Latino History in Oklahoma
The Great Depression
In Oklahoma, families experienced significant unemployment as a result of the Great Depression, and some faced the environmental catastrophe of the Dust Bowl. Support from the government during the early part of the Depression was minimal. The state provided $3–$6, about two days’ worth of wages, a month. Today, that amount is equal to $48 to $96. Many families of all backgrounds decided to leave the state, moving where job and relief opportunities were better. During the decade of the Great Depression, about half a million families left the state out of a population of 2.5 million.
The Daily Oklahoman, December 28, 1930.
Mexican families also sought opportunity and stability elsewhere. By the end of the decade 75 percent of the Mexican population moved out of Oklahoma. Most of the departures appear to be voluntary. However, there is some evidence that the Mexican Repatriation, the period of forced deportations of Mexican residents and American citizens of Mexican descent in the 1930s, occurred in Oklahoma. Families originating from Oklahoma made up 3 percent of the total number of returnees arriving in Nuevo Laredo in 1932. In 1933–1934, federal immigration authorities conducted a series of raids and deportations in Oklahoma City.
Building a Community
Mexican culture dotted the Oklahoma landscape during this decade. Little Flower and Our Lady of Guadalupe served Mexican families in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. In 1938, a Spanish-language library opened in 1938 in Oklahoma City. Mexican restaurants were operated in many cities and towns by Mexican families, including Tejano Luis Alvarado. In 1937, he opened El Charro. After a fire, he reopened under the name El Charrito. This popular restaurant gained a significant following, and he built more restaurants. Eventually, this restaurant chain became El Chico.
Some families stayed, having made Oklahoma their permanent home. These families, with last names like Martinez, Cruz, Casillas, Rodrigues, and Zamudio, worked to preserve and celebrate their Mexican heritage. They also welcomed and assisted the small number of new families moving to Oklahoma in the coming decades.
The Martinez Family, early 1900s (image courtesy ¡Latino Presentes!).