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Mexican Americans and Repatriation

During the second half of the 19th century, harassment against Mexicans by Anglo-Americans was occasionally so severe that many were forced to abandon their homes in Texas and return to Mexico. In the 1850s a number of Mexicans were driven from their homes in Central Texas, and in 1856 the entire Mexican population of Colorado County was reportedly ordered to leave the county. Conflict between Anglo Americans and Mexicans in the 1870s reportedly resulted in the expulsion of Mexicans from various locations in South Texas.

Nevertheless, the number of repatriates was minuscule compared to those who returned to Mexico during the Great Depression. With the deterioration of the United States economy after 1929, between 400,000 and 500,000 Mexicans and their American-born children returned to Mexico. More than half of these departed from Texas. (The term Mexican is used in this article to refer to all Mexican-heritage repatriates, although a significant number of them were Mexican Americans since they had been born in Texas. For Mexican Americans, the term repatriate is actually inaccurate, for one cannot be repatriated to a foreign country.) Depression-era Mexican repatriation from Texas began in 1929, gained momentum in 1930, and peaked in 1931. In the last quarter of 1931 repatriation reached massive proportions; the roads leading to the Texas-Mexico border became congested with returning repatriates. Mexican border towns were also crowded as thousands of returning Mexicans awaited transportation to the interior of Mexico. The number of repatriates declined in 1932 and again in 1933. During the middle years of the depression - 1934 to 1938 - only occasional groups of repatriates left Texas. Then in 1939 and continuing into 1940, a significant number of Mexicans were repatriated from the state by the Mexican government.

Although most Mexicans were repatriated from rural areas of Texas, a substantial number returned to Mexico from urban centers. At least some departed from every large Texas city, but the largest number departed from San Antonio, El Paso, Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth. Many urban repatriates had been employed as seasonal or permanent workers in labor-intensive industries before the depression curtailed employment. Mexicans were among the first discharged. Many urban Mexicans initially refused to abandon their homes in Texas; only after their savings were exhausted did they reluctantly return to Mexico. Urban repatriation was fueled by intense local anti-Mexican campaigns as well as by a statewide Immigration Service deportation campaign.

Perhaps the most important cause of the repatriation of Mexicans from Texas in the 1930s was the deterioration of the agricultural economy of Texas, since most Texas repatriates had been employed as tenant farmers and agricultural laborers. Mexican farmworkers were devastated by declining wages after 1929. For example, the average wage paid cottonpickers decreased from $1.21 per 100 pounds of cotton picked in 1928 to forty-four cents in 1931. Mexican laborers simply could not live on such low wages. State and federal legislation designed to mitigate the impact of the depression on the poor also contributed to the repatriation of thousands of Mexicans.

Two of the most important laws were the Texas Cotton Acreage Control Law of 1931-32 and the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, which caused the displacement of large numbers of Mexicans in the early depression. In response to both laws, landlords evicted thousands of Mexican tenant farmers and agricultural laborers who subsequently returned to Mexico.

Edna E. Kelley, "The Mexicans Go Home," Southwest Review 17 (April 1932).

Robert R. McKay, "The Federal Deportation Campaign in Texas: Mexican Deportation from the Lower Rio Grande Valley during the Great Depression," Borderlands Journal 5 (Fall 1981).

Robert R. McKay, "The Impact of the Great Depression on Immigrant Mexican Labor: Repatriation of the Bridgeport, Texas, Coal Miners," Social Science Quarterly 65 (June 1984).

Robert R. McKay, "Mexican Repatriation from Texas during the Great Depression," Journal of South Texas 3 (Spring 1990).

Robert R. McKay, "The Texas Cotton Acreage Control Law of 1931 and Mexican Repatriation," West Texas Historical Association Year Book 59 (1983).

R. Reynolds McKay, "Texas Mexican Repatriation during the Great Depression" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Oklahoma, 1982).

This article by Robert R. McKay is reprinted with permission, abridged from the full article, which can be found at

© The Texas State Historical Association, 1997,1998,1999.
Last Updated: February 15, 1999