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Downplaying Deportations: How Textbooks Hide the Mass

Expulsion of Mexican Americans During the Great

By Ursula Wolfe-Rocca October 24, 2018

The Trump Administration’s horrifying record on immigration, exemplified by the heartbreaking

scenes of family separation during the summer of 2018, sparked a new round of discussion
and debate about U.S. deportation policy. Of course, deportations are nothing new; Obama was
rightly criticized as the Deporter-in-Chief. But with enthusiastic cruelty and vigor, the Trump
administration has embraced deportation, including the targeting of long-term residents with
no criminal record. As acting Director of ICE, Thomas Homan explained, “The president made it
clear in his executive orders: There’s no population off the table. If you’re in this country
illegally, we’re looking for you and we’re going to look to apprehend you.” The massive reach of
this effort, the uncertainty and terror it elicits, and the opacity of the controlling laws, make this
a dangerous moment, not just for immigrants and their families, but for everyone who cares
about due process and human rights. It also recalls an earlier time in U.S. history, nearly 90
years ago, when Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants were ousted from the country in
enormous numbers.

For me, teaching in the time of Trump meant I
wanted to design an immigration unit for my
high school U.S. history class to help students
both make sense of this dangerous moment
and, hopefully, think about how to fight back. I
wrote a trial role play on the deportations of
the 1930s to act as both a warning and a

In this, I was heeding the call of a group of 5th

graders in California who, in 2015,
successfully lobbied their legislators to
require that the story of the deportations be
told in classrooms. Such legislative action
was needed because this mass deportation of
as many as 1.8 million people rarely makes it
into the standard curriculum or textbooks.
This omission is symptomatic of the diseases
plaguing textbooks in general: their
whitewashing of history, amplification of
presidents over people, unswerving
commitment to a narrative of progress, and
marginalization of people of color to sidebars
and extension activities.

Take my textbook, Pearson’s American Journey. It has one paragraph on “Hispanic

Americans” during the Great Depression. Of the six-sentence paragraph, only two sentences
address the deportations. They read:

Economic woes and racism drove nearly half a million Mexican immigrants and their American-
born children from the United States in the 1930s. Local authorities in the Southwest encouraged
the federal government to deport Mexicans and offered free transportation to Mexico.

Notice the disembodied “economic woes” and “racism” that did the dirty work of driving
people from their homes. Notice the “Mexican immigrants and their American-born children,”
obscuring the fact that 60 percent of those deported were citizens, children and adults. And
finally, most perplexing, notice the textbook’s cliffhanger, never telling readers what actually
happened. Local folks “encouraged” the federal government to act, but did it? What happened?

What happened is that men, women, and children — immigrant and U.S.-born, citizen and
noncitizen, long-time residents and temporary workers — all became the targets of a massive
campaign of forced relocation, based solely on their perceived status as “Mexican.” They were
rounded up in parks, at work sites, and in hospitals, betrayed by local relief agencies who
reported anyone with a “Mexican sounding” name to the Immigration Service, pressured (and

often tricked) into “voluntary” deportation — sometimes called repatriation — by municipal and
state officials, and forcibly deported in trains and buses, to a country some hadn’t lived in for
decades and others never at all.

American Journey and other textbooks ignore the stories of loss and forced relocation behind
the numbers, stories like the terrifying raid that took place at La Placita park in Los Angeles in
1931. The park was a vibrant cultural hub in an immigrant neighborhood, a place to listen to
music, talk politics, socialize. According to historian Doug Monroy, “In the days before
television and radio, if you wanted stimulation and excitement, you went to La Placita.” On a
sunny afternoon in late February, the park was full of close to 400 people when suddenly,
immigration agents sealed off the exits. Some were in military olive uniforms, others in plain
clothes, wielding guns and batons. The agents demanded everyone in the park line up and
show their papers. They arrested dozens and deported many. But the greatest impact was
psychological, instilling terror into the Mexican American community.

The United States’ own investigation of the deportations
declared them unconstitutional. The federally appointed
Wickersham Commission stated in its 1932 report: “The
apprehension and examination of supposed aliens are often
characterized by methods [that are] unconstitutional,
tyrannic, and oppressive.” The Wickersham Commission may
have been thinking about cases like that of Angela
Hernández de Sánchez. As recounted in the book, Decade of
Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s, by Francisco E.
Balderrama and Raymond Rodríguez, Sánchez was returning
from a short trip visiting relatives in Mexico, something she
had done dozens of times before, when she was arrested
and subjected to intrusive venereal disease tests. Since
Sánchez had been a continuous resident of the United States
since 1916, she was not eligible for deportation under current
law. But even with her proof of residence and her negative blood test for sexually transmitted
diseases she and her U.S.-born children were deported.

Another textbook used in my school’s Advanced Placement classes, America: A Concise

History (Bedford/St. Martins), attributes many of the departures of Mexican Americans to
voluntary action, telling students that “many Mexican farm laborers left voluntarily as the
depression deepened.” But surely families fleeing persecution cannot be accurately described
as volunteers. Perhaps if America devoted more than a single paragraph to this history, there
might be space to tell the story of the family of one of the authors of Decade of Betrayal,
Raymond Rodríguez. Rodríguez says his father — a legal resident — decided to leave following
the La Placita raid, concluding the United States was too dangerous for him and his family. But
his wife refused to leave with their five U.S.-born children. Rodríguez recalls his father’s last
words to her were, “If you don’t go [too] . . . you’ll starve to death and maybe worse.” The
family never saw him again.

As is clear from the story of the Rodríguez family,

those targeted by nativism and deportations did not
simply acquiesce to their treatment. Community
organizations like Cruz Azul Mexicana and La
Sociedad de Madres Mexicanas in Texas helped
finance relief and legal services. El Confederacion de
Sociedades Mexicanas in Los Angeles called
“repatriation” a racist plot to remove all Mexican
Americans, a sentiment reinforced by the Mexican
press and radio, working on both sides of the border.
Newspapers like La Opinión and La Prensa provided
an important counternarrative of the deportations to
the racist framing of The New York Times and The
Saturday Evening Post. And leaving itself was
sometimes an act of resistance. As one girl from Indiana explained, “This is my country but
after the way we have been treated I hope never to see it again. . . As long as my father was
working and spending his money in Gary stores, paying taxes and supporting us, it was all
right, but now we have found we can’t get justice here.”

The sheer complexity of this history may partially explain why textbooks get it so wrong. Unlike
other nativist efforts of the early 19th century, these deportations were not driven by any
signature piece of legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 or the Immigration Act of
1924. Rather they were orchestrated using a patchwork of federal and local authority, existing
but seldom used deportation rules, and simple mob action against a vulnerable population. But
it is precisely this messiness that is fruitful to surface with students. If no single law or leader
ordered these deportations, then why and how did they happen and who is responsible for the
damage they wrought? This is the question I raise in the Deportations on Trial lesson.

This is not just an academic exercise. Understanding the complex causes of illegal
deportations in the 1930s can alert students to similar dynamics today. Just as students see
that no single actor was responsible for the deportations of the 1930s, they can recognize that
President Trump alone does not have the power to terrorize immigrants and their families. For
that it takes the collaboration of the corporate media, ICE agents, for-profit detention centers,
wall-builders and contractors, and an electorate primed by racism and capitalism to misplace
blame for their own low wages or precarious social position. If that is true, then it matters how
every single one of us responds.

I want my students to take what they have learned about deportations of the 1930s and be like
Jordon Dyrdahl-Roberts, the Montana Department of Labor worker who quit his job, explaining
on Twitter, “There were going to be ICE subpoenas for information that would end up being
used to hunt down & deport undocumented workers. I refuse to aid in the breaking up of
families. I refuse to just ‘follow orders.’” I want my students to be like the more than 100 public
defenders who walked off the job in New York City to protest ICE arrests in courthouses or like
members of the Sanctuary Movement who are devising novel and brave ways to put
themselves between ICE agents and their targets. And I want my students to be like those 5th
graders in California who demanded they be taught about the deportations of the 1930s, who
insisted that history matters, and that it might be the history that is not in the textbooks that
matters the most.