Michigan’s Mexican-American Migrants
By Ethan Veenhuis
On 12 June 1993, the Frank O. Barrera Chapter of the American G.I. Forum held a ceremony in Flint, Michigan, to honor the Mexican American veterans of the Second World War who hailed from Genesee County. Private First Class Epifanio V. Barajas was one of the honorees that night. Barajas, a member of F Company, 47th Infantry, 9th Division of the U.S. Army during the war, was amongst the most highly decorated Latinx veterans from the state of Michigan. During his time in the army, he saw action in the North African theater, Germany, and France in the initial D-Day invasion force that landed on Omaha Beach. For his service the Army awarded him (among other medals), two Purple Hearts, the Bronze Star, and special recognition for his skill as a sharpshooter.
Born in San Antonio, Texas in 1921, Barajas came to Michigan with his family sometime before the war began. The Barajas family worked as migrant farm labor in Texas picking cotton and other agricultural products whenever and wherever they could before following a wave of workers north to the upper Midwest and Michigan. According to the historian Steven Rosales, by the mid-1920s, agricultural workers of Mexican descent made up between “75-90%” of the work force in the sugar beet fields of Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, and, of course, Michigan. These workers came to the region as migrant farm labor. Recruited in Texas these workers were promised free travel, high wages, and in some cases even a house to live in. Many of these promises fell through but were effective nonetheless as workers came by the thousands every year. They settled across Michigan especially in the cities of Detroit, Pontiac, Flint, and Saginaw, where they found work harvesting sugar beets, cucumbers, apples, and cherries. When the United States entered the Second World War, many of these migrant farmers enlisted in the armed forces and served their country proudly.
After the war Barajas returned to Flint, and like so many others in Michigan’s Mexican-American community, took a job working for General Motors, raised a family, and found the better life that his parents had hoped for when they arrived in the early 1920s. Epifanio Barajas’ story is one small part of a much larger tale that began in Central Texas and found its conclusion right here in mid-Michigan. A story shared by thousands of Mexicans and Mexican Americans who came to the upper Midwest as migrant farm labor seeking the “American Dream” for their families, and wound up contributing significantly to their country in the process. This larger story is the focus of my current research and I plan to build and expand on what Steven Rosales began in his fantastic book Soldados Razos At War: Chicano Politics, Identity, and Masculinity in the U.S. Military from World War II to Vietnam.
Despite pioneering work on migration to Michigan, Rosales’ work on Mexican and Mexican American migration to Michigan is largely limited to the colonia in Saginaw and used in a discussion of life for these workers that lead up to their participation in the Second World War. My research goal and aspirations are to expand the scope of the project and include the rest of the significant Mexican colonias in the state. Furthermore, examine what life was like for these workers and their families leading up to, during, and in the immediate aftermath of the war. By utilizing the lenses of labor, gender, race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, immigration, migration, and cultural expression I hope to offer a more complete picture of our state’s often overlooked and erased Mexican American community during this significant period. It is incredibly important that we continually strive to revisit the moments in our history where entire groups of people have been relegated to the margins and create works that center their perspectives and magnify their voices. Since I quite literally would not be here without my abuelo, Private First Class Epifanio Barajas, telling his story and the stories of thousands of others like him is the very least I can do as a grandson and as a historian.
Ethan Veenhuis is a CMU History Masters Alumnus who graduated in December 2018. Ethan is a dog-dad from Flint, Michigan. His current research expands upon Rosales’ pioneering work, especially the Mexican-American story in Michigan. Further research interests are in Chicano History from the Second World War through the Civil Rights Movement. For more information or to contact him: email@example.com