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America's Forgotten History Of Mexican-American 'Repatriation'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Donald Trump has proposed immigration reform that would include building a wall on the Mexican border, paid for by Mexico, and calls for the mass deportation of immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally. The deportation plan has echoes of a largely forgotten chapter of American history when, in the 1930s, during the Depression, about a million people were forced out of the U.S. across the border into Mexico. It wasn't called deportation. It was euphemistically referred to as repatriation, returning people to their native country. But about 60 percent of the people in the Mexican repatriation drive were actually U.S. citizens of Mexican descent. Perhaps the most widely cited book on the subject was co-written by my guest, Francisco Balderrama. The book is called "Decade Of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation In The 1930s." His late co-author, Raymond Rodriguez, had family that was forced out of the U.S. Balderrama is a professor of American history and Chicano studies at California State University, Los Angeles. Francisco Balderrama, welcome to FRESH AIR. Would you give us an overview of the scope of the mass deportations or the repatriation of the 1930s? Like, how many people were affected? And of those people, how many of them were actually American citizens?

FRANCISCO BALDERRAMA: Well, conservatively, we're talking about over 1 million Mexican nationals and American citizens of Mexican descent from throughout the United States, from the American Southwest to the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest to the South, even Alaska included. This occurred on a number of different levels through a formal deportation campaign at the federal government, then also efforts by major industries as well as efforts on the local and state level. Conservatively, we are able to estimate that 60 percent of them were U.S. citizens of Mexican descent.

GROSS: So what was behind these deportations? Was it the Depression?

BALDERRAMA: Well, the Depression set the scenario for what happened. I think one needs to keep in mind that in the American public at that time, Mexicans were targeted as a scapegoat partly because they are the most recent immigrant group to come to the United States in the early 20th century.

GROSS: So what did the order for deportation actually say?

BALDERRAMA: Well, the deportation, key to keep in mind...

GROSS: This was a federal law, or there were local laws and federal laws?

BALDERRAMA: There was not a federal deportation act, even though in some of the literature, it makes reference to that. That did not occur. What one has to be sensitive to to understand this history, is that it occurred in different forms. During the Hoover administration in the late 1920s and early 1930s, particularly the winter of 1930-1931, William Dill (ph), the attorney general who had presidential ambitions, instituted a program of deportations. And it was announced that we need to provide jobs for Americans, and so we need to get rid of these other people. This created an anxiety, a tension in the Mexican community. And at the same time, U.S. Steel, Ford Motor Company, Southern Pacific Railroad said to their Mexican workers, you would be better off in Mexico with your own people. At the same time that that's occurring, differing counties on the county level in some cases the state level, then decide to cut relief cost - their target at Mexican families.

GROSS: Relief is welfare. That's what welfare was called.

BALDERRAMA: Yes, yes, at that time it's called - or charities at that time as well. Now, there was the development of a deportation desk from LA County relief agencies going out and recruiting Mexicans to go to Mexico. And they called it the deportation desk. Now, LA legal counsel says you can't do that. That's the responsibility, that's the duty of the federal government. So they backed up and said, well, we're not going to call it deportation. We're going to call it repatriation. And repatriation carries connotations that it's voluntary, that people are making their own decision without pressure to return to the country of their nationality. But most obviously, how voluntary is it if you have deportation raids by the federal government during the Hoover administration and people are disappearing on the streets? How voluntary is it if you have county agents knocking on people's doors telling people oh, you would be better off in Mexico and here are your train tickets? You should be ready to go in two weeks. So...

GROSS: Is that what happened?

BALDERRAMA: That's what happened.

GROSS: So what were some of the ways that Mexicans in the U.S. were pressured to leave?

BALDERRAMA: Well, they were pressured by county agents, sometimes from relief agencies knocking on their door and telling Mr. and Mrs. Gonzales that you would be better off in Mexico where you can be with your own people and speak your own language. We have arranged for train tickets. You can take so many boxes or suitcases with you. Would you please show up at the train station in two weeks? And sometimes it extended beyond those that were on relief. Sometimes families that did have individuals that were working maybe limited time, which was very common during the Great Depression, but scaring them and telling them well, I don't know how long you're going to keep that job. Maybe you better just go to Mexico because you're liable to lose that particular job. And I think another factor is just waking up and looking at the newspaper, seeing that there's raids. Here in Los Angeles, we had the very famous Placita raid, in which a part of Downtown Los Angeles is cornered off, and there's banner headlines saying, deportation of Mexicans - not distinguishing between those with papers and not distinguishing those that are American citizens but always just referring to Mexicans and deportation of Mexicans and not making any of those distinctions. Those are the pressures that this population lived with.

GROSS: You mention a part of Los Angeles that was cordoned off. Would you explain?

BALDERRAMA: Downtown Los Angeles around the area of the LA Plaza next to Olvera Street right across from, today, Union Station, near Our Lady Queen of the Angels Church. That particular area was cornered off February 26, 1931 - very different approach of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, who had not planned to do that until the unemployment coordinating committee in LA County announced that raids were going to happen in Los Angeles and then after the fact, informed Washington D.C. about that. And then they followed suit and had raids in Pacoima and San Fernando Valley. But the one here in Los Angeles received a great deal of publicity because it was cornering off a popular area of the city and even rounded up a Mexican vice consul and had him in custody as well. Now, the raid itself didn't net that many people that were deported. But more significantly is those are the banner headlines - that here in Los Angeles, the historic founding of Los Angeles, this great Mexican city, this is what happened. And with that, then we have days and weeks that many Mexicans are not visible publicly because they're afraid of these raids that are occurring.

GROSS: So the programs officially targeted Mexicans who did not have citizenship in the U.S. and didn't have working papers, but citizens ended up...

BALDERRAMA: On the federal level.

GROSS: On the federal level.

BALDERRAMA: On the federal level. But in terms of the American society, it was really - the question or issue of documentation or papers really isn't being raised that much. It's really that the Mexicans should go back. And many groups thought that they were doing really a very humane thing. And it was explained in terms of, well, they'd be better off with their own people where they can speak their own language. But it did take different forms. I'm thinking of the case of Ignacio Pena (ph). And Ignacio lived in the area of Idaho. And his family was about to sit down to have breakfast. And the sheriffs came to the house. They took everybody in custody, and they were told that they could only leave with the clothes that were on their back. They could not bring any of their personal belongings, and they were placed in a jail. His father was working out in the fields, and he was also placed in a jail. They stayed in that jail - he with his mother and his brothers and sisters in one cell and his father in a separate part of the jail. They were placed on trains after a week, and then they were shipped to Mexico. They never were able to recover their personal belongings, even though they were told that those belongings were - would be shipped to them. And among those belongings was a documentation of his father having worked in the United States for over 25 years. Among those belongings was his and his sisters' and his brothers' birth certificates, having been born in the United States.

GROSS: So these raids that you referred to, did authorities raid farms where there were migrant workers? Did they raid other places where they thought Mexicans might be working?

BALDERRAMA: Some of these raids did occur. But as we go further into the 1930s, really it's businesses operating in terms of trying to cut their workforce or shipping workers, with their own resources, to the border. And it's also local county agencies and individual states that are also doing it. A particular factor to keep in mind is that this operation of businesses doing this and local county governments doing this are much acting like a sovereign power because the right and the responsibility of doing this rests with the Border Patrol and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. And - but the federal government, whether it be the Hoover administration or whether it be Franklin D. Roosevelt and the new dealers, they're not concerned about that. They let these local agencies, they let business go ahead and do this.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Francisco Balderrama. He's the co-author of the book "Decade Of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation In The 1930s." This is about a period of history very few people remember or know anything about. So let's take a short break, and then we'll talk more about the deportations of the 1930s. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: You know Donald Trump has called for the deportation of Mexicans who are here illegally, so we're looking back at the period of the 1930s, when there was a mass deportation program in the United States. My guest, Francisco Balderrama, co-authored the book that is often referred to when people talk about this period. It was first published in 1996?


GROSS: And it's called "Decade Of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation In The 1930s." So, you know, we're talking about the mass deportation of the 1930s. How were Mexicans who are either forced to or convinced to leave the U.S. sent out?

BALDERRAMA: It took various forms, but the most common way was by trains. So we had the organizing of trains from across the country to ship Mexicans. There were also uses of buses. And many people just put their belongings in their cars, if they had an automobile, or maybe got a truck. And groups of families got together. And whether it be from Detroit or whether from Chicago or from Los Angeles, they began the ride to the border. Some counties were so thorough in their attempts that they not just recruited individuals that were on relief, but rather any of them that were receiving any type of assistance in terms of medical care. In Los Angeles County, there is rich documentation talking about individuals that are taken from the county hospital, taken from tuberculosis sanitariums, loaded on trucks and driven to the border. So they were very thorough in these attempts.

GROSS: So, you know, a lot of people were passing off this deportation program as something positive, for the Mexicans to return home to their culture and their language. But, I mean, were they just, like, dropped on the other side of the border? Were they taken to the place that their families had come from? Were they - did they have any choice in where they went or were they just, like, dropped off someplace?

BALDERRAMA: Well, it changed over time. Many of the industries and then also many of the counties initially just paid paper transportation to the border. And so frequently, when they arrived at the border, they had to deal with the Mexican bureaucracy. They had to deal with Mexican customs. Many of them were subjected to bribes. Many were subjected to, you know - the prices went up when the repatriation trains would arrive. As time went on, some of the counties would pay for transportation from the border into the interior. Many of them returned to the provinces, to the small towns, to the communities that they came from - from their ancestral home, they went back. And even though that - it is an ancestral home, the Mexican nationals were returning to places they hadn't seen for 20, 25 years or so. It was a different Mexico. The Mexican government also made promises about support and aid and colonization projects etc., etc. They were grand promises. They were great promises, but there wasn't the support. There wasn't the resources of a Mexico that had just experienced the revolution to help these people adjust. One other factor which I would like to mention is the majority of the population - over 60 percent - being U.S. citizens of Mexican descent. For them, they were coming to a foreign country.

GROSS: Since part of the way this program of deportation was sold was that, like, good deal - Mexicans are going to be returning to their homeland... But a lot of the people who were sent - the way that you describe it - the majority of people who were sent to Mexico were American citizens. And maybe, you know, some of those people became citizens, you know - after leaving Mexico. Many of them were born here, and this was their only country. So what kind of adaptation was it like for them?

BALDERRAMA: Well, it was very, very difficult because - obviously as we've already talked about - is that the population is regarded as this Mexican population. And these children, being in American schools, were told that - don't speak Spanish - sometimes even experienced physical punishment. And now they find themselves in Mexico, and they are regarded as bochos (ph). They are regarded as less than Mexican. Many of them cannot - aren't fluent in Spanish. They're having their education disrupted. They are trying to adjust in their childhood, and later on in their adolescence, to a foreign culture, to a different educational system, to a different society. So it was very, very difficult for them.

GROSS: So when are circumstances reversed so that instead of Mexicans being deported out of the United States, Mexicans start returning to the United States?

BALDERRAMA: Well, I'd like to focus on LA County here. Here the Board of Supervisors were very, very supportive of repatriation, and as we entered the 1940s, there was a big proposal because they found that it was harder and harder to fill the trains and that some people are coming back. And so they have a proposal, they - at this moment, they are providing transportation not just to the border but into the interior. They now want to provide settlement checks for a couple of months for Mexicans in Mexico. They want to help them establish themselves so they don't come back. And one of the LA County Board of Supervisors, John Anson Ford, who is a liberal on this conservative board, a Democrat new dealer, has the task - he supported this - to go Mexico and to inform the Mexican government about what LA County is doing. Once again, LA County acting like a sovereign state - LA County negotiating directly and telling the embassy and then telling the State Department about what it's doing. And so he's on the train, and Pearl Harbor is bombed. He immediately returns, doesn't go to Mexico City, comes back to LA. And the proposal dies because now the need is for Mexican workers.

GROSS: I didn't learn about the mass deportations of the 1930s until I was led to it by reading about Donald Trump's plan to deport Mexicans who are not here legally. How come - I don't know if you can really answer this. I'm sure you cannot. But how come I didn't know about it, and how come so many people I know didn't know about it either? How come this wasn't in the history books I read in school?

BALDERRAMA: Well, for some 40 years or so in Chicano studies history classes, it's been taught. But nobody knew the impact that it had in terms of the United States as well as in Mexico. When we did "Decade Of Betrayal" - first came out in the 1990s - it was talked about as a book of revelation. And in 2003, California Sen. Joe Dunn read the book, and he shared your same sentiments. He had never heard about it. He was disgusted to learn about it. He wanted to give it attention. And we had hearings in Sacramento. In short, what occurred is the state of California has issued an apology. The LA Plaza Museum has an historical monument memorializing what happened to American citizens of Mexican descent. And AB-146, sponsored by Cristina Garcia of the State Assembly, has just been passed and is now at the governor's desk to teach about the deportations.

GROSS: My guest is Francisco Balderrama, co-author of the "Decade Of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s." After we take a short break, he'll talk about how repatriation broke up many families, including his co-author's family. And we have reviews of Carly Rae Jepsen's new album and Elena Ferrante's latest novel. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Francisco Balderrama. We're talking about the Mexican repatriation of the 1930s during the Depression, when Mexican nationals and U.S. citizens of Mexican descent were coerced by authorities to leave their homes in the U.S. and relocate across the border in Mexico. It was referred to as repatriation to give it the image of a voluntary program. Balderrama is the author of a book on the subject that was originally published in 1996 and has recently been cited in articles about Donald Trump's immigration plan, which includes the deportation of Mexicans who are here illegally. Balderrama's book is called "Decade Of Betrayal."

How did you first find out about the deportations of the 1930s? Did you grow up knowing about that? Did your family tell you about that?

BALDERRAMA: My family has lived in Los Angeles for almost 100 years now. And so we had some understanding of some great uncles that went to Mexico and got caught up in that. I think for some families there was an awareness of it. There was an awareness of the terrible thing that had happened. I think, because it took so many different forms by the federal government, by businesses, by local agencies throughout the country, that I think the collective understanding of the community was, well, maybe something happened here and didn't happen over there. I also think working-class people concerned with survival, feeding themselves, clothing themselves, didn't have the luxury of trying to figure it out. I'm very gratified that "Decade Of Betrayal" and I'm very gratified that hearings in Sacramento, and Apology Act and memorial - all of these efforts have had an impact, not just to the survivors of unconstitutional deportation, but to their families, to help figure out that this was part of a bigger effort and program.

GROSS: So are you saying that a lot of people who knew about the deportations 'cause family members have been deported didn't know about the larger program? They didn't know how this fit in. They just knew that this had happened to someone they knew.

BALDERRAMA: Yes, I think that that's true. And I think in some Mexican families it was reiterated. It was retold in oral history that people would share. It would also lead to thinking about, well, one has to be careful in this society. You know, you never know what could happen to one. I think, also for some families, particularly that we interviewed in the Midwest, they locked this away. They didn't want to talk about it. And not until the book was published, "Decade Of Betrayal," not until the hearings occurred, not until other efforts to learn about this and formation of some community organizations, was this bought out. And people were able to figure it out. For some Mexican families they shared, well, maybe we better Anglicize our names. Maybe we shouldn't live in the Mexican community - maybe because if it happens again, they're going to come after us.

GROSS: The co-author of "Decade Of Betrayal," the late Raymond Rodriguez, I believe he had family that was deported in the 1930s, yes?

BALDERRAMA: Yes, I think Ray would want me to share this with you. I worked with Ray for decades and decades, met him in the archive in Mexico City. We were friends already for 20 years before we began working on "Decade Of Betrayal." It was a very close, personal friendship as well as working relationship. And when we had the first edition of the book all ready to go to the press - everything was all done - he shared with me that his father was a repatriate, that his father had gone to Mexico, something that, in 20 years of working together and friendship, I did not know. So his work on "Decade" was - the first edition and the revised edition - was a searching for his father. And in so many ways, individuals that we interviewed, individuals that we'd come across time and time again, where this has touched them, this is what they're searching for. They're searching for their families. They're searching for this history. They're searching for an understanding of the past to deal with the present.

GROSS: How could he not have told you? You were working on this book together.

BALDERRAMA: Well, Ray was an individual and in some ways was private. We had a close relationship. I knew that his father had - wasn't around. I knew that he was raised by his mother, but I didn't know the exact details of that. But I think at that historical moment of completing the book, he wanted to share that with me. That doesn't come out in the books - in the revised edition, as well. It wasn't until he publicly made this known at the hearings in Sacramento in 2003 - that's the first time, publicly, that he alluded to it. In other words...

GROSS: So...

BALDERRAMA: The wounds were very deep.

GROSS: So was his family an example of a family that was split up by deportation?

BALDERRAMA: Yes, most definitely.

GROSS: Tell us more.

BALDERRAMA: Well, I - it's a case that in, many of these families, is that one of the spouses was - wanted to, you know, go to Mexico and saw that as a future and saw that as maybe a lack of respect here in this country, that people were speaking ill of Mexicans, so their pride was hurt. They wanted a new future while the other spouse says, no, we belong here; our children are born here, and refusing to go.

GROSS: So was Raymond Rodriguez ever in touch with his father after his father went to Mexico?

BALDERRAMA: I'm unaware. I don't think so.

GROSS: Before you wrote your book, did you ever study the 1930s deportations in history?

BALDERRAMA: Well, I had worked on the Great Depression as a graduate student at UCLA. My doctoral dissertation looked at the Mexican Consulate Service in Los Angeles. I had written about consuls, Mexican consuls, immigration, so I had that, you know, background. I'll share this with you. The professional is also personal. When I was working on a dissertation on the 1930s, I discovered that there was some oral history interviews at Cal State, Fullerton. So I found a researcher named Christine Valenciana and talked to her about her interviews. Well, that led to much more. She's my...

GROSS: She had interviewed a lot of people who have been deported.

BALDERRAMA: Yeah, right, especially her mother, but others as well. And, well, you know, we became very close. We've been married many years. And the family joke is that...

GROSS: Oh, you're married? I didn't know that.

BALDERRAMA: We're married and after...

GROSS: (Laughter) I'd read one of her articles about this. I didn't - I had no idea.

BALDERRAMA: Yeah, so after 25 years of marriage and two kids, I'm able to use her interviews, so...

GROSS: That sounds like a good deal (laughter).

BALDERRAMA: Yeah, it's a pretty good deal.

GROSS: So tell us something about her family.

BALDERRAMA: Well, her family is caught up - Emilia Castaneda was one of those that was targeted by LA County to leave. Her mother had died of tuberculosis shortly before her father and her brother received train tickets to leave Los Angeles. There was no work for her father. They also lost a property that they had in East Los Angeles that they were living in. She was told, just before she left, that - and this happened sometimes; this didn't happen sometimes - that, you know, she could remain because she was an American citizen. But, you know, she would deny her father and become an orphan. That's a story that she has. Well, she didn't want to, you know, leave her father and her brother, so she went - this is a child who went to Mexico. And she's one of those individuals who kept that American identity, kept that sense of being American. Her father would tell her, well, you know, this isn't your country. Your country is in the United States. And during World War II, she comes back to LA with some help and support of a godmother. And she begins working in the World War II plants that are active at that time.

GROSS: So your mother-in-law is an example of what happens when the child is an American citizen and the parents are not.

BALDERRAMA: Yes, and she was a plaintiff in the lawsuit that was presented by MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, that the statute of limitations be lifted so that the repatriates could then bring suit against LA County and Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. But that didn't come about. It's null and void because the - there was a failed attempt in the state legislature to have the statute of limitations lifted.

GROSS: So one of the takeaways, both of your research and of your own mother-in-law's story, seems to be that there's no - no matter what your plan is for the deportation of Mexicans who are not here legally, there is no clean way of doing it without breaking up families. And so many of the children are born here, and they are citizens.

BALDERRAMA: Exactly. Exactly, I think that's the key element for people who, you know, talk boldly about things that they know nothing about, is that the diversity of the community, in terms of Mexican nationality and being American citizens of Mexican descent. And it becomes more intricate and more complicated because you do have people who have citizenship by birth. They come back. It crosses generations. It does cross generations. And so, you know, it's very difficult, with the millions that we have to deal with, to implicate. I think, also, it's very disrespectful of the contributions that this community has made of Mexican nationals and American citizens of Mexican descent.

GROSS: Francisco Balderrama, thank you so much for talking with us.

BALDERRAMA: Thank you. It's been my pleasure.

GROSS: Francisco Balderrama is the co-author of "Decade Of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation In The 1930s." He's a professor of American history and Chicano studies at California State University, Los Angeles. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews Carly Rae Jepsen's new album. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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