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Ghosts of a 1931 Raid

A Random INS Roundup Set the Tone for Decades of Ethnic Tension

February 25, 2001|ANTONIO OLIVO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The scar runs 70 years deep, back to that afternoon when federal immigration agents stormed a park near the birthplace of Los Angeles and pulled more than 400 terrified men and women into waiting vans, away from their families and--for many of them--away from their country.

Yet, for Monday's anniversary of a barely remembered 1931 raid at La Placita, there is no formal commemoration planned to note that many of those deported to Mexico that day were actually U.S. citizens.

There are no speeches drafted pointing out that, because of an immigrant backlash sprouting from the Great Depression, the raid outside Olvera Street triggered nearly a decade of deportations around the country. Some of those deported were indeed Mexican nationals, some in the United States legally or illegally.

But scholars estimate that many of the more than 1 million people banished were sent to a Mexican homeland they had never seen before. Some barely spoke Spanish.

And no plaques have been stamped to describe how that period helped forge the complex Mexican American psyche central to Los Angeles today.

For the most part, there are only ghosts left to tell of the startled screams that day at the site where newly arrived Latin American immigrants still gather.

Local historian Raymond Rodriguez, 75, has for years been chasing one such spirit: his father's.

Juan Rodriguez--a legal resident--had spent years happily tending his family's livestock and produce farm in Long Beach. But like thousands of others in Los Angeles during that period, one day in 1935 he abruptly abandoned his family. His wife, Juanita, 10-year-old son Raymond and four other children never heard from him again.

Rodriguez, who has co-written a book about the La Placita raid and its impact, can still recall his father's parting moments as if they had been running on a loop in his mind all this time:

"If you don't go [too] . . . you'll starve to death and maybe worse," Juan Rodriguez told his young wife in urgent tones before the door slammed forever on their lives together.

"No. Whatever happens is God's will," a defiant Juanita Rodriguez responded.

Afterward, "For a time, we were on welfare," Rodriguez said. "It was really tough. My 13-year-old brother and I had to plow the farm ourselves. I really missed having my dad around. He was a great storyteller."

It wasn't until recently that Rodriguez fully understood why his father left.

Those seeds were sown at exactly 3 p.m. on Feb. 26, 1931.

Responding to a mounting backlash against illegal immigrants in the face of nationwide job shortages, the Immigration and Naturalization Service had for days been posting newspaper ads warning of an impending raid against "Mexican aliens" in Los Angeles.

Some took the government seriously and hopped the next train or bus south of the border.

However, the majority of the region's then roughly 175,000 Mexican Americans--many of whom had emigrated to escape the perils brought on by the Mexican Revolution of 1910--continued making lives for themselves here.

In Los Angeles, their home now included La Placita, near the barrios of Bunker Hill and a popular gathering spot for recent immigrants. They could search for work or, at least, find companions for a good political debate about their Mexican homeland.

Doug Monroy, a history professor at Colorado College who has written a book about Mexican immigration to Los Angeles during that era, said La Placita was vibrant in the days before the Depression.

So-called Mexican anarchists verbally clashed with libre pensadores--"free thinkers"--and conservatives about the future of their homeland, while mariachi musicians and other entertainers congregated around anyone with money to pay.

"In the days before television and radio, if you wanted stimulation and excitement, you went to La Placita," Monroy said.

But if people loitered there too long, they were also in danger of being arrested by local police, Monroy added.

Intending to Send a Message

INS raids at La Placita, Mexican neighborhoods and businesses were a fairly common occurrence in California and other Southwestern states, he added, though most were carried out with little efficiency and marginal success.

That changed on Feb. 26, 1931. In part to send a message nationwide, a team of plainclothes and uniformed INS agents sealed off the tiny park before anybody knew they were there.

The word "Razzia!" ("Raid!") shattered the afternoon serenity as men and women ran from federal agents wielding guns and batons.

In about a week, the first official repatriation train left Los Angeles for Mexico with more than 400 on board. Within about six months, another 50,000 had been caught nationwide and put on trains and ships.

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