Early 20th Century Social Science: Mexicans Working the US Railroads

Michael Calderon-Zaks, University of California, San Diego

This paper examines the role of early social science on the study of race, immigration and labor, an intersection that ranged between eugenic and Weberian explanations, focusing on Mexicans who worked the railroads in the US as a case study. Developed tropes responded to and shaped the colonizing experience in the western US in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. A chain of succession of racialized groups working the railroads attracted social scientists to study the latest "problem." Unflattering portrayals were constructed by both those aiming towards restricting Mexican immigration and those said to be benevolent towards their assimilation prospects. This paper outlines the consequences of their limited perspectives, while offering evidence to the contrary, including their own contradictory statements, as well as newspaper reports. Although the ultimate consequence was the Depression-era repatriation campaign aimed disproportionately at Mexicans, their unflattering portrayals also led to smaller-scale repatriations at earlier points by the railroad companies as a means to appease a racially anxious public, as well as dual-wage practices between white and Mexican laborers on the rails, in which the latter were paid less. In conclusion, I argue that such analyses at that time have outlived critical interventions such as the birth of Chicano Studies, rendering the latter that much more important towards a more equitable social science, especially in the Trump era. In sum, this paper challenges white supremacist tropes that have defined the immigration debate.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 53. Decolonizing Methodologies