Guest Commentary: Will History Repeat Itself?
We are living in a period of time in American history which is unprecedented in so many ways.
The events which shape our history and our lives, our emotions and our fears; events like the recent mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, could certainly be considered unprecedented.
If we live long enough though, oftentimes, we get to experience events that resemble or mirror those that have happened in the past.
And if you have been following the Republican presidential nomination campaigns of particularly Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, it is easy to see evidence of an ugly part of American history beginning to rear its ugly head.
Unfortunately, for those of us with cultural and family connections to Mexico, some of the worst parts of American history have to do with the unfair and unjust treatment of our ancestors.
Shortly after the end of the Korean War in 1953, and with the American economy undergoing what has been reported as a “postwar recession”, politicians needing someone to blame for the economic problems, set their sights on the Mexican nationals who had come to work in the states. Previously, they had been seen as a source of cheap labor and had even been invited to come to the US to work under programs like the Bracero Program which began in 1942 and didn’t end until 1964.
But a short 12 years after it started, after enriching many American agriculture businesses, agriculture landowners and US manufacturers with their back breaking labor, they were seen as taking American jobs and became the ones to blame for America’s ills.
Consequently, on June 9, 1954 under the order of Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, “Operation Wetback” was born. The operation’s objective was very simple, deport all the “wetbacks” back to Mexico so the jobs they held could be filled by Americans. Sound familiar?
It was called “Operation Wetback” because the term “wetback” was how whites referred to people who looked Mexican or who had brown skin, or who lived in certain sections of town. To them, it did not matter if they had been born here or not, they were all lumped together and seen as being in this country illegally, having crossed to the north side of the Rio Grande and thus were called “wetbacks”.
Many of us in our 60’s and older today were already born, so it wasn’t that long ago.
Many of us who came of age in the 60”s, remember the term “wetback” well, having been called that at Carroll Thompson Jr. High, Lubbock High, and Texas Tech in the late 60’s and early 70’s in my case.
I’m sure that there are many people right here in Lubbock who were impacted directly or indirectly by the events of those times. It’s just that sometimes we tend to forget the events that shaped our lives even if we weren’t directly impacted. I’ve always been a big believer that once we forget where we came from, we lose a very important part of ourselves, and sometimes so much more.
While many people who experienced the humiliation of those years may have already passed away, many of their family members have not.
In exchanging information about the 1954 events after Donald Trump made his absurd comments about it, I received this email from Miguel “Mike” Torres Jr, who grew up in Lubbock in the 50’s and 60’s and also attended the same Lubbock schools that I did, albeit earlier than I.
“Back in the nineteen fifties, my father in law’s brother, Jose Ontiveros, was one of those who got deported under president Eisenhower’s great round up of so called “wetbacks!” Jose was born in the US while his family was up here working one time before the fifties. Later, the family moved back to Monterrey Mexico. Later on as a young man, Jose came back to the US to work. Well as luck would have it, he was one of the ones who got rounded up and shipped back to Mexico! They never honored or paid attention to his US birth certificate. He was so mad at this country, which I can’t say I blame him for it. Every time he told his story, he got real mad and emotional about it, and would say that he renounced his US citizenship while in Mexico! He never returned here except as an older man, when his brother, my father in law Tomas Ontiveros, was on his deathbed. Then after my father in law’s death, he went back home to Monterrey.
A couple of years later he died in his home, still hating the US government for what they had done to him. Can’t say that I blame him for that at all, and as a matter of fact, I would have done the same thing if I’d been in his shoes. I do believe the same US Constitution that’s in effect today, was also around back then! But as one of the Republican presidential candidates says, “it’s just a piece of paper!” Democratic nation?”
Sad story. And what makes it even worse is that Jose was not alone, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Mexican Americans born in this country suffered the same fate as Jose. And then there are the hundreds of thousands of parents, grandparents, and children of the deported, and extended family members who were also impacted. The total number of those deported and those impacted easily number into the millions.
When reading about Republican politicians like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, because frankly I cannot bring myself to listen to them or watch them on TV, it doesn’t take much to realize that they are using some of the same political rhetoric used back during that period of American history. Trump even referred to “Operation Wetback” recently, to explain how another mass deportation could be implemented should he become president.
The term “Illegal aliens” has replaced “wetbacks”. But what has not changed, is that they once again blame immigrants for what is wrong with, as they call this country, “their America”. As Donald Trump said, the only people Mexico is sending over are “Mexican rapists and drug traffickers”.
As my father told me on one occasion when discussing his personal history, back then they didn’t ask you where you were born, they just assumed that you were a “mojado” or “wetback”. The lasting impression on him was the fear that he, or one of his extended family members would be deported. He was by the way, 44 years old in 1954 and was a farm laborer during that period.
And although things have changed somewhat since then, there are certain things that happen which teach us that they have not changed that much.
Recently at a Donald Trump political event, people protesting against Trump were called all kinds of racial slurs and told to, yes, you guessed it, “go back to Mexico”.
Once again, Trump supporters do not bother to ask where you were born, they just assume that because you look “Mexican” you are here illegally. It seems that their racism and their anger at minorities whom they blame for their problems, blinds them to the possibility that you are just as American as they are.
It’s always been that way.
About the only brown skinned people they accept are those that have abandoned their roots and culture and now think like they do, like Ted Cruz.
But don’t kid yourself, more often than not, in politics, people who hold those views pretend to like and accept you, until they don’t need you anymore or you can no longer be of service to them.
Many of our parents and grandparents were forced to endure the humiliation of being called “wetbacks” or “mojados”. If you are of a certain age, I’m sure you too experienced some of the indignities. In my personal experience, I and many of the people I grew up with heard, “go back to Mexico” often, back when we were growing up. We obviously were seen as a threat to many of the white guys we went to school with.
That’s just the way it was, and might still be in some areas. Today, the demeaning and racist slurs still ring loud and clear in Republican presidential rallies and campaign events.
So, 61 years removed from “Operation Wetback” will history repeat itself? What will happen if someone like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz becomes president?
If you think that there’s not a chance that a mass deportation could take place again, and their words are just words they use to incite the voters and win their vote, here’s something that might convince you that it could.
Before “Operation Wetback”, there was Mexican Repatriation during the American Depression which began in 1929. Repatriation was just a nicer word used to get around some legal issues, and to make it seem that the deportations were voluntary. But they weren’t. Rather they were forced deportations initiated by the Hoover administration. During repatriation over a million people were deported and it is estimated that 60% of those deported were Mexican American, or US citizens.
What happened in 1929, was repeated just 25 years later. And if Trump or Cruz have their way, history will be repeated again in the near future.
We are living in uncertain times, in a world where we either have to stand idly by doing nothing or at the very least take a stand at the voting booth. That is the very least we can do in memory of those who have gone before us, carrying the scars of humiliation and the indignities they suffered.
Otherwise we’ll just have to sit around and wonder what the future holds. Just like some of our ancestors had to wonder, whether they would be next to have to get on the train to Mexico, their cries of “But I’m a US citizen”, falling on deaf ears.
Editor’s Note: Miguel “Mike” Torres Jr. retired in 2011 from the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center and is a retired executive board member of the Texas State Employees Union. He now does volunteer and part time work for TSEU. He is also a member and president of the Lubbock Central Labor Council.