Plaza to commemorate mass deportations of 1930s in wake of LA apology

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LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes is hosting a six-hour memorial Friday afternoon following California's Apology Act — a public apology enacted by the city of Los Angeles for the illegal deportation of about 400,000 California citizens and residents of Mexican descent between 1929 and 1944.

"It's difficult to get a precise number [of deportees]," says Francisco Balderrama, professor of history and Chicano studies at Cal State Los Angeles. "On the one hand, the American government didn't want to publicize it. [...] And, on the other hand, the Mexican government was also involved with its own great depression so they didn't want to publicize it either. But looking at reports from journalists and observers at the time we're talking about one-third of the population of Mexican nationals and Americans of Mexican descent."

The statewide apology and act, which included Friday's memorial ceremony, was enacted in 2006, but L.A. County issued its own apology earlier this week.

The Plaza is hoping to teach Angelenos about the largely forgotten wave of forced deportations through panels, performances and workshops. Repatriation survivors and their families will be at the ceremony recording personal stories.

At the beginning of the Great Depression, the Hoover administration sponsored a series of deportation raids in repeatedly public settings, including the Plaza at Olvera Street.

"That whole area was cornered off and there was a public round-up," explains Balderrama. "This was a first at that time for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. That created a climate of fear and anxiety throughout the Mexican population here in L.A."

Meanwhile, entities as far-flung as the Southern Pacific Railroad and L.A. County also hopped on the deportation bandwagon, in some cases literally shipping their workers back across the border.

"L.A. County publicized a program that initially they called 'Deportation,'" Balderrama says. "L.A. County would target Mexican families that were on relief or on the charity list and they would recruit them to go to Mexico."

He adds that many Mexican families were actually of Mexican descent — that, coupled with the fact that speaking Spanish in classrooms was illegal and punishable by beatings, meant many of the freshly deported couldn't even interact with native Mexicans.

"So they're being shipped off to Mexico and they have to confront from their perspective a foreign language and a foreign country," he concludes.

The apology comes after decades of lobbying from Latino rights activists in the area. The memorial service will run from 1:30 to 6 p.m. at the Olvera Street plaza.

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