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Emiliano Aguilar Jr., “’Many people opted to leave’: The Repatriation Movement in East Chicago, Indiana”

Mexicans Migrants on the road with tire trouble (California, 1936).
Photo by Dorothea Lange for the U.S. Farm Security Administration. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington. https://www.uscis.gov/history-and-genealogy/featured-stories-uscis-history-office-and-library/ins-records-1930s-mexican-repatriations

When I talked to him on the phone, Frederick Maravilla was ninety-nine years old, and was a captivating storyteller. I sat at the kitchen table in my studio apartment, listening to stories of his eventful life growing up in a boxcar in Northwest Indiana, serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, and his decades of civil service as a teacher.

There was one topic, though, that had not come up, and I knew I wanted to ask about: the Depression-Era repatriation movement of Mexican nationals and Mexican American people from the United States to Mexico. Scholars estimated that anywhere from 400,000 to 2,000,000 people were repatriated, approximately sixty percent of which were birthright citizens. For decades, historians discussed whether to call these returns deportations or repatriations and argued about if they were voluntary or coerced.  

When I asked Maravilla if he had any stories or memories to share of East Chicago during the Great Depression, he laughed. He recalled the story of the Hernandez family. They had arrived at the train station in the Indiana Harbor with their worldly possessions packed on their backs and held in their hands. However, as the family took their spot on the train, they noticed that one of their sons was missing. The eight-year-old boy elected not to go to Mexico, a country foreign to him, and he slipped off the train. In a panic, the family exited the train car before it departed, to find their son. But the train destined for the Laredo border region did not wait for the Hernandez family. The family stayed in East Chicago to find their son.

Maravilla concluded the story with the pointed claim that “The American Legion did not force anyone. Only people who volunteered to go were shipped out. Many people opted to leave.”

But what does this one person’s claim that the departures appeared voluntary say about the episode as a whole?

As in other places across the country, a repatriation drive by local organizations served as the primary vehicle for repatriation. In East Chicago, the American Legion Post 266, oversaw the removal of approximately 2,500 people in a community estimated to be around 5,000 during the summer of 1932. That made the percentage of removals there much higher than in other places with larger populations, like Los Angeles. Comprised of veterans of the First World War, the American Legion, served as a lobbying organization for veterans and service members.

Within several weeks, what was once a dense and vibrant neighborhood of Mexican groceries, restaurants, and culture, effectively disappeared. 

In the current climate of mass deportations and immigrant detention, I was unsure what to make of Maravilla’s remark. So much of the scholarship has suggested that the very idea of voluntary repatriations was a farce — akin to Mitt Romney’s claim that, under his immigration regime, immigrants would deport themselves — so how could an initiative with a clear racial motive be voluntary? The guise of offering only ethnic Mexicans an opportunity to “return” to Mexico in a community comprised of as many ethnic Europeans expressed a clear racial motive. Kelly defended this decision as Mexicans proved the most recent newcomer to the city.

Many of the tactics and initiatives of the movement were the ideas of Paul E. Kelly. A veteran of the First World War, Commander of the American Legion Post 266, and the Transportation Agent at Inland Steel Company, Kelly vehemently supported the National Headquarters of the American Legion’s order that local chapters assess economic relief solutions for their communities.

For Kelly, the solution to the Herculean task of alleviating Depression-era woes was simple: remove the Mexican. Instead of seeing Mexicans as victims of such scapegoating, Kelly and his peers characterized them as burdens on community resources and unwanted and unneeded laborers. The repatriation movement continued a cycle of xenophobia and exclusion as old as the United States itself, akin to exclusion of Chinese and targeting ethnic Europeans as “inferior races.” Although Kelly and his colleagues attempted to secure the support of Secretary of Labor William Doak and Indiana Governor Paul V. McNutt, both federal and state agencies declined to provide aide. In a letter to Kelly, Doak claimed that preliminary studies concluded that there were not enough Mexicans viable for repatriation. This decision was likely due to growing presence of Tejanos and birthright citizens in the community.

Kelly organized a new organization designed to carry out the repatriation drive called the Emergency Relief Association. In one of the group’s first official statements, Kelly claimed that “In order that the impression may not be given that this movement is a deportation, contacts are being made with the Mexican government to take care of their people upon arrival at the border.”

Kelly stressed that the initiative should be called a “repatriation” and claimed that it would only be for those residents who were eager to return to Mexico. He said they might leave because “they [Mexicans] cannot stand our severe winter seasons,” and that the Mexican government promised repatriates farmland and employment. The Mexican government did cover the cost of an estimated 90,000 repatriates and attempted to create new villages dedicated to housing the repatriates. However, many repatriates opted to return to communities where they retained familial ties.

After initiating the repatriation drive, Kelly began to examine how it was working out in practice. With help from Legion members, Kelly conducted a survey of the Mexican neighborhood that documented the names, ages, occupation, and address of its residents. It served as an early census for the colonia (a term applied to the primarily Mexican residential quarter of the Indiana Harbor portion of the city).

Most importantly, the survey also identified who was on public relief and, thus, a financial burden for the community. Through funds made available by Inland Steel, a private company, repatriates would take trains from the Pennsylvania Railroad Station to the border at no cost to the repatriates. However, residents noted the degrees of coercion that coupled these seemingly “benevolent” practices. Legion members threatened to remove Mexicans from relief lists, forcing people to choose between exacerbated struggles and starvation or “voluntarily” repatriating.

The tactics of Kelly and his compatriots and their deliberate targeting of the most vulnerable presented a guise of benevolence, hiding the severe economic coercion of the repatriation movement. Stuck between the struggles of the Great Depression and the coercion of “voluntary” repatriation, it was no surprise that “many [Mexican] people opted to leave.”

Emiliano Aguilar Jr. is a third-year doctoral student in History at Northwestern University. His research interests include the Latinx Midwest and the political development of the community in Northwest Indiana, primarily his hometown of East Chicago.

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