Remembering the Mexican American Genocide by Jordan Alejandro Rosenberg Cobos

Last month I wrote about the Mexican “Repatriation,” a colossally important yet forgotten piece of U.S. history during the 1930s Great Depression where authorities at all levels of government deported about 1.8 million people of Mexican descent to Mexico, even though over sixty percent of whom were citizens born in the United States. This was one-third of all Mexican and Mexican Americans and was a hugely traumatic and forgotten event in the community. For more information on the topic, Decades of Betrayal by Francisco Balderrama and Raymond Rodríguez is excellent. National reflection and remembrance of this event is long overdue and given it is Hispanic Heritage Month, this article will delve deeper into the politics of remembrance.

The influential quote dismissing historiography, “history is written by the victors,” was actually coined by a loser. A former Confederate used the phrase to promote the white supremacist Big Lie known as the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. These myths still underpin support for Confederate symbols today among many conservative white Americans. The saying underpins a national disinterest or distrust of a historical education which does not serve the interests of white supremacy. The study of history is a dynamic and never-ending argument about the past. And what can be most debated is whose stories are featured and remembered, and whose are forgotten. 

The Mexican “Repatriation” is one of those forgotten but important parts of the U.S. national story. In last month’s article, I wrote how the term “Repatriation” whitewashes a vast unconstitutional, bipartisan ethnic cleansing enforced by all levels of government. So what exactly do these terms ethnic cleansing and genocide mean? Ethnic cleansing is the forced expulsion of one ethnic or religious group of people by another. According to genocide scholar Dr. Eugene Finkel of Johns Hopkins University, the difference is emphasis: “genocide is about people. Ethnic cleansing is about territory.” He adds that unlike ethnic cleansing, genocide is a legal term and so its exact definition is contested by scholars. Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide during World War II, from the Greek genos (race/tribe) and -cide, the Latin suffix for killing. Lemkin considered settler colonialism and imperialism to be inherently genocidal. His definition was narrowed in the 1948 UN Genocide Convention which defines genocide “as any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: 

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about 

its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” 

The U.S., Canada, and Australia were initially hesitant to sign on to such as definition given that their actions towards Indigenous populations were genocidal under this definition, but they did sign onto the convention. The Soviet Union successfully insisted political groups be removed before signing onto the convention.

What is clear is that the Mexican “Repatriation” was an ethnic cleansing campaign and should be remembered as such. But was it genocide under international law? The deportations were done with a racist intent to remove Mexican Americans from the labor pool and help “real Americans” more easily find jobs. This could be seen as the “physical destruction” of the Mexican and Mexican American community, at least “in part.” There was no pretense for a rule of law: the deportations were carried out by local levels of government even though only the federal government controls immigration. People with brown skin were targeted for removal, sometimes even if they were not Hispanic. But they were helped by the 1930 Census, which was the only one to include Mexicans as a racial category. In 1940, the category vanished, a key part of the campaign of forgetting. This lays groundwork for the final stage of genocide, denial.

Genocide is not always about mass killings: in this case the main aim of the campaign was to force Mexicans out of the U.S. labor market. People were put in cattle cars and treated like animals. Many of the “repatriated” Mexican Americans, especially teenagers born in the U.S., wanted to return. Many did, and some were deported again. Many would return for good with the Bracero Program during World War II, where the U.S. invited Mexican laborers to make up for the labor shortage. This program is remembered today as the origin of many Mexican American families. But it is just as crucial to wonder why the “Repatriation” is stuck with an out-of-date label on the rare occasion it is remembered at all.

Importantly, the mass ethnic cleansing of Mexican Americans was a bipartisan campaign. In a two-party system, political parties can manufacture consent and historical memory by controlling their rhetoric. President Hoover was a conservative Republican and Franklin D. Roosevelt a liberal Democrat, but both oversaw the Mexican American Genocide. There are many people in both parties’ ideological bases who would prefer to forget these facts rather than live in a reality where their “side” never oversaw horrific tragedies and abuses of human rights. The prominence of think tanks such as the Roosevelt Institute and Hoover Institution show these presidents remain associated with ideology more than ethnic cleansing today. Neither party can use the historical memory of Repatriation to gain votes over the other, and so forgetting is in both parties’ shared interest. 

When California State Senator Joseph Dunn introduced bills attempting to apologize and enact reparations based on the experience of Japanese Americans in concentration camps, Governors Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed them. Just as the Republican Hoover and Democratic Roosevelt encouraged deportations, Democrat Davis and Republican Schwarzenegger both stood in the way of reparations. Schwarzenegger did in 2005 sign an official apology by the State of California for the Mexican Repatriation. In 2012 the City of Los Angeles did the same. But after Donald Trump rose to power on a xenophobic agenda based on an elevator pitch of ethnic cleansing of Mexican immigrants, those in the community who remembered the past were scared. In early 2017 my own abuela, whose family has lived in New Mexico since prehistoric times, was afraid our family would be deported. No one in their nineties should ever have to fear such things again. The dehumanization of Mexican Americans was also a crucial road on the path to the internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Former executive director of the Federal Civil Liberties Public Education Fund Dale Shimasaki recounts in Decades of Betrayal that both incidents involved the “Violation of constitutional rights, loss of property and income, amenities denied and psychological trauma suffered, young men drafted to serve in the army despite the injustices sustained by them and their families, and incarceration of those who violated the legal dictums.” The white Anglo-dominated judicial and legal system and the press supported the mass violation of citizens’ constitutional rights because they were not white, rather than siding with the rule of law. The mass ethnic cleansing of Mexican Americans should be remembered and studied so such a thing can never occur again.

Jordan Rosenberg Cobos is a member of the Communications team at IfNotNow. He is a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins SAIS-Tsinghua University Dual Degree Masters Program, where he focused on clean energy and the Americas. He lives in the Los Angeles area.

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