By the 1920s, Mexican immigrants composed most of the railroad track workers or “gandy dancers” in the United States.
Companies like Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe sought to employ traqueros (Spanglish for track men), based on their perceived loyalty, willingness to toil in harsh conditions and for low pay. As railroad companies expanded to Fort Worth, this almost invisible work force migrated to Panther City.
Crossing the border in 1910 to escape Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz’s oppressive policies and the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution, Prisciliano Rodriguez pursued rail work. An experienced traquero, he and thousands of other Mexican immigrants laid rail from Texas to California.
His wife Dolores, along with other wives, followed the crews, living in boxcars, preparing their food, caring for their children, cleaning their clothes, tending their wounds. Hazardous rail work sometimes resulted in severe injuries or deaths to workers and their families.
On a stop in Fort Worth, the Rodriguez family decided to take an entrepreneurial direction. Aware there were no hotels and few restaurants willing to serve traqueros, they opened their boarding house circa late 1920s at 1401 Calhoun in Hell’s Half Acre. In the photo that appears with this column, Dolores, Prisciliano and their son Michael Rodriguez wait on several traqueros.
The location is now a parking lot across from Texas A&M Law School. Looking east, an observer can see the former Santa Fe depot, now Ashton Depot, a reception hall. A 1970 historical marker reflected that Santa Fe “served Texas with greater trackage than any other railroad, 5102 miles.” Traqueros worked many of those miles.
A review of the 1930 Fort Worth City Directory identified many of the residents and businesses in this area bore Spanish surnames, establishing South Calhoun as the first Fort Worth Mexican settlement. Although successful, Dolores and Prisciliano found the Acre’s environment unsuitable to raise their three sons.
By the 1920s, Texas Steel Co. and grain mills on the South Side had hired many Mexican workers, forming barrio La Fundición. The Rodriguez family, envisioning another business opportunity, renovated, by 1940, a two-story barn and operated a food store/pool hall/barber shop at 3832 Bryan Ave. in Worth Heights.
After Prisciliano’s death in 1969, his wife continued to live in the store on the second floor until she died in 1975. The sons pursued other career paths, marrying and moving away.
Another traquero-formed barrio is the El TP neighborhood in the area of Vickery Boulevard and Montgomery Street. After finding full-time work with the Texas & Pacific Railroad, the track men brought their families from Mexico. Their population grew large enough to convince the Dallas Catholic Diocese in 1941 to open mission church San Mateo. The children and grandchildren of first-generation Mexican immigrants received the sacraments and identified El TP as their cultural and spiritual home.
La Yarda barrio developed in the 1920s on the North Side in the area of Terminal Road and Runnels Street. Traqueros working for the Cotton Belt Railway removed the wheels and transformed box cars to one- or two-family homes where babies were born and raised.
The Rodriguez family’s story of traquero to entrepreneur is the tale of thousands of Mexicans seeking jobs in a railroad industry that welcomed Mexican immigrant workers.
Fort Worth benefited financially with the expansion of multiple railroad lines. More so, Panther City continued to reap social-cultural-economic capital with the arrival of traqueros who left a legacy of rails, businesses, and prosperity.
Author Richard J. Gonzales writes and speaks about Fort Worth, national and international Latino history.