Reexamining the Bracero program, when Mexican workers were recruited to the U.S.

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Mexican farm workers line up as they are registered to work in the United States through the Bracero program, part of the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement. Photo: PhotoQuest / Getty Images

A former columnist for the Mazatlán Messenger has written  “The Gringo Guide to Mexico,” in two volumes.

The books are aimed at anyone who is interested in learning more about Mexico.

“The more you know about the history, people, and culture of México makes living in this beautiful country more interesting and meaningful,” writes the author, Murry Page.

Topics range from the story of coffee consumption in Mexico to an overview of Pancho Villa’s life. “Carlos Slim — A Modest Billionaire” and “Tequila vs. Mezcal” are other chapter titles.

The books are available now on Amazon.

Page has allowed us to publish an excerpt. Here is one chapter we found particularly relevant today.

The Bracero Program

By Murry Page

The United States entered World War II in December of 1941. By the early part of 1942 thousands of men and women were pulled from the workforce and headed overseas. Those who were left behind were put to work in those industries that supported the war effort. This reshuffling of the American workforce created an incredible need for additional workers, especially in the agricultural industry.

To fill this void in 1942 the United States signed the Bracero Treaty with Mexico. It opened the floodgates for the legal immigration of needed Mexican workers. The needed workers were farmers who had tilled the soil of their rural farms for years.

The Spanish word “bracero” means “laborer” in English, but the word “bracero” is rooted in the Spanish word for “arm.” The bracero or migrant worker sold the work of his arms in the agricultural fields of the United States.

Under the Bracero Program more than 4.5 million Mexican workers left their rural towns and villages and traveled north. They came to work in the fields of the United States and later its railroads.

Under the terms of the Bracero Treaty there was an official Bracero Contract that each bracero had to enter into, which contained the following:

1. The employer had to provide transportation and subsistence expenses for the worker and his family, if they were accompanying him, and all other expenses that accrued from the border point to the point of origin and comply with all immigration requirements.

2. The bracero had to be paid in full his agreed upon salary and no deduction was permitted for any of the expenses described in item 1.

3. The employer had to post a bond or cash deposit, satisfactory to the labor authorities, equal to the repatriation cost of the bracero and his family to the border point at the end of the employment contract.

4. Once the employer showed proof that he had paid all the costs described in item 3 the bond or cash deposit was to be returned to the employer.

The employer was the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The owner of the farm or farms on which the bracero was to work was referred to as the “sub-employer.” These farmers picked up the braceros at the border and entered into agreements with the FSA that covered the points discussed above.

Under their agreements of employment braceros were to be paid wages equal to those paid other laborers in the area. The braceros could not be reassigned to a different farm or sub-employer without the approval of the worker and the Mexican government. Any family member under the age of 14 was prohibited from working and was to enjoy the same schooling opportunities granted the children of other laborers in the area.

Additionally, the workers were to be provided, without cost to them, hygienic housing, medical, and sanitary services comparable to that provided other laborers in the area. The braceros also had the right to elect from their group a representative to deal with the employer should they feel the need.

As the terms of the employment agreement were being negotiated the Mexican government feared that hundreds of thousands of its able-bodied men who were going north may not return to Mexico at the end of their contracts. In an effort to help insure they returned to Mexico the Mexican government promoted a provision in the employment agreement whereby the braceros upon repatriation to Mexico would have available to them a guaranteed savings accumulated through their earnings.

The Mexican government argued that this savings would provide the braceros funds to pay a mortgage or open a small business when they returned to Mexico. This concept was adopted and all employment agreements included a provision that 10 percent of the worker’s earnings would be deposited in a U.S. bank and later transferred to a bank in Mexico.

The Mexican bank would hold the money until the bracero returned to Mexico when it would be paid to him. This provision was later changed in 1950 so that a check for the forced savings would be given to the bracero on his return to Mexico.

The Bracero Program became the largest guest worker program in history. But for the braceros was it opportunity or exploitation? Although the employment agreements contained stipulations with regard to health, housing, food, wages, and working hours, most of these provisions were disregarded by both the U.S. government and the growers. The requirement that Mexican nationals not be discriminated against was also disregarded.

The braceros suffered all types of abuses not only from racist extremists, but by the average American. Some restaurants had signs to prohibit the entrance of Mexicans. If restaurants did allow Mexicans to enter, they were forced to eat in the back of the kitchen. Segregation was noticeable in the theaters where Mexicans were only allowed in the upper sections designated for African Americans, if they were admitted at all.

Often braceros were required to sign blank receipts for their wages, which was in English, and then paid an amount much less than that called for under their agreements.

How the braceros were regarded is summed up in a passage from the book, Latin Americans in Texas by Pauline R. Kibbe,

Generally speaking, the Latin American migratory worker going into west Texas is regarded as a necessary evil, nothing more nor less than an unavoidable adjunct to the harvest season. Judging by the treatment that has been accorded him in that section of the state, one might assume that he is not a human being at all, but a species of farm implement that comes mysteriously and spontaneously into being coincident with the maturing of the cotton, that requires no upkeep or special consideration during the period of its usefulness, needs no protection from the elements, and when the crop has been harvested, vanishes into the limbo of forgotten things — until the next harvest season rolls around.

He has no past, no future, only a brief and anonymous present.

Theoretically the Bracero Program ended in 1964. I say theoretically, since although the treaty terminated and the braceros were forced to return home that year, they found that that their savings, which was suppose to be waiting for them, was not there.

The rest of this chapter is published in Vol. II of The Gringo Guide to Mexico. Both books can be purchased on Amazon. 

Excerpt © 2018, Murry Page

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