Article

Bracero Program

Gilbert G. Gonzalez

in Latino Studies

ISBN: 9780199913701
Published online March 2013 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0028
Bracero Program

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On the request of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the US federal government engaged in negotiations domestically, and eventually with the Mexican government in 1942, to establish a temporary contract labor program known as the Bracero Program. Established under Public Law 45 to overcome an alleged wartime labor shortage, the program brought Mexican labor to the United States. The men were recruited to work primarily in agriculture, although during World War II braceros also supplied railroad labor. The statute was renegotiated in 1951 as Public Law 78, but the basic program remained the same. Each contract was signed by the laborer, representatives of the employer, and the Mexican and US governments. Although there is no evidence that a domestic labor shortage existed during or after the war, the program functioned until 1964, when it came under severe and widespread criticism. Over those twenty-two years, 7.5 million contracts were signed and approximately four to five million men were contracted to work as temporary workers. Although braceros were sent to twenty-eight states, the vast majority were assigned to Texas and California. The system was organized to bring in labor for the harvest seasons, and then to return the workers to Mexico to await the next US harvest. Growers established their foreseen labor needs and passed the information to federal program administrators, who in turn informed Mexican officials. The Mexican government recruited braceros who, having been examined at emigrant worker stations in Mexico and declared physically fit for agricultural labor, were then transported into the United States for further evaluation. In the first years of the program, the men were recruited in Mexico City, but US employers found urbanites unsatisfactory and asked for workers from rural areas who were experienced in farm labor. Consequently, most recruiting took place in poor peasant villages, where the possibility of work seemed a wonderful opportunity. Entire villages virtually emptied of men, and women took over families and work in the fields. Supporters of the program suggested that braceros were ideal “stoop labor,” a common term for “farm labor.” Agricultural interests and government publications presented the Bracero Program to the public in positive terms. However, a number of studies demonstrated that braceros labored under harsh, exploitative conditions for low wages, often working sixteen-hour days in summer heat and being denied rest and drinking water. Employers found braceros to be cost effective: they worked productively for low wages, were accessible, and were returned to Mexico as soon as the harvest ended. Moreover, the braceros effectively lowered wages for domestic workers, displacing them in the process and preventing the organization of unions. Soon after implementation of the program, a rising number of undocumented workers, opprobriously called “wetbacks,” became a national issue. This conflict was ultimately resolved in 1954 through “Operation Wetback,” which steered men wanting work into the federal program. No study has shown that the program helped improve the Mexican rural economy, although agriculture in the United States expanded significantly during this time.

Article.  9558 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; US Cultural History

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