The Migrant Experience, in Spanish

Posted on September 15, 2021 by Clay Stalls | Comments (0)

Front of the envelope of a letter from Ysidro Alvarado to his father, Antonio Alvarado, March 6, 1926. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.
Front of the envelope of a letter from Ysidro Alvarado to his father, Antonio Alvarado, March 6, 1926. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

José Antonio Alvarado was born in 1905 on a hacienda called “La Sandia” outside León, in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico. Like many others from his state, he and his parents Antonio Alvarado (dates unknown) and Clara Torres de Alvarado (d. 1967) made the move to the United States, in their case to Southern California, probably around 1926. And, like so many of their compatriots, his and his parents’ labor in the fields was fundamental to the success of one of California’s most important industries, agriculture.

Yet, unlike many of his compatriots, José’s and his parent’s story can be at least partially told because of the serendipitous survival of 33 family letters written from 1926 through 1954, principally by Alvarado family members in Mexico, to the three Alvarados in Southern California, who lived first in Reseda and then in El Río in Ventura County. The Huntington recently digitized the Alvarado Family Letters.

Back of the envelope of a letter from Ysidro Alvarado to his father, Antonio Alvarado, March 6, 1926. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.
Back of the envelope of a letter from Ysidro Alvarado to his father, Antonio Alvarado, March 6, 1926. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Mark Moore donated the letters to The Huntington in 2019. In the late 1970s, Moore worked and became friends with José Alvarado in Ventura County at Grether Farms, where José was employed for 45 years. José died in 1982 without heirs, and his letters came into Moore’s possession. Miroslava Chávez-García, professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, recommended that Moore donate the letters to The Huntington.

Antonio’s son Ysidro, living in La Sandia, wrote many of the letters. Other relatives in the vicinity of La Sandia also wrote, and the collection includes letters to Antonio from fellow migrants in Southern California. The letters’ lengthy salutations, references to health, and mentions of family milestones like baptisms speak to their sentimental value, but the letters also yield historical gold. The 33 letters extensively refer, for example, to remittances that Alvarado family members in Southern California sent to family members in Mexico. These remittances could be cash for general family needs as well as such specific items as shoes, which were perennially difficult for the poor of Mexico to acquire. Sewing thread is one particularly popular item; it is mentioned at least four times in the letters. In one case, a skein of thread sent from California to Ysidro and his wife Alberta was used to make bibs. In a letter dated July 14, 1929, Ysidro specifically requests green thread because of its expense in Mexico.

First page of a letter from Ysidro Alvarado to his father, Antonio Alvarado, March 6, 1926. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.
First page of a letter from Ysidro Alvarado to his father, Antonio Alvarado, March 6, 1926. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Other details of the migrant experience pepper the letters. Dated March 6, 1926, the first letter, from son Ysidro to father Antonio, details routes of migration, in this case from León to the U.S.-Mexico border at Nuevo Laredo, and the reception once there. Ysidro refers to the United States simply as "el Norte" (the North). The letters also refer to other people who leave for the U.S., and, in so doing, record the resulting personal loss. For example, Pascual Carpio, also of La Hacienda, laments in his letter of Aug. 20, 1928, to Antonio that his only son has left for the United States, and that Silvestra, perhaps a daughter, wants to leave as well because she has little work. Pascual is also thinking of traveling to be reunited with Leonor, perhaps his wife, who is in Brawley, California. All this leaves Pascual saddened ("por el momento me es bastante triste"). From such nuggets, historians can develop not only a practical understanding of migration (i.e., routes to the border) but also the emotional toll on people such as Pascual.

Second page of a letter from Ysidro Alvarado to his father, Antonio Alvarado, March 6, 1926. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.
Second page of a letter from Ysidro Alvarado to his father, Antonio Alvarado, March 6, 1926. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

The Alvarado letters, with their firsthand accounts, speak deeply to the personal experience of migration, which is what the Library seeks to preserve through these types of materials. Unfortunately, such letters are rare. Collections at the Library that help remedy this lacuna include the memoirs of Fernando Quirós Castro, who came to Los Angeles from Costa Rica in 1944. His writings detail the route he took, acknowledge support he received from the Costa Rican community of Los Angeles, and chronicle his development of an engineering firm in Southern California before his return in [YEAR?] to Costa Rica. Such first-person testimony of people migrating from Central America to the United States is extremely rare in archives, making this source invaluable.

A foundational collection at the Library that documents the migrant experience is the Chávez Esparza family letters. Family members came from Calvillo, in the Mexican state of Aguascalientes, to the United States, including California, in the 1950s and 1960s. Miroslava Chávez-García, of UC Santa Barbara, donated her family’s letters, which were the primary sources for her award-winning history, Migrant Longing: Letter Writing across the U.S.–Mexico Borderlands (University of North Carolina Press, 2018). Chávez-García has written eloquently about the historical and cultural importance of such collections: “Personal letters such as these are invaluable because of their ability to convey both well-known as well as obscure historical, cultural, and personal insights. More than collections of deeply emotional and individual self-expressive experiences, the correspondence provides a window onto the social, economic, cultural, and political developments of the day, whether in and across Mexico and the United States or beyond. By moving between the micro and macro as we read them, missives allow us to see how the individual stories embedded in the lines of the paper reflect and intersect with broader historical and, in my family’s case, migratory experiences.”

A rent receipt for Antonio Alvarado, who lived in Reseda, California, Sept. 5, 1943. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.
A rent receipt for Antonio Alvarado, who lived in Reseda, California, Sept. 5, 1943. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

“The letters, as I have found in my effort to map my family’s history on a broader genealogy of migration across the borderlands, are versatile, open to multiple interpretations, and reflect the hopes and dreams as well as fracasos (failures) of those who sought to improve their lives—and the lives of those they left behind—by migrating to el norte,” Chávez-García continues. The notes allow for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a glimpse into the emotional and social lives of ordinary men and women, specifically rural Mexicans whom we know little about, from their personal, immediate firsthand accounts. Ultimately, the correspondence attests to migrants’ desire to improve not only their personal, family, and economic lives in the face of increasing impoverishment in rural Mexico but also to cultivate and nurture cross-border intimate, emotional, and household relations that could sustain them in their new environment. Indeed, the missives provide a wealth of insight on migratory processes, social networks, and individual relationships in alleviating migrant longing for bridging aqui (here) and allá (there) and demonstrate the power of remaking identities in adjusting to a new space.”

Miroslava Chávez-García, professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of Migrant Longing: Letter Writing across the U.S.–Mexico Borderlands (University of North Carolina Press, 2018).
Miroslava Chávez-García, professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of Migrant Longing: Letter Writing across the U.S.–Mexico Borderlands (University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

For these reasons, the Library seeks to help preserve this vital part of the history of California, the U.S., and North America.

You can read more about Miroslava Chávez-García and her book Migrant Longing: Letter Writing across the U.S.–Mexico Borderlands in Huntington Frontiers. And you can listen to Chávez-García and others speak on this topic in The Huntington’s most recent Hear and Now podcast, “Letters Across the Border.”

Clay Stalls is the curator of California and Hispanic Collections at The Huntington.

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