This Exhibition Told The Stories Of Mexicans And Mexican-Americans Who Were Illegally Deported In The ’20s And ’30s
An exhibition in Boyle Heights, Calif. revisited the illegal deportation of millions of Mexicans and Mexican Americans during the Great Depression through rare archival footage and personal stories. “Aqui Estamos Y No Nos Vamos (We Are Here and We Won’t Leave): Fighting Mexican Removal Since the 1930s” focuses on the community in Boyle Heights that fought against the unconstitutional deportations.
This topic is very close to my heart. My great-grandparents, my grandmother and her siblings experienced the Mexican Repatriation firsthand — they were deported to Mexico even though they were U.S. citizens. I have written extensively on the topic ever since I found out about it in 2015.
Though the Mexican Repatriation happened more than 80 years ago, it’s a historical fact that is rarely discussed, which is one reason this exhibition is so important. It’s also crucial to recognize that the racism Latinos faced then has persisted and continues to this day.
The show is set up chronologically, beginning with a look at Latinos living in Boyle Heights in the 1920s.
“Boyle Heights existed relatively undisturbed in the 1920s as a largely immigrant neighborhood that supplied much needed labor for surrounding industries,” the exhibit explains. It goes on to say that Latinos in Southern California were making a decent living with modest pay. Many of them had good jobs and homes and were able to provide a better life to their family.
Many Mexicans that moved to the U.S. during this time were able to work here because men were fighting in World War I, and employers desperately needed workers. The Immigration Act provided legal work for Mexicans for several years. This stability of work and money allowed Mexicans to flourish and be productive members of society. They also didn’t relocate just to California, but to various parts of the U.S.
The Great Depression changed everything. With millions of Americans out of work, Mexicans were targeted, along with their U.S.-born children.
The exhibition does an amazing job of showing what the culture was like back then. Images like the one above is a testament to the discriminatory conditions that Latinos faced in the United States.
The government intentionally called the removal of Latinos “repatriation” rather than deportation.
Curators of this show detail the terminology that the government used back then, and why they did so.
“DEPORTATION: commonly known as forced return migration to Mexico, usually as a result of being captured by U.S. immigration officials and being identified as illegally in the United States (or without proper documents).”
“REPATRIATION: commonly known as ‘voluntary’ return migration, this is the term most commonly used to describe most departures in the period. Involves a wide range of situations, from those who left on their own at the start of the economic depression when they lost their jobs to those pressured later on to leave on organized trains funded by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.”
My father tells me that when this happened to my grandmother and her family, that they had no choice. They were told, “Take this stipend and go to Mexico, or we will do it the hard way.” So, in essence, a “volunteer” relocation back to your native country (even though million of U.S.-born children had never been to Mexico) is technically not considered illegal.
This telegram from 1931 almost sounds like it could apply to ICE raids today.
“Figure four hundred thousand deportable aliens,” states the telegram. “We can pick them all up through police and sheriff channels … You advise please as to method of getting rid.” Truly appalling.
There was even a corrido written about what it’s like to be deported.
This portion of the exhibition, which is all available online, really brought me to tears. The song above, “El Deportado” by Los Hermanos Bañuelos, paints a picture like no other. Here’s a portion of the lyrics, translated in English:
“I am going to tell you gentlemen / Everything I had to suffer / Since I left my nation / Since I left my nation / To come to this country / It may have been ten at night / A train begins to whistle / I heard my mother say / There comes that terrible train / That is taking my son / Goodbye, my dear mother / Give me your blessing / I am leaving to a foreign land / I am leaving to a foreign land / Where there is no revolution.”
The exhibition also features interviews with people that were part of the repatriation.
Emilia Castañeda, a Boyle Heights resident who was born in 1926 (two years before my grandmother) in Los Angeles, recalled what it was like to leave for Mexico with her father.
“After my mother died, I guess my dad was pretty sad,” Castañeda told the curators at the Boyle Heights Museum. “Here he was, left with a family, no wife, no work, and living off of welfare. He had a trade and could work, if the work was available. Maybe he thought he should go back to his country.”
Castañeda returned to the U.S. in 1944.
“Well, I don’t like [this whole idea of repatriation],” Castañeda said. “I don’t think I’ll ever like it, not after the way I was made to suffer. I feel that this country should have done something for its citizens instead of getting rid of them the way they did.”
The exhibition happened on October 1 through December 1 2017 at the Boyle Heights Museum, located at 2102 E 1st St, Los Angeles.
The show is also available online. Click here to experience the virtual exhibition.