The Repatriation of Mexicans and Mexican Americans Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The early years of the Great Depression saw a massive exodus, as hundreds of thousands of Mexicans and Mexican Americans were compelled to leave the United States for Mexico, allegedly to reduce economic pressure on the government and create job openings for those who remained. In August 1932, the Mexican consulate in San Diego, California, distributed a letter to residents of San Diego County who faced deportation, offering free transportation for them and their belongings from the city to one of six Mexican states. Recipients were strongly encouraged to take advantage of the offer and were assured that the Mexican government would provide them with farmland in whichever of the six states they chose.

Summary Overview

The early years of the Great Depression saw a massive exodus, as hundreds of thousands of Mexicans and Mexican Americans were compelled to leave the United States for Mexico, allegedly to reduce economic pressure on the government and create job openings for those who remained. In August 1932, the Mexican consulate in San Diego, California, distributed a letter to residents of San Diego County who faced deportation, offering free transportation for them and their belongings from the city to one of six Mexican states. Recipients were strongly encouraged to take advantage of the offer and were assured that the Mexican government would provide them with farmland in whichever of the six states they chose.

Defining Moment

The repatriation of Mexicans and Mexican Americans during the Great Depression is an often-overlooked chapter in US history. Even American-born citizens of Mexican descent were subjected to this treatment; their rightful citizenship was not enough to shield them. The government body behind the repatriation was the Bureau of Immigration, which operated under the auspices of the Department of Commerce and Labor from 1903 to 1933, at which time it became the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and was transferred to the Department of Justice.

Immigration from Mexico to the United States had increased significantly in the years following the Mexican Revolution, which started in 1910 and continued for at least the next decade. While work was plentiful throughout the 1910s and 1920s (except during a brief recession at the beginning of the latter decade), calls for repatriation of immigrants had begun even before the stock market crash of 1929. The ensuing years saw unemployment levels reach as high as 25 percent, leaving many men and women unable to support themselves or their families. With the scarcity of jobs came distrust of immigrants, or even those citizens perceived as such, and a heightened sense that they were stealing jobs from rightful citizens. In 1930, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors barred all “aliens” from working on public projects, objecting to the fact that, according to Supervisor Edgar F. Hastings, many county road workers were Mexican citizens. Throughout the country, many other state and local governments introduced similar legislation.

A bill proposed by Senator William J. Harris of Georgia would have instituted a strict quota for Mexican immigrants; it was approved by the Senate in 1930, but failed to pass the House of Representatives. Nevertheless, government agencies continued to seek ways to deport Mexicans living in the United States, with no particular distinction made between immigrants and American-born citizens. Secretary of Labor William N. Doak, appointed in 1930, argued that this removal would reduce unemployment levels by freeing jobs for native-born citizens. Doak instituted sweeping raids of public places and private residences in search of illegal immigrants to deport. The raids were also a psychological tactic, intended to coerce immigrants to leave the country voluntarily. Many “voluntary” repatriados had been born in the United States, but left to remain with their families or as the result of fear instilled by the raids and the increasing anti-immigrant sentiment that was sweeping the nation. Between 1929 and 1939, an estimated one to two million people left the United States through either deportation or voluntary repatriation, approximately 60 percent of whom were native-born US citizens.

Author Biography

Armando Cuitláhuac Amador Sandoval was born in 1897 in Zacatecas, Mexico. He served in various Mexican consulates throughout the United States in the late 1920s and early 1930s, including the one in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he held the post of consul from September 1931 until his move to San Diego in March 1932. Following his tenure in San Diego, Amador headed the Mexican consulate in Yokohama, Japan, from 1933 to 1935, after which he was stationed in Nanjing, China, and then Shanghai. He later held various posts in the Mexican government, including a stint in the Secretariat of Foreign Affairs, and represented Mexico in the Organization of American States from 1954 to 1960.

In addition to his work as a statesman, Amador published several works of fiction, including the novel Bajo la marquesina (Beneath the Marquee, 1925) and the short-story collection Tres cuentos mexicanos (Three Mexican Tales, 1944), as well as a book of poetry called Tierra mojada (Wet Soil, 1925). He died in 1970.

Document Analysis

This letter, written by Mexican consul Armando C. Amador on behalf of the Mexican government, begins by establishing that the offer of repatriation assistance is being made primarily by “the Government of Mexico,” and San Diego's Welfare Committee is simply lending its “cooperation and aid.” As increasing numbers of Mexicans chose to leave the United States voluntarily, whether out of fear or financial hardship, the Mexican government began to offer repatriation assistance, motivated partly by the desire to reclaim the immigrant population lost to the United States.

Amador's letter offers free transportation for “all Mexicans who currently reside in this County and who might wish to return to their country,” emphasizing both Mexico's desire to receive and welcome repatriates and the Mexican government's policy that US residents of Mexican descent are still considered Mexican nationals, regardless of their place of birth. The letter also promises free agricultural land for repatriates, implying that their residence in Mexico is intended to be permanent, as such land requires a lengthy period of time to cultivate.

In addition to free transportation for repatriates and their families from San Diego to their choice of six destinations–the states of Sonora, Sinaloa, Nayarit, Jalisco, Michoacán, and Guanajuato–the letter also promises transportation for “their furniture, household utensils, agricultural implements, and whatever other objects for personal use they might possess” as well. This offer may have served to preempt protests from some that they did not have the financial means to relocate. By encouraging repatriates to take their work tools, it also allows them to begin work immediately upon reaching Mexico.

Amador implores the recipients of this letter to accept the offer, counseling that they are encouraged “to take advantage of this special opportunity being offered to you for returning to Mexico at no cost whatever,” so that once there, all their energy could be devoted to the “personal improvement” of themselves, their families, and their country. This, again, implies the intended permanence of the relocation. Because most of the repatriates were young families, typically headed by the father or another male relative, the repatriation plan would ensure that the children of these families, many of whom were rightful American citizens by birth, would nonetheless grow up in Mexico and feel a sense of belonging there, as well as one of obligation.

Essential Themes

This letter from the Mexican consulate in San Diego provides assurances of the full backing and support of the Mexican government. While perhaps made in good faith, these promises were not fulfilled; instead, repatriates faced discrimination from many native-born Mexicans, while the government did not have the financial or bureaucratic resources to live up to its guarantees.

One charge leveled against Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the United States was that they were receiving disproportionate amounts of government aid, making them a burden on the state. Ironically, while this was untrue, widespread efforts to scare employed immigrants out of their jobs caused them to seek aid that they would not otherwise have needed. Unfortunately, this cycle–the threat of deportation, abuse, and loss of employment–left these same people susceptible to further coercion to repatriate. Numerous newspapers and political figures assured the public that once Mexican immigrants were removed, unemployment numbers would drop, and the crisis would be all but over.

What this document displays is the instability of the supposed rights granted by US citizenship for those individuals whose ethnic background is considered insufficiently white. Like the Japanese Americans forced into internment camps during World War II, Mexican Americans faced exclusion from the land of their birth based on nothing more than their family's country of origin.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Frame, Craig Steven. “History.” Mexican Repatriation: A Generation between Two Borders. California State U San Marcos, 2009. Web. 6 June 2014.
  • Guerin-Gonzales, Camille. Mexican Workers and American Dreams: Immigration, Repatriation, and California Farm Labor, 1900–1939. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1994. Print.
  • Hoffman, Abraham. Unwanted Mexican Americans in the Great Depression: Repatriation Pressures, 1929–1939. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1974. Print.
  • McKay, Robert R. “Mexican Americans and Repatriation.” Texas State Historical Association. Texas State Hist. Assn., 15 June 2010. Web. 6 June 2014.
  • “What Happened during the Repatriation of Mexicans from San Diego?” San Diego Mexican & Chicano History. San Diego State U, 7 Nov. 2011. Web. 6 June 2014.
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