‘A Good Place to Live’ is the third 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.  A Shift From Agriculture ran on April 26 and The Jobs Machine of Campbell County appeared May 3.

It was a Hispanic housing colony in Lovell situated between a sugar refinery and a patch of woods.

Never mind that the Lovell plant was owned by Great Western Sugar, and Holly Sugar owned the plant down the road in Worland. Lovell dubbed their local Hispanic colony, “Hollywood,” said Inez Ontiveroz.

Ontiveroz came with her family to Lovell in 1941 from Crystal City, Texas, to help with the beet harvest.

Great Western began clamoring for workers in 1916 when it built a sugar beet refinery in Lovell. The company particularly needed field hands and recruited Hispanics — not so much from Mexico, but New Mexico and the area around Eagle Pass, Texas. Known as the Valley, the Eagle Pass area has for decades been home to one of the largest concentrations of migrant families in the nation.

The new immigrants even included members of the Kickapoo Indian tribe.

The houses were constructed for Hispanics by various sugar companies or the migrants themselves could build them, according to Dennis Nodin Valdes, professor of Chicano studies at the University of Minnesota.

“American Beet Sugar and Holly Sugar constructed housing and made it available to workers, who paid rent indirectly, as they received lower wages in exchange for housing,” Valdes wrote in his Great Plains Quarterly article, Settlers, Sojourners, and Proletarians: Social Formation in The Great Plains Sugar Beet Industry, 1890-1940.

Some immigrants stayed as long as they were needed — roughly May through October — to work the fields, then returned home. Some stayed in Wyoming but lived in colony housing.

“Mexicans were not allowed to live in any other part of town,” Ontiveroz said.

Eventually, Ontiveroz’s father got a job with the railroad and was given a section house outside Hollywood.

“We were the only Mexican family on the other side of the tracks,” she said.

Hollywood is gone. Lovell “abolished” the Mexican colony in 1954, according to Antonio Rios-Bustamante, a professor at California State University, Stanislaus.

“It’s all torn down now,” Ontiveroz said.

The Bighorn Basin, along with other beet-growing counties, such as Goshen, and sheep-raising counties such as Carbon, attracted permanent populations of Hispanics through the 20th century.

The 1930 Census put Wyoming’s Hispanic population at 7,174 out of a total population of 225,565.

Hispanics who moved here got a mixed message. The towns valued their labor, but not necessarily their participation as citizens. Hispanics all over Wyoming faced prejudice. In a 1939 survey conducted by Fortune magazine, respondents in the Rocky Mountain West, including Wyoming, considered Mexicans to be the worst citizens.

Bertram Hautner and W. Lewis Abbott, writing in an undated report for the now defunct U.S. Children’s Bureau, said, “Russian-Germans (also involved in beet harvest) are considered members of the community … Spanish Americans and Mexicans are looked upon as outsiders.”

Many Hispanics in Wyoming use special telephones or other services to wire money to friends or relatives in other countries. (Adam Jahiel/WyoFile - click to enlarge)

Becky Corona, director of Absaroka Head Start in Worland, was born in Oklahoma but raised in Worland. She said there was an unspoken rule: “If you were Mexican, you learned that you better stay on your side of the tracks.”

Corona said as late as the early 1970s she remembers seeing signs on store doors in Worland that read, “No Mexicans.”

“It’s gotten a lot better,” she said, “although we still feel the cold shoulder.”

Yet Hispanics from Eagle Pass and the Valley in Texas also married and integrated, especially with some of the Bighorn Basin’s other immigrants from the Volga region of Germany.

Debbie Hammonds, a former representative in the Wyoming House and long-time schoolteacher in Worland, said the intermingling became so complete that on the first day of school, “I would call out the name of a student with a German surname and the person who answered looked like they had just arrived from Mexico.”

Over the years, a certain peace set in. The community accepted Hispanics as necessary. The “No Mexican” signs came down but the welcome mat never got fully extended. Few went to college. Ontiveroz’s six children, all of whom went to college, were the exception. Even fewer returned to the Bighorn Basin to establish professional careers.

A slow transition

Wyoming regards the Bighorn Basin as a dry, placid and predictable place. It’s largely conservative and populated by beet and bean farmers who keep a sharp eye on the Bighorn River, a key source for irrigation water. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is well represented here compared to the rest of the state and the nation in general.

Populations in Big Horn, Hot Springs and Washakie counties have fluctuated over the last 50 years, but all three counties have seen a net loss in residents since 1960. Only Park County, which makes up the northern section of the Bighorn Basin, managed to add 10,000 people over the last half-century. The overall Hispanic population in those counties has increased, however, especially in cities and towns. According to Wenlin Liu, senior economist with the Wyoming division of Economic Analysis, Hispanics now make up 10.7 percent of Greybull’s population, up from 4.7 percent in 2000. Powell’s Hispanic population has grown from 6.8 percent in 2000 to 9.4 percent in 2010.

Worland’s Hispanics represent 16.6 percent of the city’s population. That’s a slightly higher percentage than the nation as a whole, according to U.S. Census numbers released in March, which show Hispanics as making up 16.3 percent of total U.S. population.

In Worland “our population dropped to 5,250 in 2000,” said Terry Sutherland of the Worland Chamber of Commerce. “But, according to the most recent census, our population has risen to 5,489. And of that increase of 237 people, the data shows that 211 were Hispanic.”

Population plays a critical component in calculating the statewide distribution of sales tax, mineral severance tax, federal royalty tax and fuel tax. Sutherland sees Hispanics climbing up Washakie County’s economic and social ladder.

“They’re working in hospitals, schools and retail stores. My assistant, Suzanne Rubio, has been here for 22 years. She’s extremely competent and knows everybody. She could run this place without me,” said Sutherland.

Rubio won the 2006 Woman of the Year award from Worland’s Business and Professional Women group.

An unfolding development, however, will test the strength of the Hispanic community: Roundup Ready beets. Because the genetically modified beets can withstand applications of weed-killing herbicides, farmers need far fewer laborers — laborers who in the past were typically Hispanic migrants — to weed the crops.

According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, farmers in Park, Big Horn and Washakie counties produce over 80 percent of Wyoming’s sugar beets. “About 90 percent of those growing for Western Sugar in Lovell are using Roundup Ready beets, and 100 percent of farmers growing for Wyoming Sugar in Worland are using Roundup Ready beets,” said Randy Violett, of the University of Wyoming’s Powell Research and Extension Center.

“One of the driving forces for developing Roundup Ready beets was the cost of finding and arranging migrant labor,” said Violett.

The economics are compelling. For manually weeding sugar beets it costs, “roughly about $100 per acre,” said Violett. “Roundup Ready beets save about $40 per acre in inputs costs.”

The trend has far-reaching ramifications.

“It will eliminate most of those thinning and weeding jobs,” said John Koller, vice-president of the Bank of Greybull.

Koller said that Hispanics have already been making a shift away from migrant labor and into work for contractors or landscaping. Those who remain in agriculture “have been hired full-time by a local rancher. Beet labor, for Hispanics, is on the low rung on the ladder. There’s a stigma attached to it,” said Koller.

Ted Vigil, right, and son Danny Vigil

Ted Vigil has lived and farmed in Worland all his life. His father came up from Taos, N.M., “around 1922 or 23,” first to Casper, then to Worland to work as a general ranch and farmhand. To Vigil’s way of thinking, his father was not a Hispanic immigrant, but rather just another person figuring out his future. He came from an agricultural background, “so it was easy for a farm boy to find work,” he said.

Vigil said his father’s farm experience and facility with English gave him an advantage. In 1935, a bank gave him a loan to start his own farm. He prospered and bought more land. Vigil eventually became an owner of his father’s farm and raised sugar beets, alfalfa, beans and cattle. Now retired, Vigil applauds the advent of Roundup Ready beets.

“If we couldn’t plant them, I’m not sure we would plant any beets at all. It was getting so darned hard to find labor,” he said.

Yet the development does have a negative impact on some.

“Roundup Ready beets are hurting our migrant community,” said Sharon Marschman of the Absaroka Inc. Migrant Head Start Center. “Fewer families are coming up.”

Last year, only 10-12 families that qualified for Head Start assistance migrated to the Bighorn Basin, mostly from Texas, said Marschman. They brought with them a total of about 20 children.

“Normally I have funding for about 54,” she said.

This represents a significant drop in overall Bighorn Basin migrant enrollment, said Corona. In the 1990s, there once were migrants centers in Basin and Worland that had a combined enrollment “at around the 250 level,” she said.

The centers are now closed due to lack of migrant students and families.

Such a marked decrease in the migrant population — of transitory families who stay only for seasonal agricultural jobs — is in stark contrast to a new pattern: Hispanic families now come to the Bighorn Basin, settle, take steady jobs and put their children in public school.

Going to the big school and staying there

Estar Aqui  (be here)

Estar Listo (be ready)

Estar Seguro (be safe)

Westside Motto (also posted in English), Westside Elementary, Worland

School districts in most of the Big Horn Basin have seen declining student enrollment in the past decade. That is true even in Park County, which alone gained population in the last half-century.

Alone among ethnic groups in these Big Horn Basin counties, the Hispanic student population has grown in numbers – and in percentages, as overall student populations in the area decline.

Kindergarten enrollment at the Washakie County School District # 1 is up from 89 students in 2000 to 140 in 2010.

Enrollment has also risen in other early grades. Hispanics make up, on average, 28 percent of grades K-5, according to Mary Krisko, Washakie County School District #1 curriculum director and grant manager.

Brianna Miranda-Ramirez, the youngest of three children, moved to Gillette three years ago with her family. Her father, Jose Miranda-Ramirez, works as a home builder. (Adam Jahiel/WyoFile - click to enlarge)

In general, the Hispanic student population is up in the Bighorn Basin. For example, in 1991, 216 students out of 1,536, or 14 percent, in Washakie School District #1 were Hispanic. In 2010, the percentage had more than doubled: 346 out of 974 students, or 35 percent, were Hispanic.

Big Horn School District # 3, 100 out of 393 students are Hispanic. In 1991, it was 20 out of 520.

By contrast, Hot Springs District #1 — which has lost 30 percent of its enrollment the last 20 years — has less than 2 percent Hispanic enrollment as of October 2010.

Schools as a change agent for the Hispanic community have deep roots and a long history, said Kim Wyman, an English as a second language (ESL) teacher at Westside Elementary School in Worland.

It just took awhile for the changes to reach places like the Bighorn Basin. Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965 as a part of the “War on Poverty.” The legislation emphasized equal access to education. Wyoming Hispanics, however, had to wait until President George W. Bush reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education in 2002, renaming it “No Child Left Behind,” for the ramifications of the legislation to make a difference.

Suddenly, the progress of “limited ­English-proficient” students mattered. The federal government wanted measurable results. Schools had to become more assertive in making sure that any student struggling with English got special attention.

“They (Hispanics) had been clumped in with special ed,” said Wyman. “We had to do a much better job in getting base language acquisition skills to these kids.”

The ESL program “builds a relationship with parents,” said Wyman, who has been an ESL teacher for nine years. “And as to this attitude that they (Hispanic migrants) don’t care about their children’s education, nothing could be farther from the truth,” said Wyman. “They get involved.”

Wyman also credited Even Start — a federal- and state-funded family literacy service that aids parents and children with education and parenting classes — with helping Hispanics transition to a different life.

“There’s been a definite shift in Worland,” said Wyman. “We’re seeing a lot more Hispanic families (as compared to single men). In my opinion, our community embraces these families. Kids no longer look at a Hispanic student and say, ‘He’s from Mexico.’”

And it is the importance of “la familia” that matters to so many Hispanics. Despite the lack of economic security and occasional cold shoulder, they still come to Wyoming for what it can offer their families. A woman from Powell named Paula, who did not want to give her age or last name, said she first came to the Bighorn Basin from Mission, Texas, when she was younger, to work in the bean fields. Now she is married, has a home and four children.

“It’s a good place to live,” she said. “We’ve been able to make a life here; it’s place without violence.”

Samuel Western is a freelance writer living in Sheridan.

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Samuel Western of Sheridan is a university lecturer, poet and U.S. regional correspondent for The Economist. He is the author of Pushed Off the Mountain Sold Down the River: Wyoming’s Search for Its...

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  1. Always amazed by the way these left wing – liberal writers try to divide us……..no labels on the kids I grew up with………hispanic, mexican, etc………just that they were individuals. Too bad our liberal brothers can’t comprehend that.

  2. Thanks Samuel, this has been a very informative report!! I hope it will bring all of us Wyomingites together in a better way.