Elena Herrada is a Detroit community activist leader and Director of the Oral History project of Fronteras Norteñas organization. In 2001, Fronteras Norteñas received a grant, Detroit 300 (because Detroit was in the midst of a 300 year anniversary), to conduct a project for reaching out to Latinos in the Detroit community in order to gain a better understanding of Latino Detroit History. Only Fronteras Norteñas and one other Latino community group applied. This other group, Comité Patriótico Mexicano, consisted of Latino elders of the community, many of which were repatriates themselves. Fronteras Norteñas recognized this and knew that had it not been for groups and people like this, their field of study would mean nothing. Through this connection, Fronteras Norteñas decided to explore the subject of Repatriation, in effect explaining the reason they chose to do their documentary on this topic. Fronteras Norteñas saw this as a responsibility to share stories about their Latino community that would have otherwise never have been told. In fact one of these stories was Elena’s own family…
Latino Studies had begun in 1971 and Elena began studying Chicano/Boricua Studies in 1975. Her professor talked about the repatriation and informed them of the Mexicans who returned to Mexico during the depression. This was something that Elena had always wondered about. She could never understand why her family had gone to Mexico during the depression. Her own father didn’t ever fully understand why he went to Mexico, all he knew, was that it was terrible.
Elena’s grandfather served in 1919 of World War I. In 1920, her grandparents came to Detroit to start their family. Her grandfather began employment at Ford but unfortunately, in 1922, he was laid off. There was an economic depression at this time and repatriation showed its ugly face for the first time (although much smaller in scope). The jobs in auto plants at this time were seasonal. The same workers, who worked in the agricultural areas during the seasons, would work at the auto plants in the off-season. Once he was laid off, he found other work in the city.
In 1930, Elena’s grandparents and their children [Elena’s father] went to Mexico. The grandparents left them there with her grandfather’s mother, and returned to Detroit to work and send money home to their children. “There was never an act or a law passed to repatriate the people. These were social workers and city officials knocking on the door… There was no one to defend them. So they were completely defenseless.” They only had the word of the people in their communities talking to them and telling them about the repatriation. They needed to leave before it hit close to home. Elena’s father and his siblings were all American citizens, born in Detroit. When the children arrived in Mexico they learned to speak Spanish because their grandmother didn’t speak English. The children (Elena’s father and siblings) did not attend school while they were in Mexico. “This hit on a very big theme among Repatriados” Elena explains “Education was lost.” The schools were very poor and many school aged children from the U.S. did not attend school in these conditions. For people who had no work, no money, no options, situations such as this were the outcomes. As Elena says “There’s really no choices, and when there are no choices, you can’t say people made a choice about leaving.”
Elena’s father and his siblings returned to the United States two years later. When they came back they didn’t speak any English and were made to go to school “for the foreign born.” This upset Elena’s family because they were citizens and “they were not foreign born;” they just weren’t given the voice to say anything. They had to undergo the ridicule and humiliation that any immigrant would have had to go through at this time as well.
Elena describes the results of this experience that many families faced during the Repatriation. Mexicans and Mexican Americans were sent away from the U.S. but still returned, because in their mind life would always seem better in the U.S. than it would in Mexico. This attitude [that life was better in the United States] was recognized by Mexicans in Mexico. When families and children were brought back to their country of origin (whether U.S. citizen or not) these people had to face backlash from the Mexicans living there. Mexico was under economic distress because of the state of the U.S. but still maintained a great deal of nationalism from their recent Revolution in 1910. When those nationalists came into contact with repatriates, the sentiment was not accepting, due to the fact that those Mexicans had left so long ago to try and get a “better life” for themselves. To nationalists, these people were not worthy of the attention—they were traitors. For repatriates, there was nothing there for them. “It was a real nightmare for the people who went through this” Elena says, as she explains how it must have been to be dropped in a foreign place that one has never been to.
There is no evidence of how may died during the Repatriation or what came of many repatriated families. There are no records and this is exactly why Elena and her colleagues are doing this Oral History. “Almost all those people are gone now…what's left are the children and the grandchildren. It has taken many people a long to time to tell this story,” Elena shares. Shame, humiliation, or simply trying to forget the Repatriation is one reason our history hasn’t seen much about Repatriation. “It all makes sense as to why we’ve been taught to assimilate so much—to be underground,” Elena says. “No, no you’re in the United States, you need to speak English,” Elena remembers her family saying. “This is how many Latinos have grown up… and we are the result, we are the collective history. We are finding this out now. We must prevent this from happening again” she says.
Connection with Maria Cotera:
After the collection of histories, archives and documentation that was very precious to the group, they then felt the need to reach out to the world of Academia in hopes to not only share this information but be able to keep it in a safe place. Elena networked to many groups and academics to tell them about this information she had. One response from Texas answered this call, Marta Cotera—the mother of Professor Maria Cotera, and told Elena that she would be happy to do it. Thinking that Professor Maria Cotera was Marta Cotera, Elena came in to contact for the second time by Professor Maria Cotera. Professor Cotera was inquiring about conducting tours in Detroit for her American Culture- Introduction to Latino/a Studies at the University of Michigan. From that coincidental connection, Elena began working with Professor Maria Cotera and this Repatriation website is in turn, the result of that connection. “So that’s how I met her” Elena explained. “I don’t know exactly how she found me, but this is how I know her… She [Maria Cotera] is a second generation Chicano Scholar—so, she’s pretty amazing to me.”
Elena finishes with one last thought, “The expectation and the hope is that we can get this out more broadly so that the story is known and accepted in the communities…by communities I mean places where Latinos, Mexicanos, Chicanos are. And they can be in Gary, Indiana, Kansas City, Detroit...where ever. The reason people need to know this is that people carry history in their bones. By this I mean that the attitudes and deep feelings perpetuated from their respective histories are due to major happenings in their life, such as the Repatriation, that caused them to be this way many years ago. Sometimes Mexicans or Latinos in general are proud, in back then, they were proud too. Some Latinos, even in my community contest these assertions and say that ‘it never happened’…but it did. Mexicans weren’t going on vacation to Sunny San Luis Porto Si during the Depression—they were repatriated.” Elena’s last thought describes the need to prevent this from ever happening again; “Put them on buses, put them on trains—they used to say… however you can get them out of here. Offer them money to go. Make them leave. That way they can say to the population who is here—‘we’re getting rid of these people who are taking your jobs…sound familiar?"
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