Ghosts of a 1931 Raid
The scar runs 70 years deep, back to that afternoon when federal immigration agents stormed a park near the birthplace of Los Angeles and pulled more than 400 terrified men and women into waiting vans, away from their families and--for many of them--away from their country.
Yet, for Monday’s anniversary of a barely remembered 1931 raid at La Placita, there is no formal commemoration planned to note that many of those deported to Mexico that day were actually U.S. citizens.
There are no speeches drafted pointing out that, because of an immigrant backlash sprouting from the Great Depression, the raid outside Olvera Street triggered nearly a decade of deportations around the country. Some of those deported were indeed Mexican nationals, some in the United States legally or illegally.
But scholars estimate that many of the more than 1 million people banished were sent to a Mexican homeland they had never seen before. Some barely spoke Spanish.
And no plaques have been stamped to describe how that period helped forge the complex Mexican American psyche central to Los Angeles today.
For the most part, there are only ghosts left to tell of the startled screams that day at the site where newly arrived Latin American immigrants still gather.
Local historian Raymond Rodriguez, 75, has for years been chasing one such spirit: his father’s.
Juan Rodriguez--a legal resident--had spent years happily tending his family’s livestock and produce farm in Long Beach. But like thousands of others in Los Angeles during that period, one day in 1935 he abruptly abandoned his family. His wife, Juanita, 10-year-old son Raymond and four other children never heard from him again.
Rodriguez, who has co-written a book about the La Placita raid and its impact, can still recall his father’s parting moments as if they had been running on a loop in his mind all this time:
“If you don’t go [too] . . . you’ll starve to death and maybe worse,” Juan Rodriguez told his young wife in urgent tones before the door slammed forever on their lives together.
“No. Whatever happens is God’s will,” a defiant Juanita Rodriguez responded.
Afterward, “For a time, we were on welfare,” Rodriguez said. “It was really tough. My 13-year-old brother and I had to plow the farm ourselves. I really missed having my dad around. He was a great storyteller.”
It wasn’t until recently that Rodriguez fully understood why his father left.
Those seeds were sown at exactly 3 p.m. on Feb. 26, 1931.
Responding to a mounting backlash against illegal immigrants in the face of nationwide job shortages, the Immigration and Naturalization Service had for days been posting newspaper ads warning of an impending raid against “Mexican aliens” in Los Angeles.
Some took the government seriously and hopped the next train or bus south of the border.
However, the majority of the region’s then roughly 175,000 Mexican Americans--many of whom had emigrated to escape the perils brought on by the Mexican Revolution of 1910--continued making lives for themselves here.
In Los Angeles, their home now included La Placita, near the barrios of Bunker Hill and a popular gathering spot for recent immigrants. They could search for work or, at least, find companions for a good political debate about their Mexican homeland.
Doug Monroy, a history professor at Colorado College who has written a book about Mexican immigration to Los Angeles during that era, said La Placita was vibrant in the days before the Depression.
So-called Mexican anarchists verbally clashed with libre pensadores--"free thinkers"--and conservatives about the future of their homeland, while mariachi musicians and other entertainers congregated around anyone with money to pay.
“In the days before television and radio, if you wanted stimulation and excitement, you went to La Placita,” Monroy said.
But if people loitered there too long, they were also in danger of being arrested by local police, Monroy added.
Intending to Send a Message
INS raids at La Placita, Mexican neighborhoods and businesses were a fairly common occurrence in California and other Southwestern states, he added, though most were carried out with little efficiency and marginal success.
That changed on Feb. 26, 1931. In part to send a message nationwide, a team of plainclothes and uniformed INS agents sealed off the tiny park before anybody knew they were there.
The word “Razzia!” (“Raid!”) shattered the afternoon serenity as men and women ran from federal agents wielding guns and batons.
In about a week, the first official repatriation train left Los Angeles for Mexico with more than 400 on board. Within about six months, another 50,000 had been caught nationwide and put on trains and ships.
By 1940 more than 1 million people across the country, mostly Mexican Americans, had been deported, according to research of U.S. and Mexican records by Rodriguez and Francisco E. Balderrama, a history professor at Cal State Los Angeles. Officials later discovered, the scholars found, that 60% of those deported had been born in the United States.
The raids fostered an anti-immigrant fervor in Los Angeles that makes the days of Proposition 187 in the 1990s seem like a marathon Cinco de Mayo dance.
With jobs becoming more scarce during the 1930s and resentment of Mexicans overt, thousands of legal residents and U.S. citizens who had not been deported left the country on their own.
Among them was Rodriguez’s father.
Speculating, the historian said: “He figured: ‘If they don’t want me, I’m going back.’ ”
Armando Rodriguez, no relation, said his father, a construction worker, was also pressured by government agents into leaving. Armando Rodriguez, now retired in San Diego, eventually became president of East Los Angeles College and was a presidential appointee to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But the years after his father’s departure were difficult.
In time, several hundred thousand deportees who could claim U.S. citizenship were allowed back and Rodriguez’s father, Andreas, was one of them. But when the father returned about eight years later, he was a different man.
“He believed the INS people when they said it would be better for him to leave,” his son said. “He modified that belief after what happened.”
Along with Balderrama, Raymond Rodriguez has documented what occurred during that period in their 1995 book “Decade of Betrayal.”
In it, the two scholars share stories gathered from the handful of remaining survivors that point to the La Placita raid as an event that helped shape the Mexican American mind-set, along with the 1942 Sleepy Lagoon murder trial, the 1943 zoot suit riots and the Chicano power movement of the 1960s and ‘70s.
It helps explain today the old women walking around with naturalization certificates in their purses--even if they’ve been here for decades--the conflicting emotions many Mexican Americans feel about their ethnic identities and the urgency behind Latino political empowerment in the region, Balderrama said.
His mother-in-law, Emilia Castaneda, was also among those deported that decade.
As Balderrama and Raymond Rodriguez researched their book, they were told of women weeping in the street as they searched for their suddenly deported husbands, of young girls pining to return north of the border and of mariachi bands unsuccessfully trying to keep spirits high while hundreds waited in line at the downtown train station.
“Something the raids proved to the people is that they were really powerless in the U.S.,” Monroy said. “There were statements from the [Mexican] consulate about what an outrage it was to blame the Mexicans for the Depression, but it had no sway with the police or City Council.”
Many families grew stronger from the experience, said Raymond Rodriguez.
Every morning before school, his mother would call out to her children: No se dejan, or “Don’t let them get to you,” he said, referring to those who tried to intimidate Mexican Americans.
That attitude helped Raymond Rodriguez earn a doctorate in history.
But in terms of community development, he added, “The repatriation movement set us back, literally, a generation. It tended to drive people underground. We lost a lot of potential leaders.”
The repatriation movement stopped with the end of the Great Depression and the start of World War II. Then Mexicans were actually encouraged to come north to work the fields and perform other jobs.
Students and young adults began to politically assert themselves only later, during the Chicano power movement. Although few outside the classroom remember the 1931 raid, it is part of the core instruction in Chicano studies history classes.
As for La Placita, the area that is now home to Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church has remained a gathering point for new Latin American immigrants, as well as an area of tension between immigrant activists and INS officials.
During the 1980s, Father Luis Olivares resisted INS attempts to deport Central American war refugees by declaring the area a sanctuary.
Father Richard Estrada, Olivares’ colleague there, recalls seeing immigrants outside frequently sprint toward the church in fear.
Today, Estrada runs a nonprofit group for homeless immigrants called Jovenes--meaning youths--across the street from where the raid occurred.
While many gather in soup lines on Sundays or ask passersby for change, Estrada says he sees an occasional unmarked van parked mysteriously nearby.
“I sometimes wonder what they’re doing there,” he said, suggesting that it is the INS. “But I never approach them.”