Casey Walsh, New School University
Introduction: During the summer of 1939 hundreds of Mexicans and Mexican Americans from Houston, Austin and a number of smaller towns in Texas packed their belongings, climbed aboard buses and trucks, and headed south to Matamoros, Tamaulipas, across the Rio Bravo from Brownsville, Texas. They had been planning for this move since the Spring, when Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas sent Ramón Beteta and Manuel Gamio to their towns to offer them free land if they were willing to dedicate themselves to the hard work of clearing it and farming cotton on it. The colonists were met at the border by officials of Mexico’s Secretary of Comunications and Public Works, which was building an enormous irrigation zone in the hinterland around Matamoros. After a long day of digging their vehicles out of the mud, they arrived to their new home, the Campamento “18 de Marzo”, soon to be known as “Valle Hermoso,” or Beautiful Valley in English.
60 years later I made a similar trip, looking not for a homeland where I could build a prosperous future, but for the material I needed to write an anthropology dissertation about the post- World War Two political economy and culture of cotton production in the Mexican borderlands. But when I got to Valle Hermoso, now an agricultural town of more than 50,000, I felt in some ways as if it were still 1939. Festooned on the municipal palace were huge reproductions of photographs depicting the colonization of the region, and its subsequent cotton prosperity through the 1940s and 1950s. The Municipal President was the daughter of some of the original colonists to the region, and during my stay in Valle Hermoso I attended and participated in a half-dozen ceremonies that comemorated this story. Stages were erected in the main plaza with murals depicting scenes and important people from the colonization and cotton boom years. And there, standing mute and resolute over main street, oversized and painted a bright shiny gold, were President Lázaro Cárdenas and Engineer Eduardo Chávez, the men that enacted the policies of repatriation and colonization that led to the creation of the Valle Bajo Río Bravo.
These histories of repatriation, colonization and cotton prosperity are vivid among the inhabitants of Valle Hermoso, and they form an important part of the political culture of the region today. In this talk I will discuss the government policies and politics that underwrote that repatriation, colonization and prosperity. Numerous authors have discussed the repatriation of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans to Mexico during the 1930s. Most concentrate on events within the United States, and often frame return migration as a racist, nativist political project to kick people out of the United States. This it was. Only a few, however, address the repatriation and colonization policies that were created by the Mexican government to bring people back to Mexico during the 1930s,3 and these often do not take into account a much longer history of government wishes and efforts to colonize migrants that dates back at least to the first years of the Mexican Revolution.4 These blind spots may be due to the fact that return migration and repatriation are usually discussed in as a part of US history, are not considered in the context of the defining features of Mexican history during the 1910 to 1940 period: that is, the revolution, agrarian politics, and the formation of the postrevolutionary Mexican state.