Looking Back At The Bracero Program From The 1940s To The 1960s Essay

Length: 6 pages Sources: 6 Subject: American History Type: Essay Paper: #31843274 Related Topics: Jim Crow Laws, Social Injustice, Social Inequality, American Dream
Excerpt from Essay :

¶ … Bracero Program and Social Inequality

The Bracero Program was a WW2 initiative decreed by Executive Order that allowed Mexican labor on U.S. farms. It was known as the Mexican Farm Labor Program and the purpose of this program was to ensure that labor shortages did not result in the agricultural sector in the wake of so many American men being drafted or volunteering for the war. The temporary usage of Mexican labor on American farms was meant to fill the gap. However, the Bracero program ended up lasting until 1964 because it afforded Big Agra the opportunity to use cheap labor -- and it ultimately ended up exposing a larger issue in the American social system: the inequality gap rooted in the racist doctrine of American culture. The Zoot Suit Riots in 1943 in Los Angeles, for instance, are one example of the chaos that ensued when Mexicans who had come to California under the Bracero Agreement mingled with military men in L.A. Tensions, in other words, were high -- and a clash of cultures was inevitable. On top of Jim Crow laws and the Jim Crow Army,[footnoteRef:1] the Zoot Suit Riots and the "cheap" labor that the Bracero program essentially fostered revealed a dark underbelly of the American landscape even as Americans went off to fight the "good war" abroad. [1: Maggi Morehouse, Fighting in the Jim Crow Army: Black Men and Women Remember World War II (NY: Rowman, Littlefield, 2007), 3.]

The Bracero Program's exploitation of Mexican labor is best seen in one of the surviving pay stubs of a Bracero worker. The pay stub of Guillermo Bernal shows that he worked for Arena Imperial Co. Growers and Shippers in Brawley, California in February, 1960. For 112 hours of work, he was paid $60.39.[footnoteRef:2] This was essentially 1940s wages in 1960 for a Mexican worker: Bernal made just over 50 cents on the hour for his field labor.[footnoteRef:3] (Still, any wage at all in 1940s America was nothing to sneer at).[footnoteRef:4] However, California had a history of exploiting the labor of others, as Fogelson notes: from the earliest days of the state, "the Indians, not the Californians, made up the labor force."[footnoteRef:5] But inequality was the nature of the system as John Kinloch saw all too well upon his arrival in Los Angeles in the 1940s.[footnoteRef:6] The Zoot Suits were everywhere among minorities looking to stand out and appear stylish. They clashed, however, with the trim, prim and proper appearance of United States naval men and Marines, who did not view the Zoot Suit wearers in L.A. as very respectful of the high-flying patriotism in American that the military servicemen thought should be evident everywhere at all times. The military men particularly disliked the ostentatious example that the Mexicans and the African-Americans in L.A. were displaying at the time. When they demonstrated their dislike by beating and violently assaulting Mexicans in the city, whom they identified by their Zoot Suits, the riot began, and it exposed a cultural divide that was overwhelmingly born of a racist outlook. As Mauricio Mazon notes, "Whether spurred by primitive Aztec rituals, Communists, Sinaquistas, or Anglos, the zoot-suiters were anathema. In late 1942, the zoot-suiters became the backdrop against which a changing array of actors were contrasted and brought into brief public prominence."[footnoteRef:7] In short, by judging the Mexican minorities by their external appearance, the fighting face of the U.S. military could turn an entire ethnicity into a punching bag. Essentially, this was merely an extension of what the U.S. government was already allowing growers and shippers to do, however -- and would allow them to do for two decades. Hostilities were expressed violently, as abroad so domestically. The Bracero Program took the lid of the "clean, white, respectable" veneer of Americanan and showed that the Almighty Dollar was number one when it came to Big Agra expanding profits and that racial purity was number two when it came to the American patriotism and pride. Respect, dignity, charity and brotherhood were ideas that had been displaced ever since the conclusion of the First World War. The time in between WW1 and WW2 was spent expanding credit sheets, blowing up bubbles, and dealing with the aftermath by attempting to unwind some of the less noble characteristics of the national character (such as the need...


The unwind failed to see much positive effect. [2: Elizabeth Bernal, "Guillermo Bernal Paystub," in Bracero History Archive, Item #3252, http://braceroarchive.org/items/show/3252 (accessed April 30, 2016).] [3: Sworzyn, Marilyn and United States. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Wartime Wages, Income, and Wage Regulation in Agriculture: Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, No. 883. Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1946,https://fraser.stlouisfed.org/scribd/?title_id=4338&filepath=/docs/publications/bls/bls_0883_1946.pdf, accessed on April 30, 2016.] [4: Dian Petro, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? The 1940 Census: Employment and Income," Prologue Magazine, vol. 44, no. 1 (2012). https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2012/spring/1940.html] [5: Robert Fogelson, The Fragmented Metropolis, (LA: University of California Press, 1993), 8.] [6: R. J. Smith, The Great Black Way: L.A. in the 1940s and the Lost African-American Renaissance (NY: Public Affairs Publishers, 2007), 26.] [7: Mauricio Mazon, The Zoot-Suit Riots: The Psychology of Symbolic Annihilation (TX: University of Texas Press, 1984), 28.]

The Bracero Program was a prop of social injustice in America: as Ronal Mize and Alicia Swords point out, "Anglo growers used race as a line of division within class blocs to ensure themselves a steady and cheap supply of Mexican immigrant labor."[footnoteRef:8] The white Anglo-Saxon protestant (WASP) stronghold on American business made exploitation easy and simple, as business and government merged over the decades in between the two World Wars. If WW2 was about fighting Fascists and Communists, it was a front: American government and business had been merging for decades and the Allies were bombing one of the only countries in Europe (Germany) actually fighting the Communists -- the U.S. on the other hand was allied with Stalin, leader of the largest Communist country in the world. Thus, in the 1940s when the Bracero Program was initiated, hypocrisy was everywhere, and the use of Mexican labor so that American agriculture could profit was just more evidence of the social corruption undermining the American Ethos and the so-called American Dream.

However, many Mexicans were themselves grateful for the work and for the opportunity to come to America and earn a wage, even if it was less than American citizens were making. Thus, it is no real shock to find Mexicans wearing their zoot-suits in L.A. in the 1940s -- they were happy to be alive and in America, taking part in the "Dream" that they had heard about (even if the "Dream" objectively speaking was more of an injustice and a nightmarish reality for many -- as the Zoot Suit Riots would reveal). But for workers like Gregorio Perez Rodriguez, whose story is preserved in the Bracero History Archive of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, the Bracero Program was an opportunity that he felt blessed to be a part of. Mario Perez states, "My father was a Brazero, he started out picking lemons and became a Foreman under Mr. Jenkins. My father went by the nickname 'Goyo,' his real name was Gregorio Perez. He was the first of his family to come from Mexico as part of the guest worker program, eventually bringing his 3 brothers (Alfredo, Daniel and Mauro) with him. My father died in 1962 at the age of 42, he was a hard working man and I miss him ... I am proud to be the son of a migrant farm worker."[footnoteRef:9] Such an early death of a hardworking Bracero indicates that the hard work definitely took its toll on the man -- but the gratitude, love and admiration expressed by his son indicates that the hard work was worth it: a family was fostered and love for life passed on to the next generation. So while some were consumed more by profits than by the care for people, here was one story of a Bracero whose history is rooted more in a care for people than a concern for profits. [8: Ronald Mmize, Alicia Swords, Consuming Mexican Labor: From the Bracero Program to NAFTA (CA: University of Toronto Press, 2011), 30.] [9: Mario Perez, "The lemons are Freezing!," in Bracero History Archive, Item #3229, http://braceroarchive.org/items/show/3229 (accessed April 30, 2016).]

Early deaths were not uncommon among the Braceros: the son of Manuel Lopez Hurtado, another Bracero, relates how his father died when he was only four, and how he had been a "cotton picker and worked mostly in Texas until his boss helped him and some other men immigrate and he then moved to McFarland, CA."[footnoteRef:10] In this story, the surviving member of the Hurtado clan tells how some Mexicans were actually helped by their bosses, which shows that not everyone was only concerned with profits at this time. Other narratives recalled the simple experience of being a Bracero, of eating "bologna with hamburger bread,"…

Sources Used in Documents:


Anonymous. "Manuel Lopez Hurtado, " in Bracero History Archive, Item #3228,

http://braceroarchive.org/items/show/3228 (accessed April 30, 2016).

Bernal, Elizabeth. "Guillermo Bernal Paystub," in Bracero History Archive, Item

#3252, http://braceroarchive.org/items/show/3252 (accessed April 30, 2016).
http://braceroarchive.org/items/show/3216 (accessed April 30, 2016).
http://braceroarchive.org/items/show/3210 (accessed April 30, 2016).
http://braceroarchive.org/items/show/3229 (accessed April 30, 2016).
Petro, Dian. "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? The 1940 Census: Employment and Income," Prologue Magazine, vol. 44, no. 1 (2012). https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2012/spring/1940.html
Income, and Wage Regulation in Agriculture: Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, No. 883." Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1946. https://fraser.stlouisfed.org/scribd/?title_id=4338&filepath=/docs/publications/bls/bls_0883_1946.pdf, accessed on April 30, 2016.

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