- They Should Stay There: The Story of Mexican Migration and Repatriation During the Great Depression by Fernando Saúl Alanís Enciso
While Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas del Río is best remembered for agrarian reform, the nationalization of Mexican oil, and the welcoming of refugees of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), it is his government's attitude towards Mexican migration and the Mexican community in the United States which is at the centre of this fascinating study by Alanís Enciso. First published in Spanish as the author's doctoral dissertation in 2007, the study is still the definitive account of the repatriation of Mexicans and Americans of Mexican descent after the Great Depression called into question not only the economic future of the United States but also the status of Mexican immigrants. In this time of economic crisis and massive unemployment, many Mexican workers seemed to have overstayed their welcome. But what was the position of the Mexican government and did the state extend a helping hand to those nationals in need on the other side of the border?
Using Mexican and American documents, many of which have not been studied before, the author highlights in the eight insightful chapters of his book the many connections between Mexican immigration and emigration and carefully examines the repatriation schemes of the Cárdenas administration. Thus, Alanís Enciso very convincingly contradicts a romantic and nationalistic view of Mexican policy efforts concerning its nationals living in the United States in the years after 1929. The author deftly separates rhetoric from actual policies and argues that the Cárdenas government had no consistent repatriation policy. The invitation extended to Mexicans-in-need to come home was matched neither by lasting political efforts nor by the provision of funds. In fact, as Alanís Enciso reminds us, Mexico would never have been able to answer the needs of a massive return migration. This would have required extensive planning and government action, and none of this the Cárdenas administration could afford. So, eventually, all the government could really do was convince Mexicans who sought to leave the United States that "they should stay there."
This makes for a wonderful book title, which furthermore sums up the pragmatic attitude of the president, who resorted to symbolic action and hoped create unity and rally support for his policies. Repatriation thus became a "nationalist emblem" (p. 123) and was directed more at Mexicans at home than at those abroad. During this time, Cárdenas had been harshly criticized for other immigration policies; for instance, even though it had been planned for since 1938, the arrival of Spanish refugees in mid-June 1939 elicited strong reactions by different sectors of Mexican society. While intellectuals welcomed the Spanish, [End Page 215] organizations that represented urban and agricultural workers were more skeptical and the Catholic Church and the Right even resented the presence of the "red" arrivals. Immigration to Mexico was then very present in everyday political discussions.
It is important to remember that the government of Cárdenas had more insight into Mexican emigration and immigration than any previous government: When Cárdenas assumed the Mexican presidency on December 1, 1934, he had served four years as governor of the state of Michoacán, which still today has a large number of citizens living in the United States. Due to this experience, Cárdenas was well acquainted with the problems of the Mexican community; also, the president-to-be, hand-picked by former president Plutarco Elías Calles, had paid special attention to the Mexican community in the United States during his campaign. Cárdenas knew that Mexicans had experienced racism and hardship well before 1929, although both certainly had increased during this period of economic crisis. And he eventually sought to alleviate their situation by negotiating directly with the state authorities of California and Texas in 1939 and 1940 respectively. Mexicans were not only...