Mexican Repatriation

By Herald de Paris Contributor's Bureau on July 26, 2018

By Abraham Ruelas
SAN FRANCISCO (Herald de Paris) —  The Mexican Repatriation of the 1930s was a far distant historical event for me until two years ago when my Uncle Ralph passed away on October 27, 2015. During the eulogy I learned that he, my grandparents, Severo and Guadalupe Guerra, and their four United States-born children, Jose, Rafael, Teresa and Francisco, were forcibly deported during that tragic episode in American history known as the Mexican Repatriation.

The impetus of the Mexican Repatriation was the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that soon followed. There was a scarcity of jobs overall and especially for White Americans since there were “so many Mexicans” in the United States. The solution? The forced migration of “those Mexicans” that took place between 1929 and 1939, when as many as one million people of Mexican descent were forced or pressured to leave the United States and return to Mexico. The term “repatriation” was used instead of “deportation” so it would sound like the Mexicans and Mexican-Americans voluntarily returned to their country of origin. Additionally, the term “Repatriation,” although commonly used, was inaccurate, since approximately 60% of those driven out of the country were U.S. citizens. What follows is the story of Teresa Ruelas (Guerra her maiden name), my mom, and her family’s experiences during this time.

At the time they were deported, the Guerra family was living in Fresno, California and Severo, the dad, worked in the lumber industry. His wife Guadalupe, was also born in Mexico but had lived in the United States since she was seven years old and had attended school in Malaga, California, was a homemaker. However, their four children, Jose, Teresa, Rafael and Francisco, had all been born in Fresno.

According to Teresa, the family was mandated by “la ley” (“the law”) to leave the United States and “we became “Los Repatriados.” According to Teresa, “even though my mom lived in the United States since she was seven years old, because she was married to my dad she had to leave with him as well as us kids.”

The six members of the Guerra family loaded up in the family car, a convertible with no top and used a “lona” (canvas) to protect themselves from the hot sun of the day, the cold of the night and from the rain, during the long drive to Mexico.

The Guerra family arrived in El Carmen, Mexico during a time of agrarian reform. Severo was granted leadership of an ejido which included 25 property lots. He and Joe, the oldest son, spent most of their days developing the land on the ejido. In the early 1940s, Severo was joined the local defense militia and qualified on the Winchester rifle.

In order to help meet the day to day expenses of the family, Guadalupe would make candies from like cubiertos de biznaga and a variety of sweet delights. Her children would deliver the sold boxes of these delights and also sell them door to door in the neighborhood. This experience gave Teresa a lifelong lesson.

“Mom taught me how to make money. She would make candies and we kids would either deliver the boxes or sell the candy door to door. My brother Rafael and I attended boarding school and I attended the first two years of escuela secundario (middle school). Our oldest brother worked with dad in the ejido. If I got caught cutting classes to help mom sell candies my punishment was to clean 30 pounds of pinto beans and make tortillas from 30 pounds of masa (dough).”

Regardless of the financial struggles, once back in Mexico, Severo had no desire to return to the United States. His wife Guadalupe however, always kept the dream alive of returning. Teresa remembers her mother telling her when she got older, “Si te casas aqui te dejo. Yo voy a volver a los Estados Unidos.” (If you marry, I’m going to leave you here. I’m returning to the United States.

Ultimately, all these efforts were not enough, and at age 16 Teresa dropped out of school and began working “in a tienda making 100 pesos a month.”

Two years later tragedy would severely impact the Guerra family.

One of the men who worked one of those lots on the ejido wanted Severo’s leadership position. According to Teresa, “One day there was a meeting and although I don’t know what happened there, the man came out of the meeting very mad.”

Sunday, March 24, 1946 was a fateful day in the life of Teresa and the Guerra family. That afternoon, as was required by her mother, Teresa went to the church and read, “Quince Minutos en Compañía de Jesús Sacramentado” before going to the dance. In the middle of the dance, Teresa got word that her mother needed her at home. When she arrived, Teresa learned that my father had been murdered.

The man who wanted Severo’s leadership position followed him as he went to turn off some water in one of the fields. There was a struggle for Severo’s 20/20 Mauser rifle and the attacker used the rifle to shoot and kill Severo.

By this time three more children, Carmen, Alberto and Manuel, had been added to the family and Guadalupe now had seven children to care for. Additionally, the ejido turned out to be the source of accumulated debt rather than a profitable business venture, and Guadalupe now had creditors to face. The Guerra family looked north to the United States and it was decided that Teresa and Ralph, now 18 and 17 years old respectively, would be the first to cross the border back to los Estados Unidos.

Rev. Antonio Muela, Guadalupe’s brother-in-law, and his sister Dora traveled to the Guerra home and accompanied Teresa and Ralph on their journey back to the country of their birth, the United States. First there was a train ride from El Carmen, Chihuahua to El Paso. As Teresa tells it, “When we arrived at El Paso, Texas it was like arriving at heaven because there were so many lights. It had been so dark at night during my years in Mexico.”

The long trek then continued on to the city of Los Angeles and a bus ride from there to Decoto (now a district of Union City), arriving on August 1, 1946. Ralph and Teresa set up residence in their uncle’s house. “We lived with my uncle, Rev. Antonio and tia Manuela in the city of Alvarado and there were 25 of us in our house, with was the parsonage of the church.”

Rafael found work at Pacific States Steel and Teresa alternately worked in a fruit packing house in the Centerville section of Fremont, in canneries, and picked tomatoes in Woodland. Their father had accumulated a lot of debt running the ejido and Rafael and Teresa put their monies together to both help pay off his debts and to bring the rest of the family to the United States.

“My tio, Rev. Antonio was my father figure, uncle and pastor. We attended Templo Bethania and since the church was recently founded, I was the second Sunday School teacher there.” (Teresa’s early experiences in that church would lead involvement in children’s ministry (Vacation Bible School, Missionettes) most of her life. A graduate of the Latin American Bible Institute, she is a retired Asambleas de Dios minister).

It took five years, but by 1949, plans were in place to bring Guadalupe and the other three children back to the United States. Teresa recalls that the process involved, “Papers, papers, papers!” There was a lot of bureaucracy to maneuver through plus, “we had to sign a document that we would not be a burden to the United States.” On December 15, 1949, Teresa filed an Affidavit of Support, taking financial stability for her mother and three siblings, Carmen, Alberto and Manuel. In 1950, the family was reunited, and Guadalupe would eventually set up residence in a home in the Niles District of Fremont, California.

Once reunited, there was great joy, and there was also a great sense of freedom. Teresa shared, “Once we were together again we each pursue our own destinies because we again felt safe to do so. Looking back, I love my Mexico, I love my cultura, but what I regret most about being part of Los Repatriados is that I missed out on being educated in the United States.” Ironically, to this day, Teresa is more upset about Santa Ana, “losing this part of my Mexico to the United States,” than she is about her family’s experience in the Mexican Repatriation.

On January 1, 2006 the California Senate Bill 670, “Apology Act for the 1930s Mexican Repatriation Program” became law. No reparations were offered. Instead, the State of California apologized for its participation in unconstitutional deportations and created a plaque “commemorating the individuals” who had been unlawful displaced from the United States. That plaque was installed at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes which is located in Los Angeles.

Fifth grade students from Bell Gardens Elementary School testified on behalf of Assembly Bill 146 which was signed into law on October 1, 2015. Its purpose was to encourage “the incorporation of survivor and witness testimony into the teaching of human rights, include the unconstitutional deportation to Mexico during the Great Depression of citizens and lawful permanent residents of the United States with the definition of human rights.” The bill also encouraged the incorporation of the Mexican Repatriation into the California history-social science curriculum frameworks and professional development activities to assist teachers in their instruction about the Mexican Repatriation.

Individuals wanting to learn more about the Mexican Repatriation should read “Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s” by Francisco E. Balderrama and Raymond Rodriguez (2006).

Abraham Ruelas is the author of two books, Women and the Landscape of American Higher Education: Wesleyan Holiness and Pentecostal Founders (Wipf and Stock, 2010), and No Room for Doubt: The Life and Ministry of Bebe Patten (The Seymour Press, 2012) and co-author of a third, The Role of Female Seminaries on the Road to Social Justice for Women (Wipf and Stock, 2015). After a long career in higher education as professor and dean at Patten University, he decided to more directly invest in education of the youth in his community, changed careers, and is now a high school history teacher at Patten Academy of Christian Education in Oakland, California.

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