Overlooked: Latinas’ Role in Migrating and Settling in the Mid-Century Midwest
Though it was thirty-six degrees one evening in April 2022, over seventy-five Latinxs gathered in a courtyard at an outdoor theater in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. Being outdoors on such a frigid, spring day helped keep this large group safe during the pandemic. Layered in boots, hats, gloves, and even blankets, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Dominican families from Grand Rapids celebrated women in their lives who had passed on. Even though the attendees, including myself, were struggling to stay warm, there was a buzz in the courtyard. The Latino Community Coalition (LCC), a non-profit that “serves as a unifying force for the equitable advancement of Latinos in West Michigan,” was hosting their long-awaited “HERencia” event. Created to make a “permanent physical representation of our community in public places,” the coalition invited Latinxs in Grand Rapids to nominate a Latina who had passed on to be a part of a mural on a street that will be renamed, Herencia, or “heritage.” The spelling of “HERencia” was a play on words designed to call attention to Latina’s role in history and heritage. Families submitted written nominations and recorded interviews about their family member or friend who had died. My family nominated our grandmother. In addition to creating a mural of the women and renaming a street to honor these women, the LCC created mini documentaries about each person. The families, including my own, gathered after multiple postponements due to the pandemic, to watch videos about their loved ones and hold space for the women who had made an impact on their families and the Latinx community in Grand Rapids.
As a member of this community who is also a scholar of it, this was a full circle moment. I started work on my book, Making a MexiRican City: Migration, Placemaking, and Activism in Grand Rapids, Michigan (Illinois, 2023), over eleven years ago when I was a MA student. When I began researching this topic, textual sources and even oral histories pointed to the Mexican and Puerto Rican founding fathers—without many mentions of women—of their community in Grand Rapids who had arrived in the city in the 1940s and 1950s. Even the women I talked to, at times, minimized their own influence in founding this community. Patriarchal gender norms taught them that their contributions were not as valuable as those of their male counterparts. Record keeping has also skewed toward elite, white male actors, leaving deafening silences about women’s lives and agency. It took reading sources and interview transcripts against the grain to reveal that women have long been overlooked and understudied as integral agents of placemaking.
After years of working to excavate women’s stories, it was fulfilling to be at the HERencia event and in community with other Latinx families. Together we honored Latina Grand Rapidians and acknowledged all the work they have done to make this a welcoming place for Latinxs. The event also allowed me to reflect on how Latinas contributed to making Grand Rapids a sought-after destination for generations of Latinxs since the 1950s. Using the story of Mexican and Puerto Rican women in Grand Rapids from the 1920s to the 1950s, my scholarship shows how affective connections among women, and women’s formal and informal labor in finding housing and welcoming new members of the community, were key to placemaking for this community and likely for other immigrant and migrant communities.
Latina’s efforts in helping their families migrate and settle in Grand Rapids were critical, given the majority-white, conservative nature of the city. The second largest city in the state, Grand Rapids is situated about equidistant from Chicago and Detroit. It was not a typical Rust Belt city such as Gary, Indiana, or Youngstown, Ohio, which solely relied on steel or industrial manufacturing. Instead, its earliest economic claims were in the furniture industry. It later boasted a diversified economy in the 1940s and 1950s with jobs in automotive manufacturing, bakeries, and agricultural packing, among others. Grand Rapids’ race relations looked much like those of the rest of the urban North, except Protestantism influenced the city’s social norms more so than it did in larger metropolitan areas. In the early 1900s, a small, tight-knit community of Dutch Reformed Protestant immigrants and their descendants began to impact the city’s culture. Their socially conservative norms combined with a religious directive that called them to engage in municipal politics, including business. This amounted to a city centered on a religio-economic conservatism that also held a Black/white dichotomous understanding of race. These factors worked to marginalize the mostly working-class, Catholic Mexican and Puerto Rican community when they settled there.
Migration to Michigan took many forms for Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. Tejanos, Mexican Americans from Texas, had been one of the area’s most dependable migratory workers since the 1920s. Michigan employers often recruited in big and small cities in Texas to ensure that they had enough laborers to block, thin, and harvest crops from late spring to early fall. The Bracero Program, a bilateral agreement between Mexico and the United States, brought Mexican men aged eighteen to thirty-five to work on six-month renewable contracts during World War II and for more than twenty years after. Some of these men ended up in Michigan and others displaced Tejano workers in the borderlands, sending Tejanos to Michigan in search of work. Puerto Rico also experimented with large-scale, state-sponsored migration plans. In the 1950s, U.S. employers contracted Puerto Rican men to work on agricultural fields across the northeast and Midwest. Some of them ended up in Michigan. To be clear, these migratory recruitment programs were a part of achieving economic survival. While on their surface this type of migration appeared to be male driven, women played an integral role in these various and, at times, intersecting labor migrations.
Affective connections emerged as an integral part of women’s contributions to migration. Women often did the work to stay emotionally connected to family and friends. Those connections were often the driving force behind a family’s choice on where and when to settle for those who migrated. For example, Guadalupe Vargas had a strong bond with her older sister. In the 1930s, the two constantly wrote to one another after the elder sister left Texas and eventually the migrant trail. She settled in Michigan and later Wisconsin. That’s how Guadalupe learned there were more educational opportunities in Grand Rapids that could benefit her son, Magadaleno. Worried that he would not be able to finish school if he stayed on the migrant trail, she convinced her husband, Daniel, that the trip was worthwhile. Maurelia Blakely and Carolina Cantú both left Texas for Michigan as well. Maurelia, Carolina, and their other siblings were raised in an orphanage for part of their lives, after their parents died when they were young. Though an aunt later adopted them, the bond between the siblings kept them close. A year after Maurelia and her husband Adán left Texas, Carolina persuaded her husband that they too should relocate so they could be near Maurelia again. My paternal grandfather, Pío Fernández, meanwhile, knew that there was work in Michigan because my paternal grandmother, Luísa, stayed connected to her father and uncle when they left Puerto Rico to work in the Midwestern fields. While other Puerto Ricans fled the island because of economic devastation during the mid-twentieth century, Luísa’s regular communication with her relatives allowed our family to make a very calculated plan that included sending Pío to Michigan to work before Luísa and their four children relocated there as well. Historians have long known that strong family bonds can motivate where people move for economic survival, but these stories show that we must understand reuniting as part of survival as well.
It was women’s informal labor that helped new migrants settle once they arrived in Michigan. Many of the women that are a part of this history, however, often did not see their contributions as important. Guadalupe Vargas, for example, couldn’t seem to recall anything that she had done to help migrants make homes for themselves during an oral history conducted in the early 2000s, much to the chagrin of her daughter. Instead, Guadalupe remembered that her husband Daniel spearheaded most of the activities in the 1940s and 1950s. Indeed, many state and local committees recognized Daniel’s contributions with awards for his service over the previous decades. The Vargas family home was often the first stop for families that decided to leave the migrant trail. However, Guadalupe’s daughter Virginia could list all the tasks her mother performed. She cooked for every community potluck, fundraiser, and family that entered her home; washed the laundry of visiting priests who worked with the migrant camps; gathered clothing for newly arrived children from her own children’s outgrown reserves and those of others; performed all the administrative tasks and domestic tasks for large community gatherings; and served as godmother to a host of Mexican and Puerto Rican children in Grand Rapids. While Guadalupe’s work did not receive many public accolades, Virginia’s insistence on acknowledging her mother’s contributions made it clear that these forms of affective labor were critical to helping people navigate the first few days and weeks after arriving in Grand Rapids.
Once settled, women’s formal labor contributions also played an integral role in maintaining the economic survival of the family. During the interwar period, women ran the boarding houses that many Mexican men stayed in when they traveled alone to Michigan. Without clean living conditions and nourishing food available, many men would not have been able to stay in the area or later bring their families to the Midwest. Women’s domestic labor thus became an integral facet of migration. In the post-World War II era, after many middle-class white women returned to the domestic sphere, Latina and Black women often soldiered on in search of stable, higher paying jobs to contribute to the family wage. Monetary contributions from women working outside of the home made it so that Mexicans and Puerto Ricans did not have to uproot their families and rejoin the migrant trail. Guadalupe Vargas quickly found work taking in laundry and doing other domestic labor. Other women found Grand Rapids was a location that provided them nearby access to work on agricultural fields without having to migrate year-round. This meant that they could work on the fields during the day but still come home to an urban area with more resources in the evening. Rosa Flores figured out that she could take her children to work the fields during school breaks and earn enough money to contribute to the family’s needs for the upcoming school year. While Flores did not have a formal education, she became the family’s accountant, making projections of future costs and the wages necessary to meet them. Women’s labor made their families’ migration and settlement possible.
Latinas were also often tasked with finding their families housing in Grand Rapids’ segregated neighborhoods. When the earliest Mexicans arrived in the city in the 1920s, they shared space with European immigrants and African Americans. In the post-World War II era, however, white flight meant there was more racial segregation in housing. Mexicans and Puerto Ricans’ ability to find housing in this segregated residential landscape was dependent on white perceptions of what race they were. Women were often the key to working within that system to find reliable housing. For example, after figuring out that anti-Blackness was at the core of housing restrictions, my Puerto Rican family, whose skin colors ranged from light to dark, devised a plan. My Puerto Rican grandmother, who had light skin, would take only her light-skinned brother and children to find housing in Grand Rapids. Leaving my Afro-Indigenous Puerto Rican grandfather at home with their darker-skinned children was likely a heart wrenching decision, but also a practical way to navigate the city’s anti-Black housing customs. For Mexicans and Puerto Ricans who faced housing restrictions due to xenophobia and not necessarily anti-Black racism, many of them relied on community knowledge of friendly landlords. This was information they gained from having rented places without incident. This is also where women’s relationships and roles in their families became clear. For example, Consuelo San Miguel Vásquez found housing in Grand Rapids in 1940 when she and her husband Daniel moved to the city. Six years later, Consuelo’s three bothers reported living just three houses down from Consuelo. Using her knowledge of her neighborhood she was able to find them a safe living situation. Women’s informal labor and affective connections helped their families identify proper housing and secure a key aspect of settling.
Female friendships and informal labor also made it possible for people to live full lives when they arrived in Grand Rapids. In the post-World War II era, the white-dominated city stressed assimilation as much as other Midwest cities. This often amounted to an isolating experience for Mexicans and Puerto Ricans uninterested in assimilating. In oral histories, women revealed the quotidian gestures that made them feel like they were not alone and in fact part of a growing and interconnected community. This was even more important for the families who came to the city without knowing anyone prior to moving there. Cruzita Gómez, an Afro-Mexican American women who was born and raised in northwest Indiana, relocated to Grand Rapids with her husband, Pedro, in the 1950s. While Pedro came to work in a packing plant, Cruzita was at home with four not-yet-school-aged small children. She recalled that Luísa Fernández, my paternal grandmother, befriended her. Luísa also had small children at home. Cruzita remembers fondly Luísa’s gift of a new caldero, a pot for cooking rice. It helped her to feel like she was making connections that could sustain them in Grand Rapids. They are but one example of the lifelong bonds that formed from everyday encounters among Latinas in Grand Rapids.
Grand Rapids’ Latinx community went on to flourish, growing from a population of 125 in the 1940s to over 11,000 in in the 1970s and 30,000 in the present. Women’s affective connections, informal and formal labor, commitment to navigating racial segregation and housing, and their ability to foster friendships with one another helped to form the basis of a long-standing Latinx community in the city. Many of these women and their daughters went on to fight for their community in anti-poverty programs and became some of the fiercest education activists in the city in the 1970s. The friendships and familial connections they had with another sustained them through decades. Though the city’s Latinx population is much more diverse than the Mexicans and Puerto Ricans who came in the 1950s, there is still a tight-knit feeling in this community that was palpable at the HERencia celebration this past April. Even in chilly weather, the community came together to honor their foremothers. As new immigrants and migrants, from all over the world, come to Grand Rapids and other small, mostly white cities, may we recognize the work women do to create communities for themselves and for their kin.
Delia Fernández is an assistant professor of history at Michigan State University. She is a core faculty member of the Chicano/Latino Studies Program and the director of the Womxn of Color Initiatives. Her book, Making the MexiRican City: Mexican and Puerto Rican Migration, Placemaking, and Activism in Grand Rapids, Michigan, will be released in February of 2023.
In this article, I’ve used a combination of Latinx, Latino (though limited), and Latina. I’m using Latinx whenever I talk about this group of people in the present. I’m using Latino when that is quoted from a source that uses it (i.e. the Latino Community Coalition). I’m using Latina when I’m specifically talking about women.
Guadalupe Vargas, interview with Gordon Olson, December 18, 1997, Grand Rapids History Center.
Darlene Bos, “Maurelia Blakely Ortiz: Journey to Grand Rapids, Oral Histories of Mexican-American Senior Citizen Women in Grand Rapids,” 1998, box 1, LWM.
Luísa Fernández, interview with Kate Schramm, Grand Rapids, 2001, folder 1, box 2, coll. 292, Grand Rapids History Center.
José Flores, interview via the Community House Senior Histories program, Grand Rapids, 2016.
Daniel Vásquez, R. L. Polk Grand Rapids City Directory, 1941, GRHSC. Elias San Miguel, Narciso San Miguel, Cecil San Miguel, R. L. Polk Grand Rapids City Directory, 1946, GRHSC.
Cruzita and Pedro Gómez, interview with the author, Grand Rapids, 2013.