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Migrant cotton workers helped shape Litchfield Park, Arizona

Camps were set up in the 1920s to house migrant cotton workers
Posted at 5:59 AM, Sep 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-21 09:02:21-04

LITCHFIELD PARK, AZ — The West Valley is booming. But before modern houses or businesses were built, Litchfield Park was filled with farmland and some of the first people to call it home were migrant workers from Goodyear Farms.

These workers lived in five camps that were set up in the 1920s for the cotton field workers.

Jose Antunez Leyba was raised in Camp 52. He says it was a tight-knit community.

“Everybody knew everybody...nobody locked their doors,” Leyba recalled.

The camps were built so families could tend to the booming cotton industry in Arizona.

According to historians, the efforts were led by Paul Litchfield who, after World War I, was working with the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company.

Archivist Judy Cook with the Litchfield Park Historical Society said about Litchfield, “he said, 'why don't we buy and lease our own land out here in Arizona, and we'll grow our own cotton, we'll always have a source for it.'"

Hundreds of employees and their families lived in these camps. Most, but not all, came from Mexico through the Immigration Act of 1917.

Cook said, "They wanted to come up here because it was safer if the Mexican Revolution was going on. And there were a lot of issues with the soldiers taking land."

Leyba moved out of the camps when he was about 10 years old. But he remembers work was a family affair.

"Everyone worked in the fields. I remember my grandmother one time taking out six or seven grandkids,” Leyba commented.

Leyba still has his grandfather's kerosene lamp they used when they would work at night. He also says the conditions they worked through were tough.

"I have a friend from west Phoenix that... her face is still pockmarked from the insecticide that was sprayed on the fields,” he recalled.

Shortly after the workers arrived, the Spanish Flu pandemic hit. Many workers died as a result, so Litchfield helped establish what is now known as the Goodyear Farms Historic Cemetery. It’s located near Dysart and Indian School roads and is now maintained and operated by the City of Avondale.

Workers would continue to be buried there even after the Spanish Flu. Due to poor record keeping at the time, many of the grave sites remain unmarked.

Families from the camps are still laid to rest there even today.

Leyba said, "Both my parents are buried there. I have a niño buried there. We just buried my aunt a couple of weeks ago."

By the 1980s, Goodyear Farms sold the land and the migrants had to be moved.

Cook has worked extensively to preserve this history and has spoken to many of the former camp residents. She commented, "It was a sad day for them. There weren't many left in the camps. But there were all the memories."

Those who were left were moved to small trailer-like homes in the West Valley and the camps were torn down.

And now that those homes are gone, Leyba’s mission is to make sure those who tended the fields get the respect and recognition they deserve.

He said, "I want people to know that these, largely Mexican American or Mexican migrants who were imported here, are true Arizona pioneers, just like all the other pioneers added to the development of the state, and we can't forget that history."

Leyba worked as a college professor for many years. He teamed up with Arizona State University Professor Gloria Cuadraz on an oral history project about the Litchfield Park camps. There are books written by those who lived in the camps as well, who have also worked to preserve this history.

For those who’d like a deeper look, visit the Litchfield Park Historical Museum. Hours of operation can be found here.

For information about the Goodyear Farms Historic Cemetery, click here.