The Stockyards' Early Latino Workers
What were the "push" and "pull" factors that brought Mexican immigrants to the Omaha stockyards, and how did this change over time?
The Latino Experience in South Omaha Stockyards & Packing Houses
In 1884, a man by the name of Alexander Hamilton Swan built the stockyards in Omaha. This was possible because Swan noticed how much more efficient it would be to ship the livestock to a closer location for processing. From there, the Omaha stockyards grew and by 1955 they became the largest livestock market in the world, surpassing Chicago. The stockyards opened a lot of job opportunities for thousands of people. Immigrants from all over the world came to Omaha for labor.
The first immigrants came to Omaha from European countries, followed by Latin Americans. The Latinos were a great part of the stockyards. They occupied a large portion of the jobs and replaced the previous immigrant groups: Greek, Polish, Czech, Italian, and Irish. Most immigrants found the work attractive, because it did not require education or skills. Latinos, for example, relied on their work at the stockyards to support their families. Though the payment was decent, the working conditions proved to be harsh. As a result of the sacrifices that were made, South Omaha has become a hub of immigrant history.
A 4 minute interview in 2013 with past packinghouse workers Jim Ramirez and Sergio Sosa and Filemon Fernandez current worker with Tyson.
The Walk of Death
This postcard shows the Omaha Stockyards. The stockyards were always busy. Trains would arrive every day loaded with cattle, pigs, or sheep that were then unloaded into the pens. The animals were sorted and later sent to the slaughterhouse. Also, the animals were separated by species. At the stockyards, the animals were checked for diseases or defects, such as infections, sicknesses, or broken bones.
Where It All Happened
The Livestock Exchange building in Omaha, Nebraska was built in 1926. It is located at 4920 S. 30th St. in South Omaha. The Livestock Exchange was the largest and most visually prominent building constructed on the Omaha Union Stockyards site. The three largest meatpacking centers in the history of the nation were Chicago, Kansas City and Omaha. The building served as the center of the livestock industry in Omaha. It was designed as a multi-purpose building, housing not only offices but a bakery, cafeteria, kitchen, soda fountain, cigar stand, telephone and telegraph offices, apartments, and sleeping rooms, a clothing store, ballrooms and a convention hall. In 2013, it houses apartments, a medical facility and the top floor is rented out for events.
Omaha: The Largest Stockyard Holder In The World
This artifact from 1955 represents the pride that the workers of the stockyards had towards their city. It also recognized the competition between the stockyards of Chicago and Omaha. The sign posted on the Q Street Bridge, let everyone know that the people of Omaha cared about what they did and that they wanted to be the best that they could be at their jobs. No matter what career path they followed, whether it be a big job or a small job, it still mattered.
- 1883: South Omaha Union stockyards were founded
- 1890: Omaha stockyards were third in the nation in production
- 1947: The stockyards were second in the world to Chicago
- 1955: Omaha stockyards were the nation's largest livestock market
- 1971: The stockyards held their title for 16 years
The stockyards in South Omaha significantly impacted the development of that community and Omaha more generally. They eventually became the largest in the world, playing an important role in national and international markets before being closed in 1999. Work in the stockyards drew immigrants to Omaha as early as the mid-to-late 19th century and impacted its ethnic diversity, culture, and landscape. Related industries like meatpacking continue to play a central role in employment and immigration today.
The students’ work here highlights the relationship between the Omaha stockyards, packing houses, and immigration, focusing particular attention on the Latino experience. During the early part of the 20th century, immigrant workers in the stockyards were predominantly of European background, although larger numbers of Mexican immigrants were being drawn to the Midwest to work in the sugar beet industry. Many early Mexican immigrants also sought refuge from the unrest caused by the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. During the Great Depression, as unemployment swept the country and the economy shrank, some discussed a “Mexican problem,” even though they still made up a very small portion of the overall population. Following WWII, as the economy grew, so too did the need for immigrant labor. By the 1970s, the meatpacking industry was changing, along with other sectors of the economy, as unions began to decline and automation and globalization became strong factors. But the industry continues to depend on immigrant labor. Workers not only from Mexico but from all over the world come to Omaha to work.
The students also highlight in their video the working conditions at packing plants. Dangerous conditions at plants and hopes of sharing in the benefits of a growing economy drove many workers to participate in the building of labor unions. A national packing house strike took place within this context in 1948, and many workers in South Omaha participated or were affected by the strike. With the implementation of automation and other technologies in the 1970s, many hoped that meatpacking work would become safer. Although some things have improved, work at packing plants remains difficult and sometimes dangerous. In 2013, worker's centers have become a place for immigrants at the plants to learn their rights and build communities amongst Latinos of ethnically diverse backgrounds.
2013 MIHV Project
"One thing I've learned in this project is how to work together with groups. I've learned how not to be shy and ask someone questions. I will be better at working in groups."
"This project has taught me so many new skills in life for school. It has also helped me understand topics and quotes through identity, community, and significance."
"I learned that Omaha once had the largest livestock market in the world. I also learned how to interview efficiently and will use this in high school when I need to interview."
Davis, Roger. "Latinos Along the Platte: The Hispanic Experience in Central Nebraska." Great Plains Research 12 (Spring 2001): 27-50. Accessed July 17, 2013. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1597&context=greatplainsresearch.
Fine, Janice. Workers Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.
Garza, James A. “The Long History of Mexican Immigration to the Rural Midwest.” Journal of the West Vol. 45 No. 4 (Fall 2006): 57-64.
Lichtenstein, Nelson. State of the Union: A Century of American Labor. Princeton: NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.
Olsen, Tillie. Yonnondio: From the Thirties. New York: NY: Delta Books, 1974.
Otis, Harry B. and Danold H. Erickson, E Pluribus Omaha. Omaha, NE: Lamplight Press, 2002.
Pratt, William C. "Workers, Bosses, and Public Officials: Omaha's 1948 Packinghouse Strike." Nebraska History 66 (1985): 294-313. Accessed July 17, 2013. https://www.nebraskahistory.org/publish/publicat/history/full-text/NH1985PackStrike.pdf.
Research compiled by: Faviola, Michael, and Samuel