These Fifth Graders Got a Forgotten Piece of Mexican-American History Into Textbooks

Lead Photo: Los Angeles Public Library/Herald Examiner Collection
Los Angeles Public Library/Herald Examiner Collection
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Not all parts of history are favorable, but all parts must be acknowledged. In one Los Angeles classroom, Leslie Hiatt doesn’t just stop at teaching her students what’s inside history books. According to Yes Magazine, her students are as well versed on Pilgrims and the Constitution, as they are the Trail of Tears, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and Japanese internment camps.

After realizing that books glossed over the Mexican Repatriation of the 1930s, the Bell Gardens Elementary School teacher knew she needed to include it in her lesson plans. And it ended up motivating her students like never before. They started a letter writing campaign looking to get the topic included in history books. Hiatt says that her students felt connected to it, because they’ve had family members deported. Given Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, it’s likely that throughout the 2014-2015 school year, they saw how history could repeat itself. “Considering the national political climate, my kids are very afraid of what will happen if Donald Trump becomes president, because they are scared to death for the future and security of their families.”

Before the Great Depression, Mexican labor had become a contentious topic. Southern agricultural producers, who saw themselves in direct competition with California’s growing industry, wanted a limit on how many Mexicans could enter the country. In 1930 – with the beginning of the Great Depression and with high unemployment rates – President Herbert Hoover began the repatriation program. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president in 1933, however, he cut the program’s federal support. But it didn’t stop state and local governments from expelling Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. As a result, the United States repatriated more than 1 million Mexicans, according to the Los Angeles Times.

During the long process, the students have fought every step of the way. First, the then fifth-graders wrote letters to President Barack Obama, who encouraged them but didn’t answer any of their questions. So they pushed forward by learning more about the topic through interviews with survivors, like Emilia Castañeda, as well as other experts on the topic. This led them to a meeting with Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, who told them to enter her annual “There Ought to Be a Law” contest.

They won, which means that in April 2015, they flew 400 miles to Sacramento. They testified in the Assembly Education Committee, backing Garcia’s Assembly Bill 146. At that meeting, a few students said they didn’t want history to repeat itself. Others talked about the importance of this piece of history. “Our history books discuss the migration of many people, including the Japanese Americans who were displaced in World War II,” student Makayla Rocha said. “As we study further, we learned of the mass migration of Mexicans, which began in the 1930s, and in our search we were unable to find any information about this subject.”

By October 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation encouraging textbook makers to include this piece of history in books. AB 146 has opened discussions about developing curriculum that also takes race, class, gender, and sexuality into account. But for Hiatt’s new batch of students, the work isn’t over. In 2005, the state of California apologized for repatriations after the release of Franciso E. Balderrama and Raymond Rodríguez’s Decade of Betrayal; Mexica Repatriation in the 1930s. An apology from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors followed in 2013. But the federal government has yet to issue an apology.

Just like the class before them, they have written letters to prominent figures and are hoping to urge people like state Sen. Ricardo Lara to push for a federal apology.