Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s

The following excerpts are taken from the book Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s by Francisco E. Balderrama and Raymond Rodriguez, some of which I will use in my forthcoming book The Town I Live In: A History of Fullerton


"Americans, reeling from the economic disorientation of the depression, sought a convenient scapegoat.  They found it in the Mexican community.  In a frenzy of anti-Mexican activity, wholesale punitive measures were proposed and undertaken.  Mexicans were deprived of jobs in the public and private sectors.  Immigration and deportation laws were enacted to restrict emigration and hasten the departure of those already here.  Contributing to the brutalizing experience were the mass deportation roundups and repatriation drives.  Violence and "scare-head" tactics were utilized to get rid of the burdensome and unwanted horde.  An incessant cry of "get rid of the Mexicans" swept the country.

Across the nation, colonies and barrios literally disappeared as families lost the struggle to survive.  Then oft-repeated phrase 'el diablo nos esta llevando' (things are going to hell) seemed to aptly sum up the situation.  A gnawing, fatalistic sense of apprehension prevailed as families remaining behind tried to hang onto the last vestiges of a normal life.  There was little the beleaguered communities could do but wait for the depression to end and for the anti-Mexican hysteria to subside.

Immigration Before the Great Depression

During the early part of the century, crossing over into the United States was relatively easy.  Immigrants Ramon Curiel from Jalisco, Pablo Alcantara from Durango, and Jesus Cesarez from Michoacan all recalled that their entry into the United States consisted merely of walking or wading across the border.  Others, such as Juan Rodriguez, avoided the inconvenience of wading the river by paying a penny to walk across a small footbridge spanning the Rio Grande.  These and numerous other testimonies confirm the fact that there were few legal barriers imposed on Mexican immigration during the early decades of the twentieth century.  It should be noted that Congress did not impose the eight-dollar head tax or require Mexican Nationals to pass a literacy test until 1917.  While many immigration laws were passed during this early period, their enforcement was usually extremely lax.

The Border Patrol and the Immigration Service exercised their extensive police powers selectively.  This was done in order to serve the needs of influential growers and industrialists.  Regulations were loosely enforced when Mexican workers were needed to harvest crops or increase production in the mines or on the assembly lines.  Conversely, the strict letter of the law was applied when Mexican labor exceeded the seasonal demand.  Then, deportation raids at the work sites, usually before payday, became common occurrences.  The raids were sometimes conducted at the request of unscrupulous employers.  The Border Patrol and the Immigration Service were often assisted in their roundups by local police and sheriff's deputies.  It is therefore not surprising that Mexican commuities viewed local law enforcement agencies with fear, enmity, and distrust.

Reasons for Immigration

A variety of socioeconomic and political factors combined to generate and foster the compelling necessity to leave the land of their birth.  For Mexicans, a major factor contributing to their plight was the scarcity of good farmland.  Early twentieth-century Mexico was an agriculturally-oriented nation.  Over 90 percent of the people lived on farms, ranches, or in rural villages.  Yet, despite long, arduous backbreaking work, even in the best of times, its agrarian population barely eked out a living.  Each year, fewer and fewer farmers were able to support themselves by tilling the increasingly marginal land.  The amount of good farmland barely equaled that found in the combined states of Iowa and Nebraska.

Sparse rainfall also made agriculture a difficult and precarious undertaking.  Only about 12 percent of Mexico receives adequate and timely rainfall.  This is particularly critical in the Central Plateau, where the majority of the Mexican population has traditionally resided.  Only 10 percent of the Central Plateau is suitable for the production of foodstuffs.  This region includes the states of Mexico, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi, Quetaro, Hidalgo, Jalisco, and Aguascalientes.  This area contributed more than two-thirds of Mexico's immigrants to the United States.  

Coincidentally, this period encompassed the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz.  Under his reign, Mexico experienced an expanding land monopoly controlled by a few rich agriculturalists, commonly referred to as hacendados.  These individuals were often foreign or absentee landowners living in Mexico City, the United States, or Europe.  (One such American was newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst).  Aided by favorable government legislation and a sympathetic legal system, these land barons acquired massive tracts of Mexico's national domain as well as control of ejidos, lands formerly farmed collectively.  This avaricious accumulation of land resulted in over million families losing their small farms or plots of land.  In 1910, the agricultural population of Mexico of Jalisco, Michoacan, and Guanajuato was at a record high of approximately 2,537,625 persons.  Nonetheless, only 3.2 percent of the rural heads of household owned any property.

Like other immigrant groups, they were proud of the contributions they made to their adopted country (the US).  However, during the Great Depression, American society chose to disregard the significant role that Mexicans had played in creating the nation's wealth.  Instead, regardless of their place of birth, it became fashionable to blame Mexicans for the country's economic ills.  A relentless campaign was launched to get rid of the pariahs by shipping them to Mexico.  Since many of the Mexicans had been actively recruited to come and work in the United States, their ruthless expulsion was an ironic twist of fate.  The vendetta created the first major contingent of displaced refugees in the twentieth century.


As the depression worsened, repatriation, deportation, and voluntary or induced departures spread their ominous shadow across the width and breadth of the United States.  Trains, cars, trucks, and buses streamed southward from every corner of the land.  Los Angeles, Phoenix, El Paso, Denver, Kansas City, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburg, New York, New Orleans, San Diego, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Fairbanks, Alaska, spewed forth their human jetsam.  Those too poor to afford any kind of transportation joined the mass exodus on foot, carrying their belongings on their backs. An article in Living Age called the heart-wrenching scene "A Caravan of Sorrow."

Railroads were utilized because they were the cheapest form of transportation.  Trains with hundreds, sometimes over a thousand, repatriates aboard regularly left collection centers such as Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Denver, Phoenix, Oklahoma City, and Los Angeles. 

As a result, small barrios virtually disappeared.  Once bustling colonies took on the eerie look of abandoned ghost towns.  Rows of houses stood empty, lonely sentinels and mute witnesses to the life and laughter that had once filled their small, dingy rooms.  Southern California community leader Lucas Lucio recalled that the entire Mexican colonia of 'the Bastanchury Ranch [in Fullerton] was repatriated.  They were very poor…went on the half fare of the Southern Pacific.'


Taking the conservative middle ground, it is reasonable to estimate that the total number of repatriates was approximately one million…Obviously, authorities in both countries would have been acutely embarrassed if an accurate record of the number of Mexicans shipped to Mexico had been kept.  However, a definitive body count is not essential to the essence of the tragic experience.  Of greater importance were the consequences suffered by those forced to depart as well as those who remained behind.  The loss of approximately one-third of the Mexican population in the United States augured an uncertain future for residents…barrios and colonies were not only physically gutted; they lost a large cadre of dedicated community leaders.  More significantly, they suffered the loss of a generation of young, intelligent minds.

In telling this tragic story, a sincere effort has been made to enable readers to understand and appreciate the full extent of the calamity.  The courage and perseverance of Mexican Nationals, Mexican Americans, and their children…should serve as an inspiration not only for their heirs, but for all who share and continue to believe in the American dream.

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