A Shift From Agriculture is the first of a three-part WyoFile series, Hispanic Wyoming, looking at changing immigration trends in the Cowboy State, and how Wyoming’s Hispanic population has become more diversified. The Jobs Machine of Campbell County ran on May 3 and ‘A Good Place to Live‘ appeared on May 10.
GILLETTE — The ringtone on Georgianna Lopez Hernandez’s cell phone goes off. It’s Johnny Weissmuller’s undulating Tarzan yell. She hears the former vine-swinger’s voice a lot these days. Hernandez is a Spanish-English translator living in Gillette and she is busy. “Some days are just crazy,” she said.
Hernandez — a woman of German-Irish-English ancestry (“I am very white”) — was raised in Douglas and learned to speak Spanish from migrants who worked with her father as ranch hands. She married and divorced a Honduran resident, then got remarried to Juan Lopez, a migrant from Jalisco, Mexico.
Lopez moved to Gillette from Douglas with a pipeline company in 2000; Hernandez moved there in 2007 and began working as a translator. Lopez is a 53-year-old semi-skilled laborer and usually busy. For example, last fall when his employer, United NRG, had to make a deadline for building a pipeline, he worked 30 days in a row. He and Hernandez live in a lease-to-own house trailer owned by Lopez’s brother.
The Lopez brothers have company in Gillette. From 2000 to 2010, Campbell County’s Hispanic population grew more than 300 percent to 3,000 people.
A U.S. Census Bureau report released March 3 revealed a 60 percent increase in Wyoming’s Hispanic and Latino population since 2000. The Hispanic population in Wyoming now totals 50,200, nearly 9 percent of the total population. Out of 23 counties, only Hot Springs County did not have an increase in Hispanic population in the last 10 years.
But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. The make-up of Hispanic migrants to Wyoming has changed from mostly single men working in agriculture to whole families attracted to construction, service and energy-based jobs. And rather than originating from Mexico, today’s Hispanic immigrants to Wyoming come from all over the U.S. and Central America.
The number of Hispanics moving to Campbell County has attracted the attention of the Mexican consulate in Denver.
Andrés Kaftanich, a press attaché with the consulate in Denver, said officials have visited Gillette twice in the last two years. He said they not only helped Mexican citizens sort out legal problems (getting proper identification and questions on how to get a divorce are the most common concerns), but they also met with Campbell County commissioners and law enforcement officials about “making a better connection” between the two countries.
Kaftanich stressed that Mexico has “57 separate ethnic groups,” some of who even have trouble speaking Spanish. They are often poor, uneducated and are drawn to the U.S. for the most basic jobs. “Some of them have a very hard time when they reach the U.S.,” he said.
Hernandez says she’s never been busier. She works as a translator for District Court and Circuit Court, helping Hispanics talk to their lawyers about custody, immigration or drunk-driving issues.
Hernandez drives around Gillette in snow and sub-zero weather in a black Ford-150 pickup as she notes the Hispanic influence on Gillette. The description of “the city that never sleeps,” is supposed to apply to metropolitan areas (originally Chicago) with millions of people. But with coal mines working around the clock, rest never seems to visit this city of nearly 30,000.
Gillette now hosts six Mexican restaurants, five grocery or retail shops specializing in Hispanic food or clothing, a Spanish-speaking mass at St. Matthew’s Catholic Church, and Hispanic dances twice a month. The Walmart in Gillette has become a major center for transferring money to Mexico (Walmart said they did not have “any data to share” concerning the volume of such remittances from their Gillette store).
As the day passes, the calls to Hernandez keep coming, most of the conversations in Spanish.
“I do a lot of phone work for people with medical issues and jobs applications. I’ve been right there in a delivery room with women, translating, talking to the doctors. People (Hispanics) are moving in. I know, because I’ve been helping a lot of people buy trailers and houses or helping them get their utilities hooked up,” she said.
THE LATEST IN A LONG LINE OF HISPANIC VISITORS
Mexicans came to Wyoming as early as the mid-1820s. They were cazadores (fur hunters), arrieros (mule drivers) and ciboleros (buffalo hunters), coming north to trade with the Indian tribes and French-Canadian trappers.
Some early Mexican entrepreneurs didn’t need to leave their own country to come to Wyoming. According to historian Antonio Rios-Bustamante, “much of the Red Desert of southwest Wyoming was part of the then internationally recognized territory of Mexico.”
Mariano Medina, a Taos-born Mexican, did business with Jim Bridger and lived and traded around Cheyenne.
Over the next century, residents from Mexico entered Wyoming in fits and starts, driven north by economic need or political chaos in their own country.
Most were single men, migratory and engaged in low-wage, physically demanding jobs: packers for the U.S. Army, teamsters, miners or railroad track laborers. They gravitated toward stock-raising and agriculture, working as pastores (shepherds) and vaqueros (cowboys), but also doing bottom-rung labor like building fence or digging irrigation ditches.
In 1916, the sugar beet industry brought the first serious wave of Mexican-speaking migrants to Lovell: betabeleros, the beet workers, to hoe the fields and help with the harvest. This time, it included workers with families. Yet most were not Mexican nationals, but rather Spanish-speaking people from Texas, New Mexico and southeastern Colorado, wrote Augustine Redwine, then a graduate student at the University of Wyoming, in a Fall 1979 Annals of Wyoming.
Some stayed, but most moved back to Texas or the Southwest. Wyoming remained overwhelmingly white.
A 1940 U.S. Census counted 6,128 “Hispanic origins of any race,” in Wyoming, or 2.4 percent of the population. By 1970, the number of Hispanics in Wyoming had doubled to 5.2 percent. Then growth slowed. In 1990, only 5.7 percent of Wyoming’s population was Hispanic. Now it’s closer to 9 percent and growing.
In Teton County, where Hispanics make up 15 percent of the population, the upward trend has received extensive notice. The Jackson Hole News and Guide sent a reporter in 2007 to San Simeon, a town in the Mexican state of Tlaxcala, to investigate why nearly half the former population of the town was now living in Jackson Hole or Driggs, Idaho.
But the migration mostly from one town, flocking to one of the wealthiest counties in North America — that, in fact, turns out to be a rare holdover from past patterns.
Instead, the new pattern focuses on Hispanic diversity, even in places that traditionally had migrants from one area.
For example, traditionally migrants, including Hispanics and members of the Kickapoo Indian tribe, came to the Big Horn basin’s sugar beet counties (Washakie, Big Horn, Park) from two areas: Eagle Pass, Texas, and Mexican cities directly across the border: Piedras, Negras and Múzquiz.
Now migrants born in different Mexican states and other Latin American countries join the old guard. Few Kickapoo Indians make the journey at all.
Hispanic multiculturalism is only one change particular to the current wave of immigrants to Wyoming.
For example, the pattern is interstate, not international, migration. The pilgrimage from San Simeon, Mexico to Teton County before 2007 is not the norm. In a U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey undertaken from 2007-09, only 570 out of 40,691 Hispanics said they had come to Wyoming directly from out of the country. Instead, they came from places like California, Michigan or Oregon in search of better jobs and good schools.
It’s a different job, too. For 90 years Hispanic migrants came to weed and thin Wyoming sugar beet crops. The advent of Roundup Ready sugar beets, now planted in the Big Horn basin and Goshen County, eliminates one of the last mainstays of Hispanic migrant agricultural labor.
“It used to be the only Hispanics you saw in Wyoming were Mexican and they worked in agriculture,” Hernandez said. “If they worked on a ranch, the job often came with housing, which means you didn’t have to deal with a landlord or utility company. Sometimes the ranch would give you your own truck to drive. You didn’t have to go through the hassle of registering it. That’s not the case now.”
Fewer farms and more mechanization mean fewer jobs. In the 2002 Census of Agriculture, 214 Wyoming Hispanics listed themselves as farmer operators, which the Census defines as someone who “operates a farm, either doing the work or making day-to-day decisions. … The operator may be the owner, a member of the owner’s household, a hired manager, a tenant, a renter, or a sharecropper.” By 2007 the number had dropped to 118.
Now, construction, service and energy sectors pull in workers. While the number of Hispanics living in sugar beet and bean producing counties — Goshen, Washakie, Big Horn and Park — has risen steadily since 2000, it’s small compared to the trends in Campbell, Teton and Sweetwater counties, where the numbers have doubled or even tripled. From 2000 to 2010, the number of Hispanics in boom-time Sublette grew from 112 to 712.
For evidence, look no further than school enrollment.
An analysis by WyoFile shows that the number of Hispanic students in the last decade grew aggressively in energy, recreation or urban counties, led by Teton, Campbell, Sublette, Sweetwater and Laramie counties. Growth was more modest in rural or agriculture counties; student numbers grew, however in K-5, in Washakie School District #1 largely due to Hispanic enrollment. Some school districts, such as Big Horn School District #1, Hot Springs, and Platte County #2, had flat or declining Hispanic student enrollment.
In large measure, a shift in Hispanic attitudes toward education drives this change. For centuries, in Mexico and Central America an extended education was the prerogative of the wealthy. According to a World Bank study, the average Mexican has 7.2 years of schooling; the average Honduran, 4.8 years, the average Guatemalan, 3.5 years.
Becky Corona, head of Absaroka Head Start and a 1978 graduate of Worland High School, said when she was growing up, the area had low educational aspirations for Hispanics. The attitude was, “if you’re a Mexican, you’re not smart,” she said. Within her own family, work and (for women) marriage was encouraged above education. Corona said she had to wait until she was an adult before getting her college degree.
Schools, in fact, are often a main aspect of Hispanic family life. Wyoming Department of Education figures for 2010 revealed Hispanics to be far and away the most prominently enrolled minority in Wyoming schools with 10,827 students, versus 2,856 for American Indian.
Twenty years ago Hispanics, as a minority, still had twice the students enrolled in Wyoming schools as the number of American Indians. Still, it is worth noting that Hispanic enrollment since 1991, 5,994, has doubled in two decades, while 1991 American Indian student enrollment, 2,471, has changed little.
Compared to American Indians, Hispanics in Wyoming face relatively little institutional, ingrained enmity. They may have endured some slurs or latent discrimination in Wyoming, but the Legislature has not ratified any anti-immigration bills such as SB-1070, the anti-immigration law Arizona passed on August 2010. During the 2011 legislative session, Rep. Peter Illoway, R-Cheyenne, introduced HB 94, a bill that would have cracked down on illegal immigrants and employers who hire them. The bill died after no member of the House Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee moved to vote on it.
Records from U.S. District Court in Cheyenne show Hispanics regularly constituting between 25 and 40 percent of all nationalities becoming naturalized U.S.citizens. Last year, for example, of the 81 Wyoming residents who became U.S. citizens, 18 were from Mexico and three were from Columbia. The countries of Honduras, Columbia, Peru, Panama and Brazil each had one person who became a U.S. citizen.
In 2000, 32 of the 71 Wyoming residents becoming new citizens were from Mexico. One was from El Salvador.
“We don’t worry too much about immigration here,” said Berta Nava, a U.S. resident and owner of a Mexican grocery in Gillette.
A February 2011 study by the Pew Hispanic Center titled “Unauthorized Immigrant Population: National and State Trends, 2010,” estimates that 28 percent of “foreign-born” population in the U.S. are living in the country illegally.
The percentage of illegal residents in Wyoming is probably lower than 28 percent, said Wenlin Liu, senior economist with the Wyoming division of Economic Analysis. “I guess it is probably anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000,” he said.
Mexicans remain the largest group of unauthorized immigrants, accounting for 58 percent of the total, according to the Pew report.
Most otherwise law-abiding undocumented Hispanics probably have good reason not to lose sleep over being deported.
“Most of the illegal aliens we deal with are arrested for a primary cause” (unrelated to residency status), said John Powell of the United States Attorney’s office in Cheyenne. “Local law enforcement calls Immigration and Customs Enforcement and they take custody.”
Powell added, however, that Immigration and Customs Enforcement has “stepped up their activities” in Wyoming in seeking to deport Hispanic illegal aliens. Powell said that out of 478 defendants charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2010, 96 were Hispanics illegally residing in the U.S.
Samuel Western is a freelance writer living in Sheridan.
NOTE: This story was updated on April 26 to reflect the correct name for St. Matthew’s Catholic Church.
READ OR DOWNLOAD a March 2011 U.S. Census report on the country’s Hispanic population.