Mexican Women in Early 1900s Oregon Newspapers
by Rachel Worley
Like many places across the globe, Oregon has a long history of prejudice toward non-white people. As part of the Western United States, Oregon’s story is intertwined with the stories of many people of Latinx heritage. As Elaine Rector notes, Anglo-American Oregonian prejudice toward Mexicans in particular can be traced as far back as 1848 when President Polk appointed Joseph Lane, a proponent of the Mexican American War, as Governor of the Oregon Territory. As time progressed and the population grew in the West, so too grew the number of immigrants from south of the United States. Oregonians began to expand their knowledge through their consumption of media, which led to many tainted perspectives about Mexican people. Not only were Mexican men subject to mistreatment and misrepresentation, but also many Mexican women. Unfortunately, little record remains of these men, and even less of the women who joined them. Census documents offer some information, including each persons’ name, race, gender, marital status, birthplace, first language and occupation. Rosa Garcia, Ether Garcia, Mary Salas, and Dolores Palomera, all born in Mexico, were living with their husbands who were employed by the railroad in Drain, Oregon, as this detail from the 1920 census demonstrates. They were listed as having no occupation despite their very busy lives caring for their families.
As noted by Erlinda Gonzales-Berry and Marcela Mendoza in their book Mexicanos in Oregon, the 1920 census included “569 Mexicans under the category of ‘foreign-born adults.’” (28) In comparison, there were 783,389 Oregon residents in total. (U.S. Census Bureau) Because of the small Mexican population, the lack of real life encounters between those of Mexican heritage and other white citizens meant that people may have relied on stereotypical, misleading and biased news articles to determine their feelings toward Mexicans. After Mexico’s civil war, the economy was severely challenged and workers were not paid adequately, which led to a surge of emigration. New immigration laws created new restrictions on Mexican migrants and many who were already residents were deported. Gonzales-Berry and Mendoza note that as many White Americans began to feel that their job security was threatened by these newcomers, “Mexicans were portrayed in the worst possible terms… all their faults were attributed to their ‘inherent racial inferiority.’” (24) Therefore, considering a lack of first-hand experience and an onslaught of negative media, the image of Mexico and its people was tainted for most white citizens. Historic Oregon newspapers reflect these prejudices but also suggest ways that newspaper readers may have had a more positive connection with Mexican women through campaigns for suffrage.
One early article, published in the Pendleton East Oregonian on May 31, 1906, begins with some history on Mexico’s past before transitioning into discussing the customs of the time. Not unlike other articles regarding American women, the editor paints a picture of a sedentary and dainty life of a typical Mexican woman “to fill in her peaceful, uneventful life after leaving school,” notably in reference to the “middle and upper classes.” The writer states the belief that class defines body type, perpetuating the stereotype that “women of the lower classes have ever been stout and muscular.” Despite these discriminatory generalizations, the writer hints at friendly relations between cultures by mentioning the Mexican woman’s “American sister.” Out of many newspaper articles from this period, this one in particular provides an example of an editor writing through the lens of the time.
One editorial from the Oregon City Morning Enterprise on May 17, 1911, begins with a photo of a young woman and describes the exotic beauty of the “Mexican senorita” from a young age. It then details how much faster and how badly she ages compared to American women of European descent, despite her original beauty. In addition to her quickly fading youth, the editor states that the women of the lower classes “eat all sorts of indigestible foods, and they are not particular about bathing.” However, immediately after insulting their looks and their lifestyles, the editor compliments their disposition by saying, “A Mexican woman is a good judge of character and a devoted wife and mother… They are very clever with their hands… [and exercise] intense patriotism.” The article is titled, “Mexican Senorita. Charming in her Youthful Enthusiasm and Patriotism.” This offers a clear conflict of opinion, as the editor describes her patriotism as positive while stereotyping other parts of her life. Her value appears not so much in her enthusiasm or patriotism at all, but rather in her youthful appearance and loyalty to the classic role of mother and wife.
A January 31, 1917 Daily Capital Journal article, set in the midst of the Mexican Revolution, shows the editor’s simple belief that working class Mexican women are inferior to Americans. Although brief, the editorial describes a conflict in Mexico between army officers and women who crossed the border to work during the day as maids in Texas households. The editor says that the reason for the commotion could be attributed to the fact that “Mexican women would rather fight than endure the horrors of a bathtub” but does nothing to consider that idea that requiring someone to bathe could be perceived as offensive. The editor again shows their prejudice by saying that the Mexican newspapers were publishing false information about the happenings of the war and stated “how little they know of the real situation.” Rather than attempt to consider the “riot” from multiple perspectives, the editor published one perspective as fact.
An article published January 1, 1920, in the Sunday Oregonian about Elena Torres and the Mexican Feminist Council in Mexico City begins to suggest the value of Mexican women outside of their classic gendered roles. Although “the council does not believe the mass of Mexican women are at present prepared for complete suffrage… the present Mexican government looks with favor upon their efforts.” The council, despite temporarily postponing a push for suffrage, was composed of upper class Mexican women whose goals were first to “eliminate social and industrial evils” before later fighting for political equality. Their support of women’s rights, including women working at the industrial level, demonstrates unity between Mexicanas in all levels of society. Additionally, this article clearly shows that Mexican women were just as passionate and driven to receive suffrage as American women. As noted by Ellen Carol DuBois in her article “Suffrage and Beyond,” “a national focus alone underplays the rich, international circulation of ideas, personalities, organisations and inspiration that sustained woman suffragism over its very long history.” (254) Torres says one of the goals of the Mexican Women’s Council is to create a “more complete understanding between Mexico and the United States.” Surely the effects of years of misleading newspaper articles offering biased interpretations of their lives was a large barrier in creating the sort of peaceful relationship they wanted to have with the United States. As noted by Helen Rappaport in the Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers, this may have been especially apparent to feminist Elena Torres who studied at Columbia University Teachers’ College in New York City before World War I and her return to Mexico. (712) It was potentially while in the United States that Torres was inspired to pursue a larger role in connecting women in the fight for women’s rights.
Although little is known about individual Mexican women in Oregon in 1920, we can make some suppositions as to their societal treatment by assessing the materials which were readily available to the public. Many articles offered blatant criticism and uneducated information regarding the lives Mexicanas and were especially harsh to working class women. When Anglo American Oregon citizens looked to these articles for information and knowledge on which to base their own opinions, it’s not difficult to see prejudice. However, interlaced within these articles are also stories of hope and activism. Even though Mexican women didn’t have complete suffrage, they did have many women actively pushing for acceptance and equality not only between social classes within Mexico, but also between Mexico and the United States.
“There was a Riot,” Daily Capital Journal, January 31, 1917, 4.
“Life of Mexican Women,” East Oregonian, May 31, 1906, 7.
“Mexican Senorita,” Morning Enterprise, May 17, 1911, 4.
“Mexican Women Advance,” Sunday Oregonian, January 1, 1920, 5.
U.S. Census Bureau, 1920 United States Federal Census, Drain Sheet 6A, Ancestry.com
U.S. Census Bureau, “Oregon Resident Population,”
DuBois, Ellen Carol. “Woman Suffrage Around the World: Three Phases of Suffragist
Internationalism.” In Suffrage and Beyond: International Feminist Perspectives. Edited by Caroline Daley and Melanie Nolan, 252-276. New York: New York University Press, 1994.
Gonzales-Berry, Erlinda, and Marcela Mendoza. Mexicanos in Oregon: Their Stories, Their Lives. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2010.
Rappaport, Helen. “Torres, Elena.” Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers: Vo1. 1, 712. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2001.
Rector, Elaine. “Looking Back in Order to Move Forward: An Often Untold History Affecting Oregon’s Past, Present and Future.” https://www.portlandoregon.gov/bps/article/412697
About the Author: Rachel Worley, an Honors student at Western Oregon University, participated in Professor Kimberly Jensen’s winter 2017-2018 course on the 19th Amendment. Rachel is currently an undecided major with a minor in Spanish language, and enjoys music, baking, fine arts and spending time in the sun with her dog.