Monday, April 29, 2013
History of the Working Class
The United States in the 1940s faced a labor shortage that was caused by thousands of Americans entering World War II. The U.S needed to rely heavily on its southern neighbor, Mexico, for agricultural labor. The Braceros program, which began in 1942 and ended in 1964, brought thousands of Mexican to work on farms and railroads in states like Texas, Washington, and California. Through an agreement between the U.S and Mexico, over 4.5 million workers1 were hired between these years. Although these Mexicans--or “Braceros”-- faced many hardships for short period of times, they came back changed both physically and mentally. Braceros, meaning “strong arms2” motivated many Mexicans a hope for a better future for themselves and their families. During the program, most Braceros culture and lifestyle changed significantly and brought great changes for themselves, families, and a different mindset for their future and that of their country, Mexico.
Like many ethnic groups in the U.S, Mexicans faced discrimination from Americans. Braceros filled the jobs of hard manual agriculture labor that Americans would not take and for low pay. American farmers had the belief that the Mexican body was capable of handling stoop labor. The idea that they could last in this type of position for long period of time comes from the Mexicans short physique, buff bodies, and willingness to work for a low wage. For this reason, Mexican held their identity and pride as Mexicans very high. Most Mexicans were sent to work in the farms of Texas, California, and Washington State. Although, the states where most Braceros worked were not far from the border, the cultural attachment to Mexico became stronger by the end of the program.3
The wages that were given to the Braceros were usually low. Wages would range from $0.30 to $1.20 an hour. Although these wages were considered very low, this was still very good pay for many Braceros comparing to how much they were paid in Mexico. One Bracero, named Jesus Campoya Calderon, acknowledges wages were low but more than enough to purchase a pair of Levi’s jeans. Mr. Calderon says "Sounds low, but then a pair of authentic Levi's pants cost $1.98...”4 Braceros came back to Mexico with many commodities that they could never afford. Many Braceros would bring back “regalitos”5 (gifts) back to those who contributed to them money to apply for the Bracero Program. The money earned in the Braceros program allowed purchasing commodities that they would have never hoped to purchase if they stayed in Mexico.
Recreational activities in the barracks that these Braceros lived helped them to get through the day. For the reason that there was electricity available in most small homes, Braceros would pool in money in order to purchase a TV or a radio. Television, at the time, only offered English channels which only few Braceros understood. Radio offered various Spanish speaking stations at certain times and would include music and news from Mexico. Other recreational activities would include table games, attending religious services, or educate themselves by reading books that were offered at the workplace6.
Crossing into the U.S, Bracero’s nutrition had a significant impact. Mexicans coming into the U.S had a very poor diet, most of which consist of one meal per day. The continuous labor in the field could have disastrous effects for those who did not consume sufficient energy. Meals for Mexicans, before coming into the U.S, needed to be accompanied by chiles, tortillas, and beans. Due to the agreement between Mexico and the United States, farms had to supply the Braceros with daily meals. Once in the U.S farms, Braceros diet consisted of yellow cheese, lunch meat, white bread, and vegetables. Noon meals consisted of a short snack, mainly a sandwich made of ham or bologna. Most Braceros dislike this type of meal and many refuse to eat what was available7. Although Braceros were given meal on behalf of the farms, many would wait Sunday--their day off-- to purchase food at the local market and cook for themselves. Other times farm owners, who were nice enough, would treat their workers outside to eat.
Being a Mexican-American, my mother would tell me a story about my grandfather, who happened to be a Bracero in the 1960’s in the state of Texas. My grandfather’s (who at that time was in his early twenties) employer decided to take a group of workers, including himself, to a restaurant to eat. This is one of the first few times that my grandfather has ever been to a restaurant. Once the food was delivered to the table, they were all handed silverware. My grandfather, who did not know how to use the fork and knives at that time, was embarrassed of himself. He decided to leave the restaurant and waited for the group to be finished outside.8
Like my Grandfather, many Braceros learned the lifestyle and culture of the United States. Before coming to the United States, Mexicans ate mostly with their hands. Braceros were taught how to use silverware and eat proper at the table. Upon leaving the U.S, Braceros came back with a whole new set of look, knowledge, and manners. Braceros first came with few clothes to wear, a sombrero (hat), and used cloaks as jackets. Braceros returns to Mexico with new sombreros, watches, and radios--something that they never hoped to afford.9
to make sure everyone was following rules. This demonstrated that the Braceros would do anything possible to keep their jobs and to have disciplines within themselves.
Braceros faced many new tasks, one that challenged their identity as men and their culture that they lived in Mexico. Mexicans have the belief that a man’s duty in life is to work and support the family at all cost. A woman’s duty is to take a care of the children, shop for household items, cook and clean for the family. Since the Bracero Program consisted of only males, many had to fulfill the duty of what women would do. Many workers had to go shopping on their days off, wash their own clothes, and cook meals for themselves. Many Few Braceros would refuse to wash their own clothes and hire cleaning services to do so10. Braceros started to feel foreign and out of place living in a culture that was entirely different.
Manuel Gamio, a Mexican anthropologist, studied the Braceros after the program and came to a surprising conclusion.11 He concluded that Braceros who worked through the program changed for the benefits of themselves and the country. One was that Braceros, who worked in the U.S, were more discipline when it came to working than those who did not come to the Bracero’s program. Another conclusions is that Mexican learned the techniques used in the farms and applied it back to their pueblos (towns) when they return home to Mexico. The last conclusion, the anthropologist Gamio found, was the strong bond Mexicans had to their country and the pride of being Mexicans12. This happened because Mexicans experience discrimination in the workplace.
In conclusion, most braceros apply to the program for an opportunity to gain money and be able to support themselves and families back home. Although the wages were low and faced discrimination, they earned a vast amount of knowledge. These experiences taught these labor works to have pride in themselvesthem as men, as Mexicans, and have faith in themselves. What these workers realize is the cultural impact this program had on their lives and on the lives of their loved one once they had arrived home.
1 Deborah Cohen, Braceros (North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press 2011).
2 Philip Martin, “The Bracero Program: Was It a Failure?” (History News Network 2006 Accessed March 19,2013) (http://hnn.us/articles/27336.html)
3 Deborah Cohen Braceros (North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press 2011) Chapter 1.
4 Carlos Merentes. “The Treatment of ‘Braceros’ in Texas.” Las Raices del Trabajador Agricola (Accessed March 20,2013) (http://www.farmworkers.org/testmony.html)
5 Deborah Cohen Braceros (North Carolina:UniversityCarolina: University of North Carolina Press 2011)190.
6 Deborah Cohen, Braceros (North Carolina:UniversityCarolina: University of North Carolina Press 2011) Border of Belonging, Border of Forgiveness
7 Deborah Cohen Braceros (North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press 2011)125.
8 Velazquez, Matilde. Interview with Eduardo Velazquez, 3/18/2013.
9 Deborah Cohen Braceros (North Carolina:UniversityCarolina: University of North Carolina Press 2011) 174
10 Deborah Cohen Braceros (North Carolina:UniversityCarolina: University of North Carolina Press 2011)126-128.
11 Deborah Cohen Braceros (North Carolina:UniversityCarolina: University of North Carolina Press 2011) 35.
12 Cohen,Debohra, Debohra Braceros (North Carolina:UniversityCarolina: University of North Carolina Press 2011) 36.