ERACISM: Unwanted Latinos deported from Boulder County in the 1930s

Courtesy of Longmont Museum

Editor’s note: In Part 3 of our continuing “Eracism” series on the history of Latinos in Boulder County, being conducted in partnership with the Boulder County Latino History Project, we explore the role of the deportation of Latinos to Mexico in the 1930s.

Two days after Latino sugar-beet workers went on a strike in 1932 in the culmination of a protracted struggle for basic rights, Boulder’s county commissioners funded a plan to deport many of them to Mexico. The county paid for train fares as workers were escorted to Denver’s Union Station in what civic leaders deemed as a humane mission to relocate the jobless during the Great Depression. Evidence shows that some of the workers wanted to go to Mexico, but others were U.S. citizens and union leaders. It is unclear from the county commissioners’ resolution whether the actions were justified as a financial move amid the struggling economy and mounting pressures to provide taxpayer-funded services to the unemployed, or whether they were motivated by anti-Mexican sentiments — and fears that Latinos were taking increasingly scarce jobs. Research done by the Boulder County Latino History Project, led by retired University of Colorado history professor Marjorie McIntosh, has uncovered conflicting information about the motivation for the deportation, but at best, it’s yet another example of how the county’s Latinos have been treated as second-class citizens over the years.

The text of the May 18, 1932 resolution follows: 

WHEREAS, A number of Mexican families in Boulder County are unemployed, some of which are public charges and there being no prospect of them finding employment and it appears that all of the said families will become public charges of Boulder County, and WHEREAS, the Mexican Government has agreed to accept these families and take care of them if Boulder County will transport them to the Mexican border and the Railroad Company has agreed to transport said families for the sum of $8.00 for each full fare and $4.00 for each half fare.

NOW THEREFORE, be it resolved that there be and is hereby appropriated out of moneys not otherwise appropriated, in the fund for the support of the poor of Boulder County, the sum of $312.00 for the transportation of said families to the Mexican border.

The ‘repatriation’ movement

A chapter of the Latino History Project book being drafted by McIntosh notes that the measure was part of a broader movement in California and other southwestern states to “repatriate” Mexicans between 1930 and 1936.

“Most of the Mexicans worked in unskilled, poorpaying jobs — thinning and harvesting sugar beets, working in mines, or building railroads,” she writes. “Their labor had previously been welcomed during the 1910s and most of the 1920s, but as the Depression set in and employment opportunities constricted, many Americans found a convenient scapegoat in these foreign workers. As the result of negotiation with U.S. authorities, the Mexican government offered to pay train fare from the Mexican border to places where returnees could find agricultural work.”

McIntosh says that in addition to “anti-Mexican hysteria” from an element that believed Latinos would compete with Americans for jobs and, if unemployed, suck up taxpayerfunded relief for the destitute, the opportunity to deport Latinos allowed local authorities to get rid of labor union activists. She notes that in California, a disproportionate number of deportees were union agitators.

“Although we lack definite figures, it is likely that around one million Mexicans were repatriated from the [Southwest] states, including Colorado, during the early 1930s,” she writes. “When adult workers left, they were required to take their entire family with them. Because any children born in this country were legally U.S. citizens, their removal was against the law, but that was not taken into account. … Photographs of hundreds of Mexicans being herded onto trains in the major southwestern cities bear a troubling resemblance to images from Europe during the Nazi period.”

In analyzing the intent behind the commissioners’ controversial resolution, McIntosh examines local newspaper accounts of the time, which paint the repatriation as voluntary. On May 17, 1932, the Longmont Times-Call reported that a “train load of Mexicans” from Larimer County was leaving for their homeland, that a Boulder County group was scheduled to leave the following week, and that the head of the household had to prove birth in Mexico. The article said they were being transported by the county commissioners of “various northern Colorado counties,” charity organizations and the Great Western Sugar Company.

“The cooperating agencies obtained a rate of $8 each for adults and $4 for children from Denver to Juarez, where the Mexican government will furnish transportation to farm lands which the government is giving to the Mexicans,” the newspaper reported.

In an article the next day, McIntosh writes, the Boulder Daily Camera quoted a county welfare worker as saying that “the families came to the county in the hope of getting work in the beet fields, but had been unable to do so. The county is defraying their expenses on the return trip.”

She adds in the book chapter that the articles “suggest that local communities were for charitable reasons assisting Mexican citizens who wished to return to their home country. There is no mention of compulsion or forced deportations here, but we may ask why Great Western was willing to pay to have some of its current or former employees sent home.”

On May 18 of that year, McIntosh notes that the Boulder Daily Camera presented a first-person account by Harry Casaday of families leaving Union Station in Denver. He observed that many of them did not understand “what it was all about,” but said they had come to Colorado to work in the beet fields “ignorant of the fact that the state has more laborers than it needs.” He said, however, that the deportations were conducted “in a humane manner,” supervised by state authorities.

And on June 3, the Longmont Times-Call reported that between 300 and 400 people who had been living in Weld County were headed to Denver that day on the way to Mexico.

“The group will be sent to their native country by county commissioners and other agencies, which believe that the cost of deporting them is less than the demand upon charity sources would be,” the article stated.

Welfare costs swelling 

Apparently there was a real and growing need for welfare assistance, McIntosh says. On May 25, the Boulder Daily Camera reported on a talk given to the Lions Club by County Commissioner E. B. Hill and Anna Powless, a social service secretary. After citing statistics about welfare recipients and funding, Powless said that the county lacked sufficient funds to care properly for “our own Boulder people” and yet was expected to help the “transients” as well. Powless said all of the outsiders had been offered transport back to their previous homes, but declined, according to McIntosh.

“Mrs. Powless’s choice of words suggested that Mexicans were not expected to stay in the U.S. and were not welcome to do so: They were only here temporarily,” she wrote.

Interestingly, McIntosh notes that the Boulder County commissioners’ resolution about repatriation was made two days after the beginning of the beet workers’ strike, and the deportation of Mexicans came just as the mine operators were cutting wages again, and as banned unions were attempting to resist.

“We do not know the names of the people who left, but it would not be surprising — especially given patterns in California — if some were union organizers, miners or beet workers who had been given a choice between repatriation or a jail sentence,” McIntosh writes. “Getting rid of these ‘agitators’ may explain why Great Western Sugar was helping to cover transportation costs: The company was presumably not helping workers go home simply out of a sense of compassion.”

McIntosh also acknowledges the possibility that the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, previously covered by BW in this series, may have played a role.

“The racist views publicly espoused by the Klan, directed especially against Mexicans (who were brown-skinned, foreign-born, and Catholic), were no longer expressed openly in the papers, but they were presumably held by some — perhaps many — local people,” she wrote. “They may therefore have formed an underlying motive for policies that were explained publically in more acceptable terms.”

The anti-Mexican sentiment continued into the late 1930s and beyond. As McIntosh explains, in 1936, Colorado Gov. Edwin C. Johnson suggested that all “Mexicans” — based on their physical appearance — be sent back to their home country.

“Few responded voluntarily to this proposal, whereupon Johnson ordered all Mexican beet workers to leave the state,” McIntosh writes. “To make sure they did not return, he called for a blockade of Colorado’s southern border. In a policy similar to efforts in the 2010s to close Arizona’s border with Mexico, the governor sent troops to set up barriers and stop trains, buses, and automobiles; anyone who looked suspicious was questioned by the soldiers, asked about their origins and financial situation.”

A Boulder account 

As McIntosh acknowledges, we do not know how many Mexicans were deported from Boulder County. But we know it occurred, in part due to eyewitness accounts by the likes of Emma Gomez Martinez, a longtime local proponent of Latino rights who recently had a Boulder park on Canyon Boulevard named after her.

In a letter she later wrote to her children, Martinez described a “scary and sad experience” she had as a young girl in 1936. She and her dad had come to Longmont from their home in Erie to go shopping. McIntosh says that as they walked along Main Street, Martinez reported seeing “a parade of old cars and trucks filled with Mexicans and all their household items. Men were clinging to the trucks and standing on the running boards.”

Martinez was frightened, but her father told her to stand close beside him and she would be safe. “He was not molested because he had blue eyes,” she said.

According to McIntosh, Martinez’s recollection is that the Mexican farm workers were replaced by Anglos.

While the racism against Latinos in Boulder County seemed to hit an apex in the 1930s, it would continue, simmering under the surface, until the late 1960s and early 1970s, when it all came to a head, when newly empowered Mexican-Americans decided that enough was enough.

And that story, to be covered in an upcoming installment of our series, is perhaps the most compelling of all.