- LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0028
- LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0028
On the request of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the US federal government engaged in negotiations domestically, and eventually with the Mexican government in 1942, to establish a temporary contract labor program known as the Bracero Program. Established under Public Law 45 to overcome an alleged wartime labor shortage, the program brought Mexican labor to the United States. The men were recruited to work primarily in agriculture, although during World War II braceros also supplied railroad labor. The statute was renegotiated in 1951 as Public Law 78, but the basic program remained the same. Each contract was signed by the laborer, representatives of the employer, and the Mexican and US governments. Although there is no evidence that a domestic labor shortage existed during or after the war, the program functioned until 1964, when it came under severe and widespread criticism. Over those twenty-two years, 7.5 million contracts were signed and approximately four to five million men were contracted to work as temporary workers. Although braceros were sent to twenty-eight states, the vast majority were assigned to Texas and California. The system was organized to bring in labor for the harvest seasons, and then to return the workers to Mexico to await the next US harvest. Growers established their foreseen labor needs and passed the information to federal program administrators, who in turn informed Mexican officials. The Mexican government recruited braceros who, having been examined at emigrant worker stations in Mexico and declared physically fit for agricultural labor, were then transported into the United States for further evaluation. In the first years of the program, the men were recruited in Mexico City, but US employers found urbanites unsatisfactory and asked for workers from rural areas who were experienced in farm labor. Consequently, most recruiting took place in poor peasant villages, where the possibility of work seemed a wonderful opportunity. Entire villages virtually emptied of men, and women took over families and work in the fields. Supporters of the program suggested that braceros were ideal “stoop labor,” a common term for “farm labor.” Agricultural interests and government publications presented the Bracero Program to the public in positive terms. However, a number of studies demonstrated that braceros labored under harsh, exploitative conditions for low wages, often working sixteen-hour days in summer heat and being denied rest and drinking water. Employers found braceros to be cost effective: they worked productively for low wages, were accessible, and were returned to Mexico as soon as the harvest ended. Moreover, the braceros effectively lowered wages for domestic workers, displacing them in the process and preventing the organization of unions. Soon after implementation of the program, a rising number of undocumented workers, opprobriously called “wetbacks,” became a national issue. This conflict was ultimately resolved in 1954 through “Operation Wetback,” which steered men wanting work into the federal program. No study has shown that the program helped improve the Mexican rural economy, although agriculture in the United States expanded significantly during this time.
There are numerous works that examine the Bracero Program. Anderson 1976 and Mitchell 2012 study the Bracero Program as it operated in California, and Galarza 1978 reviews the program on a national scale. These three studies survey the program in great detail, contending that agricultural corporations molded the state-managed program to serve their interests. They concluded that the law served to provide cheap exploitable labor for agricultural corporations. In keeping with those three studies, the Leonard Nadel Collection (cited under Photographic Collections) provides 1,723 classic photographs centering the bracero work experience and underscoring the transnational character of the program. Calavita 2010 examines the program within the context of domestic politics and US foreign policy and describes it as state-managed migration, a process within which the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) played a leading role. The study appraises the manner in which the INS was a central player and held great power over the operations, rather than defining the Bracero Program as primarily a temporary use of contract labor. Three additional studies consider unique characteristics of the program. Cohen 2011 examines it within a transnational context in which bracero agency, rather than completely controlled beings, acted as one component along with their national government, the US government, and agricultural corporations. Driscoll 1999 remains the only study to review the wartime utilization of one hundred thousand braceros working on railroads. Braceros worked in many states, and Gamboa 1990 reviews the particularities of the program in the Pacific Northwest for the years 1942 to 1947.
Anderson, Henry P. The Bracero Program in California: With Particular Reference to Health Status, Attitudes, and Practices. Chicano Heritage Series. New York: Arno, 1976.
A pioneering work that illuminates on the entire program, beginning with the recruitment process in Mexico, where aspirants paid bribes to become a bracero and to guarantee their return to Mexico. Widely violated labor contracts were not a concern for authorities. Braceros had little support to contest violations, although there were protests. First published in 1961, this reprint edition contains a new introduction.
Calavita, Kitty. Inside the State: The Bracero Program, Immigration, and the I.N.S. New Orleans, LA: Quid Pro, 2010.
This widely cited study, originally published in 1992 (New York: Routledge), documents the manner in which the INS provided legal braceros as well as undocumented laborers to growers. Immigration officials informally interpreted, enforced, or modified bracero agreements in order to meet grower demands and the INS policy agenda. State managers and growers interacted in the administration of the program.
Cohen, Deborah. Braceros: Migrant Citizens and Transnational Subjects in the Postwar United States and Mexico. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
An original study of peasants who as braceros became marginalized transnational subjects and required continuing emigration to satisfy basic needs. Braceros’ subjectivity was rooted in their peasantry and was influenced by the modern United States and an emerging national political culture in Mexico. They remained poor and struggled for survival in both national contexts.
Driscoll, Barbara A. The Tracks North: The Railroad Bracero Program of World War II. Center for Mexican American Studies Border and Migration Studies Series. Austin: University of Texas, 1999.
The only book-length study of the one hundred thousand wartime railroad braceros reviews negotiations between the United States and Mexico, leading to the final agreement and modifications favoring the railroads. Braceros composed a significant percentage of track workers and were treated poorly, with many dying on the job.
Galarza, Ernesto. Merchants of Labor: The Mexican Bracero Story; An Account of the Managed Migration of Mexican Farm Workers in California 1942–1960. 3d ed. Santa Barbara, CA: McNally & Loftin, 1978.
A classic analysis exposing the inner workings of the Bracero Program and a critical exposé based on archival research and on-site interviews and investigation. Of particular interest is the power exerted over Mexico during negotiations. Agricultural corporations designed the program, managed its administration, and ensured a continuing flow of controlled labor. Originally published in 1964.
Gamboa, Erasmo. Mexican Labor and World War II: Braceros in the Pacific Northwest, 1942–1947. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.
The lone study on Pacific Northwest growers’ intervention to resolve a labor crisis and to shape the program. Braceros protested dehumanizing treatment, which countered growers’ expectations. Ultimately, growers determined the program unsatisfactory and terminated using braceros, who eventually returned as migrant farmworkers to become the region’s largest ethnic minority.
Mitchell, Don. They Saved the Crops: Labor, Landscape, and the Struggle over Industrial Farming in Bracero-Era California. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2012.
This is an extraordinary work illustrating the stark political reality of a contract labor program. Agencies managing the program served monopolistic capitalist interests above all. Braceros were highly controlled, their legal protections were widely violated, and their wages were frozen, causing domestic labor to be displaced. Several chapters document the complex struggle to end the program.
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