Repatriate Act

Photo by Gustavo ArellanoJess Araujo tried to grab the attention of about 100 rambunctious people last Friday at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers' (IBEW) union hall in Orange. But his attempt was fruitless—the Chinese food was too damn good.

The rowdy group of Latino politicians and other civic-minded folks had squeezed into the staid IBEW hall to hear state Senator Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana) speak about the illegal deportation of millions of Mexican Americans during the 1930s.

But the lunchtime crowd had the munchies. Most had paid the $5 that entitled them to a Chinese buffet featuring fried rice, broccoli beef and slippery chow mein. Even Dunn was scarfing down a greasy egg roll, and Araujo, the event's emcee, was becoming increasingly frustrated.

"Attention, attention please," Araujo pleaded to the audience.

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SLURRRRPPPP!!!(The sound of 100 union brothers and sisters wolfing down chow mein.)

"Please, quiet down!" he finally barked. "We have extraordinarily deep subjects to discuss."

Suddenly, you could hear a chopstick drop.

Dunn had announced earlier in the week that he would sponsor legislation seeking to win reparations for and an apology to Mexican Americans unlawfully deported in the 1930s. Arguing that Mexicans were taking jobs from "real" Americans, Depression-era local and state officials rounded up Mexicans regardless of citizenship status and put them on trains bound for Mexico. Academics say about 2 million Mexicans—60 percent of them American citizens—were deported from 1930 to 1935 alone.

The mass deportation remains virtually unknown outside Chicano scholarly circles. Two years ago, one of Dunn's Latino staffers loaned him Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s, a 1995 book by Francisco Balderrama and Raymond Rodríguez documenting the episode.

"We all have a list of books that we have to get around to reading, and about a year and a half ago I finally got around to reading it," Dunn confessed as he opened his talk. "It changed my life forever. It taught me about something I had absolutely, positively never heard about anywhere."

Inspired by Decade of Betrayal, Dunn commanded his staff to go through city, county, state and national archives to determine whether any efforts had ever been made to apologize to those Mexicans who had been deported. "But the deeper we dug," said Dunn, "the uglier the story got."

As part of the campaign, Dunn revealed to listeners, a class-action lawsuit would also be filed against the state of California and various county governments—including Orange County—seeking unspecified damages for violating the plaintiffs' constitutional rights. "This, of course, is secondary to winning an apology to those American citizens who were wrongfully deported during the 1930s," said the two-term senator.

Dunn then invited Riverside resident Emiliana Castañeda to tell her story. Born in the U.S., Castañeda was deported from Boyle Heights in 1935 when she was nine and was sent back to her father's home state of Durango. Sounding like an Ugly American, Castañeda went on to describe in detail the culture shock she encountered.

"If we had to go to the bathroom . . . there was the bathroom outside!" Castañeda said. "We'd squat and eliminate. And toilet paper . . . what toilet paper!? I knew I wasn't Mexican. I was American."

"The story you heard of Emiliana is the story of an American citizen who was removed," Dunn added. "Her loyalty as an American citizen was never in question in her mind—it was in the federal, local and state government."

As Dunn wrapped up his 15-minute speech—interrupted twice by long applause—Araujo remembered something. "Before you leave," said Araujo, "we want to give you a surprise." The Santa Ana attorney then embarked on a long bromide, praising Dunn for his commitment to the Latino community and announced he was inducting him into the Honorary Latino Hall of Fame. In honor of this achievement, Araujo presented Dunn with a donkey painted in the Stars and Stripes and about the size of a baby Chihuahua.

"This is a symbol that has more than one meaning," Araujo acknowledged. "To Dunn, it's obvious. And to us Mexicans, it's also special, too," although Araujo did not elaborate.

"I humbly accept," Dunn said with great solemnity. "When I take on different tasks, my opponents commonly refer to me as an ass. It's a label I proudly carry."

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