California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill this week that instructs schools and textbook makers in the state to seriously consider including a lesson on Depression-era Mexican Repatriation, which forced more than one million Mexicans out of the U.S.
The bill, AB 146, was authored by Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, but she credits a class of fifth graders for the idea. Each year, Garcia holds a contest called "There Ought to Be a Law" which encourages students to identify problems and submit their solutions in the form of a bill. Garcia encouraged students at Bell Gardens Elementary School to enter the contest after she saw them present on the historical event, and they told her it was hard to research.
“The students spoke about how difficult it was for them to find information on Repatriation, but as they dug and learned more, the impacts of this tragic period affected them on a very personal level," she said in a statement.
Experts say that roughly 60% of Mexicans who left America at that time were U.S. citizens. In an interview with NPR, author Francisco Balderrama described what it was like for Mexicans in America at the time:
Repatriation carries connotations that it's voluntary, that people are making their own decision without pressure to return to the country of their nationality. But most obviously, how voluntary is it if you have deportation raids by the federal government during the Hoover administration and people are disappearing on the streets? How voluntary is it if you have county agents knocking on people's doors telling people oh, you would be better off in Mexico and here are your train tickets? You should be ready to go in two weeks.
The period should be remembered as another example of America's mistreatment of immigrants, though advocacy groups have struggled to bring it into the mainstream. California didn't officially apologize for the deportations until about 10 years ago—and curious fifth graders aren't the first to pursue legal change in this area. The bill itself includes a history of failed attempts to include the event in course material:
Prior legislation. SB 1575 (Dunn) of the 2005-06 Session was substantively similar to this bill and was vetoed by the Governor. SB 551 (Cedillo) of the 2007-08 Session was also similar and was held in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Both proposed to add the topic of Mexican American deportation to the required course of study for grades 1-12. SB 1214 (Cedillo), also of the 2007-08 Session proposed similar requirements.
The last bill was rejected by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger because he didn't want to force coverage of any single topic. "I have consistently vetoed legislation that has attempted to mandate specific details or events into areas of instruction," he wrote at the time.
To avoid a comparable veto on AB 146, the Assembly Committee on Education requested a law that would ask schools to seriously consider inclusion of Mexican Repatriation in lessons. They wrote in the bill:
It has been the view of this Committee that bills which seek to mandate the inclusion of specific historical events in state curricula should be amended to instead "require consideration" or "encourage consideration" of these topics, and that this occur at the next scheduled revision of a framework.
Garcia also thinks the lesson would be beneficial to "a certain Republican Presidential frontrunner," who "should now see that his unworkable and reckless plan for mass deportation, will be a human disaster, just as it was so many years ago." We wonder who she's talking about.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.