Interview with Roberto Munoz
Interview with Roberto Munoz
Interview Date: February 21, 1992

Camera Rolls: 311:42-44
Sound Rolls: 311:24-25
Interview gathered as part of The Great Depression .
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Editorial Notes:

Preferred citation:
Interview with Roberto Munoz , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on February 21, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.

*
INTERVIEW
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[camera roll 311:42] [sound roll 311:24] [slate marker visible on screen]
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QUESTION 1
JON ELSE:

Let's begin, we'll probably do this thing about where your parents came from five or six times. Tell me where your family came from any why.

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

Where my family came from in Mexico and why? My family, my parents came from the central region of Mexico called Guanajuato in a city called Leon. They, my parents were actually raised in the same neighborhood but didn't meet until they were here in the states, actually. They met in Kansas City, Missouri, Kansas City, Kansas, in that section, where the, where a lot of the Mexican immigrants who were following the railroad industry and finding work with that industry migrated. And they were married in 1917, and remained married for fifty years.

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QUESTION 2
JON ELSE:

When did your parents arrive in Detroit?

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

My parents arrived in Detroit in 1926. They came, as I understand it, in a—my father came first. The, the adult males came. They had, and they came in a car, I believe it was a Model T, driven by my uncle, and they had to use a rag to keep the piston going in the motor, or something, you know, like a cannibalized, barely-making-it kind of trip. And they came here searching for work. And we had three generations of Ford workers, workers in the automotive, automobile industry.

JON ELSE:

What—

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

Within my family.

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QUESTION 3
JON ELSE:

Why come to Detroit? What drew them here? Why not go to San Francisco or New York, or what drew them to, to Detroit?

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

Detroit was a haven for people who were looking for work. As I mentioned, or I indicated before, Michigan, people came to Michigan, as, to follow both the railroad industry, the automobile industry when the $5 day wage was bringing people, drawing people here, and the sugar beet industry, because of the agricultural work that people were able to find here in the Detroit, seasonally, right here in the Michigan area.

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QUESTION 4
JON ELSE:

From what you grew up hearing from your parents, had, had Henry Ford's fame spread into Mexico? Did they know about Henry Ford in Mexico, do you know?

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

I'm not aware of how far into Mexico word spread regarding the, the automobile industry, the need for labor, the labor, the demand for labor. But given the fact that the immigration, or, I should say, the immigrant population doubled in the United States between 1910 and 1920, and given the political situation at the time in Mexico, that is, the Mexican Revolution, where a lot of people were uprooted, as they came to the United States looking for work, I'm sure word spread through networks that people had, family members, friends, that there was work up here in these parts.

JON ELSE:

Great. I'm going to have you, it's fine to repeat stuff, by the way, I'll ask you questions and you'll tell me stuff that you've already told me.

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

I know the footage and the editing and all that.

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QUESTION 5
JON ELSE:

Yeah,  [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] . What was, what were the conditions in Mexico at the time your parents and others were leaving to come to this country? What were the, what was it that made it, made it—why leave Mexico?

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

As, as I was told, as I've read, as I understand it, as I know, there was a lot of upheaval in Mexico. As I had mentioned, there was a revolution going on. The regime of Perfirio Diaz was about to be or was, was being toppled. People were leaving in droves, going to places like, as we know, Texas, other parts of the Southwest. I remember my father, for example, as an only son, who wanted to join Poncho Villa's troops, forces, and, because he was an only son, my, his father decided to bring to him to the United States, and they both found work in El Paso, Texas, working the railroads. I remember my father showing me, for example, his first pay stub from his wages that he received working in Texas, and it was dated 1915.

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QUESTION 6
JON ELSE:

I'm going to have you repeat and combine some stuff into one statement.

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

Sure. Whoa.

JON ELSE:

That your father, or your parents, either way, left Mexico via Kansas City and arrived in Detroit in a Model T.

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

Right.

JON ELSE:

In 1926.

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

Yes.

JON ELSE:

Just those ideas, can do you that in only one sentence?

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

Well, OK, my parents left Mexico at different times, because there's the, also that story about my mother's family how she came to Mexico, how she came to New Mexico from Mexico on top of a railroad car, her mother and daughters, including my ninety-six-year-old aunt who I've talked with you about. But, the, you know, people were coming, were coming into the states as a result of the political upheaval in Mexico looking for work, trying to find a new life, bringing their families or their belongings or whatever they had, and following those migration patterns where economic opportunities became available, be they the railroad industry, the meat packing industry, and, as a result of all of that, those migrations northward, the automobile industry, eventually landing here in Detroit, where here we've been for sixty-six years, and to four, yeah, four generations.

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QUESTION 7
JON ELSE:

OK, I'm going to have you say one sentence to tack on the beginning of that. Was he, both of your parents arrived at the same time here, together, right, in Detroit? What I want to get at is the idea of arriving in Detroit in a Model T.

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

OK, my mother and father did not arrive in Detroit at the same time, but my, how should I say this, my immediately, my father and my mother's brother, so it was my uncle, OK, they were family members, the male members of the family arrived in Detroit in a Model T looking for work, and in the, in both, the, the automobile industry and the railroad industry.

[production discussion]

[cut]
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QUESTION 8
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JON ELSE:

A list of places where people came from, place names.

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

As I understand it, people came from,
** for example, the states of Guanajuato,
** Michoacan, San Luis Potosi, course Mexico City,
** and there was, and Jalisco. Some of the northern parts were, what was it, God, I've forgot, but let's go with.

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QUESTION 9
JON ELSE:

When your father and uncle arrived in Detroit, what other, what other kinds of populations were here, were coming to Detroit at that time? Can you, can you fill us in? What I want to get at is the diversity of the people coming from, really from all over the world.

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

Yeah, it's difficult for me to say, because I haven't really heard a lot of what other populations were arriving at the same time. But I know that there were, for example, Irish neighborhoods, there were German neighborhoods, there were Polish neighborhoods, some of which are still in existence today, examples are Hamtramck, and—

[cut] [wild audio]
ROBERTO MUNOZ:

—and there are, there are many remnants of those still remaining in the Detroit area. We find that, for example, by landmarks whether they be churches, clubs, organizations, bakeries, restaurants, those kinds of establishments.

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QUESTION 10
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JON ELSE:

Where were we? Explain to me about this colony coming together, this community.

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

The Mexican community in Detroit came together, as I understand it, in the early twenties in what is today known as Greektown. And, and it seemed, the, the colonies, the communities seemed to center around the church, at that time, it was St. Mary's. And then it, the, as the community grew bigger, as the population increased during the 20s, the migration pattern went, came west. There was a church named Our Lady of Guadalupe that was reported to have been built by the people themselves. But after the Depression came, and after the repatriation took place, and a lot of people were deported, the other word for repatriation, deportation, a lot of what started to be, what was, what were the beginnings of the Mexican community started crumbling, and it had to be reestablished after the Depression and during the Depression, because those who continued to stay did what they could to maintain their sense of community, their sense of history and heritage.

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QUESTION 11
JON ELSE:

What happened in 1931 in the Depression with the repatriations? Explain that to someone who doesn't know anything about Detroit or doesn't know anything about this community.

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

Because of the impact of the economic depression in the Detroit area, and all of the, you know, the bank closings, the economic downturn, and the variables that always got impact on economic conditions, the Mexican community in the Detroit area was significantly affected by that, because, for example, the Detroit Welfare Department refused to maintain or provide any kind of subsistence for anyone who was foreign-born. And since there were many, for example, Mexicans in the Detroit area, in Detroit, who were from Mexico originally, these people were sometimes coerced, intimidated into returning to Mexico. And so we had what was called the repatriation.
** It had a, a significant effect on the community itself. Many people left. The impact was felt many years afterward. Efforts that were begun were not, were never really fully recovered, like the church I was talking about. And those who stayed had to rebuild it, just as many, as many, many people did because of the Depression of the early 30s.

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QUESTION 12
JON ELSE:

What, as you were growing up, were there specific stories that you heard about the repatriation? Were there tales of people, you know, I'm talking about things that you yourself actually heard from your uncles or your parents? Or any incidents or anecdotes?

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

Yes. People who I've talked with who were, who lived through that repatriation, the stories seem, seem to be the same. They were intimidated into going back. They were told that their, their passage, their transportation cost by railroad would be paid to return to Mexico. They were, they were in fact paid for it, but they were left at the border, and from there in fact left to go on their own. If we, you want to talk about significant historical figures like Diego Rivera, he played a role in helping Mexicans from Mexico in organizing themselves and going back. In other words, he took part of his commission earned to do the mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts and used part of that commission to help pay for the transportation costs for the repatriated, for the repatriados.

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QUESTION 13
JON ELSE:

What about your, your own family?

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

My parents were also, actually, my, my family was affected by it. I have an, I have my late uncle, my mother's brother, late brother, I did take his family back. So there was an uncle in my, on my mother's side who did return to Mexico as a result of the repatriation. And to this day, I have relatives in Mexico who were born in Detroit just as I have relatives in Detroit who were born in Mexico. My parents were also told that they had to return, but my parents refused to be intimidated into returning, since my father always felt that, as a result of why he came to the United States, even though he had that nationalist feeling that "once a Mexican, always a Mexican," and he would die a Mexican citizen, which he did, that he came here to find a better life, that he was steadfast in his purpose and that caused him to remain.

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QUESTION 14
JON ELSE:

Good, good. I want to talk more about the repatriations, and, was that a painful time? Obviously, it was, but can you, to an audience that doesn't know what happened then.

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

It, as I have been told, and I've done research and examined the question, it was a painful time for many reasons. Have to return to an, an unstable country after having to uproot oneself to come here from Mexico, having been told that you had to return, having been told that there was no way to, for you to maintain yourself or your family, and having to face the consequences and really being left on your own, caused many people to also become more of a closely-knit community. As we talked, for example, to people who are still with us, who lived through those times, we'll hear, hear those stories. That the families became closer, whether it was my family, my cousins, and my aunt, aunts and uncles, and their neighbors, and the people in the same neighborhood, in the same block, and having, for example, talked with a lady, a lady yesterday at a funeral home, the same, I hear the same story. People became very close, so the community kind of bonded itself together as a means of survival.

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QUESTION 15
JON ELSE:

There were ways that people helped one another?

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

Yes, there were many ways that people helped one another. Sharing their living conditions, their resources, their quarters. They took pride in celebrations, parades, national holidays, and—

JON ELSE:

I want to, actually, I'm going to interrupt. Give me a list of some of those, those national holidays, those festivals that are distinctly Mexican, that I would've bumped into if I'd been in that, and the food, also, man, I'm really, really trying to get a sense of these different kinds of, of national communities that are in Detroit. What are some of those holidays that would've been celebrated in the, in the community  [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] ?

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

Well, the national holidays that were and still are celebrated in the community are for example the Cinco de Mayo and the Mexican Independence Day, the 16th of September. As I said, whether it was my parents or part of the community, there's been that, that strong sense of nationalism that has kept that pride in the people of where, who we are, where we're from, what we're about. And being that we are near the Canadian border has no, doesn't mean that because of the distance we are, we're not as close as people who live in California or Texas, but there are people here who continue on with those traditions. It's a strong sense of history. And the foods, the traditional, you know, whether, whether it's those, those foods, you know, those dishes that we all know, the traditional and beans, the tortillas, you know, the pollo, the, the tamales, you know, the, the, the kinds of foods that are served up on during Lent or during the Christmas holidays, those, they continue, they're passed on to generations. And it's, it's, I find it to be, well, it's, it's, it's a warm feeling, it's, it's a feeling of pride, and it's a feeling of national identity that I think we see pockets of not only in the Mexican communities but in other communities here in the Detroit area. There's a, there's, there's that strong, I think, ethnic tradition that resounds in this area.

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QUESTION 16
JON ELSE:

Good. Good. Where did your father finally, go back to 1926, where did you dad end up working?

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

My father ended up working in the Rouge plant before the unions came. And, as he related to me, people like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were friends and associates and partners, if you will. And he, I remember him telling me that he had seen both men in the plant when he was working there. It was a short-lived work career in the Ford plant, given the conditions and, again, before, before the unions, before the workers were organized. But, there, he lived to, to tell me a lot of what affected him, whether—he saw Poncho Villa during the Mexican Revolution, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison here, or Diego Rivera when he was sponsoring transportation costs for the repatriados.

[cut]
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QUESTION 17
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JON ELSE:

Why, why was it a short career?

[cut] [slate marker visible on screen]
JON ELSE:

People who came from Mexico, your parents' generation, what kind of people were those? Were those farmers, were they industrial workers, were they, what sort of folks were those who came do Detroit? When they arrived here, what sort of people were they?

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

From what I can—of my perception of the people who came from Mexico to Detroit, were people who were barely able to survive the political and economic conditions of the time during all that civil strife. And I think that they were a combination of people who came from the rural areas and from the small but growing cities, uneducated, minimum, my parents for example both had reached third and sixth grade, respectively, my father. So they were very uneducated, poor by many, by today's standards, but determined, and wanting to better, better their life, be better, be in a better position to provide for their families.

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QUESTION 18
JON ELSE:

So they arrive here and there's this factory, Rouge, right? Was there any sense that there was difficulty adjusting to this sort of lockstep industrial—I mean you worked in an assembly line one, you know what that's like. You think that may have been a tough thing to adjust to?

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

I think for many people it was a, a difficult thing to adjust to, because they were not accustomed to that disciplined routine. If they worked on the railroad, in the railroad industry, they may have worked in crews and they worked outside. If they worked in the agricultural, in the fields, again their were in the outside develop, environment, outside elements. But when they came to working with a, a structured, regimented job on the inside of a big building dominated by machines with a speed-up line, and you, you felt like a cog in the machine, it was very difficult for a lot of people to adjust to. And I think that's why the 20s, even though the $5 day was an attractive incentive for people to come to this area to find work, Ford also had, those plants also experienced a high turnover rate. People were just not accustomed to having to make a living in conditions and in an environment that was totally new and foreign to them.

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QUESTION 19
JON ELSE:

You worked on an assembly line, yeah, you worked—

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

I worked in a plant.

JON ELSE:

You worked in a plant. What, without, I don't want to talk about Highland Park in the 1960s or 70s when you were there, but just in general, what is, what is working in an assembly line like for someone who's never done it? If you had to explain it to my son who's never done it, what's, what should he expect?

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

You would expect to find drudgery and, and monotony, in that you would almost have to find yourself an automaton and not really having to do a lot of thinking, depending on what your job assignment was. If you were to, for example, put nuts and bolts into a chassis, fastening transmissions and engines and rear axles together, or if you were going to put fenders or tires, or if you were going to be the driver driving the unit, the vehicle off the assembly line, how much of it was, was, how much pride was there in doing let's say quality workmanship, as opposed to meeting a deadline of we've got to make sure that we've produced so many items? And we have to be almost fearful that the line doesn't go down, because then we're going to fall behind. And it was a, it's a constant cycle, it's a constant routine that many people have been able to sustain working twenty, thirty years, others will not tolerate, tolerate those conditions after a while. And I myself, well I think I had had my share, and I wanted to continue on with education, and so I took a different turn.

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QUESTION 20
JON ELSE:

I'm going to go backwards. I'm going to drive you nuts.

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

That's fine.

JON ELSE:

I'm going to talk about your dad arriving again. I want to, I want to—

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

I'm with you.

JON ELSE:

—because we have a lot of other people describing their families arriving in Detroit. One sentence, "My father and my uncle arrived from Mexico in a Model T, 1926, in Detroit."

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

My father and my uncle arrived from Kansas City in an old Model T, barely making it to Detroit, looking for work in the Ford plant.

JON ELSE:

Good. Let's cut for a second.

[cut]
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QUESTION 21
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JON ELSE:

First, let's see, what were we doing here? Father and uncle. OK.

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

My father and uncle arrived from Mexico via Kansas City in an old car, looking for work in the Ford plant.

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QUESTION 22
JON ELSE:

Great. Good. Depression memories, painful memories, painful stories that you heard?

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

Stories that I heard, people had to live, for example, in box cars. People had to struggle, I heard, for example, that people would, if they saw coal stacks or milk cartons on other people's porches, when nobody was watching those would be lifted. But I think the, the, what I find that sustained a lot of people was that people were, that worked, they worked together in their struggle, in their common struggle to survive, sharing living quarters, sharing resources,
** and developing friendships that I have experienced have lasted the, to this day.

JON ELSE:

Good. That's a good note to end on. Great.

CAMERA CREW MEMBER:

He said old car, not Model T.

JON ELSE:

We can just steal Model T from earlier. Yeah.

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

You want to do it again? [laughs]

JON ELSE:

Yeah I want to, sure. Why not? You still rolling? Mexico, father and uncle from Mexico, in a Model T, 1926.

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

OK. My father and uncle arrived in Detroit in 1926 from Mexico via Kansas City in a Model T.
**

JON ELSE:

Good. Great.

ROBERTO MUNOZ:

Is that, is that what you were looking for?

JON ELSE:

That's good. That's perfect. Yeah, that's great.

[end of interview]