How sugar beets drew some of the first Latinos to Lansing
Lalo Marinez Jr.’s dad used to tell him that trucking beets from farms to sugar factories was “the best part” of coming to Michigan.
This was in the 1950s. The younger Marinez would have been 10 or 11 when he rode along with his father in a truck full of freshly picked beets ready to become table sugar.
“He hauled beets in his truck all the time,” said Marinez, 78, a longtime Lansing resident who now lives in DeWitt. “That’s where he made his money . . . at least $10,000 a season hauling sugar beets, and, in those years, that’s a lot of money.”
Sugar beets were big business here once and a business that changed the face of Lansing, the city’s north side in particular.
Many of the first Spanish-speaking migrants to the area were betabeleros, workers recruited by sugar company agents to plant, tend and harvest beets.
Lansing’s Spanish-speaking community first settled on the north side because the Michigan Sugar Co.’s Lansing Factory lay down the road.
The number of Latinas and Latinos who migrated to work Michigan’s beet fields each season ballooned from roughly 5,000 in 1925 to 80,000 in 1968.
Betabeleros came from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Cuba along with other Central and South American nations, according to a 1983 study by the Chicano activist, educator and photographer Jesse Gonzalez.
From the 1930s on, the majority came from Texas.
Lorenzo Lopez’s parents, Delma and Eleuterio Lopez, left Texas in 1946 and “came to cold, wet Michigan to raise a family, to look for a job.”
His parents would never work at the Michigan Sugar Co. plant, but, like many other Spanish-speaking migrants, they gravitated to the city’s north side, where “people had started renting accommodations not so far from the sugar beet factory,” he said.
Last year, the Lansing City Council renamed a portion of Grand River Avenue that runs through the north end of the city after Mexican-American labor leader César Chávez, the long-time face of United Farm Workers, a union that advocated for migrant farm workers.
To explain why Chávez’s efforts resonated so deeply with Lansing’s Latino community, and why leaders in that community focused their renaming efforts on the north side, you have to begin with beets.
Sugar beets arrive in Michigan
The “father of Michigan’s sugar beet industry” was Robert C. Kedzie, a chemistry professor at what was then Michigan Agricultural College.
His scientific findings in the late 19th century helped adapt the crop to Michigan’s climate, and he lobbied state government on behalf of growers and investors to protect the fledgling industry.
At the start, no one even knew if sugar beets would grow well enough in Michigan to be profitable. But Kedzie’s experiments convinced him they would, and that the jobs and capital they would bring could end Michigan’s dependence on imported cane sugar.
“The hope for a domestic supply for our people has been cherished in Michigan for years,” Kedzie told a congressional committee in the spring of 1900.
At the time the Civil War broke out in April of 1861, most cane sugar in the U.S. was produced by enslaved laborers on plantations in Louisiana and Cuba. But once the war began, black sugar workers enslaved in Louisiana refused to work, broke machinery or simply left the brutal conditions of the sugar plantations.
The abolition of slavery temporarily crippled the industry, but the planter elite gradually reestablished control over cane sugar production, first by importing raw sugar from Cuba, where plantation slavery still existed.
When slavery was abolished in Cuba in 1886, seventeen American sugar refining companies combined to form the Sugar Refineries Co., aka the “Sugar Trust.” For decades to come, it would control nearly all cane sugar refineries in the U.S. and more than half of sugar production worldwide.
Progressives decried that monopoly. Kedzie was one of them.
Kedzie had worked as a doctor in Kalamazoo and Vermontville before briefly serving as surgeon in the Civil War. He resigned from the military in October 1862 to take a teaching job in the chemistry department at M.A.C. and quickly became a favorite teacher and one of Michigan’s leading public health experts.
Kedzie thought beet sugar made in Michigan was “our only way to escape the Sugar Trust” and its influence on the government.
He persuaded M.A.C. to buy more than 1,700 pounds of beet seeds from Germany and France, varieties with names like Austrian Wokanka, Klein Wanzlebener and Vilmorin Imperial Improved.
Under his direction, Kedzie boasted, “the College has sent out 5,300 pounds of sugar beet seed for the use of our farmers without cost to them. The College has thus planted the seed of a great industry in Michigan.”
After the state legislature offered bounties for beet sugar of sufficient purity — a promise it would never fulfill — sugar factories sprouted up all over the state.
The Michigan Sugar Co. of Bay City quickly became the most successful, organizing the Lansing Sugar Co. and ordering the construction of a factory north of the Grand River along what is now the north-south portion of Grand River Avenue in 1901.
The factory was finished in time for the fall harvest.
The Owosso Sugar Co. bought the Lansing factory in 1903 and fixed it up to handle more volume.
In 1912, one of its biggest seasons, the Lansing factory “sliced” close to 74,000 tons of beets and churned out 15,600,000 pounds of sugar.
The company rarely struggled to find workers for the relatively well-paying factory jobs.
Field labor was different.
Beets become big business
“Sugar beets demanded intensive hand labor,” wrote historian Dennis Valdés in his book “Al Norte: Agricultural Workers in the Great Lakes Region, 1917-1970,” and the work lasted “for much of the seven-month growing season.”
Most farmers didn’t mind allocating land for the sugar companies’ beets, but few had the experience or workforce necessary to cultivate them on a large scale. It fell upon the sugar companies to recruit a workforce.
Early on, women and children — especially immigrants from Belgium, Germany, Russia, Hungary, Poland, Serbia, Bohemia and other European countries with experience growing sugar beets — thinned and hoed beet fields for 50 to 60 cents a day, about half the minimum wage of adult male farm hands.
American-born laborers from Detroit were sometimes shipped in, but they had a tendency to walk off the job.
By 1906, a Lansing reform school called the Michigan Industrial School for Boys required pupils to grow beets, and, when necessary, the State Prison of Southern Michigan in Jackson shuttled convict laborers to work in the beet fields.
Globally, the production of beet sugar overtook cane sugar in 1900 and was more profitable, too.
Still, the success of Michigan beet sugar did little to upset the Sugar Trust’s monopoly. As early as 1902, the Sugar Trust started accruing stock in the Michigan Sugar Co. and encouraged it to absorb eight other factories in the state.
In 1924, the Michigan Sugar Co. bought out the Owosso Sugar Co., bringing the massive Owosso factory and the more modest Lansing factory under the umbrella of the Sugar Trust.
It brought capital, technological innovation and cost-cutting labor practices to the Lansing factory.
It also brought seasonal workers from Texas and Mexico.
As early as 1915, the Michigan Sugar Co. sent recruiters south to bring Mexican and Tejano seasonal workers to Michigan.
As immigration restrictions tightened after World War I, sugar beet industry representatives lobbied to maintain a porous border with Mexico, maintaining that they could not function without the betabeleros.
“American boys will not work in the fields with their hands,” said Augustus C. Carton of the Michigan Department of Agriculture in 1925. “He will drive the tractor, but when it comes to getting down close to the ground and working with his hands on the plants, as work must be done with sugar beets, he will not do it.”
Mexican and Tejano migrant workers were essential to Michigan’s agriculture, but sugar industry lobbyists rejected “a process whereby Mexicans would follow in the footsteps of European immigrants” in becoming landowners or permanent Michigan residents, historian Kathleen Mapes wrote in her book “Sweet Tyranny: Migrant Labor, Industrial Agriculture, and Imperial Politics.”
Michigan state Rep. Roy Orchard Woodruff, a Bay City Republican, worried about what would happen if “these aliens come in under the guise of agricultural labor and are permitted to drift into our cities and compete with our skilled labor.”
The sugar companies assured elected officials that “by nature the inherent traits of that race,” Mexicans preferred “outdoor life to the confinement of industrial pursuits.”
When the Great Depression hit Michigan in 1929, the sugar industry almost collapsed. The Lansing Factory closed.
And immigrants became scapegoats, said Delia Fernandez, a professor of history at Michigan State University. Nationwide, during the decade of the depression, between 500,000 and a million people were repatriated to Mexico.
“Mexicans and some Mexican Americans were targets,” she said.
Michigan’s government approved a plan in 1932 to pay for the deportation of 5,000 beet workers, mostly on the east side of the state.
The federal government organized the Immigration and Naturalization Service in 1933 to streamline deportation and repatriation efforts. A number of local police and welfare agencies didn’t wait for authorization from the agency to coerce Spanish-speaking people in the area to return to Mexico.
A State Journal editorial in 1932 praised this repatriation effort as a “worthy plan” because it reduced “the welfare burden in communities of this state.” The newspaper applauded the beet sugar industry for hiring Michigan residents who “deserved preference in such work.”
Officials reported that federal and state agencies “repatriated about 3,500 Mexicans from the Michigan beet fields” in 1933, though the number was likely higher.
This repatriation effort coincided with the reopening of Lansing’s sugar beet factory for the first time in several years. The Lansing welfare agency called upon “Belgians and Germans” who “understand beet culture” to apply for these jobs.
A 1933 advertisement from the Farmers and Manufacturers Beet Sugar Association of Bay City promoted the rejuvenation of the state’s beet industry with an image of a blonde, fair-skinned child.
“This splendid baby is a typical Michigan baby of a typical Michigan farm family,” the ad read. “This family—like tens of thousands of other Michigan families—earns its living by growing and preparing your sugar beet crop.”
But, even in the middle of the Depression in 1935, most white workers refused to work in the beet fields for the $1.40 a day that farmers typically paid migrant workers.
Numerous beet growers complained that “American-born workers” were slower, sloppier, and “likely to quit.”
“This is not a white man’s work,” rationalized Michigan Senator Miles M. Callaghan, a Reed City Republican, in 1937.
If the beet industry were to survive, legislators realized, they needed to attract Mexican and Tejano migrant workers. They hoped to make their working conditions tolerable but also to keep them from staying year-round to avoid public outcry.
In 1938, Michigan’s government revised the state codes governing beet field workers to raise the minimum wage, improve housing and end child labor. They authorized police to arrest truck drivers who transported migrant workers into Michigan without a permit. They allocated money to implement a mandatory health-screening program.
In 1937, the Michigan Health Department had found that 25% of patients in tuberculosis hospitals were “Mexican beet workers.”
In response, legislators called for a system of “concentration camps,” with Lansing as the central hub, that would force migrant workers to submit to medical screening before they could work.
This idea was scrapped because of logistics. State officials instead sent doctors to Texas.
They found that only 2% to 3% of the workers tested in 1940 and 1941 had contagious diseases, suggesting that the outbreak of disease was more likely related to the workers’ unsanitary living conditions in Michigan.
The meager living accommodations improved little through the 1960s.
A 1968 report by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission found that “tens of thousands of field laborers” lived “in converted sheds, barns, chicken coops, and old schools and farmhouses” that were often haphazardly converted into houses.
By that time, many Mexicans and Mexican Americans in Michigan had already left the fields for the factories.
In the 1940s, “Mexican Americans were getting into industrial jobs more than they had ever before because of WWII,” said Delia Fernandez. “A lot of the people who were in Saginaw, my grandparents included, moved to Grand Rapids or to Detroit or to Lansing to work in one of the factories.”
Lorenzo Lopez’s parents arrived in Lansing as Latinos were just starting to get more job opportunities outside of agriculture. Most hoped to land a year-round job in the auto factories, because the salaries and benefits were good enough for people to afford homes and permanently settle in Lansing.
His father, Eleuterio, only worked a few months in agriculture before securing a job at General Motors’ Fisher Body Plant in Lansing, where he would work for 33 years.
“That created a totally different life for him, for my mother, obviously for us,” he said.
Wartime rubber shortages and gas rationing meant that fewer migrant workers risked driving across the country in gas guzzling trucks with no spare tires. For those who came, the war industries opened up opportunities to secure jobs in factories. Without enough field laborers, the sugar beet factory in Lansing was forced to close in 1943.
Even with the factory closed, the Marinez family came to Lansing every summer from Crystal City, Texas, to work at Clyde Morrill’s farm in Clinton County.
Born in Mexico, Lalo Sr. brought along his wife, children and two brothers, Efrain “Frank” and Teodoro, who also worked on local farms.
At Morrill’s farm, Lalo Sr. cleared trees, tended to the cows, harvested wheat and distilled spearmint among other jobs. When the children were old enough, they would help.
“The farm that we were at had sugar beets all the time,” Lalo Jr. recalls, so even with the Lansing factory closed, they could haul beets to the factory in St. Louis, just north of Alma.
Unlike most migrant workers, Lalo Sr. owned a truck. He was able to transport workers from Texas to Michigan and shuttle them to and from the camps and fields during the season.
By the late 1940s, beet harvesting was mechanized, so most agricultural workers were done with beets by October.
But Lalo Sr. drove to farms all over the area to “fill the truck with sugar beets and take them to Grand River Avenue,” Lalo Jr. recalls, “where that plant was.”
When the Lansing factory closed for good in 1954, the St. Louis plant had already ceased operations for a couple years, so they took beets to another farm.
“But it was really far away,” Lalo Jr. says, “so it wasn’t really profitable for my dad.”
César E. Chávez Avenue
As more and more Mexican American families settled in Lansing, mostly on the north side, they developed a stronger support system for the seasonal farmworkers who continued to come for sugar beets but also for crops like pickling cucumbers, cherries and spearmint.
It was largely “word-of-mouth,” says Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cristo Rey Community Center. Mexican Americans in south Texas hoping to find farm work around Lansing were encouraged to “go to the north end of the town and drive through the neighborhoods until you see someone who looks like you.”
The year-round residents, most of whom were bilingual, often knew which farmers were hiring and what the working conditions were like.
“That’s how stuff got done,” says Garcia.
That informal system of mutual aid was formalized in the Cristo Rey Community Center, built in 1966 at 1314 Ballard St. in north Lansing. The Center became vital for Spanish-speaking migrants to find housing, employment, and basic health care.
Lansing’s Latino community leaders helped organize a statewide “March for Migrants” from Saginaw to Lansing in 1967 to improve working conditions for seasonal farm workers. César Chávez, the leader of the United Farm Workers, publicly backed the marchers and visited Lansing a week later to build support for the union’s boycott against grape growers.
He visited Lansing many more times in the coming decades. Lopez’s mother, Delma, chaired the Cristo Rey Community Center’s board for 15 years and was often responsible for working out Chavez’s accommodations, including making sure he had vegetarian meals.
“Lansing became a favorite stop (for him) because our families would practically run out of our houses to go see him,” Lopez said.
“That’s another reason why we wanted to make sure his street, César Chávez Avenue, was on the north side of Lansing.”
Mexican Americans increasingly understood themselves as a distinct ethnic group that faced unique forms of discrimination in American society. Many began studying and embracing their Mexican heritage, referring to themselves as Chicanos and Chicanas.
When a younger generation of Chicano activists came to MSU in the 1990s, they began demanding that the school and the community do more to acknowledge its Latino and Latina students.
“It was hot,” recalls Paulo Gordillo, a student at MSU in the early 1990s. “Students were trying to get MSU to boycott grapes. They wanted a multicultural center built. They wanted a Chicano studies program established. There was a lot going on.”
And they wanted to rename Grand Avenue after César Chávez.
Gordillo spearheaded the effort in the fall of 1993, months after Chávez passed away.
Lansing’s City Council approved the measure in 1994, but there was a strong backlash, and the name change was reversed by city referendum in 1995.
Maria Enriquez, who joined the city’s Memorial Review Board around 2007, said she spent years “waiting for an opportunity to try and rectify the name changing back to Chávez.”
She helped create the César E. Chávez Plaza in Old Town in 2010 and place honorary street signs for César E. Chávez Avenue along a section of Grand River Avenue from where it splits from Oakland Avenue to Pine Street.
In October 2017, the City Council agreed to officially rename that portion César E. Chávez Avenue.
“I saw a lot of commitment in people,” says Diana Rivera, who heads the César E. Chávez Collection at MSU Libraries. “They brought in facts. They brought in personal experiences. They brought in generational stories where grandparents and great-grandparents were part of that history.”
“The contributions of a very significant community in the Lansing area were long overdue to be recognized,” she said.
Ryan A. Huey is a PhD candidate in the Michigan State University Department of History. Contact him at email@example.com. Citations available on request.