Los Norteños in Mexican History — from 1900 to the current Great Eviction

Los Norteños in Mexican History — from 1900 to the current Great Eviction

The uprising of community-based self-defense groups against the cartel of Los Caballeros Templarios captured the attention of the international and Mexican media. It was pointed out that recent immigrants who had returned to Michoacan composed a good part of the leadership and membership of the self-defense groups. Other than pointing out the participation of former immigrants in this uprising, not much was reported on the social make-up of these individuals who came together with the aim of ending the domain of a powerful drug cartel. In the past, these individuals were known as norteños and not much is known about their history. Numbering in the millions, the norteños, as a social group, have been missing from the pages of Mexican history. This brief article aims at acknowledging them as a social group in Mexican history and to encourage others to research their role as historical actors.

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“No se sabe que sea peor; la ausencia o el regreso (it is hard to say which is worse, their absence or their return).” With these words a village priest initiated a long and heated conversation with a norteño in Agustin Yañez’ novel Al filo del agua (The Edge of the Storm, 1947). The priest was referring to whether or not the village was better off without migrant workers. These migrants, also known as norteños because they had labored in the U.S., returned home as different people for they had seen other horizons in a faraway land. They constituted a small but growing group of people distinct from the majority of Mexicans who rarely travelled beyond their village surroundings. This discussion was part and parcel of a much larger discussion on the social cost of migration: is immigration good or bad for Mexico? What are its cost and benefits? These are unresolved question that have been raised frequently over the past century.

Disguising the “absence or return” statement as an open-ended question, the priest had already indicted norteños, even though he did not outright declare that their return was “worse.” He made the case that their experience in the U.S. had transformed them into worse human beings. All they did when they returned home was “stand around, air their opinions, and criticize everything…They’re a bad example, making fun of religion, the country, the customs...They’re the ones who spread ideas of masonry, socialism, and spiritism.” Stated in another way, norteños returned as social malcontents, agitators who intentionally undermined the order of things in this tranquil Jalisco village.

“No padre,” the norteño responded, “I’m sorry to say so, but when we come back, we realize what the people here have to put up with; the injustices and living conditions. Why should a man have to sweat all day to earn a few centavos?” The norteño listed the reasons why he and others like him could no longer approve of the society in which they were living. They wanted life in this sluggish village to “be a little better” so that the villagers could “live like human beings.” In this novel, which takes place during the last months leading up to the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Yañez insinuates that norteños were going to participate in this forthcoming event.

The historical role of norteños in modern Mexican history has not been written. In fact they are absent as historical subjects from Mexico’s larger narrative. Albeit by means of of literature, Yañez acknowledged their existence as a social group and their role as agents of change in the patrias chicas, the many small Mexicos that make-up Mexico. To acknowledge them as a social group in Mexico requires that we first define them. Until we know more about them, we can temporarily define norteños as a collection of individuals who shared the experience of migrating and living in the U.S. for a period of time, which should also include U.S.-born children and spouses who accompanied them on their return to Mexico. As a social group, most norteños travelled back-and-forth between Mexico and the U.S. before 1930. After spending significant time abroad, they either voluntarily returned to Mexico or were forcefully evicted from the United States. Once they return to Mexico they are norteños. Having seen “another world” outside of their communities of birth, their trials and tribulations in the U.S. provided them with a new lens for understanding Mexico, especially their home localities.

Mexican immigrants who had travelled throughout “el norte,” experienced different employer-employee relations, came into contact with all kinds of people from different nationalities and cultures, and organizations, from labor unions to Protestants. They had also suffered many hardships, from earning “Mexican wages,” the lowest wages in the U.S., to outright institutional racism (“No dogs, no negros, no Mexicans” signs in Texas, for instance). As a group of people who had “seen another world,” norteños recognized each other by the way they dressed, talked, and their mannerisms. They had been fellow travelers throughout the many “adventures” and “wanderings” throughout “el norte.” They had a basis for comparing conditions of life in both countries, and most were not going back to their old ways of living, the only style of life they knew of before migrating. Little is known about their reintegration into Mexican society.

Norteño history is long, beginning in 1836 with the removal of dozens of Mexico-Tejano families from Texas and continuing to the present-day mass evictions of millions that have taken place under the Bush and Obama administrations. Their numbers have not been calculated, but they are in the millions. Up to the present, we don’t have a single book that examines norteños as either historical or contemporary subjects. Although they have been invisible to historians and other social scientists, their actions in Mexico has been significant in key moments of Mexican history.

In spite of the fact that they do not appear in the pages of history books and are not subjects in current affairs analysis, norteños have left plenty of traces for scholars to pursue. Yañez, the novelist, provided quite a few. When it comes to historians, they have been negligent detectives for not pursuing these leads. A more contemporary example involves the rise of the self-defense groups in Tierra Caliente, Michoacan. Four of the five most recognizable figures in the uprising against Los Caballeros Templarios cartel—Dr. Manuel Mireles, “El Americano,” “Papá Pitufo,” and “la Comandante Bonita”—had lived for extended periods of time in the U.S. Former immigrants, many of them recent deportees, made-up a significant portion of the membership of these self-defense groups. It is highly possible that the same may be said about the members of Los Caballeros Templarios. Despite the obvious connections between the norteños and the rise of self-defense groups, political analysts have failed to acknowledge the increasing role of norteños as subjects in contemporary Mexican society. In wake of the present mass expulsion of Mexicans from the U.S., the number of norteños will only keep growing.

The history of norteños begins in the aftermath of the so-called Texas Revolution of 1836 when triumphant “Texians” violently removed Mexico-Tejano families from their homes in east and central Texas. Driven out of their homeland and losing all their properties, they settled on the Mexican side of the Texas-Mexican boundary. It continued after the war of U.S. aggression against Mexico that ended in 1848. Hundreds of Mexican families who did not want to live under the U.S. flag left their homes in New Mexico and Texas. They created new communities on the Mexican side of the boundary, including military colonies whose main duty was to defend the sparsely populated Mexican borderlands as Jose Angel Hernandez highlights in his book, Mexican American Colonization during the Nineteenth Century.

Their numbers increased by leaps and bounds after railroads connected Mexico and U.S. geographically and economically. As the emerging main “reserve army of labor” for the U.S. economy, Dr. Manuel Gamio, the distinguished anthropologist, stated that from 1910 to 1928, “one million Mexicans have been mobilizing periodically from Mexico to the U.S. and vice versa, that is, during this time they have been altering their residence in both countries.” Today there are 12 million people living in the U.S who were born in Mexico.

Norteños, as a social group in Mexico, are made up of two sets of people. The first set consists of migrants who, after a period living in the U.S., voluntarily returned to Mexico either permanently or temporarily. More often than not, they returned with money in their pockets and their “success” motivated others to head to “el norte.” The second group is made-up of people evicted from the U.S. by either force or under the stress of coercion, beginning with the Tejano families who were violently expelled from their lands in 1836, followed by the thousands of Sonorenses who were forced out of the California gold fields in 1850-51. Many of the evictions were bunched in time intervals such as 1907–1908, 1921–1922, 1929–1939, 1953–1954 (over 1.3 million deportations) and so on until our current post-9/11 era. More often than not, the evictees arrived penniless and suffered many hardships in starting new lives in Mexico.

Mexico’s post-revolutionary era of 1920 to 1940 provides us with plenty of examples that nurture the “absence or return” discussion that the priest and norteño initiated in Yañez’ novel. This era shares two features with our present era (1994–2014), the age of NAFTA and the 9/11 security state. One, the first decade involved mass migration to the U.S. For instance, over 9 million Mexicans, US-born and immigrants, were added to the U.S. population between 1990 to 2000. Two, the second decade initiated mass deportations of people. Obama’s eviction of two million people highlights this point. According to the most authoritative work on this subject, A Decade of Betrayal, somewhere around a million people were expelled from the U.S. during the great Mexican eviction of 1929–1939, mainly during the first fours years. The Mexican consul in Chicago estimated that 60 percent of the Midwest’s Mexican population returned to Mexico under conditions of duress. Children made up around 60 percent of all “repatriados,” most of them born in the U.S. Additionally, taking into account the great number of U.S. citizens that were evicted, overwhelmingly children, the label of “repatriado” should be questioned.

Up to this point, this was the largest expulsion of people in U.S. history. As companions in this shared journey, those who were evicted during the Great Depression “returned home“ destitute and without many prospects for land and employment in view of Mexico profound economic and political crisis. Before this massive “return home,” norteños had been transforming Mexico in various ways. They should be regarded as agents of “modernity” in how they incorporated themselves into Mexican society. As noted in Yañez’ novel, their presence and actions created social tensions in rural Mexican towns and villages, especially in those areas where norteños were quite numerous. 

How was the “absence or return” question discussed in post-revolutionary Mexico (1920–1940)? The answer to this question depends on the respondent. Take the case of the Mexican Catholic Church which ardently opposed emigration on grounds that immigrants lost their faith and came to worship the dollar and materialism over God. Accordingly, immigrants either lost their faith by becoming Protestants, freethinkers, and atheists, or remained distant Catholics disconnected from the Church by irregularly attending religious services and being critical of the clergy. Besides losing the fear of God, other sins included abandoning their families in Mexico and becoming U.S. citizens. The U.S. was Eve tempting Adam, the immigrant, to betray his faith and nation. Having left Mexico as “innocent” people for the paradise of “el norte,” many returned home as “sinners” who forged an unholy alliance with the anti-clerical Mexican government to eradicate Catholicism in Mexico. In essence, the Church viewed the “return” of norteños as worse than their “absence.” For that reason, it opposed immigration because the social cost of their return was far greater than the benefits.

A sizeable chunk of the Mexican inteligencia, such a Manuel Gamio, were of the opinion that the migration of Mexicans was good because, in spite of the great discrimination and exploitation migrants encountered in the U.S., their contact with “modernity” created progressive subjects that could serve as a column for the foundation of Mexico into a modern country. In the case of the Mexican government the “return or absence” had a two-sided answer. On the one hand, the departure of hundreds of thousands served as a safety valve for the many economic and social troubles that had been caused by the violence of the Mexican Revolution. Moreover, they send millions of pesos of remittances to Mexico. On the other, the return of hundreds of thousands, such as what happened during the Great Depression, increased social tensions in Mexico. Overall, it viewed norteños as allies in its quest to modernize Mexico and create a powerful state, two tasks that required weakening the Church, hacendados, and disobedient political bosses.

What these opposing views had in common was that emigration provided migrants with an overall experience of a world that was different from their familiar world. This experience transformed individuals into “modern” subjects. Let us look at a few cases of this transformation and how norteño integration into Mexican society disturbed the order of things.

The spread of Pentecostalism in Mexico came by way of the norteños. Originating in Los Angeles’ Azusa Street in 1906, Pentecostalism gained many Mexican adherents, especially among farmworkers who set up store-front temples wherever their work took them. The evictions of hundreds of aleluyas, as Catholics called them, during the Depression (or as they called it “la voluntad de Dios”) expanded Pentecostalism throughout Mexico, ending with the monopoly of the Catholic Church and created tensions wherever their presence was to be found.

Two corridos (ballads) from the 1920s highlight the cultural contradictions that returning norteños provoked in small towns and villages where the norm for the lower classes was “callese, obedezca, y no replique (be quiet, obey, and don’t complain).” One deals with a norteño returning to his village. He encourages other villagers to follow him to “el norte,” promising that they are going to “eat well, earn good wages, and dress better”; he asks them, “que dicen gorras de maíz/no quieres usar tejana” and tells them that they would return home with money and “portando muy buen abrigo.” The other corrido mocks norteños for being “nacos (low-cultured Indians)” who left speaking “Tarascan (Purepecha)” and returned speaking English. They are fanfarrones (braggards) who are under the impression that they are catrines (dandies) just because they wear pants and try to make those who wear “calzones” lesser than them.

Although it has not been acknowledged by historians, their most important contribution was their role in Mexico’s post-revolutionary agrarian reform movement. The quest for land was the burning issue in Mexico from 1910 to 1940, the cause that led many peasants into the revolutionary armies during the Revolution. After the Revolution of 1910–1920, agrarismo gained a second wind in the 1920s. Manuel Gamio speculated that the agrarismo of the 1920s “probably was imported from the United States to Mexico by the repatriated immigrants,” which he wrote that in late 1920s, a few years before the massive agrarian movements that arose during the Cardenista era (1934–1940).

For sure, the return of one million norteños during the 1930s changed the balance of forces in rural Mexico as many of them became agraristas, especially in the Bajio region. In all likelihood the Cardenista agrarian reform could not have been successful without the support of the norteños who became Cardenistas and agraristas. (Not all, however. In some parts of Mexico, their remittances went to purchase plots of land, generating the growth of the rancheros group who came to worship private property and opposed the agraristas). The Alteños of Jalisco claimed that, while they were working in the U.S., they were aware of the agrarian reform movements of the 1920s and were interested to “see if it was true.” These norteños had worked in railroads and farms throughout the Midwest and the western part of the U.S. Upon returning to Mexico in the 1930s, they mentioned that they had “seen another life” and “they did not come back to live the [typical life of the region].”

A communist organizer in Los Altos of Jalisco understood that the first step for building an agrarian movement required seeking out norteños who had recently returned because he count on them in the forthcoming struggles. Most norteños returned penniless and were not going to return to the lifestyle that they had run away from when they migrated north. Moreover, they were willing to struggle for land, a battle that involved challenging priests, local political bosses, and hacendados. A norteño agrarista noted,

The campesinos began to organize, not the ones in the haciendas, nor on the ranchos; no-how were those people going to organize if they were afraid of the owner’s shadow, and of the white guard? So, I took advantage [of the opportunity], and campesinos who had been in the U.S. and who were returning with me...all of them. They weren’t going to return to the hacienda to earn 15 cents that was paid to them. They had seen another life, had learned about other wages, so they returned to their homes…but already with the idea of not returning to the hacienda to work for the patrón…

The best example of a norteño agrarista that we know of is Primo Tapia. He left his village of Naranja, Michoacan in 1907 for the U.S. He along with other Narajeños had travelled throughout the western half of the U.S. They joined the Partido Liberal Mexicano (the Magonistas) and Tapia became an organizer for the International Workers of the World (IWW). He and his fellow Narajeños returned to Naranja in 1920 where they founded the Liga de Comunidades Agrarias, the most important peasant organization in Michoacan of the 1920s. They battled landlords, Church and local caciques in their quest for land reform and social justice. Tapia, a radical anarcho-syndicalist, spoke English, Russian, Spanish, and Purepecha. This norteño upset the order of things in the villages of Michoacan in many ways. For instance, women in his Liga de Comunidades Agrarias not only fought for land but also formed the Liga Femenil in their struggle for gender equality. According to Tapia, women were the slaves of slaves.

In part the absence of norteños from history books has to do with the fact that immigration, as a theme, does not play a central part in the overall historical narrative of Mexico as a nation. In contrast, immigration is central to the historical narrative of the U.S. As the “country of immigrants,” there are hundreds of books dealing with the immigrant experience in this country. In contrast, Mexico is the country of emigration. Today there are over eleven million people who were born in Mexico living in the U.S., making Mexico the world’s leading country of emigration.

For the past century, Mexico has been the Ireland of the Americas. Although this is not the case, Irish history would be incomplete if its mass emigration to many parts of the world is excluded. The history of modern Mexico is incomplete for the simple reason that it fails to take into account an experience that has involved millions of Mexicans for nearly 180 years. This collective experience includes the millions of norteños who have returned to Mexico.

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Juan Mora-Torres. History professor at DePaul University and author of The Making of the Mexican Border.

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