Raymond Rodriguez was 10 years old in 1936 when his immigrant father walked out of the family’s Long Beach farmhouse and returned to Mexico, never to see his wife and children again.
The son would spend decades pondering the forces that had driven his father away, an effort that reached fruition in “Decade of Betrayal,” a social history of the 1930s focusing on an estimated 1 million Mexicans and Mexican Americans unjustly deported or scared into leaving their homes in the United States by federal and local officials seeking remedies for the Great Depression.
“Americans, reeling from the economic disorientation of the depression, sought a convenient scapegoat. They found it in the Mexican community,” Rodriguez and co-author Francisco Balderrama wrote in the 1995 book, which sparked legislative hearings and formal apologies from the state of California and Los Angeles County officials.
Rodriguez, 87, a former Long Beach City College administrator and columnist for the Long Beach Press-Telegram, who believed “the greatest tragedy of all” was public ignorance of the deportations, died June 24 at his Long Beach home. The cause was believed to be a heart attack, said his daughter, C.J. Crockett.
“It is no exaggeration to say that without the scholarly work by Ray and Francisco, no one but a handful of individuals would ever know about the illegal deportations of Mexican Americans in the 1930s,” said former state Sen. Joseph Dunn (D-Santa Ana), who sponsored 2005 legislation that apologized for California’s part in “fundamental violations” of the deportees’ constitutional rights.
Last year the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors apologized for the county’s role in the roundups.
The deportations began a decade before the World War II internment of 110,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans on the West Coast. Federal and local authorities rounded up Mexican immigrants and their families at dance halls, markets, hospitals, theaters and parks, loading them onto vans and trains that dumped them on Mexican soil.
One of the most notorious raids occurred in 1931 at La Placita, a popular gathering spot for immigrants outside Olvera Street in Los Angeles. A team of Immigration and Naturalization Service agents armed with guns and batons sealed off the small public park and herded 400 terrified men and women into waiting vans. The success of the raid galvanized authorities in other localities across the country.
By 1940, Rodriguez and Balderrama found, more than 1 million people of Mexican descent had been deported. Government officials used the term “repatriation” to describe their actions, but the researchers found that 60% of the expelled were U.S. citizens. “They might as well have sent us to Mars,” Rodriguez once said, recalling the words of one “repatriate.”
Most of the deportees were not welcomed in Mexico. They were criticized for their American ways, for not fighting to remain in the U.S., and for being a burden on Mexico’s economy.
“Ultimately, it was the children who bore the brunt of rejection and discrimination,” wrote Rodriguez and Balderrama, whose book relied on oral histories as well as archival records. “They were neither Americans nor Mexicans as defined by their respective cultures.”
The authors included in their estimate thousands of legal residents and U.S. citizens who left the U.S. on their own.
Rodriguez considered his father one of them.
“He figured: ‘If they don’t want me, I’m going back,’” the scholar told The Times in 2001.
His parents had immigrated around 1918 and became tenant farmers in Long Beach. “We had no money, but we had food, so we always had guests for dinner,” Rodriguez recalled in 2003 in the Sacramento Bee.
When his father announced he was leaving, his mother refused to go, saying “I have five kids born here — we’re not going to Mexico.”
The older children plowed the fields, but hard times worsened and the family depended on welfare for awhile. Rodriguez, who was born in Long Beach on March 26, 1926, dropped out of high school his senior year and joined the Navy, serving in the Pacific during the war.
Later, he went to college on the GI Bill, earning a general education degree from Long Beach City College in 1951 before entering Long Beach State, where he received a bachelor’s in elementary education in 1953 and a master’s in education administration in 1957. In 1962 he earned a master’s in U.S. history from USC.
He taught elementary and secondary students in the Long Beach Unified School District for almost a dozen years, until 1969. Over the next two decades he taught history and political science at Long Beach City College and also served as its affirmative action officer and dean of personnel, retiring in 1988.
In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife, Almira; son Craig Smith; sisters Angelina Ayala and Mary Johnston; and five grandchildren.
Rodriguez supported reparations for the deportees and their survivors, although “he wasn’t a real strong supporter,” Balderrama, an emeritus professor of Chicano studies and history at Cal State Los Angeles, said last week. Proposals to provide redress have failed to win legislative support and Rodriguez did not believe it was possible to place a monetary value on the suffering caused by the coerced departures.
“How is anybody going to compensate me for my loss?” he said, nearly overcome with emotion, when asked by the Sacramento Bee.
He saw public education as a more important goal.
“Over 1 million Mexicans were deported and yet, have you read about it in your history books?” Rodriguez asked a class at Cal State Long Beach several years ago. “Not knowing is the greatest tragedy of all. We know about the Holocaust. We know about the Japanese camps in World War II, but we don’t know about the Mexicans.”