Hispanic population increases with Nevada’s growth

Editor’s Note: Nevada 150 is a yearlong series highlighting the people, places and things that make up the history of the state.

Throughout its 150 years, Nevada has been home to many people of Hispanic origins.

But before the borders took shape, Nevada’s land wasn’t even part of the United States.

“This was Mexico before we talked about migration,” said Miriam Melton-Villaneuva, a history professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Even as a part of Mexico, there weren’t large Mexican settlements, said Dr. Thomas Wright, a UNLV history professor who specializes in Latin American history.

“There wasn’t much here to attract them,” he said.

After the Mexican-American War in 1848, the United States was able to acquire the land destined to become Nevada.

When Nevada became a state in 1864 is when the story of Hispanic immigration began.

The arrival of the railroad brought construction jobs to Las Vegas in the early 1900s, and this drew Mexican migrants to the valley. This coincided with the Mexican Revolution in which many sought to escape the revolt against the Mexican dictatorship.

According to the 1910 U.S. Census, there were 56 Hispanics living in Las Vegas.

But in the 1930s, immigration slowed as Hispanics were forcibly removed during the Great Depression. Mexicans were being used as scapegoats for the lack of jobs and resources at the time.

Known as Mexican Repatriation, which targeted primarily those of Mexican descent because of their proximity to their home country, the Immigration and Naturalization Service would deport people — even those born in the United States — to Mexico en masse.

However, during World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt struck a deal with the Mexican government to help with war efforts. The bracero program was introduced in the 1940s in response to the shortage of workers.

That deal was extended after the war to allow immigrants to help with agriculture work. The program formally ended in the 1960s.

Still, the Hispanic population remained somewhat small.

There were about 200 Hispanics in Las Vegas proper and nearly 350 in North Las Vegas, Henderson and unincorporated Clark County, according to the 1950 Census.

Wright, in his book, “The Peoples of Las Vegas: One City, Many Faces,” said Hispanic immigration increased in Clark County in the ’60s and ’70s, rising from 578 to 9,937 people.

“But the big wave of immigration happened in the ’80s,” Wright said. “That’s when Mexico’s economy collapsed and propelled people to the border.”

Many immigrants already had established social networks in Nevada at the time, he said.

By 1980, the number of Hispanics increased to about 35,000.

Part of the surge to Nevada had to do with the cheaper cost of living and economic opportunity.

For those who traveled undocumented, the area saw a decreased presence of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization, which had grown its enforcement in Texas and California.

Wright said conflicts happening in Central America resulted in more immigration.

El Salvador erupted into a civil war from 1980 to 1992 that resulted in more than 75,000 deaths. More than 200,000 people were killed in Guatemala during its 36-year-long war, which started in the 1960s. Both produced refugees who fled to the United States.

By 2000, Nevada had 394,000 Hispanics, with 302,000 residing in Clark County, according to the census. About 15 percent of the Hispanic population was Mexican.

That census identified more than 7,000 Salvadorans, although some researchers suggest it was closer to 12,000. Because of confusion in census questions, pockets of Salvadorans are estimated to have been overlooked.

Salvadorans are one of the largest Hispanic populations in Nevada today.

By the late ’90s and early 2000s, the census also began seeing people from other South American countries, such as Chile, Colombia and Paraguay, surface in Nevada.

Today, the state has come a long way, with 27.3 percent of its population of Hispanic origin, according to the 2010 Census.

“We represent every country from Latin America,” Wright said.

Contact Henderson View reporter Michael Lyle at mlyle@viewnews.com or 702-387-5201.