The U.S.-Mexico Bracero Program was a temporary worker program that began in 1942 and lasted until 1964. Designed to be a wartime labor relief measure, agricultural producers successfully pressured the United States into extending the program for 22 years. During that time, 4.5 million individual work contracts were signed by approximately 2 million Mexican farmworkers. During World War II, the U.S. railroad industry also employed Braceros (a term referring to arms or brazos in Spanish and translating as “worker”). Although the vast majority of workers went to three states (California, Arizona, and Texas), 30 U.S. states participated in the program, and every state in Mexico sent workers northward. Workers were severely disempowered in their attempts to secure the rights guaranteed to them in the agreements made between both governments.
The Bracero Program began on August 4, 1942, in Stockton, California, as a result of the U.S. government responding to requests by southwest growers to recruit foreign labor. Nine months later the railroad industry secured the importation of Mexican laborers to meet wartime shortages. The agreement between the federal governments of Mexico and the United States laid out four general guidelines for the Mexican contract workers: (1) no U.S. military service; (2) protection against discriminatory acts; (3) guaranteed transportation, living expenses, and repatriation along the lines established under Article 29 of the Mexican labor laws; and (4) their employment would not displace domestic workers or reduce their wages.
The first guideline quelled Mexican popular discontent and apprehension based on earlier abuses (during World War I) of Mexican labor that occurred during the first Bracero Program. The second guideline, which explicitly banned discrimination against Mexican nationals, served as the key bargaining chip that the Mexican government utilized to promote the decent treatment of Braceros by U.S. growers. From 1942 to 1947, no Braceros were sent to Texas because of documentation of such mistreatment. Only after a series of anti-discrimination assurances by the Texas government were growers there allowed to import Braceros. The Mexican government also blacklisted Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Montana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming until the 1950s because of discriminatory practices documented in those states.
The third guideline guaranteed workers safe passage to and from the United States as well as decent living conditions while working in the United States. Braceros thus did not pay transportation costs from the recruitment centers in Mexico to the U.S. processing centers and eventual job sites. They did shoulder the traveling costs from their hometowns to the Mexican recruitment centers, and these costs varied depending on where the recruitment centers were located and how long men waited before receiving a contract. The U.S. government preferred recruitment centers near the border to reduce their costs, whereas the Mexican government wanted centers in the major sending states of Central Mexico where the majority of Braceros originated.
The final guideline reduced competition between domestic and contracted labor. To ensure that Braceros received the same wage as U.S. citizens, determination of the prevailing wage in each locale prior to the harvest season established the wage that Braceros received. Labor organizer Ernesto Galarza noted that although the Department of Labor set the prevailing wage, it was growers who collectively determined the prevailing wage they were willing to pay.
With regard to all four guidelines, workers experienced a much different Bracero Program than the one designed on paper. Scholars have documented the inadequate housing; dehumanizing treatment; substandard wages; exorbitant prices for inedible food; illegal deductions for food, insurance, and health care; inadequate and unsafe transportation; and lack of legal rights and protections.
After potential Braceros secured the necessary paperwork from their local officials, their first stop was in Mexico at a recruitment center designed to assemble a qualified labor force of experienced, male workers, who were assigned numbers and processed by those numbers. Next, in the U.S. processing centers, the men stripped for inspection for hernias, sexually transmitted diseases, and communicable diseases such as tuberculosis. If they passed, a delousing spraying with DDT followed before they dressed. The weeding out of “undesirables” even included inspections of workers’ calloused hands to ensure they were adept at agricultural tasks. Representatives of growers’ associations then chose which men they would employ as workers and what work they would do.
The transportation, housing, and boarding of Braceros were an extension of the batch-handling. Living conditions for Braceros were similar to the military, as Braceros typically lived in barracks complete with a mess hall that served institutionally prepared meals. Less-desirable living arrangements included tents, chicken coops, barns, Japanese internment camps, high school gymnasiums, and stockyards. If Braceros lodged a complaint about negative treatment, they had to fear reprisal in the form of deportation. No shifts to other jobs were possible because contracts explicitly tied them to a specific employer, and Braceros were powerless to negotiate with their employers.
Given limited options for active protest, Braceros’ main form of resistance was the exit option. Low wages, bad food, excessive deductions from paychecks, poor housing, domineering supervisors, or on-the-job injuries prompted many Braceros to leave their contracts. An estimated 20 percent to 33 percent exited the Bracero Program. A significant (but uncounted) number who stayed refused to return to the United States for other crop seasons.
Since 2000, former Braceros have organized to recoup losses suffered during the program. A march on Mexico City first brought the savings program issue to the Mexican public (10 percent of their wages were deducted automatically and placed in Mexican national banks to encourage men to return). A more recent pilgrimage to the border, like the former march to the original soccer stadium where Braceros were processed during World War II, followed the earlier path north to the border recruitment centers. Alianza Braceroproa, National Assembly of Ex-Braceros, and the Binational Union of Former Braceros are the main social movement organizations placing pressure on the Mexican government for monetary redress.
- Calavita, Kitty. 1992. Inside the State: The Bracero Program, Immigration and the I.N.S. New York: Routledge.
- Galarza, Ernesto. 1956. Strangers in Our Fields. Washington, DC: United States Section, Joint United States-Mexico Trade Union Committee.
- Galarza, Ernesto. 1964. Merchants of Labor: The Mexican Bracero History. Santa Barbara, CA: McNally & Loftin.
- Gamboa, Erasmo. 1990. Mexican Labor and World War II: Braceros in the Pacific Northwest, 1942-1947. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
- Mize, Ronald L. 2004. “The Persistence of Workplace Identities: Living the Effects of the Bracero Total Institution.” Pp. 155-75 in Immigrant Life in the US: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, edited by D. R. Gabaccia and C. W. Leach. New York: Routledge.