Latino/Hispanic Americans and the New Deal

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The 1930s did not start well for Latino / Hispanics in America [1]. When the Great Depression hit, there was intense pressure on Mexican migrant workers, and even Mexican-American citizens, to return to Mexico. Much like today, they were viewed as unwelcome competitors for jobs and a burden on social assistance programs. In addition, Mexican and Filipino Americans had been part of a militant unionization drive in California agriculture, which angered growers and conservatives in the border states [2].

Riverside County, California, ca. 1935-1943
These two men in the National Youth Administration (NYA) are participating in the construction of the West Riverside Ranger Station
Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

President Herbert Hoover moved quickly to deport Mexican Americans as the economy took a nosedive after the Stock Market Crash of 1929. “After President Hoover appointed William N. Doak as secretary of labor in 1930, the Bureau of Immigration launched intensive raids to identify aliens liable for deportation. The secretary believed that removal of undocumented aliens would reduce relief expenditures and free jobs for native-born citizens” [3]. The foci of deportations were in south Texas and Los Angeles [4].

The situation changed substantially when Franklin Roosevelt became president in 1933: “After the advent of the New Deal administration of [FDR], deportation procedures assumed a more humane aspect. The worst of the deportation terror abated… after 1934 the number of Mexicans being deported fell dramatically by approximately 50 percent” [5].

The New Deal began to offer assistance to Hispanic Americans through its various relief and recovery programs. In particularly, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA) hired unemployed Mexican Americans on relief jobs throughout the Southwest, both rural and urban. The Farm Security Administration also established camps for migrant farm workers in California (though by that time Mexicans in the fields had been largely replaced by Anglo workers) [6].

New Deal assistance to Hispanic Americans was most striking on the island of Puerto Rico. Between 1933 and 1943, the Roosevelt administration funded a public works program larger than anything seen on the island before or since. New Deal work relief programs, including the CCC, WPA and the National Youth Administration (NYA) hired thousands of Puerto Ricans in need of employment [7]. The Public Works Administration (PWA) funded around sixty large infrastructure projects, including schools, hospitals, and water treatment facilities [8].

San Francisco, ca. 1935-1943
Performing a Spanish folk dance, on a WPA recreation project.
Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of the National Archives

A special entity, called the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration (PRRA), was created to oversee much of the development effort. The PRRA fundamentally transformed the island’s economy and living conditions of Puerto Ricans, as one historian has documented:

“By building the island’s first truly public works and establishing its first public authorities to administer them, the PRRA constructed a new public infrastructure capable of addressing three interrelated goals: increasing life expectancy through concrete interventions in public health; providing more egalitarian public access to a safer and more permanent built environment; and limiting the private corporate control of Puerto Rico’s natural resources. Designed by Puerto Rican engineers and built by Puerto Rican workers, PRRA public works projects made concrete contributions to the physical security of millions of Puerto Ricans through the construction of hurricane-proof houses, schools, hospitals, roads, sewers, waterworks, and rural electrification networks” [9].
 

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Sources: (1) In some areas of the U.S., “Latino” is preferred over “Hispanic” or “Mexican-American.” (2) Kate Bronfenbrenner, “Imperial Valley, California, Farmworkers’ Strike of 1930,” Cornell University, Digital Commons, 1990 (accessed June 18, 2018). (3) Steven Mintz, “Historical Context: Mexican Americans and the Great Depression,” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History (accessed February 4, 2018). (4) Francisco E. Balderrama and Raymond Rodriguez, Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s, University of New Mexico Press, 1996. (5) Ibid., p. 82. (6) See note 3. (7) See, e.g., Federal Works Agency, Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946, p. 111; Federal Security Agency, War Manpower Commission, Final Report of the National Youth Administration, Fiscal Years 1936-1943, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1944, p. 254; and Perry H. Merrill, Roosevelt’s Forest Army: A History of the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942, Montpelier, VT: Perry H. Merrill, 1981, p. 39. (8) Public Works Administration, America Builds: The Record of PWA, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1939, pp. 266-271 and 285. (9) Geoff G. Burrows, “The New Deal in Puerto Rico: Public Works, Public Health, and the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration, 1935-1955,” dissertation abstract, 2014, City University of New York (accessed February 4, 2018).