On August 4, 1942, the United States and Mexico made an agreement to deliver contract Mexican labor to American farmers in order to serve as cheap replacement labor during World War II. While the Bracero Program helped fill the labor shortages, it also opened up a new era of Americans exploiting Mexican labor. The abuses associated with the Bracero Program helped lead to a number of social changes in the United States, including the Chicano Movement, the United Farm Workers, and the Immigration Act of 1965.
Mexican-Americans made up an important part of the agricultural labor force in the Southwest long before World War II. While most of the land the U.S. stole during the Mexican War was not densely inhabited, Mexicans in California, Texas, and especially New Mexico found themselves all of a sudden second-class citizens in their new nation. Agricultural labor was all many could find within the white supremacist economy of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Moreover, the upheaval of the Mexican Revolution sent waves of Mexicans across the U.S. border for the first time in the 1910s. That was great for American farmers who wanted to pay their labor as little as possible. It also gave them an alternative to the white labor that tended to join the I.W.W. and demand decent pay and living conditions.
But during the 1930s, as whites needed jobs, any job held by a non-white was seen as a betrayal of white supremacy. John Steinbeck may have movingly told the story of white migrants to the California fields in The Grapes of Wrath, but he almost totally leaves out the history of Mexican labor in those same fields. During the Great Depression, that labor was forcibly expelled from the Southwest. During the 1930s, over 500,000 Mexicans returned to Mexico, many by force, others by social pressures. Whites took their jobs.
But during World War II, what seemed like good social policy to many whites turned into a disaster because all of a sudden white people could make a lot more money than they could in the fields. So U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and Mexican President Manuel Avila Camacho agreed to the Bracero Program. Essentially, this provided Mexican labor to American employers through short-term contracts. When the contract ended, the worker returned to Mexico. Crops are picked, America stays white. By 1945, about 125,000 Mexicans worked under Bracero contracts, not only in agriculture, but for the railroads.
Originally the program was to end in 1947 and the railroad program concluded upon the return of soldiers in 1945. But southwestern farmers, who, due to their power within their relevant states and long distances from the centers of national power, managed yet again to convince the otherwise pro-labor federal government of the New Deal era to facilitate their exploitation of workers (see their exemption from complying with the Wagner Act and the Fair Labor Standards Acts for other examples). By 1956, 456,000 Mexicans labored in the fields under Bracero contracts.
Under these contracts, workers effectively had no rights at all. Because they could be employed legally nowhere besides the fields, they worked in near slave conditions. Contracts were only in English and the Mexicans had no idea what they were signing. Wages were stolen, housing was substandard if even provided, food was terrible, and complaints resolved by sending workers back to Mexico.
I went as a bracero four times, but I didn’t like it. We got on the train in Empalme, and went all the way to Mexicali, where we got on busses to the border. From there, they took us to El Centro. Thousands of men came every day. Once we got there, they’d send us in groups of two hundred, as naked as we came into the world, into a big room, about sixty feet square. Then men would come in in masks, with tanks on their backs, and they’d fumigate us from top to bottom. Supposedly we were flea-ridden, germ-ridden. No matter, they just did it.
Then quickly, they took a pint of blood from every man. Anyone who was sick wouldn’t pass. Then they’d send us into a huge bunk house, where the contractors would come from the growers associations in counties like San Joaquin County, Yolo , Sacramento, Fresno and so on. The heads of the associations would line us up. When they saw someone they didn’t like, they’d say, “You, no.” Others, they’d say, “You, stay.” Usually, they didn’t want people who were old — just young people. Strong ones, right? And I was young, so I never had problems getting chosen. We were hired in El Centro and given our contracts, usually for 45 days.
In Tracy I was with a crew from Juajuapa de Leon, in Oaxaca, and one of those boys died. Something he ate at dinner in the camp wasn’t any good. The kid got food poisoning, but what could we do? We were all worried because he’d died, and what happened to him could happen to any of us. They said they’d left soap on the plates, or something had happened with the dinner, because lots of others got diarrhea. I got diarrhea too. But this boy died.
It was these sorts of conditions, the everyday exploitation of Mexican labor, that helped motivate the Chicano rights movement in the United States. In Texas, the conditions were so awful, as white owners ruled their ranches as fiefdoms, that Mexico refused to send braceros to that state until 1947. The United Farm Workers built off the treatment of Mexican and Mexican-American labor like that Garcia Perez experienced to create its movement to improve working conditions in the fields.
The Bracero Program ended in 1964. Two things replaced it–the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 that provided a legal pathway for immigrants from most of the world to enter the U.S. for the first time since 1924 (although for Mexicans obviously this was a more complex legacy) and the establishment of the Border Industrialization Program in 1965. BIP was intended to keep Mexican labor south of the Rio Grande by giving incentives to American companies to cross the river and use cheap Mexican labor. While capital fled to Mexico, neither increased legal immigration nor BIP came close to filling the employment needs of Mexicans driven from their traditional lands by a complex cluster of factors. Undocumented migration to the United States grew rapidly in coming decades. This new phase of immigration continued the history of exploitation of Mexican workers by American employers.
Finally, here is Cisco Houston’s version of Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee,” a song the great songwriter composed after the death of 28 braceros in a plane crash while being sent back to Mexico in 1948.
This is the 37th installment of this series. Earlier installments are archived here.