The Braceros

May 2011

Photo credit: Monica Almeida/ NYT

Part One: Leonel

“When I invite people to organize, they say, ‘I have to work.’ I say, ‘So do I.’

When they say, ‘I can’t; I have a family,’ I tell them, ‘I do this, I also have family.’

And if they say, ‘But I am undocumented,’ I say, ‘Oh, me too. But we do not need to be afraid. We need to stand up together.’”

So says Leonel Flores, who fled from his home country, Mexico, after his efforts to organize landless families there led to death threats made to him by local authorities and police. That was 20 years ago.

Now, Leonel is 43 years old and lives in Fresno, where he spends most of his waking hours trying to build a movement for farmworker’s rights and fighting for amnesty for undocumented immigrants in the US.

He’s also the main organizer of the Union de ex-Braceros e Inmigrantes, a group Leonel started in 1999 to help former guest workers. These men (women were not allowed to participate) came to the States as temporary contract workers between the years of 1942 and 1964. They traveled thousands of miles to live and labor at US work camps, working physically demanding agricultural and railroad jobs left vacant by men sent to fight in World War II. At the peak of the program, about 66,000 guest workers a year came to work in the US. In total, about 4 million men worked as braceros, according to the Bracero History Archive.

Leonel first met the braceros when he was working to get undocumented workers driver’s licenses. He’d worked on similar issues in his hometown, which he says reminds him of Fresno. Leonel worked for Radio Bilengue when he arrived in Fresno back in 1990 and quickly became familiar with the Fresno political scene. His driver’s license efforts were in cooperation with the Catholic Church.

In 1999, foremost on the minds of the ex-Braceros was the back pay they were still owed by the Mexican government – which had kept 10% of their paychecks from 1942-1964, supposedly in a pension fund. But incredibly, the Mexican government lost the money. Leonel realized that the injustice still rankled these proud, hard-working men. He, along with a friend, Luis Magana, called for a meeting of the ex-Braceros living in the Fresno area. Hundreds came out, their hope for compensation and recognition rekindled by the interest shown by the two younger men. They began holding monthly pickets outside the Mexican consulate, and filing lawsuits demanding their due. Their uphill battle continues today.

Currently, some 11 million unauthorized migrant workers live and work in the US. They have few legal rights and virtually no way to defend those they have.

Nationally, a debate rages on about whether or not these people should be given amnesty – a path to legalization, or if they should be deported en masse and allowed to return only as guest workers in a program similar to the Bracero program.

In the U.S. popular mind, guest worker programs are often seen as a reasonable or fair alternative to “illegal immigration.” According to a 2006 telephone poll of 1,004 adults conducted by Time Magazine , 79% of respondents were in favor of a guest worker program. In Utah, currently, a bill that would implement a guest worker program in the state but provide no path toward permanent residency passed the state House of Representatives and enjoys some 71% support from 496 Utahans polled in February.

Do guest worker programs provide humane alternatives to working without documents, as proponents sponsoring Utah’s guest worker bill say? Would they cut back on illegal border crossings and overstayed visas?

UC Davis Professor of Agriculture and Resource Economics, Philip Martin doesn’t think so. “There is nothing more permanent than temporary guest workers,” he wrote in 2001. “During both of these Bracero programs, illegal migrants arrived alongside legal Bracero guest workers, Mexican immigration increased.”

Immigration experts and scholars like Martin, who oppose guest worker programs, argue that the Bracero program – and all guest worker programs – actually promote transnational economic reliance on unequal and illegal working conditions that depress U.S. wages and increase domestic economic insecurity in Mexico.

According to Martin, guest worker programs tend to increase both legal and illegal immigration for two main reasons. First, he says, if foreign workers are readily available, employers become accustomed to paying less and will eventually rely on this migrant workforce. Secondly, individual migrants, their families, and communities abroad come to depend on the pay rate of foreign jobs to sustain themselves – thereby becoming stuck in a cycle of dependency that leaves Mexico and Mexican workers at a clear disadvantage, caught in a revolving door of constantly changing U.S. business interests.

For example, when the Great Depression hit in 1929, an estimated 400,000 undocumented Mexican workers were living and working in the US. Less than a decade had passed since the World War I guest worker program actively recruited Mexican workers to come to the US.

Growing xenophobia and racism, fed by the plummeting economy, led to a national campaign to rid the country of these migrants, who were often scapegoated as being drains on social welfare services and blamed for “stealing American jobs.”

Between 1929 and 1939, the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS – now Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raided workplaces and homes all over the country and deported at least 35,000 people to Mexico, according to Abraham Hoffman, author of Unwanted Mexican Americans. Local police threatened Mexican immigrant and Chicano communities in the Southwest and Midwest, and some law officials, such as the governor of Texas at the time, even sought the assistance of white vigilante groups to persuade Mexican migrants and Chicanos to “repatriate.”

Between 400,000 and 1 million Mexican and Mexican-Americans were forcibly removed or voluntarily left the US for reasons including fear of raids, job denials by employers, and from “pressure to leave” from social service agencies. Scholars Francisco Balderrama and Raymond Rodriguez, who wrote the book Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s, say that 60% of those driven out were US citizens.

In a 2008 report for Congress, labor economics specialist William Whittaker noted: “Through the past century, trends in immigration from Mexico north to theUnited States have reflected the motion of a pendulum. Sometimes, they have favored the Mexican worker; but, as often, they have favored employers and have had a mixed impact upon Mexicans and Americans.”

The former guest workers who came to Leonel’s Fresno meeting in 1999 are some of the luckiest of the braceros, the ones who – despite all the odds – survived and even prospered from years of back-breaking work. They are now legal permanent residents, thanks to a narrow provision in a 1986 immigration law that gave a small portion of undocumented farm workers a chance at legalization. They are among the very few guest workers who stayed, had familes, and retired here. They provide a tiny window through which to glimpse what might happen if we allowed more guest workers to come, work legally, be protected by minimum wage laws, and, most importantly, establish legal residency or citizenship.

But their stories beg an important question: Without a path to legalization, could current and future guest workers become as lucky as the Braceros?


Part Two: An incomplete history

Bracero comes from the Spanish word for arm, brazo—the men were known as the part of their body that performed the necessary work. In the Jim Crow era- the program ended in the 1960s—they were treated more as bodies than as citizens. They couldn’t share many public spaces with whites. Their legal status was tied to employers who could – and did – easily cheat them out of their wages or break contracts. Even when things were going well, as soon as a job contract expired after a few months, a worker had to return to Mexico before being able to secure a new contract for another temporary job in the US.

Yet despite the hardships, an unending procession of men, many from poor and rural areas in Mexico, continued to trek to the northern cities of Mexico to apply for temporary jobs in the US until the program was discontinued in 1964.

Most guest workers today come over with H-2A and H-2B visas. The H-2A visa was established after the Bracero program’s demise in 1964 to bring migrant contract laborers to work seasonally in Florida’s cane fields. In 1986, the US Department of Labor added a new H2-B non-agricultural category. H-2B visa workers get short-term jobs in forestry, seafood processing, housekeeping, construction, and landscaping. Unlike the Braceros or H-2A visa holders, H-2B workers are not entitled to a wage comparable to their US counterparts doing the same jobs.

Who are these men who come over to work our fields, feeding the nation and doing the jobs no one else would do? How do they see their work, and their lives?


Through Fresno organizer Leonel, I met Francisco Cana, a round man with a large, brushy white mustache. He is one of the original guest workers who participated in the Bracero program 54 years ago. On a windy morning at his home, he led us through a rickety screen door into a teal-painted living room as clean as it is cluttered. A friendly pandemonium of furniture, knickknacks, books, boxes, and stacked blankets filled the room like Tetris blocks. From the front door, I could survey the entire apartment, which was about the size of an RV. Saturday morning funnies blared from a small television perched above a round table boasting a gleaming plastic tablecloth.

“He likes the cartoons,” Mrs. Cana said in Spanish. Mrs. Cana is small and smiley, with glistening eyes and wrinkles that look like extended laugh lines.

Francisco left his hometown in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua in 1957. He’s now 74 years old. He leaned forward in his armchair. “I was 20 when I first came here,” he said. “On the radio station they asked for braceros,” he recalled. He made the trip to the capital city and waited there for 15 days before finding a contract job.

“We spent a lot of money waiting. There were hundreds of people waiting, from many states. All kinds of people – young, old,” Francisco remembered. “They went to Texas, New Mexico, Montana – they went everywhere.”

Francisco went through an interview and eventually he got a 3-month contract to work on a cotton plantation in El Paso, Texas.

It was a victory, but he remembered feeling sad when he first arrived in the US. He made about $140 every 2 weeks and spent about $50 a month, keeping costs low by splitting the price of groceries with 3 other people. He slept in a bunk bed in big dormitory with about 50 other men that his employer provided. “Sometimes we would cry,” Francisco said later, chuckling wryly at the memory.

Demographic data of current guest workers is difficult to come by. The Department of Labor and the Department of Homeland Security track the number of guest worker visas issued, but they do not keep tabs on the workers themselves. What we do know is that only about five percent, or 150,000 people, out of the total of 3 million migrant and seasonal farm workers who lived and worked in the U.S. in 2009 were guest workers, according to Department of Labor and Department of Homeland Security statistics. One-third of guest farm workers that year were Mexican.

Of farm workers in general we know a bit more. A 2005 National Agricultural Workers Survey of the U.S. Department of Labor found that three-fourths were born in Mexico, 80 percent are male, and most had left behind spouses or children in their home countries. Forty-two percent had traveled more than 75 miles within the previous year to find a farm job. Thirty-five percent of those migrants traveled between the U.S. and a home country – most often Mexico. According to the National Center for Farmworker Health, the farmworker population is between 13 to late 60s, with an average age of 33 years.

Back in 1957, the work in Texas was tiring and painful, Francisco remembered. Often, he would work more than 10 hours a day.

“They would bring us 12-foot bags to fill. At first I didn’t know how to work the cotton, and so I didn’t make much money,” Francisco said, shaking his head. Many people left early because they weren’t making enough money, he said. “Later, when you have experience, you can make money. But in the beginning…” he trailed off. “And sometimes, the crop was just bad.”

For Francisco in Texas in 1957, leaving a job early meant forgoing the employer-paid return trip home. Those who couldn’t afford to get home might have to work illegally in the US until they could save up for the fare.

Francisco’s next job after his stint in Texas was picking cotton again – for 18 months this time. When that ended, he went back to Mexico to wait for a new contract. His next job took him to Colorado. He picked tomatoes. He spent 5 years bouncing between jobs.

“We would work, and sleep. And work and sleep. Cook. It was that kind of life,” Francisco recalled.

Sometimes, between jobs, Francisco said, he would have to wait a month or two in Mexico before getting a new contract. Other times, Francisco would pick up even shorter-term jobs on ranches, “Feeding cows,” he said.

“But,” he said, “I was lucky. I worked. I got paid.”

Then the program ended. The United Farm Workers argue that it was a gain for workers overall, but for Francisco, in some ways, life got harder.

Francisco continued living between Mexico and the US. He worked on an apple orchard in Mexico, but he kept returning to the US to look for better paying work. In the US, he was now undocumented and forced to seek work “everywhere,” in the fields and in various US cities.

“It was much better having a contract,” he said emphatically.

Today, 53 percent of farm workers are undocumented, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

In 1986, US President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), a piece of legislature that proponents said was supposed to make it more difficult for employers to hire undocumented workers.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act contained a provision allowing certain undocumented migrants and farmworkers – including many former participants in the Bracero program – to apply for permanent residency in the US during an 18-month period. Three million people applied, and of those, 2.7 million (1.4 million of them farmworkers) were admitted. This was the last “amnesty” program in the US to date. And in the end, it was amnesty that ultimately made Francisco’s story one of bittersweet success, rather than a tale entirely of dispossession and loss.

Francisco and his family became permanent residents, and in 1988, he moved to the US, now with a wife and family.

“I was lucky,” Francisco said again.

Today’s roughly 200,000 H-2A and H-2B guest workers who follow in Francisco’s footsteps have no amnesty to look forward to.

As we spoke, people who seemed to be members of Francisco’s extended family trickled into the apartment. Three boisterous boys with shaved heads, a woman with dyed blond hair, and a 30-something man wearing a baseball cap threw open the front door and were silently greeted and hushed by Mrs. Cana, who made an exaggerated “shh” gesture, holding her finger to her lips. The woman and boys sat and lay on the couch, brown eyes wide, and the man sat in a chair at the plastic-covered table. Everyone listened attentively. The boys, even while radiating youthful energy, managed to stay almost supernaturally quiet.

Francisco’s eyes began to tear up. “The more we talk, the worse I feel,” he said. He was remembering how alone he felt, how much he missed his family during those Bracero years, he told Leonel later. Mrs. Cano walked over to him to hand him a sheet of paper towel. He looked sheepish as he smiled and blew his nose.

Leonel translated for him. “He says that he’s a man, so he doesn’t like other people to see him cry.”


Photo courtesy of Proyecto Bracero

Joel Perez Mandarin’s house is a spacious one-story flat with a paved front yard. Joel is 69-years-old, with black hair and dark, rosy brown skin. He seemed almost shy.

Joel’s wife and 40-something son sat down next to him on the couch in the front room.

“I’m from Oaxaca. I received a letter from the government in 1960,” Joel said explaining how he became a bracero. Everyone had received the same letter from the government that said the US was looking for workers, Joel recalled. “I took a train to Monterey. A lot of people came on the train from Oaxaca to Monterey. Hundreds of people. It took one week.”

After staying in Monterey for a week, he got a contract.

“I never read it. I just signed it,” he said. Joel was 20 years old at the time. He paused. “There was a physical,” he remembered, staring downward, expressionless. Later, he would say the physical exams were some of the worst memories he had of the Bracero years.

“They checked our blood, our eyes, heart…everything. It was very difficult. They checked all our parts, without clothes. They sprayed, fumigated us and threw away everything we had brought from Mexico. We had never been through anything like that before. We felt awful. We felt it was discrimination.”

Joel’s middle-aged son, one of five, watched attentively as his father recalled the humiliation of being forced to strip and be sprayed, as though he were diseased because he was Mexican. Photographs taken back then show that US Department of Agriculture personnel routinely sprayed incoming Bracero workers with DDT, a pesticide that was banned by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1972 and now known to be carcinogenic.

If anyone complained about the treatment, Joel said, they were sent back.

Today, guest farm workers are not stripped and fumigated with DDT, but farm workers suffer the highest rate of chemical-related illness of any occupational group, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The EPA estimates that 10,000 to 20,000 farm workers each year are poisoned by pesticides on the job. That number is an estimate, the EPA says, since many cases go unreported. The United Farm Workers say that many workers stay quiet from fear of reprisals from employers, or they simply don’t know how to file a complaint.

Joel’s first job in the U.S. was picking tomatoes in Texas for 45 days. He slept in a dormitory with 25 other men. They cooked together – eggs, beans, sometimes fish. At the work camps, Joel said, there were hundreds of people, and televisions. He couldn’t remember how much money he made, but he remembered sending most of it home to Oaxaca.

When his contract expired, Joel went to the northern Mexico state of Sonora. In order to qualify for another job in the US, Joel explained, he had to get a letter from Mexican employers saying he worked in Mexico after his US job. So Joel cut cotton in Obregon, Sonora, until his employers agreed to sign off on his letter.

He then went to Palme, Sonora – where people went to look for contract work at the time. People from all over Mexico came to Palme, he said. After 15 days he got another 45-day contract working on lettuce fields in California.

“I didn’t like it,” he said. “It was hard. Many people quit doing the job because it was so hard. All day working, folding the body. We had hard supervisors who pushed us to work: ‘Hurry up, hurry up.’ We didn’t have breaks, we couldn’t rest.”

Those who needed to rest, and those who talked back to supervisors were sent back to Mexico, Joel said. The conditions were worse than what he was used to working in Mexico.

Today’s guest farm workers could likely relate. Since Joel’s time, new laws, especially regarding pesticides, have been established. But enforcement of these standards is spotty at best, says the National Center for Farmworker Health. In practice, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspects only a small portion of farm worker sites. Many farm workers lack access to clean drinking water, and every day, about 500 agricultural workers suffer lost-work-time injuries, and about 5 percent of these result in permanent impairment, the National Center for Farmworker Health finds.

During his years as a Bracero, Joel sometimes thought about returning to Oaxaca, but it was too far. And money was a main motivation to stay.

“In Sonora, you would make 15 pesos per day doing the same work that in Oaxaca would pay only 8 pesos a day,” he said. “And of course, in the US, you’d make much more than that.”

So, until 1964, Joel split his time between 45-day and 3-month contract jobs picking, cleaning, and packing lettuce in California, and stints on ranches in Sonora that were necessary in order to get more US contract work.

These days, it is not unusual for farmworkers – including those with H-2A visas – to move 11-13 times a year in search of work, according to the National Center for Farmworker Health. The average farm worker spends approximately six months per year doing seasonal work, eight weeks doing nonagricultural work, eight weeks on the road, and is unemployed 10 weeks. This enduring underemployment is due to a tendency on the part of employers to request more workers than are really needed.

After the Bracero program ended, Joel continued to work for the ranchers in Sonora. He stayed there and met his future wife in Guanahuato.

In 1985, Joel came back to the US to find better paying work. “I decided to come solo,” he said. He worked for 2 years illegally in grape fields and orange orchards until he applied and qualified for permanent legal residency through the Immigration Reform and Control Act.

Mrs. Mandarin, who had until now sat silently, spoke up. “It was not easy to survive in Mexico while Joel worked in the US without documents,” she said in a low tone. She began to cook and sell food to help pay the bills, she told Leonel. In 1994, she came to the US, and eventually the rest of the family came as well.

For a moment, everyone sat in silence.

“I don’t think there should be more braceros,” Joel said finally. “At that time, I came because I was young, and it was a necessity to work. We had to do it. But we shouldn’t have a new Bracero program. There are people already here who need work, and who don’t have papers. We should have amnesty instead.”


Part Three: Sacrifices, offerings, and time

Leonel seemed to choose his words carefully.

“At that time, it was a necessity. The time is different now. Right now, people have rights – no segregation, like during Bracero times. They have labor rights, civil rights, more immigrant rights.

“At that time, conditions were different. Many of the Mexican people accept everything – labor conditions, to be given physical exams – they accept everything, because they need to work. They don’t know any other kind of life. For them, everything that happened was normal at the time.

“Yeah, they feel sometimes they were discriminated, because at that time there was segregation. The contract said, ‘No Mexican will be discriminated.’ They were discriminated. They could not go to restaurants, like white people.

But for most of them, it was just normal at the time.”

“The reality is it was a bad program, an unfair program, unacceptable in this time. That’s why we don’t want to repeat history,” Leonel added.

The ex-Braceros continue to wait for their checks from Mexico. In 2008, the Mexican government allowed braceros settled in the U.S. to register for the long-awaited back pay – 38,000 pesos, or in U.S. currency, somewhere between $300 and 400, depending on the exchange rate. To apply, one needed documents that many had lost (or had never even received) over the years – scraps of aged paper like birth certificates, pay stubs, and documents proof of Mexican citizenship and work during the World War II years. Only 5,192 of the men could qualify. They’re a small fraction of the 120,000 ex-Braceros who were estimated to still be alive in 2005, Leonel said.

And their numbers continue to dwindle.

“Every day, week, month, braceros die. They die waiting,” Leonel said.

Earlier this month, Joel Mandarin, along with six other former braceros from the Central Valley, and 20 men living in Arizona, made a trip to Mexicali to meet with a Mexican government official, in order to publicize their case and push for their back pay. Their tour ended last Friday in Mexico City.

It was a successful trip, Leonel said. The Mexican government announced that it would release its list of 5,192 beneficiaries in March, and then the money would be dispensed.

“I don’t believe them,” Leonel said flatly, nonchalant. It’s been years of this sort of thing, he adds. He anticipates there’ll be some problem between the bank that would issue the checks and the consulates. But he’ll keep pushing, holding rallies with the former braceros, now mostly in their 80s and 90s,

“It’s not about economics. It’s about a justice struggle. It’s to show their families that it is possible to win – and if we can win a struggle from long ago, then we can will struggles today, like for immigration reform.

This is an example. We need to be permanent in a struggle. If we start something, we need to finish.”