Two who never came back 

Marta Ornelas and Jesus Manrique are los repatriados who never returned. They left Detroit in 1934, when Marta was 23 and Manrique, who was born here, was 3. They live in the city of León in central Mexico, where Ornelas grew up and lived before moving to Detroit with her husband in 1929.

In June, Ornelas and Manrique were interviewed in León by filmmaker Alex Cortez, Wayne State University’s Jorge Chinea, photographer George Waldman and Roberto Muñoz, a Detroit schools counselor who is Ornelas’ nephew and Manrique’s cousin. The interview was translated by Muñoz.

With her mother ailing in León, Ornelas voluntarily left Detroit. But the duplicitous methods used on her and others in Detroit’s Mexican community were indicative of the Repatriation campaign.


Ornelas: “And one day this lady sent a card to the house telling us to meet at the International Institute because there were a lot of things to be discussed. There was a painter, a very famous painter, who had arrived and wanted to present some of his works and his methods of painting. And this painter was Diego Rivera. And we went. And there was a lady there and I think it was his wife. And she said, ‘The objective for this meeting was not to see the murals but it was for the purpose that the governments have come to an agreement that the U.S. government can no longer maintain so many people who are not from the United States.’ That’s when all the plants were closed and the banks and nobody was working. And so it was too heavy a load to give aid. She said, ‘It’s for you to leave because there is a lot of land that Mexico has that nobody is using and so you can go to Mexico and you can form communities without any cost and you can work a parcel of land and the government of Mexico is predisposed to give you that and the government of the United States is predisposed to send you there.’”

The lure of free land helped persuade her husband to make the move. Ornelas and her family endured a grueling trip in a train packed with Mexicans who were being repatriated. Once they arrived, they faced hunger and empty promises.


Ornelas: “On this side (Mexico), we weren’t given anything to eat. Over there (in the United States) we were at least given lunch. They would distribute something to eat and drink and milk for the children. Once we got here, the only promise they gave was for those who want land. They were just promises. All those people who came, where were they going to find that land? How were they going to do that? Most people went back to their own hometowns. The government didn’t give anything.”

Ornelas says she realized that she had been duped by the U.S. and Mexican governments. Although they had packed their worldly goods onto the train, they never saw most of it again. That was not all that was lost. For her son Manrique, the prospect of a brighter future in the United States was also taken away. In 1946, Manrique went to the U.S. Embassy to press his claim for U.S. citizenship. He says he was told that he could return to the country where he was born, but not to Detroit, where he still had family. He would be sent to a military base. His father advised him to stay in Mexico and, in the end, that is what he did.


Manrique: “Those who came from there [the United States] could have had a better chance. All that advance was stopped. I always knew I was an American citizen. What happened was that I told my father I wanted to go to the United States. And the first thing he told me was that Mexico is very big and to stay in Mexico. And so I became very disillusioned. The victims of the Repatriation were the children.”

Tom Schram is co-chair of the National Writers Union of Southeast Michigan. Send comments to

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