- Cheap Labor Required: Mexican Arms Helping the U.S. Grow after World War II
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With great pleasure we present this special issue on a pivotal moment of mid-20th century U.S. history, when an extensive population of Mexican laborers performed hard labor and helped fortify U.S. agricultural production. Known as the Bracero Program, this early arrangement between business and government (both U.S. and Mexican) sought to fill an urgent need for labor by seeking “guest workers.” Since such a categorization is currently being debated, it is a strategic moment to study the impact of the Bracero Program on previous guest workers.
The English and History professors who teamed to create this focus, Drs. Bill Johnson González and Mireya Loza, together with the scholars whose work they recruited, are mostly junior scholars, bringing new research to discussion and dialogue. Their idea grew upon organizing a well-attended symposium at DePaul University in 2014, titled “Opening the Archives: Legacies of the Bracero Program.” Some of those presenters, and other scholars, now provide a fascinating interdisciplinary approach to understanding of the Bracero Program.
The lead article here describes an undertaking by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History to create a special exhibit, “Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program, 1942–1964,” which includes photographs and audio excerpts. After its opening in 2010, the exhibit traveled to museums in Arizona, California, Idaho, Michigan, Nevada and Texas, where local examples and artifacts were added to the interactive display. Other articles include the treatment of laborers as unhealthy bodies; the inner workings and ramifications of union organizing and strikes; considerations of citizenship and food production; transnational and U.S. categorizations; and Bracero popular culture in film and song.
The term bracero in Spanish stands for “one who works using his arms,” i.e., a manual laborer. In the 1940s, Mexico was still recuperating from its nearly two decades-long struggle of the 1910 Revolution. Outlying rural communities had been ravaged by the war; no livestock and little food means remained. Many people were starving. Some migrated to Mexico City, finding only meager wages for menial jobs. Thus, the opportunity for work and wages in the U.S. as guest workers—in a deal brokered between the two nations—was of great appeal. However, the problems of bureaucracy caused extreme delays and further starvation. While many laborers did gain short-term opportunities, longstanding traumas are also evident in these studies and personal accounts.
For the U.S. during the Second World War and afterward—when women worked in the factories and male labor was severely reduced—work by Mexican laborers, in the agricultural fields, cotton picking, seasonal canneries, etc., was crucial to the increased production of the mid-20th century (which favored the Baby Boom generation). As the contracting process became lengthier, U.S. farm owners began to encourage and receive workers without papers, so that they could bring in their harvests. This created a combination of avenues taken by Mexican laborers which made possible the consistent arrival of produce to U.S. markets. Some Mexican braceros and other laborers also worked short stints in factories or navy yards.
The interviews in this issue are with former braceros, first-hand experiences which are important to the historical record. One excerpted interview—from the oral histories collection available on the Smithsonian website (www.braceroarchive.org)—describes some of the mandatory inspections (and DDT spraying) that were conducted by officials at the border. Since most oral histories that have been collected are in Spanish, we decided to provide an English translation of this account. The other two interviews were conducted by relatives of braceros: a DePaul student, and a young scholar on the West Coast, each of whom wanted to document the memories and experiences of these older gentlemen. Their interviews constitute...