My stepdaughter decided to do her junior year U.S. history paper on the Repatriation of Mexicans in the 1930s, as America sought to find a solution to joblessness caused by the Great Depression. Intrigued by the topic, I set off to learn more myself. I read two books including Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s by Francisco E. Balderrama and multiple newspaper articles over the weekend. Here are some shocking facts:
- One Million Deported - One third of the Mexicans then resident in the U.S. were rounded up and sent to Mexico with a one-way ticket. Sixty percent of these people were born in the U.S., hence were American citizens. No matter, according to President Herbert Hoover, who used the slogan, “American jobs for real Americans.” In his book, Balderrama cites the case of Ignacio Pena, who lived in Idaho. One morning at breakfast sheriffs came to his house, took his mother, brothers and sisters into custody forcing them to leave with just the clothes on their back and no other belongings. His father, who was out working in the fields, was also detained, and placed in jail. A week later they were placed on trains and sent to Mexico, never able to recover their belongings, which included documentation of his father having worked in the U.S. for over 25 years and his sisters' and his brothers' U.S. birth certificates.
- Private Sector Coopted - The secretary of Labor, William Doak, ordered American companies such as Ford, U.S. Steel and Southern Pacific Railroad, to lay off their Mexican workers. Farms created in the early 1900s through massive irrigation projects in the Southwest were told to give jobs to white people who came from the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma and Texas.
- La Placita Raid - The Immigration and Naturalization Service agents descended on Los Angeles on February, 26 1931, determined to send a message to the Latino inhabitants. They staked out La Placita Park during the afternoon, then struck after work hours, rounding up Mexicans, giving them the option of arrest or a one-way ticket back to Mexico. Word of the raid spread nationally, panicking Mexicans, forcing couples to split up as the man was sent away. In California alone, an estimated 400,000 Mexicans were sent out of the country.
- Public Sector Role - Many were explicitly denied the right to work on projects from the Civilian Conservation Corps or Works Progress Administration. It was nearly impossible for a Mexican to qualify for welfare.
- The Return to Mexico - Those repatriated to Mexico were left at the border. The Mexican Government, struggling with its own economic travails, did not want the repatriates to congregate in cities so they were sent out to ambitious farm development projects in Baja California and other states. These were utter failures, undercapitalized and underequipped for the drought-like conditions. The repatriates were not easily accepted in their “homeland” because they often spoke poor Spanish and were too American in their values.
- Coming Back to America - The ultimate irony is that many of the repatriates found their way back to the U.S. in the 1940s. The huge expansion of industry for the war effort, the departure of young men to the military and the boom in agriculture caused the demand for Mexican workers to skyrocket.
In 2005, California State Senator, Joe Dunn, attempted to get reparations for the families displaced in the 1930s, only to have his bill vetoed by then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. My stepdaughter said it best: “Americans treated the Mexicans like toys, use them for a while then throw them away when done.” This is worth a thorough examination in the classroom for students seeking to understand our country. This disgraceful chapter in U.S. history has been too long ignored.
Richard Edelman is CEO.