Originally posted online on Tuesday, August 3, 2010, at 11:58pm
This morning I sat, as usual, typing at the computer when our student walked into my office to file some papers….she bounced in like Tigger and said, “Hey Ms. Garcia I told my boyfriend that your parents were farm workers and you went to Cal. He asked if you were in the Bracero Program?”
Ok, so when I stopped laughing and picked myself up off the floor, I saw that she was dead serious. I said, “Let me put it this way, “No, but my grandfather was.”
The Bracero Program, which brought millions of Mexican guest workers to the United States, ended more than four decades ago. Most young people today know very little about the program, the nation’s largest experiment with guest workers. The Bracero Program’s name comes from the word, brazo, (arm) and means manual laborer.
The Bracero Program grew out of a series of bilateral agreements between Mexico and the United States that allowed millions of Mexican men to come to the United States to work on, short-term, primarily agricultural labor contracts. From 1942 to 1964, 4.6 million contracts were signed, with many individuals returning several times on different contracts, making it the largest U.S. contract labor program.
The Bracero Program was created by executive order in 1942 because many growers argued that World War II would bring labor shortages to low-paying agricultural jobs. In 1951, after nearly a decade in existence, concerns about production and the U.S. entry into the Korean conflict led Congress to formalize the Bracero Program with Public Law 78.
The Bracero Program was controversial in its time. Mexican nationals, desperate for work, were willing to take difficult and labor-intensive jobs at wages scorned by most Americans. Each contract also had built-in safeguards to protect both Mexican and domestic workers for example, guaranteed payment of at least the prevailing area wage received by native workers; employment for three-fourths of the contract period; adequate, sanitary, and free housing; decent meals at reasonable prices; occupational insurance at employer’s expense; and free transportation back to Mexico at the end of the contract. My mom has a copy of my grandfathers contract.
Employers were supposed to hire braceros only in areas of certified domestic labor shortage and were not to use them as strikebreakers. In practice, they ignored many of these rules and Mexican and native workers suffered while growers benefited from plentiful, cheap, labor.
Unfortunately, not all of this immigration was legal. While the Bracero Program allowed more people to find work in the United States, many farm-owners and employers continued to illegally employ undocumented workers with disregard to the Bracero Program because illegal laborers were more willing to work for lower wages. In 1949, approximately forty percent of the country’s migratory workers were illegal.
To stop this problem, the federal government initiated a program called “Operation Wetback” in 1950. The purpose of this program was to encourage undocumented workers to leave voluntarily and to deport them. While the Border Patrol forces used in this operation did not exceed seven to eight hundred men, they were able to seize an average of eleven hundred “wetbacks” each day. 1.1 million Mexicans were deported. This program continued until 1954.
Ten years later, the Bracero Program was also terminated after having legally and temporarily employed nearly 4.5 million Mexican laborers. From then on, immigrant workers were left with the options of obtaining citizenship, green cards that permit temporary employment, or a resident visa.
Now, between 1952 and 1953 my grandfather Vicente Vidaurri (1896-1973), came to know a rancher named Homer Dillon. He met the man as a Bracero and was contracted to work for him for two, three month periods. My grandfather was a landowner and rancher himself, in Mexico but wanted a better life for his family in the US. He brought a great deal of expertise with him and soon earned the trust and respect of the Dillon patriarch.
He was working in Donna, Texas and left his family in Mexico. He worked and they applied for passports to join him. Eventually, on April 23, 1953, he entered into a three-year contract with Mr. Dillon. The family still continued to apply for permission to join him and each year did not make it into the 12 thousand person quota. Each year they applied again. The contract ended on April 22, 1956, and on October 26 the family was allowed to join him. He was called an indentured servant on the contract.
My mother tells that she was 15 years old when she came to the US on her passport. In those days, her picture and that of her brother Francisco (also a minor) were located on the same passport as that of her mother, Gregoria, and her father, Vicente. The older children, Jose, Melecio and her sister Inez, had their own passports.
The family joined my grandfather after being registered and examined physically. My mother recalls the complete physical she endured. “It was like when you have a baby. The tell you to take off all your clothes and examine each part of you. They were looking for diseases, sexually transmitted ones.”
She negates having been fumigated like most of the men were in order to ensure that they were pest free. They were fumigated with DDT.
She recalls that she earned money by cleaning Mr. Dillon’s house for his wife, Irma. Mom recalls that the Dillons were very nice to her family. The Dillons had two older boys and no daughters. Mrs. Dillon spent a great deal of money on my mom and bought her dresses and other clothes. Mom laughs, “She even bought me shorts! Papá never let me wear shorts, so I had to hide them.”
When the contract was over, my grandfather continued to work with the Dillons about three more years. Eventually, the family left Donna, Texas and came to California around 1960.
My parents married in 1961 and I was born in 1962.
So I was never a part of the Bracero program (geez, how old does she think I am?), but it is a part of me.
Thanks for being my friends.