For the 23rd episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Teri Finneman spoke with Melita Garza about newspaper representations of Mexicans and immigrants during the Great Depression years and the issues that remain in current times.
An associate professor in the Bob Schieffer College of Communication at Texas Christian University, Garza is the author of They Came to Toil: Newspaper Representations of Mexicans and Immigrants in the Great Depression.
This episode is sponsored by the Communication Department at William Paterson University.
Teri Finneman: [00:00:10] Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m your host, Teri Finneman, guiding you through our own drafts of history.
[00:00:24] This episode is sponsored by the Communication Department at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey. Offering award-winning programs in journalism, broadcasting, and other areas, the department is committed to preparing its students for life in the professional world after graduation. Our greatest strength is helping you find yours. More information is at WPUNJ.edu.
[00:00:51] As the Great Depression gripped the United States in the early 1930s, the Hoover administration sought to preserve jobs for Anglo Americans by targeting Mexicans, including longtime residents and even U.S. citizens for deportation. Mexicans comprised more than 46 percent of all people deported between 1930 and 1939 despite being only 1 percent of the U.S. population. In all, about half a million people of Mexican descent were deported to Mexico, a “homeland” many of them had never seen, or returned voluntarily in fear of deportation. They Came to Toil is a book that investigates how the news reporting of this episode in immigration history created frames for representing Mexicans and immigrants that persist to the present. Melita Garza of Texas Christian University is our guest today and sets the story as it takes place in San Antonio, Texas.
[00:01:52] Melita, welcome to the show.
Melita Garza: [00:01:54] Thank you for having me.
Teri Finneman: [00:01:56] You open your book with some personal stories about your grandfather teaching Spanish to his children, who were banned from speaking anything but English in San Antonio public schools and you discuss your mother who had to sit in the back of her classroom with other Mexican American students. Tell us about your other inspirations for writing this book and why you wanted to focus on the Great Depression years in particular.
Melita Garza: [00:02:21] Well, ever since I was born at an Air Force Base in Madrid, Spain, I had grown up with this bilingual, dual English language, Spanish-language culture. And also it required me not only to navigate, once we got back to the United States – my father was a military officer and once we got back to the United States, to navigate between a primarily English-speaking world outside my house and my bilingual world inside my house for growing up mainly in the Washington, D.C., area but living in a few other cities that were not big Spanish-language cities required me to really have this dual identity.
[00:03:13] So, I also had to pivot between the Spanish-language world of my grandparents when we would visit them in San Antonio, Texas, and the rest of my identity as an English-language speaker in primarily English-language schools. So, from very early on, I understood the significance of media representation even if I didn’t have a clue about that concept as a child. But it was one manifestation of that with every city that we lived in the United States, my parents – whose first language was Spanish even though they were born in the Unites States – would be to look for the local Spanish-language movie theater and to try to find, of course, movies that depicted different facets of Spanish-language culture. This is pre-Netflix, pre-cable, so there weren’t a lot of options or availability for this kind of international and ethnic programming except to go to the Spanish-language movie theater.
[00:04:16] And then of course, my father and my mother would typically be reading books simultaneously in both English and Spanish. This was just to me a very kind of normal state of affairs. And so when I got to journalism, to study journalism after a 20-year career of practicing journalism, and was sitting in a class called American Journalism History, I began to realize that what was being defined as American Journalism in History didn’t have what I knew to be the components of true American journalism, which was representation of Spanish-language media, at least not to the degree that I knew it was important.
[00:05:02] So, those were some of the primary reasons and then of course the stories that I learned growing up about my parents as Depression-age children. Of course, the Great Depression was a time of great hardship for everyone no matter what their background. But it was particularly difficult if you were considered to be un-American, and granted realizing that these people that I’m talking about my parents were Americans they were born in the United States and, ironically, they were born in the city of Spanish-speaking – it was founded by Spanish-speaking immigrants, San Antonio, Texas.
[00:05:37] So, I understood from very early on that there was this concept of being a second-class citizen simply on the basis of perhaps having a vowel in your last name, speaking a language in addition to English, underscoring a culture that was equally rich but different from what has been defined as mainstream English language culture, and by extension media, which is a prime component of culture. So, those were some of the key ideas that were in the back of my mind as I was sitting in this journalism history course as a PhD student. And I began to think about what could I do that would really make a difference, that would be difficult for somebody else to do. Or I could make my mark, which is of course what every journalist and presumably every journalist and historian wants to do and I had originally entered with the idea of doing something for my business journalism background, perhaps off the Great Recession and then really pivoted into this other idea of the Great Depression and the implications for media and for the idea of immigrants in particular.
Teri Finneman: [00:06:47] In your book, you studied English- and Spanish-language San Antonio newspapers between 1929 and 1934. Tell us about what you were looking for specifically.
Melita Garza: [00:06:57] Well, specifically I was looking for that reality that I didn’t see reflected in our understanding of American journalism. I was looking for ways in which this idea of the consciousness of the past was reflected differently or perhaps similarly in different publications existing in the same time and space and the same point in history but constructed by people with different backgrounds and different stories. So, I wanted to see how they handled this explosive issue of immigration, which was a huge issue then as it was at the time I was writing my dissertation, which has continued to be now that it’s evolved into my book.
Teri Finneman: [00:07:43] You did end up finding out that these newspapers made different news judgments about Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and immigrants in San Antonio and the nation. You note that the forced involuntary removal of hundreds of thousands of people of Mexican descent, many of them U.S. citizens, from all corners of the country during the Depression years did not receive the same amount of attention depending on the paper. Talk more about what you found.
Melita Garza: [00:08:08] Right. So, in communication studies we have this concept of symbolic annihilation, this idea that a people or a group of people can be stigmatized, trivialized, demonized, as well as simply emitted from the media frame. So, what I was looking for was how well was this incredible story of people being forced to leave, in many cases, the only land they had ever known and how is that massive movement of humanity covered or not covered depending on the political positioning of the newspaper.
So, what I found in fact, was something quite different. We talk a lot about mainstream news or legacy news as though it’s just one thing or was just one thing. And in fact, what I found I think most startling was that the two legacy newspapers, or mainstream newspapers, that were working in San Antonio at the time, publishing in San Antonio at the time, actually had very, very different conceptions of reality.
[00:09:27] So, looking back and reading those news pages, we find a different consciousness of the past. And one paper, of course the Hearst-owned chain operated newspaper, through its editorial page had quite an alarmist jingoist view of immigrants. And the other paper, the San Antonio Express, which has now evolved into the San Antonio Express News, was a paper that reflected the business interests, the ranching, farming, and railroad interests that had been in Texas for a long time and that had long developed ties with Mexico. And so it was very close to and understood the relationship between Texas and Mexico. So, that was one thing and that was perhaps the most surprising thing.
[00:10:20] I wasn’t necessarily surprised to find out that La Prensa, which was founded in 1913 by an immigrant from Mexico who fled the Mexican Revolution, that that newspaper was more humanistic and more detailed about its coverage. So, that in itself was not surprising. But I think the degree to which the Mexican immigrant newspaper, which again, as I said was founded by a person from Mexico, Ignacio Santo, was really trying to, in some ways, develop this transnational understanding between Mexicans from Mexico and Mexicans living in the United States, many of whom were Mexican Americans, American citizens. And this is maybe not so obvious to non-Mexican Americans, but the idea that, for one, has left their country in Mexico and is now gone over to the other side can be seen by some people in Mexico as a kind of a sellout. So, on the other hand though, what I saw was that the paper was trying to establish this idea that Mexican people, wherever they lived, whatever nation they found themselves in, were actually tied together and of course reflecting the idea that the land in which all of this was taking place was once Mexico.
Teri Finneman: [00:11:44] Discuss the significance of this in the context of civil rights and American history.
Melita Garza: [00:11:49] One of the points I make in my book is the idea that the understanding of civil rights that we typically have, that being constrained by geography, the South, by a specific time period, roughly Brown vs. Board of Education to say the Voting Rights Act. So, this idea of civil rights as being particular to a time, a geography, and a people, that negates the broader understanding of this quest for personal freedom that exists in the United States and frankly everywhere in the world. So, what I have used as an underlying premise of my work is this concept of not just the long civil rights movement, which would extend the timeline, but also the wide civil rights movement which includes other groups including issues of civil rights related to gender, race, ethnicity, class, geography, and generation.
[00:13:06] So, the significance to civil rights history is that so much of what has been left out of civil rights results from this paradigm partially constrained by the black race binary, partially constrained by other ideas about what constitutes civil rights. So, by leaving out these stories we leave out a part of history. By leaving out a part of history, we leave out a part of our present understanding. Or perhaps to paraphrase John Bodnar, missing those ingredients, those historical ingredients that help people make sense of not only their past and their present but also their future.
[00:13:53] So, that is one of the issues with this study is that there was so much that is left out of the news and it’s hard to imagine recalling that Texas is important because Texas in this story of mass migration during the Great Depression, Texas was the single most important state where the deportations and repatriations were most extensive, where train loads, literally train loads of thousands of people and caravans of cars, now caravan is a word that I found in the news. It’s been picked up recently and used in other ways but so people walking, people taking boats from New York and Boston and Alaska.
[00:14:46] Some people were even flying back to Mexico or to Mexico. So, this is not something that you could easily ignore if you lived in Texas and particularly if you lived in San Antonio, which was a city of course, as we know, founded by Spanish-speaking immigrants in which at this point in history the celebration of these Spanish founders and their culture and their buildings which are now considered some of the most important historical buildings in the world, the Franciscan missions, were being celebrated and restored. And while all of this cultural renaissance was being reconstructed by the white Anglo population predominantly, at the same time the inheritors of that culture, the descendants of the people who built and founded that city, literally built and founded that city, were being expelled. And how could that not be covered in a mainstream news organization, especially when it is so contrary if you must be utilitarian about it, so, diametrically in opposition to any basic economic foundation that the state of Texas was founded on? I mean we heard the same stories today about fruit ruining in the fields and not finding people to do work particularly today in the construction industry at a time when people were out of work there was still a need for people to work. So, this was a problem and it was also fueled by a lot of bigotry and anti-brown person sentiment.
Teri Finneman: [00:16:35] Speaking more broadly to start, what are issues that remain today in how the press covers immigrants and immigration?
Melita Garza: [00:16:42] Well, I think one of the big problems with covering immigration today is that many of the consumers of the news don’t have a clear understanding of the history of this country, do not understand the primary foundational role of the Spanish-speaking immigrant in developing this country and indeed what is a large part of the United States today. So, I think having a clearer knowledge of history would certainly help and that is a continuing theme. Another continuing theme of course is simply the otherism, the idea of people that look differently, that have a different language and culture are ostracizing these people. So, lack of understanding culture, lack of understanding of history, xenophobia. So, this sense of great antipathy to foreigners and of course the irony here is that these people were not foreigners, are not foreigners but have long been part of this land. So, those are continuing themes and I think that part of the problem with all generations of journalists, of course, is that we are all products of our day. We are all products of our education and our upbringing and of the social mores and codes that we bring to the table. So, we have to evaluate the omissions, not excuse, but evaluate, understand the omissions of the news makers of the past, and I mean the creators of the news, that they were in some ways constrained by their own formation, by their own role.
Teri Finneman: [00:18:26] How have you felt about press coverage of President Trump declaring a national emergency at the border and the related stories about immigration?
Melita Garza: [00:18:35] Well, much of what we hear today from Trump and from other politicians who espouse similar views is quite simply resonant with the past. The language, the dehumanization, the parallels between people, the immigrants, and animals, referring to them as vermin. Talking about expelling them. Talking about them as aliens, talking about them as criminals. All of these things are found in the pages of these newspapers in San Antonio, which were at the heart, reflected the differences of the debate of the time and the debate of that time. Many of the ideas that were heard at the debate of that time are recycled into the debate of today.
[00:19:32] One of the big themes in the first press, in the Hearst editorials in particular was this idea that we should follow the route of Canada. We should select only the best because that’s what Canada does. So, over and over again we heard President Trump also refer to the Canadian model of only the fittest, only the best, kind of idea. So, really to understand that the tropes and the concepts that are being discussed today it’s essential to understand the tropes and the concepts of the past because this is where they began to bear fruit. This is where they began to be disseminated widely particularly through chain-operated newspapers. And I might add, on the other side through La Prensa, which was the most circulated Spanish-language newspaper of its day, circulated in almost every state in the nation and of course in Mexico. So, I think understanding that ideas were widely disseminated even though they were localized and started in a San Antonio press. It’s really important to understand the way that San Antonio news fueled some of these ideas.
Teri Finneman: [00:20:51] What differences are there in how Texas media are covering immigration right now versus national media?
Melita Garza: [00:20:58] Well, I think that depends on the news outlet. I think we have the San Antonio Express News, the Dallas Morning News. These papers are very close to where all of these issues are happening and have a different understanding, much as the press of the past did, when in fact, one of the points the Express made when they were talking about the policies of a restriction restricting Mexican immigration during the 30s when they were speaking out against that through the bully pulpit of their editorial page they said, ‘You guys in Washington don’t really understand this part of the country, you’re over there in Washington making up things and you have no idea what’s really at issue here.’ And I think that that is actually something that persists today.
[00:21:58] So, we have a lot of very talented journalists, thinking just off the top of my head, from the Dallas Morning News, Dianne Solis and Alfredo Corchado, among others who have really been at the forefront of telling this story and who have a deep understanding of the role of Mexico in our national economy, our state economy, as well as the cultural influences and are close to the ground. So, I think you will find a much richer understanding of both news coming from Texas on this issue. At the same time, I really feel our national publications have evolved considerably. There’s some good reporting coming out of the Los Angeles Times and of course the New York Times and some great freelance work as well. The Texas Tribune has done a great job as well. So, I think it’s a little bit different news scape today, but I think nothing beats living and being at the scene for understanding it.
Teri Finneman: [00:23:04] The book shines a light on the critical role that the ethnic press provides in helping give a voice to the voiceless. As a journalism professor, how do you advise your reporting students to do this?
Melita Garza: [00:23:15] Well, I think it’s very important for any journalist, whether they’re in mainstream or legacy media or in an ethnic press to read widely and to be aware of what the other media are also producing. So, from the start, if you’re in the mainstream press you should be reading the other newspaper. As I recall as a journalist at the Chicago Tribune, at the desk we would read the Chicago Defender. So, how many people actually report the Defender and read it? I think very few. So, I think that we need to do to do more again and so that’s for starters. I think what you’re really getting at is the question of perhaps cultural competency as it’s sometimes framed.
[00:24:12] But I’m going to push back on this idea and say it’s really not an issue of cultural competency, it’s an issue of journalistic competency. Because our goal as journalists is to get the truth and the truth has become a very amorphous sort of term in some respects. But when I say get the truth, I mean gain a complete grasp and understanding of the story to the best of your ability. You simply cannot do that if you are unable to communicate with the people that you should be reporting on.
[00:24:45] So, I urge my students to learn as many languages as possible, for starters. I also urge my students to really know and understand the concept of fault lines. Fault lines is another underlying premise of my book. It’s how I extend the idea of the long and wide civil rights movement. So, I extend this idea by adding Robert C. Maynard’s ideas about, as I mentioned earlier, generation, geography, race, class, and gender and put those into a tool box. It says, ‘Do you understand your own fault lines, the way in which where you came from, where you were raised, might affect the way you see the world?’ So that’s one. And then of course understanding that they might have to cross fault lines of generation. They might have to be able to make a leap when they’re interviewing somebody who is 91 and they are 21. How are they going to do that? So, I think not making assumptions, moving aside these ideas that they might have about who these people are, whoever those people might be, and trying to get to the truth of the story. So, it’s a difficult position because as I mentioned earlier we’re all products of our time and our culture.
Teri Finneman: [00:26:20] Before we leave, I wanted to discuss the opening quote you have in your book. It says, ‘much of the content of the press is intended solely for its own day. Yet just because it is the day’s report of itself it is the permanent record of that day to all other days.’ This was a comment made in the 1947 Commission on Freedom of the Press report. Talk about why you think that quote is so important.
Melita Garza: [00:26:46] So, again it goes with the idea of the press being in some ways an official record or a repository of the “truth.” And so I think another way to think about it is, as the Commission said in 1947, that the press is seen as the “swift self-expression of each moment in history.” So, news in whatever time is a cultural product, again, reflecting these sensibilities more as code as social structures and most importantly the inequalities that the people of the day. So, I think understanding that record and what’s missing from that record and what’s in that record and how that record might compare to other records is critically important. So, that’s one thing. I think also talking about that record in terms of what’s missing in the omissions, which I touched on briefly before.
[00:27:49] I think it’s important to note or to at least ask ourselves how much do we recognize that journalism history in many ways is white people’s history? And I say that in the sense that for so many years, people of color and women to some degree were excluded from the news. So, we’re excluded from being practitioners of the news. And so when we go back and we look at the people who created news we tend to focus on specific, The Pulitzers, the Hearsts, et cetera, which is kind of the easy way of looking at history. And I think we have to dig deeper, and people are doing that. People have written recently, many historians, and in the not too recent past I’ve written some great histories about pioneering women journalists and pioneering African American journalists. I just feel there’s a lot more stories out there that we haven’t gotten to that across the fault lines. And I think it’s also important to note that, to think about to what extent the practitioners back in the day when minorities were barred from working in news, to what extent were the other news gatherers complicit in this discrimination?
[00:29:08] They were a product of their time and their mores. But were they on some level aware that they were part of a privileged class who was deciding for the public what was important, who was worth noting? What stories were worth noting? What exodus of thousands of people should be ignored or should be brought to the public’s attention? I think we need to look a little bit at that, not to judge the people of the past from our understanding of today, but to try to understand how the people in the past were a part in practice, when I say the people, I mean the journalists of the past. We’re really a part in a practice of this even though they may not have been decision makers in the rules that barred women and minorities and others from having jobs interpreting our reality. So, that’s really what we’re talking about is to what extent can we as historians help uncover the reality of the past, understanding what was in the news and what wasn’t in the news?
Teri Finneman: [00:30:08] So, to kind of tie everything all together: Our final question of the show is always, why does journalism history matter?
Melita Garza: [00:30:15] Well, I think to answer that question I would like to paraphrase some of the ideas of one of the greatest poets in our country, a New Mexican writer, Sabine Ulibarrí. He talked about history and he talked about time as being a continuum and he said it flows like a river flows and that we’ve tended to chop up into past, present, and future and when we chop up into past, present, and future he has argued that we let the past drop out of the flow. And this is really a critical problem because if the past is out of sight and we know the future is not here yet then we are just living in the present moment. And so if we live only in the present moment with no knowledge of the past and no certainty about the future, although we can speculate, he calls this as living in a condition of historical amnesia, as living in a condition of cultural amnesia.
[00:31:26] So, I think as journalists, obviously as a consuming public of the news, we need to understand these issues. But I think it’s really critical for our students and one of the things that disturbs me greatly is the extent to which many, or I should say at least several prominent journalism programs, have chosen to omit journalism history as something that is perceived to be irrelevant from any kind of skill that a working journalist might possibly need. And I think this is a tremendous disservice. It’s a tremendous disservice because if you don’t know where you came from, how do you know where you are or where you were going? And I think if you also as a working journalist if you’ve any concern or care for doing a job that crosses the fault lines, which is essential if you want to achieve that paramount goal of journalism, which is to be complete and accurate as possible, how can we do that if we continue to exclude our understanding of people who are different from us? So, that’s really tying everything together but you asked me to do that. So, those are my thoughts on why we need journalism history.
Teri Finneman: [00:32:41] Ok. Well, thanks so much for joining us today.
[00:32:43] Thanks for tuning in. And additional thanks to our sponsor, the Communication Department at William Paterson University, and to Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History. Until next time, I’m your host, Teri Finneman, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow. Good night. And good luck.