September 26, 2003

The other soldiers

Little-remembered treaty sent 300,000 sons of Mexico to the United States during WWII; their weapons were their labor-hardy bodies

Alfonso Lara
In memoriam

By Violeta Dominguez

The battlefield wasn’t the only place where Mexicans lent their services during World War II.

In spite of the fact that few remember, the North American home front counted on the help of nearly 300,000 servicemen known as “soldiers of the furrows and the railroad”: the laborers.

The United States and the Mexican governments signed an agreement on July 23, 1942 that allowed the U.S. to temporarily employ Mexican workers to man the agricultural industry and for the upkeep of the railroads.

The first workers to be hired for the “Mexico-United States Borrowed Workmanship Program,” better known as “The Labor Worker Program,” arrived in Stockton, Calif., on Sept. 29, 1942. Hopeful in knowing that they would be paid in U.S. dollars, in addition to being able to explore a new country while helping the fight for democracy, thousands of Mexicans, mostly youth, went to the recruitment centers.

The had to overcome their fear of being drafted as soldiers: in the beginning “people didn’t want to go,” recalls J. Pablo Miramontes, “because they were afraid of the war.”

Rumors that the laborers would be sent to the battlefield were widespread; J. Concepcíon Trejo remembers that people would remark: “you’re not coming back,” resulting in many abandoning the train before crossing the border. Regardless, many ventured to work in a country they knew little about, other than what they had seen in movies and heard from others. For the most part, those hired to work as laborers had never traveled outside their birthplace, like J. Pablo Miramontes, a native of Zacatecas, Mexico, who had never even been to the capital of his state and who was sent to work as a laborer in Wisconsin.

The working conditions for the laborers varied, but generally they would work eight to 10 hours a day and had weekends off. Their quality of life was just as uncertain; some lived comfortably in apartments or small houses near the worksites, while others lived in the barracks or camps that were poorly adapted to accommodate the Mexican workers.

California, Montana, Washington, Colorado, Michigan and Arizona were some of the states that hired a large number of labor workers. The Mexican government prohibited the employment of laborers in Texas during wartime because of prevalent discrimination. In spite of the efforts by the government to protect against such acts, Mexican workers were not exempt to racist treatment. Such was the case with Mariano Chores in Minnesota, for example, who was thrown out of a bar and cantina for being Mexican.

To the laborers, these discriminatory attitudes were a contradiction of the heroic roles they played as “soldiers of production,” “soldiers of the furrows and the railroad”: “even though we were not sent to war,” says Genaro Cortes, “we were working for those who were sent off.”

“We weren’t workers, we were soldiers” recalls Juan Saldaña.

The following is a sample of testimonies by a few of the Mexicans who were contracted to take part in “The Labor Worker Program,” between 1942 and 1946.

* * *

‘We were soldiers of agriculture and of the railroad’

Mariano Chores was born in Santa Clara Coatitla, Mexico; at 24, married, and with two children, he decided to work as a laborer; his impulsive spirit led him to want to know more about the United States. In 1943, he arrived at a ranch in Oslo, Minn., where he worked picking beets. Upon completion of the job, he renewed his contract and was sent to Arizona where he harvested asparagus, broccoli, potatoes and carrots for packaging. During that time, he subscribed to La Opinion, a newspaper that kept him abreast of the latest developments in the war. He regrets that in many cases, discrimination impeded the North Americans to realize how important a role the laborers played: “we were soldiers of agriculture and of the railroads . . . but we were never recognized as such.” Discouraged by the discrimination he encountered and with a strong desire to be reunited with his family, he returned to Mexico in 1946.

* * *

“Our title was soldier”

Maximo Butanda lived in Mexico City in 1943 when he decided to go to the laborers recruiting center. Originally from Guanajuato, and a shoemaker by trade, he received a contract that allowed him to work near Indio, Calif. There, he harvested beets and worked in a nut-packaging plant. On his time off, Maximo and some of his co-workers would visit Los Angeles; returning from one of his excursions to L.A., he was involved in an automobile accident that fractured his hand, which left him hospitalized for nearly three months. Despite his misfortune, Mr. Butanda remembers the time he spent in the United States fondly: “we were hired as laborers . . . but our title was soldier,” he affirms that he and his co-workers were always treated kindly and were never subject to discrimination. After spending nine months in California, he returned to Mexico and sought treatment on the hand that continued to ail him.

* * *

‘They practically begged because people didn’t want to leave’

For J. Pablo Miramontes, becoming a laborer afforded him the opportunity to leave Momax Zacatecas, his birthplace, for the first time. “I had never left the small town,” he recalls, which made his train ride to Wisconsin in 1944 a great adventure. Based on the comments he heard from others, he imagined the United States as being “a large city without any fields.” He remembers that others in his small town weren’t as excited at the notion of becoming a laborer: “they practically begged because people didn’t want to leave”; but he wasn’t afraid, and as a result he was hired to work 11 months as an apprentice on the railroad for Chicago, Milwaukee and Pacific Company.

* * *

‘Soldiers of war in agriculture’

At 21, Aurelio Torres, of Penjamo, Guanajuato, decided that the best way to financially support his family would be to secure a contract as a laborer. In spite of his young age, Aurelio departed to the United States to work in Sydney, Mont., on a farm/ranch that harvested beets. Subsequently, he was transferred to Minnesota where he harvested corn and peas for packaging. After a stint in Colorado and Iowa, he returned to Mexico in 1943, where he accepted a railroad apprenticeship for Southern Pacific in Caliente, Bealville and Tahachapi, Calif. His performance on the job led to a promotion as a steward’s assistant. He fondly remembers the time he spent as a laborer, except for one unfortunate incident in Colorado when a friend of his was subjected to racist treatment at a restaurant where he was denied service. He recalls being angered, because, after all, “we were soldiers of the war in agriculture.”

* * *

‘For me, it was an adventure’

Nahum Mosso, now 80 years old, remembers the months he spent as a laborer as happy time in his life. Born in Tlapa, Guerrero, Mr. Mosso worked for the Secretary of Foreign Affairs when he obtained his contract as a laborer; this led him to the work camps of a railroad company in Portland, Maine, where he arrived on Christmas in 1943. He remembers that upon their arrival, they were greeted with festivities. He also recalls the living quarters being stocked with all the necessities and never enduring any form of discrimination. He’s reminded of the friendships he forged with some North Americans who lived near the work camps and how the time spent there was “an adventure.”

* * *

‘We weren’t workers, we were soldiers’

After hearing others talk about working in the United States, and about the profits gained by those who chose to “go north,” Juan Saldaña decided that the best way to financially support his family would be to obtain a contract as a laborer. Intent on saving enough money to allow him to better his life and the lives of his mother and siblings, Mr. Saldaña went to the recruitment office where he landed a contract working for Pennsylvania Railroad. He remembers that on the train to the United States, other laborers couldn’t help to think of the risk of being drafted and having to be sent to participate in the war. “Many of them wanted to go back.” However, for him it was clear that being a laborer meant being a soldier, not on the battlefield, rather, on the home front. Because of that he says, “we weren’t workers, we were practically soldiers, because we were replacing the soldiers.”

(Violeta Dominguez conducted these interviews as a student at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, as part of her bachelor’s thesis.)

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