Decade of Betrayal: Strangers in Our Own Home

Decade of Betrayal

In Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s by Francisco E. Balderrama and Raymond Rodríguez explore the most “significant series of events ever to befall a group of immigrants and their children” (3).  Decade of Betrayal is the first comprehensive review of the national repatriation and deportation campaigns against Mexicans during the Great Depression (4).  Based on unfounded facts that Mexicans were stealing “American” jobs and draining the national economy, deportation and repatriation of Mexicans was welcomed by a large segment of the American populace.

In response to the traumatic effects of the Great Depression, numerous Los Angeles relief agencies contrived plans to get rid of the Mexican “problem.”  In setting the standard that the rest of the nation would soon follow, Los Angeles relief agencies undertook two distinct phases each designed to strike fear into the heart of the Mexican community.  First, a deportation drive was designed to force a massive removal of Mexican and Mexican Americans from their homes.  Second, with the climate of fear considerably intensified within the community, a voluntary or repatriation movement was coordinated in order to neutralize possible damaging effects on the image of Los Angeles.

Decade of Betrayal is an excellent study as it delves inside the socioeconomic dynamics of the “push-pull” factors that helped contribute to Mexican migration to the United States during the early 1900s.  In addition, Balderrama and Rodríguez provide a better understanding of the Mexican family as it not only dealt with and confronted racist attitudes in American society, but the challenges the Mexican community faced in the form of economic difficulties in securing employment during the watershed period of the 1930s.

As Balderrama and Rodríguez make evidently clear, the deportation campaigns against Mexicans were begun during the last few years of the Hoover Administration.  The campaigns to rid the Mexicans from the country intensified when Attorney General William Doak made calls to remove deportable “aliens” in order to open up jobs for “Americans.”  Upon hearing this, a Los Angeles relief coordinator Charles P. Visell declared that enough jobs existed for “Americans,” but that Mexicans and other aliens were stealing jobs.  Local cries to send Mexicans back home were ignited, and various sweeps of Mexican neighborhoods were begun.  The sweeps were so successful in creating an environment of fear.

Despite the nature of the deportation and repatriation movement, Mexicans responded to attacks against their families and communities by staging acts of political resistance that gave Mexicans a sense of hope during a period of frustration.  Radio personality, for instance, Pedro J. Gonzalez utilized his early morning radio show to illustrate the plight of the Mexican community as well as encouraging them to organize (76).

Most importantly, the Mexican community was forced to seek shelter from nativist attacks by employing tactics of resistance through the formation of local mutual aid organizations as well as forcing the Mexican consulate to address the blatantly racist immigration sweeps. In the larger picture, then, close to a million Mexican nationals and their American born children were forced out of the United States, but Mexicans did not accept the injustice lightly.  Decade of Betrayal serves to highlight Mexican agency during this period.

The majority of Mexicans who left the United States during the 1930s, left under auspices of the repatriation program, but the voluntary nature of the program stemmed mainly from the fear the deportation campaigns generated. News reports of family members being forcibly removed from their homes certainly had a far reaching effect on many members of the Mexican community in influencing them to leave.  Of course, with very few American industries willing to accept Mexican workers, there was little choice but to leave.  There were national and local decrees stipulating that Mexican could not be hired to work in federal projects.  Mexicans were the first fired and the last hired.

In assessing the Mexican government response to the repatriation movement, Decade of Betrayal extends the narrative of the Mexican experience of the 1930s. Because there were many American born children within the multitude of repatriates, it was a tragic situation to ask people to leave back home when, for the most part, many of them had never touched foreign soil before.  The greatest impact on the Mexican community was the divisiveness it created within families.  Many families were torn apart by the anti-Mexican campaigns.  Many brothers and sisters would never see each other again.  Others would be reunited years later. Through the utilization of oral interviews, then, it is easy to understand the traumatic impact repatriation had on real people.  This study goes beyond statistics by focusing on the experiences of real people.

The irony of the deportation and repatriation campaigns was that by the 1940s, Mexicans again were called to the United States under the Bracero Program.  The series of events that led to anti-Mexican measures cannot be solely blamed on economic difficulties, but rather to inane racist attitudes employed by various leaders of American society.  There were no justifiable excuses to send Mexicans to México, other than those old racist arguments based on Mexican inferiority.  No new jobs were created and the impact only served to systematically augment the distrust Mexicans have on government agencies.  What is deplorable here is that deportation and repatriation was a government based effort, albeit a local one.

In this brief review, we have seen how deportation and repatriation was used against Mexicans and for what reasons.  The impact on Mexicans was severe.  Families and lives were torn apart by flawed governmental policies.  The end result, whatever the reasons were for the displacement of Mexicans, was merely to continue the history of Los Angeles as one based on the complete indifference towards non-whites.  If anything, the Great Depression and its effect on people is lesson for all of us today.  For Mexicans, it is a lesson they will never forget.

- by David Cid

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