The Bracero Program was a government operated agriculture program that ran from 1942 through 1964. During those 22 years, approximately 4.6 million contracts were issued to Mexican migrant workers who helped secure an allied victory in both Europe and the Pacific during World War 2. Still, few American’s acknowledge or are aware of their service to the war effort and to America as a whole.
The Bracero Program was born because of the necessity for men to work the fields during the war. With many American men away fighting, Mexicans found a different way to contribute to an allied victory: by producing their food.
Today, surviving Braceros can be up to one hundred years old, and these men are due a lot more than just gratitude because both the US and Mexican governments allowed what was supposed to be a path for the Mexican man to better himself after years of revolution, to become a series of mechanisms that put them into abusive working conditions.
For many of these men, 10 percent of their income was withheld and placed in a fund against their knowledge because the contracts were written in English. That money was handed over to the Mexican government.
Mexico claims all documents relating to the Braceros were burned in the 1968 earthquake.
Rosa Martha Zarate Macias is a founding member of the Libreria Del Pueblo and is assisting the Braceros in their fight for justice. “To date, the Mexican government has not paid them their money, and the US government does not want to hand over documentation so that they can claim the money that was withheld. We need those documents”.
After repeated attempts to get the U.S. government hand over their copies—with one made as early as 2015—Rosa has still not received a reply.
Roberto Carline was born in 1925 and was a Bracero for many years. This is how he remembers being treated at that time: “They didn’t treat people how they should have. They treated us very bad because we’re Mexicans.”
In a 1957 inspection, over 38 percent of the buildings where Braceros were housed, were found to be deficient in California. In Nevada, all buildings inspected were found deficient.
He remembers working the cotton fields in Arkansas. “When the cotton was big, they’d put us to water. Then, in those wet clothes we’d have to go to sleep on account of we couldn’t afford the changes of clothes after each time we sprayed. But, oh well. We carried on,” Carline said.
The two governments came to agreements that the Braceros would be treated fairly. However, enforcing this was a problem so control ultimately ended up in the rancher’s hands.
Braceros say this power was abused. If anyone complained, they simply weren’t rehired after the 45 day contract was up. If they got sick, they weren’t paid.
As a Bracero from 1962 through 1964, David Contreras Lerna recalls the humiliating hiring process. They would be lined up in a room crowded with men.
“They would have us undress. We’d enter. They would touch our privates to make sure we weren’t carrying venereal infections. They’d have us bend over so they could check our rears. It was a very humiliating thing for us, but it was something we put up with because of our desire to come over and make a few dollars.”
This was the first medical check-up for prospective hires, and it happened in various cities that they would need to travel to. The men recall a lot of suffering during these journeys.
If they passed, they would then go through a second check-up before being allowed in the US.
“They would check your vision. Make sure you didn’t have a hernia. Everything,” says David. “They would check your hands to make sure you were a working person. They would also put us to be powdered. I think it was DDT, I believe.”
Luis Camacho first heard of the Bracero Program in the 40’s and remembers some of the men returning after a work season with money to spend.
“I would see them arriving. And we were humble people, with barely enough food to survive. So, I would see the Braceros with nice leather jackets, and a little more to be able to eat well with their families.”
After a mandatory year in military service, Luis informed his dad that he would go north and become a Bracero himself.
“It was hard—hard—for us to come over as Braceros,” he explains. While waiting to be hired, men resorted to looking for scraps of food on the ground. “We didn’t have money, from where?”
Aurelio Pereda Rodarte was also a Bracero. He states, “all ranchers worked the men from six in the morning till six in the evening for two dollars a day. At the time, a dollar was worth four pesos.”
Rosa thinks both governments are at fault over what’s happened. “When they received the money, the 10 percent the US reduced, Mexico practically stole that money. So, when you ask who stole more, well, it was equal. The US didn’t bother to make sure the contracts were seen through. They left it up to the ranchers.”
Rosa has 3 three goals to accomplish in seeking justice for these men: “The first is to recover the historic memory of 4.6 million Mexican workers. The second is to recover the money the US withheld from to workers and gave to Mexico as a savings fund. Finally, the third is to get community support. We want families to support these Braceros in their fight for justice.”
In his state of the union speech in 1942, Franklin Delano Roosevelt praised the agriculture industry because despite having 5 million men exit the workforce to war, it produced the greatest amount of food in a year ever. The Braceros were part responsible for this.
Rosa hopes that in meeting these goals she can engage the youth in the fight for not only labor rights, but also the human rights of today’s seasonal workers.
Students from Cal State University San Bernardino, and the University of California Riverside are already assisting the Braceros today.
David wants the public to know that this is why he continues to fight: “We are now old and sick, and we want justice. For them to not be ingrates, and to see our necessity. That was our money that they took. In other words, that they stole. Return it please. This is the point of my fight.”