Crude Geographies and Slippery Borders: Mexican Oil Workers in Texas

Thursday, January 4, 2018: 2:10 PM
Madison Room A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Sarah Stanford-McIntyre, College of William and Mary
In this paper I look at the past thirty years of oil industry contract labor, focusing on the recent wave of migration from Mexico to oilfields in Southwest Texas. I connect this story to the broader histories of Texas immigration and the region’s history of nativism and extreme neoconservatism. I argue that changes to US immigration law in the 1980s, coupled with statewide oil industry decline, opened up new opportunities for migrants in Texas oil work. As the state became increasingly majority-minority, oil elites worked to reinforce patterns of legal, political, and economic control. However, as I demonstrate, Mexican oil workers thwarted these efforts in a variety of ways and reframed West Texas’ rural geographies.

While historians of the US/Mexico borderlands have brought renewed attention to Tejano and Latino communities in West Texas, the experiences of the thousands of Latinos who worked in the region’s vast oilfields has been left out of these broader social histories. Further, attention to specifically Mexican migrant oil labor flips the scant scholarship available on oil work on its head. Instead of tracking the experiences of white workers traveling south and instituting segregationist and exploitative extraction projects, this paper focuses on the ways in which the increasing international mobility of Mexico’s industrial labor force influenced regional systems of geographic and spatial control, as well as US responses to health and safety reform and environmental legislation.