Sigue Adelante! Living the Bracero Program, 1941-1964
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This research concentrates on the personal effects of a policy titled the Bracero Program. The Bracero Program was a guest worker program in the United States that allowed Mexican men to be contracted to work in low-paying jobs in the food and railroad industries.1 While the Bracero Program, instituted in 1942, was intended to address the labor shortage during World War II, however, the program continued until 1964 because employers grew to rely on migrant labor. A central problem with the Bracero Program was the reality that braceros earned far less than the average American agricultural worker. Galarza and Mitchell note within their writings that although braceros were promised the comparable pay, they seldom received such levels of payment and at times received no payment at all. In fact, in Harvest of Loneliness, and Defiant Braceros, wives of the Braceros give their testimonies saying that while their husbands and sons sent the remittances they could, it was still not enough to support the family’s basic necessities. Within the program, braceros were promised adequate housing and insurance, however, they soon discovered that those commodities were deducted from their paychecks. Oftentimes, their housing were consisted of frail, dilapidated structures buildings without toilet paper, and because their pay was so low, they would not be able to pay for insurance. Braceros were dehumanized routinely by being forced to live in terrible conditions, having their wages stolen, and working under severe conditions. The process of becoming a bracero was trying. In order to get contracted, Braceros traveled from every state in Mexico to specific contracting stations. Before they started to work, braceros were sprayed by unknown chemicals to them to fumigate their bodies. The men would also work long hours (from sunrise to sunset), and an injury would just be a disturbance they would have to set aside. If a bracero complained about payments or working conditions, their demands would simply be ignored. Moreover, as braceros were struggling to provide for their family, their families suffered from the separation. Wives felt as if they were losing their husbands and sons because if they needed extra help, their sons would sign up for the program as well even if they were underage. It is important to know the struggles felt by these families in order to understand the fact that the Bracero Program played more than just an economic role for the United States and Mexico. The Bracero Program affected immigration from Mexico in the United States. Throughout the course of the program, almost 5 million Braceros came to the U.S. and Braceros who were contracted several times, established social ties within the country over time. Massey, Durand, and Malone state in their book Beyond Smoke and Mirrors, “Between 1942 and 1965 hundreds of braceros were able to familiarize themselves with U.S. employment practices, become comfortable with U.S. job routines, master American ways of life and learn English.” Therefore, with the combination of the 20,000 annual visit limits in annual quotas and the end of the program, many Braceros started going into the U.S. without documentation which lead to an increase in undocumented migration. In Mexico, the Bracero Program reinforced patriarchal structures within families because though the remittances allowed their families to survive, men were expected to be the providers for their family even if it meant withstanding exploitative labor conditions. The Mexican government saw the Bracero Program as a possible way for Mexico to continue to modernize. To modernize Mexico, the Mexican government sought to change the way of living for poor mestizo and indigenous men. Because the program provided a way for indigenous men to be placed in a labor system without cost to Mexico, the Mexican government had further reasons to oblige to the Bracero Program.However, many people in Mexico did not support the program or the men leaving to be contracted- they perceived the men to be “unfaithful husbands and irresponsible fathers.” because being away from their families in a new country would allow Braceros the freedom to explore and have new adventures. Though some Braceros did have the opportunity to have days off and seek enjoyment where they could, many worked six days out of the week and the seventh was spent recuperating for the next one to come. The living and working conditions the Braceros faced has been studied thoroughly, as well as the effects the Bracero program had on the U.S. economy and immigration. However, I am interested in the personal effects of this policy, and bringing to light personal stories in order for the history to be woven by the people who experienced it firsthand. Sharing these personal stories will break the silence surrounding the Bracero Program, allow us to connect these past events to present issues, and makes building its collective history possible. My project aims to humanize the policies of the program, and let the history of the Bracero Program be told by the people who experienced it themselves. Sharing histories unearths the past. It eases existing wounds and allows us to create a society that does not continue to inflict the same violence on fellow human-beings. Examining the history of the bracero movement through the memories of braceros allows us to understand the humanity within inhumanity and establish a collective memory to see the connection between the past and the present. To tackle this project, I will use oral histories to give a voice to the lived experience of the Braceros, ethno-poetic translation to convey the emotions felt by the Braceros, and memory to account for the ways Braceros coped with what they lived through. My goal is to give Braceros a chance to tell their own history so their stories are not lost. On the rare chance that the Bracero Program comes up in historical research, classes, and conversations, the focus remains on the policies and economic benefit of having these men work during World War II- not the long hours they remained in the sun, the toll being bent over took on their backs, and the small remittances they would send to their family. My methods for this project include listening to oral histories from Braceros, their mothers, wives, and children, as well as using secondary source material to contextualize the effects the program had on Mexico’s indigenous and lower class. This paper consists of the three chapters retelling, through ethno-poetic translation, the experiences of three people who have contrasting emotional connections to the Bracero Program. Chapter one, El Comienzo, meaning the start, focuses on Erasmo Corral’s journey toward being able to share his experience as a Bracero. Chapter two, Retrocediendo Dos Pasos, dives into Petra Sanchez’s inability to share her memories connected to the Bracero program. Finally, chapter three, La Resolucion, is told through Cuauhtémoc Madrid’s desire to share every aspect of the Bracero Program he can remember.
Fernandez, Vanessa Guadalupe (2019). Sigue Adelante! Living the Bracero Program, 1941-1964. Undergraduate Research Scholars Program. Available electronically from