Braceros in Texas

Cruz Leon Martinez was just a newlywed when he was approached by his friends with a way to earn extra money. He and five of his friends traveled to Mexico City to obtain contracts for agricultural work in America. They each began work as braceros on May 8th, 1943. Martinez travelled by train for a week until he reached his contracted location. Once there he was tasked with picking beets. He recalls living in a metal warehouse with approximately 200 other men. Once the men were finished clearing one farm of its crops, they would be moved to another. This continued until winter came and the men’s work contracts had been completed. Martinez admits that he never read over his contract before starting work, but realized at the end of his four and a half months of work, he had only received payment for three months. Martinez returned to Mexico until his second contract started. This time, he and his friends were treated like “little donkeys” by the ranch owners. He and six men lived in a small, one bedroom house with no bathroom. They used hoses outside to wash themselves at night.[1]

Rafael Morales Medoza left his wife in October of 1950 to search for work in “the north”. He recalled his bracero work as “hard” and described bending over, using shorthand hoes, to work mile long rows of crops. With a smile, Morales then told about his new employer taking all the workers to town in the back of his pickup and buying them hamburgers.[2] Many men like Cruz Leon Martinez and Rafael Morales Mendoza possess both difficult and rewarding memories of the Bracero Program, yet these testimonies and secondary researchers have shown that the program created many strong ties between the United States and Mexico and it is overall seen positively by former guest workers.

The entrance of America into World War II created a need for agricultural workers. Guest worker programs between Mexico and the United States were not a new occurrence. Previously, Mexican migrant workers experienced severe mistreatment and were left stranded when their work contracts expired. However, negotiations between Mexico and the United States changed under the Good Neighbor Policy; Mexico was put on equal footing to the U.S. and in a prime position to ensure their demands were met. This allowed the country to get more of what it was expecting out of the program and take a step in the right direction of a strong relationship with the United States.[3] Past guest worker experiences and the bolstering of the Good Neighbor Policy fueled Mexican policy makers in negotiations for the “Agreement between the United States of America and Mexico Respecting the Temporary Migration of Mexican Workers,” or more commonly known as, the Bracero Program. Mexico specifically stipulated that the United States would pay for transportation, living expenses, and repatriation of all bracero workers. It was also a requirement that Mexico be able to suspend the program in states where migrant workers were being mistreated and expectations of the program were not being met. The Bracero Program officially began on July 23, 1942.[4]

Deborah Cohen, an American historian who examines social inequalities in Latin America , argues that one expectation from Mexico was to send migrants to the U.S. to experience the modernization there and bring it back to Mexico. The hope was for workers to “learn modern farming techniques and work ethic”. The program started less than three decades after the Mexican Revolution, with Mexico still in a nation building phase. Workers were encouraged to consume American goods like radios and televisions and American clothing, in the hopes that it would increase industrialization in Mexico.[5] Workers from the Rio Vista Farm, a bracero processing center in Socorro, Texas, recall the guest workers returning home with bicycles, sewing machines, and other modern technology strapped to the tops of the buses returning to Mexico.[6]

As part of Mexico’s negotiations, it could exclude states from the Bracero Program based on mistreatment of workers. For the first five years of the program, Texas was excluded from because of their long history of discrimination towards Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. The blacklisting of Texas from the program was a political stance for Mexico, defending her honor after the longstanding negative relationship between Texas and Mexico citizens. However, rather than comply with Mexico’s requirements, the Texas blacklist led to illegal immigration, which held no expectation of fair treatment or wages for migrant workers.[7] Changes to the guest worker agreement in 1943 allowed direct recruitment of workers at the Mexican border. This removed the U.S. government from the process, allowing for little to no accountability for farmers to comply with the program’s requirements.[8]

Hopeful bracero workers gathered en masse at the Ciudad Juárez recruiting center, directly across the Mexican-American border from El Paso, because historically, workers were hired more quickly from recruiting centers. On October 13, 1948 border patrol officers opened the gates, letting in thousands of undocumented workers. The El Paso Incident, as this event became known, undermined Mexico's ability to negotiate with the United States and left these workers without protection of the Bracero Program. As undocumented migration, increased Mexico pushed for harder restrictions on growers for employing undocumented workers and for increased border patrol. This only increased the efforts that these workers would go to find work in the United States, and also undermined the program because the employers did not have to comply with the measures set in place by the Bracero Program. To protect undocumented workers, they were quickly placed under bracero contracts, even though Texas was technically banned from the program,thus, making Texas eligible for participation in the Bracero Program.[9]

Francisco Uviñvo joined a caravan of buses from San Luis de Cordero, Durango to Chihuahua City, Mexico in 1953, to register for the Bracero Program. Uviñvo’s first memories of Texas were of the fumigation lines at Rio Vista Farm, one of five bracero processing centers in Texas. Upon arrival, braceros underwent medical examinations to ensure their fitness for labor. After waiting months at recruitment centers, receiving a contract, and being transported to America, migrants still ran the risk of getting turned away because of these examinations. One former bracero recounted, “Well dressed and well spoken men” were rejected. Many recall being asked to remove all their clothing in order to be sprayed with DDT to prevent the spread of lice. When Uviñvo and his family were invited back to Rio Vista Farm for a 75th anniversary celebration of the Bracero Program in 2017, Uviñvo was very hesitant and told his family “you don’t know what they did to us there”. The majority of negative memories about the program come from these medical examinations.[10]

Mistreatment and harsh conditions from employers was not forgotten, but as a general theme, former braceros focus on their hard work and rewards from their experience in the program. Many are proud of the work they did and the lives that they were able to build for their families. Contrary to what Cohen expected from interviews with former migrant workers, they did not focus on the unfair treatment and unmet expectations the bracero program promised, but recalled optimistically. The Bracero History Archive is brimming with stories of these former braceros’ children that share the story of the sacrifices their fathers made for their families upward mobility. Surveys conducted showed that the majority, over three-fourths of braceros, chose migrant labor for economic reasons, rather than to advance their farming knowledge, which was Mexico’s rationale for the program. The main migrants for the Bracero Program were rural farmers that would earn higher wages in America for the same type of job they were doing at home. With a rising population, Mexico struggled to provide for its people. At the height of the bracero program, remittances made up a third of Mexico’s economy. In the program's peak year of 1957, half a million men sought out the program for employment. In the lifespan of the program, five million braceros were contracted for work, not including the approximate three million undocument migrant workers. The favor of Mexican migrants of the Bracero Program can be seen through its popularity, longevity, and economic benefits to Mexico.[11]

The Bracero Program officially ended in 1964. By that time, American farmers had begun using large machinery to take the place of manual labor.[12] Many former braceros possess difficult memories from this time; yet, it cannot be denied that just as many have a great sense of pride for the work they did for the program. These men contributed to the war effort by keeping the agriculture economy stable, sent remittances and occasionally consumer goods back for their families, and many earned enough extra money to create new and better lives for their growing families. The largest contribution the braceros had was a continued relationship with the United States.