On Thursday February 16, 2017 the upstairs conference room in San Jose’s Japanese American Museum was packed as a diverse audience attended a talk given by California State University Los Angeles professor and Dean of Natural and Social Sciences Francisco E. Balderrama. Balderrama’s talk addressed a shameful chapter in the nation’s history that very few American have actually heard of; the Mexican repatriation during the Roosevelt administration. Balderrama revealed that thousands of Mexican Americans (most of them being children) were swiftly rounded up by local sheriffs and then forced to board trains that took them to Mexico despite many of them having birth certificates and other documentation that proved they were in indeed American in the 1930’s.
Balderrama, age 68, is a tall, lean and sophisticated gentleman who omitted using a podium stating, “I am a Latino. I like to speak with my hands as well as my voice.” Balderrama highlighted the main points of the atrocity regarding the Mexican repatriation and cited a book he co-wrote with lifelong friend and mentor Raymond Rodriguez, Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s. As he jokingly reminded the audience that he was not in San Jose to sell his book, Balderrama noted that Decade of Betrayal has sold over 500,000 copies, has been made required reading in Mexican American studies classes across the country and that the book was recently revised because survivors of the Mexican repatriation were now coming forward with their own testimonies.
Balderrama then cited one testimony in particular that left several members of the audience in tears. He recounted the ordeal of the late Ignacio Piña. Piña was apprehended by his local sheriff at just six years of age and detained in a county jail for weeks before sent via train to Ciudad Juarez. The Piña family then trekked to Mexico City and found work in hotels catering to tourists as their time in the United States prior to the repatriation made Ignacio Piña and his sister fluent in English. Balderrama became solemn as he recounted the night that Piña’s sister took him to see a screening of The Wizard of Oz to celebrate her first payday. Towards the end of the film when Dorothy returns to Kansas from the fictitious Land of Oz, Piña’s sister asked her brother why he was crying. Ignacio Piña replied “I want to go home too.”
Tune in next week for the conclusion of the Balderrama talk….