The little-known history of Wyoming-Mexican beet farmers
Have you ever heard of the “Betabeleros”? Neither had University of Wyoming Professors Conxita Domenech and Chelsea Escalante. That was until they came across a 1920s newspaper called “La Pagina Espanol”. Published entirely in Spanish, this special page in the Powell Tribune was made for communities of Mexican-American beet farmers, AKA Betabeleros in the area. Wyoming Public Radio's Jordan Uplinger spoke with them about their findings.
This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Chelsea Escalante: It was brought to our attention that this newspaper existed. I didn't know anything about the sugar beet workers at that time, and had no idea of this community existing in Wyoming 100 years ago. Remember that in the 1800s, the territory in the West was part of Mexico and basically, the border crossed them. So at that time, there were many families who had been in that land for many generations. They were Mexican, and then they became United States citizens.
But yes, the Betabeleros came both from Mexico itself, New Mexico, Texas, California, and other states. And the sugar companies wanted workers, they needed workers. And so they built these kind-of temporary housing communities that they called colonies. And then offered this opportunity for low-rent housing. The rent could be taken off the salary, so you don't have to have the upfront money. They wanted families instead of just, for example, male adult workers. They wanted it to be a family experience because they thought that there would be a higher chance of the workers staying if the whole family came in, it wouldn’t just be for that season. They wanted year-round workers. And so they wanted to give them opportunities to have housing and education so that the whole family could come.
Conxita Domenech: They recruited them. I mean, their children could go to school, and they probably did several activities like baseball games and dances, as you can see from the pictures of the dancers in [the exhibit]. But at the same time, they couldn't go to the swimming pool.
CE: The movie theaters.
CD: The movie theaters, there was segregation there. Later on, there was segregation in the schools as well. So yeah, they organized dances, but at the same time, they couldn't do the things that the people who live here, the Anglos, were doing. We are still utterly at the beginning. And we are still learning about this. We don't have all the answers. But we're very excited about this pleasure.
Jordan Uplinger: I actually had a question about that particular part of the investigation here, because it does seem like this is a group of people who obviously had an impact in Wyoming. But do we know a lot about them? Are their practices, their culture, and their stories still there to be found? Or are some of these insights maybe lost time and lost to history?
CE: That's one of our main priorities: to highlight this community because it is often forgotten. The Betabeleros came in great numbers in the 1910s, and 1920s. But by the 1930s, when the Depression hit, a lot of them found themselves going elsewhere, whether it be because of the wages being lower or the expense of living being higher. But then also, they started facing a lot more discriminatory practices by the 1930s. As the numbers grew, the white population didn't want their kids going to school with the Mexican kids. And so the schools became segregated at different points. And so I think there was a pressure for some of them to move away, that they weren't wanted here.
As such, kind of a forgotten part of Wyoming's history. There were some that stayed. And there are many descendants of the Betabeleros living in Wyoming. But we want to really highlight the fact that this was an important part of Wyoming's history and that they weren't always welcomed in this state and [we’re] kind of working to shine a light on all of their contributions so that they are honored as part of history.
JU: From your research, it's clear that there was animosity towards them that some people did not want them to be there. In one picture that I saw on the exhibit, they were holding an American flag and a Mexican flag. I think this might have still been in the time period when people didn't smile in photos, but they were clearly excited to be here and have a combination of these cultures. Is that the impression that you've also got from your studies?
CD: Actually yesterday I was reading the last page of La Pagina Espanol, and they say “Well, there is not any reason to continue these pages, because you are leaving, because the Betabeleros are leaving, because winter is coming and they won’t have work”. And actually, they were very, very sad because it seems like [the community] didn't want them to leave. They weren't promoting them to stay in Wyoming. But at the same time, there are all these ads from businesses saying, “It is so sad that you are leaving, please come back.” And there is a column that is very funny because it says “Please don’t leave. But remember, if you leave, you have to pay the one peso that it costs to get the page.” It was very funny. One peso.
JU: Are you hoping to spark a larger conversation just within the historical community or at large? Or, with this project, are you looking more to add to public knowledge, to make sure that certain things don't go unrecorded?
CE: I think both. I think our first step is just sharing this information with the community and having more people become aware of the Betabeleros and their history in Wyoming. And then we also want to publish a book eventually about this. Ideally, we would love to publish in Spanish because from what we found, there have been some publications. But everything that I've seen about the Betabeleros is in English. And so I think sharing this story in the native language of the community is great. And we can share with U.S Spanish speakers and Spanish speakers around the world about how this community has existed and how they're part of our history.
CD: The exhibit itself is bilingual. We have the page in Spanish. [In the exhibit], we have the translation we did some and [our] students did some as well. So yeah, we try to show Wyoming that Wyoming is not only Anglo-Saxon and Wyoming is not the English that we have, Spanish is also the language of Wyoming.