- Defiant Braceros: How Migrant Workers Fought for Racial, Sexual, and Political Freedom by Mireya Loza
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 2016
xiii + 237 pp., $85.00 (cloth); $29.95 (paper); $19.99 (ebook)
In Defiant Braceros, Mireya Loza recovers previously undocumented experiences of the Bracero Program. Drawing on a mix of archival sources and extensive oral histories she and others collected as part of the National Museum of American History’s Bracero History Project, Loza documents the “deviance and defiance” of braceros as they challenged the guestworker regime. Loza argues that braceros pushed back against the Mexican and US governments’ attempts to link guestworker status to a “particular type of masculinity tied to family, ethnicity, labor, and modernity” (15). Her purpose is “to humanize” bracero experiences of defiance and deviance to reconsider “state power and resistance” (182). Her book demonstrates that braceros challenged family constructions, gender expectations, and mestizaje—the state-supported notion of an ideal, racially mixed Mexican citizen—and organized for improvements in conditions and later against wage theft. In general, they deviated from norms that both governments imposed on them.
Loza draws on a rich source base of more than eight hundred oral histories from both the United States and Mexico, deftly blending interviews with archival research and the ever-expanding literature on the Bracero Program. The book’s four chapters cover diverse bracero experiences around indigeneity and mestizaje, sexual defiance of heterosexual norms, transnational organizing, and the recent efforts of ex-braceros and their advocates to recover payroll deductions that were sent to Mexico to incentivize their return and that many returning braceros never received. Before each chapter, Loza presents brief “interludes” that take the reader into the bracero interview room and highlight the promises and cautious methodology of oral history. She ends the book with a brief epilogue on representing the bracero past in the museum and the archive.
Defiant Braceros documents how bracero experiences defied the prescriptions of both nations’ policy makers. For the US and Mexican governments, braceros’ work on American farms would teach modern farming techniques and provide a pathway out of rural poverty for their families. Most of the existing literature addresses these goals of modernity and economic mobility, but Loza’s work adds a layer of complexity by exploring the ways in which indigeneity and mestizaje functioned in the program. Braceros from indigenous communities faced particular hurdles but also enjoyed opportunities. Workers who spoke neither English nor Spanish were often isolated, and employers and other braceros could dismiss or exploit them more readily. On the other hand, fluency in indigenous languages opened new opportunities to coordinate job actions or offered a path toward supervisory roles and higher wages if a bracero spoke either English or Spanish as well. Similarly, Loza argues that life in the all-male labor camps presented “opportunities for pleasure and a reconfiguration of gender norms” (63). Program controls [End Page 123] were designed to encourage the migration of solid family men willing to sacrifice personal comfort for their dependents’ economic uplift back home. But braceros engaged in illicit economies of gambling, prostitution, extramarital affairs, and the “renegotiation of queer masculinities” (89).
The second half of the book explores how braceros organized for better conditions and, more recently, to claim inclusion and repayment of stolen wages. Loza documents the changing strategies of José Hernández Serrano and the Alianza de Braceros Nacionales de México en los Estados Unidos, an organization that attempted to coordinate activity with the National Farm Labor Union in California. During World War II, the Alianza used patriotic rhetoric to advocate for better enforcement of contract safeguards. However, as the Mexican government shifted toward policies favoring capital over labor after the war, the Alianza and its leaders operated in a more hostile environment. Efforts to coordinate with labor organizer Ernesto Galarza in lobbying the Mexican government on the problem of undocumented workers, the 1951 negotiations of a new bilateral agreement, and transnational labor organizing in Mexicali-Calexico all garnered state repression, including blacklisting or even the jailing of activists in Mexico.