A 9-year-old girl stood in the darkness of a railroad station, surrounded by tearful travelers who had gathered up their meager belongings, awaiting the train that would take her from her native home to a place she had never been. The bewildered child couldn’t know she was a character in the recurring drama of America’s love-hate relationship with peoples from foreign lands who, whether fleeing hardship or oppression or simply drawn to the promise of opportunity and prosperity, desperately strive to be Americans. As yet another act in the long saga of American immigration unfolds today, some U.S. citizens can recall when, during a time of anti-immigrant frenzy fueled by economic crisis and racism, they found themselves being swept out of the country of their birth.
Emilia Castañeda will never forget that 1935 morning. Along with her father and brother, she was leaving her native Los Angeles. Staying, she was warned by some adults at the station, meant she would become a ward of the state. ‘I had never been to Mexico,’ Castañeda said some six decades later. ‘We left with just one trunk full of belongings. No furniture. A few metal cooking utensils. A small ceramic pitcher, because it reminded me of my mother…and very little clothing. We took blankets, only the very essentials.’
As momentous as that morning seemed to the 9-year-old Castañeda, such departures were part of a routine and roundly accepted movement to send Mexicans and Mexican-Americans back to their ancestral home. Los Angeles County–sponsored repatriation trains had been leaving the station bound for Mexico since 1931, when, in the wake of the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the economic collapse and dislocation that followed, welfare cases skyrocketed. The county Board of Supervisors, other county and municipal agencies and the Chamber of Commerce proclaimed repatriation of Mexicans as a humane and utilitarian solution to the area’s growing joblessness and dwindling resources. Even the Mexican consul stationed in Los Angeles praised the effort, at least at the outset, thanking the welfare department for its work ‘among my countrymen, in helping them return to Mexico.’ The Mexican government, still warmed by the rhetoric of the 1910 revolution, was touting the development of agricultural colonies and irrigation projects that would provide work for the displaced compatriots from the north.
By 1935, however, it was hard to detect much benevolence driving the government-sponsored train rides to Mexico. For young Castañeda’s father, Mexico was the last resort, a final defeat after 20 years of legal residence in America. His work as a union bricklayer had enabled him to buy a house, but — like millions of other Americans — his house and job were lost to the Depression. His wife, who had worked as a maid, contracted tuberculosis in 1933 and died the following year. ‘My father told us that he was returning to Mexico because he couldn’t find work in Los Angeles,’ Castañeda said. ‘He wasn’t going to abandon us. We were going with him. When L.A. County arranged for our trip to Mexico, he and other Mexicans had no choice but to go.’
Francisco Balderrama and Raymond Rodríguez, the authors of Decade of Betrayal, the first expansive study of Mexican repatriation with perspectives from both sides of the border, claim that 1 million people of Mexican descent were driven from the United States during the 1930s due to raids, scare tactics, deportation, repatriation and public pressure. Of that conservative estimate, approximately 60 percent of those leaving were legal American citizens. Mexicans comprised nearly half of all those deported during the decade, although they made up less than 1 percent of the country’s population. ‘Americans, reeling from the economic disorientation of the depression, sought a convenient scapegoat,’ Balderrama and Rodríguez wrote. ‘They found it in the Mexican community.’
During the early years of the 20th century, the U.S. Immigration Service paid scant attention to Mexican nationals crossing the border. The disfavored groups among border watchers at the time were the Chinese, who had been explicitly barred by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, criminals, lunatics, prostitutes, paupers and those suffering from loathsome and contagious diseases. In actuality, the Mexican immigrant was often a pauper, but he was not, in the law’s language, ‘likely to become a public charge.’ Cheap Mexican labor was in great demand by a host of America’s burgeoning industries. The railroads, mining companies and agribusinesses sent agents to greet immigrants at the border, where they extolled the rewards of their respective enterprises. Border officials felt no duty to impede the labor flow into the Southwest.
The Mexican population in the United States escalated during the years following 1910. By 1914, according to author Matt S. Meier, the chaos and bloodshed of the Mexican revolution had driven as many as 100,000 Mexican nationals into the United States, and they would continue to cross the border in large numbers legally and illegally. Immigration laws were tightened in 1917, but their enforcement at the border remained lax. While laws enacted in 1921 and 1924 imposed quotas on immigrants from Europe and other parts of the Eastern Hemisphere, quotas were not applied to Mexico or other Western nations. This disparity found its detractors, particularly East Texas congressman John C. Box, who was a vocal proponent of curtailing the influx from the south.
Though none of Box’s proposals became law, his efforts drew favorable coverage in the Saturday Evening Post and other journals that editorialized against the ‘Mexicanization’ of the United States. When a Midwestern beet grower who hired Mexican immigrants appeared at a House Immigration Committee hearing, Box suggested that the man’s ideal farm workers were ‘a class of people who have not the ability to rise, who have not the initiative, who are children, who do not want to own land, who can be directed by men in the upper stratum of society. That is what you want, is it?’
‘I believe that is about it,’ replied the grower.
Those who exploited cheap Mexican labor, argued Box and his adherents, betrayed American workers and imperiled American cities with invading hordes of mixed-blood foreigners. Those who railed against quotas should visit the barrios in Los Angeles, wrote Kenneth L. Roberts in the Saturday Evening Post, ‘and see endless streets crowded with the shacks of illiterate, diseased, pauperized Mexicans, taking no interest whatever in the community, living constantly on the ragged edge of starvation, bringing countless numbers of American citizens into the world with the reckless prodigality of rabbits.’
Upon taking office in 1929, President Herbert Hoover had to face the raging debate. He resisted imposing the quotas demanded by Box and others, as Hoover probably feared they would rankle the Mexican government and thus threaten American business interests there. Instead, Hoover, hoping to appease the restrictionists, chose the less-permanent option of virtually eliminating visas for Mexican laborers and by bolstering the Immigration Service, which had grown from a minor government operation to a force that included a border patrol of nearly 800 officers.
After the Depression set in, the removal of foreigners who were taking jobs and services away from cash-strapped, struggling Americans seemed to be a salient solution, perhaps the only tangible recourse to the desperation that had swept the country. Under the direction of William N. Doak, Hoover’s newly appointed secretary of labor, immigration officers dredged the country for illegal aliens. They raided union halls, dances, social clubs and other ethnic enclaves where people without papers might be found. Their tactics favored intimidation over legal procedure. Suspects were routinely arrested without warrants. Many were denied counsel, and their deportation ‘hearings’ were often conducted in the confines of a city or county jail. Frightened and ignorant of their rights, many suspects volunteered to leave rather than suffer through deportation.
While Mexicans were not the only target in the drive against illegal aliens, they were often the most visible. This was certainly true in Los Angeles, which, at that time had some 175,000 inhabitants of Mexican descent, second only to Mexico City. In early 1931, Los Angeles newspapers reported on an impending anti-alien sweep led by a ranking immigration officer from Washington, D.C. Walter Carr, the federal Los Angeles district director of immigration, assured the press that no single ethnic group was under siege, but raids in the Mexican communities of El Monte, Pacoima and San Fernando belied that official line. The final show of force occurred with a raid on La Placita, a downtown Los Angeles park that was popular with Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. On February 26, an afternoon idyll on Olivera Street was shattered by an invasion of immigration agents and local police. Agents searched every person on the scene for proof of legal residence. Though hundreds were hauled off for questioning, few were ultimately detained. The message was in the bluster, not the busts.
As recounted in Decade of Betrayal, Labor Secretary Doak’s efforts proved to be highly successful: Deportees outnumbered those who entered the United States during the first nine months of 1931. There were, however, some detractors. A subcommittee formed by the Los Angeles Bar Association found that Carr’s tactics, such as inhibiting a suspect’s access to counsel, fell outside the law. Carr dismissed these charges as nothing more than sour grapes over a lost client base and justified the deprivation of counsel on the grounds that lawyers merely sold false hopes in exchange for cash squeezed from needy immigrants.
Investigations into the alleged abuses began on a national level, as well, by the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, which was appointed by President Hoover in 1929. Named for its chairman, former U.S. Attorney General George W. Wickersham, the Wickersham Commission had made front-page news with its investigations into the rackets of Al Capone and others. Like the L.A. Bar Association, the commission also found the methods employed by Doak’s underlings to be unconstitutional. Regardless of the legality or illegality of the practices, one thing was clear: Mexican immigrants were departing in great numbers. According to a report by Carr, by May 1931, ‘There have been approximately forty thousand aliens who left this district during the last eighteen months of which probably twenty percent [were] deportable.’ Even those who were here legally, he allowed, had been driven out by fear.
In retrospect, other options were available. The Registry Act of 1929, for example, ensured permanent residency status — a version of amnesty — to those who had been in the United States continuously since 1921 and had been ‘honest, law-abiding aliens.’ While this surely would have applied to many Mexicans, the act’s provisions were utilized mostly by European or Canadian immigrants. In many cases, institutionalized hostility prevailed over legal rights. Anti-Mexican sentiments convinced the father of author Raymond Rodríguez to return to Mexico. His mother met with a local priest, who assured her that, as a mother of five American children and a legal resident, she could not be forced to leave. ‘So he left and we stayed,’ says Rodríguez, who never saw his father again.
Instead of driving Mexican aliens underground — as was often the result of raids and other scare tactics — it became apparent to anti-immigrant proponents that it was more expedient simply to assist them out of the country. ‘Repatriation’ became a locally administered alternative to deportation, which was a federal process beyond the purview of the county and municipal officials. ‘Repatriation is supposed to be voluntary,’ says Francisco Balderrama, Decade’s co-author. ‘That’s kind of a whitewash word, a kind of covering up of the whole thing.’
Some 350 people departed on the first county-sponsored repatriation train to leave Los Angeles in March 1931. The next month, a second train left with nearly three times as many people, of which roughly one-third paid for their own passage. The repatriates were led to believe that they could return at a later date, observed George P. Clements, manager of agriculture of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. In a memo to the chamber’s general manager, Arthur G. Arnoll, Clements, who wanted to keep the cheap labor, wrote, ‘I think this is a grave mistake because it is not the truth.’ Clements went on to state that American-born children leaving without documentation were ‘American citizens without very much hope of ever coming back into the United States.’
Los Angeles later developed a highly efficient repatriation program under the direction of Rex Thomson, an engineer who had impressed members of the Board of Supervisors with his nuts-and-bolts know-how while advising them on the construction of the Los Angeles General Hospital. After the county welfare caseload nearly doubled from 25,913 cases during 1929-30 to 42,124 cases in 1930-31, the board asked the pragmatic Thomson to serve as assistant superintendent of charities. ‘It was one of the highest paying public jobs in California,’ Thomson recalled during an interview nearly 40 years later. Having lost a bundle in failed local banks, he continued, ‘I was interested in a job.’
Thomson proved to be a tough administrator who excised bureaucratic fat and made welfare money work for the county. Men dug channels in the Los Angeles River in exchange for room and board. He put the unemployed to work on several local projects: building walls along Elysian Park, grading the grounds around the California State Building. When Thomson visited Congress in Washington, D.C., to seek funding for his public works program, he challenged the feds to ‘send out people to see if we aren’t worthy of this federal help.’ By the end of the week, he later reported: ‘I’ll be darned if they didn’t agree. The government got the idea, and started this Works Progress [Administration], but they didn’t always impose the discipline that was necessary.’
Along with putting the unemployed to work on government-sponsored projects, repatriation would become another of Thomson’s social remedies that would merit emulation. Thomson would later describe his program: ‘We had thousands of Mexican nationals who were out of work. I went to Mexico City and I told them that we would like to ship these people back — not to the border but to where they came from or where the Mexicans would send them if we agreed it was a proper place. We could ship them back by train and feed them well and decently, for $74 a family. So I employed social workers who were Americans of Mexican descent but fluent in the language, or Mexican nationals, and they would go out and — I want to emphasize offer repatriation to these people.’
A child in 1932, Rubén Jiménez remembers one such social worker, a Mr. Hispana, who convinced Jiménez’s father to exchange his two houses in East Los Angeles for 21 acres in Mexicali. ‘We were not a burden to the U.S. government or anybody,’ says Jiménez, whose father worked for the gas company and collected rental income on his property. Still, Hispana convinced the man that it was best for him to turn over his bungalow and frame house and depart with his family to Mexico, where their 21 acres awaited them. ‘We camped under a tree until Dad built a shack out of bamboo,’ Jiménez recalls. Since there was no electricity available, his parents traded their washing machine and other appliances for chickens, mules, pigs and other necessities for their new life.
In the clutches of the Depression’s hard times, families sold their homes at low prices. In some cases, the county placed liens on abandoned property. ‘While there is no direct authority for selling the effects and applying their proceeds,’ a county attorney informed Thomson, ‘we fail to see how the county can be damaged by so doing.’
‘They are going to a land where the unemployed take all-day siestas in the warm sun,’ wrote the Los Angeles Evening Express in August 1931, which described children ‘following their parents to a new land of promise, where they may play in green fields without watching out for automobiles.’ The reality proved to be far less idyllic. Emilia Castañeda first glimpsed Mexican poverty in the tattered shoes on the old train porter who carried her father’s trunk. ‘He was wearing huaraches,’ she recalled. ‘Huaraches are sandals worn by poor people. They are made out of old tires and scraps.’ Along with her father and brother, Castañeda moved to her aunt’s place in the state of Durango, where nine relatives were already sharing the one-room domicile. ‘There was no room for us,’ she said. ‘If it rained we couldn’t go indoors.’ She quickly learned that running water and electricity were luxuries left back in Los Angeles. She took baths in a galvanized tub and fetched water from wells. The toilet was a hole in the backyard. ‘We were living with people who didn’t want us there,’ Castañeda said. ‘We were imposing on them out of necessity.’ They left after her father found work. In time her brother would be working also and, to her great dismay, shuffling around in huaraches.
Contrary to what was being propagated, Mexicans in Los Angeles did not impose a disproportionate strain on welfare services during the Depression. This is according to Decade and Abraham Hoffman, whose dissertation and subsequent book, Unwanted Mexican Americans in the Great Depression, examined repatriation from a Los Angeles perspective. Based on the county’s own figures, Mexicans comprised an average of only 10 percent of those on relief. Nonetheless, repatriation was promoted and widely viewed as an effective means of diminishing welfare rolls, and Mexico’s proclaimed plans for agricultural expansion conveniently complemented the movement. Indeed, Thomson traveled extensively throughout Mexico to survey proposed work sites and hold negotiations at various levels of the Mexican government, including the ministry of foreign affairs and the presidency. Some Mexican officials were so eager to get Thomson’s repatriates, he later recalled, he was personally offered a bounty of land for each. ‘One time I was met by the governor of Quintaneroo. He offered me 17 and a half hectares (44 acres) for every repatriated individual I sent there to cut sisal and I said ‘Absolutely no.” Thomson claimed repatriates were in high demand across the border. ‘They brought across skills and industrial discipline,’ he said. ‘At that time, if you could repair a Model T Ford, that was quite an art.’
Thomson’s program — and its seemingly fantastic results — attracted the attention of state and local leaders from around the country, and his practice of engaging the Mexican government was copied as well. In the fall of 1932, Ignacio Batiza, the Mexican consul in Detroit, urged his compatriots to return home and ‘accept this opportunity which is offered them.’ While Batiza may have believed his country’s promises of cooperation, others did not. A pamphlet circulated by a group called the International Labor Defense warned that thousands of workers choosing to return to Mexico would die of hunger. This was the end of 1932, and the feasibility of Mexico’s grand plans was not yet widely challenged.
With a population of less than 15 million in the early years of the Depression, Mexico needed more workers to attain its goal of land transformation. Even as the Depression took hold, the Mexican government proceeded with its agricultural development plans, which would include repatriated nationals — especially those with farming skills. During that time, ‘They are proclaiming workers’ rights,’ Balderrama explained. ‘If they’re not accepting of the repatriates, that calls into question what they’re all about.’ In the end, however, the government’s post-revolutionary zeal eclipsed a hard reckoning of the facts. The returning mass of impoverished pilgrims from the United States would strain an already fragile economy. Officially, at least, the government welcomed the compatriots from the north, underscoring its proclamation of Mexicanism and support for workers’ rights.
Mexico struggled to cope with the deluge of new arrivals. Hungry and sick travelers crowded into border towns such as Ciudad Juárez and Nogales, where paltry food and medical supplies ensured a daily death count. There are many accounts of border towns crowded with people, as the train connections were not well organized. One repatriado reported: ‘Many that come here don’t have any place to go. They don’t have any idea of where they are going or what they’ll do. Some families just stayed down at the railway station.’
In an attempt to manage the crisis, Mexican governmental agencies joined several private organizations to create the National Repatriation Committee in 1933. The first colonization project undertaken by this august assembly was Pinotepa Nacional, located in a fertile tropical area of southern Mexico. Modern farming equipment and mules, along with food and other provisions, were made available to the farmers, who were to earn their equity through produce. And while the crops grew quickly, this highly touted proletarian collective proved to be a disastrous failure beset with complaints about mistreatment and meager food rations. The project’s final undoing came from disease, as the land was rife with poisonous insects. Sixty people died within 20 days, according to a settler who had left after one month, taking his three small sons with him. ‘Some have families and can’t leave very well,’ he told one researcher. ‘But my boys and I could. We walked to Oaxaca. It took us eight days.’
Though the government welcomed repatriates, the general citizenry often did not. ‘Most of us here in Mexico do not look on these repatriates very favorably,’ remarked one Mexico City landlady. ‘They abandoned the country during the revolution, and after getting expelled from the north, they expected their old compatriots…to greet them with celebrations of fireworks and brass bands.’ Castañeda remembers children taunting her as a ‘repatriada.’ ‘The word was very offensive to me,’ she recalled. ‘It was an insult, as is calling someone a gringo or a wetback.’ As one Mexican ranch worker asked a repatriate in Torreón in the northeastern state of Coahuila: ‘What you doing here for? To eat the little bread we have?’
As news about the harsh conditions in Mexico traveled north, it became more difficult to convince people to leave the United States. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal provided work for some Mexicans, such as veterans of the U.S. military, and welfare was allotted to those who were barred from the work projects. But, back in Los Angeles, Thomson remained resolute in his efforts to repatriate Mexicans, eventually turning his attention to nursing homes and asylums in his desire to purge what he considered welfare leeches. In some cases, the bedridden were sent out on the back of a truck.
Many American children of repatriates never lost their desire for a true repatriation of their own. Emilia Castañeda, who had relocated 17 times while living in Mexico, decided to return to Los Angeles as her 18th birthday approached, some nine years after that dark morning in 1935. Her godmother in Boyle Heights forwarded Castañeda’s birth certificate, along with money for the train ride. Ironically, this American citizen was again subjected to humiliation. At the border crossing, immigration officials asked to see her tourist card. ‘I had to pay for a tourist card because, according to them, I was a tourist. Can you imagine? Me, a tourist, for nine years.’ It was 1944, and the train was crowded with soldiers. ‘I sat on my suitcase in the aisle. The seats were reserved for servicemen, but some were kind and they offered me their seats. I spoke very little English by then. Here was this American girl coming back to the United States.’
Castañeda relearned English in the same school she had attended as a child. As she would later admit, her forced relocation ‘prevented me from completing my education and advancing for better employment.’ Rubén Jiménez had attended school in Mexico, walking 12 miles a day to a one-room structure where six grades shared one teacher. When he returned to the States, the transition back into Los Angeles schools was difficult. A high school sophomore at age 17, Jiménez dropped out and joined the Army, serving as a radar operator during World War II. After several years, he completed college and eventually retired as a parole investigator.
While many American citizens who were caught up in the repatriation movement returned and struggled to readjust to their native country, thousands who had left without documentation had no legitimate proof of citizenship and were denied reentry. ‘We talked to one lady, part of her family came back, and part of it, unable to prove their residency, settled along the border so they could get together sometimes,’ recalls Rodríguez. ‘But the whole family was not able to make it back. And that was not an unusual circumstance.’
In 1972 Hoffman noted that the history of Mexicans in the United States was largely ignored. ‘A case in point is that of the repatriation phenomenon,’ he said. ‘When I started working on it as a dissertation there was really nothing. Historians had neglected it as a topic, as they did essentially everything that today we call ethnic studies. I was interested in the topic because I was born in East L.A., and although I am not a Mexican American, I did have some concerns about what had been going on in an area where I had grown up.’
Repatriates often tried to forget the experience, and they did not speak about it to their children. Many saw themselves as victims of local vendettas rather than scapegoats of a national campaign. ‘They really didn’t understand the broad aspects,’ says Rodríguez. ‘They thought it was an individual experience. It wasn’t something pleasant. It wasn’t something they could be proud of.’
The silence, however, did not dissuade a new generation from seeking answers. ‘I knew that my father had spent his childhood in Mexico, despite the fact that he was born in Detroit, and I always had questions about it,’ says Elena Herrada, a union official and activist in Detroit. While at Wayne State University in the ’70s, Herrada and other students began collecting oral histories from elders in the community, a practice she continues today. ‘All we wanted to do was get the story told in our own families, and in our own communities, so that we would have a better understanding of why we don’t vote, why we don’t answer the census, why we don’t protest in the face of extreme injustice. It just explains so many things for us.’
In the summer of 2003, the subject of Mexican repatriation went beyond the confines of family and academic circles and returned to the scrutiny of government. A hearing was held in Sacramento, Calif., presided over by state Senator Joe Dunne, who had been inspired by Decade of Betrayal. The book’s authors spoke at the session, and Rodríguez’s voice faltered as he recalled his own father’s flight to Mexico in 1936. Other scholars spoke, as did local politicians and two repatriates. A class action lawsuit on behalf of those who had been unfairly expelled from California was filed in July, with Castañeda as the lead plaintiff. The suit was eventually withdrawn, as two consecutive governors vetoed bills that would have funded research and expanded statutory limitations.
For a time, however, the civil action and the forgotten history behind it were national news. This, in a way, was the beginning of a more lasting restitution: an acknowledgement of the past. ‘My idea is for it to be in the history books,’ says Emilia Castañeda, ‘for children to learn what happened to American citizens.’
This article was written by Steve Boisson and originally published in the September 2006 issue of American History Magazine.
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