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Sagebrush Laborers: Basque Immigrants in Nevada’s Sheep Industry, International Dimensions, and the Making of an Agricultural Workforce, 1880-1954
AuthorSaitua Idarraga, Iker
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This study explores the history of Basque immigration to the rangelands of Nevada. It views the Basque immigrant sheepherder labor within the social, economic, political, and cultural context of Nevada. Tensions and conflicts occurred as immigrant workers confronted new environments, new labor conditions, and new social adjustments in the context of their new immigrant status. As such, issues developed with other ethnic workforces and over land and water use, particularly upon the advent of the Progressive Conservation Movement in the Far West. In the late nineteenth century, as sheep and cattle grazing expanded into Nevada (especially from California and Texas), Basque immigrant labor became increasingly visible and encountered discrimination in the use of public ranges. Yet, as the twentieth century progressed stock operators (Basque and Anglo alike) in the sheep industry began to prize Basque labor in the grazing of sheep to the point where that labor became privileged above all others. A stereotype developed of Basque sheepherders that reaffirmed an image of their natural expertise for the tending of sheep that could not be duplicated by any other racial or ethnic group. This study attempts to deconstruct the essentialism surrounding the making of these views that not only attribute to Basques special sheepherding skills, but also confer upon them a degree of racial whiteness and values that entitled them to a privileged labor category. The 1924 restrictive Immigration Act resulted in a truncated labor supply from the Basque Country. During the Great Depression and especially in WWII the labor shortage became acute. In response Senator Patrick McCarran from Nevada lobbied on behalf of his woolgrowing constituency to open the immigration doors for Basques. Subsequently Cold War international tensions offered opportunities for a rapprochement between the United States and Francisco Franco despite Spain’s previous sympathy with the Axis powers. McCarran took it upon himself to become an informal intermediary with the Spanish dictator to seek more flexible policies on immigration to permit Basques to enter the United States. Ultimately this study explores the role of Basque agricultural labor and McCarran’s ad-hoc diplomacy as catalysts that eventually helped bring Spain into the orbit of western democracies.