. From 1774 to 1776, Juan Bautista De Anza led the first Spanish colonizing expedition through East Riverside County, but he didn't come to Palm Springs on his way through the San Gorgonio Pass. Jose Romero led a Mexican expedition to Palm Springs in 1823, but didn't leave any settlers behind.

“I think Palm Springs was bypassed by that first wave of explorers,” Cornelius said.

Agua Caliente records show the Cahuilla Indians began to travel to Southern California missions in the early 1800s to work as seasonal laborers. They learned Spanish and married in Catholic churches.

But non-Indians didn't try to colonize Palm Springs until attorney John McCallum bought and sold parcels of Southern Pacific Railroad land in the 1880s with the dream of building an agricultural community.

Even then, there were no jobs for Latinos.

“The Indians were all working in agriculture for the ranchers before the Mexicans,” said Bean. “They were the basic labor force because the whites weren't working class.”

“It wasn't on a rail line,” said Cornelius. “Most of those clusters (of immigrants) were brought up to either build the railroads or work in agribusiness. It wasn't big enough to require much labor.”

Cydronia Valdez said the most surprising thing she and her co-authors discovered in researching their book, “We Were Here Too! The History and the Contributions of the Original Mexican Families to the Palm Springs Village,” is that most of the first Mexican-Americans in Palm Springs migrated to America to escape the terror of Pancho Villa's forces during the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s.

Pasqual Quiroz, whose father fled Mexico then and came to Palm Springs in the early '20s, said Villa's legend has been romanticized over the years.

“What my father told me was, when Pancho Villa came into a city all the people fled because they knew the soldiers were rapists and robbers,” said Quiroz. “They were nothing but a bunch of thieves.”

Many of the first Mexican families settled in Los Alamitos in Orange County, but according to “We Were Here Too” co-author Barbara Ayala Eves, they moved to Palm Springs because Los Alamitos “was not particularly fit for families.”

When Palm Springs began to grow in the 1920s, Quiroz said, “It had jobs and people started migrating.”

The Mexican-Americans lived in modest homes then on Indian reservation land separated from the opulent adobes by a line of Tamarisk trees.

“When jobs became available, working-class whites and Mexicans started moving in and the only place they were allowed to live was the reservation,” said Bean. “I don't think anyone who was not white was wanted in Palm Springs unless they were living on the reservation or outside of town. It was a really racist place.”

U.S. Census figures don't accurately reflect the number of Mexican-Americans who lived in Palm Springs before 1970. The census surveyed Hispanics/ Latinos in 1960, but defined them as Spanish-speaking people or Puerto Ricans.

Cornelius said the biggest Mexican migration to Palm Springs and the U.S. came in the '90s when the robust economy was creating new jobs. He said immigration has recently decreased as the U.S. economy has faltered and the Mexican economy has grown.

“When the contractors went south,” said Cornelius, “so did migration.”

SEE ARTICLE AND PHOTO OF LOWELL BEAN ON THE DESERT SUN WEB SITE

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