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How thousands of Mexican workers were sent away from Michigan, with the help of Diego Rivera

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While Diego Rivera was in Detroit to work on his mural for the Detroit Institute of Arts, he became part of the movement to repatriate thousands of Mexican-American workers back to Mexico.

It was November, and the first snowfall had already arrived, reminding everyone of another long, cold winter yet to come. The passengers boarded the train at Union Depot in Detroit, 432 of them in all, bound for Mexico. They had arrived in Michigan in better times, back when the state was so desperate for workers, sugar beet farmers had sent recruiters driving down to Texas to offer jobs to any Mexican immigrants willing to make the trip north. Working the sugar beet farms beat picking cotton, and there was less racial tension up north. Thousands of Mexicans took the offer.

Once they arrived in Michigan, many discovered there were many more opportunities beyond the sugar beet farms. So they headed to Detroit, to be a part of a booming new industry, making automobiles for Henry Ford. Historian Zaragosa Vargas recounts their stories in his book Proletarians of the North : Mexican Industrial Workers in Detroit and the Midwest, 1917 – 1933. Vargas writes that 15,000 Mexican immigrants were living in Detroit and working in its factories by 1929.

Then the stock market crashed.

When state and city officials in Michigan hatched the plan to send thousands of Mexican-American workers back to Mexico, they enlisted the support of an unlikely ally: Diego Rivera.

The Great Depression settled in. Work was hard to come by, and families all over Michigan were suffering. The state, and the city of Detroit, struggled to keep up with the demands for relief programs. And the thousands of workers from Mexico who’d been recruited to help alleviate the state’s labor shortage suddenly struck Michigan’s political leaders as a burden, not a blessing.

So, the officials in charge hatched a plan to send the Mexican workers back to Mexico. Vargas writes the state’s then-governor, Wilber Brucker, worked with the support of the Detroit Mexican Consulate to convince the Mexicans to leave voluntarily. And they both enlisted the support of another unlikely ally: Diego Rivera.

Rivera was in Detroit to paint his now-famous mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Vargas writes he’d come to believe that the Mexican factory workers were needed back in Mexico, where they could join new worker cooperatives and jumpstart a Communist revolution in his homeland.

Rivera became an active recruiter in convincing Mexicans to leave Michigan. And on that snowy day in November of 1932, when 432 Mexican Detroiters boarded the passenger train bound for Mexico, Rivera was there with his wife, the painter Frida Kahlo, to see them off.

Vargas writes:

“The repatriates carried most of their personal belongings by hand, in suitcases, and in bags, just as they had when they first came to the city. Rivera and Kahlo walked through the railway cars to bid the Mexicans farewell. The portly artist no doubt was pleased that some of Mexico’s finest sons (and daughters) were on their way to settle in worker cooperatives in northern Mexico. Mexicans leaned out of the train’s windows to say good-bye to relatives and friends amidst the crowd gathered on the platform to witness the removal. A few men idly strummed guitars, while some of the women passengers modestly breast-fed their hungry babies, a portent of things to come.”

What came were delays, and a shortage of food on that first trip. Vargas writes it was a harrowing experience, though hundreds more Mexicans would make the same trip in the months ahead.

When those workers arrived in Mexico, they found economic conditions just as bad as those in Detroit. There were no jobs. The worker cooperatives Rivera had dreamed of never really got off the ground.

“Rivera realized that the voluntary repatriation program failed to serve the best interests of his countrymen,” Vargas writes. “Rivera had devoted much time and the money earned from painting the murals to organize the repatriation of Mexicans in Michigan. He now told Mexicans that like other unemployed factory workers their struggle was in Detroit.”

"Coercion was the primary method used to convince Mexicans in Detroit and elsewhere in the Midwest that repatriation was a feasible option to relief," Vargas writes. "As the crisis deepened, the level of coercion increased in each location in proportion to its jobless rate and the fiscal status of the municipality."

The Detroit Mexican Consulate, and the government in Mexico had also pulled their support for the repatriation program.

But leaders in the United States didn’t take no for an answer. If they couldn’t get Mexicans to leave voluntarily, they’d try other options. Mexicans who remained in Detroit and other Midwest cities were denied access to relief programs altogether.

“Coercion was the primary method used to convince Mexicans in Detroit and elsewhere in the Midwest that repatriation was a feasible option to relief,” Vargas writes. “As the crisis deepened, the level of coercion increased in each location in proportion to its jobless rate and the fiscal status of the municipality.”

Mexicans were interrogated, harassed and threatened with deportation. Many had citizenship in the U.S., and were sent to Mexico anyway.

By 1936, Vargas writes that Detroit’s Mexican population had dropped to just 1,200 – a nearly 90 percent reduction from where it had been before the Great Depression.

These days, the story is rarely mentioned. It’s kept alive by the work of a few community activists and historians, including Maria Cotera and Elena Herrada, who collected oral histories of Detroit’s repatriation movement for a project called Los Repatriados.

Repatriation didn’t just happen in Detroit, or even just in the Midwest. More than one million Mexican-Americans were repatriated to Mexico in the 1930s. Historian Francisco Balderrama estimates 60 percent of them had citizenship in the United States.

A similar story repeated across the United States just a few decades later, when the U.S. and Mexico created the Bracero Program in 1942 to bring Mexican workers north to help with the labor shortage during World War II. Twelve years later, the U.S. Attorney General announced “Operation Wetback,” a deportation program that, all told, rounded up more than one million people, most of them Mexican nationals.

And echoes of this cycle remain today, as U.S. companies and industries rely on Mexican workers who stream north in good economic times, and political leaders who insist they return to Mexico when the economy goes bust.

An estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently live in the United States. Only about half of them are thought to be from Mexico. Yet, once again, Mexico is the nation our own political leaders are talking about.

We’ve been here before.