The Great Depression was a devastating economic crisis that began with the Wall Street Crash in 1929 and lasted through most of the 1930s. It was a time of immense hardship for people across the United States, but particularly for minority groups like Mexican Americans. Many Mexican immigrants had come to the US in the early 20th century looking for jobs and a better life, settling mostly in the Southwest. When the Depression hit, Mexican Americans were some of the hardest hit groups, facing unemployment, discrimination, and even deportation. But where exactly did Mexican Americans live during this troubled time, and how did the Depression affect their communities?
– Where were the main centers of Mexican American population in the US prior to and during the Depression?
– How did economic factors like unemployment and deportation impact Mexican American communities?
– What were some of the unique hardships faced by Mexican Americans during the Depression?
– How did Mexican Americans respond to the challenges of the Depression? Did they relocate or disperse to new areas?
Mexican American Population Centers
Prior to the Great Depression, the vast majority of Mexican Americans lived in the Southwest, particularly in Texas, California, Arizona, and New Mexico. These states had drawn Mexican immigrants looking for work on railroads, in mining, agriculture, and other industries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, it’s estimated that over 600,000 Mexicans came to work in US agriculture alone between 1900-1930. Major Mexican American barrios (neighborhoods) developed in cities like Los Angeles, San Antonio, Tucson, El Paso, San Diego, and Albuquerque.
When the Depression struck, the geographic distribution of Mexican Americans changed somewhat. With massive job losses in agriculture and industry, many headed back to Mexico. Meanwhile, some left the Southwest looking for work in other parts of the US. This caused the Mexican American population to disperse beyond the Southwest, now reaching into states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and even New York. However, the Southwest remained the overwhelming center of Mexican American life in the 1930s.
Key Cities & Regions
– Los Angeles Area – East LA and the San Gabriel Valley were major Mexican American enclaves.
– Rio Grande Valley – Stretching along the Texas-Mexico border, this was a major agricultural area with a large Mexican workforce.
– Tucson & Phoenix – Important Mexican American communities developed in these rapidly growing Southwestern cities.
– San Antonio – It had the second oldest Mexican barrio in the US and a sizable Mexican American population.
– New Mexico – Hispanos (descendants of Spanish settlers) lived here for generations. The population boomed with Mexican immigrants in the 1920s.
– Chicago – Second largest Mexican American community outside the Southwest by the 1930s.
Challenges Faced by Mexican Americans
As an economically marginalized group, Mexican Americans were severely impacted by the unemployment, poverty, and social dislocation of the Depression era. They faced a number of unique hardships:
– Unemployment – Mexican Americans had very high unemployment as agriculture and mining jobs disappeared. It’s estimated up to one third were out of work.
– Deportations & Repatriation – Unable to find work, many desperate Mexican Americans returned to Mexico. Others were deported in mass expulsions by authorities.
– Poverty & Homelessness – Mexican American families suffered intense poverty as breadwinners lost jobs. Many lost their homes and lived in makeshift shelters.
– Discrimination – “Mexican Repatriation” was largely a forced deportation reflecting anti-Mexican attitudes. Mexicans faced discrimination in relief and work programs.
– Family Breakdown – Many younger Mexican Americans were born in the US but parents were deported to Mexico, breaking up families.
– Shantytowns – Mexican Americans crowded into unauthorized housing on the outskirts of cities, forming “Shanty Towns” or “Palo Verde” slums, lacking basic amenities.
Coping and Responding
Facing immense challenges, Mexican American individuals and communities struggled creatively to survive and respond:
– Mutual Aid Societies – Community groups like “mutualistas” and “mutual aid societies” helped collect funds to provide unemployment insurance or burial costs for members.
– Labor Activism – Mexican Americans organized strikes demanding living wages and relief jobs from local government. However, they often faced violent suppression.
– Repatriation – From 1929-1937, up to 500,000 Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans were repatriated to Mexico, some voluntarily but many forcefully deported by authorities.
– Moving to Find Work – Some Mexican Americans migrated away from traditional areas looking for jobs on railroads, in mining, or agriculture elsewhere in the US.
– Transition to Cities – Increasing numbers gave up farm labor to move to cities in the Southwest, taking industrial jobs and seeking new opportunities.
– Relief Programs – Local community leaders fought for equitable inclusion and treatment of Mexican Americans in New Deal work and welfare programs.
– Cultural Pride – Some organizations promoted Mexican culture, emphasizing pride in their ethnic identity during difficult times.
The Great Depression was a time of immense struggle for Mexican Americans as a marginalized community. Concentrated primarily across the Southwest, they faced staggering unemployment, poverty, deportations, discrimination, and the breakdown of families in the 1930s. However, Mexican Americans showed great resilience and solidarity in coping through mutual aid, labor activism, migrations in search of work, transitions to urban living, and demands for equitable treatment and cultural pride. Their contributions and hardships during the Depression era reflect the complex legacy of Mexican Americans through some of the hardest times in American history.