Hispanics in Oklahoma in the twentieth century trace their roots to all nineteen Spanish-speaking Latin American nations and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and, after American Indians and African Americans, comprise the third largest ethnic minority in Oklahoma. Until the 1960s Hispanics in Oklahoma were almost exclusively of Mexican descent. Significant Mexican immigration began after 1900, as deteriorating social and economic conditions and the revolution of 1910 drove thousands of refugees to seek security and employment in Oklahoma. In the early twentieth century Mexicans constituted a majority of the Oklahoma railroad maintenance crews, comprised the fourth largest ethnic group laboring in the southeastern coal mining district, annually participated in the cotton harvests, and held a variety of unskilled jobs throughout the state. By 1930 Mexicans numbered approximately 7,500 and had established small colonias in Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Bartlesville, Lawton, and dozens of towns along the Santa Fe, Rock Island, and Katy railroads.
Although the majority were Roman Catholic, initially there were no Oklahoma Spanish-speaking priests. In 1915 several Spanish Carmelites fleeing the Mexican revolution founded an Oklahoma mission to serve the growing number of immigrants. In 1927 they built Little Flower Church in Oklahoma City and later established Our Lady of Guadalupe in Tulsa. The Great Depression decreased the state's Mexican population, and in 1940 only about 1,500 remained. Those who stayed would form the base of an enduring Hispanic community. During World War II, young men of Mexican descent joined the military, served with honor, and qualified for the "G.I. Bill of Rights." Unprecedented numbers were able to obtain a college education, on-the-job training, or loans to establish their own businesses.
In the decades following the war the population of Hispanics of Mexican descent significantly grew. Mexico's burgeoning population fed a growing migrant stream, and in the mid-1960s an important in-migration of Mexican Americans from Texas began, establishing a continuing trend. Severe economic crises in the early 1980s and mid-1990s and significant changes in U.S. immigration policies spurred new waves of migration that included sizeable but undetermined numbers of undocumented workers. Mexican immigrants most commonly work as farm laborers, ranch hands, construction workers, and restaurant and service personnel. Many send a portion of their earnings to their families in Mexico.
Beginning in the 1960s the non-Mexican Hispanic population of Oklahoma also significantly grew. Puerto Ricans, who comprise the second largest Hispanic group in Oklahoma, usually come to the state as members of the armed forces or civilian employees at such places as Fort Sill, Altus Air Force Base, Tinker Field, and Vance Air Force Base and have remained after completing their enlistment period or upon retirement. Others migrate to pursue educational, professional, or business opportunities. Reflecting their largely military connections, Puerto Ricans reside principally in Comanche, Oklahoma, Tulsa, and Cleveland counties. Their status as U.S. citizens with full political rights markedly differentiates them from all other Hispanic newcomers.
Oklahomans of Cuban ancestry have comprised the third largest Hispanic group in the state, but their number remains relatively small. Although over one million Cubans fled the island after Fidel Castro took power in 1959 and the United States offered refugees financial assistance for relief and resettlement, proportionally few traveled to Oklahoma during the exodus's peak years. In 2000 Oklahomans of Cuban descent totaled approximately 1,700, or 1 percent of the Hispanic population. They live in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Comanche, and Cleveland counties, where they typically hold managerial, professional, military, or business positions.
People who trace their ancestry to the Spanish-speaking nations of Central and South America are a rapidly growing segment of Oklahoma's Hispanic population. Social and economic problems, civil war, and guerrilla insurgencies in areas such as Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, and Peru have pushed many economic and political refugees into the state. While an undetermined number of undocumented immigrants from these areas, particularly from rural Central America, have reached Oklahoma, most apparently have come as professionals, technical workers, spouses, students, or as a result of family reunification. South American immigrants generally reflect more urban middle-class or skilled working-class characteristics than their Central American counterparts. Guatemalans, Hondurans, Salvadorans, Colombians, Peruvians, and Venezuelans constitute the largest contingents of Central and South American newcomers and live predominantly in the Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and Lawton areas.
Organizations such as Oklahoma City's Latino Development Agency and Legal Aid of Western Oklahoma facilitated the adjustment of Hispanic immigrants. These institutions provide employment referrals, medical, social, and educational services, youth programs, legal advice, immigration and naturalization information, and consulting services for small business owners. Oklahoma religious institutions serve both the spiritual and material needs of the community. The Salvation Army, the Catholic Hispanic Affairs Commissions, and Catholic Charities provide an array of social and educational programs, while Catholic, Protestant, interdenominational, and nondenominational churches offer religious services in Spanish. Civic associations such as the League of United Latin American Citizens, American G.I. Forum, Oklahoma Association of Hispanic Professionals, Latin American Council for Human Rights, Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and Governor's Hispanic Council all voice Hispanic concerns. Spanish-language newspapers in major urban areas discuss community affairs and enable businesses and public agencies to reach more effectively a growing Spanish-speaking clientele. Spanish-language radio stations across the state offer news programs, public announcements, and popular music.
The maintenance of ethnic identity and promotion of cultural pride is important to Oklahoma Hispanics. For more than a century Mexicans have commemorated national patriotic events such as the Cinco de Mayo and 16 de Septiembre (Mexico's Independence Day). In 1991 Oklahoma officially established September 15 to October 15 as "Hispanic Month." Many Hispanics continue to mark the Día de la Raza (Columbus Day), while Colombians, Peruvians, Panamanians, and others celebrate their mother country's achievement of independence. Groups such as the Hispanic Heritage Association in Oklahoma City and the Hispanic American Foundation of Tulsa are devoted to the maintenance of traditional customs, dances, and music.
In 2000 nearly 180,000 Hispanics, or 5.2 percent of the population, lived in Oklahoma, an increase of over 100 percent since 1990. Anecdotal evidence suggests, however, that if undocumented and uncounted aliens were included in the total, the number would be substantially higher. Persons of Mexican heritage comprise approximately 75 percent of all Oklahoma Hispanics. The largest groups live Oklahoma City (51,000), Tulsa (28,000), Lawton (8,700), Guymon (4,000), and Altus (3,700), but Hispanics reside in every county. The regions of heaviest concentration are in the western portions, particularly communities in the southwest and the Panhandle, where Hispanics frequently comprise over 25 percent of the population. Spanish is the primary language spoken in approximately 75 percent of Oklahoma's Hispanic households, and the influx of non-English speakers has severely challenged public officials' ability to provide services and facilities. In some classrooms, as many as one half of the students do not speak English. Although Hispanics have built no powerful political block or pressure group, recent demographic trends suggest that they will play an increasingly important role in Oklahoma's future.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Pastora San Juan Cafferty and David W. Engstrom, eds., Hispanics in the United States: An Agenda for the Twenty-first Century (New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 2000). Mary Romero, et al., Challenging Fronteras (New York and London: Routledge, 1997). Michael M. Smith, The Mexicans in Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980). Michael M. Smith, "Mission to the Immigrants: Establishment of the Order of Discalced Carmelites in Oklahoma, 1914-1929," in Southwestern Cultural Heritage Festival 1981, ed. W. David Baird, et al. (Stillwater: Oklahoma State University Press, 1981). Michael M. Smith, "Beyond the Borderlands: Mexican Labor in the Central Plains, 1900-1930," Great Plains Quarterly 1 (Fall 1981).
Michael M. Smith
© Oklahoma Historical Society