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News from Los Angeles in the Los Angeles
Ghosts of a 1931 Raid
A Random INS Roundup Set the Tone for Decades of Ethnic Tension
The scar runs 70
years deep, back to that afternoon when federal immigration agents stormed
a park near the birthplace of Los Angeles and pulled more than 400
terrified men and women into waiting vans, away from their families
and--for many of them--away from their country.
Yet, for Monday's anniversary of a
barely remembered 1931 raid at La Placita, there is no formal
commemoration planned to note that many of those deported to Mexico that
day were actually U.S. citizens.
are no speeches drafted pointing out that, because of an immigrant
backlash sprouting from the Great Depression, the raid outside Olvera
Street triggered nearly a decade of deportations around the country. Some
of those deported were indeed Mexican nationals, some in the United States
legally or illegally.
estimate that many of the more than 1 million people banished were sent to
a Mexican homeland they had never seen before. Some barely spoke Spanish.
And no plaques have been stamped to
describe how that period helped forge the complex Mexican American psyche
central to Los Angeles today.
most part, there are only ghosts left to tell of the startled screams that
day at the site where newly arrived Latin American immigrants still
Local historian Raymond
Rodriguez, 75, has for years been chasing one such spirit: his father's.
Juan Rodriguez--a legal resident--had
spent years happily tending his family's livestock and produce farm in
Long Beach. But like thousands of others in Los Angeles during that
period, one day in 1935 he abruptly abandoned his family. His wife,
Juanita, 10-year-old son Raymond and four other children never heard from
Rodriguez, who has co-written
a book about the La Placita raid and its impact, can still recall his
father's parting moments as if they had been running on a loop in his mind
all this time:
"If you don't go [too] .
. . you'll starve to death and maybe worse," Juan Rodriguez told his young
wife in urgent tones before the door slammed forever on their lives
"No. Whatever happens is God's
will," a defiant Juanita Rodriguez responded.
Afterward, "For a time, we were on
welfare," Rodriguez said. "It was really tough. My 13-year-old brother and
I had to plow the farm ourselves. I really missed having my dad around. He
was a great storyteller."
until recently that Rodriguez fully understood why his father left.
Those seeds were sown at exactly 3 p.m.
on Feb. 26, 1931.
Responding to a
mounting backlash against illegal immigrants in the face of nationwide job
shortages, the Immigration and Naturalization Service had for days been
posting newspaper ads warning of an impending raid against "Mexican
aliens" in Los Angeles.
Some took the
government seriously and hopped the next train or bus south of the border.
However, the majority of the region's
then roughly 175,000 Mexican Americans--many of whom had emigrated to
escape the perils brought on by the Mexican Revolution of 1910--continued
making lives for themselves here.
Angeles, their home now included La Placita, near the barrios of Bunker
Hill and a popular gathering spot for recent immigrants. They could search
for work or, at least, find companions for a good political debate about
their Mexican homeland.
Doug Monroy, a
history professor at Colorado College who has written a book about Mexican
immigration to Los Angeles during that era, said La Placita was vibrant in
the days before the Depression.
So-called Mexican anarchists verbally
clashed with libre pensadores--"free thinkers"--and conservatives about
the future of their homeland, while mariachi musicians and other
entertainers congregated around anyone with money to pay.
"In the days before television and
radio, if you wanted stimulation and excitement, you went to La Placita,"
But if people loitered
there too long, they were also in danger of being arrested by local
police, Monroy added.
to Send a Message
INS raids at La
Placita, Mexican neighborhoods and businesses were a fairly common
occurrence in California and other Southwestern states, he added, though
most were carried out with little efficiency and marginal success.
That changed on Feb. 26, 1931. In part
to send a message nationwide, a team of plainclothes and uniformed INS
agents sealed off the tiny park before anybody knew they were there.
The word "Razzia!" ("Raid!") shattered
the afternoon serenity as men and women ran from federal agents wielding
guns and batons.
In about a week, the
first official repatriation train left Los Angeles for Mexico with more
than 400 on board. Within about six months, another 50,000 had been caught
nationwide and put on trains and ships.
By 1940 more than 1 million people
across the country, mostly Mexican Americans, had been deported, according
to research of U.S. and Mexican records by Rodriguez and Francisco E.
Balderrama, a history professor at Cal State Los Angeles. Officials later
discovered, the scholars found, that 60% of those deported had been born
in the United States.
The raids fostered
an anti-immigrant fervor in Los Angeles that makes the days of Proposition
187 in the 1990s seem like a marathon Cinco de Mayo dance.
With jobs becoming more scarce during
the 1930s and resentment of Mexicans overt, thousands of legal residents
and U.S. citizens who had not been deported left the country on their own.
Among them was Rodriguez's father.
Speculating, the historian said: "He
figured: 'If they don't want me, I'm going back.' "
Armando Rodriguez, no relation, said his
father, a construction worker, was also pressured by government agents
into leaving. Armando Rodriguez, now retired in San Diego, eventually
became president of East Los Angeles College and was a presidential
appointee to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But the
years after his father's departure were difficult.
In time, several hundred thousand
deportees who could claim U.S. citizenship were allowed back and
Rodriguez's father, Andreas, was one of them. But when the father returned
about eight years later, he was a different man.
"He believed the INS people when they
said it would be better for him to leave," his son said. "He modified that
belief after what happened."
Balderrama, Raymond Rodriguez has documented what occurred during that
period in their 1995 book "Decade of Betrayal."
In it, the two scholars share stories
gathered from the handful of remaining survivors that point to the La
Placita raid as an event that helped shape the Mexican American mind-set,
along with the 1942 Sleepy Lagoon murder trial, the 1943 zoot suit riots
and the Chicano power movement of the 1960s and '70s.
It helps explain today the old women
walking around with naturalization certificates in their purses--even if
they've been here for decades--the conflicting emotions many Mexican
Americans feel about their ethnic identities and the urgency behind Latino
political empowerment in the region, Balderrama said.
His mother-in-law, Emilia Castaneda, was
also among those deported that decade.
As Balderrama and Raymond Rodriguez
researched their book, they were told of women weeping in the street as
they searched for their suddenly deported husbands, of young girls pining
to return north of the border and of mariachi bands unsuccessfully trying
to keep spirits high while hundreds waited in line at the downtown train
"Something the raids proved to
the people is that they were really powerless in the U.S.," Monroy said.
"There were statements from the [Mexican] consulate about what an outrage
it was to blame the Mexicans for the Depression, but it had no sway with
the police or City Council."
families grew stronger from the experience, said Raymond Rodriguez.
Every morning before school, his mother
would call out to her children: No se dejan, or "Don't let them get to
you," he said, referring to those who tried to intimidate Mexican
That attitude helped Raymond
Rodriguez earn a doctorate in history.
But in terms of community development,
he added, "The repatriation movement set us back, literally, a generation.
It tended to drive people underground. We lost a lot of potential
The repatriation movement
stopped with the end of the Great Depression and the start of World War
II. Then Mexicans were actually encouraged to come north to work the
fields and perform other jobs.
and young adults began to politically assert themselves only later, during
the Chicano power movement. Although few outside the classroom remember
the 1931 raid, it is part of the core instruction in Chicano studies
As for La Placita, the
area that is now home to Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church has
remained a gathering point for new Latin American immigrants, as well as
an area of tension between immigrant activists and INS officials.
During the 1980s, Father Luis Olivares
resisted INS attempts to deport Central American war refugees by declaring
the area a sanctuary.
Estrada, Olivares' colleague there, recalls seeing immigrants outside
frequently sprint toward the church in fear.
Today, Estrada runs a nonprofit group
for homeless immigrants called Jovenes--meaning youths--across the street
from where the raid occurred.
gather in soup lines on Sundays or ask passersby for change, Estrada says
he sees an occasional unmarked van parked mysteriously nearby.
"I sometimes wonder what they're doing
there," he said, suggesting that it is the INS. "But I never approach
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And Naturalization Service (U.s.), Immigration
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