Mass Deportation to Mexico in 1930s Spurs Apology
One in a series of reports on new laws that take effect in the new year.
By Peter Hecht -- Bee Capitol Bureau
Published 2:15 am PST Wednesday, December 28, 2005
Story appeared on Page A1 of The Bee
Carlos Guerra was only 3 years old when Los Angeles County authorities came to his family's house in Azusa and ordered his mother, a legal United States resident, and her six American-born children to leave the country.
It was 1931. The administration of President Herbert Hoover backed a policy that would repatriate hundreds of thousands of Mexican Americans, more than half of them United States citizens.
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.
Now California, for its part, wants to say it is sorry.
On Sunday, Senate Bill 670 - the so-called "Apology Act for the 1930s Mexican Repatriation Program" - becomes official. It acknowledges the suffering of tens of thousands of Latino families unjustly forced out of the Golden State that was their home.
"The state of California apologizes ... for the fundamental violations of their basic civil liberties and constitutional rights during the period of illegal deportation and coerced emigration," the act reads.
The words fail Guerra. He is 77 years old now. He is a veteran who served in the U.S. Army in postwar Korea and France. But he can't forgive, forget, or accept an apology.
He can't excuse the forced train ride that delivered his family to Guanajuato, Mexico. He can't excuse the decade-plus estrangement that denied him of a relationship with his father, who stayed behind because California needed orange pickers.
And he can't excuse being spurned by not just one culture, but two.
"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.
California's apology was inspired by the work of California State University, Los Angeles, Chicano studies professor Francisco Balderrama and Raymond Rodríguez, a history professor emeritus at Long Beach City College.
In their book, "Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s," they describe long-term emotional trauma by children, born in the United States, who were forced to grow up in Mexico.
"For American-born children, trying to adjust to life in Mexico proved to be a very traumatic experience," the authors wrote. "... Deep-seated scars of rejections by both cultures would remain embedded in their lives forever."
The little-acknowledged history of Mexican Americans repatriated in the 1930s became embedded in the mind of state Sen. Joe Dunn, D-Santa Ana, after he read "Decade of Betrayal" on a flight to Washington, D.C.
Dunn drafted SB 670 with the help of 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.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill Oct. 7, but vetoed a companion measure - Senate Bill 645 - that would have created a commission to study paying reparations to survivors of the 1930s repatriations.
"I believe reparations are due for the remaining survivors," said Dunn, who noted they number between 2,000 to 4,000 in California. "There should be some compensation to acknowledge their suffering."
For Alfonso Lara, 78, of Davis, an apology - long overdue - will suffice.
Lara was born in Holtville near the border. He was 7 when his father, a worker in a Los Angeles floral warehouse, died of an apparent heart attack in 1932.
Soon afterward, he says, some men came knocking on the family's door, telling his mother, Maria Chavez, Lara and his younger brother, Luis: "There's nothing for you to do here. Now go back to Mexico."
"It wasn't right. It shouldn't have happened," said Lara, who grew up without education on an isolated ranch in central Mexico.
He later returned to toil in sugar beet and tomato fields near Davis under the bracero program, which allowed seasonal workers from Mexico into the United States.
On one of his back-and-forth trips between the two countries, he ran into a man who knew his family in Southern California. Lara was stunned when the man told him he was a United States citizen - and had the right to stay.
Lara, who is now on kidney dialysis and uses a wheelchair, went on to become a farm supervisor and foreman. He once worked for a rancher, a Japanese American, who used to tell him stories of being rounded up and locked into a California relocation camp during World War II.
In 1988, the Reagan administration approved compensation of ,000 each to some 66,000 surviving Japanese Americans who were held in camps during the war.
Lara isn't asking for compensation. But Lara, who proudly saw all six of his children go to college, wants his history shared so that "my grandchildren know that this happened."
As part of the state's apology, a monument will be erected at a site to be determined in Los Angeles. It was in Los Angeles where 50,000 Mexican Americans were placed on trains and repatriated in five months in 1931, hundreds were rounded up in San Fernando and Pacoima on Ash Wednesday, a Catholic holy day, and many Latino barrios simply disappeared.
Dunn said he is working with U.S. Rep. Hilda Solis, D-El Monte, in the hope of enacting a federal companion measure to the California apology.
Jose Lopez Sr., was a factory worker at the Ford assembly plant when his family was ordered to Mexico after nearly two decades in the United States. He wound up cutting sugar cane and died in poverty in the Mexican state of Michoacan.
"I think an apology is the least they can do," said his son, Jose Lopez, 78, a retired autoworker in Detroit who came to testify on behalf of the California bill.