- Harvest of Loneliness/Cosecha Triste: The Bracero Program
There are times in U.S. history when massive harm is perpetrated through malign neglect or official acts: think 200 years of chattel slavery, the Trail of Tears (1830), the Sand Creek Massacre (1864), the internment of West Coast American born Japanese (1942), the Rescission Act of 1946—(Congress betrays promised benefits for 250,000 Filipino soldiers who fought with WWII Allies).
The makers of Harvest of Loneliness (HOL) would like to induct the Bracero Program, 1942–1964 into that Hall of Shame, where citizens come to be outraged by what no one any longer defends. HOL is a cries-of-pain-and-anger documentary about a treaty-ratified government program for contracted laborers. Using the voices of scholars, activists, labor organizers, surviving Mexican braceros and their families, HOL indicts the growers who cheated on wages, offered prison style living conditions, denied benefits for disabling injuries or death. They give us evidence indicating U.S. government negligence in enforcement and the Mexican government’s theft of funds deposited on their behalf. The last words are given to former bracero José Ezeqiel Avecedo, who tearfully speaks to the camera, “It was a time of suffering. I believe that. I don’t wish it on anyone. That’s as much as I can tell you.”
The official rationale for the Bracero Program, defined first as a wartime measure and then as a series of public law extensions, was a shortage of agricultural labor. Kitty Calavita, an onscreen scholar, concedes that “there may been a shortage in World War II.” But the weight of the documentary is organized around the contention of activist Henry P. Anderson that “the bracero program was used a union busting device pure and simple…the most ingenious anti-labor device ever concocted by the mind of man.” Carlos Marentes from the Center for Border Agricultural Workers, contends on screen that the bracero program was “the largest human rights violation in the entire history of the United States, with the exception of slavery.” César Chávez is shown arguing that the United Farm Workers could never successfully organize or effectively advocate for more humane field work conditions until the bracero program was finally terminated in 1964. That outcome is presented as the result of activism by Anderson, Ernesto Galarza, Chávez and others. [End Page 116]
For this reviewer, HOL offered a more intense experience of historical migrant labor issues. The story has been told before in monographs and encyclopedia entries such as Gilbert Paul Carrasco’s treatment in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Latinos and Latinas in the United States (2005). What has been lacking in documentary film are the impactful voices of those who underwent the experience. In that sense, this documentary advances our array of educational resources.
Yet, in building such an airtight case for grower-government conspiracy and endless torture it offers highly selected evidence. There are no grower voices or small farmers who were desperate to keep producing after their laborers had enlisted or left for work in urban weapon factories. To accept its demonizing history, one has to overlook several facts about WWII labor. Just looking at some of the famous farm labor posters of that period would remind that we had the U.S. Crop Corps (“Work on a farm this summer”), the Women’s Land Army (“Pitch in and help”), the Victory Farm Volunteers (“Going our way?...Be a victory farm volunteer”). Even German and Italian prisoners of war were used. The social history of many states suggests genuine local shortages and indicates that braceros were not used in those locations as anti-labor tools. There is also a question of whether the egregious abuses occurred at every contracted location. And as regards the related and larger topic of Mexican migration, the film also misleads by omission. Alongside the weeping survivors and family members who have their moment on the screen, there are...