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Mexican Repatriation in 1930s is Little Known Story
By Rosa Prieto, Veronica Smith, Rosa Moreno, Jonatán Jaimes, Adri Alatorre and Ruth Vise
The 1930s. Financial panic. Rampant unemployment. Soup kitchens. The Great Depression. During this time, the United States underwent several years of uncertainty and worry. Before the system of national welfare programs went into effect, another attempt to improve the financial problems of the country involved our neighbor to the south, Mexico. The U. S. began a program of “repatriation” of Mexicans in the United States.Image caption: Stranded Mexican repatriates in their traveling clothes sat outside the cathedral in Chihuahua City, Chihuahua, in 1932 on their way to Torreon. Photo courtesy of David Perez Lopez .
In the Handbook of Texas Online , Robert R. McKay writes that Mexicans had left the Southwest ever since Texas declared its independence from Mexico. In El Paso, Mexicans and Americans alike crossed the border freely for decades, and Mexican agricultural laborers made the trek back and forth season by season. But the return of Mexicans during the Depression involved much larger groups, with numbers ranging from 400,000-500,000 to a million or two, including many American-born children. McKay reminds us that the term “repatriate” is inaccurate since Americans cannot be returned to a foreign country.A national program of deportation began in 1928 and peaked in 1931. Secretary of Labor William N. Doak instigated a scare campaign against Mexicans with immigration officers, local police and newspapers publicizing deportation “raids” as a way to frighten Mexicans into leaving voluntarily. Dr. Jorge Chinea writes that one problem with the mass departure lay in the fact that it included legal and illegal immigrants, temporary workers and permanent residents, U. S. citizens and aliens.
Ironically, the demand for Mexican labor had been high just a decade before. They were willing to work for lower wages than American workers and, just like today, Mexicans filled many jobs that native Americans refused to do. Although they provided consistent and cheap labor, portions of the American public saw them as unimportant and even obstructive. Abraham Hoffman, author of Unwanted Mexican Americans in the Depression , states that “most Mexican immigrants came from backgrounds of illiteracy, poverty, and harsh existence, but their opportunities for employment and advancement were also seriously narrowed by the limited view held by Anglo Americans toward them.”
In 1924, Congress approved $1,000,000 in funds to establish the Border Patrol that would control and supervise the flow of immigration. Also in 1924, Congress passed the Quota Act, which restricted immigration from Asia and parts of Europe but did not include countries of the Western Hemisphere. In 1926, John C. Box of east Texas proposed a law to include Mexico in the national origin quota system, but Congress could not agree on it or similar bills.
In hearings on these bills, representatives for ranching, agriculture, mining, railroad and other interests testified to the need for Mexican immigrants to work in these fields. In 1929, however, the State Department told Mexican consuls to enforce existing immigration laws strictly, particularly the “likely to become a public charge” clause, to eliminate any possible additions to American state welfare rolls.
McKay says, “In the last quarter of 1931 repatriation reached massive proportions; the roads leading to the Texas-Mexico border became congested with returning repatriates.” More than half of the repatriates left from Texas because many “desperate unemployed Mexicans from other states packed into its cities,” according to Phyllis McKenzie, author of The Mexican Texans . In Texas most repatriados departed from Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and El Paso.
Local businessmen witnessed the number of customers dwindling as Mexicans were repatriated. Tenements were vacated. Hundreds of small downtown El Paso businesses closed, with many owners forced to return to Mexico. By September 1931, immigration inspector Eugene Warren reported that “approximately 15,000 Mexicans from El Paso had repatriated in the previous ten to eleven months,” according to an M.A. thesis written by Yolanda Chavez Leyva .
McKay wrote that the campaign “resulted in widespread violation of civil and human rights, including illegally imprisoning immigrants, deporting United States-born children, not permitting returnees to dispose of their property or to collect their wages, deporting many not legally subject to deportation because of their length of Texas residence, separating families, and deporting the infirm.”
Antonio Prieto, the father of one contributor to this article, recalls that his father lost his job in Ranger, Texas, because he did not have papers to work legally where he did, the railroad. The young Prieto and his brothers caught crawfish in a nearby lake for his mother to cook for the family. They waited for the train to pass because once in a while a car would overturn, spilling out its load of fruit and vegetables, which they would gather and take home. Prieto, his parents and brothers were deported in May 1931, in El Paso, despite the fact that the children were all born in Texas.
The Prietos went to Durango where they worked on a relative’s farm. Six months after their arrival, the parents, a daughter and the youngest brother died. The remaining children were divided among their grandparents, aunts and uncles. Prieto and his brothers had gone to elementary school in Ranger, but managed to attend only two more years of school in Mexico because they had to work. Prieto eventually returned to the land of his birth at the age of 31. He came to Juárez, found a job in El Paso and moved his wife to Juárez. Finally in 1977, Prieto applied for visas for his entire family and they moved to El Paso, wanting a better future than they could have in Mexico.
Among the repatriados were women traveling alone, either widows or women trying to rejoin their husbands who had already been deported. Adela S. Delgado and her three daughters made the trip from Pueblo, Colorado, to Santa Eulalia, Chihuahua (six kilometers south of Chihuahua City). Besides the obvious problems, women such as Mrs. Delgado had to obtain a Certificate of Residency in order to enter Mexico when reaching the border and prove paternity of their children in order for them to be recognized as citizens. These requirements were made difficult without the man of the family.Image caption: Repatriation train leaving Chihuahua City, Chihuahua in 1932 Courtesy of David Pérez López Texas and California had the highest number of repatriates. One of the areas most affected by repatriation was Los Angeles County, California. Francisco E. Balderrama and Raymond Rodríguez, authors of the book Decade of Betrayal, say that 50,000 Mexicans and their children left Los Angeles in a five-month period following the departure of the first official repatriation train on February 10, 1931.
In the Midwest and other areas of the country, officials often were not helpful in helping Mexicans arrive at the border ready to enter Mexico. Mary G. Wells, overseeing the repatriation of Mexicans from Gary, Indiana, repeatedly sent Nationals to Mexico without proper documentation, resulting in prolonged suffering and waiting to enter the country. Many repatriates were destitute by the time they reached the border and others were homeless because there was no one to take them in once they returned to Mexico.
Mexico, herself in a recession and still feeling the effects of her protracted civil war, tried to help the thousands of repatriados, especially through their consuls. Mexico offered free transportation from the border of Texas, and reduced or even eliminated tariffs on the repatriates’ belongings. Mexico also led drives to raise money for needy repatriates and in the late 1930s, made land available for them to colonize and farm, an enterprise whose success was mixed. Some local governments and public welfare offices in the United States also offered free transportation for Mexicans.
Balderrama and Rivera write that infants and the elderly, pregnant women, the sick and the mentally ill suffered the most, and many died along the way. One of Mexico City’s leading newspapers, El Excélsior , reported that 25 children and adults died on one repatriation train just on the trip to the border. Many repatriates fell victim to the scare tactics used and neglected to report to their consuls, arriving at the border without necessary documentation.
Journalist Robert N. McLean wrote about the conditions in Juárez in 1931: “Up at the customs house, there is a large corral, where early in January more than two thousand repatriados camped and starved, huddled together, waiting for a kind government to provide them with transportation so that they could move on. … Women swarmed about the warehouses picking up one by one the beans spilled through the holes in the [gunny] sacks.”
Although thousands of repatriates suffered both on their way back to and inside Mexico, others left voluntarily and endured little deprivation. In an interview by historian Oscar Martinez with Severo Marquez, preserved by the Oral History Project in Special Collections at the University of Texas at El Paso Library, this Mexican Revolution veteran reminisced about his life in the United States and his eventual departure. Marquez worked in California, Arizona and Texas. His last position was a foreman for the Griffith Co. in Culver City, California near Santa Monica, where he worked four years until 1931 before voluntarily returning to Mexico.
Government inspectors insisted that World War I veterans be given the jobs that Marquez and eight other Mexican Nationals held, but the Americans were not used to the hard work of a paving company, so the original crew stayed. Marquez, however, returned to Mexico because his children had never met their relatives in Chihuahua. The Marquez family and three others caravanned to their various hometowns in cars loaded with their possessions. They had no trouble with customs, even taking in several weapons with which to protect themselves. They had heard a rumor about a defenseless Mexican family that was attacked and killed by wolves.
The phenomenon of Repatriation is riddled with stories that cannot be verified, with numbers that cannot be documented, and with people who have kept silent for decades. The Wickersham Commission , reviewing immigration policy, harshly criticized Secretary Doak’s attitude toward repatriation and the detention and examination of immigrants showed methods that were “unconstitutional, tyrannic and oppressive.”
Today, younger Mexican-Americans are discovering that members of their families were repatriadoss and two or three generations know little or nothing about this part of their history. A California group has sued for compensation, similar to that granted to Japanese who were interned during World War II. Other communities are conducting their own research and establishing organizations to educate their children and the greater community about this part of the Mexican immigrant’s story in America. Meanwhile, the Mexican immigrant is still in demand by American agribusiness and service industries, and the United States continues to try to find new ways to stem illegal immigration.