When the U.S. Pushed Nearly a Million Mexicans Back Across the Border

When the U.S. Pushed Nearly a Million Mexicans Back Across the Border

A migrant field-worker's home on the edge of a frozen pea field in California's Imperial Valley, 1937.

SourceCorbis via Getty

Why you should care

Because Herbert Hoover had Donald Trump beat on borders.

Democracy or hypocrisy? In this series, “American Hypo-cracy,” OZY looks at America’s lengthy struggle to live up to its lofty ideals by exploring some of the uglier episodes in its past that are often overlooked by the history books. Read more.

The little girl stood with her brother and their recently widowed father at the Los Angeles train station early one morning in 1935. Dad had said the night before that they could no longer live in California and would instead move to Mexico to live with relatives. Both prospects filled 9-year-old Emilia Castañeda with dread — she was leaving behind everything she knew.

Castañeda and her family were not alone. “Many people were crying. We were going to an unknown place,” she later recalled, referring to the heartbreaking departure endured by thousands of Mexican-Americans — an upheaval that many U.S. citizens knew little about. At the time, Americans were worried about the economy and unemployment. Looking for a scapegoat, politicians targeted Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living in the United States. The Great Depression saw the U.S. send nearly a million Mexican nationals and Mexican-Americans south of the border in a so-called repatriation campaign aimed at preserving American jobs.

But that didn’t mean preserving the jobs for all Americans. “About 60 percent [of those shipped to Mexico] were American citizens,’’ says Francisco Balderrama, professor of American history and Chicano studies at California State University, Los Angeles, and co-author of Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s. “It became a hunt for anyone who was Mexican.’’ Balderrama and his late colleague Raymond Rodriguez — whose relatives were “repatriated” — researched the book together.

Her family was welcome in neither their adopted home nor their ancestral home.

Christine Valenciana, professor, California State University, Fullerton

While there were very public raids on Mexican neighborhoods during the Herbert Hoover administration and plenty of measures by local governments, “90 percent of it was a private sector effort,” Balderrama says. Private firms often offered their Mexican-American employees train tickets to the border.

Those who had lived in the U.S. for decades “were going to a different Mexico,” Balderrama says. Castañeda was born an American citizen in Los Angeles, in 1926; her father, Natividad, was a legal resident who had lived in the U.S. for 26 years. A stonemason who owned his own home, Natividad lost his job when times got tough. Owing to restrictions on hiring “aliens,” he was unable to find another, and lost his house. Then his wife, Casteñada’s mother, died of tuberculosis. Relief payments were lower for Mexicans, so when Natividad was offered free tickets back to Mexico, he felt he had little choice.

“He was homeless with two kids, and his wife was dead,’’ says Christine Valenciana, a professor of education at California State University, Fullerton, and the daughter of Emilia Casteñeda. Valenciana grew up hearing stories of how her mother was sent to a country she had never known, bombarded by a language she could not speak — all while mourning her mother. She suddenly faced life without indoor plumbing, had to collect firewood for cooking and was told by other children her age that she didn’t belong. “They didn’t feel welcome,” Valenciana adds, explaining why the term “repatriation” still stings. “How can you say that someone is repatriated when they’ve never seen the country before? Her family was welcome in neither their adopted home nor their ancestral home.”

The expulsion effort faded during World War II, but Balderrama doesn’t let Franklin D. Roosevelt or other proponents of the New Deal off the hook. “The liberals of the Great Depression” did nothing to stop what were essentially unconstitutional deportations, he says. And because there was no federal order or act of Congress, the expulsions didn’t register with the public. “It very much seems a story that no one knew about, even in the Mexican community,” Balderrama notes. So much so that descendants of those who left get confused: To this day, they write to U.S. government agencies to find family records only to learn that few were officially deported and that the Immigration and Naturalization Service had little to do with expulsions.

Shortly before she turned 18, Castañeda returned to the U.S. She had moved 17 times within Mexico as a child, and “she knew there was a better life here,” Valenciana says. Castañeda asked her godmother in Los Angeles to send her the return fare, along with her birth certificate, but she still had to buy a tourist pass to gain entry. Valenciana herself was in college before she realized that what had happened to her family had also happened to many others. So she began collecting oral histories of survivors of the expulsion, which is how she met her husband, Balderrama.

Over the years, the two have worked to ensure that the “repatriations” are not forgotten, and Valenciana is pushing for the history to be taught in California schools. “It was a time of looking at the Mexican as ‘the other,’ ” Balderrama says. “They’re all lumped together with the same language: ‘they’re on welfare,’ ‘they’re criminals,’ ‘we need real jobs for “real Americans.” ’ ”

Trump’s call for a wall at the border and his talk of “bad hombres” sounds distressingly familiar. “You find the same arguments, the same language,” Balderrama says, disheartened. Ninety-one-year-old Emilia Castañeda, meanwhile, believes God has kept her alive so she that can continue to tell her story.

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