September 15 through October 15 is National Hispanic Heritage Month. Wyoming has a historically significant Hispanic and Manito population, some of whom came and went for work while others made Wyoming their home. Spanish-speaking people from northern New Mexico, called Manitos and Manitas, left their native land in the late 19th through mid-century 20th century seeking work. “Manito” is a term of endearment and kinship derived from the Spanish word hermano, “brother” or “sibling.”
During the 1930s and 1940s there was also a wave of immigrants from Mexico, resulting in part from the Bracero Program, a government program that encouraged legal immigration from Mexico to bring in workers during World War II.
Other Latinas/os moved to Wyoming from the San Luis Valley in Colorado seeking work in the state’s industries such as herding, ranching, farming, mining and lumber extraction, and the railroad.
Possibilities of employment, especially railroad jobs, brought a number of these migrants to Laramie. Another big employer was the Monolith Portland Cement Company (today Mountain Cement Company) established in 1927. Discrimination in housing and employment meant that the town’s Hispanic population was unofficially segregated on the town’s West Side. Many West Side residents suffered from prejudice. They were generally not welcome in restaurants, movie theaters, stores, and other establishments east of the railroad tracks. They were equally unwelcome in Laramie’s fraternal halls such as the Elks Club, the Moose Club, and the Masonic Temple.
A glimmer into housing conditions on Laramie’s West Side can be found in a 1946 unpublished University of Wyoming master’s thesis by Ernest Press regarding the Mexican and Mexican American population in Laramie, “The two blocks on Railroad Street north of the [University Street] viaduct are definitely overcrowded…On several of the lots there is not only the house on the street front but as many as two or three shacks built on the rear of the lots. There is also a long cabin like house, which is inhabited by six families, each having two rooms and sharing one bath and toilet.” Press noted too that the company houses of the Union Pacific Railroad were particularly bad. Additionally, at this point in time, steam engines were still in use by the Union Pacific Railroad meaning those closest to the tracks were subjected to a high amount of smoke and cinders.
The need for a communal place they could call their own was not unique to Laramie. In 1927 Lovell’s Hispanic population form an organization, the Comision Honorifica (Honorary Commission), for both social and political reasons. In 1948 the Latin American Federation formed in Cheyenne to provide a club and social organization for that city’s Hispanic community. During the 1950s Latin American Clubs opened in Rawlins and other Wyoming towns to provide a social and cultural center for the Hispanic communities.
Laramie’s Latin American Club formed in 1956 as a non-profit, fraternal organization. In addition to the school, it was the central organization for the city’s Hispanic population.
The club hosted regular meetings and a variety of activities to support and foster community. They held charitable events, scholarship fundraisers, potluck suppers, and regular dances typically based on a holiday. They brought awareness to the community’s issues and concerns and became a forum to mobilize advocacy.
In 1960, the club was able to purchase a tract of land and a house south of Laramie. The next year, the Wyoming Federation of Latin American Groups was formed, and the Laramie group became a member. They hosted some of the meetings and conventions, as they were the only members to have their own clubhouse. By 1965, a National Latin American Federation had been formed and the Laramie group became a member of that as well, with members traveling to the conventions and even hosting a few conventions.
An electrical fire burnt down the clubhouse in 1968 and Laramie residents turned out to help raise $3000 to rebuild. More land was donated by a club member the next year and an old Union Pacific washroom was purchased and moved to the land to serve as a more spacious clubhouse.
The 1970s brought the Chicano movement to Laramie and the University of Wyoming. UW students formed a group called the Chicano Coalition, which became Movimiento Estuduantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA) and still exists on campus today (provide link to AHC’s MEChA collection). By 1998 a Chicano Studies Program was formed in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Wyoming. Wyoming’s economic booms in the 70s and early 80s and the early 2000s brought good paying jobs for the state’s residents, including Hispanics and Manitos. All of these advancements assisted them in gaining some access to status they were previously denied and lessened their segregation.
By 2004, Laramie’s Latin American Club had disbanded, and the land and the clubhouse sold. Proceeds from the sale were used to set up a scholarship endowment for Latina/a high school graduates, as continuing education had always been a priority for the group.
The American Heritage Center holds official Latin American Club records including board minutes, annual membership lists, and newsletters. There are many newspaper clippings of club event announcements and community recognition of club members. Photographs of past presidents and board members are also included in the collection. The club charter and a laminated poster of newspaper clippings regarding the rebuilding campaign of 1968 and a contribution chart from the same event can also be found.
Post contributed by the AHC’s Simpson Archivist Leslie Waggener.