Work & Entrepreneurship

Written by Moisés Acuña Gurrola

As outlined in The Barrios, industry largely dictated where most of the Latino working class in Fort Worth settled. While several Latino residents of those barrios described favorable working conditions, others explained that to make a living they and their families had to carefully navigate the racial hierarchy established by those in power, many of whom viewed ethnic Mexicans and African Americans as second-class citizens qualified only to work menial jobs and earn minimal compensation. In the following clips, Tony Castillo recalls the differences between African American and Mexican American segregation and discrimination in the workplace, and Antonio Ayala describes “Mexican work” during the Great Depression.

Fort Worth’s industrial center and rural surroundings offered temporary and seasonal employment to those willing to endure the hot summers and backbreaking work of “pickers.”  Residents, mostly Latinos or African Americans, picked cotton in neighboring Mansfield while others followed vegetable crops across the country before returning to the city to resume their work as laborers in factories. Santiago Diaz describes the working and living conditions in the labor camps up north; Tony Castillo recalls what he saw when he had passed through Mansfield to pick cotton during what may have been the Mansfield Desegregation Crisis of 1956; and Rosa Gomez tells us about her experiences of having worked in Wisconsin.

For those who found permanent work in Fort Worth and in cities nationwide, the problems of racial discrimination and Anglo favoritism created a workplace that offered low wages, meager benefits, and few opportunities for upward mobility and also made ethnic Mexicans susceptible to unlawful treatment from bosses and other employees. As part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, the federal government established the Office of Economic Opportunity, which created new positions in community action and public administration for Latinos and also strengthened the enforcement of equal employment laws. In Fort Worth, social workers involved in antipoverty agencies were instrumental in establishing additional groups that further challenged discrimination in the workplace. In the following video clips, Michael Gonzalez details the formation and goals of Incorporated Mexican American Government Employees (IMAGE, later renamed to National Image, Inc.) and a case involving the blatant targeting of a Spanish-speaking woman who had testified in a civil rights case against her employer.

Latino entrepreneurship has a long history in Fort Worth, dating back to the 1880s when some men owned chili stands and worked as “tamales peddlers.” Like the larger barrios, Latino-owned businesses experienced similar levels of marginalization in the Fort Worth consumer market. Although they were not listed in the “colored businesses” section of city directories, owners’ surnames told readers everything they needed to know when they looked for a provider of a particular product or service. As Rita Rodriguez-Utt points out, Mexican businesses located in the barrios primarily attracted Mexican patrons who were denied entry to other similar establishments. Here, she further details her paternal grandfather’s journey to La Fundicion, where he opened his second business and remained permanently. Mary Virginia Hallak discusses some of the seedy, albeit lucrative, businesses that thrived during the early twentieth century. Many Latino business owners found great success serving Latinos while others became successful by courting Anglo customers, some of whom tried to take advantage of their social status and get out of paying their bills.

Today, the small business community in Fort Worth has diversified with business owners from each ethnic group reaching out to one another and building networks. As Rosa Navejar explained in Schools & Churches, native Spanish-speakers have seen great success with English training sponsored by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Here, Navejar describes the mutual success of the black and Latino communities with partnerships between the Hispanic Chamber and the Fort Worth Metropolitan Black Chamber of Commerce. Domingo Villegas describes some of the early roadblocks to joint ventures between the black and Latino communities and explains how the Barbers Association addressed the concerns of black participants. Victor Espino details some of the problems concerning Latino ice cream vendors in Fort Worth and his efforts to create a welcoming environment, a campaign that led to his canonization as El Santo patrono de los Paleteros, the patron saint of ice cream vendors.

The growth of Latino enterprise did not compensate for the discrimination felt by several Latino business owners and especially working-class Latinos. But as we see in Activism & Public Service, the struggle for workers’ rights built a platform for activists and community leaders who stepped up as representatives of the Latino community in Fort Worth’s political arena. 

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