Apology Sought for Latino ‘Repatriation’ Drive in ‘30s
Emilia Castaneda remembers the first years of her life as being a typical Depression-era childhood -- hard times leavened with simple joys in the East Los Angeles melting pot that was Boyle Heights.
Now 77, she still conjures up treasured snapshots in her mind’s eye: the duplex on Folsom Street that her father bought with his earnings as a bricklayer; her Japanese American girlfriends; and the elementary school on Malabar Street where she recited the Pledge of Allegiance every morning.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. July 16, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 16, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Expulsion of Mexican Americans -- In some editions of Tuesday’s California section, a photo caption with an article about efforts to win an apology for Mexicans and Mexican Americans sent to Mexico in the 1930s identified Emilia Castaneda and her daughter, Christine Valenciana, but Valenciana was not pictured.
For Castaneda, that world ended in nightmarish fashion one day in 1935. In a campaign carried out by Los Angeles County and city authorities, in cooperation with federal immigration officials, the Castanedas and hundreds of other families of Mexican descent were loaded aboard a train and moved to Mexico -- part of a decade-long, nationwide effort to reduce unemployment and public welfare rolls by forcing more than 1 million Mexicans and Mexican Americans to leave the United States, scholars said.
State Sen. Joseph Dunn (D-Santa Ana) and a Los Angeles law firm are launching an effort this week to win reparations and an apology for victims of that largely forgotten campaign. Inspired by the Reagan administration’s compensation of Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II -- a program established under the threat of a class-action lawsuit -- Dunn will preside over a Senate hearing today that will examine the 1930s removal of Mexicans and Mexican Americans.
Dunn is also preparing legislation that would extend the statute of limitations for victims who wish to file claims for damages, commission a state study and ask Congress to review the issue.
“It’s important for us as a society to recognize the wrong that was committed,” Dunn said. “The best approach would be for Congress to enact a reparations program similar to that which was done for victims of the Japanese American internment.”
As part of the campaign, a class-action lawsuit is being prepared and could be filed as early as Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court, seeking unspecified damages from the city and county of Los Angeles, the state of California and possibly other defendants, said attorney Raymond P. Boucher, of the Los Angeles law firm of Kiesel, Boucher & Larson. The plaintiffs will allege that their constitutional rights were violated by the removal effort, Boucher said.
Scholars estimate that 60% of the people sent to Mexico in the 1930s “repatriation” campaign were U.S. citizens. One was Castaneda.
“Somebody could say, ‘We were wrong for the injustices committed to you and apologize for what was done,’ ” said Castaneda, now a resident of Riverside. “Maybe other people who are still in Mexico would hear about this and would come back.”
Civil rights advocates say the issue resonates far beyond the victims.
“We learn from lessons of the past,” said Dale Shimasaki, former director of the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund, a program created by the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 to educate people about the Japanese American internment.
The foundation for Dunn’s effort was laid by two Southern California scholars: Francisco Balderrama, a Cal State L.A. professor of Chicano studies and history, and Raymond Rodriguez, a retired history professor from Long Beach City College. They pooled their passion and years of research to write the 1995 book “Decade of Betrayal.”
Many Mexican nationals who were forced to leave the United States in the 1930s had been encouraged to come here by industries in need of cheap, reliable labor.
By the eve of the Great Depression in the late 1920s, the subject of Mexican labor had become a point of regional political rivalry. Agricultural producers in the South had begun to advocate immigration quotas for Mexican nationals. But those same Mexican nationals had been an important source of labor in California’s agricultural industry, which had emerged as competition for Southern agriculture.
The onset of the Depression, however, created far broader support for action against Mexican and Mexican American laborers. By 1930, worsening unemployment and growing demands for public aid brought a backlash.
In Washington, Republican President Herbert Hoover initiated a “repatriation” program in 1930. Federal support ended when Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, but state and local governments continued their efforts throughout the decade.
Across the country, Mexicans -- or people suspected of being Mexican -- were stopped on the streets and asked to show papers to prove their right to be in the United States. The campaign spread to pool halls, parks -- such as Los Angeles’ La Placita -- and other gathering places.
The organizers of the Los Angeles campaign -- including county and city officials and business groups -- generated hundreds of pages of documents in their effort, many of which were reviewed recently by The Times. By 1931, Los Angeles County officials estimated that 60,000 people were receiving public aid. More than 6,000 of them were listed as foreign nationals, most of them classified as “Mexicans,” a term loosely used at the time to refer to Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans.
W.F. Watkins, a local supervisor for the federal Bureau of Immigration, described in a 1931 memorandum to superiors how the Welfare Office of the Los Angeles County Charities Department was attempting to cut its costs by arranging “the voluntary return to Mexico of indigent citizens of that country or those who are a burden upon the public here,” with free transportation to the Mexican border. Railroads agreed to carry the deportees for half the usual fare, paid by California counties and cities.
With the first trains scheduled to leave in mid-February 1931, Watkins reported that “tentative plans contemplate the handling of additional trains each 10 days or two weeks following, depending upon conditions. Local officials hope to rid this locality of a great financial burden through the voluntary return of such aliens.”
Documents suggest -- and victims and scholars assert -- that people were pressured and even threatened into joining the exodus. Organizers of the campaign planted stories in The Times and other publications that warned of a massive roundup by immigration authorities. In a June 17, 1931, memorandum to superiors in Washington, Walter E. Carr, the Los Angeles district director of immigration, blamed state and local authorities and groups such as the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce for the stories.
Carr said “thousands upon thousands of Mexican aliens” had been “literally scared out of Southern California ... by the various propaganda and activities over which this service had no control.”
In California and Michigan -- where thousands of Mexicans and Mexican Americans worked in the fledgling automobile industry -- there were proposals to summarily deport anyone who couldn’t produce on demand evidence of legal entry into the United States.
To increase pressure on Mexicans and Mexican Americans to leave the United States, state, county and municipal governments denied employment on relief projects to out-of-work foreign nationals, and private businesses denied jobs to people “because they looked like aliens,” Carr wrote.
“All of these matters were given wide publicity, not only in the public press, but through a whispering campaign which gathered strength as time went on until the Mexican population was led to believe, in many instances, that Mexicans were not wanted in California and that all would be deported whether they were legally here or not,” Carr wrote.
Emilia Castaneda said she was too young to recall the early stages of the campaign. But she remembers well the hardships of the Depression and lining up to receive public aid, including a blue-checked dress that she called her Weber’s dress because it reminded her of the wrapper on a loaf of Weber’s bread.
The campaign against foreign labor put her father out of work. By the time her mother died of tuberculosis in May 1935, the family didn’t have money to buy flowers for the grave.
Shortly afterward, her father informed Emilia and her older brother that “he had to return to Mexico,” she said. “They were forcing us to return.”
She remembers going in the darkness to the train station with a trunk packed with their belongings.
“We cried and cried,” she said. “I had never been to Mexico. We were leaving everything behind.”
They were packed onto a train that rumbled across the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico for what seemed to her like an eternity before arriving in El Paso and being ushered across the border into Mexico.
They returned to her father’s home state of Durango. She was shocked by the poverty and primitive conditions as they moved from one relative to another, living in rooms with dirt floors, without plumbing or running water.
A New Life
Their relatives and classmates referred to them derisively as the repatriadas.
She had to drop out of school to help provide for the family -- cooking and washing clothes for her father and brother and working as a domestic.
After mastering Spanish -- a language she had been forbidden to speak back at her Malabar Street school -- she began corresponding with her godmother in Los Angeles. Eventually, her godmother obtained a copy of Castaneda’s birth certificate and sent it to her so she could show it to U.S. immigration officials when she tried to cross the border.
When the national economy needed workers during World War II, immigration attitudes changed and Castaneda returned in 1944 at age 17, catching a train from El Paso to Los Angeles. She found work at a candy factory and then a glass factory, and eventually married a co-worker in 1949.
Castaneda said she hopes that the campaign to publicize the issue will at least educate Americans about what happened to families like hers.
Dunn said the issue is still relevant because of the ongoing debate over immigration, especially during times of economic difficulty. “The deportation program of the 1930s is not a proud chapter in American history,” Dunn said. “Hopefully, by acknowledging this, we can minimize the likelihood of unjustly treating future immigrants to this great nation.”