Goodyear Farms Historic Cemetery

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A former site of labor camps in the early 1900s, there have been efforts to preserve the cemetery. Jose Cortez and Dr. Jose Leyba discuss these efforts.

José Cardenas: It's a plot of land located about 20 miles west of downtown Phoenix and surrounded by new homes. The Goodyear Farms Historic Cemetery today remains an important part of the farming era, but what you may not know is that the area was a site for labor camps in the early 1900s. There are efforts to preserve the history of the cemetery. With me to talk about this is José Cortez, Community Activist, and Dr. José Leyba, who grew up in the labor camps. We've got three Josés on the show today. Including me. We have to be careful so we don't get confused. But José Cortez give me a bit of an overview of the labor camps?

José Cortez: They were created in the -- around the Litchfield area, they were actually started back in the early 1900s. 1917, to be exact. When the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company brought over about 200,000 legal workers from Mexico to clear the land. They used approximately 13 tractors and over 1300 mules. And they had 16,000 acres to clear. It was nothing but desert but the idea was to plant a type of cotton here that would be used to create a special kind of tire that would be -- that would ride more smoothly. So back then, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company was known for its tire so they wanted to capitalize on that tire. What happens when they brought these workers over, they -- they needed -- they did a tremendous job. I think the first year, they -- they had a tremendous crop and then the second year, they kind of doubled their production. But what happened also unfortunately, there was the terrible flu pandemic which affected the whole world, and needless to say, a lot of these farm workers were affected by the pandemic. And many of them died because of the flu. And that's when the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company decided they would allocate a piece of land over an old cemetery, called the Pioneer Cemetery so they could bury their dead.

José Cardenas: We'll come back to talk about that in more detail because the focus of your efforts has been to preserve that. Doctor, you're familiar with the history the camps, war is a factor both in terms of the add vent of World War I which generated the need for the rubber and the Mexican Revolution which had a lot of people leaving Mexico seeking a safer place.

José Leyba: Those events provided a steady stream of workers are for the camp, especially the Mexican revolution. , in fact, I had family that came during that time and were some of the first residents in 1918 in the camps and continued to live there for many years and I grew up in camp 52 and the families did work in the farms and had -- it was a great life. You had fiestas and it was a typical experience and one of things to maintain the cemetery, to maintain a bit of history. I was fortunate to be involved with Dr. Gloria who did an oral history project based on the contributions of these early families to the development of west Phoenix and Arizona, so there's much significant, historical value in the experience, this American experience, but also in maintaining and keeping the cemetery alive for the future. And there are still families listed by Goodyear Farms eligible to be buried there. We buried my father a couple of years ago and my niño keeps saying --

José Cardenas: Talked about being buried there herself.

José Leyba: Tied to the land that really fostered the growth of the west side.

José Cardenas: And I know a lot of people may realize this is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Mexican revolution in 1910 and what was it like to grow up in Goodyear?

José Leyba: It was a lot of fun. We were reminiscing about how much fun we had because everybody knew everybody and nobody locked their doors and you were all poor and worked in the fields and everybody was invited to the party, you had these small migrant shacks and in between, the families lived together and that's where we had our big parties. I can remember my dad playing the accordion and his friends and there was music entertainment almost every night and you celebrated not only the music and food and the family atmosphere, but also the church that is now across from the Wigwam, it was built by the migrants to take care of their religious needs.

José Cardenas: And there's an interesting story about the church, but before we get to that, your experiences growing up in the camps.

José Cortez: My experiences were similar to Dr. Leyba.

José Cardenas: He partied a lot more.

José Cortez: He did. Actually, I did a lot of work, and one of the feet things about working out there, when you were working in the fields, it wasn't just men, there were men and women and girls as well, and I was telling him, this was one girl in particular, this redhead that always attracted my attention every time we were there.

José Cardenas: Be careful where you're going with this.

José Cortez: Anyway, I always tried to get the row next to her so we could establish a conversation, but unfortunately, never got the nerve to talk to her.

José Cardenas: We talked about the good times in the camps and some of the fun you both had growing up there but there were some aspects that weren't as positive. There's a story behind the church, a reflection of the discrimination that the people who lived in the camps faced.

José Cortez: The church having been built by the Mexican workers, they obviously gave it that Mexican flavor, and which didn't sit too well with the -- with the owners of the Goodyear. And they decided they would give it a makeover. I think there's more -- a better understanding of that, because he did more research on that.

José Cardenas: You're referring to your namesake?

José Cortez: Yes.

José Leyba: I think part of the life growing up there, workers faced discrimination similar to other immigrant group, the Irish and African Americans in their labor camps and it was very Mexican looking and consequently, the city fathers at that time --

José Cardenas: We're going to have pictures on the screen of the cemetery. But go ahead.

José Leyba: -- hired an architect, an Italian architect to give it more of an Tuscan, Italian look. The whole facade was completely changed and probably looked more like the Mission in Tucson, originally, and then the reconstruction and the whole facade was changed to give it a more of an Italian look.

José Cardenas: José, let's talk about the cemetery. There's a picture on the screen. It looks like a mural.

José Cortez: Yes, the mural is actually modern day, done by a local artist who volunteered his time to do this mural. But it reflects the -- you know, the farm worker activity, reflects the death of farm workers and he was trying to --

José Cardenas: Only a minute left, I have to cut you off. But tell us what's going on it the cemetery right now and the efforts to preserve it?

José Cortez: Right now, there are strong efforts to preserve it. There's a group out there who have undertaken the task of -- first of all, to -- to convince the City of Avondale to take on the task of preserving the cemetery. Because it is owned by -- wanted to divest of its money and wanted the city to take it on and the city needed encouragement and when they saw the community, especially people like the children going out there and cleaning up, the doctor and his family.

José Cardenas: It's a piece of history to be preserved for the future and enjoyed in the future. We have to end the interview, but thanks for joining us.

Dr. Jose Leyba:Former Labor Camp Resident;Jose Cortez:Community Activist;

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