New Mexico during the Great Depression

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The economic prosperity of the 1920s ended with an economic disaster. We have come to refer to that disaster as the Great Depression.

During the economic boom of the Roaring Twenties, the traditional values of rural America were challenged by the Jazz Age, symbolized by women smoking, drinking, and wearing short skirts. The average American was busy buying automobiles and household appliances and speculating in the stock market, where big money could be made. Those appliances were bought on credit, however. Although businesses had made huge gains — 65 percent — from the mechanization of manufacturing, the average worker’s wages had only increased 8 percent.

The imbalance between the rich and the poor, with 0.1 percent of society earning the same total income as 42 percent, combined with the production of more and more goods and rising personal debt, could not be sustained. On Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed, triggering the Great Depression, the worst economic collapse in the history of the modern industrial world. It spread from the United States to the rest of the world, lasting from the end of 1929 until the early 1940s. With banks failing and businesses closing, more than 15 million Americans (one-quarter of the workforce) became unemployed. Millions would be jolted out of the AMERICAN DREAM as they faced the realities of widespread poverty.

By 1933 production in American factories and plants had fallen, thousands of banks, with no money to lend and no cash on hand, closed their doors.In the end, millions of American workers found themselves without work and without even the hope of work. As people looked into the future and so only more hardship to come, hope began to fade. The Depression would jolt many out of the American Dream forcing them to look at the realities of widespread poverty.
Incredible poverty forced people and families onto the streets. Eventually, these people would gather together in huge tent communities known as “Hoovervilles”.

The entire nation suffered during the Great Depression that followed in the wake of the 1929 Stock Market Crash. But each part of the country was affected in different ways.

The economic crisis combined with a long drought that actually turned New Mexico into part of the Dust Bowl. A 1937 dust storm was so massive that it stretched a mile wide and 1500 feet high.

One of the hardest hit segments of the New Mexico economy during the depression was farming. In 1931, the state’s most important crops were worth only about half of their 1929 value. Dry farmers were especially devastated as they suffered from both continually high operating costs and a prolonged drought that dried up portions of New Mexico so badly that they became part of the Dust Bowl.

From Oklahoma to eastern New Mexico, winds picked up the dry topsoil, forming great clouds of dust so thick that it filled the air. On May 28, 1937, one dust cloud, or “black roller, ” measuring fifteen hundred feet high and a mile across, descended upon the farming and ranching community of Clayton, New Mexico. The dust blew for hours and was so thick that electric lights could not be seen across the street. Everywhere they hit, the dust storms killed livestock and destroyed crops. In the Estancia Valley entire crops of pinto beans were killed, and that once productive area was transformed into what author John L. Sinclair has called “the valley of broken hearts.”

In all parts of New Mexico, farmland dropped in value until it bottomed out at an average of $4.95 an acre, the lowest value per acre of land in the United States. Many New Mexico farmers had few or no crops to sell and eventually, they were forced to sell their land contributing in the process to the overall decline in farmland values.


And it wasn’t just farmers who were affected. During the 1920s, New Mexico was already one of the poorest states and the crash only made a bad situation worse, especially in rural areas. The New Deal projects helped many return to work. However, the 1930s were a tough decade for most New Mexicans.

The depression also hurt New Mexico’s cattle ranchers, for they suffered from both drought and a shrinking marketplace. As grasslands dried up, they raised fewer cattle; and as the demand for beef declined, so did the value of the cattle on New Mexico’s rangelands. Like the farmers, many ranchers fell behind in their taxes and were forced to sell their land, which was bought by large ranchers.

Agriculture’s ailing economic condition had a particularly harsh effect on New Mexico, for the state was still primarily rural during the 1930’s, with most of its people employed in raising crops and livestock. Yet farmers and ranchers were not the only ones to appear on the list of those devastated by depressed economic conditions. Indeed, high on the list were the miners, who watched their industry continue the downward slide that had begun in the 1920’s. Many mines became the property of larger companies when conditions forced many of the smaller companies out of business. The oil industry, however, remained a bright spot in an otherwise bleak economic picture, for increased oil production provided needed tax money to the state. Tourism also received a boost when the federal government released some federal relief money to create new state parks.


It wasn’t all about finding work though. For some, it was about finding a way to stay within the United States. One almost forgotten part of the depression era was the deportation of many citizens, who just happened to be of Mexican ancestry. This video outlines the deportation program:

During the 1930s and into the 1940s, up to 2 million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were deported or expelled from cities and towns across the U.S. and shipped to Mexico. According to some estimates, more than half of these people were U.S. citizens, born in the United States.

It’s a largely forgotten chapter in history that Francisco Balderrama, a California State University historian, documented in Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s. He co-wrote that book with the late historian Raymond Rodriguez.

“There was a perception in the United States that Mexicans are Mexicans,” Balderrama said. “Whether they were American citizens, or whether they were Mexican nationals, in the American mind — that is, in the mind of government officials, in the mind of industry leaders — they’re all Mexicans. So ship them home.”

It was the Great Depression, when up to a quarter of Americans were unemployed and many believed that Mexicans were taking scarce jobs. In response, federal, state and local officials launched so-called “repatriation” campaigns. They held raids in workplaces and in public places, rounded up Mexicans and Mexican-Americans alike, and deported them. The most famous of these was in downtown Los Angeles’ Placita Olvera in 1931.

Balderrama says these raids were intended to spread fear throughout Mexican barrios and pressure Mexicans and Mexican-Americans to leave on their own. In many cases, they succeeded.

Where they didn’t, government officials often used coercion to get rid of Mexican-Americans who were U.S. citizens. In Los Angeles, it was standard practice for county social workers to tell those receiving public assistance that they would lose it, and that they would be better off in Mexico. Those social workers would then get tickets for families to travel to Mexico. According to Balderrama’s research, one-third of LA’s Mexican population was expelled between 1929 and 1944 as a result of these practices.

Balderrama says these family separations remain a lasting legacy of the mass deportations of that era. Despite claims by officials at the time that deporting U.S.-born children — along with their immigrant parents — would keep families together, many families were destroyed.

Esteban Torres was a toddler when his father, a Mexican immigrant, was caught up in a workplace roundup at an Arizona copper mine in the mid-1930s. “My mother, like other wives, waited for the husbands to come home from the mine. But he didn’t come home,” Torres recalled in a recent interview. He now lives east of Los Angeles. “I was 3 years old. My brother was 2 years old. And we never saw my father again.”

Torres’ mother suspected that his father had been targeted because of his efforts to organize miners. That led Esteban Torres to a lifelong involvement with organized labor. He was eventually elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and served there from 1983 to 1999.

Today, Torres serves on the board of La Plaza de Cultura y Artes in Los Angeles, a Mexican-American cultural center. In front of it stands a memorial that the state of California dedicated in 2012, apologizing to the hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens who were illegally deported or expelled during the Depression.

Taking office in March 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal relief measures were sent to Congress and within months, most of the acts the president wanted were passed. New Mexicans welcomed New Deal programs of all kinds. Some of the New Deal programs, such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA), put people to work in varying jobs: writers, artists, and musicians practiced their trades as employees of WPA projects, while others who worked for the WPA built schools and other public buildings, including the library and the administration building at the University of New Mexico. By 1936 more than thirteen thousand New Mexicans had found jobs through this program.

New Mexico had always had its share of those who were creative. For the artist, the collapse of the stock market equated the collapse of the art market: art collectors and patrons, now without stock dividend income that provided the means for the acquisition of ‘luxury’ items, could not purchase art. The romance of the ‘starving artist’ took on urgent and less than romantic connotation – and warning.

The PWAP was the first federally funded art program under the Civil Works Administration (CWA) – a New Deal work-relief program created by President Roosevelt to alleviate the economic job crisis. In time, all the federal art projects have come to be generically referred to as “WPA Art, ” (Works Progress Administration, or WPA).

The CWA was administered by socially conscious Harry Hopkins whose heartfelt belief was that “artists have to eat like other people.” The PWAP started in December 1933 and continued until June 1934, and was the brainchild of artist George Biddle, a former schoolmate of President Roosevelt at Groton and Harvard. An advocate of mural art in America, Biddle had studied with the Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, and it was his belief that Rivera and others gave voice to the social ideals of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 through their vivid, colorful murals. It would follow, he believed, that murals painted by American artists in the United States would be appropriate vehicles for the expression of the ideals of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Murals painted by Biddle and New Mexico’s Emil Bisttram may be seen today in the Department of Justice Building in Washington DC.

Between 1933 – 1943, in the depth of the depression, 167 known artists lived in New Mexico, all struggling to sell art in a time when many Americans had little money available even for necessities. The New Deal’s Works Progress Administration Art Project provided an opportunity for artists to create artwork for public buildings, allowing them to remain independent, support their families, and enrich and enhance the community.

The following New Mexico artists were among the many employed in WPA projects: Pablita Velarde, Maria Martinez, Ila McAfee, Gerald Cassidy, Will Shuster, Lloyd Moylan, Gisella Loeffler, Eliseo Rodriguez, Kenneth Adams, Fremont F. Ellis and Peter Hurd. The area coordinator of the WPA’s Public Works of Art Project was woodblock printer, painter, and marionette-maker Gustave Baumann, a leading member of the Santa Fe art community. More than 65 murals with varied subject materials were created in New Mexico during the Depression. In addition to these murals, the WPA sponsored more than 650 paintings, ten sculptural pieces, and numerous indigenous Hispanic Native American crafts.

President Roosevelt appointed John Collier as Commissioner of Indian Affairs (1933 – 1945). Collier took full advantage of New Deal funds to promote Indian arts and crafts, increase employment, improve infrastructure on reservations, and construct schools. Collier was an idealist who struggled to reform federal Indian policy during his twelve-year term. Years earlier, during a 1920 visit to his close friend, Taos resident and art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan, he had embraced Pueblo Indian culture as offering nothing less than salvation from the ills of Western Civilization.

The headquarters of the Indian Division was at Santa Fe Indian School, where the artists took room and board. Superintendent Chester E. Faris endeavored to hire Indian artists and craftsmen and promote Indian arts as a profession that would permit students to continue living at home if they desired. The students worked under the direction of painting teacher Dorothy Dunn and crafts teacher Mabel Morrow. The artists included Pablita Velarde (Santa Clara) and Andy Tsinajinnie (Navajo), both about 16 years old at the time. They worked with established artists Velino Shije Herrera (Zia), Tonita Pena (San Ildefonso), Emiliano Abeyta (San Juan), Tony Archuleta (Taos), Jack Hokeah (Kiowa), and Calvin Tyndall (Omaha).

Velarde recalled that at SFIS (Santa Fe Indian School), Tonita Pena became her mentor. “Tonita was really a help to me in my early years at the Indian school…..She was staying at the girls’ dorm. That’s how we got acquainted. She talked Tewa, and she used to tease and laugh and joke in Indian, and that was fun. Then she would be sitting in her room in the evening, just painting for herself, and I’d watch her and talk to her.” These conversations convinced Velarde that she could overcome the difficulties of being both a Pueblo woman and an artist.

Six Navajo weavers came to the school, bringing their own wool and yarn. The school furnished additional wool, yarn, and dyes and paid each weaver a salary of $14.85 per person per week plus room and board. The weavers completed 12 rugs ranging in size from 3 ft. by 4 ft. to 4 ft. by 5 ft. 5 in. The weavers were Nellie Cowboy, Mrs. John Jim, Elizabeth Pablo, Mary Phillips, Sallie Kinlichini, and Bah Smith.

The Indian participants in the Public Works of Art Project included the leading Indian painters, potters, and sculptors of the century who created work of significant artistic and historical value under the federal sponsorship. PWAP helped establish Santa Fe as a center of Indian art patronage and Santa Fe Indian School as an institution that fostered both traditional and innovative arts.

As Franklin Roosevelt and the government were dealing with an ailing economy on one front, they were being pulled into fighting a world war on the other.

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