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Bittersweet Harvest: the Smithsonian's Bracero Exhibit at Mexican Heritage Plaza

by Gil Villagrán, MSW (gvillagran [at] casa.sjsu.edu)
A U.S.-Mexico treaty in the midst of World War II to bring Mexican men to work in U.S. farms and railroads created the Bracero Program. All braceros were voluntary workers, eager for any job at any wage as the U.S. Stock Market-caused economic Depression of the 1930s affected Mexico almost as much as it did the U.S., since so much of Mexican industry was U.S. owned or controlled. Ironically, only a few years earlier more than one million Mexican immigrants had been deported by the same U.S. government, now eager for Mexican “arms” (brazos), hence the common term for these now eagerly welcomed “guest workers” to ensure the war-fighting capacity on the home front.
“Bittersweet Harvest” Bracero Exhibit at Mexican Heritage Plaza

By Gil Villagrán, MSW

A U.S.-Mexico treaty in the midst of World War II to bring Mexican men to work in U.S. farms and railroads created the Bracero Program. Ironically, only a few years earlier more than one million Mexican immigrants had been deported by the same U.S. government, now eager for Mexican “arms” (brazos), hence the common term for these now eagerly welcomed “guest workers” to ensure the war-fighting capacity on the home front. These workers began arriving in 1942 and by the end of the war in 1945 about two million braceros worked their one-year contracts, renewable for a second year if needed by the contracted farmer or rail company.

All braceros were voluntary workers, eager for any job at any wage as the U.S. Stock Market-caused economic Depression of the 1930s affected Mexico almost as much as it did the U.S., since so much of Mexican industry was U.S. owned or controlled. Workers were recruited by newspaper and radio advertisement in many Mexican cities, but word-of-mouth reached even rural villages where men needed work to feed their families. Thus a mass migration of men lined up for days, even weeks at a time at Bracero recruiting centers, often in dusty fields along railroad lines facing North.

Most of the men had done farm and other hard labor all their lives, thus any job was welcomed without question or reservation of the work or location.
The men had to pass a basic physical health exam, prove by their calloused hands that they had worked hard, and accept their fate in any contract assignment, any location, and work as many hours as required. The pay was usually 25 cents an hour, working hours were supposed to be 10-12 hour days, but once in the fields or worksites, it was not uncommon for longer days, including Saturdays, and to be shortchanged, or charged for work tools, clothing, blankets, or to be driven to nearby towns on days off to buy supplies or to get a meal that was not the routine supplied by employers in living quarter cafeterias.

After the war, the program, popular with employers as well as Mexican workers, continued until 1964, totaling four million contracts. The termination of the program was advocated by many on both sides of the border for differing reasons, including charges of racism and exploitation of the workers (hence the exhibit name: Bittersweet Harvest, to charges that braceros were used to impede efforts by the United Farm Workers Union and other labor activists to improve wages and working conditions of crop workers.

The Mexican Heritage Corporation, in partnership with the Smithsonian Museum of American History, Brown University, George Mason University, and University of Texas—El Paso, presents the exhibit. The Castellano Family Foundation, the City of San Jose, in cooperation from History San Jose, sponsors it locally. The exhibit will continue until Saturday, May 2, with an Opening Reception hosted by San Jose Councilwoman Nora Campos on Monday, March 8, at 6 p.m.



Related Categories: U.S. | Immigrant Rights
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