(From left) My great-aunt Julia, great-grandmother Rosa, and my grandmother Evelia.

photo: Araceli Cruz

Anti-immigrant sentiment is red hot in this primary election and seems to be gaining popularity. Those who don’t believe a mass deportation could happen in this country might not realize it has happened before. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were once forcibly removed from all over the United States, though it’s a history that is hardly spoken of or recognized publicly by the government. 

The year was roughly 1922 when Rosa Navarro and Simon Rodriguez, a young married couple from the state of Nayarit, Mexico, moved to California to start a new chapter in their lives. They settled in Los Angeles for a brief period and then relocated an hour east to Irwindale, where Simon would work as a manager overseeing migrant workers.

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They built a comfortable life for themselves and were ready to start a family. Their first born was Simon, then came Julia, and lastly came Evelia, my grandmother. Their joyful life in Southern California came to a halt with the the Great Depression. The devastating stock market crash in 1929 affected all Americans, including my ancestors. The government decided that the best way to deal with the high levels of unemployment was to get rid of people that "didn’t belong" in the United States: Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.

They called it repatriation. From 1929 to 1936, 1 to 2 million Mexican nationals and American citizens of Mexican descent were deported to Mexico. In total, 60 percent of those sent back to their "home" were U.S. citizens, including my grandmother and her siblings.

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photo: Evelia, my grandmother.

“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 were the most recent immigrant group to come to the United States in the early 20th century,” Francisco E. Balderrama, a professor of American history and Chicano studies at California State University, Los Angeles, and author of Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s, told NPR.

Balderrama also discussed the illegality of this mass deportation. “There was not a federal deportation act, even though in some of the literature it makes reference to that,” he said. “During the Hoover administration in the late 1920s and early 1930s, particularly the winter of 1930 to 1931, William Dill, 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.”

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These new regulations created an immense amount of tension and anxiety within the Mexican community. Major corporations including the U.S. Steel, Ford Motor Company, Southern Pacific Railroad told their employees of Mexican descent that they were better off “with their own people.”

My grandmother was born in 1928 in Guadalupe, a small city located in Santa Barbara County, and was about three years old when she and her family had to “voluntarily” relocate to Mexico with money that the government gave them. Her parents (my great-grandparents) had lived in California for approximately six years before they returned to their native city of Tepic with their three U.S.-born children.

My grandmother in the middle, surrounded by her children. Many of them are U.S. citizens because of her birthright.

photo: Alicia Cruz
Balderrama explained that the reason the U.S. called this repatriation  instead of deportation is because the word 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 in reality, these people had no choice and had to vacate their homes within two weeks.

Some Mexican nationals hadn’t been to their homeland for over 25 years and were returning basically as foreigners. Many of the American-born kids, not allowed to speak Spanish in school, now had to speak a language they were previously punished for, or had to learn it for the very first time.

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The only state to recognize this illegality was California. On January 1, 2006, the State of California passed a bill titled the "Apology Act for the 1930s Mexican Repatriation Program." Here’s an excerpt: 

"The state of California apologizes . . . for the fundamental violations of their basic civil liberties and constitutional rights during the period of illegal deportation and coerced emigration . . . The State of California regrets the suffering and hardship those individuals and their families endured as a direct result of the government sponsored Repatriation Program of the 1930s."

Six years after that bill passed, a plaque was installed in a public Los Angeles park, which acknowledged the thousands of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans displaced by the U.S. Government.

Decades later, some of my aunts were able to gain citizenship through my grandmother's birthright. Like many descendants of the Mexican-Americans who were repatriated, I only found out about this history by talking with my family. I always knew my grandmother was born in the United States, but I just didn't understand until a few years ago why she had to return to Mexico. 

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The history of this illegal deportation isn't talked about in schools and is rarely discussed today. Hopefully political bigwigs realize that repeating history with another mass deportation would have a terrible and unexpected effect for years to come.