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

7. Are there any first hand accounts of the braceros in San Diego?

While official data and reports abound on the Bracero Program, there is almost nothing about the perspectives of the braceros themselves. How did they experience World War II in the United States? Amazingly there has not yet been a published collection of bracero stories. The account below tells of how one bracero, known only as Don Jesús, remembered his recruitment in Mexico and of his experience in the United States.

A Bracero Remembers: Don Jesús

When we heard that they were contracting workers to go to the United States we all wanted to go. I, however, could not go because I was a soldier in the Mexican army. I was the chauffeur of a general by the name of Anacleto López. But I really needed to go because I had a son that was ill, and I needed the money for his surgery. So I asked the general for permission to allow me to go. Laughing he said, "sure go try your luck" and so I came.

The year was 1942. My compadre José Manuel Sandoval and I went to the stadium in Mexico were we were to gather. There in the middle of a crowd we found ourselves been sprayed with hoses in order to stop a lice infestation. Boy they gave us quite a shower. The next morning the man in charge of the contracts, his name was Guillermo, came by and explained my situation. I told him I needed to go to the United States because of the illness in my family. He told me to go ahead and go to the United States and that once I was there to write him and he would send my son to Mexico so that he could receive medical attention.

So that happened and we soon found our selves on our way to the United States. When we crossed the border at Ciudad Juárez, our hearts pounded wildly. We were afraid because we were in a totally strange country, and I had never really done any other kind of work but mine. They took José Manuel and me to Riverside near Colton. It was a long way from Ciudad Juárez to California. During the trip we entertained ourselves by counting the wagons on the trains that were going by with military equipment and personnel on their way to Europe. Sometimes the soldiers would wave at us and we waved back. The trains passed really closed to each other and sometimes the American soldiers would even give us a cigarette.

Colton was the location for the base of a military squadron but the squadron was not there. The men had been shipped out to Europe to fight in the Second World War, and we were housed there. It was nice and clean there, and we even had a catholic priest. He saw that most of us were Catholic, and he started to build a small shrine so that we could attend Mass on Sundays. However, not everyone attended to Mass. On Sundays, five buses would also arrive to take us to town to the movies or to drink wine. There was a lot of drinking, and sometimes-even fancy women would come to take the money from the braceros and things would get very wild.

Buses arrived early in the day to take us to work. There was about twenty of us per bus. They would take us to some groves to pick Oranges. There, we had to put one ladder on top of the other to reach one or two oranges that were way on top of the trees. Sometimes, however, they would take us to Japanese groves, and there the trees were really short but falling over full of oranges. We were given cutters to cut the oranges; but some, in order to go faster, would just pull the fruit from the tree. I did everything as I was told, and it helped me get along with my boss, and thus I soon became a driver. That was a lot easier, and I even had a helper.

The end of our contract came in 1944, and Rogelio tried to convince me to go to Canada. Work was good there he said. But I had completed my contract and my son had already received the surgery he needed, so I decided to go back to Mexico. If I had wanted to stay, I could have stayed in the United States. The bosses there wanted me to stay because I was also a mechanic. Nevertheless, I had made my decision; I was worried about my son and wanted to go home. Boy, I remember how the trip to the border seemed endless. The train did not seem to go as fast as when they brought us into the United States. That’s the way it always seems when one is coming home. We had some hard times, but we had to better our selves. What could we do? But I had no desire to go back. That was my luck.

Don Jesús did not return to work in the United States after the war but he did return in 1997 to live with his daughter in San Diego where he died on January 2001. A large number of braceros "skipped" their contract and remained in the United States after World War II. Here they married, had families and their children, Mexican Americans and Chicanos became part of an expanding Mexican heritage population in the U.S.