Friday, January 06, 2006

Lo Sentimos (Apologizing for Mexican "Repatriation")

LaraThe other day as I was driving home from the university, I heard a snippet of a story on NPR I'd never come across before: in the 1930s, during the Depression, the United States government forced millions of Mexican-Americans and Mexicans to emigrate to Mexico, under the guise of "repatriating" them, to lessen the competition for scarce jobs among White Americans. I put "repatriation" in quotes because according to the NPR piece, over half of the up to 2 million people forced to migrate, or about 1.2 million, were born in the U.S., and many not only didn't speak Spanish but had no direct ties to Mexico.

As the Sacramento Bee's Peter Hecht describes it:

Amid the economic desperation of the Depression, Latino families were viewed as taking jobs and government benefits from "real Americans." In Los Angeles County, a Citizens Committee for Coordination for Unemployment Relief urgently warned of 400,000 "deportable aliens," declaring: "We need their jobs for needy citizens."

Up to 2 million people of Mexican ancestry were relocated to Mexico during the 1930s, even though as many as 1.2 million were born in the United States. In California, some 400,000 Latino United States citizens or legal residents were forced to leave.
In fact, some counties across the country continued the program even after the Roosevelt administration cut off funding for it.

The occasion for the NPR piece was the issuance of a formal apology from the state of California. Two Golden State academics, California State University Los Angeles Chicano Studies professor Francisco Balderrama and retired Long Beach City College historian Raymond Rodríguez inspired behind the measure. Their book, Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s, described the psychological trauma that the expatriated children endured once in Mexico.

Democratic State Senator Joe Dunn, from Santa Ana, read Balderrama's and Rodríguez's book on a flight to DC and could not get the story out of his head. So he began introducing legislation that he drafted in response with Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez (D-Los Angeles), and Assembly members Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa), Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys) and Lori Saldaña (D-San Diego) several years ago. He finally was able to secure passage of the apology bill, with Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's signature, last year. California Senate Bill 670, or the "Apology Act for the 1930s Mexican Repatriation Program," officially acknowledges the suffering and losses of the estimated 400,000 Latinos forced out of California. However Herr Governator vetoed a companion bill, Senate Bill 645, that would have created a commission to study reparations to survivors of the 1930s "repatriations."

One of the people who was forcibly expelled, 77-year-old war veteran Carlos Guerra, had complex feelings about the measures:

"What is an apology?" asks Guerra, an artisan who makes embroidered furnishings. "I don't understand it at all."

Forced from the United States, Guerra and his American-born siblings had to learn Spanish, adapt to a new culture and endure the poverty of the Mexican countryside for 13 years before his family legally returned to California.

"The saddest thing of all," says Guerra, who lives in Carpinteria, "is that I lost my country. This is where I was born. I'm a California native. But it took me years to be able to call myself a so-called 'Americano.' "

He didn't fit in either south of the border. "In Mexico, they called us Norteños. They thought we were completely Anglicized, and they disliked people from the north," he says.

The Sacramento Bee adds that "a monument will be erected at a site to be determined in Los Angeles," because it was in California's largest city that "50,000 Mexican Americans were placed on trains and repatriated in five months in 1931." In fact, "hundreds were rounded up in San Fernando and Pacoima on Ash Wednesday, a Catholic holy day, and many Latino barrios simply disappeared." State Senator Dunn also is working with U.S. Congresswoman Hilda Solis (D-El Monte) to push for a federal companion measure to the California apology. Given how badly wants Latino support, he might agree to it, though the mood among Republicans in Congress right now appears not to be especially favorable to Latinos.

Reading this story also made me think again yet again about
  • the current discourse around immigration, U.S.-Mexican relations,
  • citizenship and belonging, state-sanctioned racism and racist violence,
  • U.S. political and historical rhetoric in general,
  • reparations for slavery,
  • and the submerged histories within the larger body that we think of as American history.
What else remains hidden and who has a stake in keeping it so? If more people knew about this forcible expatriation, would they still hold the same feelings about the current wave of immigration, particularly from Mexico? What sorts of recompense are due to people who've been violated in this way, and can any action, let alone an apology, ever be sufficient (I'm thinking of Clinton's apology for slavery, or Reagan's signing of the bill to provided limited reparations for the interned Japanese-Americans). Can any remuneration address such trauma, which extends beyond the people who've suffered it to their descendents and to the societies in which they live.

An interview with California State University Fullerton assistant professor of elementary and bilingual education Christine Valenciana, whose mother was forcibly deported in 1935, is available here.


  1. Good lord, stop reading my mind! I just sort of finished blogging on a related issue.

    Strange vibes in the universe!

  2. Reparations for slavery (and why stop there? reparations for Jim Crow and all the more subtle insitutionalized forms of racism that have persisted since) will not ever happen, I realized, as I wandered in a daze after hearing of the Japanese reparations (happy for them, sure, in the acknowledgement of the terrible wrong done them; but what about US? and the centuries we've been waiting???) As time goes on, I'm sure we'll see more positive developments in the recognition of what was perpetrated against Mexican Americans, and other, similarly positive developments, with Native Americans too. But, to go back to my earlier metaphor, it seems to me that the union of white and black culture in the US is too intimate to permit a view that reparations are owed, for any (past or present) wrongdoing of whites against blacks: the wife, to whom you are still married, is never owed anything.

    Kai in NYC

  3. What You Should Know About Coatlicue Theatre, Shan Colorado Finnerty, Hortensia Colorado, and Elvira Colorado

    We are a group of friends that know and worked with a young woman named Joy Loftin while she was employed at the Vanderbilt YMCA here in New York City. During the length of her employment, several extremely disturbing incidents occurred that cause us to be concerned and call into question the motives and the integrity of Shan Colorado Finnerty, Hortensia Colorado, and Elvira Colorado.

    On several occasions, Joy came to work with visible bruises on her neck and arms. She eventually explained to us that Shan had punched, beaten, and choked her and she asked us for help. As wardens for the community, we tried to place Joy in women’s shelters around the city in an effort to mitigate the abuse. However, at the urging of Shan’s mother and aunt, Hortensia and Elvira, she returned to their apartment and refused to press criminal charges against Shan Colorado Finnerty. The abuse continued and one day, she came to work very early, visibly distressed and crying, with more bruises and abrasions. She said that Shan had verbally abused and beaten her once again; that she wanted to return to California, and that she was going to quit her job and reunite with her family. She tendered her resignation later that week. Out of concern for her safety and in an effort to find out what happened to her, we requested an officer from the domestic violence unit of the 5th Precinct conduct a welfare check at their home on Kenmare Street. However the officer was unable to find anyone at the apartment, and therefore could not verify that Joy was safe. We realize that she is suffering from battered women’s syndrome and may be unable to help herself due to the isolationist environment that the Colorados have formed around her. Abusive men are often enabled by their family, while the victim is persuaded to believe the abuse is her fault, and the pattern of emotional and physical trauma continues. Taking into consideration what has happened to Joy Loftin, it is especially deceitful that their display "Altar: El Llanto De La Resistancia" at the American Indian Community House was in part dedicated to victims of domestic violence.

    In light of these events, we are dismayed, disappointed, and outraged to know that members of the American Indian Community would commit, condone, and perpetuate domestic abuse and violence, while simultaneously conducting workshops, writing and performing plays, and displaying works and art that would have the public and those who support them believe otherwise. It is a vulgar and offensive misrepresentation of American Indian Culture, and further support of Coatlicue Theater, Hortensia Colorado, Elvira Colorado, Shan Colorado Finnerty and their work is tantamount to supporting domestic abuse and violence. Considering their duplicitous behavior, having them represent American Indian Culture is an insult to the dignity of American Indians and an affront to human beings.

    We therefore will not attend nor support any Coatlicue Theater productions or events where they will be featured. We will be encouraging others that might consider attending, participating, or funding them to do the same. Our actions are warranted, and to be associated with the aforementioned individuals and Coatlicue Theater would be equivalent to enabling and contributing to such offensive behaviour. We are urging everyone to reevaluate their support of Coatlicue Theatre and the Colorados, and question the individuals concerned. Until the responsible individuals are held accountable and measures are taken to verify that the abuse is no longer occurring, we will continue with our boycott of Coatlicue Theatre and we will strongly urge others to do the same.