Chapter 8: World War II and the Emerging Civil Rights Struggle

6. Who were the Braceros and what was their experience?

One consequence of the war was to formalize the legal immigration of hundreds of thousands of Mexicano workers in the Bracero Program. This program had two consequences for the struggle for civil rights. First, it increased the numbers of Mexicanos who came to live in San Diego and elsewhere because many braceros did not go back to Mexico and many more crossed into the U.S. without documents because of the unmet demand for farm laborers. Second, the Bracero Program heightened the awareness of labor union activists and others concerned with labor rights about the injustices and exploitation that the program seemed to encourage. The campaign to eliminate the Bracero Program began with Mexican American activists in the 1950s who saw in it a business-controlled effort to keep wages low for all Mexican workers.

The program began during World War II when the United States government signed an agreement with the Mexican government to allow for the temporary migration of contract workers. The Bracero Program was conceived of as an emergency wartime measure but was renewed after the war and continued until 1964, providing a huge stimulus for Mexican immigration to the United States. During the Bracero Program almost five million Mexican workers came to the United States. Some scholars suggest that the Bracero Program established the contours of modern Mexican immigration flows and gave rise to the social, political and cultural issues that dominate discourse over immigration in the present. California’s powerful agribusiness sector was involved early on with the recruitment of Mexican labor. A newspaper article in September 1942 read, " The first contingent of Mexican field workers assigned to alleviate U.S. farm labor shortages will be on route to California beet and cotton fields." Locally, San Diego also faced labor shortages that were alleviated by the Bracero Program. San Diego County farmers filed a request for the importation of three hundred Mexican agricultural workers on January 29, 1943. In Oceanside, Harold E. Person chairman of the Corporation’s board and one of the county’s largest strawberry growers himself asked for fifty workers. Some experts estimated that the local agricultural industry needed as many as 1500 workers late early in 1943.

Legally, the braceros were to be paid a specified minimum wage, receive basic amenities, and to work only at agricultural jobs. But bracero workers complained of violations of wage agreements, substandard living quarters, exorbitant charges for food and clothing, and racist discrimination. On the other hand, growers liked the Bracero Program and constantly lobbied for its continuance. Growers used braceros to break strikes and to lower wages, and they could dispose of workers when they were done.

The bracero camps became a special kind of Mexican community in many rural areas of the Southwest. As a camp they were segregated from whites and even from the Mexican American sections of town. Braceros lived in extreme poverty and worked in dangerous conditions. When they ventured outside the camps on weekends they frequently were the victims of racially inspired beatings and robberies. The wages they were paid were low, in comparison to those paid to Mexican American workers; hence, there was some animosity when braceros were used in the place of local workers, or when they were illegally used to break strikes.

The braceros were not entirely complacent in their acceptance of their role. In May 1944, for example, a group of braceros in Idaho went on strike demanding better wages and talk of a bracero strike spread throughout the Pacific Northwest. After the war the Bracero Program continued to be a thorn in the side of organized labor and an example for many Mexican Americans of how their labor as farm workers was devalued. Criticism of the program based on humanitarian and economic grounds led by Ernesto Garlarza during the 1950s eventually helped end the program.