On February 26, an apology ceremony took place in California. The state apologized to approximately 400,000 people of Mexican ancestry who were deported in a spate of ethnic cleansing that gripped the United States during the Great Depression.
What was at stake in this ceremony was not only the apology, but what it says about racism and ethnic cleansing in times of economic crisis.
Beginning in 1929, approximately 2 million people of Mexican ancestry were deported from the United States. They were not only Mexican nationals, but also Chicanos (U.S. citizens of Mexican ancestry). This was a blatant example of ethnic cleansing, which destroyed families and, in some cases, exiled family members indefinitely.
As with many cases of mass trauma, this deportation process was ignored by 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 raise the issue again, not only in California but also throughout the United States.
The era of 1930s is often viewed as a period 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 attacked in a wave of a specific form of anti-immigrant mania. In a period of 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. Only a few years later, in 1942, Japanese Americans were interned for the remainder of World War II.
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 approached by an African American in an airport who recognized me from my TransAfrica Forum days. Among other things, he wanted to discuss the matter of immigrants, specifically the competition 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 to me: remove the immigrants.
Yet, just as the Great Depression was not caused by Mexicans and Chicanos, today’s economic crisis — specifically the massive economic crisis faced by African Americans — is not the result of immigrants, documented or undocumented. It has to do with the system. Unfortunately, too many of us seem to be afraid that identifying the system is the equivalent of looking into the face of the Gorgon and being turned into 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 since used successive groups.
The mass, indiscriminate deportation of 2 million people of Mexican ancestry was just one implication of this racist irrationalism. What’s to prevent this from happening again?
BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member, Bill Fletcher, Jr., is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfricaForum and co-author of “Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice.”