The Mexican Labor Experience Depicted in Corridos

This lesson provides students with the context for Mexican recruitment to Bethlehem Steel. Students will analyze a Mexican corrido, or ballad, from the 1920s called the Corrido Pensilvanio. Corridos chronicle important aspects of Mexican and Mexican-American community life, including issues of social justice, cultural conflict, war, heroism, labor, and migration.

The Corrido Pensilvanio depicts the recruitment and migration of Mexican laborers to Bethlehem. It reveals how the industrial experience of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation was a departure from the typical agricultural labor of the southwestern Mexican worker. In addition to analyzing the corrido, students engage with a work advertisement and articles from the San Antonio newspaper, La Prensa, as well as articles from The Bethlehem Globe.La Prensa details the contract agreement between Bethlehem Steel and the Mexican Consulate and provides information regarding wages, transportation, housing arrangements and other accommodations Bethlehem Steel provided. The Bethlehem Globe articles provide insight into the immigration laws and labor shortages that triggered the increased reliance on Mexican labor.

 

 

 

Essential Questions

How can the story of another American, past or present, influence your life?
Why is time and space important to the study of history?

Objectives

Students will:

  • Develop critical thinking skills by reading and interpreting primary source material.
  • Evaluate historical evidence by considering the bias of the authors of the materials.
  • Understand how and why Mexican laborers immigrated to Pennsylvania in the 1920s through reading and interpreting the “Corrido Pensilvanio.”

Suggested Instructional Procedures

1. Distribute the “Corrido Pensilvanio” and the work advertisement from La Prensa. If possible, have a student read the Spanish version of the corrido out loud for the full appreciation of the meter and rhyme. Ask students if they detect certain patterns that reveal the form of the corrido (ABCB rhyme scheme, four line stanzas each with eight syllables). Briefly discuss with students the use of ballads as a means to illustrate historical events and group sentiment. Discuss the border corrido as a genre of the ballad that had particular significance in the southwestern region of the United States between 1880 and 1930. Discuss how the themes of corridos change to reflect contemporary issues.

2. Students should work either individually or in pairs to dissect each stanza of the corrido. As a class, dissect the corrido and draw upon the primary source material to create a statement summarizing the event depicted in the song.

3. As a class, develop a profile of the Mexican laborer who migrated to Bethlehem Steel in 1923. The teacher should generate a silhouette of a person on the board or on a large sheet of paper and write the term Mexican steelworker at the top. The profile should include information about the type of labor this worker engaged in, how the worker came to Bethlehem Steel, age, gender, etc. Ask the students to refer back to the corrido and the advertisement for information. Generate a discussion around major themes such as solos (workers who migrated alone), braceros (laborers) and how this term by the 1940s would become synonymous with the bracero program, industrial labor compared to agricultural work, contract labor, etc.

4. Have students read “The Time for Mexican Laborers Has Arrived” from La Prensa regarding the specific details of the contract negotiated between Bethlehem Steel and the Mexican Consulate. The teacher may choose to have the students complete this reading for homework. Ask students to answer the following questions:
• What was the legal status of the Mexican workers of Bethlehem Steel?
• What was the role of the Mexican Consulate?
• What protections were guaranteed to the Mexican workers in the contract? Were these protections necessary?
• What were some expenses that the worker incurred due to this migration?
• What expenses did Bethlehem Steel absorb for the worker?
• Speculate why many of these workers were solos.
In class, have students share their answers and incorporate this information into the worker profile. Where appropriate, draw upon Taylor’s readings to provide the students with additional information, particularly when discussing transportation costs and “birds of passage.”

5. Place the Bethlehem Steel labor situation in the larger historical context by discussing the impact of 1920s immigration policy, labor shortages, and the political and economic situation in Mexico that influenced the recruitment of Mexican labor in the United States. Teachers may choose to have students read and compare the Bethlehem Globe articles that highlight the local and national labor shortage that affected Bethlehem Steel’s importation of Mexican labor. Also have students infer the impact of the Great Depression on Mexican labor in the United States and how this changed by the start of World War II to demonstrate the shifting policies regarding Mexican immigration.

Vocabulary

Agribusiness: A large-scale farming enterprise.
Ballad: A narrative form relating a dramatic event that can be sung or recited. Folk or traditional ballads are ballads that originally were passed down orally from one singer to another generation after generation. This method of dissemination meant that both the lyrics and tune might change over time and result in many different versions of one song.
Birds of passage: Migrants who move back and forth from one place to another following seasonal work patterns.
Bracero: From the Spanish word “brazo” which means “arm.” Bracero refers to an unskilled Mexican laborer.
Contract labor: A signed agreement between an employer and a group of wage earners that details certain terms and conditions of employment. 
Corrido:  A Mexican narrative song or ballad based on oral tradition. Spanning more than two centuries, the corrido highlights important social, political and cultural issues that impacted and continue to impact Mexican and Mexican American communities. Themes include war, romance, social justice, heroism, and migration. Corridos evolve to reflect contemporary issues.
Itinerant work: Working in one place for a comparatively short time and then moving on to work in another place, usually as a physical or outdoor laborer.
Labor agent:  A recruiter who secured jobs for new immigrants. Agents sometimes paid the fare for passage and helped find food and housing for workers. Some businesses paid labor agents to recruit their workers. In some cases, the workers paid a fee to the labor agent that was extracted from workers’ wages.
Solos: Spanish for “single men.”