David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
Unwanted Mexican Americans in the Great Depression: Repatriation Pressures, 1929-1939. By Abraham Hoffman. Foreword by Julian Nava. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1974. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. Notes. 207 pages. Softbound. $4.75.
Reviewed by Jose Roberto Juarez, Professor of History, University of California, Davis.
Professor Abraham Hoffman has done an excellent job of describing and analyzing the repatriation of some half-million Mexicans and Chicanos (Mexican Americans) between 1929 and 1939. He has concentrated on the Los Angeles area, but devotes a few much less analytical pages to actions in states other than California, and he does a creditable job of describing the attempts of the Mexican government to assimilate the repatriates in special colonies within Mexico. Hoffman traces the impetus for the deportation and repatriation to President Hoover and his Secretary of Labor, William N. Doak, both of whom believed that the unemployment problem of the Great Depression could be solved by deporting aliens holding jobs. Charles P. Visel of the Los Angeles Citizens Committee on Coordination of Unemployment Relief took the cue and laid the groundwork for a series of highly publicized arrests which he hoped would frighten aliens into leaving. The welfare or relief system was also used to induce “aliens” to return to Mexico.
Several virtues characterize the work. Hoffman has placed the movement of people in historical context. The discriminatory laws, the racial biases of the majority society in the United States, the press coverage, the propensity of Anglo Americans to define Mexicans along cultural rather than national lines all created an environment which impelled the Mexican-whether a U.S. citizen or not- to leave the country. Hoffman has approached his documentation with a critical eye. Conclusions reached by officials or committees are scrutinized and evaluated on the basis of facts assiduously dug up from a multiplicity of primary sources. He points out, for example, how ridiculous it was to believe that the unemployment problem could be solved by deporting Mexican aliens who were on relief, and therefore, out of a job.
Probably one of the best features of his work is the insistence on differentiating between deportation and repatriation. The former, undertaken only by the federal government, could be accomplished under warrant proceedings or be a “voluntary departure” without warrant proceedings. Repatriation, on the other hand, could be carried out by the federal government, local private and public welfare agencies, by the Mexican consul and the Mexican ethnic community. Or the alien could repatriate himself voluntarily, or be coerced into leaving through a variety of measures. It is in determining what constitutes coercion that the reviewer would disagree with Professor Hoffman. After reading the excellent text, one is jarred by the following assertion in Appendix A (p. 167): “To insist that most repatriates were deported or coerced into leaving is to misread the available statistics and to misconstrue the intentions of many of the Mexican repatriates themselves.” The same concept is repeated in that appendix (p. 169): involuntary repatriation “has possibly been overemphasized. It is more likely that programs were set up primarily to aid possible repatriates, and that efforts to coerce people into leaving were more an abuse of the programs than an original intention. That coercion did occur from time to time can be seen in complaints made against welfare agencies, but it should be noted that such complaints were made during the period following the peak of repatriation rather than before it.” The historical context he established would lead one to believe that all the categories of repatriation were to a large extent “involuntary.” Indeed, the very title and subtitle of his work indicates unwillingness to leave. One gets the impression that Appendix A and the body of the text were written by two different persons. Had the Mexican not been subjected to discrimination, and had he been provided jobs or relief on an equitable basis with the majority society, the exodus of half a million people would not have occurred.
Aside from the above apparent contradiction, the work suffers from few liabilities. Of the 82,400 Mexicans coerced through deportation between July 1929 and June 1935, the Labor Department admitted that “most of the departures had as a basis for cause not criminal or immoral offenses, but the simple fact of illegal entry which until 1929 had not even been a punishable crime” (p. 126). Unfortunately, Hoffman does not attempt to answer how many of them were forced to leave because they were engaged in labororganizing activities. He does point out, however, (pp. 105-106) that the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and several agricultural employers desired to remove a large number of strikers through repatriation. Why the berry pickers’ strike is characterized as unusual is difficult to understand. Professor Juan Gomez Quinones’ article on Chicano labor activity during the first two decades of the 20th century (Aztlan, Vol. 3, No. 1) would indicate that such activity was not unusual. The term “aparatoso” (p. 62) should not be translated as “sudden” but rather as “ostentatious.” Reasons for the unusual loyalty of Chicanos towards the Spanish language should be pointed out in the first chapter. Readers unacquainted with Chicano history are apt to adopt a negative attitude at the outset towards a people who often did not know English for very good reasons.
The foregoing caveats aside, some important, others picayunish, Hoffman’s work is an important contribution. It is a carefully researched, fully documented, sympathetically but not patronizingly written study which places a vivid if unhappy memory in its historical context. The author was able to portray the irony of Mexicans being considered aliens in a land which they had settled over a century-and-a-half before. The four illustrations add flavor and the two maps help the reader visualize the vast movement of peoples from one homeland to another.