We learned recently of the death of a man named Raymond Rodriguez. He was an 87-year-old former history professor who died of a heart attack in late June at his home in Long Beach, California. Rodriguez was coauthor of a social history chronicling an often-hidden part of America's past: the mass deportation of U.S. citizens to Mexico in the 1930s. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this remembrance.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Raymond Rodriguez was nearly 80 when he testified before a state committee on the California repatriation. But in his voice, you can hear the pain of the boy he once was.

RAYMOND RODRIGUEZ: My dad left in 1936, when I was 10. I never saw my dad again.

BATES: That emotional testimony, heard here in a mini-documentary, became part of a series of hearings into what's something called the Mexican Repatriation of the 1930s. That's when the federal government rounded up more than a million people of Mexican ancestry from across the U.S., sometimes going door to door, and forced them into Mexico. More than 60 percent of the displaced were American citizens. Former California State Senator Joseph Dunn says the measure was designed to keep scarce jobs and government benefits safe for whites in Depression-ravaged America.

JOSEPH DUNN: Literally, the Hoover administration's tagline that they used publicly for the illegal deportations was: American jobs for real Americans.

BATES: Dunn, now the CEO of the State Bar of California, met Raymond Rodriguez after he read "Decade of Betrayal," a chronicle of that displacement. Rodriguez wrote the book with Francisco Balderrama, a Chicano studies professor at Cal State Los Angeles. They and others had begun to work with Dunn for an official apology from the state to the displaced families. The Apology Act from Mexican Repatriation became official in early 2006. Joe Dunn says the repatriation may have been the template for a later, better-known injustice.

DUNN: Many of the folks who examine this period believe that the internment of Japanese-Americans went so efficiently because of the lessons that were learned during the illegal deportations of the 1930s.

BATES: Francisco Balderrama says he and Raymond Rodriguez knew the repatriation's history was being lost as the people who'd experienced it began to die. He says they wanted the period remembered for those folks and for another reason...

FRANCISCO BALDERRAMA: The significance of understanding this, that happened in the 1930s, is that one then has the context to understand what's happening today, and as well as what happened in the '50s, the '60s and the '70s.

BATES: Balderrama had personal, as well as professional motivation to tell his story. His great-uncles had been repatriated. But, he says, as close as they'd been for many years, Ray Rodriguez never told his friend that his father, too, returned to Mexico under pressure. He didn't divulge that until their book was going to press. Rodriguez still felt seared by the loss of his father. The fact that he used that pain to ensure that another generation wouldn't have to feel it, says Balderrama, was a characteristic of who Ray Rodriguez was.

BALDERRAMA: So I think that's the value of Ray, the inspiration of Ray, to take something that you've suffered through, your family's gone through and to make this a public issue and an educational issue for the American public.

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.


GREENE: Karen reports for NPR's Code Switch. The team covers race and ethnicity.

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