Repatriation Movement

“From 1929 to 1939 the United States and communities across the United States engaged in a repatriation movement of Mexican nationals.”

Historian Emiliano Aguilar, doctoral student Northwestern University

Transcript for Repatriation Movement

So from 1929 to 1939 the United States and communities across the United States engaged in a repatriation movement of Mexican nationals. And this varies from locale to locale. In the Calumet region, there’s two great examples of completely different processes between the Indiana Harbor region in East Chicago and Gary. The Indiana Harbor repatriation campaign begins really in earnest in 1934 under the guidance of the American Legion and Paul Kelly who establishes an emergency relief association. So the American Legion, in the Depression, at the national level ask all their chapters to combat the depression as well as they can at the local level. And Paul Kelly really takes this, you know, very patriotic, nationalist message to heart and he organizes with a lot of other World War I veterans in the region to go about creating this commission, this association to repatriate the Mexicans. “We are doing the Mexican nationals a favor. The region is too cold and they are not built for it. We are doing—they are going back well-educated in the United States’ system and they will be outstanding Mexican citizens now that they’ve had, you know, this time in the United States.”

Paul Kelly wrote everyone who was anyone about possibly finding funding or legal avenues to repatriate the roughly three thousand, four thousand Mexicans and Mexican Americans living in the Harbor all the way up to the Secretary of Labor, William Doak who sort of had to tell them, you know, “No, the Department of Labor has found that a lot of these people are actually U.S. citizens.” And Paul Kelly still perseveres. He writes members such as Joseph Block who is very well-known as a steel magnate (the Block family ran Inland Steel) for funding and Block agrees to this. However, Block sets his own terms. “Ok, if we’re going to repatriate them, we’re using railroad lines that Inland Steel already uses…”

Paul Kelly and his American Legion friends have gone door-to-door figuring out who’s who, who’s living where, how old the children are, how many days a week the fathers are working at Atlas Cement, at Inland Steel, and the railroad yard. And they tell them essentially, “Hey, you’re only working two days a week, maybe. You’re not making enough to support you, your wife, and your several children. We’re taking you off relief.” And then that essentially put the father and the parents in general between a rock and a hard place where they then either had to struggle by off the working two days a week in the mill or the rail yard or return to Mexico. And that forces a lot of these families to then take up the emergency relief associations’ offer and take these trains to Mexico.

Paul Kelly goes so far as to write the Mexican consulate in Chicago, and he coordinates with the Mexican consulate on these trains and the timetables of when they’re going to get to Chicago, when that train’s going to be in El Paso, and when Mexican Army, Mexican National Guard should be ready at the border to intercept that train and take the repatriates.

Whereas we see in neighborhoods like Gary, maybe not as well thought-out. There’s instances in the old Gary Tribune of just loading up a pickup truck of a couple dozen people, and then driving it to the border, and leaving them; they’d load up the pickup truck while they have a band playing, “Adios, Gary,” according to the newspaper article. And the Mexican consulate is really aggravated at this because they have no idea who’s being sent back, when they’re going to get there, if they’re even going to make it. And they sort of really admonish Gary, and in one of the letters, “Why aren’t you doing things like East Chicago? Why are you not doing things like Paul Kelly and the ERA?”

From the Mexican state’s perspective, they had just come off two decades of civil war, essentially: of revolution, violence. And the country is decimated. And Mexico is in itself also engaging at repatriation movement. They’re repatriating Chinese Mexicans, that there are now all these available agricultural opportunities, that, “If you return to Mexico, there will be a job for you here.” And whether or not that was the case for many of these families, I cannot say. Chances are, not really if a lot of them still choose to then return to the region.

In the Calumet region, these very formalistic measures really only last about 1932 to 1934, ’35. Kelly stops eventually because the industrialists no longer want to pay for the train loads or even, in some cases, the railroad companies no longer want to offer the special rate of forty dollars per car, trainload, of Mexicans back to the border. And that sort of thing kills the local movement. But Kelly was still, in the case of Indiana Harbor, able to repatriate roughly half of the community.

Hold a Conversation

Can you imagine leading a conversation about this story? Where? With whom? What kinds of questions would you pose? (See How to use the questions for reflection for one approach.) Please email your questions to us or post them in the comment box for our consideration. If you use them in an actual discussion, let us know how the conversation went.