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Shipped back to Mexico — in 1933

Updated: November 5, 2012 2:20AM

Tough economic times can bring out the worst in a great country.

During the Great Depression in the 1930s, the U.S. government shipped thousands of Mexicans and Mexican Americans to Mexico in what became known as Mexican Repatriation.

Ruben D. Aguilar, born in Chicago, was only 6 when his family was forced to leave in 1933. They were crammed into trucks and trains for the long haul.

“You were like cattle,” he tells me.

Aguilar, 85, is not an angry man, but the hurt is still there. A younger brother, who had been sick, died within months of the family’s arrival on the outskirts of Mexico City.

“It sounds like an awful thing, but it’s one of those circumstances,” Aguilar says of his family’s treatment. “It’s so sad to remember. There were so many tears.”

For many years he struggled to help his family survive in Mexico: He earned pennies selling newspapers, shined shoes and endured beatings while being mugged for shoe-shining equipment his father made. He did much of this before his teenage years while trying to master the Spanish language.

Eventually he became a stellar student and won a college scholarship to a Mexican university, only to have it revoked because he wasn’t a Mexican citizen.

At 18, the U.S. government tracked him down and ordered his return. This country didn’t want him until it needed him to fight in World War II.

“My father said, ‘What a great country you’re going back to,’ ” Aguilar recalls.

Yet when Aguilar got off a bus in Laredo, Texas, and tried to use a public restroom, he was greeted cruelly by a sign that said no dogs or Mexicans.

Aguilar thinks back to that and says, “It’s still a great country. You’ve got an underdog, upper dog and top dog. You need all kinds of dogs to make a country.”

As he prepared to serve in the war, it ended. He served this country later, during the Korean War as a U.S. Marine. In between he worked and saved to bring his parents back to the U.S.

“I thought it was Christmas every day,” he says of the money he made.

Aguilar later opened a textile factory in Chicago and employed dozens. He married and raised a family.

Self-respect was vital. “That’s the most important thing every human being has,” he says. “Respect gives you armor. It gives you protection. It keeps you going.”

His poignant story is important because history is repeating itself. Amid current harsh economic times, Mexicans and Mexican Americans are being treated with varying levels of hostility.

“It’s very similar,” Rita D. Hernandez, Aguilar’s friend and a former Chicago Public Schools teacher with a Ph.D. in cultural and educational policy, says of the vicious cycle. “Whenever the economy is in bad shape, people look for a scapegoat.”

The Obama administration’s record for deportations is off the charts. Many hard-line conservatives seem to forget their ancestors came from a foreign place.

Families are shattered. You hope they move on with the kind of strength and resolve that Aguilar has had.

“I learned from my father that no matter how tough life is, you must face it,” says Aguilar, who, late in life, ran a graphic design shop in Pilsen until he closed it earlier this year.

“The lumps are there. And they don’t disappear overnight.”

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