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Lost Citizens

Telemundo Chicago's Vicente Serrano documents the mass deportation of Mexican-Americans during the Depression.



Vicente Serrano remembers sitting under a tree as a kid in Navojoa, Mexico, listening to his grandmother's tales of her childhood in Los Angeles. "Most of her stories ended in tears," he says. Serrano's grandmother, Concepción "Concha" Covarrubias, was born in LA in 1924. But her mother died when she was about ten, and afterward, she says, social workers came to the house and coerced her father, a U.S. citizen, into returning to Mexico. "They told him, 'If you're still here at midnight, we'll take the kids away,'" Serrano says.

Serrano was researching a book about the Covarrubiases' de facto exile when he heard about the California legislature's 2003 hearings on the mass deportation of Mexican-Americans from that state during the Depression. "I realized it wasn't the exclusive story of my grandmother," says Serrano, now 30 and host of the public affairs show En Contexto con Vicente Serrano on Telemundo Chicago. "So many other people suffered the same situation and it had never been fully documented. I decided it was time to do it."

And he did. Serrano tells the story of his grandmother and the wave of Mexican-American expatriation in his first independent documentary A Forgotten Injustice, which screens April 18 and 26 as part of the Chicago Latino Film Festival (see Movies).

Concha Covarrubias's father had moved to the U.S. in the 1910s to lay track for the Southern Pacific Railroad. This was before the establishment of the border patrol in 1924; a Mexican worker could get a visa for a nickel and U.S. companies were recruiting whole villages to move to the States.

But after the 1929 stock market crash, the Hoover administration and local agencies across the country sought to alleviate white unemployment by targeting Mexicans—and Mexican Americans—for removal. "It's not a question of rights, it's a question of pigment," a representative of the LA Chamber of Commerce wrote to the LA Board of Supervisors, urging the emptying of Mexican neighborhoods in the city. Mexicans were convenient victims: they were easily identified and concentrated in certain neighborhoods, and returning them to Mexico was far cheaper than expelling European immigrants.

Estimates of the number of Mexican-Americans expatriated in the 1930s range from 400,000 to 2,000,000. Serrano uses a figure in the middle, 1,000,000, but says more research is needed to determine an accurate total. Thousands were sent to Mexico when factory jobs dried up in Detroit, Joliet, and Gary. "Gary was one of the worst places," Serrano says. "The American Legion was in charge of rounding up people there and putting them on trains." Authorities used a variety of tactics to pressure U.S. citizens to leave: sometimes the threat of force, but also hiring bans, school expulsions, and the denial of public aid.

Many expatriated Mexican-Americans returned to the U.S. under the Bracero Program, created to meet rising demand for agricultural labor during World War II. Thousands were even sent draft notices in Mexico. But many others stayed south of the border, often living in severe poverty. Some were too angry to return. Some were afraid. Some, like the Covarrubiases, had gone to Mexico with no proof of U.S. citizenship and didn't know they could return. "People ask, 'Do you consider yourself American or Mexican?'" Serrano's great uncle José says in A Forgotten Injustice. "It's a lost identity. I'm not one or the other."

Concha Covarrubias moved around Mexico for years, cleaning houses, before settling in Navojoa, a city in Sonora about 360 miles south of the U.S. border, to raise a family with Serrano's grandfather, a construction worker. Serrano grew up with his grandparents as well as his brother and sister; his mother, Herminia Arroyo, a teacher; and his father, Vicente, who worked a variety of odd jobs. "I come from a very humble family," Serrano says. But, he adds, he was never shy. As a kid he loved performing poetry and making speeches. "Someone told me I should be a politician or a reporter."

Serrano's father crossed the border illegally three times to hunt for Covarrubias's birth certificate. He finally found it in the mid-80s, at a Los Angeles County office. He used the birth certificate to apply for U.S. residency. It took ten years, but he finally got his green card and moved to LA in 1995, urging the rest of the family to apply and join him. "He worked in a Taco Bell, he was a truck driver, he worked for a pest control company," Serrano says. "You name it, he's done it all."

Serrano wanted to attend journalism school in Mexico, but it was too expensive for his family. He studied education for a year at a university in Sonora, then, in 1996, went to live with his father in LA. "I thought, 'If I go to the U.S. maybe I would have a better shot,'" he says. "The community colleges were very welcoming, and I found a very good TV production program." While studying at Santa Ana College he interned at Univision in LA, and after getting his associate's degree in 1998 landed a job as a reporter for the station. In 2001 he became an anchor for Univision in Phoenix, then moved to Telemundo Chicago in 2003.

The entire Serrano family eventually moved to the U.S. and every member is now a citizen; Vicente became one last year. His grandmother was reluctant to go back to LA after more than 70 years in Mexico. "The American one was the hardest to convince to come," he says. "And now that she's here, it's really hard to keep her here. Believe it or not, she wants to die in Mexico."

After learning about the California hearings on expatriation, Serrano began digging into existing research on the subject. He found regional studies in California and oral histories in Michigan, but many of the historians and scholars hadn't coordinated their efforts, he says. "They hadn't really investigated what happened around the country."

Serrano dug through historical records and traveled around the U.S. and Mexico to talk to researchers, people who'd been expatriated, and their families. "A lot of the people who came back didn't want to be seen as Mexicans, didn't want to live where the Mexicans live," Serrano says. "It made it almost impossible to find them."

He worked on the film over vacations, on weekends, and whenever else he could grab some time, recruiting friends in the industry to volunteer as crew, borrowing equipment, and paying for the production out of his own pocket. He says he's not sure how much he spent altogether, but he sold a house he'd bought in Arizona to cover some of the costs.

Last summer, Serrano noticed frequent comparisons being made between the Great Depression and today's economic crisis, and decided that five years of production was enough: it was time to stop revising and release the film. A Forgotten Injustice premiered last October at the Instituto Cervantes of Chicago. Since then he's taken it around to schools and community centers, inviting audiences to help him track down people who were expatriated and to talk to their own families about it.

Finishing the film when he did, Serrano says, was "the best decision we could have made. I hear some of the language used in 2009—it reminds me of how the situation happened in the 30s. It's dangerous. You hear people saying, 'This is an invasion.' It's only a matter of time before someone starts playing with the numbers: 'You have so many undocumented, and you have so many unemployed.' Before we get to that point I want to contribute to the debate." Serrano recently met with U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez, and encouraged him to reintroduce a bill he'd cosponsored in 2006, calling for a national commission to investigate the expatriation.

After seeing A Forgotten Injustice in January, Illinois state senator William Delgado introduced a bill to have the expatriation incorporated into the U.S. history curriculum for public elementary and high schools statewide. Serrano testified before the Senate Education Committee, which approved the measure. The senate passed the bill on March 31; at press time it was in the house elementary and secondary education committee. "I was flabbergasted when I saw the film," Delgado says. "This was diabolical. Hopefully we can put back a chunk of America's conscience. These people deserve that justice and that recognition, so it doesn't happen again."v

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