Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Remembering a mostly forgotten mass 'repatriation' to Mexico

The long-ago forced removal of Mexicans and Mexican Americans that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors issued a formal apology for yesterday isn't the relatively well-known 1954 campaign known by a name that the federal government wouldn't use today. Rather, it was a federal push to repatriate Mexicans from the U.S. that has become just about buried in history.

The Depression-era campaign was called simply the Mexican Repatriation, with hundreds of thousands of Mexican immigrants and U.S. citizens of Mexican descent forced to leave the United States during the 1930s as the economy ground to a near-halt, and the nation withdrew the welcome mat for those who became perceived as a job threat.

Unlike the 1950s-era Operation Wetback, there's scarce mainstream awareness of the campaign, which has had little mention in history books. But scholars have written about the Mexican Repatriation, including in relation to events like the World War II-era internment of Japanese Americans and the so-called War on Terror following the 9/11 attacks.

In 2005, UC Davis law school dean Kevin R. Johnson wrote about the Mexican Repatriation, and lessons learned from it, in detail for the Pace Law Review. From the article:

Although “repatriation” is the term often used to refer to the campaign to remove hundreds of thousands of persons of Mexican ancestry from the United States in the 1930s, it is not entirely accurate. Federal, state, and local governments worked together to involuntarily remove many U.S. citizens of Mexican ancestry, many of whom were born in the United States. These citizens cannot be said to have been “repatriated” to their native land.

Approximately 60 percent of the persons of Mexican ancestry removed to Mexico in the 1930s were U.S. citizens, many of them children who were effectively deported to Mexico when their immigrant parents were sent there. My colleague, Professor Cruz Reynoso, former Associate Justice of the California Supreme Court, was one of the so-called repatriates. A U.S. citizen by birth, a young Cruz could only ask his father “where is Mexico?” when informed that the Reynoso family was moving from southern California to south of the U.S./Mexico border.

The forced “repatriation” of an estimated one million persons of Mexican ancestry from the United States included the removal of hundreds of thousands of people from California, Michigan, Colorado, Texas, Illinois, Ohio, and New York during the Great Depression. It is clear today that the conduct of federal, state, and local officials in the campaign violated the legal rights of the persons repatriated, as well as persons of Mexican ancestry stopped, interrogated, and detained but not removed from the country. The repatriation campaign also terrorized and traumatized the greater Mexican-American community.

A book by Francisco E. Balderrama & Raymond Rodríguez entitled Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s documents the historical events surrounding the repatriation and concisely summarizes the campaign:

[L]ocal agencies, saddled with mounting relief and unemployment problems, used        a variety of methods to rid themselves of “Mexicans”: persuasion, coaxing, incentive, and unauthorized coercion. Special railroad trains were made available, with fare at least to the Mexican border prepaid; and people were often rounded up by local agencies to fill carloads of human cargo. In an atmosphere of pressing emergency, little if any time was spent on determining whether the methods infringed upon the rights of citizens.

To assist in the round-up, police conducted raids of public places, including the church La Placita on Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles, where persons of Mexican ancestry were known to frequent. Olvera Street was not a tourist spot in the 1930s like it is today; then it was simply a meeting place for working class Mexicans near a church serving the Mexican immigrant and Mexican-American community. The people rounded up were often herded onto trains and buses or driven by social workers to the border. This was true for citizens by birth and those who had lawfully naturalized to become citizens.

Of those sent to Mexico between 1929 and the early 1940s, it's estimated that more than half were U.S. citizens. There were tens of thousands sent away from the Los Angeles area, according to a short piece in the Los Angeles Times today, which mentioned that a monument to those who were sent to Mexico will be unveiled downtown this weekend. A California state bill apologizing for what happened was signed into law in 2005.