More on Farm Workers
Peel an Orange, Contemplate History…
I'm sitting here peeling an orange while I write this dispatch. I've never stopped to consider where my fruit comes from, but after spending so much time researching Mexicans working in agriculture, I now examine every angle of the orange. I wonder who picked it, what conditions he/she worked under, what they earned, and what part of the country it came from. My conscience worries about the orange. Given what I learned about immigrant farm workers during the post-World War II era, we should all be looking at our fruit closely.
When we last looked at the plight of Mexican Americans in the US, we saw them being deported and beaten in riots with US sailors. During the Depression, Mexicans, both legal and illegal residents, were seen as leeches who were sucking up precious jobs and resources better spent on "real" Americans. But as they say, "War is good for the economy." With so many Americans entering the military and factories, and the economy booming because of World War II, agricultural growers worried about a labor shortage in the fields. The Farm Bureau of Arizona in 1941 requested to import 18,000 Mexicans. So once again, Mexicans were going to be charmed back into America, one decade after we had so rudely gotten rid of them.
There were some labor leaders who questioned the claims of the growers. The Depression had consolidated the power of big farmers who ran their farms like a corporation. Big California growers had started a group to ward off labor strikes and had been extremely successful. The growers had become accustomed to cheap labor over the decades, from using Chinese and Filipino workers as well as Mexicans and Okies. Now with all other industries mobilizing for the war effort, growers wanted to turn back to Mexicans for their traditionally cheap labor. Some argued that there was no shortage of workers. The problem was with the wages and conditions that were offered by the growers. Despite the outcry over the abuses the Okies had to endure, little had changed in the farm workers plight. The wages still stunk, and their housing and health care were still barely adequate. Because many growers had grown so accustomed to paying their workers peanuts, they were hesitant to attract workers by raising their pay. They worried that they would have to continue the practice even after the war. Instead, they set their sights on lobbying Congress to officially allow "braceros" into the country.
In 1940, after a decade of deportation, only 377,000 Mexican-born immigrants remained in the US. Over the next two decades, thanks to the bracero program, 5 million Mexicans would cross the border, all dreaming of a better life, and often times encountering bitter disappointment. Mexico initially wasn't responsive to the United States' offer to allow temporary workers legally into the US. Much resentment remained over the deportation of the 30s and the way Mexicans -- many of them US citizens -- had been dumped onto Mexican territory. But with unemployment, poverty and overpopulation plaguing Mexico, the Mexican government signed an international agreement putting into place the bracero program.
Ah yeah, Austin here we come!
Mexico tried to negotiate better safeguards and protection for the braceros. The agreement pledged that workers would not be used to displace American workers or to lower wages, and that they would meet minimum working conditions and wages. Braceros would work for one year usually and then go back to Mexico. Transportation was to be provided both ways, along with adequate housing and health services. The President of the American Farm Bureau, one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington DC, was appalled by these aspects of the agreement and said that the US government "had messed it all up with a lot of rules and regulations." Mexico did not anticipate the political power of US growers who were prepared to break all the rules and did.
I arrived in El Paso, Texas, a major hub for braceros back in the day, hoping to talk with Carlos Marentes. Carlos founded a group called Sin Fronteras (Without Borders), a community organization that works with farm workers. When I finally make contact with him, he's delighted to talk to me and excited by The Odyssey's mission to tell some of the forgotten stories in America. "One of our most important goals is to create our own history," he told me. "No one talks about the braceros. Their contributions are never acknowledged." His center has started a Bracero Project to document all the oral histories of the braceros. Though many have died, some are still working in the fields. Carlos showed me the zillions of boxes of information he's gathered so far, which includes documents from around 70 braceros.
In the boxes, there are pictures, receipts, identification cards, and reports. Carlos showed me an original contract signed by a bracero. Most of them couldn't read English and did not really know what was in the contract. This led to lots of abuses. Employers also would shortchange the number of hours they worked, paying them for 8 hours when they had worked 10. Braceros earned less than $500 a year, were limited to industries like agriculture and the railroads and could not join unions. Deducted from their paychecks were room and board and food, which meant that they often only had $10 to send back to their families in Mexico.
Carlos said his center sometimes considers legal action on behalf of the farm workers. Many workers died on the job. Their contracts guaranteed to their family $1000 if they were to die. For the most part, that money was never paid and some even had to pay to have the body shipped back to Mexico! Carlos now works to try and recover some of the money for the survivors, but he knows the odds are a long shot. 10% of the bracero's paycheck was also withheld to provide for a pension-Social Security type plan. The money was supposedly deposited in a Mexican bank, but most haven't seen a cent of that either. Several lawsuits have been filed to recover this money, conservative estimates of which say they are collectively owed $500 million dollars! Carlos though, is wary of dealing with lawyers eager to see his bracero files. "They want one-third of whatever we win plus expenses!" he laughed.
The Bracero Program not only failed many braceros, who often "skipped" out of their contracts, but failed to staunch the flow of illegal aliens as most thought it would. Instead, the program helped stimulate illegal immigration because so many heard about the wonderful wages promised in America. Bracero contracts were still hard to get in Mexico. Only one in ten who applied received one. Carlos points out that the problems with illegal immigration that we have today are not the fault of the Mexicans, but of the United States, who created a labor surplus by inviting these people into the country back in the 40s and 50s.
Pressures mounted on politicians in the 50s to do something about illegal Mexicans, and as a result, Operation Wetback was instituted in 1954 by President Eisenhower. Immigration officials used light planes to conduct sweeping searches of suspected aliens and promptly put them on the plane to Mexico. Thousands of Mexicans, some braceros and US citizens, were detained and arrested. Others were harassed. Families, just like during the earlier Deportation scheme, were split apart by the operation. Police raided apartments and homes in addition to the fields and factories. Over one million Mexicans were shipped back to Mexico. The paranoia over illegal Mexicans mirrored the witch hunts that were being conducted at the same time for suspected Communists. The growers went along with the plan because they had the bracero program. They knew that Operation Wetback was a symbolic but empty gesture towards reform. Congress had passed a law making it illegal to transport or harbor an alien, but not to employ one. Can you guess who got that loophole inserted?
But in 1956, when labor activist Ernesto Galarza wrote his expose "Strangers in Our Fields" documenting all the abuses and horrible treatment of the braceros, a change in opinion was beginning to form. The Civil Rights movement was about to come into its own and a growing sensitivity towards the plight of oppressed groups caused the US to reconsider its policies. When in 1963, 32 braceros died in a truck accident, Congress' investigation led liberals to kill the bracero program in the following year. It would set the stage for the rise of the United Farm Workers movement. Because braceros were often hired as strikebreakers (a violation of the bracero agreement, but never enforced), it was impossible to organize domestic farm workers until the program came to an end. Growers would now focus on recruiting illegal immigrants to work the fields.
This year, Congress is thinking about reviving the Bracero Program as a way to combat illegal immigration. Doesn't history just love to repeat itself? That's why Carlos is so passionate about the Bracero Project. He believes that if we are to build more humane policies towards farm workers, we must learn from the past that we've so far ignored. Most of all, he wants people to recognize the enormous contribution the braceros made in feeding our population. When he hears teachers tell Mexican children, "Watch out or you'll end up in the fields like your parents," it saddens him. "How can we fight for better wages and conditions if we don't find value in what we do?" he asked. "Our movement is about dignity ultimately, to give workers dignity and pride in the service they are providing to our country." As I munch on the last bit of my orange, I silently give thanks to the hard work of those who have and those who continue to toil in the fields on behalf of all of us who need to eat.
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