Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor
In Defense of La Raza: The Los Angeles Mexican Consulate and the Mexican Community, 1929 to 1936. By Francisco E. Balderrama. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1982. Bibliography. Index. 132 Pages. $14.95.
Reviewed by Richard Griswold del Castillo, Professor of Mexican American Studies, San Diego State University, author of The Los Angeles Barrio 1850-1890: A Social History (1980) and articles on Chicano social and urban history.
This is a tightly written book exploring the little known involvement of the Mexican consular office in assisting the Mexican and Chicano community in Southern California during the first years of the Great Depression. Balderrama’s thesis is that the Mexican consulate worked-often jointly with Mexican American leaders-to confront the political and economic problems of that era. He examines the consulate’s activities in four areas: repatriation, school segregation, church-state conflict and farm labor organizing.
In 1931-1932 the Los Angeles authorities, with the encouragement of the Federal governments of both Mexico and the United States, began a repatriation campaign to send thousands of Mexicans back to their native country. Mexican Consul Rafael de la Colina tried to convince the local Mexican business leaders of the benefits of this program and argued against those who opposed it. He worked to raise money to help pay for train fares for the repatriados, protested their mistreatment by officials and negotiated to expand and facilitate the program. To help impoverished Mexicans who did not repatriate, Colina organized a community self-help association, the Comite de Beneficia Mutua. This group raised modest funds to provide meals, lodging and medical help for Mexican indigents.
In 1930 San Diego consul Enrique Ferreira joined with Mexican families in Lemon Grove, California and leaders of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) to successfully battle against school segregation. Ferreira assisted with litigation costs and encouraged a school boycott. In Los Angeles, Colina worked behind the scenes to defeat a state bill proposing to legalize the segregation of Mexican Americans in the schools. The consular service in Southern California was perhaps most active in helping Mexicans in their labor organizing activities. This included advising the leaders of the Mexican unions, mediating strikes and even assisting striking workers.
The activities of the consular officers were controversial since they were buffeted by pressures from their own government, local American authorities, and factions within the Mexican American community. Certainly not all Mexicans approved of the repatriation program. Some Mexican and Chicano leaders were critical of the consuls’ efforts to support the program. The attempts of the consular office to suppress a Catholic anti-Mexican government movement within the Los Angeles colonia created other enemies. When consul Richard Hill got embroiled in trying to mediate a strike among farm workers, he alienated the Mexican union (CUOM) as well as the growers. Internal squabbles with Mexican American leaders eventually led to his transfer to a less sensitive post, thus ending the years of consular activism.
This book is a monograph with a limited geographical and chronological scope. Balderrama implies that the southern California consuls of this era were atypical in their political activism and this suggests the need for further research on the activities of the Mexican Consular Service in other cities in the nation. The larger story remains to be told.
Balderrama has carefully mined a variety of sources to write his history: oral interviews with the consuls and their associates, archival documents, court cases, newspapers and government publications. The result is a carefully researched and gracefully written book. In Defense of La Raza provides us with new sources of information on the Mexican community in the United States during the depression years. When read after Abraham Hoffman’s study of repatriation (Unwanted Mexican Americans), also published by the University of Arizona Press, it provides another piece in the jigsaw puzzle of Chicano social history.