By Elena Herrada
The story I heard from my father was that the welfare lady knocked on the door and told my grandfather that the family would have to leave, that they were not able to stay in Detroit during the Depression. Many details are left out, but others are clear. My grandfather worked at Ford before he was laid off. Indeed, that’s why we are all here: Ford recruited. In Mexico, Texas, everywhere.
The year was 1930. When the neighbors began to pack their belongings to return to Mexico, they were sorrowful. Their children were born here. They were U.S. citizens. Yet, there was no work and they were being told that the few jobs here were for “real Americans.” Because my grandfather had been an auto worker and a welder, he crafted a pick-up truck out of the Model A car he so proudly helped to build and purchased on the $5 a day wages in better days. Neighbors came to the Herrada house on 6th Street and had my grandfather cut the backs off their cars and welded on rails, transforming them into pick-up trucks to carry their worldly possessions to Mexico. Nora Mendoza painted the iconic image of the caravan leaving Detroit and heading to Mexico and titled it “Caravan of Sorrows.” It portrays a people defeated, heading back to the place they left in search of a better life.
They traveled together because all the world knew that Mexicans were carrying everything they owned with them and were constant targets of robbers. My aunt told me they could only travel by day and they hid in mountains and wooded areas at night because it was so dangerous. They constantly had flat tires as there were no paved roads and tires easily had blowouts. The trip from Detroit to Aguas Calientes took 30 days and 30 nights. My grandfather had been in the US Army in World War I, so he was eligible to work in the U.S. Ironically, his U.S.-born children went to Mexico with their paternal grandmother and my grandparents returned to Detroit and sent money “home” to Mexico for their children’s grandmother to maintain them. I remember my father telling me that his mother told him that in the evenings, my grandparents would go to Belle Isle and look out over the water from the bridge. When we would pass over that bridge, he would tell us of his parents longing for their children back in Mexico. It’s a time-honored, universal story of migration. In exchange for a job, one gives up home, family, language, culture, tradition. All that is familiar in exchange for hostility and alienation. The Mexican diaspora began decades ago and ebbs and flows, depending on economic conditions in the world.
The Herrada family would reunite two years later, when my grandparents went back and brought their children home. They were nearly starving, and ravaged with diseases like smallpox, because it turned out that the Catholic priest came around with his hand out on the day the remittances came from my grandparents to the little pueblito where his mother lived with the Detroit-born children. (This would inform my grandfather’s life of anticleric rage.)
My grandparents would have several more children. In total, eight lived to adulthood. Simple childhood diseases claimed the lives of little ones because there was no money for doctors or medicine. Grief kept the stories from being passed down, settling in the broken hearts of my grandparents and their children. Trauma kept many people from sharing the story of the Mexican Repatriation. It was a hard story to get from our elders. I spent much of my adult life gathering oral history interviews from elders who were children at the time of the deportations, only to have them ask that their stories not be published. Thus, much of what is known from Detroit stories is anecdotal. I honor their requests, and indeed, my father told me on his deathbed that he did not appreciate the work I did to make the Mexican Repatriation known to all the world, especially us. Mexicans did not know why their families had gone to Mexico during the Depression. In fact, we didn’t know how many were lost along the way, as some of our own were, and how many starved to death in Mexico. People died of starvation in Detroit during the Depression. It was a very sad time in our history. Mexicans, in general, don’t complain. We don’t have a tradition of oral history. The scholar John Phillip Santos wrote in “Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation”: “Forgetting is to Mexicans what remembering is to the Jews.” It took so long for me to get anyone to talk about the Repatriation that by the time I got the first actual interview from beloved community and labor activist Jose Lopez, they were nearing the end of their lives. They would have taken these stories with them. I broke past the yellow crime tape of traumatic memory and grief and dove in. For this, I ask forgiveness.
Between 1929 and 1939, approximately one million Mexicans were kicked out of the U.S., where they had been recruited to work. The Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) left thousands dead and thousands more jobless. The jobs were drying up and there was an atmosphere of nativism: America for Americans. Mexicans in Detroit were quite obviously “others.” They lived in the same area, spoke Spanish and held some customs together. They worked at Ford, what was then Michigan Steel (later to be Great Lakes Steel), on the railroad, all manner of manual labor. When it came time to force them out, it was done through a campaign of terror and intimidation, as well as civil invitation to leave. In churches, priests would describe a “good Mexican” as one who would take his family and leave the U.S. There are no records of any civic organization supporting the Detroit Mexican community during this period. Census and diocesan records, which record baptisms, show that about 15,000 Mexicans were in Detroit in 1930, and by 1932, there were only about 4,000. Mexicans did not return in large numbers to Detroit until after the North American Free Trade Agreement.
In 2006, Detroit had one of the largest Immigrant Rights Marches in the country, called into the streets by Spanish language radio announcers, many of whom lost their licenses the next day. Even during the march, “coming out of the shadows,” many Mexicans and Chicanos meeting for the first time did not know so many migrants were here. Following NAFTA, the Mexican population grew to approximately 30,000 according to the 2010 census. As the job market dried up in Detroit, Mexicans have left to other parts of the country or returned to Mexico following massive deportations of the past couple years, some under Obama and some under Trump. NAFTA triggered the greatest migration of Mexicans and Central Americans in history, so the percentage of deportations under the Obama administration reflects not only larger numbers, but the greatest number of migrants in the U.S. due to policies that crushed the Mexican economy.
Now when Central Americans find themselves unable to survive the violence of their countries, they head north to Mexico, the caravans coming through Central America and on to Mexico represent a symbol of hope and resistance. Resistance is NOT resilience. The nonprofit world (NGOs) uses such language to describe surviving atrocities created by capitalism, which is rampantly plundering the Global South. Resilience is the language of philanthropy. It belies affection for a people able to survive in the most dire of circumstances. It rewards the few who stand as shining examples of “grit,” of the ability to overcome the odds. It holds up individual success as a model, rewarding those who set themselves apart from the millions who perish in the holocaust of privatization.
Resistance challenges the system and conditions that cause human beings to be forced from their homes. Whether through water shut-offs in Detroit, drug cartels in El Salvador, or human trafficking and organ theft in Guatemala and Mexico, it recognizes the importance of traveling together. In solidarity. In numbers. In defiance of charities giving donations with one hand and looting with the other. Resistance says NO to this arrangement. Most of us are here because greed ran us out of our ancestral homes.
The caravan coming north is the caravan of hope. It is the returning trip of the Caravan of Sorrow that my family and thousands of others were part of. When it gets to Detroit, and it will because this is The Promised Land, we will celebrate and welcome the warriors who resisted hatred and violence; Detroit, despite false bankruptcies, hypergentrification, stolen elections, poisoned water, stadiums built for billionaires with our school money, where we are a symbol of resistance.