Reading, Pennsylvania’s first large influx of Spanish-speaking people occurred in 1916, when the Pennsylvania Railroad hired a group of Mexican laborers for a six-month duration. A local newspaper reported that these workers “were brought to this city from places along the Mexican border and housed in a camp” as an “experiment.”
The railroad was apparently pleased with their experiment, for after the six-month term ended, they offered contract extensions – which most of the workers accepted – and hired an additional 50 Mexicans. This brought their total Spanish-speaking workforce in Reading to about 125.
Unfortunately for the Pennsylvania Railroad, they seemed to have been victims of their own success. This is explained by a 1918 newspaper article that reported that many Mexicans had “quit their jobs [with the Railroad] to work at industrial plants.”
One of the plants hiring Mexican workers was Carpenter Steel Corporation. In fact, the 1920 United States Census indicates that 17 Mexican men, most between the ages of 20 and 40, were employed by Carpenter and living in the company’s “commissary house” on Bern Street.
Sources contain few additional mentions of Mexican workers in Reading after 1921, so we assume that the temporary employment arrangements concluded at that time. Interestingly, the old encampment site, which was located near present-day First Energy Stadium, subsequently became a baseball field that locals called “Mexican Camp Diamond.” Though Reading’s Mexican population of 1917-1921 did not stay here permanently, they deserve recognition for their contributions to our city and its industries.
By Bradley Smith
The Berks History Center
Caption: This image shows Carpenter Steel Corporation as it looked in the early 1900s. Carpenter employed a small force of Mexican workers in 1920.