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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 November 2006, 12:33 GMT
US Mexicans haunted by repatriation
By Linda Pressly
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

Seventy years ago, more than a million people of Mexican origin left the US in a little known "deportation frenzy" that still haunts many of them today.

At the station there were a lot of people crying
Emilia Castaneda

"They wanted us out of the country. I didn't understand why when we'd been born here.

"And I didn't know anything about Mexico - my parents never talked about it.

"I remember they used to play Mexican music. But it was just music."

Emilia Castaneda was born in Los Angeles of Mexican parents.

In 1935, she and her father and brother were forced to board a train bound for Mexico. She was nine years old.

"At the station there were a lot of people crying. I was crying too," she said.

"I knew I wasn't going to be able to visit my mother's grave any more. But my dad couldn't find employment.

"He was a man who wanted to work, but there was no work for Mexicans. The jobs were for the Anglos."

Desperate times

This was the era of the Great Depression.

A farm worker in the 1930s
Competition for all jobs was fierce as the country hit hard times
At its height, around a quarter of the US population was unemployed.

The competition for jobs was intense.

And many believed getting rid of the Mexicans would create employment opportunities for "real Americans".

As the depression deepened, state and local governments passed laws restricting employment to native-born or naturalised citizens.

The Federal Government required all firms supplying it with goods and services to hire only US citizens.

And private companies fell in line with the prevailing anti-Mexican feeling and sacked their workers.

Francisco Balderrama, professor at California State University and co-author of Decade of Betrayal, estimates that somewhere in the region of a million people of Mexican origin were driven out of the United States during the 1930s.

Nearly two thirds of those who left were US citizens.

Emilia Castaneda was one of them. Ruben Jimenez was another.

Mexican convoy

A lady who travelled with us started praying from the moment we left
Ruben Jimenez

Ruben was seven years old when his family journeyed south by truck.

"It was like a caravan of Mexican families," he said.

"I remember there was a lady who travelled with us and she started praying from the moment we left Los Angeles and continued until we got to the Mexican border.

"That is something I will never forget."

Although Los Angeles became a focal point for what Professor Balderrama calls the "deportation frenzy", by the time of the depression, Mexicans were a well-established part of communities all over the United States.

The census of 1930 calculated that nearly one and half million people of Mexican origin lived in the US.

They were canning fish in Alaska, harvesting sugar beet in Minnesota and assembling cars in Detroit.

Often paid much less than their white counterparts, they were seen - much as they still are today in some quarters - as a source of cheap, expendable labour.

Climate of fear

Around 50,000 people were formally deported in the 1930s.

Mexicans packing their car to go
Many Mexicans left voluntarily to avoid the humiliation of deportation
And these mass round-ups in Mexican parts of town provided the impetus for many more to leave, according to Professor Balderrama.

"Sweeps were publicised in the newspapers with banner headlines and they created a reign of terror," he said.

"Individuals worried whether a husband or wife who had gone shopping or to work would ever return."

Hundreds of thousands left voluntarily to avoid the humiliation of deportation.

Others were driven out by harassment or violence.

Signs appeared warning Mexican residents to leave town.

And the authorities and some of America's biggest corporations encouraged the exodus.

This was an episode in American history that was never recorded in the history books.

But that is beginning to change.

Seeking recognition

California State Senator Joseph Dunn is leading the political charge to bring these little known events into the public consciousness.

California State Senator Joseph Dunn i
Senator Joseph Dunn wants the episode better acknowledged
Earlier this year the Apology Act became law.

In it, the State of California apologised to the survivors and their families.

But Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has refused to approve Senate bills that would require schools to include the repatriation in the curriculum, and to offer victims compensation.

The coerced migration of a generation of Mexican nationals and US citizens of Mexican origins during the 1930s had a profound legacy.

Families were separated and communities destroyed.

Emilia and Ruben both returned to Los Angeles during the Second World War - Emilia to a factory job to help the war effort, Ruben to the US Military.

But their experiences as "personas repatriadas" have marked them.

"I feel a resentment because my childhood and education were interrupted," said Ruben.

"We lost a lot. I lost the opportunity to live as an American citizen - which is what I am."

Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 30 November 2006, at 1102 GMT and was repeated on Monday, 4 December 2006, at 2030 GMT.

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