It's happened before in the 1930s. Local, state and federal authorities arrested residents of Mexican heritage--citizens and noncitizens alike; confiscated their property, and deported them to Mexico.
This American version of ethnic cleansing--the mass deportation of people of Mexican heritage from U.S. soil--has gone largely ignored--that is, until now.
As part of a class history assignment while she was a undergraduate student at Cal State Fullerton, Christine Valenciana, now a professor of education, began her extensive research on the plight of her mother and many other Mexican-Americans who were illegally deported to Mexico during the 1930s.
Dr. Valenciana was always aware that her mother, as a child, had been forced to return to Mexico in 1935. What she didn’t realize was that her mother was just one of up to 2 million Mexican and Mexican-Americans who were deported during that era.
“I thought what happened to her and her family was an isolated incident,” she recalled. “I had no idea that this happened on a much larger scale.”
Dr. Valenciana discusses her work as it relates to the mass deportation of people, many of whom were American citizens, that was systematically practiced during the Great Depression. (Source: CAL State Fullerton website)
Q: How did you first learn that close to 2 million Mexican and Mexican-Americans were deported to Mexico in the 1930s?
A: I was a history major at Cal State Fullerton, and one of the classes I took was a community history class. Having a Mexican background, I was interested in researching an area that had to do with Mexican-Americans. While I was trying to determine a topic, I spoke with my mother, Emilia Castaneda, about her experience as a child. That’s when I discovered that many families had been deported to Mexico in the late 1920s through the 1930s.
Even prior to this, there were “whisper” campaigns and employers were asked not to hire those suspected of being of Mexican descent. Actually, there were laws passed that “aliens” could not be hired to work. In addition, massive deportation raids were conducted throughout the country, including Orange and Los Angeles counties. An atmosphere of fear was created in the Mexican-American community.
Q: So what happened? Why were these people deported?
A: During the Great Depression, anywhere from one to two million people were deported in an effort by the government to free up jobs for those who were considered “real Americans” and rid the county governments of “the problem.” The campaign, called the Mexican Reparation, was authorized by President Herbert Hoover. Although President Franklin Roosevelt ended federal support when he took office, many state and local governments continued with their efforts.
Estimates now indicate that approximately 60 percent of the people deported were children who were born in America and others who, while of Mexican descent, were legal citizens.
Q: How did you go about conducting your research?
A: It was all primary research because historians hadn’t really paid much attention to it. I spoke to my mother, who referred me to some of her cousins. I made public announcements and found other interviewees. It snowballed from there. These interviews are housed in the Center for Oral and Public History. Now, I am conducting new research focused on the education and language of the children and families involved.
Q: What was it like for those who were deported?
A: It was traumatic, of course. For example, my mother was nine years old. She lived in Los Angeles. Her dominant language was English, although she knew rudimentary Spanish. Suddenly, she was removed from the only home she’d known, taken out of her school and away from her friends, and sent to an unfamiliar country. She didn’t understand the customs. She was forced to live outdoors. She was teased because she couldn’t speak Spanish very well. And keep in mind that she was an American citizen.
Q: What was it like for adults?
A: It was very difficult for them as well. Mexico also was going through a depression at that time, and it was hard for the adults to find jobs in Mexico. Returning Mexicans were unwanted. Many of these people had jobs, homes and families in the United States. They hadn’t been in Mexico for decades – they couldn’t just pick up and start again.
This act literally broke up families. For instance, some who were deported had subsequent children who were born in Mexico – that meant that some children in the same family were American citizens while others were not. As these children grew older and married, they often had children who were born in Mexico and so these children were not considered American citizens either. The effects of this unconstitutional deportation are far ranging and have ramifications even today.
Q: Were there ever any attempts to rectify this wrong?
A: art of the problem is that many did not realize this was part of a huge concerted effort. Now that they’re aware of it, there have been some attempts to recognize what happened. Some looked at what happened to those who were interned in Japanese camps during World War II and recognized that they were, in fact, discriminated against. It’s also important to realize that it took the Japanese community several decades to organize in response against their treatment – and they were still in this country.
Q: What kind of attempts have been made to publicize this?
A: One of our alums – Bernie Enriquez, a field representative for State Sen. Joseph Dunn – was aware of the Mexican Reparation, having read my husband’s – Francisco Balderrama – book, Decade of Betrayal. He brought the book to the attention of Sen. Dunn [D-Santa Ana], who introduced a bill in 2003 asking for a removal of the statute of limitations for survivors like my mother to make claims against the state of California for, what was quite frankly, an unconstitutional deportation.
MALDEF [Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund] filed a class action suit on behalf of the survivors. Sen. Dunn sponsored a state senate hearing in July 2003 on this unconstitutional deportation. My mother was one of the survivors who spoke. My husband was an expert historian witness.
Q: What was that like watching your mother?
A: I had very mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was tremendously proud of her. This is a woman – in her 70s – with very little formal education, speaking before a group of powerful legislators. On the other hand, I was nervous for her and helped her prepare. But she did just fine. I asked her what she hoped to get out of all this. She said simply, “I just want people to know what happened.”
Q: Did they get an apology?
A: No. Both Governors Davis and Schwarzenegger refused. Apologizing is an admission of guilt and neither wanted to get involved in what they considered financial ramifications. What was very disappointing about Schwarzenegger’s response was that he indicated that those affected had had years to file civil suits. But most of those who were deported were children. They were abused, had their constitutional rights violated and were kicked out of their country. They weren’t even aware that they had constitutional rights let alone that they had been violated.
Q: So what happens now?
A: Sen. Dunn will re-introduce related legislation. We are doing our best to educate others about what happened so that this never happens to anyone again. People were denied their rights, sent to a foreign land and children were not allowed to finish their education.
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