Latino Americans, Impact of the Great Depression on

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According to the federal census, there were approximately 1.5 million Latinos in the continental United States in 1930, the vast majority of whom were Mexican or Mexican American. Cubans, Dominicans, Central and South Americans, and Puerto Ricans made up a much smaller portion of the total mainland population. Not included in this enumeration was the population of the island of Puerto Rico, then a protectorate of the United States, which numbered more than one million by 1930.

Although some Latinos predated Anglo-American settlement in what became the United States, many had arrived only recently. Responding to the desperate need for labor during World War I, and often fleeing unrest in their home countries, Latino immigrants transformed American cities not only in the Southwest but in the Midwest and Northeast. Hundreds of thousands arrived between 1900 and 1930. Mexicans, many fleeing the violence of the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s, arrived in the greatest number. Puerto Ricans, made United States citizens by the Jones Act of 1917, increased their migration to the mainland in this period as well, responding in particular to employment opportunities in New York City. Although Cubans, Dominicans, and Central and South Americans would not immigrate to the United States in large numbers until after World War II, small numbers of immigrants from these areas did form communities in the early twentieth century in key U.S. cities, including Chicago, New Orleans, New York, and Tampa.

Latinos were among the hardest hit by the economic downturn of the Great Depression. Although more established Latino communities had some upper- and middle-class families, most Latinos in the 1910s and 1920s were working class once they arrived in the United States. They participated in—and oftentimes formed the backbone of—a large range of industries, including mining, agriculture, and textile manufacturing. Despite their vital contributions to the U.S. economy, Latinos often were restricted to the lowest paying jobs, received less pay than their Anglo counterparts, and had highly limited occupational mobility. Their position on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, combined with the ugly specter of racism, put Latinos at a great disadvantage during the 1930s. As the American economy soured and jobs became scarce, Latinos—who were perceived by many Anglo Americans as foreigners, regardless of their actual citizenship status—provided an easy scapegoat. In many states, Latinos were the first to be fired, as employers felt obligated to give preference to Anglo workers. In Puerto Rico, where the economy depended heavily on a small number of industries, unemployment rates skyrocketed even faster than in the mainland United States, reaching 36 percent in 1929. Not only were Latinos unable to find work, but they also found the doors of welfare offices and work relief programs closed to them, as increasing numbers of government and charitable organizations adopted a "citizens only" policy. In practice, this policy often meant "whites only."


Latinos of all backgrounds were on the move during the Great Depression. An estimated ten thousand Puerto Ricans returned from the mainland to the island between 1930 and 1934, hoping to find better opportunities at home. In New Mexico and Colorado, workers who had migrated to urban areas in the 1920s returned to rural villages, planning to eke out a living on the land, while in California, unemployed agricultural workers poured into the cities, seeking financial assistance. But by far the largest movement of Latinos during this period occurred among Mexicans and Mexican Americans who returned to Mexico. From 1929 to 1937, more than 450,000 persons of Mexican origin were repatriated. This massive movement of men, women, and children—representing close to half of the Mexican-origin population in the United States at that time—was triggered by the economic woes of the Depression and exacerbated by a rising tide of xenophobia. Repatriation was sometimes voluntary, other times involuntary, and often somewhere in between. The most notorious cases of involuntary repatriation occurred in the Southwestern states, where self-deputized Anglo citizens took it upon themselves to rid their communities of unwanted populations. These groups rounded up Mexicans and Mexican Americans, without regard for their actual citizenship status, and physically removed them to Mexico.

More common than these vigilante roundups were official repatriation drives, undertaken by city and county governments and by the Federal Bureau of Immigration. Local leaders in Los Angeles, shocked by the thousands of new entrants on their relief rolls, saw repatriation as an alternative to providing support for immigrant families. Insisting that paying for a one-way train ticket would be cheaper than providing welfare, county leaders organized train rides back to Mexico and paid for the passage of hundreds of Mexican citizens, and sometimes also for their American-citizen children. Between 1931 and 1934, more than thirteen thousand people rode the Los Angeles county repatriation trains. Similar programs arose in Colorado, Indiana, Minnesota, and Michigan, among other states.

The federal government also participated in efforts to send Mexicans home. Federal repatriation drives focused on all destitute aliens, although those of Mexican origin made up the largest percentage of those actually returned. Federal repatriation drives were largely ineffective: only 9,549 "distressed" immigrants, of all nationalities, were officially repatriated between 1931 and 1940. Tens of thousands of immigrants, however, were deported during this period. Deportation, unlike repatriation, entailed official government proceedings, and a charge of deportability prohibited an alien from legally entering the country again. The Bureau of Immigration capitalized on immigrants' fears of being deported, staging high-profile raids in public spaces and workplaces. In Los Angeles, for example, immigration officials raided a popular park in the middle of the day. Plainclothes officers barred the exits, asking all those there for citizenship documentation. Of the four hundred people stopped and questioned by the officials, only eleven Mexicans were taken into custody. The raid had its intended effect, however, as word of the event spread quickly among immigrant communities and intimidated those who were already facing difficult times. Not content to settle at large-scale deportations, the federal government also attempted to assure that fewer Mexicans would immigrate to the United States during this period by denying visas to any Mexican citizen "likely to become a public charge" or entering to engage in "contract labor." The enforcement of these visa restrictions, combined with the lack of opportunities across the border, effectively cut the official admission of Mexican citizens from 38,980 in 1929 to only 2,627 in 1931.

Some Mexicans and Mexican Americans did travel to Mexico of their own accord, without the aid of government or charitable organizations, but they were no doubt influenced by a variety of factors that made clear that they were no longer welcomed in the United States. Shut out of any gainful means of employment and, in some instances, from any source of charity, many of los repatriados had little choice but to return to their native land, where they hoped to find some support. The first wave of these voluntary repatriates tended to be better off; they left at the beginning of the Depression, able to drive in their own cars with their own belongings in tow. As the Depression worsened, however, the next waves of returnees were far worse off and had to depend on others to assist them in their travels.

Unfortunately, most of those returning found few opportunities south of the border. Anthropologists traveling in Mexico during the 1930s found that the return to Mexico was perhaps hardest for the children among the repatriates, many of whom were born in the United States and had grown accustomed to a different standard of living in the North. Those who returned to the rural areas of their parents had to adjust to new styles of dress, new types of food, and the dominance of a different language. The Mexican government sought to assist the migrants in a variety of ways. In the early years of the Depression, Mexican consulates in the United States cooperated with local governments in planning the repatriation drives. Inundated with pleas of help from unemployed Mexicans in the United States, the consul offices initially saw repatriation as a chance both to assist their fellow countrymen and to regain the valuable workforce that had been lost during the great migration of the 1910s and 1920s. Mexico paid for the passage of some of its citizens and reduced import taxes for the repatriates so that they could bring their belongings home. The government also established a National Repatriation Committee, which sought to resettle the migrants in colonies along the western coast of Mexico. Living conditions there were hard, however, and most migrants returned to their old home-towns instead. As the economic collapse in the United States turned global, Mexico's economy foundered as well. Frustrated with the government's failure to provide for them, repatriados in Mexico City formed their own union, which sought to lobby on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of returnees. The union was largely ineffective, however, and returning migrants had to rely on old support networks instead of the government.


For those Latinos who remained in the United States during the Depression, finding ways to support themselves and their families was a constant challenge. In many parts of the country, even those who were employed had to seek additional help, since wages dropped drastically as the economy worsened. Latino beet workers in Colorado, for example, saw their wages shrink from $27 an acre to $12.37 in just three years. Seeking to supplement the meager family income, Latinas entered the industrial workforce in unprecedented numbers. Teenage daughters were typically the first to go to work, but mothers and grandmothers sometimes followed suit. From pecan shelling factories in San Antonio to garment districts in New York, one could find generations of immigrant women working side by side. Although they struggled with poor working conditions and extremely low pay, women often were able, through their work, to keep their families afloat. Their experiences in the workplace, which allowed them to experience life outside of typical gendered roles, also helped contribute to a nascent Latina women's movement, which would mature after World War II.

When even the multifamily income proved insufficient, many Latinos fell back on ethnic mutual aid societies, or mutualistas, for assistance. Self-help in Latino communities ranged from highly organized, structured groups like the Cruz Azul (Blue Cross) to informal groups of women banded together to sell tamales at cost to unemployed workers. In cities with long-standing middle-class Latino populations, such as Los Angeles and New York, the mutualistas were able to provide some modicum of relief. But in most other towns, the support quickly ran out as benefactors lost their wealth. Latinos then turned to local, state, and federal governments for assistance. Latinos participated in a wide range of federal relief programs under the New Deal. Social security, labor reforms, and housing assistance all benefited Latino families. New Deal welfare relief programs also protected Latinos by insisting that all funds be distributed without discrimination based on citizenship status. Some programs were targeted specifically towards Latino communities, such as the Hispanic arts revival in northern New Mexico, which sought to teach traditional crafts to the local populace as a means of both cultural and financial survival. Other programs retained a majority of Latino workers by default, such as large-scale construction projects that drew on already experienced Latino labor. An estimated 100,000 Mexican nationals alone participated in New Deal work programs in the western states.

As with other racial/ethnic minorities, however, the New Deal left an ambivalent legacy among Latinos. Despite federal efforts to insure that immigrants could find welfare assistance, some state governments continued to turn Latinos away. In 1937 Congress, following a trend already established by the states, declared that all programs of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) would be closed to aliens. The "citizens-only" policy of the WPA extended even to companies that fulfilled government contracts; corporations such as General Motors fired those whom they perceived as foreigners to keep from losing lucrative government business. Southwestern craft programs that sought to preserve Hispanic villages in reality left many with skills that could not sustain them in an increasingly industrialized nation. In Puerto Rico, the targeted programs of the Puerto Rico Emergency Relief Program provided some aid, but they also paid lesser wages than similar programs in the mainland United States. In sum, Latinos both benefited from and were scarred by their experiences with the New Deal.


Desperate times served to politicize many Latinos, both in the workplace and at home. Workers of all backgrounds, united by the trials and tribulations of the Depression, engaged in an unprecedented amount of labor organizing in the 1930s, seeking reforms in wages, hours, and other conditions of employment. In 1934 alone, union membership doubled, and there were more than 1,800 strikes nationwide. As the backbone of the agricultural and manufacturing sectors in some parts of the United States during the 1930s, Latinos provided the union rank and file in many labor disputes, especially in the heavily Hispanic states in the Southwest. Entire families participated in labor activities, helping to staff the picket lines, provide food for strikers and their kin, and lobby local officials. Notably, Latinos also emerged as labor leaders during this period, helping to organize farm workers in California, pecan-shellers in Texas, and steel workers in Illinois, to name just a few.

The scarcity of resources during the Depression did pit some Latinos against each other. Those who were American citizens fought hard to assert their right to all the benefits of citizenship. They sought to differentiate themselves from more recent Latino immigrants who bore the brunt of the "Americans only" policies in this period. On the whole, however, the struggles of the Depression era contributed to a more unified sense of ethnic identity among Latinos. Even relatively conservative Latino groups were forced to recognize that they shared a common fate with the foreigners in their midst. The indiscriminate enforcement of "no aliens" policies, capturing not only undocumented Mexican migrants but also long-standing Latino citizens of the United States, served to raise the consciousness of many Latinos. Second- and third-generation Latino Americans, who had previously argued for restricted immigration and increased deportations, had a change of heart when they themselves suffered harassment and discrimination at the hands of government officials. Those who remained in the United States during these years realized the tenuousness of their membership in the national community, no matter how long they had lived in the country or how much they had given of themselves and their resources.

This new sense of communal identity, born out of repression, led to greater political mobilization. Although a rich variety of local and regional Latino organizations had emerged earlier in the century, it was not until the Depression era that national Latino groups came to prominence. Such groups included the League of Latin American Citizens (LULAC), founded in Texas in 1929, and El Congreso de Pueblos que Hablan Español (The National Congress of Spanish Speaking Peoples), established by Guatemalan-American labor leader Luisa Moreno in 1937. Increasingly, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and other Latinos came together to fight for a range of civil rights, not only in the workplace but also in courts, schools, and places of public accommodation. Although it would take the massive post-1965 immigration to establish a strong panethnic Latino identity, the seeds of this change were planted during the hard times of the 1930s.



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Allison Brownell Tirres