The Hidden Story of “Los Repatriados”

Against the Current, No. 100, September/October 2002

Elena Herrada

FOR THE PAST several years, members of the Mexican community in Detroit have been interviewing our elders about the period of the Repatriation (1929-1939).  Around fifteen of us have been gathering to compile oral interviews with our family members and friends and neighbors, to finally tell us a story which few would talk about for the past fifty or so years.

All of us are descendants or relatives of repatriados, Mexicans and Mexican Americans who were forced or voluntarily went to Mexico at the behest of the United States government.  Many of the people who left never told their own children why they went to Mexico, and did not discuss it when they returned.

It is still not known how many never returned, how many died along the painful journey, or how many returned years later.  We do know that there was a wave of migration during the next war, and that many who came only found out then that they were already U.S. citizens.

In 2000, we received a grant from Detroit 300, a foundation that was created to celebrate the 300th birthday of Detroit.  We made a documentary of the Repatriation, interviewing elders and descendants of the original Mexican families.

The committee consists of community people who have for many years tried to get the full story from our families.  Most would not discuss it because they were afraid they could be deported again, and did not understand why it had happened to them at all.

Many of the thousands who were deported across the country (60%) were United States citizens.  Most, like my grandparents, were recruited by Ford to work in Detroit.  When they came here, they did not intend to leave.

They began to create a community; records from the Archdiocese of Detroit show that the Mexican community built its own church (Our Lady of Guadalupe).  Indeed, the son of the contractor, now in his seventies is a member of our committee and brought cherished pictures and documents.  His granddaughter recently joined our ranks in order to keep the work going.

Another Repatriado, José Lopez, returned to Detroit after a fourtee-year exile in Morelia, where his parents died working in the sugar cane. He was brought back to Detroit by relatives who had not left during the deportations.

Family’s Memory, Hidden History

My father’s family returned to Aguas Calientes, where the children were left with their grandmother and my grandparents returned to Detroit to support the family from afar, the way so many Mexicans do now. My grandfather, being a veteran of World War I, was able to get work on the WPA. He went to Northern Michigan to work on a bridge project.

The family would have starved without his earnings being sent. Many families perished without a wage earner.  Stories of children and elders dying of simple diseases and starvation were tearfully told to us by those who had suffered in silence these last 60 years.

When the people returned, they told their children not to speak Spanish, not to live where the Mexicans live. This accounts for the reason so many Mexicans of my father’s generation don’t speak Spanish.  It was not until the 1970s, when our generation came of age and began to question this cultural phenomenon, that we began to uncover the story.

Little has been written about the “Decade of Betrayal.”  Approximately 15,000 Mexicans lived in Detroit in 1920; by 1932, the number had dwindled to around 5000.  We have never again built our own church in Detroit.

Mexicans, for the most part, do not answer the census, do not vote in significant numbers and generally avoid any unnecessary contact with the government.  Even second and third generation American Chicanos do not, by and large, participate in public life in the United States.

Because the story is not known, even in our own community, many elders who were small children at the time of the deportations believed that they were abandoned by their fathers, who in many cases had been rounded up and deported without a chance to inform their families.

Several of our interviewees did not believe there was a government plan to deport Mexicans from Detroit.  Most, like my own family, thought it was a voluntary move until things got better for them here.

Celebration and Pain

Last July, after years of talking to people in the community and seeking out each family’s historians, we held a screening of the video on “Los Repatriados” at Ste Anne’s Church in Detroit.  The video was done by Julio Guerrero, artwork by Nora Mendoza, with music by Benny Cruz and Cesar Peña, who wrote the lyrics, composed the haunting melodies and played the score that was written for this documentary.

We had no idea how we would be received or what to expect.  ( We joke that because of the deportations we don’t even RSVP).  We were highlighting a painful topic that had been avoided for two generations, and this was our tribute to our elders on the occasion of Detroit’s 300th birthday.

About 150 people showed up for this event.  We put up a display board showing articles and pictures from the news clippings of the deportations, and asked people to bring their families documents to share.  We had live music, food and lots of discussion and questions.

This was the first public discussion of the repatriation since it had occurred, according to elders and research.  The second screening, held at the Detroit Institute of Arts, was attended by about 300 members of our community.  It was cathartic for many. Tears flowed freely.

Many of the children of the interviewees did not know their parents and grandparents had been deported.  We had no idea what a unifying effect this project would have on our community.  It has had the effect of connecting generations to each other, and starting discussions which heretofore had not been broached.

Indeed, I had not had so much contact with my own relatives, who showed up in force for the event.  Since that time, our video and panel discussion has taken place in Houston, Texas; Lansing and Flint, Michigan; several universities, and several times in our own southwest Detroit neighborhood.

We will continue to show it, have discussions, and get children to do oral histories of their elders until we know what happened and know how to keep this from ever happening again.  The difference between then and now is that no one was there for this group of strangers, pilgrims to the Promised Land.

They were easily isolated, demonized and targeted, despite the fact that they only came to work and live and raise their families.  Because of their indomitable spirits, we are here, strong and capable of standing up to such injustices.

Postscript: I received an email from a professor at a University in San Luis Potosi, my grandfather’s birthplace.  He asked for our video and told me that he is researching the repatriation and migration between San Luis to the United States.  The story has come full circle.

Elena Herrada is a Detroit community and labor activist, and an organizer and researcher for the “Los Repatriados” project.  Write to her at: 1819 Leverette, Detroit, MI 48216 for copies of the video (price $15) and the poster of Nora Mendoza’s work “Caravan of Sorrow” ($20).  Checks payable to: Inner City Voices and Visions.

ATC 100, September-October 2002


  1. do you´all think this is happening right now? i belive so, because i´m one exemple of it…I´m in mexico while my wife and sons are in the u.s.a. can you imagine the e/day pain to be insolated from the ones I love…and they are there without my help to guide my family for the right direction …they telling me that they need me overthere …I was deported 11 years ago and I´m in the process of getting (hopefuly) my resident status wich i realy dude it because once , i tried to cross the border claiming myself as U.S. citizen and returned to mexico…anyway , I was asking myself…is there any sensus or stadistic information of how many families are separatd because of deportation of one or more members of the same family
    when my father died in 1985 in mexico ,I could not go to his funeral because of my iligal status in the u.s.a. at the time my wife was pregnant and I had a small business to take care and if i woulded go I would take the risk of getting arrested and deported living my wife alone and i did not do it…and I have to live the rest of my life with this pain…I think it should be a up-dated information of peple been deported and sended back to a country that we don´t know anymore,and starting a life of pain and silent suffering and been forced to risk your life again tring to get to u.s.a. and get cought and been deported for life and make you look like a bad person when the only thing that we want is to be with the one we love and the one´s that love to us…

  2. Hi Jaime,

    I’m very sorry to hear about your situation and I hope that your application for residency works out. It makes me both sad and angry to know that so many people live with that kind of situation.

    And yes, this is definitely happening in the U.S. today. In fact the first year of Obama was a record year for deportations, about 380,000 people were deported by DHS along with an unknown number of “self” deportations by people who may have returned to their country of origin to escape oppression or poverty in the US. And of course, that means hundreds of thousands of families torn apart. But it’s hard to say how many total families have been affected like yours has. Undocumented people are of course not counted in the census.

    There’s a long history of immigration policy in the USA treating migrants as individual workers rather than as people with families and communities. One example: for decades, only men were allowed to migrate from China – and at that time, Chinese men could not legally marry into an interracial relationship.

    So, the demand of family unity that has been raised by the the immigrant rights movement is very important!

    ColorLines magazine made this brief video about family separation:

    As the economic situation in the US gets worse for the working class, politicians have attempted to turn citizens against immigrants. Because most immigrants are not considered “white” the impact of racist laws that target the undocumented for political points affect whole communities – both because so many families have mixed citizenship status, but also because the police and white vigilantes threaten and harass everyone who “looks like an immigrant” – often Latino, Asian or Arab people.

    It’s easy to feel hopeless in this situation but, things can change very quickly. In 1857, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that Black people had “no rights that the white man was bound to respect”. But the system could not hold. Just over ten years after that, a majority of elected representatives from Mississippi were Black men! The actions of millions of enslaved Black people with no political rights along with millions of soldiers in the Union Army won the U.S. Civil War and made the slavery system history.

    I think that since NAFTA was passed, workers in North America are in a similar situation. Money and corporations travel freely, but workers are divided by a border that separates the “north” and the “south” and gives people on either side different political rights. I believe that at some point – no one can predict when – this basic contradiction will spark a huge social crisis, but we have to be organized to successfully break down that border and ensure equal political, cultural and language rights for everybody.

    Si usted prefiere que escribo en espanol, yo puedo tratir, pero es no muy bueno…

  3. There is no denying that it is happening today, the US Government has the Latino population scared to react therefore we do not unite as one. The Latino’s could run this county if they would do the simple act of uniting as on vote. I get so discussed when I here Latino’s speaking ill thoughts on the undocumented families. Think about this, out of all the solders that fought at the Alamo, How many of them were originally living in what we call Texas today? The answer to this question is five. Out of the five how many of them do you think were Latino’s? Would you be surprised if I said all five of them, yes again the answer is five. If this is correct then why they were not considered natives to the new land called Texas. Latinos’ have so much history in this country yet it is never discussed in schools, we were here before “them” making towns, villages and pathways, settlements, etc…. We fought with them in the wars and kicked to the doors during and after and this continues today.
    The reason is because they are scared of us, they know that if we united together we could run this country; they have been running it for so many years and look where this country stands. It is time for a change. Look at the African American community they do unite that is why they are strong if only we would learn from them. All you have to do is open your eyes and you could observe this for yourself.
    Don’t think for one minute that I am anti American because that would be so far from the truth, I love this country and think that Ronald Regan was the best president in my life time and he was my Commander in Chief. If you look at all the bad things that Latino’s do and research it you will see that another race commits more of the crimes, you will be surprised. Look at everything that has happened recently it has been talked about then it is over until the trial, but the Latino’s and African Americans well it goes on for days, weeks and so on.
    The sad thing is when we have Latino’s that succeed and become wealthy we turn our backs on them and speak bad of them, I look at as great, if I could only have the chance they had then possibly I could make something out of it, Good for them, support them after all if we ever do unite then maybe they will support us and donate to building a proper Latino organization, I do not believe what is out there is for money and working for the government not the people that make up the Latino population. Whenever I see a Latino’s name on a ballet that is who I vote for, I do not care about what party they are they, we all are Americans just like you and me. Javier I understand you are in Mexico but you do have family here so this should count for you also. The Government has forgetting that they are to work in our best interest not theirs. Again nobody unites for a change this they know it and take advantage of it.
    I have so much to say but who wants to listen, here are some quotes from Tejano soldier Antonio Menchaca, “’No, damn you’, he said, ‘I’m not Mexican! I’m an American! ““No, damn you, I am not a Mexican! I’m an American!” Antonio Menchaca was born in San Antonio in January 1800. I believe those quotes would have a different meaning today, they were said while in battle for independence from Mexico to Mexican solders. We, already living here and fighting for survival just like “they” were, we are natives to this land not them did they have to show proof of residency?
    Again I am proud to be an American just tired of the abuse we take.
    Thanks for your time; if you want to contact me my email address is

    Manny Berlanga

  4. My father’s brother, a Mexican national, returned to Mexico in 1935 with three American-born children and his wife who had been in the U.S. since age 6 and knew nothing about living in Mexico. Due to their departure my uncle and my father lost all contact with each other. I found three of the children (another was born in Mexico) living in California in 2010. They were born in 1929, ’31, ’35, and ’38. I was born in 1944 therefore they did not know I existed. Thankfully my father kept several letters written to him by his brother which enabled me to finally locate the oldest boy. I am very close to my maternal cousins since we were raised within 27 miles; however, I missed that closeness with my paternal cousins because of repatriation. We have now connected and keep in touch via telephone and mail and I visited two of them in California as soon as I found them. This, to me, is a personal tragedy perpetuated by government.

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