Righting an Old Wrong
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, federal authorities and various state and local governments illegally deported or "repatriated" an estimated one to two million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. The official reason was to free up jobs for so-called "real" Americans. Yet despite the massive scale of the decade-long campaign, it's not recorded in many history books and has largely been forgotten.
Emilia Castaneda was born in Los Angeles in 1926. Her brother was born here, too. One day, when she was nine years old, she came home from school and her father said the family had to leave for Mexico. Right away.
"And I don't remember what happened to our possessions, our furniture," she said. "The only thing -- my dad was packing a trunk, what little belongings we had, and we were there at dawn. That I remember. It was real dark in the train station."
Scared and sad, Ms. Castaneda was one of up to half a million Mexicans and Mexican Americans forced to leave California during the 1930s. The so-called "Mexican repatriation" campaign also uprooted perhaps another 1.5 million people in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Illinois, Michigan and New York. It started near downtown Los Angeles on February 26, 1931.
"It was a lazy afternoon, so to speak," said Francisco Balderrama, a history professor at California State University in Los Angeles, when U.S. immigration agents and Los Angeles police surrounded about 400 men, women and children in La Placita, the historic Olvera Sreet Plaza that still is a gathering place for Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.
"And what they did is, they cordoned off the area in which many people, maybe through shopping, would find themselves sitting on a bench, etc. And the trucks cordoned off the area. And there was just a drive, kind of just picking up people and just rounding them up," he said.
Professor Balderrama says everyone in the plaza that day was shipped straight to Mexico, with no word to their families. For many, it was the beginning of a second-class existence, vilified by Mexicans as repatriados -- repatriated ones -- with work hard to find, meals scarce and no electricity or plumbing.
The historian is the co-author of Decade of Betrayal, the first book to fully document the campaign to force Mexicans and Mexican Americans out of their jobs, off welfare and out of the United States.
Professor Balderrama says the initial raids were designed to boost political support for President Herbert Hoover among his Republican base and Democratic whites-only labor unions. In fact, he says, the head of the Local Citizens Unemployment Relief Committee trumpeted the cause during a Los Angeles press conference that preceded the first round up.
"He announced the Immigration and Naturalization Service were going to conduct a series of raids to round up those other people, Mexicans in particular, and this would help provide jobs for American citizens," said Professor Balderrama.
"Sixty percent of those that were deported were born right here in the United States and they were U.S. citizens, as anybody in the country was, at that time," he added.
"The best-guess estimates are that, of the 1.2 million U.S. citizens that were deported, probably somewhere around 300,000 to 400,00 are still alive," said Joe Dunn, chairman of the California state senate select committee on citizen participation.
After Senator Dunn read Decade of Betrayal, he ordered an investigation that led to a series of public hearings across California this summer. He says they were emotional for both state officials and witnesses.
"Because for many of them, it's the first time they've ever shared their memories of that horrendous time period," he said. "There is absolutely nothing in the schoolbooks, textbooks in our public schools throughout the United States."
Senator Dunn wrote a bill to create a state commission to probe the roles of California state and local officials in Mexican repatriation and possibly win reparations for victims who have returned to California. He also wrote a state resolution urging the U.S. Congress to set up a federal commission to investigate the actions of the U.S. government. A third bill would ensure that California repatriation survivors can sue for damages.
Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) lawyer Steve Reyes says his group has already started the process.
"We're suing a number of entities, including the State of California, the County of Los Angeles, the City of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce," said Mr. Reyes. "And we focused on those entities because those entities were involved in a concerted effort to deport large numbers of Mexicans and also to create an atmosphere of fear."
MALDEF sued on behalf of Emilia Castaneda, but wants a Los Angeles judge to make the lawsuit a class-action suit, covering everyone who was illegally forced out of California. But Emilia Castaneda wants more than money.
"But what I would like is for the County of Los Angeles to apologize, too," said Ms. Castaneda. "All those hundreds of people, thousands I guess, maybe millions that this happened to."
Ms. Castaneda also says it would be nice to see a historical monument at La Placita, the Olvera Street Plaza where the first round up took place, nearly 73 years ago.