Liberation Road

Extracting the Truth from Los Repatriados

The weekly newsletter of the México Solidarity Project

October 27, 2021/ This week’s issue/ Meizhu Lui, for the editorial team

Extracting the truth can be like extracting a tooth. We have a gnawing pain that won’t go away, but we don’t want to complain — and don’t think anything will help anyway. We finally let the tooth get pulled and suddenly feel a huge relief. People around us now know why we weren’t smiling and just wanted to be left alone.

We see the same dynamic with traumatic events we don’t want to remember — or burden others with — but simply can’t forget. Adults who’ve experienced horror tend to protect their children from the terrifying truth. Think Holocaust survivors and Japanese-Americans in World War II or Iraq veterans in more recent times.

In our Voices this week, Elena Herrada recounts how difficult she found extracting the truth from her grandfather and the many other Repatriados in her Mexican-American Detroit community. During the Great Depression, whole families left the United States  “voluntarily” because government workers told them to go. Government agents took other Mexican-American workers by force and deported them on the spot. They didn’t even have time to say good-by. This entire exodus left Detroit’s once-vibrant Mexican-American community broken and decimated.

We still don’t know how many of the Repatriados died along the way to México — or soon after they arrived into a México also deep in Depression. We also don’t know how many never returned to the United States or how many did in fact return. Or how many Mexican-Americans in Detroit never knew what happened to fathers who disappeared.

We do know that another wave of migration from México to the US took place after World War II. Only then did some migrants find out that they already held US citizenship. They had been deported as young children.

No matter how difficult, we need to hear the facts. Victims need to tell their stories. Only by extracting the truth can we get the comfort that comes when loved ones understand our pain. Only by extracting the truth can we unburden ourselves from the shame that belongs elsewhere. The truth can set us free.

Elena Herrada, a third-generation Mexicana-Detroiter, has centered her work in her hometown. She has co-founded both the Centro Obrero de Detroit, an immigrant rights organization, and Fronteras Nortenas, a group dedicated to chronicling the lives of Mexicans from Michigan. Amid her grassroots organizing, Herrada has also served on the Detroit Human Rights Commission and won election to the Detroit Board of Education in 2012.

To “repatriate” — to return to one’s homeland — sounds like a good thing. The United States had a repatriation program for Mexicanos from 1929 into 1939. What prompted this program?

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