Elena Herrada is a third-generation Mexican-American Detroit resident and union organizer for cafeteria workers. She is a prominent social activist who worked with Cesar Chavez in the 1970s and, more recently, co-founded the Committee for the Political Resurrection of Detroit, an organization that strives to give powerless Detroiters a voice.
Herrada, also a member of the Detroit Oral History Project Committee, has co-produced a video documentary about how the government forced tens of thousands of Mexican-Americans living in Detroit to return to Mexico between the years of 1929 and 1939. According to Herrada, between 15,000 and 30,000 people – both documented and undocumented – were repatriated to Mexico. The video "Los Repatriados: Exiles from the Promised Land" focuses on interviews with Mexican-Americans whose families were affected by the repatriation.
Photo by JESSICA HAVENS
Elena Herrada is an organizer for the United Catering employee's union, RWDSU, Local 1064.
Herrada’s family was one of those affected by the repatriation. Herrada’s grandparents, who were activists and followers of such Mexican revolutionaries as Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, came to Detroit from the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí in 1920 during the first wave of Mexican immigrants to Detroit.
People left Mexico in the 1920s because the country was laden with disease, economic trouble and an uneven distribution of wealth and land.
"Mexico was devastated at that time, and her people were starving," Herrada said.
Many Mexicans chose to come to Detroit because Ford was actively recruiting them to work in its Motor City auto plants.
"There was a reason to leave Mexico and a reason to come here," said Herrada.
Herrada’s grandparents and their children, along with thousands of others, were forced to return Mexico in 1930, however. Herrada’s grandfather eventually returned to Detroit to work and sent money home to his family – a situation that Herrada said is extremely common today. Later, in 1932, Herrada’s grandmother brought her children back to Detroit.
Herrada said the repatriation devastated the Mexican community in Detroit. A lasting effect among Mexican-Americans is an unwillingness to vote and participate in the Census for fear that they also will be forced back to Mexico.
The second large wave of Mexican migration to Detroit took place during the 30s and 40s. Mexicans came to Detroit during that time because there were more jobs created by the war.
Herrada said thousands of those deported earlier came back to Detroit. Upon returning to Detroit, some realized that they were American citizens, although they had not known it. They had been babies when they were deported.
The most recent wave of Mexican immigrants to Detroit started in 1994 with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"There wasn’t anybody new here for a long time, until NAFTA," Herrada said.
According to Herrada, huge numbers of Mexicans are currently leaving Mexico and coming to all cities in the United States because NAFTA has eliminated many jobs and worsened working conditions in Mexico. NAFTA gives large corporations the power to overrule all local and state labor laws in Mexico, she explained.
The result of this large migration is that there are more recent immigrants in Detroit than long-time Detroit residents. But Herrada said she is glad to have the new arrivals.
"It’s like having long-lost relatives visit. Everybody that I’ve talked to in our community is happy to have them."
However, many of the recent Mexican immigrants are not documented, which means that it is illegal for them to live and work in the United States. Many employers, aware of this precarious situation, underpay their illegal Mexican employees.
"They’re very exploitable," Herrada said.
Herrada cited two grassroots organizations – Farm Labor Organizing Committee and Amnesty International – as two organizations that, among other things, fight for the rights of undocumented workers in the United States. Both organizations have been around for approximately 40 years and have experienced huge victories, such as doubling the wages for Midwest pickle industry workers between 1986 and 1996.
Herrada is optimistic about both the country of Mexico and the situation of Mexican-Americans living in Detroit. She said that Mexicans are a revolutionary people who refuse to be defeated.
"They’re pretty amazing," Herrada said.