- Opening the Archives: Legacies of the Bracero Program
In the spring of 1942, as the United States began to send troops to fight in World War II, the nation’s agricultural industry decided that it needed to take strategic action as well. Many domestic farmworkers were leaving the fields behind in order to go fight in the war. Who, then, would remain to harvest the crops for the nation? Where could growers find a source of labor that would be both inexpensive and immediately available when needed?
The solution to this perceived labor shortage would be the creation of a massive guest worker program1—the largest of its kind ever created in the Americas.2 Over the course of its twenty-two year existence (from 1942 to 1964), the “Bracero Program,” as it came to be called,3 brought millions4 of male Mexican citizens into the U.S. under short-term labor contracts to work in the agricultural and railroad industries.5 The railroad component was terminated after the war, but the use of Mexican migrants in the agricultural industry continued on, as growers became increasingly dependent on this low-wage workforce. Though “bracero” had long been synonymous with “Mexican laborer,” during these years it became the specific designation for Mexicans who had contracts to work in the U.S. Despite the distinctions which officials drew, however, the line between bracero and undocumented worker quickly blurred as men left contracts to work as undocumented laborers, or as undocumented workers found their way into the program.6
Throughout its history, the Bracero Program was plagued by a continual rise in the numbers of undocumented laborers, a decline in Mexico’s ability to enforce protections for workers, and ever-increasing revelations about shocking abuses suffered by both documented and undocumented agricultural workers. Despite these significant contradictions, however, the program persisted and produced an enormous historical and cultural legacy. For example, braceros significantly changed the character of Mexican migration to the U.S.: The program augmented immigration to areas that had historically received Mexicans, and it created new immigration patterns in areas that had not received many Mexicans prior to the program. It also profoundly affected social and family life in Mexico through the normalization of the transnational family structure. The impact of this labor migration shifted the gender dynamics of the rural Mexican family, as many women came to exercise new control over these transnational households while their husbands were in the U.S. working as braceros.7
Perhaps most significantly, the Bracero Program also created the conditions under which modern industries like agriculture would increasingly come to rely on the use of Mexican laborers, documented and undocumented. Indeed, the program undoubtedly had a significant impact on the development of the U.S.’s contradictory 20th century immigration regime, whose practices and policies simultaneously permitted vast flows of undocumented migrants to continue to enter the nation (since such laborers were desired by U.S. businesses) while they also increasingly made a spectacle of intimidating, apprehending, and deporting such migrants.8 By 1954, at a high point of rates of undocumented migration and of official bracero contracting, the U.S. would initiate the egregiously named “Operation Wetback” to capture and deport unauthorized workers. Yet in the very same year, Joseph Swing (commissioner general of the INS), would also implement changes to the Bracero Program that arguably stimulated undocumented migration, including worker recruitment at the border and legalization of illegal workers.9
The essays and other materials we present to you now in this special issue of Diálogo work together to shed new light on the historical and cultural legacies of the Bracero Program. In selecting items for inclusion, we as editors had two broad goals in mind: First, we wanted to highlight work by young scholars who were expanding the historical archive by bringing to our attention new texts and cultural materials that helped to document and elucidate bracero experiences. Second, we wanted to create an issue that could itself serve as a kind of mini-archive, pointing readers in various directions they might follow to [End Page 3] make...