Feb 13, 2024 - Politics & Policy

U.S. citizen caught in 1930s mass deportations became a WWII hero

Anthony “Tony” Acevedo in his army uniform, ca. 1943.

Anthony "Tony" Acevedo in his U.S. Army uniform, 1943. Photo: Courtesy of US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Among the estimated million Mexicans and Mexican Americans who were forced to leave the U.S. for Mexico during the Great Depression "repatriation" was Anthony Acevedo, a future World War II medic and Holocaust survivor.

The big picture: As former President Trump vows to introduce "the largest deportation operation in American history" if he's re-elected, the effects of previous mass deportations are being re-examined.

  • Acevedo's story highlights the painful legacy left by the deportations of Mexican Americans.

Details: Born in San Bernardino, California, to Mexican immigrants, Acevedo endured racial segregation as a child, attending Mexican-only schools and being barred from swimming with white kids.

  • By the 1930s, state and local governments under the guise of "repatriation" began encouraging — but mainly harassing — Mexicans and Mexican Americans to "return" to Mexico amid high unemployment in the U.S.
  • Acevedo's family left under pressure, while other Mexican families were boarded onto trains and sent deep into Mexico's interior so it would be hard to return.
  • About 60% of those who left were American citizens, according to various studies on the 1930s repatriation.

Between the lines: U.S. officials, who skirted birthright citizenship by saying they did not want to break up families, sent Mexican American children to Mexico, according to "Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s."

  • Co-author Francisco Balderrama said some families hid children away with relatives in the U.S. to prevent them from being sent to a foreign country they had never visited.

Zoom in: Acevedo finished high school in Mexico and was eventually drafted into the U.S. Army after his father wrote a letter giving his consent for his son to join.

  • Acevedo told the Voces Oral History Center in 2009 that he was part of the 275th Infantry Regiment during the Battle of the Bulge, when German soldiers took him prisoner. He was 19.
  • He was sent to Berga an der Elster, a forced labor subcamp of the Buchenwald concentration camp, and was tortured and suffered sexual violence.

Acevedo maintained a secret diary of his experiences and recorded the dates and causes of his fellow soldiers' deaths.

  • About 70 of the 350 American prisoners at Berga died from dysentery, pneumonia, malnutrition, and exhaustion, or were shot by Nazi guards, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
  • He was eventually rescued in April 1945, weighing only 87 pounds at the time he was found.
  • Acevedo received a number of medals, including the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.

Yes, but: The U.S. Army made Acevedo and other POWs sign a document preventing them from telling anyone what happened to them.

  • Acevedo began defying that order late in life and speaking at high schools about his experiences. "People have to know what happened," he told CNN in 2009.

Of note: That same year, Acevedo became the first Mexican American to register on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's Benjamin and Vladka Meed Registry of Holocaust Survivors.

  • Acevedo died in 2018 in Loma Linda, Calif.

California in 2006 formally apologized to Mexican and Mexican American families for the state's role in the 1930s repatriation.

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