Our immigration system has been dysfunctional for a long time: but with the recent separation of thousands of families, it’s more broken than ever. In times like these, it can help to look back on history, to another time of controversy and immigration reform in the mid-20th century.
My friend Belinda Montañez remembers that time well. It was the 1960’s. Her father, Manuel, worked as a cowboy in Baja California while her mother, Rosalinda, took care of their 14 children. Belinda was the youngest. To the north, American employers had successfully lobbied Congress for special immigrant visas for Mexican workers, in order to address an agricultural labor shortage during World War II. The Bracero program was born in 1942, and it persisted in some form for two decades. U.S. immigration would never be the same again.
Belinda recalls the posters that went up every growing season in every establishment frequented by men in the border towns of Mexico: the bars, the shoe shine, the lottery place. The ads offered employment at a rate that would improve Mexican families’ standard of living – an appealing call. “It wasn’t uncommon” for men to respond, Belinda says, and her father was one of the many who applied and was approved to work as a bracero.
Manuel’s place of employment was, fortunately, not very far away. He labored all week in the fields of the Imperial Valley of southern California, and, once he obtained legal permanent residency, returned home on the weekends. They missed him during the week, Belinda said, but his arrival on Fridays was always “a celebration.” He’d ‘cash’ his paycheck by purchasing flour, a pound of Brach’s candy “and other practical groceries” at a store on the border. Then, on the weekend, the family rejoined and feasted on Manuel’s “phenomenal” carne asada. It was an imperfect, albeit workable, arrangement unique to the border towns of northern Mexico.
According to historical accounts like the Bracero History Archive, braceros were supposed to be well-taken care of. By law, employers were to provide clean housing, insurance, and transportation back to Mexico at the end of their contracts – all at no cost to the worker. They were paid the same prevailing wage as American workers, and, though food was not provided, they were supposed to be given “decent meals at reasonable prices.” However, the Bracero History Archive recounts that “in practice, [the employers] ignored many of these rules, and Mexican and native workers suffered while growers benefited from plentiful, cheap, labor.”
Although Belinda was sheltered from the full details of her father’s work, she did understand that his reality didn’t live up to the promises. Manuel lived with other braceros in dorms where everyone slept on cots and had a strict curfew, with “lights out”. Life was work, then sleep. There were no kitchens for preparing “adequate” meals – far from it. Rather, the workers had to resort to less appetizing measures. They would buy canned soup, Belinda says, and “put it on top of the tractors when the tractors were running, and that would heat it up.” Later on, Manuel was able to rent his own place, but it was far from the sanitary conditions promised. Rather, Belinda remembers visiting her dad in “a tiny, run-down, roach- and mice-infested apartment.” He had to pay for it, after all, and he needed most of his money to support their large family in Mexico.
Some braceros and their families were afforded the opportunity for permanent legal residency, but it didn’t happen right away, nor all at once. Belinda says that the process started when she was a baby, but the family didn’t emigrate until she was 7 years old. She and her siblings went in for multiple interviews, including one about their parents’ suspected Communist ties (a bewildering question for a straight-laced 6-year-old Catholic girl). They also underwent thorough medical exams in rooms apart from their parents, which Belinda remembers causing her father a lot of concern.
Undoubtedly, this is because her father had been subjected to a terribly rigorous health examination himself. According to an article by Dr. Natalia Molina published in the American Journal of Public Health titled “Borders, Laborers, and Racialized Medicalization Mexican Immigration and US Public Health Practices in the 20th Century,” all prospective braceros got “chest x-rays to check for tuberculosis, serological tests to check for venereal disease, psychological profiling, and a chemical bath.” Following a typhoid fever outbreak among Mexican railroad workers in 1916, the American public health system tended to perceive Mexican immigrants as threats and carriers of diseases. Hence the “chemical bath”: all workers were coated in DDT, to kill anything that might be living on their skin or hair. It was a dehumanizing, dangerous practice. Even so, according to at least one oral interview stored on the Bracero History Archive, some braceros attempted to make light of it, looking at their white, powdery skin and announcing, “I guess we’re gringos, now.”
Though the Bracero program officially ended in 1964, similar legislation and programs carry on its legacies today. Since 1986, many U.S. employers have recruited foreign agricultural workers through a program known as H2-A, which differentiates itself from the Bracero Program by length of stay, standards of housing and services, and in that the program is meant only to be employed if domestic workers cannot be found – among other things. Yet still, the reality of the average migrant farmworker family can be harsh, and abuses are reported among H-2A workers and other farmworkers. Fortunately, AFOP Health & Safety and our partners have long been active in the fight to empower farmworkers nationwide with training on health, safety, and labor rights.
Just what became of Belinda’s family? Coming up soon, you’ll hear more about their life between two countries and the health issues which followed them home from the fields.
“The Bracero History Archive” http://braceroarchive.org/about
“The Bracero Program 1942-1964” http://www.unco.edu/colorado-oral-history-migratory-labor-project/pdf/Bracero_Program_PowerPoint.pdf
“Borders, Laborers, and Racialized Medicalization Mexican Immigration and US Public Health Practices in the 20th Century” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3093266/
“Braceros: History, Compensation” https://migration.ucdavis.edu/rmn/more.php?id=1112
“The Bracero Program” on Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bracero_program
“Evolution of the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement of 1942” https://www.jstor.org/stable/3740146