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  • About the Photographer: Leonard Nadel
  • Mireya Loza (bio) and Bill Johnson González (bio)

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A bracero leans against a barbed wire fence as he waits to be processed at the Monterrey Processing Center, Mexico, 1956. The Leonard Nadel Collection courtesy of Division of Work & Industry, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

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Leonard Nadel (1916–1990) was born in Harlem, New York, to Austro-Hungarian immigrant parents. He served in the Army during World War II, and then pursued a Master’s degree in Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. He moved to Los Angeles and studied at the Art Center College of Design, and was hired to document living conditions in the city’s slums and new post-war housing projects. For nearly 30 years he worked as a freelance photographer for publications such as the Los Angeles Times, Harvester News, Life, and Business Week.1

Having grown up in the crowded tenements of New York City during the Depression, he always believed he had acquired a more compassionate way of looking at people and their problems.2 Throughout his career as a photojournalist, he used photography a means to call attention to social contradictions and human suffering. “The new role of the magazine photographer,” he once stated, “is to make such worthwhile projects [i.e., documenting poverty and exploitation] more widely read and their human content enlivened by the visual impact of a sensitive and honest portrayal.”3

Nadel was deeply moved and inspired by Ernesto Galarza’s political vision of documenting exploitation in the Bracero Program, and this led him to retrace some of Galarza’s research footsteps.4 A grant from the Fund for the Republic in 1956 allowed him to expand this vision by traveling to Mexico to document the journey of braceros. He began his six-month trip in the summer of that year,5 capturing migrants leaving from their sending communities, arriving at contracting sites, working in U.S. fields, and enjoying limited leisure time in labor camps and towns in California. He explained, “I covered 5,000 miles during a circuit that took me from California to Mexico to Texas. It would have been easy enough just to turn over to the Fund the finished collection of photographs from the 2,000 images I took in attempting to accurately document the story of [Galarza’s report], Strangers in Our Fields. But the conditions I had witnessed stirred me deeply. I felt that it was as much my responsibility to help ‘sell’ the picture story.”6

As a result, in addition to providing photographic evidence for Strangers in Our Fields, Nadel’s photos appeared in Jubilee and Pageant, where they opened American eyes to bracero exploitation.7 In the 1990s the National Museum of American History acquired all of Nadel’s photographs from this project, which encompassed 64 captioned prints and 1730 negatives of 35mm film. Nadel’s images provide one of the most important visual archives of bracero experiences, and they anchored the National Museum of American History’s permanent exhibit, Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program, 1942–1964 and the digital archive: www.braceroarchive.org. [End Page 113]


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A bracero is vaccinated while others wait in line at the Monterrey Processing Center, Mexico, 1956. The Leonard Nadel Collection courtesy of Division of Work & Industry, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

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Braceros play a game on a bed in a camp’s living quarter in California, 1956. The Leonard Nadel Collection courtesy of Division of Work & Industry, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

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Braceros sit and have lunch at the edge of a pepper field in California, 1956. The Leonard Nadel Collection courtesy of Division of Work & Industry, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

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One bracero writes a letter while another sits next to him and reads a magazine in a living quarter at a camp in California, 1956. The Leonard Nadel Collection...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2471-1039
Print ISSN
1090-4972
Pages
pp. 112-117
Launched on MUSE
2017-03-17
Open Access
No
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