Between 1929 and 1935 the federal government of the United States deported 82,400 people of Mexican ancestry, which was about 20 percent of the Mexican and Mexican American population at the time. Over 60 percent of those deported were U.S. citizens. While many people refer to these events as Mexican repatriation, how was it possible to repatriate people to Mexico who never lived there in the first place?

Boulder Daily Camera article describing the deportations from May 18, 1932. Notice that the headline does not distinguish between Mexicans and Mexican Americans.

While some people did agree to go to Mexico, it is hard to say that these were voluntary decisions. Mexicans and Mexican Americans were facing increased hostility from law enforcement, politicians, and from many in the press. Immigration historian Erica Lee believes that we need to use more accurate language to describe what happened. She explains,

“Because these efforts did not distinguish between longtime residents, undocumented immigrants, and American citizens of Mexican descent, this was not just a xenophobic campaign to get rid of foreigners–it was a race-based expulsion of Mexicans.” (Lee, America for Americans)

As the depression set in, politicians and civic leaders argued that Mexicans were taking jobs from deserving citizens. Of course, the argument ignores the fact that many of those targeted for deportation were citizens, citizens of Mexican descent. The producers of PBS’s Latino Americans explain that “Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were used as scapegoats during the depression, and forced to leave on trains. Many of them were not allowed back into the country.”

Educators at the Boulder Latino History Project curated a set of primary and secondary source documents to teach the impact of the expulsion of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in Boulder, Colorado.

Finding the appropriate language to describe what happened is only part of the story. Despite the massive impact, and the illegal deportation of U.S. citizens, very few people in the U.S. know this story and even fewer learn about it in school. The Latino USA story below explores both the history and the actions taken by LA area students to make sure this history is taught in schools.

Reflection Questions

  1. How do you explain why newspapers and officials failed to make a distinction between Mexicans living in the U.S. and Mexican American citizens?
  2. What distinction is Erika Lee making between “a xenophobic campaign to get rid of foreigners” and the events between 1929-1935? Why does it matter?
  3. How would you describe the consequences to these deportations? What were the consequences of the deportation? Did they achieve the goals of those that argued for the exclusion of Mexicans? What price was paid by Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and the communities in which they lived?
  4. What would justice look like for victims of these unlawful deportations and their descendents look like today? What should happen? Who might need to be involved?
  5. Students in the Latino USA story want this history taught. What arguments do they make? What arguments might you make about the significance of this story. Consider using the Project Zero “Three Why’s Thinking Routine.” Why does this matter to me? Why does this matter to my community? Why does this matter to the world?

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