Repatriation and Resistance: 1930s
The removal of 500,000 Mexicans from the United States is well documented but not universally known. Indeed, few Americans realize that approximately
250,000 U.S. citizens of Mexican ancestry were either forced to voluntary remove themselves or deported to Mexico in the 1930s. The Great Depression, as a rationalization, does not explain the removal of U.S. citizens and their deportation to Mexico. A number of factors coalesced in the 1920s and 1930s that created fear, panic, and hysteria above and beyond the Great Depression. The assault on Latinos in general, and on Mexicans in particular, began after the incorporation of Mexican territory by the United States in 1848; and by the turn of the twentieth century U.S. perception of Mexicans was heavily pejorative.
In the early twentieth century, organizations and individuals drawing on the racist ideologies of social Darwinism and eugenics, which advocated white supremacy, viewed groups such as the mentally ill, those of mixed ancestry, and various immigrants as obstacles to the racial betterment of white society and as pollutants to European American ethos. These groups thus became targets for a number of official pogroms to eliminate their reproduction or movement into the United States. This gave rise to miscegenation laws, sterilization programs, and the exclusion of particular groups from immigrating to the United States. In general, Latinos were seen as a threat to U.S. society and often described as inassim-ilable, foreign, and criminally prone. The Mexican problem became a favorite expression during the 1920s and 1930s. Furthermore, public debates emerged as to why Mexicans were exempt from the 1924 National Origins Quota. As the debate leaned towards the inevitable, the Great Depression gripped the nation and provided a convenient mechanism for the repatriation and deportation of U.S. citizens of Mexican ancestry. After California, the Midwest was one of the hardest-hit regions regarding the removal of Mexicans, with thousands repatriated from Chicago, Milwaukee, Kansas City, and Detroit. Mexicans in Detroit became one of the largest enclaves removed during this period. Mexicans were also removed in substantial numbers from Illinois, Indiana, and Minnesota. Because the population of Mexicans living in Iowa was smaller than that in other northern Midwest states, Mexicans in that state were affected differently.
The removal of Mexicans from Iowa was primarily conducted through economic rationalization, nativist rhetoric, and coercion. The reason as to why roundups and deportation were not used can be explained by the small Mexican population in Iowa, making such tactics economically prohibitive. By the late
1920s and early 1930s a large portion of the Latino community in Iowa were working in agriculture. As the prices for commodities fell in the 1930s, so did wages. For example, the rate for working in sugar beets fell from $28 to $10 an acre. Economic necessity forced many Mexicans in Iowa to look for work in other regions. In many instances, employers in Iowa began to implement a white workers only policy in their hiring practices, regardless of legal status (Garcia, 1996). Furthermore, New Deal legislation had little to no impact on Mexicans in Iowa, because many were refused assistance and most Mexican Americans were never told they were eligible for relief programs. For those Mexicans repatriated from Iowa it was a demoralizing and humiliating experience.
Exact figures for the number of Mexicans who left Iowa during the 1930s are difficult to glean because they left under different circumstances. But regardless of how they left Iowa, they left in relation to the same sequence of events that saw thousands deported in the 1930s. An estimated 60 percent of all Mexican nationals from Midwest states such as Minnesota, Illinois, and Iowa had returned home by 1932. Affected by the rising tide of discrimination, they fled areas out of concern for their safety.
One group of Mexican repatriates from Des Moines was forced to beg for food while waiting for transportation to their destination. Some Mexicans avoided deportation by sheer luck. For example, the family of John Ortega settled in Des Moines in the 1920s, in an area along the Des Moines River called Box Town. John Ortega believes his own family escaped deportation because they were very fair skinned and had blue-green eyes. Ortega also recalls he and his siblings were allowed to sit on the main floor of the theatre because of their light complexion, whereas darker-skinned Mexicans and Negroes were forced to sit in the balcony. Other Mexican American families experienced similar hardships.
One example is the family of Estefania Rodriguez, who was born in Bettendorf, Iowa, in 1923. Estefania explains how her family survived by growing their own food and catching fish on the banks of the Mississippi. Her recollection of the relief and welfare programs was the allotment of a bag of flour to make tortillas. Estefania recalls being constantly hungry at the age of 10, her diet consisting mostly of beans and rice. During the Depression her father was able to find odd jobs in and around Bettendorf. The Rodriguez family is representative of some families who refused to leave the Midwest and like many other families in the 1930s eked out a living from wherever possible. Relief for Latinos, and the country as a whole, came in the late 1930s with the outbreak of World War II in Europe.