(Shack in West Side Slums of San Antonio during the Great Depression)

The Great Depression, which may perhaps still be fresh in the minds of those who lived through it, is among one of the most devastating periods in the history of the United States. It is difficult to comprehend how such as an act that has repeated itself throughout history, time and time again. The reasons or causes of repatriation did take place throughout the United States wherever there was a Mexican population.

In today’s classrooms, U.S. history textbooks fail to do justice to the history of repatriation of Mexicans and Mexican Americans during the depression. In one textbook that I looked at, for example, it contained two paragraphs about Mexican Americans during the depression and a mere one sentence about repatriation. It read, "The outcry against Mexican Americans was so great that the United States and Mexico agreed on a program to encourage them to return to their native land." This sentence not only fails to elaborate on repatriation, but it portrays it as a program that "encouraged" their return to their native land, rather than the forced repatriation that it often was.1 This is one example of how repatriation I the United States has been suppressed.

It is necessary to acknowledge that repatriation was a process that in many cases was not passive nor lenient, but disruptive and perhaps humiliating for those who experienced it. In San Antonio, among the causes of repatriation were bad working and living conditions, lack of relief by the city, organized repatriation, and the threat of deportation. Contrary to the beliefs of some historians, repatriation in San Antonio was not lenient. It however may be safe to say that the program in San Antonio was different to that of other places like Los Angeles. Historians describe the experience in Los Angeles as not being able to be matched by any other locality in its ambitious efforts to rid itself of the Mexican immigrant during the depression.2 Because the program in San Antonio was different to places like Los Angeles, does not necessarily make repatriation from San Antonio more lenient, however.

The experience of the Mexican community in San Antonio differed to other places because of the large attempts of its Mexican community to organize. Labor organizing was very significant in the 1930s and in the question of repatriation. This is true because in many cases Mexicans were leaving to Mexico because of the terrible conditions in San Antonio. The organizing of people like Emma Tenayuca and Manuela Solis Sager did not heal the impacts of the Great Depression nor of repatriation, but it was helpful in having the voice of the Mexican heard against hunger and unemployment. These women, among others, spoke out for the right to organize without being deported or threatened to be deported.

Like most immigrants, most Mexicans came to the U.S. for better paying jobs or perhaps a better life. They were not only willing to pick up and leave Mexico, but they were willing to call a foreign place home. An old Mexican proverb says, "Donde es mi tierra, donde me vaya bien" (Where things go well for me, there is my country"). For many Mexicans who believed that things would go well for them in the U.S., that dream was not realized. After the Great Depression, similar events took place with bringing Mexicans in through the Bracero Program. With the start of World War II, Mexican immigration was renewed as an agreement was made between the U.S. and Mexico to bring in Mexicans to fill labor needs.3 Programs to deport these immigrants were later instated like that of Operation Wet Back.4 Today restrictions on Mexicans are continued to be enforced and propositions to deny them benefits re-appear. Julian Nava best describes this relationship between the United States and the Mexican immigrant saying that, "in history, the U.S., a mighty nation with high principles, has eagerly sought workers from across the border and, after benefiting from their labor, has rejected them coldly, making Mexicans feel like unwanted things, rather than people."5


  1. Thomas DiBacco et. al., History of the United States (Boston 1992), 377.
  2. Abraham Hoffman, Unwanted Mexican Americans in the Great Depression (Tuson, 1974), 3.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Rodolfo Acuna, Ocupied America 3rd ed. (New York, 1959), 8.
  5. Hoffman, Unwanted Mexican Americans, ix.