THE BRACERO PROGRAM
By Allysa Cathcart, Cassandra Gomez, & Sandra Loredo
What were societal attitudes towards workers in the Bracero Program?
How have these attitudes influenced the relation between Mexico and the United States?
What impact did the Bracero Program have on the immigration of Mexican peoples to the US?
The US government has a history with the recruitment of Mexicans to fulfill US jobs, followed by a toleration of unauthorized migration (Martin, 2003). During World War I and II, the US government recruited Mexican Bracero workers by making “exceptions” to immigration rules, that would otherwise have blocked their entry. From 1942 until July, 1951, braceros were admitted into the United States as temporary farmworkers under various governmental authorities. The purpose of the braceros was to provide the United States with agricultural support. In an attempt to prolong and regulate the usage of the braceros, the United States and Mexico formulated Law 78, which permitted the admittance of Mexicans for the sole purpose of working the fields. In all essence, the Bracero Program recruited nearly 4.5 million Mexican workers in its 22 year presence (Craig 1971). Throughout Mexico, the Mexican government recruited eager Mexicans, that were willing to work under difficult conditions in order to make an additional paycheck or find permanent employment in the United States.
A report on Strangers in Our Fields
Written by Region X, Regional Office, Bureau of Employment Security
Media Type: Research Monograph
Source: Digital Public Library of America
“Argument: That Mexican workers employed in the United States are treated as mere numbers rather than as persons.
Basis of argument: A pay stub on which a worker is identified by number only.
Rebuttal: This is a general conclusion based on wholly inadequate evidence. Names as well as numbers are universally used to identify workers on payrolls, contracts and other documents used In connection with the Program. Identification numbers serve the interests of the workers as well as employers and are indispensable in the administration of the Mexican program by the Department.”
In their attempt to justify the importance of the Bracero Program and refute the arguments presented by Dr. Galarza in Strangers in Our Fields, Region X critiques every chapter presented in Galarza’s book. In Strangers in Our Fields, Dr. Galarza utilizes a survey as primary evidence of showcasing the inhumane treatments of Mexican participants in the Bracero Program. His book begins with the following quote: “In this camp, we have no names. We are called only by numbers”, which is representative of the initial argument refuted through the quote by Region X. In the memorandum above, the government tries to justify the usage of the Bracero Program by belittling Dr. Galarza’s credentials and evidence.
Public Law 78
Media Type: Policy
Date: July 12, 1951
Source: US Immigration Legislation
Public Law 78 adapted the economic arrangements created between the United States and Mexico when formulating the Bracero Program. As an amendment of Agricultural Act of 1949, Law 78 added Title V to the Act, enabling the contracting of Mexican farm workers. Although Law 78, enabled the usage of Mexican farm workers, there were specific guidelines for the usage of their labor. Such guidelines included: “payment of at least the prevailing area wage received by natives for performing a given task, employment for 3/4th of the contract period, adequate and sanitary free housing , decent meals at reasonable prices, occupational insurance at employer's expense, and free transportation back to Mexico once contract period was completed.”
Media Type: Photograph and Interview
Date: May 2011
“Joel Perez Mandarin’s house is a spacious one-story flat with a paved front yard. Joel is 69-years-old, with black hair and dark, rosy brown skin. He seemed almost shy.
Joel’s wife and 40-something son sat down next to him on the couch in the front room.
“I’m from Oaxaca. I received a letter from the government in 1960,” Joel said explaining how he became a bracero. Everyone had received the same letter from the government that said the US was looking for workers, Joel recalled. “I took a train to Monterey. A lot of people came on the train from Oaxaca to Monterey. Hundreds of people. It took one week.”
After staying in Monterey for a week, he got a contract.
“I never read it. I just signed it,” he said. Joel was 20 years old at the time. He paused. “There was a physical,” he remembered, staring downward, expressionless. Later, he would say the physical exams were some of the worst memories he had of the Bracero years.
“They checked our blood, our eyes, heart…everything. It was very difficult. They checked all our parts, without clothes. They sprayed, fumigated us and threw away everything we had brought from Mexico. We had never been through anything like that before. We felt awful. We felt it was discrimination.”
Joel’s middle-aged son, one of five, watched attentively as his father recalled the humiliation of being forced to strip and be sprayed, as though he were diseased because he was Mexican. Photographs taken back then show that US Department of Agriculture personnel routinely sprayed incoming Bracero workers with DDT, a pesticide that was banned by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1972 and now known to be carcinogenic.
If anyone complained about the treatment, Joel said, they were sent back.
Passage details an excerpt from an interview with Joel Perez Mandarin who came to the US through the Bracero Program. He describes his experience and feelings during the required physical braceros had to have upon arrival. The article also states that farm workers today suffer the highest rates of chemical related illnesses but do not report out of fear. The account shows that it was unacceptable to complain then and that feeling still resonates with farm worker today. The photo shows how workers were treated more like animals than people.
Deportee (Plane Crash at Los Gatos) - Woody Guthrie
Media Type: Video
Date: Uploaded in 2015
In the Bracero Program, there was a great tragedy on January 28th, 1948. On this date, there was a major airplane crash near Los Gatos canyon in California. In this crash, there were 32 individuals aboard the plane, where a majority of the passengers were of Mexican background, and participants in the Bracero Guest worker program. The passengers aboard this plane were participants in the Bracero program being deported back to Mexico, or illegal immigrants being moved back to Mexico as well. This event outraged Woody Guthrie, who was inspired to write a poem, that was then created into a song entitled “Deportee.” This specifically outraged Guthrie because in all media coverage, they would label each of the passengers as “deportees” and would not give each individual’s name who was involved in the tragic airplane crash. It is regarded today as a protest song, in response to the widely known fact of the mistreatment Bracero Program participants experienced in their tenure.
The Supply of Agricultural Labor as a Factor in the Evolution of Farm Organization in California
Written by Levi Fuller
Media Type: PhD. Dissertation
“We, gentlemen, are just as anxious as you are not to build the civilization of California or any other western district upon a Mexican foundation. We take him because there is nothing else available. We have gone east, west, north, and south and he is the only man-power available to us. California's specialized agriculture [requires] a kind of labor able to meet the requirements of hard, stoop, hand labor, and to work under the sometimes less advantageous conditions of heat, sun, dust, winds, and isolation (Fuller 1940)."
The quote above is from a testimony given by a Chamber of Commerce Spokesperson in 1926 at a Congressional meeting. Within his testimony, the Spokesperson gives the reasoning behind the usage of Mexican farm workers as opposed to farm workers from other countries. As demonstrated through the quote, the tasks demanded through the Bracero Program were known to be rigorous on the body, mind, and health. As a result many countries that were allied with the US during the time did not participate in this agricultural alliance. This quote not only demonstrates the desperation to fulfill the empty sections in the farm fields, but the perception of Mexican workers of capable of fulfilling a task that no other person wants to complete.
The Braceros at 80
Media Type: Video
It has been highly reported and documented that there was mistreatment and abuse involved in the running of the Bracero Program, with hundreds of recountings from workers in the programming claiming there were threats from officials in charge of death and violence against them if they were not meeting their standard of work, among other things. Reflecting on their own personal experience, this video includes interviews from Jesus Colmenero and Fidel Villarroel, who were actively involved in the Bracero Program. They explain how they were affected during and after the termination of the program, and how it lead them to their current state of living (in their 80s). The video goes into detail explaining how they experienced and perceived the program while working in it, and reflecting on whether it ended up being for their benefit now that they have experienced a large portion of their life. Although they claimed that they personally had experienced abuse in their work environment, they say that the conditions that their family, and grandchildren have, has made it seem not so horrendous.
“Harvest of Shame”
Media type: documentary
Harvest of Shame was a tv documentary released in 1960 the day after Thanksgiving and showed the struggles of domestic farm workers. During the release of this film, a main platform in the presidential candidacy was to end the Bracero Program. This was released at the time to make Americans aware of the conditions domestic workers face in agriculture and the low wages. There were negative feelings towards immigrant workers because the belief was that conditions could not improve because braceros were willing to work at lower wages. While the documentary focuses on the condition of domestic workers, it was meant to rally support to end the use of immigrant workers.
Phil Ochs- Bracero
Media Type: Video
In his time, Phil Ochs was highly regarded as a protest singer, who advocated for any injustice he witnessed in current society. When Ochs became aware of the mistreatment in the United States’ Bracero Program, he instantly wanted to send a widespread message against the abuse Mexican workers experienced, and wanted to make a positive exchange. In his song, he focuses mainly on the exploitation that Mexican workers in the program experienced, and specifically mentioning certain events that took place within it. With spreading political messages through music and pop culture, it was a way in which the general population could easily protest and advocate against the Bracero Program, and fight for a more equal and fair program for the workers that were involved in it.
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEWS
The following interview was conducted over the phone at my aunt’s house in Buena Park. The interview took place on May 4, 2017 at 6:30pm. The interview was a dialogue between myself, and my granduncle, who lives in Mexico.
As seen through the quote below, my uncle responds to where the hiring of the Braceros took place in Mexico:
“Había contrataciones aquí en México, en la Ciudadela. Allí mandaban a ellos [los que buscaban trabajadores] a los estados para pedir gente. Iba uno [los trabajadores] a la presidencia y sacaba un certificado, como carta de recomendación del municipio. Y ya se venían [a los E.E.U.U.]. Habían lugares donde se firmaba el pase para allá [a los E.E.U.U.], pero todo eso se acabó como en el setenta.”
“There were hiring in Mexico, at the Ciudadela. From there they would send them [those looking for workers] to the states to ask for workers. One looking for a job would go to the presidency and receive a certificate, kind of like a letter of recommendation from the town. And then they would go there [the United States].”
The response below demonstrates my grand uncle's response to how much they were paid as workers:
“Nos pagan por la hora, pero el dinero dependía en el lugar que estábamos trabajando en. Por ejemplo si venias a San Dimas, California, les pagaban 70 centavos la hora por ocho horas diarias. Allí no daban muchas horas. Después de terminar, nos pasaban a otros lados. Nos dieron un a dólar la hora en un campo. Eso fue lo más que gané durante ese tiempo. Por aca en San José, el tomate era por caja y era a 13 centavos la caja. Hacia uno unas 7 cajas, pero podían ser cuantas cajas hacia uno.”
“They would pay us by the hour, the amount of money one would receive depended on the place we were working at. For instance, if we went to San Dimas, California, you would get paid 70 cents per hour for eight daily hours. They did not give us many hours to work. Once you had finished with your job, you were taken to other locations. At one location, we received a dollar per hour. That was the most I ever made during that time. By San Jose, the tomato was 13 cents per box packaged. One would make about 7 boxes packed, but one could make as many boxes as possible.”
The following is a response to why he participated in the Bracero Program:
“Por qué? Pués aya [en los E.E.U.U.] le rendía más el trabajo y ganaba uno más, igual que ahorita pues. Lo que vale aquí [en México] el peso, pues es muy bajo. Pues lo que gana un trabajador aya [en los E.E.U.U.] es mucho a lo que gana un trabajador aquí [en México]. Entonces el dinero que mandaba acá [en México] rendía mucho. Por eso venía uno contratado. Cuando se terminaba el contrato, lo mandaban a uno a México.”
“Why? Well the work there [in the US] gave more and one could make more money, kind of like how it is right now. The value of a dollar here [in Mexico] is less. Well what one would make working there [in the US] would be much more than what a worker could make here [in Mexico]. Therefore, the money that one would send here [to Mexico] would last longer. That is why one would be contracted. When their work contract would end, they were sent back to Mexico.”
The following interview was conducted on May 7, 2017 at 4:30 pm. It took place in person at my uncle’s home in Santa Ana. The person being interviewed was Cassandra’s grandma and we discussed the her father’s experience in the Bracero program and effects it had on the family.
The following is a response to the question of how was the family affected after the departure of her father:
“Pues yo estaba muy chica, pero como quiera se faltaba mi papa...pero como a los tres años qué estaba él le dijo a mi mama que se vinieran a Torreon y despues fue ayi. Y después se regresó al rancho y no regresó a México.”
“Well I was still really young but his presence was missing. But about 3 years after he was in the program, he told my mother to move us to Torreon and he then came there. After that visit he went back to the ranch and never returned to Mexico”
Response to the question if there were any economic effects created by his participation in the program:
“Si. mi papá mandaba dinero a mi mamá cada mes”
Yes. My father would send money to my mother every month”
Cassandra: Was it more than what he would have made than if he stayed in Mexico?
“Tenía su propia negocio, no se vino porque no teníamos de comer. No, el tenia su oficio él tenía un telar y hacia cobijas”
He had his own business, he didn’t come because we didn’t have enough to eat. No, he had a loom and made blankets
Cassandra: Then why did go?
“Creo que no mas para probar porque tantos se fueron”
“I think just to try it because so many were going”
Response to the question if the program helped her family move to the United States:
“Pues si, llegamos a Torreon y luego estabamos en orto ciudad chiquita. Luego de aya no fuimos a Reynosa porque estaba más cerca a valle, era frontera de valle. Y mi papa siempre estuvo contratado, pero el nunca estaba de mojado. El nunca se vino de ilegal, siempre venía contratado. Yo ya estaba casada cuando él se vulvo a contratar en una lechería en Mission, Texas. Ayi es donde el señor (patrón) les arreglo. Le arreglo a mi papa, mi mama luego Ramón y Daniel (brothers). Cuando le arreglaron a mi papa y mama ellos se trajeron a Gode y Samuel porque estaban chicos. Nunca supimos eso de venir ilegales.”
Well yes, we arrived in Torreon then in another small town. Then from there we went to Reynosa because it was close to the valley. My father was always contracted, never illegal. He never had to come illegally, always contracted. I was already married when he was contracted again in a dairy farm in Mission, Texas. It was there that his employer helped him gain citizenship. He helped my father, mother then my brother Ramon and Daniel. After my father and mother gained citizenship then they brought Gode and Samuel (siblings) because they were still young. We never experienced what it was like to come illegally”
After conducting both interviews and reflecting on what was said afterwards, one can conclude that each person who participated in and/or were affected by the Bracero Program, have their own unique experience and perspective on the program as a whole. The specific quotes and excerpts that we chose shed light on our topic. Each interview demonstrates how the Bracero Program created different perspectives that were based on the experiences that each individual received upon participation. As a group, we agree that the teaching of the Bracero Program is not a common occurrence in public school classrooms, and as future educators it is our responsibility to acknowledge events in our country’s history that have directly or indirectly affected the lives of our future students. The interviews conducted initiate the dialogue with those who experienced the program, but it is our responsibility as educators to continue this dialogue.
In regards to how our interviews provide a people’s history perspective, the interviews we conducted were of individuals who participated in the Bracero Program or were children of participants. These interviews recant their experiences and opinions about the program as a whole. The interviews are important for the exploration of the Bracero Program, as they give context to our project and provide information about the program. In selecting these participants, who lived through it and its effects of participation, we can see that it still affects them today. The interviews challenged the dominant narrative, of having been harmful, by challenging it. In both interviews, the relatives of Sandra and Cassandra explained that they were overall positively affected by the program and explained that their past and current lives were completely changed because of the program. This goes against the dominant perspective, claiming that the Bracero Program was horrific, exploitative, and had a negative effect on Mexican workers’ lives. As our research has demonstrated, such negative associations have been claimed by many. Yet, it is important to make light of the fact that it also benefitted the lives of other Mexican workers as well. When comparing the working conditions in the United States to those in Mexico, our interviewees demonstrate that although the conditions were difficult, they were still better off working in the US than working in Mexico.
The interviews we conducted are living testimonials that prove that the effects of the Bracero Program have greatly changed their lives, and the lives of their immediate family and relatives. Finally, the interviews serve as evidence that the existence of the program still has ripple effects to this day.
For my reflection piece, I decided to write a poem about my feelings and experiences with social justice teaching, and activism for this approach. As a future educator, I aspire to dedicate my lesson structure to ensure that I teach history and events thoroughly and teach about the many different perspectives about the same event. Because of this, I am very aware of the lack of this teaching approach in current classrooms, and how there was not a big presence of it throughout my public schooling. I wrote this poem piece based around my understanding and perspective on how social justice teaching and social justice as a whole is revered in our current societal structure. My main message with this poem was to express my feelings and perspective on why social justice teaching is so negatively regarded by the majority of people, and why this opinion continues to persist. My hope is that this poem will inspire readers that even though taking on the task of transforming our public classrooms to be more open to social justice teaching is a large one to take upon, it is not so intimidating to work towards this goal when you take it one step at a time, and work collectively with others to help spread the positive message of social justice teaching. This is also a message to myself to not become undeterred from making this change when I experience doubt in my own part of this movement.
I chose to draw a girl in typical Mexican dress in front of an American flag to represent my experiences and struggles growing up. Throughout elementary I began disconnecting from my culture because I felt it wasn’t accepted so I would stop speaking in Spanish and told my mother to stop braiding my hair. I feel that one of the reasons we need social justice teaching is so students learn about all different perspectives and histories. In learning about different backgrounds we can learn to appreciate our own backgrounds more. My drawing represents how we can be American while still being deeply connected to our heritage.
For my reflection, I decided to create a collage of the various pictures of what the Bracero Program was. In some of these pictures we can see the harsh conditions that these workers endured, such as living in small houses, being sprayed with unknown chemicals, or undergoing difficult physical exams. Yet, I also decided to select pictures of workers smiling, looking optimistic, and one of my great uncle and his brothers. I chose these pictures because even though the conditions were difficult and work was rigorous, for many this was their only choice.
When I first began examining the Bracero Program, my interpretation was one of exploitation. In researching the program as well as my artifacts, I concluded that the program was exploitative because the workers were getting paid nearly nothing for bending for hours to pick crops. Yet, when I conducted my interview, my perspective completely changed. To my shock, my great uncle challenged my notion of the program being exploitative. He praised the program for allowing him to earn more money than he would in Mexico and constantly confirmed that he was never mistreated. Within my collage, I inserted these quotes.
Overall, what I learned from this is that to teach social justice, or to even comprehend what it is, it is important to view the issue from the perspectives of all parties involved. Even if individuals do not see the negative part of the situation, it is important not to challenge their points of view, since what they conclude to be their reality is what they experienced and not everyone experiences the same thing.