On February 26th, a ceremony is to take place in California apologizing to the approximately 400,000 people of Mexican ancestry who were deported from the USA in a spate of ethnic cleansing that gripped the USA during the Depression. What is at stake in this ceremony is not only the apology but what it says about racism and ethnic cleansing in times of economic crisis.
Approximately two million people of Mexican ancestry were deported from the USA during the Depression. This was not only Mexican nationals, but Chicanos as well, -- US citizens of Mexican ancestry. This was a blatant example of ethnic cleansing taking place in the USA which destroyed families and exiled family members, in some cases indefinitely.
As with many cases of mass trauma, this deportation process was ignored in the general public. The “Repatriados,” as those who were deported were referenced, existed in a twilight zone. Those who were able to return often did not speak of it and families that remained stuck in Mexico had to begin entirely new lives. It was the work of people like Detroit activist Elena Herrada and the Fronteras Nortenas organization that helped to re-raise the issue, not only in California but also throughout the USA. [For more information click here]
The 1930s, as a period, is often viewed as one of increasingly progressive change. While there is certainly some truth in this, the change was far from linear and far from complete. When it came to race, intense white supremacy was alive and well. And even many progressive organizations failed to speak up in the face of such horrors. Mexicans and Chicanos were being attacked in a wave of a specific form of anti-immigrant mania. In a period of an intense economic crisis, Mexicans and Chicanos were blamed for allegedly taking the jobs of (white) Americans. Nothing comparable was done to immigrants of European ancestry and it was only a few short years later – 1942 - that in the midst of a particular response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were interned for the remainder of the war (compared to the treatment of US citizens of German and Italian ancestry).
One does not have to jump too far to see the relevance of this historical horror to our situation today. Just the other day, I was grabbed by an African American in an airport who recognized me from my TransAfrica Forum days. Among other things he wanted to say to me was the matter of immigrants, and particularly about the competition that is created through immigration. He refused to look at the big picture but his conclusions were clear enough that he did not need to express them: remove the immigrants.
Yet, just as the Great Depression was not caused by Mexicans and Chicanos, today’s economic crisis, and specifically the massive economic crisis faced by African Americans, is not the result of immigrants, be they documented or undocumented. It has to do with the system, and unfortunately too many of us seem to be afraid that identifying the system is the equivalent of looking into the face of the Gorgon, turning us to stone.
Thus, for right-wing populists and for too many of our own people, it is easier to blame the immigrant for our suffering than to recognize that capitalism will use whoever it can to weaken the power of working people. It used us in the period around World War I (and after) as a cheap labor source, and it has used successive groups. The mass, indiscriminate deportation of two million people of Mexican ancestry was just one implication of this racist irrationalism.
What’s to prevent this from happening again?