On August 4, 1942, the United States government signed the Mexican Farm Labor Program Agreement with Mexico. The program, which was designed to legalize and control Mexican migrant farm workers, was largely brought about by farmers and ranchers who anticipated labor shortages because of World War II—thousands of men were either enlisting into the armed forces or were drafted into service. Under this agreement, which lasted uninterrupted from 1942–1964, farm hands were taken from poor rural communities in Mexico and brought to fields in the U.S., where they picked fruit and cotton until their contracts expired and they were forced back across the border. Most of the laborers, or braceros as they were called (“bracero” is Spanish for “arm man” or “helping hand”), were concentrated in the Southwest and California.
At the time, the Bracero Program presented a glimmer of hope to many impoverished Mexicans, and hard-working agricultural laborers poured across the Rio Grande. Pent up for days in “processing centers,” such as Fabens, situated in El Paso’s Lower Valley, the braceros were sprayed with white powder in order to “kill the Mexican fleas.” Eventually the U.S. farmers would arrive to select their workers. Braceros would typically work the fields from six in the morning until five in the evening; on weekends, they were expected to do yard chores and housework. The Bracero contracts guaranteed a minimum of thirty cents an hour, humane treatment, and adequate food, shelter, and sanitation. The contracts also stipulated that the braceros would not suffer discrimination; however, the contracts did not define discrimination or include any security measures against it.
During the first five years, Texas farmers chose not to participate in the program. In fact, in 1943 many Texas growers lobbied to weaken the terms of the agreement. These farmers feared that the terms of the agreement would eventually apply to seasonal workers across the board. Instead of using braceros, Texas farmers hired illegal immigrants, but the teeming supply of labor ultimately enticed Texans to participate in the program. By the end of the fifties, thousands of braceros were moving north to work on ranches and pick cotton on Texas fields.
Despite their valuable contribution to the state economy, braceros weren’t treated with respect. They often faced discrimination and abuse. Braceros had limited access to toilets, which wrought dysentery, and they had limited access to places where they could bathe. As a result, the braceros remained in a state of squalor and were refused entrance into or service in public places such as cafes, barbershops, and theaters, many of which were marked with signs that read, “No Mexicans.” The braceros didn’t have much to live on; in fact, most of them sent their earnings back home to Mexico.
Most of the workers upheld the requirements of the contract, but many did decide to stay illegally in the United States after their allotted time was up. Those who did go back to Mexico often returned to the fields and ranches of America as illegal immigrants. The mechanical cotton harvester and the increase in illegal agricultural workers reduced the need for the Bracero Program, which eventually ended in 1964.
The U.S. government worked to round up the remaining braceros in Texas and California and ship them back to Mexico. These efforts repatriated many, but not all of the braceros. Activists still struggle today to help braceros recover promised wages and benefits. More than sixty years after the program’s conception, the term “bracero” still ignites contention when politicians discuss reintroducing a guest worker program.