When retired coroner investigator and La Crescenta resident Vidal Herrera took a reporter to visit the L.A. County coroner's office last May, he didn't expect his questions about the building's history to unravel a long-buried and traumatic family history that has sent him on a daunting but ultimately fulfilling mission.
The coroner's headquarters is housed in the building that once was the Los Angeles County General Hospital, built in the early 1900s. Herrera remembered his father, whom he barely knew, had been born there before the conversion. How then, Herrera wondered, had he ended up in Mexico?
The answer came as a shock. His father, along with his grandmother, two uncles, an aunt and more than 2 million people of Mexican descent — more than half who were U.S. citizens — were part of a mass forced migration in the 1930s rarely written about in history books.
He had made it a point to visit various moments in the U.S. dedicated to past human rights abuses — the Armenian Genocide monument in Philadelphia, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. — but it hadn't really hit home until he began to uncover and research his own family's upheaval.
It was the Great Depression, and anti-immigrant sentiment was high. Mexican Americans became easy targets. In his book, “Mexicanos, Second Edition: A History of Mexicans in the United States,” author Manuel G. Gonzales, who describes county, state and federal agencies involved in the anti-immigration campaign, encapsulates the feeling with a quote from Dr. Roy L. Garis. The economics professor at Vanderbilt University described those of Mexican descent as people who “sleep all day and prowl by night as coyotes, stealing anything they can get their hands on.”
Herrera's family suffered through horrible conditions until his father escaped, making his way back to California and raising money in the process to bring his brother and aunt back home.
“He and my uncle were living as indentured servants, my grandmother had to resort to prostitution,” Herrera said. “They were illegal aliens in Mexico, not entitled to medical benefits or an education.”
The trauma they experienced was never really discussed, hidden away in the minds of his relatives until Herrera and his curiosity came knocking.
“Growing up when my mother divorced my father, all my life there was animosity; my father's side of the family was like a black wall,” Herrera said. “As I began to dig more, I asked my aunt and she said, ‘You really need to speak to your father; he's the only one who can fill in a lot of blanks.'”
Herrera wasn't prepared for what he was about to find out from his father, a man he had just met for the first time in his adult life four years earlier. One of his uncles, his namesake and a U.S. citizen of Mexican descent, died in Mexico, deported as a young child and buried in a pauper's grave across the border.
With a background in autopsies and coroner investigations, his father, aunt and uncle battling illnesses and old age, Herrera knew he had to do something before it was too late. He began the process of assembling details, delving deep into the research and logistics needed to bring his uncle home while attempting to understand the heartbreaking past of his family in the process to answer a question:
“Porque paso esto?” Why did this happen?
LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at email@example.com.