By Arcela Nuñez-Alvarez, Ph.D.
Practically every Mexican living in the United States today is a descendant of a bracero or knows one of these pioneers who were part of a massive population movement that tied Mexico and the United States. Unfortunately, neither the individuals who participated in the program nor the labor system the program created have received the attention deserved in either country. The documentary film, Harvest of Loneliness/Cosecha Triste, produced and directed by Gilbert Gonzalez, Vivian Price, and Adrian Salinas, sheds light on the existence of this important “guest worker” program and helps us to better understand the origin and dangerous implications of contemporary political plans seeking to reinvent and implement some sort of modern-day Bracero program to solve complex immigration and labor issues.
Cosecha Triste narrates previously untold stories of braceros like Juan Zarate and Jose Ezequiel Acevedo who came to work in the United States under the so-called Emergency Labor Program, popularly known as the Bracero Program. They were among approximately five million “healthy, happy, and helpful” Mexican men contracted to work in 24 states throughout the United States between August 4, 1942 and December 31, 1964. Enticed by the promise of earning quick money en el norte, these men paid 1,000 pesos to the Mexican government to enlist as contract laborers. If selected, they abandoned their villages and embarked on a historic journey north that paved the path for future migration and carved a revolving door for cheap and non-unionized labor to flow back and forth between Mexico and the United States to satisfy the desire of agricultural and other companies. As this labor system emerged, matured and evolved over the course of the 20th century, women and children were often left behind to engineer their family’s survival in impoverished villages and pueblos throughout Mexico.
Using powerful photographs and oral histories, the film chronicles the underlying social and economic conditions braceros and their families faced in their place of origin, along their journey north and in the United States. Widespread poverty and unemployment in Mexico’s rural communities created almost perfect conditions for the Bracero Program to work exactly as it was designed by U.S. companies – to supply cheap and steady labor. Despite grand promises of reform made to the Mexican peasantry after the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), rural, peasant, and Indigenous communities saw few, if any, improvements in their standard of living and social mobility. Having few other options, these campesinos saw a Bracero labor contract as a means to obtain employment to earn the money to buy the land and farm equipment they desperately needed to support their families. With great sadness they left their loved ones behind and ventured into uncharted futures, some never to return home again.
Bracero historiography has traditionally ignored or simplified the role women and children played in sustaining the program. Through oral history accounts, the film reveals a more complex history of families who experienced the Bracero Program. On one hand are the men who experienced and endured egregious violations of civil and human rights from the moment they left their villages. On the other hand are the women who are often portrayed simply as silent victims. The film provides a more nuanced portrayal of women and children who overcame tremendous distress created by this labor-related exodus. As Epifania Salgado, Lidia Cano Cano, and Victoria Maria de Jesus Carrillo recount, wives and daughters certainly were sad to see their husbands and fathers leave, but they kept on working, taking care of their children, educating their children and doing what needed to be done, even if they felt alone. When men entered into contracts and traveled to the United States, families continued to face serious deprivations. Salgado remembers her husband sent very little money back. The family was very poor. It was difficult for the families to survive but women assumed the leadership role that had been traditionally relegated to men and they managed to support their children.
The braceros were exposed to repeated and continuous violations of living and working conditions. At the Mexican government’s holding center in Empalme, Sonora, waiting to be transferred to California, many found themselves without a cent to buy food or pay for lodging. Instead, they often spent weeks stranded in this gateway pueblo where many gave up and decided to return home. At the border, they formed a line and were fumigated with toxic chemicals. After enduring intrusive physical and medical examinations, they were exposed to racism, deceit and exploitation. Recruiters selected the workers of their choice, looking for those they perceived to be timid, docile, and impoverished.
Despite labor contract protections guaranteed by the federal governments of Mexico and the U.S., braceros lived in abysmal conditions and unsanitary housing, ate poorly prepared food, worked at dangerous and at times life-threatening jobs without adequate health and safety measures, and had illegal deductions taken from paychecks. Additionally, they experienced widespread public discrimination. In the end, the terms of their contracts were not met and their rights were violated time and time again. Some braceros completed their contracts and returned to Mexico, others deserted their jobs, yet others returned later on their own.
Researchers such as UC- SD’s Dr. Wayne Cornelius are quick to point out that as an unintended consequence the program spurred the illegal entry of over a million Mexican laborers thus establishing migration paths for future generations. Knowledge of employment opportunities lured many more Mexican migrants to seek work in the United States after the formal Bracero Program ended in 1964. Impoverished Mexicans continue to risk their lives trying to get through the heavily fortified U.S.-Mexico border wall in search of the braceros’ dream: to make money and return home. In reality, the United States is now home for many of us who are descendants of these braceros. They paid a heavy price for entering into a contract that forever tied braceros and their families to the United States.
My grandfather, Raymundo Tinoco, and several of this brothers were among the first enlisted braceros in Huandacareo, Michoacan. Since the family was very poor, they had to borrow money to pay the mordida (bribe) that was required to enlist with the local recruiter or coyote who happened to be the town priest.
My grandfather traveled to Empalme and for several weeks he was empalmado, begging for crumbs and sleeping in a corral until he was called to line up to go to the border. Unfortunately, he failed the first medical examination because he had a rash on his back and was sent back to Michoacan. He returned hungry, broke and in debt because he still needed to repay the money he originally borrowed. It took him two years to pay what he owed but in 1947 he tried to come across one more time. He paid another 1,000 pesos and joined the listados (enlisted ones) who were heading north and successfully crossed to work in the cotton fields of Kansas and Arkansas. Less than 45 days after he had left his village, he returned home with only a sack of flour and a pair of shoes he bought from a peddler, no money. Again, he owed money and spent several years paying off his debt. Disillusioned and impoverished, he never returned to the United States. He dedicated the rest of his life to farming and often reminded his nine children that the whole thing was a scam. The workers, he used to say, are uprooted and suffer great injustices going back and forth but don’t make any money. These are things my grandfather told my mother. Everything she remembers him saying is documented in the film …
My father, Isidro Nunez, was part of the last wave of braceros. He enlisted in 1964 and came to the agricultural fields in California. Unlike my grandfather, he did not return to Michoacan…
Visit the Harvest of Loneliness/Cosecha Triste website at http://harvestofloneliness.com.
Arcela Nuñez-Alvarez, Ph.D., is the Director of the National Latino Research Center at California State University San Marcos and the granddaughter/daughter of Braceros.