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World Association of International Studies

Post What Killed the Bracero Program? "Harvest of Shame"
Created by John Eipper on 09/08/19 4:08 AM

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What Killed the Bracero Program? "Harvest of Shame" (Richard Hancock, USA, 09/08/19 4:08 am)

As an answer to John E's question of what caused the Bracero program to be closed, I cite from my WTHA presentation in 2016.

"It seems difficult for our country to seek a middle ground. The Bracero program was not perfect, so why could we not make improvements so that we would continue to enjoy its benefits today?

"Critics were mostly labor unions, who discourage any type of non-union activity. Other complaints came from the Catholic Church, stating that the workers were separated from their families for long periods.

"The most common complaint was that farmers could have plenty of labor if they would only pay a living wage. Some of the most devastating complaints came from US TV programs, which seem to prosper from exaggerating problems in any matter that they report. One such report , 'The Harvest of Shame,' produced by CBS TV, was the final nail in the coffin of this program."

We cannot exempt farmers from all blame. Some of them bitterly opposed any attempt to raise bracero wages.

JE comments:  The Bracero program seems to have been opposed from both Left and Right, with human rights activists and nativist zealots attacking for different reasons.  The UFW (United Farm Workers) emerged at the same time, in 1962.  Richard, were the Braceros specifically excluded from unionizing?

"Harvest of Shame" with Edward R Murrow (1960), "one of the most celebrated documentaries of all time," is on YouTube.  I must watch it:



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  • Bracero Workers and Unionization (Richard Hancock, USA 09/10/19 7:39 AM)
    John E asked if the guest-worker Braceros were specifically excluded from unionizing.

    The bracero contract did not mention unionization. The program was administered under the Migrant Labor Agreement of 1951. The duration of the contract was six months which could be renewed for up to 18 months.

    The contract consisted of the following main items:

    1. The bracero must not receive less than the prevailing wage, and domestic workers must not be displaced by migrants.

    2. The bracero received complete on-the-job accident health and disability protection at the employer's expense, and the employer provided full non-occupational health and life insurance, which was partly paid by the bracero.

    3. The employer guaranteed work for at least three-fourths of the contract and for 64 hours in any two-week period. Workers were paid $1.50 a day for every 8 hours or fraction thereof short of this guarantee.

    4. The bracero was guaranteed housing equivalent to that given to local labor as specified in state housing legislation.

    5. Compliance with the contract was enforced by the Labor Department representatives with a provision that for a joint Mexican-US government investigation where such investigation was requested by the Mexican Consul.

    There was no attempt at unionization of farm workers in New Mexico and Texas, but I know that this was not the case in California where unionization was attempted but mostly without much success. The braceros were quite content with the wages that they made in New Mexico, since they could earn a wage that was roughly 10 times what they could earn in Mexico. Moreover, in New Mexico there was almost no racial discrimination against them, since about half of the population, including farmers, were Hispanics and in Las Cruces and Mesilla where there was a strong Mexican influence, including Mexican food, Mexican music and many important political positions were occupied by Hispanics.

    It is estimated that each bracero sent an average of $275 per year to his home, which amounts to a total of $120,000,000 annually. In 1956, more money was derived from bracero earnings than from any other activity in Chihuahua except mining, cotton-growing and beef cattle production. Most important of all, illegal entries had almost disappeared.

    There were strikes, but I and my assistant, a Hispanic named Apodaca, were able to solve them quite easily in most cases. I could describe many of these efforts, but will limit myself to just one. An Anglo farmer called me saying that his 20 braceros wanted to go home despite the fact that the cotton-picking was good and they were earning $8.00 per day. I asked the braceros why they wanted to go home. They replied vaguely that they needed to prepare land for the next spring's planting. I said, "Men, this doesn't make much sense. You went to all of the trouble of getting up here and now, after only few weeks of work, you want to go home."

    At the time I smoked cigars, and as I considered this problem, I took out a cigar and began to feel in my pocket for a match. A tough-looking bracero snapped at a meek little man, "Light the Patrón's cigar." I immediately saw what was going on and asked the farmer to send the tough guy off to do something. When he was gone, the other men admitted that he was the problem and that he mistreated him. The farmer was aghast at this and said, "When he comes back, we will straighten him out." They said, "That is OK for you to say but this man lives in our home town and he is a bad man and has killed several men, so it is best that we just go home."

    When the bully returned, I said, "Get your stuff, you are going with me." He replied, "What's the matter, Patrón?" I said , "Nothing, I am transferring you to another farm, and I don't want you coming back to this farm for any reason." I placed him with an Hispanic farmer who wanted only one bracero, and I never heard of this bully again and the braceros stayed with the farmer and completed the harvest.

    I can still see the braceros in my mind's eye as I saw them then--lean and strong men in the prime of life, inured to the hardships of long, hard labor under the burning sun. As my friend Abe Garcia, our local Labor Dept. representative said, "Da gusto ver esta gente!"  (What a pleasure to see these good people.)

    JE comments:  I have an image of Richard Hancock puffing on his cigar--possibly astride a horse?  Nobody chronicles the twentieth-century Old West with Richard's flair.  This is a great story.  Gracias, Patrón.

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    • Heat-Shimmer at a Line in the Sand: Gary Moore Reflects on the US-Mexico Border (John Eipper, USA 09/12/19 5:03 AM)

      Gary Moore writes:

      Even as Brexit clamors, Richard Hancock's new post (September 10) on something
      far away--the Bracero Program, and hence the global riddle of illegal immigration--is a quietly stunning look at lost history, lost opportunity, nearly lost sanity.

      It pairs unexpectedly with my own 1999 Mexico article (September 9) that JE
      fitly suggested was a window onto once-upon-a-time US-Mexico future promise
      that could not be. The old line in the sand drawn by Rio Grande, Monument One
      (and allegedly by a drunken Gadsden Purchase surveyor), had an organicity only implicitly separating Haves from Have-Nots. More immediately it sliced (as drafters
      may have consciously considered) between ungovernability and (north of the line)
      a Wild West that could eventually be passably governed. The lost history peeking
      from Richard's vivid authority and my own 1999 glibness unmasks a disowned split
      in liberal thinking that seeks to rescue Mexico--a split between promising practicality
      (like Richard's wry removal of the bracero bully), and authority-hating shouts that
      destroy (as Bracero-like approaches were destroyed in the euphoria of the 1960s, a
      euphoria including Vietnam).

      Also masking was "the Mexico narrative," portraying
      a halcyon Mexico climbing naturally to developed status after World War II--though
      the 2000s would reveal that periodic colossal holes in this narrative were in fact
      the real story: not a skyrocketing into full development but a steady state of slow
      burns of ungovernability, with the old bandido hordes of the nineteenth century
      being not such an ancient exception after all. By all indications, Mexico will indeed
      continue to shudder toward greater prosperity and stability, but amid the towering
      ungovernability challenges that can either be happily masked or disastrously attacked.

      Euphoria didn't ask for this.

      JE comments:  Euphoria never stops to think.  Gary Moore's reflection on Mexico reminds me of Istvan Simon's conference presentation at WAIS 2009.  (Can that have been 10 years ago?)  Istvan described his native Brazil as the "nation of the future" for the last century or more.  The future for Brazil briefly seemed to have arrived for a decade in the early 2000s--but now things have returned to their traditional dysfunction.

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      • US Aid vs Remittances to Mexico, Central America (Timothy Brown, USA 09/14/19 4:29 AM)
        A bit of data might help with the discussion on borders and immigration.

        In 2018 US Consulates in Mexico issued 9 million non-immigrant visas, plus 1.3 million Border Crossing Cards. More than a half-million of the NIVs were temporary worker visas (today's braceros).

        The number of legal crossings from Mexico into the US were more than 300 million, most of them shopping trips.

        In 2018, according to Central Bank Data published by The Dialogue, family remittances to Mexico totaled $33,470,000,000.

        Central American countries also received remittances from the US:

        Costa Rica $ 531 m.

        El Salvador $ 5466 m.

        Guatemala $ 9288 m.

        Honduras $ 4751 m.

        Nicaragua $ 1.501 m.

        Total +/- $ 21.5 b.

        US foreign aid to Mexico and Central America runs $ 750 m. to $ 1 billion a year.

        JE comments:  There's no question that remittances accomplish far more than direct aid, which as Tim Brown pointed out recently, is often wasted:  "Poor people in rich countries giving money to rich people in poor countries."  Remittances are not very useful for major development projects though, such as water and roads.  Gary Moore recently discussed Chicago's "Hometown Clubs," which pool money for infrastructure projects in Mexico.  Tim, can you give us some other examples?

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