The Mexican Repatriation and hard times
By Maria E. Garcia
The 1930s and the Depression brought many changes to the families living in Logan Heights. The Great Depression started in 1929 and ended around 1941 when World War II brought jobs to the country as a whole and to places like San Diego in particular. In the late 1930s the economy improved. The war had created a lot of jobs and had a great influence in ending the Depression. In San Diego, the aircraft industry which included Consolidated-Vultee (which eventually became Convair), flourished and provided employment.
The similarities between the political climate of the Great Depression era and today are frightening. Like today, there was a call to deport Mexicans and Mexican-Americans and return them to Mexico. Like today, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were perceived as taking jobs that belonged to “real” Americans, and like today, it was also believed that deportation would reduce the number of people on the relief rolls.
In 1930, the San Diego County Supervisors declared that Mexicans would be barred from working on public projects that were federally funded by the WPA.
Prior to the Great Depression, Mexicans had been actively recruited by American businesses because they provided cheap labor and were considered to be a more desirable unskilled workforce than the Chinese and Japanese laborers before them. Mexicans could be found working on ranches and in farming, in manufacturing, fishing and mining.
Then the economy collapsed. Between 1929 and 1944, over two million people of Mexican descent were repatriated to Mexico. Sixty percent of these individuals, 1.1 million, were American citizens. Coming by work during the depression was difficult for everyone, but specific legislation on the local, state and federal level was enacted to keep Mexicans from being hired. In 1930, the San Diego County Supervisors declared that Mexicans would be barred from working on public projects that were federally funded by the WPA.
Pictures show trains of Mexican and Mexican-Americans being sent back to Mexico. Johnny Rubalcava recounts in an an oral interview that he watched the ships leave the Marina from his vantage point on Broadway Street in San Diego. “I saw the ship down on Broadway when we were sending them back, because I had some friends, and they were waving at me,” he said, recalling he was only seven or eight at the time.
Today we see Mexican people, and people from other Latin American countries, being sent back by bus or by air. The focus of the deportation then was between Texas and California. Today, deportation is more wide spread, but the main focus still remains between Texas and California.
In 1932, the Mexican Government sent a letter to Mexicans living in the U.S. urging them to return to Mexico. This letter promised that upon their return to Mexico, they would be given farm land and a return trip at no cost.
The Government of Mexico, with the cooperation and aid of the Welfare Committee of this County, will effect the repatriation of all Mexicans who currently reside in this County and who might wish to return to their country…. Those persons who are repatriated will be able to choose among the States of Sonora, Sinaloa, Nayarit, Jalisco, Michoacán, and Guanajuato as the place of their final destination, with the understanding that the Government of Mexico will provide them with lands for agricultural cultivation…and will aid them in the best manner possible so that they might settle in the country.
Those persons who take part in this movement of repatriation may count on free transportation from San Diego to the place where they are going to settle, and they will be permitted to bring with them their furniture, household utensils, agricultural implements, and whatever other objects for personal use they might possess.
Since the organization and execution of a movement of repatriation of this nature implies great expenditures, this Consulate encourages you…to take advantage of this special opportunity being offered to you for returning to Mexico at no cost whatever and so that…you might dedicate all your energies to your personal improvement, that of your family, and that of our country.
If you wish to take advantage of this opportunity, please return this letter…with the understanding that, barring notice to the contrary from this Consulate, you should present yourself with your family and your luggage on the municipal dock of this port on the 23rd of this month before noon.
Source: Mexico City, Archivo de la Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores, IV-360-38. Copyright 2014 Digital History, Digital History ID 3699
This letter is shocking in that the Mexican Government provides a tool to be used against Mexicans living in the United States. Two questions that should be asked: Do we know anyone that returned to Mexico because of this letter and were they granted the land they had been promised? An additional question would be what did the government of the United States promise the Mexican Government in order for them to write this letter?
Depression Life–James Kenniston.
James Kenniston was born in 1923 and moved to 705 Beardsley during the Depression. James was one of eighteen children born to Susana Romero and LeRoy Kenniston. Susana died at the age of 44 and James’ sisters Mary and Jenny helped raised the family. Like others he remembered going to the Neighborhood House for milk and oranges. Any of the food that was distributed by Neighborhood House was a welcome supplement by all the families.
James and his brother would walk to the fishing boats and ask for and usually were given a tuna fish. They would then take the tuna fish and sell it to the restaurants. He wanted to help his father support his eighteen brothers and sisters. Like most kids in that era, they looked for creative ways to earn money.
James had a paper route which provided some cash which he used to purchase Mexican food from what has to be one of the first food trucks in San Diego. Don Chon had a panel truck and would sell Mexican food to the cannery workers.
James and his buddies would also steal reflectors from cars and put them on their bicycles. Like Oscar Torres, they would steal bread from Kramer’s bakery. The bread was outside on racks and it would only take a few minutes to pick up a loaf or two and run away.
He attended Sherman Elementary School, Memorial Jr. High School and San Diego High School. James would leave Memorial and walk over to Logan Elementary to look through the window at Ann Friely, a pretty Puerto Rican girl he would marry in 1942. James had quit school two years short of graduation and joined the Conservation Corps.
There was little money available for entertainment. Movie theaters were one of the few affordable diversions. There was a theater located at 25 and Imperial Avenue, the Victory Theatre owned by Mr. Fink. Mr. Fink also owned the Coronet and the Metro theater in Logan Heights. The Metro theater exclusively showed Mexican movies. The theaters sponsored a dish night or a grocery night. This was in the 1930s and families welcomed the opportunity to win a bag of groceries or some dishes.
James was in the army when he got married and was sent to China, Burma and India. He spent a total of three years overseas. Part of his military service was spent between Louisiana and Little Rock, Arkansas where his duties included leading a convoy from Louisiana and Arkansas. Ann was able to join him for a short period of time but returned to San Diego when he went overseas.
After the war, he returned to work at the Naval Training Center where he was put in charge of the incinerators. He was soon put in charge of the painters. When they refused to raise his pay, he made the decision to leave civil service and become a carpenter. In 1945 he used his GI bill to purchase the home off Market Street. This is the home he and Ann live in today almost 70 years later.
Repatriation–The Leyba Family
In 1939 the world was at war. World War II helped the economy. Logan Heights, however, would lose many of its young men to the war and to deportation. Mrs. Isabel Montejano Leyba, whose mother went to cooking classes at Neighborhood House, experienced a drastic change in her family life when it became very difficult for her father to find a job in San Diego. Mrs. Leyba, a U.S. born citizen, had attended the preschool/ child care class at Neighborhood House.
In 1931 at the age of six, Mrs. Leyba’s parents took her and her sisters to live in Ensenada. The Depression had made it very difficult for her father to find employment in the U.S. Mrs. Leyba’s mother was not happy in Ensenada, mostly because of the drastic change to the life style she was used to.
In 1931 Ensenada was a very small, sleepy little fishing village that had a hotel that also had a gambling casino. Prohibition was the law in the United States and the hotel/casino offered a place where Hollywood stars went to relax, drink and gamble. In Tijuana there was the Caliente Casino with the same influx of U.S. citizens. There was also a casino located on the Coronado Islands and for these reasons the flow across the border was constant and very normal.
In order to qualify for work in Mexico, Mr. Montejano had turned in his immigration papers. To proceed with his plan to return his family to San Diego, he had to obtain letters of recommendations from U.S. citizens. One of Mr. Montejano’s letters of recommendations was written by Mike Amador, owner and proprietor of Mike Amador’s Market located directly across the street from Neighborhood House. The other letter was written by Mr. Doria, owner of the pharmacy located on Logan Ave.
The 1940’s in Logan Heights, and more specifically at Neighborhood House, were in many ways a reflection of the rest of the country. The fund raisers at the Marston House continued with the proceeds going to support Neighborhood House. Some of the families with extra space rented rooms to others in order to supplement their income. It became necessary for families to put their kids or themselves on the couch in order to have a room that would bring rental income.
Many of the families remembered one of the big changes was both parents working outside the home. In some cases the father or the older brother was in the military and had been sent overseas. In the 1940’s the San Diego economy was doing better than other parts of the United States. The aircraft plants brought employment which resulted in a growth spurt for this little Navy town. Pictures show schools, such as Balboa Elementary, holding classes in the cafeteria due to overcrowding.
Schools focused on the war in a several ways. Prior to the war, a 1936 spelling book with war words such as army, target, drill and fight, was used on a daily basis. Students practiced hiding under their desk in preparation for a Japanese attack. Classrooms had a food closet in case of an attack and it became necessary to stay at the school overnight. School plays took a patriotic focus. A program from Memorial Junior High shows the play titled Stars and Stripes Forever. Of course sport activities such as football games continued as part of student’s school life. Neighborhood House had various sport teams that competed throughout the city and were awarded ribbons the same as any school sports team.
This three part series about Depression life and WWII will continue next week.
The complete History of Neighborhood House in Logan Heights series is available here.