From migrant labor in tobacco to all aspects of the horse industry, Hispanic and Latino immigrants have long played an essential role in Kentucky’s labor force.
Devin Lambert, Spring 2022
Throughout the 80s and 90s, the Mexican population in Kentucky worked primarily on tobacco farms, often via a temporary-work permit, called the H1A visa, which allowed them to fill the labor demand (Embry, 1993). The grueling and sometimes dangerous labor demanded by tobacco farming includes cutting, hanging, and drying the crop, often in hot barns with lofty rafters. Kevin Osbourn wrote in the Lexington Herald Leader (KY), that many young people were taking year-round jobs in the city in place of working on the farm and that farmers decided to turn to Fruit Harvest of America Inc. in order to solve this dilemma (Osbourn, 1989). Movement to Lexington during this time period brought men coming to work on these farms for many hours a day, with little pay, while their families, close to or over a thousand miles away, stayed in their home country. Other than the exhausting physical labor, tobacco farming’s downfall is that employees can only work when tobacco is being planted and harvested. This means that for many of the winter months, workers would be without jobs and a way to support their families.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the horse industry offered a way out for many of the Hispanic and Latino workers who had already established connections in Lexington and the surrounding counties. Harvesting and hanging tobacco was substituted for cleaning stalls and work in training, breeding, and racing Kentucky’s famous thoroughbred horses. The steady jobs provided by the horse industry allowed many families to settle and live in Kentucky year round, and is considered to be one of many factors leading to a substantial increase in the number of Hispanic and Latino residents living in Lexington and the surrounding communities (Miranda and Rich) in the early 2000s. These immigrants brought more than their labor to the state; this period also signals the establishment of Hispanic-owned businesses throughout the region, the emergence of increased language-support services in both health care and the school systems, and increased cultural presence through festivals and artistic production.
Various creative and documentary sources tell the stories of those who have migrated to Kentucky to work in tobacco and the horse industry over the years. The film, “Más allá de la Frontera” (2001), directed by Erin McGuines and Ari Palos, follows a family and their move to Lexington, Kentucky to work on one of the thoroughbred racing farms. One of the boys featured in the film talks about his experience moving away from his family and how difficult that is for him, however the draw to work in the states and in the type of work that needed to be done on the farm was so much better than the work provided in Mexico. Bordered by Bluegrass/Al borde del Bluegrass (2005), edited by Randi Ewing and Sara Anderson, documents similar experiences among women who migrated to the Bluegrass region during this period through a series of vignettes based on first person interviews. The bilingual newspaper La voz de Kentucky, which began publication in 2001 and was edited by Andrés Cruz, included regular reporting and photojournalism centered around the participation of Hispanic and Latino workers, and their families, in the horse and agricultural industries.
Today, Hispanic and Latino workers play an essential role in Kentucky’s horse industry, working in the breeding and sales industries and forming the majority of the “backstretch” or “backside” workers at Kentucky’s premier racetracks at Keeneland, Churchill Downs, and The Red Mile. These racetracks have a large economic impact on the community and would not be able to thrive without these jobs being completed. According to a survey conducted by the Kentucky Derby Museum in 2001, during a pre-Covid pandemic year, the Kentucky Derby brought in approximately 217 million dollars to the region and found that the equine industry across Kentucky provides over 55,000 jobs. It was also found that 70-80% of the workers at Churchill Downs are Latino immigrants, many of which live on the property and have access to resources to help them in both their professional and personal lives (Wood). The stories of the workers behind these numbers can also be heard in the Acentos podcast episode “Los vaqueros del Kentucky Derby, escriben la historia en español” by Louisville-based Luis de Leon (2014). The interconnection of Hispanic and Latino workers and Kentucky’s famous horse industry are reflected in Sassa Rivera’s virtual art from 2019, in which the phrase “There is no Derby, without immigrants” is framed by a jockey’s helmet and red roses (de León).
Bibliography and related sources:
- de Leon, Luis. “Los vaqueros del Kentucky Derby, escriben la historia en español” Acentos. MixCloud. 2014. https://www.mixcloud.com/luisdeleon5074/los-vaqueros-del-kentucky-derby-escriben-la-historia-en-español/
- de Leon, Luis. “No Derby, sin inmigrantes.” La Esquina. 2 May 2019. https://laesquina.live/no-hay-derby-sin-inmigrantes/
- Ewing, Randi, and Sara Anderson, translated by Andrés Cruz. “Al Borde Del Bluegrass/ Bordered by Bluegrass.” Kentucky Foundation for Women, Lexington Hispanic Association, 2004.
- Embry, Mike. “Group Recruits Migrants for Farms that Can’t Find Workers in Kentucky.” Lexington Herald-Leader (KY), FINAL ed., sec. CITY/STATE, 10 May 1993, p. B1. NewsBank: Access World News.
- La voz de Kentucky. Echo Print Media Experts. https://echo-media.com/medias/details/19901/la+voz+de+kentucky
- Más allá de la Frontera. Directed by Eren Isabel McGinnis and Ari Luis Palos, Dos Vatos Productions, 2001.
- Miranda, Marta and Brian Rich. “Chapter 8: The Sociopolitical Dynamics of Immigration in Lexington, Kentucky, 1997 to 2002: An Ambivalent Community Responds.” New Destinations: Mexican Immigration in the United States. Victor Zúñiga, ed. Russell Sage Foundation, 2006, pp. 187–219.
- Osbourn, Kevin. “Migrant Labor in Kentucky.” Lexington Herald-Leader (KY), FINAL ed., sec. BUSINESS MONDAY, 9 Oct. 1989, p. D1. NewsBank: Access World News.
- Wood, Josh. “The Latino Immigrants Who Make the Kentucky Derby Tick.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 1 May 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/may/01/churchill-downs-louisville-kentucky-horse-racing-immigrants