The Rise and Fall of Immigrant Mexican Communities between 1890 and 1940
California and much of the Southwest had a native Mexican and American Indian culture throughout the 1800’s. This changed with an explosion of immigration between 1890 and 1930. The population of Los Angeles county alone grew from 101,000 to 2.2 million. This growth was fueled by the Mexican civil war when many Mexicans headed north to find work and escape violence. A lot of the migration was seasonal and many immigrants had a vague notion of returning once they made enough money. Headhunters looking for sources of cheap labor would ride the train cars through Mexico advertising jobs and high wages in the States. Westward migration of whites was the largest source of new immigration. The Southern Pacific Railroad had an advertising campaign in 1907 promoting the Orange Train from Iowa to LA with the slogan, “Oranges for Health, California for Wealth!”
Alongside this growth were discriminatory efforts to prohibit Japanese and Chinese immigration through the Chinese Exclusion Act and the California Alien Land Law which restricted Asians from owning land. Mexicans did not initially meet such legal discriminatory practices in part because big businesses like the railroads and the farms required cheap exploitable labor and pushed the government to turn a blind eye toward their immigration. The US Government’s Dillingham Commission researched the potential impact that immigrants had on the US which noted that Mexicans “have always been the hewers of wood and drawers of water” that reinforced the common belief that Mexicans were not good for much more than manual labor. Meaningful employment even for skilled and educated Mexicans remained out of reach in America. (Balderrama 8)
Living conditions of immigrants often lacked basic sanitary requirements and Mexican communities were at high risk for outbreaks of disease. In 1924 there was an outbreak of the bubonic plague in Los Angeles and the entire Mexican quarter was put under quarantine. “In 1929, Mexicans accounted for 21.2 percent, or 98, of the 461 cases of tuberculosis recorded that year in Los Angeles County, but they made up only 10 percent of the local population….In San Antonio, the death rate among Mexican children under two years of age was 300 percent higher than for Mexican children in the Anglo community.” (Balderrama 37)
To address this, in California, the progressive governor, Hiram Johnson started the Commission for Immigration and Housing (CIH). The main thrust of this program was to assimilate through English education and teaching Mexicans the right way to live. The CIH hired English teachers–usually single, Anglo, middle-class women–to enter Mexican homes intending to Americanize them. Their attempts to reach men had been less successful as most had to travel seasonally for work and spoke to their colleagues in Spanish. They also attempted to change the Mexican diet proposing bread instead of tortillas, lettuce instead of beans and boiling instead of frying. This obviously (and thankfully) did not catch on.
Ellwood P. Chubberley a professor at Stanford who eventually took over the Americanization program stated it’s goal was “to break up these groups or settlements, to assimilate and amalgamate these people as part of our American race, and to implant in their children, as far as can be done, the Anglo-Saxon conception of righteousness, law and order, and popular government.” (Sanchez 95)
While some of these policies had good intentions, most were destined to fail with the huge and unclear scope of Americanization and a very limited budget. There was little hope they could reach into every Mexican home and create a unified American culture just by snatching their tamales and teaching them English. By 1923, support for the CIH evaporated when Governor Johnson took positions to address the real problems facing the Mexican community; compensation, minimum wage and restrictions on child labor. The CIH was closed and the Americanization project transferred to the Department of Education and the government swung toward more nativist policies. These policies that sought to limit the number of immigrants and deport any deplorable immigrants.
Surprisingly, Mexican immigrants weren’t just being Americanized—they were also being Mexicanized. Mexico lost 10% of their population throughout this period and many saw the immigrants in the States as a failure of their government as well as a source of potential economic growth. The Mexican embassy in Los Angeles started Spanish language schools, supported Mexican Independence celebrations and highlighted the racial abuse that Mexican workers received in the States. The Mexican ideas pushed by the government were very traditional–law and order, obedience and discipline–as Mexico was still skeptical of the progressive ideas of the revolutionaries Zapata and Villa.
Mexico’s president President Obregon created the Department of Reparation in 1921 which began to allocate funds for those wishing to return to Mexico. Mexican politicians hoped these immigrants would return with valuable skills and experience and hoped the community returning from the States could be a unifying social force in Mexico. Society in Mexico was still very divided between the Mestizo and Indian rural communities and the richer ruling class and some believed these immigrants would provide the social cohesion missing in rural Mexico. In 1929 the Secretaría de Agricultura y Fomento requested a survey of all available land that could be distributed among repatriates. The Calles Dam and Don Martin Dam projects were expected to be complete creating large areas of irrigable farmland. However, the Mexican federal government did not have the funds to support these projects and they relied on local governments to assist in repatriation. When the Great Depression hit these programs were almost instantly overwhelmed by the number of repatriates.
When the Great Depression hit, California’s farm products dropped from 750 Million in 1929 to 327 million in 1932 and Mexican farm workers were unable to find work. William N. Doak took over as Secretary of Labor and stated that there were 400,000 illegal aliens and their deportation would directly provide those jobs for Americans–then set out to find ways to deport them by any means necessary. Furthering the challenges of Mexicans, the Alien Labor Act in August 1931 made it illegal for most companies to employ “aliens” if those companies had any ties to government contracts. It would also prove challenging and often impossible for Mexicans to receive public unemployment. Even charities like the Catholic Welfare department in 1931 reduced the food allowances for white families by 10% while at the same time decreasing the allocations for Mexican families by 25%. (Sanchez, 212)
The President of the United States set up an Emergency Committee for Employment and warned all foreign language newspapers of high-profile sweeps and deportation raids. On February 26th, 1931 Federal agents and local law enforcement swept LA’s Plaza district and detained 400 individuals. Somewhat surprisingly only eleven Mexicans were ultimately detained, the others being released once they determined there was no legal basis for detaining them. These raids were not about deporting illegal aliens, they were used to intimidate and threaten the Mexican community–to scare them into leaving. The INS currently acknowledges that although they carried out only between 8 and 20% of the deportations, many who returned to Mexico did so in the face of violence and intimidation. The Wickersham Commission found that the INS had acted unconstitutionally and were racially biased in their deportations.
Relatives and friends wave goodbye to a train carrying 1,500 people being expelled from Los Angeles back to Mexico in 1931. NY Daily News Archive
Welfare directors calculated it would be cheaper to pay for train fare to Mexico than it would be to continue supporting Mexicans on relief in order to trim their budgets. A plan was put into action and on March 23, 1931 the first trainload of Mexicans left Los Angeles. Ironically, it often cost more to deport than to provide assistance as estimates were that for every 1200 Mexicans deported it would push 1500 dependents–often children or women–to rely on public welfare in the absence of their families main source of income. (Balderrama)
Below is a newspaper clipping from Longmont Colorado on June 3, 1932 stating the county commissioner and other agencies believe “the cost of deporting them is less than the demand upon charity sources would be.”
Mexicans who did get relief surprisingly received more on relief than they were making in the fields as no minimum wage or worker protections existed. This forced the WPA to seasonally deny relief for Mexicans in order to fulfill seasonal agricultural labor needs (Sanchez, 224). With the depression in full swing the Mexicans bore the brunt of negative publicity and overt racism.
This is a page from Saturday Evening Post from April 20th, 1935. Congressman Martin Dies blames the labor problem on immigrants:
What I find most interesting is the graphic below the article with the tagline “Are we coming to this one day?” following Martin Dies insinuation that if we rid the country of immigrants, jobs would be plentiful. In Malakoff, Texas, thugs bombed the headquarters of the the Society of Mexican Laborers and there are countless stories of racism and violence.
Many of the repatriates were in very dire straits. From Denver, a group of 1,160 left in November 1930 as they faced hopeless winter conditions in the Rocky Mountains. They planned to settle near the Don Martin dam site in Nuevo León and Aguascalientes–areas promoted by the Mexican government for colonizing and re-population. However, the Mexican governments promises of land and a new fresh start for returning immigrants were soon overwhelmed and most returning immigrants received no assistance and returned to Mexico City or stayed with other long forgotten relatives in unfamiliar towns.
Families were very often torn apart as relatives were deported forcing families to decide–should they uproot the family from America and return to Mexico or press on in America with hopes for a better future. In California alone–400,000 US Citizens were forced back to Mexico. 30% of Los Angeles’ Mexican population left. In 2005, the Mexican Repatration Apology Act was finally passed recognizing the US Governments involvement. All told 1.8 million people were deported to Mexico regardless of their citizenship status or the life they had made in America.
Below is a letter to Herbert Hoover from a Mexican deported November, 1929. The end of his story is, like so many others, lost to history.
The human impact of this is best described in the book Decade of Betrayal by Francisco Balderrama and Raymond Rodriguez whose own father was deported. Balderrama ultimately came to the conclusion that the Chicano Movement didn’t start until the 1960’s because these deportations had such a negative impact on the Mexican American community that they were unable to create the social and political relationships necessary for political organization and advancement.