The Bracero Program began in 1942, and was an agreement between the United States and Mexico, which started the legalization and control of Mexican migrant workers along America’s southern border area. The US was recovering from the social and economic damages caused by the Great Depression, while also sending many of its potential laborers off to war in Europe. So there was a serious need for workers in the country. The program lasted until 1964, and it is estimated that in this 22 year period, approximately 4.6 million Mexican nationals came to work in the U.S. as braceros. In the first year of its creation, the Bracero program led to the US importing roughly 215,000 Mexican nationals to work as agricultural laborers and then another 75,000 would be sent to work of the Southern Pacific railroad along with 20 or so other railroads.
In this continuation of our series on immigration, Dan and Elizabeth focus on the Mexican-American experience within the United States: instances of racism, the importation of Mexican workers, and how Mexican-Americans were intentionally excluded from the welfare state.
Written and Produced by: Elizabeth Garner Masarik and Dan Wallace
Edited by: Marissa Rhodes
Elizabeth: In our podcast a few weeks ago Dan and I discussed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Mexican residents that lived within the “borderlands,” or the areas that were annexed by the United States. This podcast is part of a series on immigration that we are doing here on the History Buffs. Dan and I are focusing on the Mexican-American experience within the United States and how citizenship and immigration status have gone hand in hand with ideas of American vs non-American.
Introductions: I’m Elizabeth Garner Masarik and I’m Dan Wallace and we are the History Buffs
Elizabeth: So to jog your memory, the Treaty of Hidalgo was signed in 1848 and ceded thousands of acres of northern Mexico to the United States. That land became New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California. The treaty also defined the southern US border as running along the Rio Grande. That is what helps give Texas its pointed shape on it’s southern border.
The annexation of northern Mexico affected an estimated one hundred thousand Mexicans and indigenous Native Americans
Between the years of 1845 to roughly the 1890s immigration to the United States from Mexico was very low. As mentioned in the last episode, a lot of Mexican people were already living in the areas that would become the United States. Between 1848 and 1890 many Mexican citizens actually left the new U.S. territory to go and settle in Mexico due to either family ties or the racism they faced from their new American compatriots.
Immigration from Mexico picked up around the 1890s when the southeastern mining, railroad and agricultural industries experienced a boom in growth.
Also a note on identifiers. You may hear me refer to white people in the borderlands as Anglos. This is a bit confusing as Anglo usually refers to someone with origins in England or Great Britain. But within Chicana scholarship and borderlands scholarship, white people in general are usually referred to as Anglo. So I’ll try to say “white” but I just want to throw that identifier out there in case you experience it in further readings. This drives Marissa, our resident early modernist bonkers BTW, she can’t stand that Anglo and White are interchangeable in this, I dunno, genre of history. So…
And also a reminder about “whiteness” and naturalization. The Naturalization Act of 1790 only allowed the naturalization of “a free white person… making proof to the satisfaction of such Court that he is a person of good character.” So basically what that means is that anyone who could become a naturalized citizen to the United States had to be “white.” And so that thus made all Mexicans who were living in the northern Mexico lands that were annexed by the US in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, they had to “become white” in order to become citizens of the U.S.
Dan: So legally Mexicans were white but socially they were treated for the most part as second class citizens. And also, I’m not, or we’re not implying that “being white” was preferred or even wanted by Mexican heritage people. We only bring this up because only “white” people could become naturalized citizens to the U.S. during this period, and only “white” men were truly granted full citizenship under the law at this time. And since the U.S. wanted this land that came with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, they had to think up a way to have the inhabitants be annexed too.
A legal example of how Mexican whiteness had different implications in social and legal contexts can be see in the court case: In re Rodriguez, This was an 1897 court case tried in a Texas federal court where a “pure-blooded Mexican” petitioner was admitted to U.S. citizenship. So this was a Mexican national who applied for citizenship to the U.S. after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. And remember, the only way he could become a U.S. citizen was if he was a white person- because of the Naturalization Act of 1790.
Rodriguez, the petitioner in the case, was granted the right to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. However the court record documents showed that this legal definition of whiteness (and the legal capital that that entailed) was vastly different than the actual, or social experience of “whiteness” for Mexican heritage peoples living in the United States. The court record states that if “the strict scientific classification of the anthropologist should be adopted, he [the petitioner] would probably not be classified as white.” Yet because of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Rodriguez passed the “whiteness” test of the court. We use this as an example to show that, if left to the social ideas of who should and should not be an American, the general consensus was that Mexicans should not be granted the status of “American.”
Elizabeth: Right, so as I mentioned previously, immigration from Mexico into the US increased in the 1890s. The Mexican Revolution which raged for a decade between 1910 and 1920 increased this flow of immigrants. Many border residents fled into the U.S. for safety and also many political exiles sought shelter in the U.S. too. And just as an example, many of the families of prominent people of the Revolution also took refuge in the United States. For example, both Pancho Villa and Porfirio Diaz’s wives lived in San Antonio, TX during parts of the revolution.
But Anglo, or white, prejudice against Mexicans and Mexican Americans was only heightened by the Mexican Revolution that was raging across the border, which sometimes spilled into Texas. The escalating warfare in Mexico came so close that inhabitants in Laredo could hear the sound of gunfire reverberating off of buildings in Nuevo Laredo just across the Rio Grande. So revolutionary activity and political exiles often operated along the border.
But um, no matter if they were involved in the conflict, in the fighting or not, Tejanos, ie Mexican Texans, were suspected of being cattle bandits, gunrunners, revolutionaries and insurrectionists by the powers that be, whether they were or not. And just to prove this point, federal reports indicate that roughly 300 Tejanos and Mexican citizens were murdered during the period of 1915-1916 alone, and many at the hand of the Texas Rangers.
But racial antagonisms weren’t confined to uneasiness over revolutionary activity. The borderlands were also a place of harsh racial violence in general, including classic instances of lynching more familiar in the Deep South. In November 1910, for an example, a Tejano named Antonio Rodriquez was arrested by sheriff’s deputies for the alleged murder of an Anglo-American woman near the town of Rocksprings, TX. Within hours of Rodriguez’s arrest a mob had dragged him from his cell, tied him to a tree and lit him on fire. In another example, in June 1911, a 14 year old named Antonio Gomez was dragged to death behind a buggy in Thorndale, TX. Um, and these are just two of many such instances of mob violence and lynching of Mexican Americans in the Southwest United States during this period that we’re discussing.
At the turn of the century the borderlands hosted a vibrant scene of Spanish-language press newspapers that were important for constructing and also contesting racial and gender ideologies in the American Spanish speaking community. This alternative press covered issues pertaining to the Spanish speaking community, especially social and economic obstacles facing the Mexican-American population and they also kept readers abreast of growing political turmoil in Mexico.
One family in particular, the Idar family, was very active in Mexican and American politics. Nicassio Idar owned and published the Spanish-language newspaper La Cronica, printed in Laredo, TX. . His son Eduardo wrote articles covering the area from Brownsville to the Rio Grande Valley, while his daughter Jovita and her brother Clemente worked in publishing and as staff writers. Clemente Idar was appointed in 1918 by Samuel Gompers as the first AFL organizer for Mexican-Americans in the Southwest and in the early 1930s he was asked by FDR to serve as U.S. Secretary of Labor, but had to decline due to failing health. Another brother, Eduardo Idar was one of the founding member of LULAC, a powerful Latino civil rights group.
La Cronica and particularly Jovita Idar addressed the treatment that Spanish-speaking Americans received in the borderlands in the early 20th century. She wrote numerous articles speaking out against discrimination towards Tejanos. She was also an outspoken champion for better education for women and children in the Spanish-speaking community. In the La Crónica article “Por la Raza, La Niñez Mexicana en Texas,” Jovita wrote about the sub-par education that Mexican-heritage children received in Texas. “Our country is too busy with their domestic affairs to tend to your children,” she warned her audience and the lack of education and “sheer ignorance of a vast majority of our countrymen,” contributed to social inequality, she argued. “We have no other option but to do it on our own, so we are not discriminated and mistreated by the strangers around us.”
She wrote it is with “with deep sorrow…we have seen teachers instructing our children with no regard for the mother tongue.” The paper expressed “deep and widespread concern over the education of our children, and the preservation of our mother tongue.”
As I mentioned in the last episode, Texas practiced a tripart segregated school system, and most Spanish surname children were funneled into subpar “Mexican” schools and taught by teachers who were usually under-qualified. Typically the justification for sending Spanish surnamed children to “Mexican” schools was language- whether the student was bi-lingual or not. And this continued late into the 20th century, and many argue is still present in the Texas school system today.
In response to the need for quality bilingual education, Jovita Idar and other likeminded reformers founded free bilingual kindergartens in their homes. These schools were called escuelitas which means little schools. Idar wrote that “Mexican children in Texas need an education. Neither our government, nor the U.S. government can do anything for our children.” so she was part of the movement to found her own. These escuelitas functioned as an alternative school system teaching Spanish literacy and history along the borderlands well into the late 1940s and perhaps longer.
The need to combat Anglo racism and aggression in the Texas borderlands was the driving tenet of Idar’s activism and others like her. Cursory readings of articles in Anglo-newspapers covering the Mexican Revolution make very clear the daily racism Tejanos experienced in the United States. A Harper’s Weekly article entitled, “Mexican Camp-Followers,” for example, gives us an exceptionally xenophobic account of the Constitutionalist armies of the Revolution and the women who traveled with them. The author of the article refers to the Mexican soldiers in these camps as “children” and an “indolent lower-class” that live “hand to mouth,” are “lazy, easily pleased, easily annoyed, crafty, hospitable and totally irresponsible.” The author’s contempt for the untrained soldiers and their lack of military prowess was evident in his writing. He was even more condescending when speaking of the women who traveled with the army. Many traveled hundreds of miles toting children, pots and pans, and other household goods for their families and the soldiers they accompanied. Private living spaces, bath houses, and washroom facilities were non-existent. Um, but the writer of this article writes “These women,” he wrote, “are generally of the Indian type, totally uneducated, unspeakably dirty, and apparently quite content to undergo physical hardships for the sake of being with their masters.” I bring this up because this is just one example of this disdain that Mexicans and Tejanos faced from Anglo journalists, law enforcement, and settlers.
An article that appeared in the Progressive Era journal, The Survey, was less harsh in its blatant criticism of Mexican-heritage people, yet its author still prescribed to racist ideals. The article concluded that Mexican’s who were immigrating into the United States had, “low standards of living and of morals, their illiteracy, their utter lack of proper political interest, the retarding effect of their employment upon the wage scale of the more progressive races…combine them as a rather undesirable class of residents.” Does that sound familiar Dan?
Dan: It does….
Elizabeth: This is the reason we talk about these things, to show that these arguments, this nativism isn’t new. But yeah, this article in the Survey really shows that these uh, these kind of
bigoted Anglo American attitudes towards Mexicans were really just repeated in most newspapers, political speeches, and immigration debates during this period and surreptitiously condoned the use of paternalism and violence in the borderlands region.
Dan: So it’s clear from these examples that Mexicans were facing some pretty blatant racism on one hand. On the other hand there was actually some encouragement for them to come into the country right?
Elizabeth: Right, right…
Dan: As the mining and agricultural businesses in the Southwest grew, more and more laborers from where needed. The agricultural lobby played a large part in promoting and expanding Mexican migration into the U.S. In 1924 a very restrictive immigration act, the Johnson Reed Act, took effect. This act severely limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States through a national origins quota. The quota provided immigration visas to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census, meaning that the calculations used to decide on the quotas were based on numbers that included large numbers of people of British descent whose families had been in the United States for generations. As a result, the percentage of visas available to individuals from the British Isles and Western Europe increased, but newer immigration from other places like Southern and Eastern Europe was limited. The Immigration Act of 1924 completely excluded immigrants from Asia.
Because of pressure from the agriculture lobby, Mexico was exempt from the quotas. So you had farmers in the U.S. arguing that they would be unable to process their crops without Mexican migrant labor.
So what the Immigration Act of 1924 did however, was create the policies that required a more robust U.S./Mexico “border control.” where there had not previously been in any kind of practical or physical sense. Fears emerged that hoards of Eastern European and Chinese immigrants would circumvent national quotas by entering the U.S. illegally through the the Mexican and Canadian borders which also pushed policies to implement stronger controls at both borders. But although Mexicans were not affected by the quota system, they still faced Anglo racism as exemplified in this quote from the commissioner general of immigration, “Long established routes from southern Europe to mexican ports and overland to the Texas border, formerly patronized almost exclusively by diseased and criminal aliens, are now resorted to by large numbers of Europeans who cannot gain legal admission because of passport difficulties, illiteracy, or the quota law.”
Dan: Yeah, so they’re not “bringing the best… [sarcasm]
Elizabeth: They’re bringing drugs and rapists right? Yeah, [sarcasm]
Right, so really it’s like the borders get pumped up because of these fears of southern and eastern Europeans coming in. Not necessarily over Mexicans, um, although as we’ll see a little later, definately a lot of Anglos didn’t want Mexicans coming in but like you said, the agricultural lobby was obviously a big part in this Johnson-Reed Act in making sure that Mexican immigrants…. Or that there were no quotas on Mexican immigration.
Elizabeth: So, although they didn’t face the quota, they had to pass certain entry requirements such as a head tax and a visa fee, which pushed some to avoid legal immigration into the U.S. Inspections of immigrants at the Mexican border now consisted of bathing, delousing, and a medical inspection. European and Mexican immigrants who arrived on first-class trains were actually allowed to forgo these humiliating inspections. And just to put this into perspective, they had stopped doing these kind of inspections and de-lousing things at Ellis Island just a few years before.
Dan: Oh really…
Elizabeth: But started implementing them on the Texas Mexican border at the same time. Historian George Sanchez describes this new border crossing as becoming “a momentous occasion, a break from the past…a painful and abrupt event permeated by an atmosphere of racism and control- an event that clearly demarcated one society from another.”
These new laws and vetting procedures also meant that an official Border Patrol was needed. Initially the U.S. Mexican Border Patrol consisted of former cowboys and small ranchers. Most were young men and had military experience and according to historian Mae Ngai, many had ties to the Ku Klux Klan. One Border Patrol agent said that the training consisted of, “they just give you a .45 single action revolver with a web belt- and that was it.”
Dan: How ‘bout that?
Elizabeth: Um, so during the late 20s the number of deportations of Mexican immigrants who had not obtained a visa, rose from 1,751 in 1925 to over 15,000 in 1929. The Border patrol started enacting sweeps and stopping Mexican laborers on roads and farms, resulting in a Los Angeles Spanish language newspaper to proclaim that the aggression would “de-Mexicanize southern California.”
And remember too that there were many people that lived in border towns where one half of the city was on the U.S. side and one half on the Mexican side. Laredo is one, you have Laredo and Nuevo Laredo. Uh, El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. These are cities that cross over the border. There were (and are) people in these towns who cross into the U.S. for day labor, or people traveling as temporary visitors, or migrants working for just an agricultural season. So there were varying types of legal entry that Mexican citizens might have while traveling in the U.S., making Border Patrol and U.S. immigration agents caste more suspicion on Mexican workers and travelers. So it’s strange but not strange that Mexicans started becoming associated with illegal immigration in the 1920s even though they weren’t under a quota system. That should be one indication that this was a race-based form of discrimination.
Dan: Right. Yup. And we’re talking a lot about Mexicans who made it up north, in the more industrial cities. And, just a sort of interesting side point here is there was labor issues in these factories and stuff, well you know who they called in to be the strike-breakers? They called in a lot of Mexican immigrants.
Elizabeth: I think historically, when you’re studying labor history you hear a lot about African-Americans being called in as strikebreakers.
Elizabeth: But actually kind of not talked about as much but part of this larger story is Mexicans being used as strikebreakers as well…
Dan: Right exactly, so when you have these White workers and then Mexicans strikebreakers, this only deepens racial animosity between different groups of people.
Elizabeth: Right, and that happened a lot in Chicago surprisingly. It’s in um, that was actually… in my studies, I was really surprised to learn about this large population in the 1920-30 of Mexican immigration in Chicago, and subsequently being used in some of the strikes in, what is it? McCormicks? So the meat packing up there….
Dan: Yes, I believe so.
Elizabeth: One of the ways we can see how Mexicans, both US citizens and unnaturalized immigrants, operated within this kind of binary idea of “American” and “non-American” um, is when we consider the expansion of the welfare state during the 1930s and the New Deal. And this is important as so much of our current immigration discourse circles around Hispanic immigrants and welfare, so understanding Mexicans historical treatment in regards to the welfare state is important for putting current debates into historical context. And also, just as an aside, because I’m a welfare historian and a bit of a wonk about it, the American welfare state did not begin in the 1930s, it just became broader and more visible. But I would, and many scholars will argue, that the American welfare state began much earlier, reaching back into the 19th century. So that’s just my little aside there.
Elizabeth: But during the 1930s and the New Deal, ideas about race and who was considered white and assimilable and non-white and therefore un-assimilable became really important to the formation and implementation of welfare policy. If you’ll remember, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the annexation of northern Mexico by the United States meant that Mexican heritage peoples had to be considered “white” in order to become naturalized citizens.
Elizabeth: We’ve kind of banged you over the head with that… but socially at least, Mexican heritage people’s were not given the same social rights as white people.
And this is where it gets sticky and where it starts to ruffle feathers because somehow people see these criticisms as an attack on them or their ancestors personally. But southern and eastern Europeans, who were the one’s that the Reed-Johnson Act was created in response to, those southern and eastern European immigrants that had been able to come into the country before 1924, they began to be pulled into the fold of “whiteness” in the 1930s. Um, so what I mean is, they were considered immigrants or non-Americans, just as say the Irish had been a century before, when they arrived during the early 20th century, but once the flow of immigration was cut off to a trickle from southern and Eastern European countries in ‘24, those that were already in the country started to become assimilated and started to be viewed as “American” instead of “immigrant” or “non-American.” So as the welfare state expanded, especially in the New Deal, those southern and eastern Europeans immigrants were given access to welfare programs. But no matter how assimilated, the status of “American” was never fully granted to Mexican heritage peoples, no matter how deep their American roots and they were systematically denied access to those New Deal welfare benefits that were supposed to be for “all Americans.”
So a lot of scholars actually argue that this “pulled themselves up by the bootstraps” idea of 20th century immigrants is kind of a fallacy. They aren’t denying the hard work of those early southern and eastern European immigrants, but they are saying that those immigrants gained access to New Deal and other welfare programs that Black and Mexican heritage people were not.
And statistically, foreign-born, or second generation European born immigrants were numerically represented on welfare rolls in MUCH higher rates that Mexican heritage people, although Mexicans were painted as more dependent on welfare as a whole. Again, does that sound kind of familiar to current discourse, right?
Dan: Right, right…
Elizabeth: But those who were considered assimilable and “white,” i.e. southern and eastern Europeans, were largely pulled into the fold of the welfare state and thus, basically full and equal citizenship while those who were un-white, African and Mexican Americans, became kind of subject to a stricter social control if they were allowed to participate in welfare programs. And there is hard data to show that social workers in the Southwest kind of “cherry-picked” data to make it seem as if Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants were more reliant on relief than they actually were.
In one glaringly obvious example, Initially, Domestic workers and agricultural workers were excluded from the labor rights of the New Deal including Social Security, unemployment benefits, collective bargaining, minimum wages, and maximum hours- all benefits codified by the New Deal. And during that period the majority of people working in agriculture were Mexican heritage people and the majority of people working in domestic service, were Black women. So you can see how they were systematically left out of the fruits, or the benefits of the welfare state during the 30s, um because those two occupations were specifically left out of the programs. And those omissions were not a mistake. There was a lot of lobbying going on behind the scenes to make sure that these two populations were denied access to labor rights that most other Americans really began to take for granted.
Historian Ira Katznelson actually even goes so far as to call the New Deal “affirmative action for white people,” arguing that policies enacted in the New Deal increased inequality during the 1930s and 1940s and propelled Whites into the exploding middle class while systematically excluding Blacks and Mexican Americans from the same benefits of citizenship.
Dan: Right. Yeah, that is interesting.
Elizabeth: Have you uh, have you read [Lizbeth] Cohen’s Consumer Republic?
Dan: Consumer’s Republic, yeah.
Elizabeth: ‘Cause that’s basically her argument with the GI Bill. Um, and that kind of takes it into the 40s and 50s. Basically that uh, African-Americans and Mexican-Americans weren’t given the GI Bill because they were systematically kept… if they did serve they were overwhelmingly kept in positions in the military where they were not eligible for these kinds of benefits once they got out. And that was if they were even allowed to join.
Dan: Right. So as we start to get into the middle of the 20th century I wanted to talk about a program called the Bracero Program. The Bracero Program began in 1942, and was an agreement between the United States and Mexico, which started the legalization and control of Mexican migrant workers along America’s southern border area. At this time the US was recovering from the social and economic damages caused by the Great Depression, while also sending many of its potential laborers off to war in Europe. So there was a serious need for workers in the country. If you remember from your high school Spanish class, the word brazos is arms, and bracero translates roughly to one who works with his arms, or a manual laborer. The program lasted until 1964, and it is estimated that in this 22 year period, approximately 4.6 million Mexican nationals came to work in the U.S. as braceros. In the first year of its creation, the Bracero program led to the US importing roughly 215,000 Mexican nationals to work as agricultural laborers and then another 75,000 would be sent to work of the Southern Pacific railroad along with 20 or so other railroads. The program admitted roughly 200,000 laborers per year, however, only about 2 percent of American farm operators employed braceros. These farm operators were wealthiest, or most industrial. So then you have to think about the small time farmer who can’t compete economically and when you start to introduce this labor pool, and they can’t afford to hire them like the more industrial, the more wealthy farms can, it becomes an unfair advantage. Moreover, braceros and other contracted foreign workers comprised only about 2 percent of the total US farm labor force.
Elizabeth: Well I think it kind of, back to your earlier point, you can see why that kinda would engender animosity toward Mexican laborers right? Because if this bracero program is starting to put small farmers out of business, then those farmers and the families that rely on them are going to start seeing these braceros as the problem as what’s putting them out of business. They’re not seeing the large agricultural firms who have been lobbying Congress to get this cheap labor, right, they don’t see those guys as the bad guys, they see the people that they see everyday, they see the workers coming in everyday and “taking over their jobs.” Right?
Dan: Yeah, and what’s interesting is part of the deal, too, was that these workers would not be used to replace domestic workers, or to lower domestic farm wages. This program entailed that Mexican workers would be allowed to come to the US on a temporary basis. In exchange for their labor they were guaranteed a minimum wage of 30 cents an hour during the 40s and 50 cents during most of the 50s. They were also guaranteed and things like shelter, water and food, sanitation, full repatriation to Mexico, and a guaranteed work for 75 percent of their contract period. So they would be working 75 percent of their time, which upset a lot of other workers because they are not working that much. They are not getting that much work, so obviously it makes it more complicated.
Elizabeth: So the braceros are promised more work than quote what the American workers could get? And just curious, you said they were getting about 50 cents an hour, was that a good wage?
Dan: It was good for them. Compared to Americans I don’t know.
Elizabeth: From what I remember, it was as it is now. It’s good wages for someone living in Mexico that’s not part of the elite but compared to an American wage it’s still not a lot.
Dan: An interesting component to this program was that these workers would not be subject to discrimination, meaning that they would not be excluded from “white” areas of segregated public areas. Components like this were due to the Mexican government’s concern over the treatment of its citizens. The Mexican government also had the power to blacklist certain states from receiving Braceros if states were found to be discriminating against them. This power didn’t last the entire duration of the program, it was weakened by 1954. I’m not sure if it was ever used…
Elizabeth: Yeah because I know… I mean in Texas is was very common to see “No Blacks, No Mexicans” allowed but we know for a fact that tons of Braceros were going into Texas so…yeah.
Dan: And most of the Mexicans who volunteered for the program were family men. As laborers in Mexico they earned what was equivalent to 65 US cents a day, so the prospect of earning 30-50 cents an hour was alluring. In the 1950s, Braceros sent home 30 million dollars a year, making it the third largest industry in Mexico. I think that’s an interesting point. So a lot of money going back home.
Elizabeth: Wow! Yeah. So Mexico also has a large vested interest in having this continue.
Dan: Right, exactly.
But despite all of these positive things and all of these protections that Mexican workers were supposed to have, many laborers faced an array of injustices and abuses, it was exactly a very attractive or appealing process in practice. And not only did they face discrimination and poor conditions while they were working here but just the process to get from Mexico to the US to be part of the bracero program, was a pretty taxing thing. So this is from Mai Ngai’s book, Impossible Subjects, which if you are interested in this topic I suggest you pick up and take a look at. So this is about a bracero worker named Ricardo Velasquez who came from the small town, Aqua Caliente de Garada. If my pronunciation is off, my apologies. So this is what he and a fellow potential bracero went through trying to get up to work in Texas. “The migration to work in Texas was not easy nor cost free. First the men had to pay for one of their group to take the papers to the state capital, Culiacan, and then to Mexico City for approval. This may have included the payment of mordidas, or bribes to officials. They then journeys to the contracting center of Monterrey in Nuevo Leon, where they waited then days before being processed. The cost for initial authorization and subsistence in Monterey was 300-400 pesos. After finally being processed in Monterey, Velasquez and five other Aqua Caliente men were taken to a depot, fed lunch, and put on a train. They arrived in Reynosa near the border at 4am and then transferred to the INS center at Hidalgo, Texas. There they received breakfast and a routing slip which the proceeded to be interviewed, photographed, and fingerprinted. They proceeded to an examination, a chest X-ray to detect tuberculosis and fumigation for hoof and mouth disease. The INS process centers processed several hundred to several thousand braceros a day. The maximum pace was set by the capacity of the X-ray machines which was set to see 175 braceros per hour. The operation proceeded in batch processing, that alienated individual braceros and also strained the INS personnel who complained of shortage of personnel, long hours and temperatures from 108 to 117 degrees and a stench of sweaty, unwashed human bodies.”
So you, so they are going through all of this to come and work and it almost seems like they are going through a process to come and live in the U.S. And I just want to point out that the cost, so 300-400 pesos for men just to have their things process, or they may have to bribe an official, so when you start adding that up, and taking into consideration the money that they are making, they have to work themselves out of that initial hole just to get there in the first place. Uh, so that could take how long, who knows how long, especially since a lot of employers said they would pay 50 cents an hour but once the braceros get there they are only paying 30 cents an hour. And what could you do at that point?
Elizabeth: You’re already… yeah you’ve gone through all of that…
Dan: They’re not going to go home. Right. So it wasn’t a pleasant process, the treatment was never great. Obviously they had, they risked being treated unfairly and put in a situation where they couldn’t do much about it. Although they did. There were plenty of strikes that happened throughout this program.
Elizabeth: No I mean… that’s… that’s the thing that I remember about this particular story is the surprising agency that a lot of these men um, uh.. Had in these situations. So they would go through this really kind of horrific ordeal to get to work and once they got there they realized that what they were told they were going to be doing was not the same, right? So like the pay would be less or you know, they’d have like ten guys to a room, or you know this is like the hot desert, so… just really unsatisfactory conditions that they come into. But like you said, what are they going to do? It’s not like they could just go home. But actually there is a lot of instances of them banding together, striking, um, and the Mexican government coming in on their behalf a lot of the times BUT as you mentioned before, it was like a huge industry for Mexico. So Mexico is kind of in a tight spot too, you know, they want their citizens to be treated with respect but they also want to keep this program going. So it’s kind of a dance, you know, throughout this process.
Dan: Yes, and I can think of one interesting example, I think it was in 1943 where there was a strike- it was in Washington and it was Mexican braceros who actually joined up with Japanese American workers who were allowed to leave internment camps and go and do some work in the Northwest and were facing injustice and banded together.
Elizabeth: These two groups that are very marginalized during the 1940s, banding together, having this agency to… to strike. Hmm.
Elizabeth: So we’ve given you this kind of long duree view of Mexican immigration in America and put it in this historical context for you, to show that the current political climate is not new, these are some old kind of tropes that are being dusted off and revisited. But just to put this larger mexican immigration story into an historical context.
Dan: Yeah, absolutely, we’ve talked about how land that is now U.S. used to be Mexico which is something important to consider. We’ve talked about the discrimination that Mexicans have been facing, that it’s nothing new, that there’s a long lineage of this. And we talked about how there were programs that invited them to come in and to be workers, so it wasn’t that they were “illegal aliens” coming in a taking jobs but that they U.S. needed labor and went to Mexico and promoted it.
Elizabeth: And we can definitely take this further. We have another section of this story and we’re going to cover… we’re going to go into NAFTA and talking about the maquiladoras along the border and into even the present day. If you’re interested in this story stay tuned, and we’ll finish it up in a future episode.
Dan: Yes. Please do.
Elizabeth: Okay, well we appreciate you so much for sticking around and listening to this episode. Uh, for the History Buffs I’m Elizabeth.
Dan: And I’m Dan.
Elizabeth: and we appreciate you listening.
Dan: We’ll see you next time.
Show Notes & Further Reading
Zamora, Emilio. The World of the Mexican Worker in Texas. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2009.
Katznelson, Ira. When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America. Reprint edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006.
Cohen, Lizabeth. Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939. 2nd edition. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Fox, Cybelle. Three Worlds of Relief: Race, Immigration, and the American Welfare State from the Progressive Era to the New Deal. Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2012.
Ngai, Mai. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Updated edition. Princeton University Press, 2014.