Cameron Holt's paper won the HistoryLink.org Junior Paper award for her 2012 essay submitted in the Washington state History Day competition. Cameron was a student at Housel Middle School in Prosser, Washington, and her advisors were Brock Buttars, Michelle Hall, and Dean Smith. We are very proud to present here her essay on the Bracero Program, which from 1942 to 1964 permitted Mexican citizens to take temporary agricultural work in America.
The Bracero Program
About a year after the United States entered World War II, the Bracero Program revolutionized the way America dealt with the labor shortage which occurred as a result of American men leaving to serve in the war. The United States and Mexican governments made an agreement that permitted Mexican citizens to take temporary agricultural work in America. During this time period, there were several applicable temporary-worker laws that provided oversight to the program, such as Public Law 45. America and the Mexican workers faced an emotional reaction to the working and living conditions of the temporary workers. This reaction led to major reforms in laws supporting guest-worker programs and social reform in how Mexican workers were treated, which created better living conditions with minimum standards. Several organizations and leaders such as Caesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers of America help lead these reforms.
The Bracero Program, which existed from 1942 to 1964, introduced into history one of the most significant temporary worker programs in the world. In 1942 the applicable law was "wartime" law and in 1946 the relevant law presiding over the formal Bracero Program was Public Law 45. The program continued under various laws and administrative agreements until its formal end in 1964, with Public Law 78 being the last law to provide government regulation.
The word bracero means "strong arms." It is further defined by the strong work ethic and hard physical labor of the Mexicans who came to America. The workers were named braceros because they were the "strong arms" of the program. Braceros had to be licensed, meaning they were registered with the Farm Service Administration, assigned to employers, and required to carry laborer identification at all times. (See Appendix I) The Bracero program has been recently revised as a model for proposing modern guest worker programs, with the most recent version by President Bush's administration in 2006.
Although, a modern guest worker program has not been adopted by the United States, there have been many attempts to introduce legislation that would create a system to help with needed labor. Specifically, agriculture continues to have jobs that are undesirable for Americans, and this leaves an industry short of much-needed workers. This demand for workers has informally brought more Mexican workers to the U.S. The U.S. is still trying to address the growing number of Mexican immigrants who seek work, the need for agriculture workers, political issues associated with immigration, and the social conditions of those workers.
The Challenging Life in America
A revolution is often defined as a turning point. The Bracero Program was definitely a turning point in history, for a few reasons. One was the working and living conditions for a specific group of people, and workers having to leave their families and their home country in pursuit of better financial prosperity. Another was they had to adjust to living in barracks, large buildings with many people together in temporary housing (See Appendix II). The men had to go to the restroom outside in outhouse-like buildings and couldn’t bathe due to lack of bath facilities in the barracks. The barracks lacked privacy for the people living there.
The braceros had to work long hours every day, even if the weather was terrible. The men didn’t get proper breaks during the day. Each and every day it became more difficult to assimilate into this new life in America. With the U.S. allowing men to come work here, many Mexican men saw a big opportunity to work and provide financial resources to support their families. Though the working men had to leave their wives and children, the prospects of the Bracero Program were better than the other option of not having the means to provide for their families. Mexico lacked employment opportunities; therefore, it supplied few resources to Mexican men choosing the Bracero Program as their future.
Meeting the Challenges
Mexican men from the Bracero Program began to organize to demand reform on living conditions, wage disparity, race discrimination, and other social issues. During this time, they began to organize groups to protest against the conditions and disparities. Around the United States there were protests and strikes. There was a successful public boycott on the lettuce and grape harvest led by the United Farm Workers of America. On October 1, 1947, the National Farm Labor Union (NFLU) launched a strike against the DiGiorgio Corporation in California, with over 1,000 strikers.
Some individuals rose as leaders in organizing the farm workers. Cesar Chavez was one of those leaders. Chavez was the founder and President of the United Farm Workers of America. Chavez and the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) fought for better working conditions. Chavez, well-known as a Mexican American labor leader, used nonviolent methods to fight for the rights of migrant farm workers in southwestern America. According to Chavez, "Non-violence is not inaction. It is not discussion. It is not for the timid or weak… Non-violence is hard work. It is the willingness to sacrifice. It is the patience to win."
Many working men protested for their rights alongside Chavez. The Mexican farm workers who stayed in the United States became "known as migrant workers because they followed the harvest from one area of the country to another" (Cesar Chavez). The UFW was the beginning to the end of bad working conditions and low wages. Eventually, the American government listened and passed laws to reform the rights of migrant farm workers.
Connection to the Northwest
Non-Hispanic men and Native American families were the first farmworkers to earn money in Washington State. In the 1890’s, large farms spread across Eastern Washington. The farms needed more working men to handle teams of horses and heavy equipment for plowing. Progress in farming escalated with the farmers and developers focusing in Central Washington with the help of irrigation projects after 1902. According to historian Erasmo Gamboa, "Yakima Valley agriculture needed 33,000 hired workers at the peak of the 1935 harvest." As more big farming operations spread across Washington, more Mexican men arrived to accept jobs on the farms.
By the 1940’s, farming was no longer the major industry for the Northwest. However, in Central and Eastern Washington, agriculture and farm labor jobs were still critical, especially during harvest. Following the beginning of World War II, the Bracero Program was launched by the American and Mexican governments as a way to address the need for temporary agricultural workers. Although the Bracero Program was very visible in the Pacific Northwest in general, it was more concentrated in California.
In the mid- to late 1940s, the Bracero Program expanded as a reaction to the shortage of labor because American men went to serve in the war (Calisphere, 2012.) This was evident as non-Hispanic labor decreased due to World War II enlisting more American men to help fight in the war, requiring farmers to look for other help like the Mexican contracted workers, or braceros.
[Editor's note: It was also the case that some 1,200 persons of Japanese ancestry had been expelled from the Yakima Valley and forced into internment camps during the war. Many of them were engaged in agriculture.]
Agriculture was important to help feed American families and soldiers. (See Appendix IV) This period marked the growth of Mexican farm workers and the opening source of progress of Mexican descendant population in the Pacific Northwest, specifically in Washington state.
The Bracero Program had a major impact on our country. During the Bracero Program timeframe, it became more evident that immigrant men were willing to work for low wages and accept poor working and living conditions for themselves and eventually for their families, while striving for the "American Dream," an opportunity to have employment to support their families.
It is imperative for people to learn about this era in history because we need to appreciate the hardships suffered by others to help our country during our time of need. The war brought a labor shortage because so many of our men were serving in the military, revolutionizing our approach to temporary guest worker programs. For our own state of Washington, this realization is especially critical because of our geography. We are still host to agricultural workers, largely of Mexican descent, who are closely tied to helping us work the large agricultural farms that our state relies on heavily for its economic growth.
This is especially important to me personally as I am bi-cultural, of Mexican descent. My great grandfather came to Washington state as a bracero, and hence began our American family history. I am amazed how far our reform has come to in just three generations of history. How fortunate we are that we had reform to improve working and living conditions, and we were able, for the most part, to retain this workforce that for many years endured much-needed but physically difficult labor. We are privileged that we don’t have horrible working conditions like those men lived through. The reaction to deplorable working conditions of Mexican workers in mid-twentieth century led to the reform in laws supporting guest worker programs.