Depression and the Struggle for Survival
The Great Depression of the 1930s hit Mexican
immigrants especially hard. Along with the job crisis and food
shortages that affected all U.S. workers, Mexicans and Mexican
Americans had to face an additional threat: deportation. As unemployment
swept the U.S., hostility to immigrant workers grew, and the
government began a program of repatriating immigrants to Mexico.
Immigrants were offered free train rides to Mexico, and some
went voluntarily, but many were either tricked or coerced into
repatriation, and some U.S. citizens were deported simply on
suspicion of being Mexican. All in all, hundreds of thousands
of Mexican immigrants, especially farmworkers, were sent out
of the country during the 1930s--many of them the same workers
who had been eagerly recruited a decade before.
The farmworkers who remained struggled to
survive in desperate conditions. Bank foreclosures drove small
farmers from their land, and large landholders cut back on their
permanent workforce. As with many Southwestern farm families,
a great number of Mexican American farmers discovered they had
to take on a migratory existence and traveled the highways in
search of work.
Many found temporary stability in the migrant
work camps established by the U.S. Farm Security Administration,
or FSA. The FSA camps provided housing, food, and medicine
for migrant farm families, as well as protection from criminal
elements that often took advantage of vulnerable migrants.
The FSA set up several camps specifically for Mexican Americans
in an attempt to create safe havens from violent attacks.
The camps also provided an unexpected benefit.
In bringing together so many individual farm families, they increased
ties within the community. Many residents began organizing their
fellow workers around labor issues, and helped pave the way for
the farm labor movements that emerged later in the century. This interview with
a leader of the FSA camp in El Rio, California describes some
of the day-to-day issues that the camp residents dealt with.
Although farming was an important source of
employment for Mexican immigrants, by the end of the 1930s Mexican
Americans were established throughout the American workforce.
Mexican immigrants and their descendants could be found in most
of the industries of the Southwest, including ranching and mining.
America's growing rail network was particularly important for
Mexican immigrants. The railroad industry had long turned to
immigrants from Mexico as a source of low-cost labor. In return,
Mexican workers found that the railways offered not only employment,
but also mobility. They often used this relatively inexpensive
form of travel to move their families further into the North
and East of the U.S., and into a more urban way of life.