I had heard of the Mexican Repatriation program of the 1930s, but I recently had the opportunity to hear the story from some who actually experienced the deportations. Their voices brought a powerful element to an otherwise little known and shameful episode of American History. An interactive exhibit and commemorative plaque can be seen at La Plaza de Cultura y Arte, in downtown Los Angeles. Here is part of my story (Daily News, Feb. 26, 2011):
After the long train ride into Chihuahua, Mexico, Manuela Castro Arredondo asked her mom for a slice of bread and butter.
Arredondo was just 6 years old then. She had no idea that the taste of fresh bread and butter would become a memory of her brief American life in Watts, where she and her seven brothers and sisters were born and raised.
“When we got to Mexico,” Arredondo, now 86, said, “my mother had to sell all of our clothes for food.”
That was in 1931. Eight decades later, Arredondo and her older brother Jose Ramon Castro, still remember the starkness of growing up in a foreign land.
“Three days after we arrived, we had nothing to eat,” Castro, 91, said. “I had to go out and pick sweet potatoes.”
Both brother and sister recalled their stories to a large crowd on Sunday during an unveiling of a monument that commemorates the Mexican Repatriation, a time when 2.1 million people, mostly U.S. citizens such as the Castros, were forcibly deported from 1929 through 1944.
At least 400,000 people were from California.
The repatriation was sparked at the federal level by a Depression-era effort to free up more jobs for “real Americans,” according to historians. Yet despite the massive program, the episode has long been neglected in history textbooks.
Sunday’s unveiling ceremony at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes downtown – the site of a government raid 81 years ago when hundreds of Mexican Americans were seized – served as an acknowledgment of the past as well as a warning of current events, said Thomas Saenz, president of MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.