(This essay was just published in the anthology, Stranger in a Strange Land, which benefits the ACLU. Featuring Walter Koenig, Linda Rodriguez, Patricia Abbott, Teresa Roman, R.C. Barnes, James B. Nicola, Eric Beetner, Katherine Tomlinson, Heath Lowrance, Kimmy Dee, Mark Rogers, Sheikha A., Mark Hauer, Berkeley Hunt, Manuel Royal, Kathleen Alcalá, Christine Mathewson, Veronica Marie Lewis-Shaw, Zoe Chang, and James L’Etoile. Wonderful reading! Makes a terrific gift, as well. Check it out.
We’ve Been Here All Along: 13 Ways of Looking at Latinos in the Midwest
Here in the middle of the country’s heart, I live surrounded by the liquid names I love—Arredondo, Villalobos, Siquieros, Duarte, Espinoza. We are a secret pool in the middle of this dry, often drought-cursed Bible Belt, petitioners of La Virgen de Guadalupe and Tonantzin with tall flickering novena candles set out on household altars, devourers of caldo, horchata, albondigas with tongues that roll “r”s and hiss our “z”s, dark faces, eyes, hair among all these pale ones.
How did we come to be here in a land covered in ice half the year? How did we come to this place where no parrots fly free and flowers freeze to death? Surely it was not our doing.
Though larger totals of Latinos were driven out of the border states during the Depression’s forced deportations, the usually isolated communities in the Midwest were hit the hardest—in some cases, losing over half their population overnight. Those remaining kept their heads down, hoping to avoid another violent outbreak. They made their children speak only English.
Though that had not mattered. Many of those shipped to Mexico were citizens who spoke English fluently and little, if any, Spanish.
The Midwestern communities became even more invisible. They just wanted to be left alone.
When Federales chased Pancho Villa and his soldados over the countryside in and out of the small farms and ranches and the dusty little towns that supported them, each side of the conflict when it stopped for a rest would force all the men and boys in a village or on a farm to join its army. Worn out from the constant warfare of Mexico of that time, those men and boys—and their families—wanted to be left in peace. They fled to cities where men in suits from the north offered them money if they would migrate to the land of gringos to work on railroads or in meatpacking plants. The old streets-of-gold promise, and it sounded much better than getting shot in one army or another. Taking their families, they moved north to Chicago, Kansas City, and Topeka.
Ironically, when the U.S. entered World War II and needed cannon fodder, politicians remembered those English-speaking, American-citizen kids. They sent military recruiters south. Large numbers of boys, driven by force from their country to a land where they didn’t speak the language and never fit in, signed up to go to Europe and the Pacific to fight for the country they loved—even if it didn’t love them.
If you didn’t read about this in your school history books, don’t be surprised. Neither did I. This whole episode was like the internment of American citizens of Japanese descent in camps during World War II. After the paroxysm was over, we as a nation only wanted to forget what we had done.
The oldest Latino community in Kansas City, Kansas, was built around an entire village removed from Michoacan and settled into broken-down boxcars beside the Kaw River. When I was younger, you could still see the boxcar origins of houses in the Oakland community of Topeka, Kansas, and the Argentine district in Kansas City, Kansas. Around the core of boxcar, wood siding was added. New rooms and additions were built over the years to make real homes.
Few of these houses have survived the past four decades, but I still remember them, always surrounded with luxuriant vegetable and flower gardens in the tiny yard space around the houses—an emphatic statement of a people who could indeed make silk purses out of sows’ ears or real two- or three-bedroom homes out of broken-down boxcars.
In 2007, Kansas City, Missouri, had a new mayor. He had just appointed a very active member of the local Minutemen organization to Kansas City’s most powerful board. I found the local Minutemen chapter’s website and read a call to go door-to-door in Kansas City, demanding to see proof of citizenship or legal status and making “citizen’s arrests” where the occupant could not or would not show these. It was clear from the rhetoric on the website that these would not be random visits but would target homes with occupants who had Spanish last names.
I took this threat personally. So when my friend Freda asked me to come to an emergency press conference to show solidarity, I did. Leaders of Chicano/Latino civic organizations formed the Kansas City Latino Civil Rights Task Force to fight this appointment. We were sure this would all end quickly. We were wrong, of course. It took over six months of constant effort, national groups cancelling conventions in the city, and the cooperation of African American, Jewish, and Anglo groups. Along the way, something happened that I have still to forget.
After one meeting, my friend Tino of LULAC emailed me, “This is what the Minutemen want.” Attached was a documentary video. The black and white photos of Latino families being forced into crowded boxcars reminded me powerfully of similar photos of Jewish families being loaded onto trains in Nazi-occupied areas of Europe during the same years.
When the Great Depression hit, citizens of Mexican ancestry made a great scapegoat. Demagogues, sounding much like people we hear over the airwaves today, blamed them and called for mass deportations. Groups of armed vigilantes, most supported by local, state, and federal government, beat and kidnapped men walking down the street to work or home, visited homes with threats of violence and arrest, and drove families out without any of their possessions. They forced huge numbers of people without any of their belongings or food or water into railroad boxcars where the doors were locked shut and the people eventually dumped out in Mexico. The elderly, babies and pregnant women, those already sick—physically or mentally—suffered the most, and many died along the way. Twenty-five children and adults died on just one of these trains on its trip to the border.
When my children were small, I would take them with me to the Westside, to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, where the grandmothers sold fresh tamales every Saturday to support the church. We would enter the cool basement where las Guadalupeñas would coo at Crystal and Niles en español. Crystal would respond by dancing around and laughing. Niles would try to hide his face in my pant legs, clinging tightly and crying until he pressed new creases. The old women would pack the still-steaming tamales, wrapped by the dozens in foil, into a paper bag and call out goodbyes to el niñito timido.
On the way to the car, I would promise if he stopped crying we would visit La Fama, the panadería, for Mexican bread. We picked out thick, sugary cookie flags and pan dulce, carrying them all in a paper bag that began to show grease spots from the sweet treats inside before we got home.
Or perhaps I would hold out the prospect of a visit to Sanchez Market for chicharrones, the real thing, large, bubbled, almost transparent from the deep-frying that made them so light and crunchy. While there, I would stock up on peppers and spices that couldn’t be found anywhere else in town as the kids relished their big chunks of fried pork rind.
Back then, we gathered around the church and food—at weddings, after funerals, for quinceañeras, after First Communions, and at fundraisers for American GI Forum, the organization founded by decorated, returning Latino World War II veteranos when the American Legion wouldn’t allow them to join.
Many women had a specialty food—tamales, enchiladas, mole, tostadas, arroz con pollo, sopa—that they were asked to bring. You always wanted to go if they had Lupe’s mole or Jennie’s enchiladas. They were better than you could get anywhere else unless you were lucky enough to belong to Lupe’s or Jennie’s family. But these women were generous and always shared with other families who were celebrating or mourning or just raising money for beloved causes.
Many of those driven out in the 1930s were legal residents or citizens, naturalized and native-born. Children born and raised in this country were forced into a country they did not know with a language they did not know and often compelled to leave behind the birth certificates that proved their citizenship. Sixty percent of the 1.2 million people driven out of the country were citizens. Many of these families who were marched to the railroad cars and shipped out like so much freight owned their own homes and even had small businesses. All of this was forfeited to the mobs that kidnapped them and sent them out of the U.S.
I listen for the broken truth that speaks of what’s been stolen, what’s been cracked and smashed. Bit by bit, I try to put together pieces, fragments of what was, stories for my children to live on. I refuse the blindness and forgetfulness that would render me acceptable in my country’s eyes, this country that lies about what it did to its indigenous roots, about who provides the necessary labor for all the luxury in which we live. Our comfortable lives are built on bones, and how we long to forget!
Herbert Hoover never made a formal policy of forced deportation, but elements within his government, along with state and local governments, arranged for the railroad cars and gave approval to the vigilantes. In some cases, it was actually government agents who drove people out of their homes. At times, private institutions also financed deportation boxcars. For example, the archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, paid for boxcars to take families out of the city, many of whom had lived there and worshipped as faithful Catholics since before the turn of the century. In fact, in southern California, hundreds of families were rounded up in 1931 as they attended Catholic services on Ash Wednesday.
In Kansas City, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas, we have a large Chicano population that has been in the area since the turn of the twentieth century with third-generation and fourth-generation adult U.S. citizens who speak primarily (and often only) English, have college educations, and work as professionals. We also have a large, newer population, deriving from Central and South America as much as from Mexico, as often as not completely indigenous with little or no Spanish, speaking Nahuatl, Quechua, Q'eqchi'.
I have often thought the great public horror evinced about this new wave of immigrants is due to their indigenous nature. The United States can hardly bear to see such large numbers of indigenous people as anything but threat when this country has worked so long and so hard at wiping out its own indigenous peoples through violence, disease, “education,” and the blood quantum rule the BIA has imposed on our indigenous nations that still endure.
My son Niles took a one-week European vacation. He flew home from London by way of Detroit. In Detroit, this non-Spanish-speaking, second-generation American citizen (on his father’s side), born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, was held for over 24 hours by immigration authorities and refused entry into his own country, even though he had a passport. They were certain he was an illegal immigrant from Mexico trying to sneak into the U.S.
Neither his valid documents nor his non-accented, perfectly colloquial English could outweigh his brown skin and Spanish last name. He was released and allowed to enter his own country only after his white boss confirmed over the telephone that he was a citizen and had been gainfully employed in a high-level professional position for seven years.
To me, this is doubly galling because Niles is not only Chicano but also Cherokee and Choctaw. My children and I have several lines of ancestors who go back to the time before there was a United States of America. I have always since wondered just exactly how many illegal immigrants from Mexico named Niles have flown to England and toured the Continent before trying to sneak into the U.S. on a flight from London.
People always are surprised to find Latinos in Kansas City—anywhere in the Midwest. We’re only supposed to congregate in Miami, New York, El Paso, Phoenix, and LA.
Sometimes I want to ask, “Who did you think picked all those fruits and vegetables from the breadbasket of the country? Who worked in the meatpacking hellholes, if not the Mexicans and Indians? Who kept the trains cleaned, painted, and running, if not the African Americans and Mexicans?”
Always the invisible poor, laborers doing the work no one else wanted. Now, it’s roofing and gardening, cleaning hotel rooms and offices at night.
We’ve been here a long time, long enough to lose our language sometimes, while we were gaining diplomas and degrees, but never to lose our culture completely. The newcomers make you nervous, afraid. But we’ve been here all along—you just never noticed.