- Excerpt from Aventuras de un bracero
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Jesús Topete’s Aventuras de un bracero, first published in Mexico City in 1949, is both a literary rarity and a bit of a mystery. The text is a rarity insofar as it is the only known work written during the Bracero Program that provides a complete novelization of a bracero’s experience, from the point of view of a bracero. The narrative follows its unnamed protagonist throughout his entire transnational “adventure”—from his acquisition of an official contract in Mexico City, to his transportation by train to California to perform hard (and sometimes dangerous) labor in the fields there, to his eventual, disillusioned return to Mexico. Along the way, the text’s protagonist witnesses many of the social contradictions and abuses often encountered by braceros. We read, for example, about how, upon arrival in the U.S., he and his compatriots were ridiculed by Americans as they were marched through town on their way to work, and about how he was seriously injured on the job and was never provided with adequate medical care. But we also read about how braceros exchanged information with one another regarding their working conditions, about how they entertained themselves on their days off, and about their often disappointing interactions with Mexican Americans. Realistic details such as these not only make the narrative compelling, but they also give the text value as an archive of bracero experiences and feelings that helps to flesh out our historical understanding of the men who participated in the program.
Although Topete’s novel may thus bring important aspects of bracero history to life, the text also poses a bit of a mystery for literary scholars. Because the story is told in the first person, readers have sometimes assumed that it is therefore an autobiography. This impression is strengthened by the preface that appeared at the beginning of the original 1949 edition of the novel, written by one Gutierre Tibón, which suggests that the novel presents the genuine testimony of a young bracero: “Jesús Topete, our bracero (he’s authentic: young and Mexican), lived through an experience that happened in this century … He describes what he has lived through with a natural flair” (3). However, research into the life of “Jesús Topete” suggests that the author was most likely Jesús Amaya Topete, a polymath who worked as a writer, publisher, linguist, historian, and labor organizer, and who hailed from Ameca, Jalisco. (The publishing company “Editorial AmeXica,” which originally printed Aventuras, appears to have been a company founded by Topete himself. The company’s name combines “Mexico” and “Ameca,” as well as puns on “America”.)
But Topete was born in 1889, which means he would have been 60 years old at the time of the publication of the novel (therefore not the “young” man described by the preface). Since the average age of braceros was between 20–30 years old, it seems unlikely that Topete would have been officially selected as a bracero during the early years of the program, from 1942–49. To what degree, then, is Topete’s novel authentic testimony? It is of course possible that Topete drew on personal experiences as a migrant, either earlier in his life, or as a bracero, however biographies of the writer do not mention any such experiences.2 What is clear from his biographies, however, is that Topete was a dedicated labor activist...