Latino Immigrant Stories of Arrival

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The United States has often been called a nation of immigrants and most families have stories about immigration and migration in their immediate or distant past. But the origins of immigrants to the United States and their experiences vary considerably.

According to the 2000 United State census, about 12.5 percent of the entire population is Latino, the largest ethnic minority group in the nation. 51 percent of the foreign-born in the U.S. are Latino and of that number, over one-fourth are Mexican.

But the experiences of Latinos today, as in earlier times, are often different. In this section, explore Latino stories and see some of the complexities of immigration.

Mexican Identity: Juana Gallegos’s story

"Nací Mexicana y me voy a morir Mexicana."

"I was born Mexican and I am going to die Mexican."Juana Gallegos, San Antonio, Texas, 1979

While there is no single Mexican immigrant experience, the story of Juana Gallegos and her descendants is fairly typical of those who migrated in the early 20th century. Born in 1900 in the rural town of Miquihuana, Tamaulipas, Mexico, Juana's life was seriously disrupted by shifts in the agricultural system, the building of a national Mexican railway system, and the Mexican Revolution.

Although Juana left her native country in 1923 and moved to San Antonio, Texas, she never stopped visiting her Mexican relatives or thinking of herself as Mexican.

Leaving Mexico

Like many other Mexicans, industrialization and the Mexican Revolution significantly altered Juana Gallegos's life. The spread of railroads into the Mexican countryside, and the breakup of the near-feudal hacienda system of farming during the revolution, led many people to move to cities. Around 1918, Juana Gallegos moved with her parents from the hacienda her father managed in Miquihuana to Mexico City where the family had political connections. After President Carranza was deposed, Juana and her mother returned to Matehuala (near Miquihuana) and, in 1923, emigrated to the United States to escape the ongoing turbulence of the revolution.

Other families experienced the same kinds of disruptions to their lives. The Valadez family—including son Adolfo—had a store in Matehuala, Mexico. During the extended unrest of the Mexican Revolution, rebels would frequently raid the store. In 1920 the family fled the disorder, leaving Matehuala for Tampico. The revolution still made life difficult, so the family moved to Monterrey, Mexico, in 1923 and then traveled by train to Houston in the United States.

Becoming Established in the United States

Strong Mexican American communities in San Antonio made the transition easier for Juana Gallegos and Adolfo Valadez. Adolfo first lived in Houston and then San Antonio where he stayed in a rooming house. He worked at the Alamo Iron Works for many years. In the late 1940s, Adolfo joined other migrant Latino workers performing seasonal labor in the Del Monte canneries in Wisconsin.

Immigrant communities often organize along linguistic, religious, and especially regional lines. In San Antonio, Juana Gallegos and Adolfo Valadez (both with roots in Matehuala) met, married, and had three children—Christina, Ninfa, and Adolfo. Around 1928, they brought Juana's mother Matiana to the United States.

Visiting Home

The choice to move to another country doesn't mean that bonds of friendship and family are cut. Many immigrants regularly travel back to their hometown for vacations, special occasions, and to make sure that their children understand their cultural roots.

Flight to Freedom: Caribbean Rafters

The lure of economic opportunity and political freedom enticed many Caribbean people to attempt the risky journey to the United States aboard rafts and other flimsy vessels. Those arriving from communist Cuba were generally given refugee status and allowed to stay, while most from Haiti and other impoverished areas were returned.

Following Fidel Castro’s communist revolution in 1959, the exodus from Cuba to the United States increased. Florida became increasingly Hispanic as large numbers of refugees started a new expatriate life in the United States.

For more about the Cuban immigrant experience, see the NMAH Archive Center's guide to "Exiles in America: Cuban Pedro Pans and Balseros."

Opportunity or Exploitation: The Bracero Program

A Bracero worker in the field holding a short-handled hoe.

The Bracero program (1942 through 1964) allowed Mexican nationals to take temporary agricultural work in the United States. Over the program's 22-year life, more than 4.5 million Mexican nationals were legally contracted for work in the United States (some individuals returned several times on different contracts). Mexican peasants, desperate for cash work, were willing to take jobs at wages scorned by most Americans. The Braceros' presence had a significant effect on the business of farming and the culture of the United States. The Bracero program fed the circular migration patterns of Mexicans into the U.S.

Several groups concerned over the exploitation of Bracero workers tried to repeal the program. The Fund for the Republic supported Ernesto Galarza's documentation of the social costs of the Bracero program. Unhappy with the lackluster public response to his report, Strangers in Our Fields, the fund hired magazine photographer Leonard Nadel to produce a glossy picture-story exposé. Presented here is a selection of Nadel's photographs of Bracero workers taken in 1956.

Participation in the Bracero program was limited to agricultural workers, and not open to urban dwellers. Prospective Braceros often were asked to show their calloused hands to prove that they were experienced farm laborers. Workers were fingerprinted as part of the processing procedure, and were fumigated with DDT before being allowed to enter the United States.

Mexican-origin Hispanics have always been the largest Hispanic-origin group in the U.S. In 1860, for example, among the 155,000 Hispanics living in the U.S., 81.1% were of Mexican origin – a historic high. Since then the origins of the nation’s Hispanic population have diversified as growing numbers of immigrants from other Latin American nations and Puerto Rico settled in the U.S.

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The first postrevolutionary migrant wave, from 1959 to 1962, has been dubbed the Golden Exile because most refugees came from the upper and middle strata of Cuban society. (Members of this cohort prefer to describe themselves as “historical exiles.”) The majority were urban, middle-aged, well-educated, light-skinned, and white-collar workers. Most were born in the largest cities, particularly Havana. Many fled for political or religious reasons, fearing persecution by the revolutionary government. During this period, between 1,600 and 1,700 Cubans arrived in the United States per week on commercial airlines, and the U.S. government admitted approximately 248,100 Cubans. 

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What enticed Hispanic and Latino people to emigrate to the United States?

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How were Hispanic and Latino workers treated after emigrating to the United States?

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Children of Latino Immigrants