In an often-hidden part of the American past, an estimated million American citizens and legal immigrants of Mexican descent were deported to Mexico in the so-called "repatriation movement" of the 1930s. We might not know about this if not for a scholar named Raymond Rodriguez, who we recently learned died of a heart attack at age 87 in his Long Beach home in late June.
Raymond Rodriguez was nearly 80 when he testified before a state committee on the California repatriation. But in his voice, you can hear the pain of the boy he once was.
"My dad left in 1936, when I was 10. I never saw my dad again," he said.
That emotional testimony became part of a series of hearings into what is sometimes called the Mexican repatriation of the 1930s. That's when the federal government rounded up more than a million people of Mexican ancestry from across the U.S., sometimes going door to door, and forced them into Mexico. More than 60 percent of the displaced were American citizens.
Former California state senator Joseph Dunn said the measure was designed to keep scarce jobs and government benefits safe for whites in Depression-ravaged America.
"Literally, the Hoover administration's tag [line], that they used publicly for illegal deportations, was 'American jobs for real Americans,'" said Dunn.
Dunn, now the CEO of the State Bar of California, met Raymond Rodriguez after he read Decade of Betrayal, which chronicled displacement. Rodriguez wrote the book with Francisco Balderrama, a Chicano studies professor at California State University in Los Angeles. Balderrama and Rodriguez, along with others, worked with Dunn to seek an official apology from the state to the displaced families. And in early 2006, the Apology Act For Mexican Repatriation became official.
Dunn said the repatriation may have been the template for a later, better-known injustice.
"Many of the folks who examined this period believed that the internment of the Japanese-Americans went so efficiently because of the lessons that were learned during the illegal deportations of the 1930s," Dunn said.
Balderrama said he and Rodriguez knew the repatriation's history was being lost as the people who had experienced it began to die. Balderrama said it was important to remember the period for those folks.
"The significance of understanding this that happened in the 1930's, is that one has a context of understanding what's happening today, as well as in the 50s, the 60s the 70s," said Balderrama.
Balderrama has personal and professional motivations to tell this story: His great-uncles were repatriated. But, he said, as close as he and Rodriguez had been for many years, Rodriguez never told Balderrama that his father had also returned to Mexico under pressure. Rodriguez didn't divulge that until their book was going to press.
Rodgriguez still felt seared by the loss of his father. The fact that Rodriguez used that pain to ensure that another generation wouldn't have to feel it, said Balderrama, was characteristic of who Ray Rodriguez.
"So I think that's the value of Ray, the inspiration of Ray: to take something that you've suffered through, your family's gone through, and to make this a public issue — an educational issue — for the American public," Balderrama said.