Repatriation in San Antonio

(Relief Lines in San Antonio during the Great Depression)

Clik for Map of San Antonio in the 1930s

As the Great Depression hit, individuals across the United States tried to stay optimistic about the state of the country. On November 4, 1929, Henry Ford announced that "things are better today than they were yesterday". Conditions across the nation were worsening however. People started to lose their jobs and Mexicans were among the first to be "fired" in most cases. The headlines in the San Antonio Express were also portraying this optimism. In 1930, the September 28th issue of the Express read, "better times…in store for San Antonio and the rest of the United States." San Antonio business leaders seemed afraid to admit that there was a depression. Shortly after the stock market crash, that optimism disappeared and the impact of the depression on American society became apparent.1

For Mexicans across the U.S., repatriation was a result of the worsening conditions of the Great Depression. Texas repatriation differed from that of other states because it was largely rural. Although most Mexicans were repatriated from the rural areas of Texas, a substantial number of Mexicans returned to Mexico from urban centers. Among those places was San Antonio. Many urban Mexicans refused to abandon their homes. Only after they lost their savings did they leave back to Mexico. Anti-Mexican campaigns and Statewide Immigration Service campaigns, both of which were intense, fueled urban repatriation.2

During the depression, conditions were bad for everybody. Emma Tenayuca, a San Antonio resident and influential figure in labor organizing during the depression, describes conditions as being full of misery and it was evident everywhere. She describes that the situation was not only bad for poor people, and added that nobody had money during the depression. "For Mexicans, things were unfair", Tenayuca recalled. She was aware of the injustice that Mexican San Antonio residents experienced. She said that during the depression, there was not one Mexican bus driver, nor one Mexican who worked with the telephone company. She agrees that these conditions, among others, contributed to repatriation.3

San Antonio, one of America's poorest cities had a large Mexican community. It was the second largest Mexican American community in the U.S., after Los Angeles. In 1930, more than 83,000 of San Antonio's 230,000 population were of Mexican descent. San Antonio's population was growing rapidly partly due to Mexicans who were moving into San Antonio after losing their agricultural jobs in the rural areas. These individuals had little or no urban experience, however. Thus, San Antonio had a large pool of people who were willing to work for almost nothing, and they did. These conditions contributed to labor organizing and repatriation in San Antonio. Julia Blackwelder, a historian, acknowledges the process of repatriation in San Antonio and describes it as being, "relatively lenient in San Antonio because of the city’s heavy dependence on the marginal labor of Hispanics especially women."4

Repatriation in San Antonio did exist. Among some of the things that contributed to it was the Anglo's sense of "superiority" over Mexicans. This sense of "superiority" is well illustrated by the exemption of Mexicans or Mexican Americans to take part in the Battle of Flowers parade, which is held annually in San Antonio. Only Anglo girls were allowed to be candidates for queen and princess in the Battle of Flowers Parade. According to some historians, the most important single indicator of socio-economic status in San Antonio and the depression was race. This reinforced the pattern of segregation. Another reason for segregation was that unlike Blacks, Mexicans were seen as a threat to the wellbeing of Anglos.5

San Antonio was the only major city in the U.S. that refused aid to starving citizens. Aid came from the state and federal government. City agencies denied Mexicans relief in San Antonio. During the Depression many or most Mexicans were in need of relief. A few churches and some middle and upper class Mexican organizations did help. One of the places that offered relief to Mexicans was Our Lady of Guadalupe church, which was headed by father Carmelo Tranchese.6

Death rates were also high among Mexicans in San Antonio and disease was common on the West Side. Conditions were bad for Mexicans just dealing with the depression; they also had to deal with the fear of deportation by Americans.7

From 1929-1939, a mere 25 Mexican women and many more men were prosecuted in federal court in San Antonio on charges of illegal entry into the U.S. and were ordered deported. Many others left voluntarily in fear that they would be deported. During the Depression, the Mexican counsul in San Antonio was Luis Medina Barron. He convinced his superiors that repatriates should be allowed to bring with them, duty free, all articles needed to earn a livelihood. Because of his efforts, items such as carpenter tools, shoe-repair equipment, barber chairs, plumbing, and other trade tools were exempted from custom fees. Urban entrepreneurs often left with merchandise so they could reestablish their business in Mexico. They usually lacked funds to do so once they had reached Mexico, and the merchandise was often of little value that they were unable to sell it.8

 

  1. Ben H. Procter, "Great Depression" in "Texas State Historical Association Online", [http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/GG/npgl.html].
  2. Ben H. Procter, "Great Depression" in "Texas State Historical Association Online", [http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/GG/npgl.html].
  3. Emma Tenayuca to Allan Turner, San Antonio, Aug. 17, 1981 (Interview in possession of author).
  4. Julia K. Blackwelder, Women in the Depression ( College Station, 1984), 13.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Abraham Hoffman, Unwanted Mexican Americans in the Great Depression (Tuson, 1974).
  7. Blackwelder, Women in the Depression, 14.
  8. Acun, Occupied America, 222.