Sunday, May 10, 2020

Family History: The Repatriation of Patrocino Reveles

Patrocino with a son and a grandson

"She wasn't deported. She was repatriated," my mother-in-law explained to Ed, in Spanish.

I had begged Ed to call his mother. I was desperate to know the truth about his abuela after reading about The Mexican Repatriation, which was unknown to me before I stumbled upon it reading a YA historical fiction novel. So many of the things I'd heard about her life matched up to her being a part of this horrifying moment in American history. But I didn't know for sure.

The Mexican Repatriation is another really uncomfortable part of American history that receives little attention. In March 1929, the federal government passed the Deportation Act which gave individual United States counties the power to send Mexicans back to Mexico, regardless of their immigration status. The Great Depression was just ramping up and lawmakers thought if they got rid of the Mexicans, they could solve unemployment (spoiler alert: it didn't work).

The 1929 equivalent of ICE organized "deportation trains" and made "immigration sweeps" in the San Fernando Valley and around Los Angeles, arresting anyone who looked Mexican, regardless of whether or not they were citizens or in the United States legally.  The number of Mexicans deported during this so-called "voluntary repatriation" was greater than the Native American removals during the nineteen century and also greater than the number of Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. Many of those sent to Mexico were native-born US citizens. Many had never even been to Mexico or had very faint memories of the country, not unlike like many of the DACA kids facing possible deportation today.

Included in one of these immigration sweeps was Ed's abuela and Noé and Asher's bisabuela (great grandmother). She was eight years old and orphaned when she was sent to Mexico, a place she had never even visited.

Understanding Ed's family history is like trying to piece together a giant jigsaw puzzle with half of the pieces missing.  I only know snippets of his family's stories. Immigrating to the United States has been a double-edged sword for his family. It has provided hope and opportunity for better jobs and education. Immigrating to the United States has also been full of unspeakable difficulties and sorrow. It isn't exactly happy dinner-time conversation to talk about your father's deportations, brutal work in the fields of the Central Valley and in sweatshops for little pay, the redlining your family faced when trying to buy their home, and .....oh yeah.... that time grandma was expelled from America during the Great Depression for being brown. So a lot remains unsaid around Ed's family dinner table.

In contrast, I've always known the stories of my grandparents and great-grandparents who are largely of Nordic descent, thanks to a Mormon heritage which is obsessed with family history. We have meticulous records of all my ancestors. Not replete of struggle, the stories of their lives are full of joy and upward mobility. I can confidently say that not a single relative of mine was ever kicked out of this country after arriving here.

Here are the pieces of the life of Ed's abuela that I have put together so far: Her name was Patrocino Reveles Moreno. She was born in California in 1923 and was sent back to Mexico when she was eight years old. She was then living with an aunt and uncle after her mother had died in childbirth and her father had abandoned the family. She married at age sixteen and made a life in Zacatecas, eventually having eleven children and an untold number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, including Noé and Asher. She lived in Mexico until her death in 2003.

Why isn't The Mexican Repatriation common historical knowledge? Why isn't it included in school history textbooks along with the Japanese internment, the racial injustices of black Americans, and the removals of Native Americans from their land? Ed would say the Mexicans need a better PR team.  Ed had never heard of The Mexican Repatriation either, despite attending public school in East Los Angeles until high school. When I told him about it, he shrugged. His experience living as a brown person in White America has acclimated himself to this level of racism. I, however, continue to be shocked.

And language is so powerful. The U.S. government branding the roundup as a repatriation conveys choice, participation in a noble cause. Even Ed's mom, almost ninety years removed from the event, was careful to point out her mother wasn't deported from the country, that there was no wrong doing on either side of the equation.

But Ed's family lost an entire generation to the Repatriation Act. Patrocino's children had to re-immigrate (in much more dangerous conditions this time around) and re-acclimate themselves to American life.  Their rightful United States citizenship by birth was stripped away and they had to start over the process. A generation of upward mobility was completely wiped away, while up in Oregon, my own grandparents prospered in post-World War II America.

When American history suddenly becomes your own family's history, you feel a shift under your feet. Empathy becomes rage. These stories no longer just belong in books that you can put down if they are too uncomfortable to read. Now they run through your children's DNA. Patrocino, future great-grandmother of Noé and Asher, was forced from her own country as a child. The same country I taught my kids to stand up for, put their hand over their heart, and pledge their allegiance to at every public event.

I've resigned myself to having complicated feelings about being American. I love living in my corner of the United States and I believe in the American experiment - however flawed. I'm deeply ashamed of parts of our country's history, most especially the racism and the treatment of immigrants and minorities. And I don't know if I'll ever be able to recite the end of the Pledge of Allegiance again with liberty and justice for all without looking over at my husband and children and feeling a bitter taste in my mouth and shame in my heart.