Don’t blame Bridget Kevane if her talk on “Latino America, Latino Montana” was a little short on details.
Kevane, associate dean for faculty affairs in the College of Letters and Science at Montana State University, addressed her very broad topic in just over an hour Thursday as part of the High Noon lecture series at the Western Heritage Center in downtown Billings.
Kevane, who grew up in Puerto Rico, has taught Spanish at MSU and written two books on Latino culture and politics, said the history of Latino contributions to U.S. society “is a long story, and it’s continuing.”
Even in Montana, where the Latino population, estimated at 34,000, is relatively small, Latinos have been making their mark since long before statehood. Kevane mentioned Manuel Lisa, the Spanish-American who was a co-founder of the Missouri Fur Co. and who also established the earliest Euro-American settlement in Montana, somewhere near where the Bighorn River empties into the Yellowstone.
Johnny Grant brought Mexican cowboys to work on the Grant-Kohrs Ranch near Deer Lodge in 1847, and in the 1850s Latinos brought adobe construction to Fort Benton.
After a brief description of the state’s Spanish language motto — Oro y Plata, Kevane said that if Billings had a motto it would surely include the word azucar, or sugar, the commodity that fueled the city’s growth. Starting in 1923, she said, coyotes, not to be confused with the human smugglers of today, were sent to Mexico to recruit betabeleros, workers for the beet fields of Eastern Montana and the sugar plant in Billings.
In the same way that beets brought Mexican laborers to Billings, Kevane said, a wide variety of economic forces attracted not only Mexicans to the United States but also but Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Salvadorans and Dominicans — to list them in the order of their numerical presence in the United States.
“Each community has a unique history in the United States, and a unique economic reason for being here,” she said.
Economics broadly speaking, because she went on to list other factors that have driven Latin American emigration to the United States, including the North American Free Trade Agreement, adopted in 1994, the seemingly endless drug wars and American intervention in virtually every country in Latin America, either to depose or prop up various leaders.
The effect has been a steady increase in the Latino population of the United States, which Kevane said stood at 9.6 million in 1970, rose to 55 million in 2015 and is expected to hit about 102 million by 2050.
And though, again, the Latino population in Montana is small, economic needs, mostly on the part of employers, continue to attract Latino immigrants here. Kevane said immigrants work potato fields and tend sheep in Dillon, work in the lumber industry in Libby and pick cherries in the Flathead Valley.
But Gallatin County is where much of the growth in the Latino immigrant work force is occurring, she said. Manhattan employs immigrants in the dairy industry, she said, adding, “One dairy owner told me he couldn’t find anyone else to milk those cows.”
In West Yellowstone, immigrants work in the service industry. But the biggest demand is a result of what Kevane called the gentrification of rural communities, and the need to bring in Mexican workers to “build” this new lifestyle.
Such workers are clustered in Belgrade and Big Sky, she said, working in construction and the masonry trade. Thanks to that influx, the Latino population of Gallatin County, which was 1,047 at the 2000 census, was estimated at 3,034 in 2014 and is no dobut larger now, she said.
One odd fact about Montana, Kevane said, is that while it has relatively few immigrants of any kind, its legislature has considered an unusually high number of anti-immigration bills — 28 in the last four sessions.
Kevane didn’t say too much else about current immigration policies, but she did say that one reason there are now an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States is that many of them came here on temporary work visas.
Previously, she said, they would have gone back to their home countries in the expectation of coming back under another work visa. Now, with so much talk of shutting down the border, Kevane said, millions of workers are afraid to go home for fear of not being allowed back in, and thus are here under long-expired visas.
Also, you can find out more about Latino history in Billings, and that of other ehtnic groups, in “The Southsiders,” one of the current exhibits at the Western Heritage Center, 2822 Montana Ave.