On February 26th, a ceremony is to take
place in California apologizing to
the approximately 400,000 people of Mexican ancestry who
were deported from the USA
in a spate of ethnic cleansing that gripped the USA during the Depression. What is at stake in
this ceremony is not only the apology but what it says
about racism and ethnic cleansing in times of economic
Approximately two million people of Mexican
ancestry were deported from the USA during the Depression. This was not only Mexican
nationals, but Chicanos as well, i.e., US citizens of
Mexican ancestry. This was a blatant example of ethnic
cleansing taking place in the USA which destroyed
families and exiled family members, in some cases indefinitely.
with many cases of mass trauma, this deportation process
was ignored in the general public. The “Repatriados,”
as those who were deported were referenced, existed in
a twilight zone. Those who were able to return often did
not speak of it and families that remained stuck in Mexico had to begin entirely new lives. It was
the work of people like Detroit activist Elena Herrada
and the Fronteras Nortenas organization that helped to
re-raise the issue, not only in California but also throughout
the USA.[note: for more information click here]
The 1930s, as a period, is often viewed
as one of increasingly progressive change. While there
is certainly some truth in this, the change was far from
linear and far from complete. When it came to race, intense
white supremacy was alive and well. And even many progressive
organizations failed to speak up in the face of such horrors.
Mexicans and Chicanos were being attacked in a wave of
a specific form of anti-immigrant mania. In a period of
an intense economic crisis, Mexicans and Chicanos were
blamed for allegedly taking the jobs of (white) Americans.
Nothing comparable was done to immigrants of European
ancestry and it was only a few short years later – 1942
- that in the midst of a particular response to
the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor,
Japanese Americans were interned for the remainder of
the war (compared to the treatment of US citizens of German
and Italian ancestry).
does not have to jump too far to see the relevance of
this historical horror to our situation today. Just the
other day, I was grabbed by an African American in an
airport who recognized me from my TransAfrica Forum days.
Among other things he wanted to say to me was the matter
of immigrants, and particularly about the competition
that is created through immigration. He refused to look
at the big picture but his conclusions were clear enough
that he did not need to express them: remove the immigrants.
Yet, just as the Great Depression was not
caused by Mexicans and Chicanos, today’s economic crisis,
and specifically the massive economic crisis faced by
African Americans, is not the result of immigrants, be
they documented or undocumented. It has to do with the
system, and unfortunately too many of us seem to be afraid
that identifying the system is the equivalent of looking
into the face of the Gorgon, turning us to stone. Thus,
for right-wing populists and for too many of our own people,
it is easier to blame the immigrant for our suffering
than to recognize that capitalism will use whoever it
can to weaken the power of working people. It used us
in the period around World War I (and after) as a cheap
labor source, and it has used successive groups. The mass,
indiscriminate deportation of two million people of Mexican
ancestry was just one implication of this racist irrationalism.
What’s to prevent this from happening again?
Editorial Board member, Bill Fletcher,
Jr., is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president
of TransAfricaForum and co-author of Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path
toward Social Justice (University of California Press), which examines the crisis of organized
labor in the USA. Click here
to contact Mr. Fletcher.