A fourth-grade class demanded that their state representatives acknowledge and redress a government policy of mass discriminatory deportations against Mexican Americans in the 1930s.
In March 2015, Leslie Hiatt watched as 34 of her students from a mostly immigrant community walked into the California Capitol building to demand justice from their elected representatives. She was overwhelmed with pride. “I just felt like they belonged there,” she said later, fighting back tears.
That day was an emotional roller coaster for Leslie’s students. The state Capitol was full for the state legislature’s education committee meeting. More than a hundred people were in attendance to speak or hear testimony about other legislation. Leslie’s students stood out; they were the only speakers who weren’t even in middle school yet.
Student Nicole Sandoval remembers approaching the microphone to speak and hearing an assembly member ask if she wanted a piece of gum. “He said my face looked so green that I looked like I was going to throw up,” she laughed. Nicole declined the offer. She may have looked nervous, she says, but her focus was not on the people in the room. She was thinking of her mission: to seek justice for the more than one million people who suffered as a result of the U.S. government’s discriminatory policies in the 1930s. “And I just remember feeling a determination that I was going to do a good job for them, not for me.”
That trip to testify before California’s Education Committee was the culmination of hard work and determination on the part of these passionate elementary students. Their drive for justice started the year before, initially ignited by student-teacher Ana Ramos.
“Ana was in my classroom for eight weeks,” teacher Leslie Hiatt reflects, with admiration in her voice. “She changed every single student’s life, and my life, in eight weeks.”
In 2014, Ana joined Leslie’s fourth-grade class at Bell Gardens Elementary School, in Los Angeles County. One of Ana’s last big projects after a successful tenure included teaching a social studies unit. In reviewing the curriculum, Ana saw several historical examples of discriminatory policies that targeted immigrants—the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the World War II imprisonment of Japanese Americans—but one story was conspicuously absent: the forced removal of Mexican Americans from the U.S. in the 1930s.
In response to shrinking employment opportunities during the Depression, the Hoover administration oversaw the so-called Mexican Repatriation, a nationwide effort to remove people of Mexican ancestry from the U.S. Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans and Mexican Americans were summarily rounded up in raids, often in public places, and deported if they failed to produce legal paperwork. The raids frightened many legal residents into leaving. Others were pressured to leave when local governments coordinated with private businesses to withhold assistance from and refuse to hire Mexican Americans.
In the end, more than one million people of Mexican ancestry were “repatriated.” Some had never before set foot in Mexico. The Hoover administration claimed the repatriations were carried out to vacate jobs in favor of Americans; in reality, however, the policy forced some six hundred thousand U.S. citizens out of the country.
Southern California’s large Mexican immigrant population were specifically targeted. On one day in 1931, more than four hundred people were racially profiled and detained in Los Angeles’s La Placita park—less than twenty miles from Bell Gardens Elementary School.
Leslie and Ana’s fourth-grade students were appalled when they learned about the unconstitutional deportations of the 1930s. “We all took this injustice very personally,” says student Diana Leal. “It happened to people who were just like us, with a Mexican heritage and a Mexican last name.” The population of Bell Gardens is ninety-five percent Latinx, and almost every student in the class was first-generation Mexican American.
The students tried to find out more about Mexican Repatriation, but like Ana, they could not find further information in their textbooks. Searches on the internet didn’t yield much more. When asked to choose a topic for their Language Arts assignment, the children unanimously decided to focus on the lack of representation and redress around this racist policy that affected over a million people. And they set their sights high.
“They were just like: ‘We’re going to write to the president,’” Ana said, “‘because this has got to change.’”
Joshua Govea, another former Bell Gardens student, remembers how set he and his classmates were on seeking justice. “We had to do something for our ancestors,” he says.
So the eight- and nine-year-olds drafted a letter to President Obama, telling him what they had learned about the 1930s, how many people had suffered, and why the federal government should apologize to the Mexican American community.
The students were thrilled when, a few months later, they received a response from the White House. But as Leslie read the letter aloud for the class, silence fell across the room. The letter was nothing like what they had hoped for; they’d received a generic message encouraging the kids to keep fighting for justice, with pictures of the Obama family’s dogs.
“He didn’t even mention the deportations or an apology!” one of the students exclaimed.
“I don’t think he even read it,” another student said.
“The kids were just so upset,” Leslie remembers. They felt completely dismissed by the White House’s response. But their drive for justice didn’t dampen; they knew the importance of the story and the righteousness of their pursuit.
The students went back to the drawing board, searching for other ways to correct the historical record. With Leslie’s help, they found creative ways to share what they had learned about Repatriation with guests they invited to their classroom—a school board member, university professors, and even the state assembly member for their district.
Their passion impressed the state assembly member so much that she encouraged the students to enter her office’s contest, “There Ought to Be a Law.” The students could submit a proposal to change California’s history curriculum to fix the problem of underrepresentation they had identified and make sure that every student would learn what happened to Mexican Americans in the 1930s.
Though this wasn’t the students’ original goal, they understood the importance of sharing the story with millions more people. Including the history of Mexican Repatriation in textbooks and curricula in California would ensure that the experiences of their ancestors’ would not go untold.
“The next day we all sat as a class around the screen, and Ms. Hiatt was typing on her computer,” student Nicole Sandoval remembers. “We were all sharing ideas very excitedly, trying to fit our ideas in a little box with a word limit.”
Leslie Hiatt and her then fifth-grade students submitted their entry, and won. A new bill, A.B. 146, was introduced on their behalf. As the winners of the contest, the students were invited to testify about the bill before the State Assembly Committee at the state Capitol in Sacramento, four hundred miles away.
The Bell Gardens community rallied around the class to send them to the Capitol: parents joined as chaperones and sent homemade snacks for the bus trip, the school district helped pay for hotel rooms, local businesses made donations, and the teachers at the elementary school bought brand-new uniforms for the whole class.
After compelling speeches from several students at the California state Capitol, Leslie’s students succeeded when on October 1, 2015 their bill finally became a law, officially incorporating Mexican Repatriation into the California State Board of Education’s recommended social studies material. “It was pretty amazing,” Diana says, “that our hard work actually paid off, and that we got justice for the people who suffered because of these unconstitutional deportations.”
In 2020, five years after the bill became a law, Leslie’s former students reflected on how taking a stand changed them. “It’s an incredible experience for anybody to have,” Joshua says, “the idea that you did something that meant so much to so many people and actually made a change.”
Diana hopes her class’s work will inspire others to stand up for what they believe in. “No matter how old you are or where you come from,” she says, “you still have a voice and can still make a change.”