The last month, particularly the last handful of days, has proven surreal for me, thanks to real-estate mogul Donald Trump. Having inserted himself into yet another facet of our lives with his presidential aspirations and desire to “Make America Great Again,” Trump has garnered attention for his political views regarding immigration. In rhetoric that is eerily similar to that asserted by the Hoover and (yes, sad but true) the Roosevelt administrations, backpedaling and laying blame for the economic crisis that was the Great Depression, Donald Trump, who claims he’s “a HUGE FAN of the Mexican people,” has proposed to amend the constitution and do away with birthright citizenship; he also wants to make it much more difficult for Mexican people to enter the United States legally, and systematically and relentlessly deport those who are here without papers. As The Economist puts it: “In short, [he’s] a huge fan.”
“Real Jobs for Real Americans.” That was the slogan was in the 1930s. I.e., unemployed white people got paid to do the work that they previously didn’t want to do. People of Mexican heritage in particular (’cause, you know, border’s right down there), but also Filipinos, Japanese, and even some Russians, got the boot. The big boot–a kick in the pants that would send them without due process all the way back to the “Mother Country.” And this after “those people” had been invited into the United States to do the work that nobody else wanted to do–to work as migrant farm laborers and on the docks and in canning factories. In fact, many of them were here way before the West Was Won; it was only in 1850, a mere 7 decades prior to the Stock Market Crash, that California, previously territory belonging to Mexico, joined the Union. As a result, many of the approximately one to two million people deported due to the “Repatriation Act” were CITIZENS of the United States. That’s, right. Citizens. Many of them didn’t even speak Spanish.
How did this happen? Well, as Trump would like it: systematically and relentlessly. Federal officials, police officers, the army–these were the organized agents who by authority of the U.S. government raided and “swept” plazas and work places, neighborhoods and streets. People were offered a “free ride” back “home. They could take what they could hold. They would be dropped by boxcar or bus somewhere in the middle of nowhere. And if the entire family wasn’t around when it was time to go–and there was typically no warning when it was time to go–well, those loved ones would be left behind. People, including active U.S. citizens with homes, jobs, local histories and plans for the future, often never returned. Sometimes, only at a much later age, their U.S. born children would find a way.
Woody Guthrie would later sing about about such deportations in his song “Deportees” (“Plane Wreck at Los Gatos”). John Steinbeck makes reference to the policy in The Grapes of Wrath. But it was only in 2005 that the government began to work on making an official apology. Not a restoration of property, goods, identity, or trust, per se. But an admittance that this bad thing happened, and it should never happen again.
Enter the Trump card.
The news of these last days is surreal for me because for the last two years I’ve been working on a novel that addresses the Repatriation Act, and the ensuing deportations without due process. The book is titled BROKEN GROUND, and it’s due out from Simon & Schuster/Howard Books in May 2016. It has been INCREDIBLY HARD to find information as I’ve researched. There is a single in-depth study by Dr. Francisco Balderrama and Mr. Raymond Rodrigues (who is no longer living:) Decade of Betrayal–Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s. (To my great gladness, Dr. Balderrama is the person to whom most of the media outlets are turning to for insight now.) I’ve read Decade of Betrayal multiple times. There’s a documentary I’ve yet to get my hands on, A Forgotten Injustice–even the wonderful Instituto Cervantes in Chicago didn’t have a copy!—which Dr. Balderrama, as of yesterday, said he would try to send me. (After I watch A Forgotten Injustice, I’m donating it to the Instituto Cervantes.) There’s an illusion to it in the award-winning children’s book, Esperanza Rising, by Pam Munoz Ryan. There’s a ratber dry, but essential text which I dutifully read, Unwanted Mexicans in the Great Depression,written in the 1970s by Abraham Hoffman. There are YouTube interviews with older people who suffered through all this, and power points by grade school children posted online (many of these kids live in Los Angeles). There are a few stories on NPR and PBS, and others posted on blogs, most frequently blogs that are devoted to Chicano or Hispanic culture. But. Not. Much. Else. Until the last few days.
If the recent news’ focus has proven surreal for me, I can’t imagine how it has been for those who were so deeply impacted by the deportations. How must these people feel upon learning that a measure calling for history textbooks and courses in California schools to include the “Mexican Repatriation” is currently awaiting Governor Jerry Brown’s signature. Happy? Furious? Thrilled? Jaded? Hopeful? Confused at the corner of bitter and sweet? All this and more? I can’t begin to imagine.
I was able to imagine a novel. I’m a white woman. My two children, ages 17 and 13, are Latino. I wrote BROKEN GROUND with them in mind, fueled by my frustration and anger about the ongoing acts of racial and ethnic injustice in our country. I wrote the book because I believe that fiction can hold and deliver its own kind of truth. I did not feel capable, or entitled, to write from a Latino perspective. In a sense the main character in the book, a white woman, follows my own journey from ignorance to understanding (albeit limited understanding). But I tried to describe the deportations, the raids, and the migrant worker camps—in short, the particular injustices and betrayals of that time—to the best of my ability. I can only hope that the book will make a little bit of a difference . . . and that there will be more stories made public now, by the people who lived through the “Mexican Repatriation” Act, and by their descendants.