True Stories from the Bracero Era: Part II

[Editor's note: This is the second part of our two-part historical series on the Bracero program. For Part 1, click here.]

One would have expected the Bracero program to be terminated with the end of World War II. And indeed, the use of braceros on America’s railroads was ended in 1945, but the use of braceros in agricultural work not only continued after the war but expanded far beyond the numbers of workers used during the war; so much so that 1959 was the peak year for bracero entry into the U.S., reaching 444,000, ten times what it was in 1945. Obviously, farmers found a program they liked. One farmer made the mistake of speaking out loud on camera in Edward R. Murrow’s, Harvest of Shame (1960), when he said, “we used to own our own slaves, now we just rent them.”

Working as a bracero was exciting work; for many men, it meant leaving their home village for the first time on a big adventure. But it was also lonely, sleeping in barracks, eating in mess halls and without their families for months at a time. During the years 1942 and 1948, braceros had 10% of their wages deducted from their pay and deposited in several American banks that was supposedly transferred to Mexican banks for the braceros to collect upon returning home. For most, this money simply disappeared, but efforts continue to this day to bring justice to these men who were robbed…”not by a six gun, but a fountain pen.”

[In September 2008, the Mexican government, after years of struggle and lawsuits by the braceros (Alianza Braceroproa), agreed to pay $3,500 to 250,000 former braceros or their heirs, if they could prove that they had participated in the Bracero program between 1942 and 1946. With interest, it is estimated that today the money owed these men would equal close to $500 million.]

And for braceros, the work was also incredibly dangerous. According to historian Don Mitchell,

…accidents involving trucks transporting braceros resulting in multiple deaths…between 1952 and 1963, there were a total of 1,205 recorded farm transportation accidents, or more than 1 every 3.5 days, on average; 2,973 farm workers were injured seriously enough in these accidents to miss at least one day of work; another 159 were killed. The most famous (or infamous) of these accidents—at a crossing in Chualar (south of Salinas), killing 31 braceros and one domestic worker, while injuring 22 braceros and 3 domestics (only the driver of the bus was physically unscathed)—led to a full-scale, though controversial, congressional investigation overseen by Adam Clayton Powell.3

On Jan. 28, 1948, a plane chartered by U.S. Immigration Services left Oakland carrying 32 people, including 28 Mexicans. Many were part of the bracero program and had finished their government-sponsored work contracts. A ride home was part of the deal. 

Over farms and ranches on the edge of the Diablo Range, 20 miles west of Coalinga, the World War II surplus DC-3 trailed black smoke. An engine exploded. A wing broke off, floating left and right. More than 100 witnesses watched bodies and luggage thrown from the fireball. There were no survivors. News accounts named only the pilot, first officer, stewardess — who was also the pilot's wife — and an immigration officer. The others were listed simply as “deportees.”

When Woody Guthrie read about the crash, he wrote a poem protesting the anonymity of the workers. Years later, schoolteacher Martin Hoffman set the words to music. He put out a plea through local media, but heard nothing. After he mentioned his quest at a writers' conference at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, a woman with silver curls and tears streaming down her face approached him.

“My father believed in the importance of names,” Nora Guthrie told Hoffman. “He would repeat them like a chant. Even just finding their names matters.”

Throughout the late ‘40’s and 1950’s, opposition to the Bracero Program grew. Braceros themselves went out on strike repeatedly. Organized labor came to the defense of domestic farm workers, calling for an end of the Bracero Program. The Catholic Church and the Democratic Party came out as opposed to continuing the program when in came up for re-authorization.

By 1960, the movement to end the Bracero Program was gaining momentum. The program had expanded in the number of workers imported but declined in the territory where workers were used. By 1963, close to two-thirds of all braceros were working in California and Texas. Support for the program as the territory shrank to primarily two states. The Mexican government, though extremely aware of the abuses of the program, had reservations regarding a sudden end to the program. Trying to absorb 440,000 workers back into the Mexican economy would prove a difficult challenge.

The Democratic Party platform in 1960 called for the end of the program. John Kennedy, a Democrat and a Catholic, was elected to the presidency in November 1960. Just a short few weeks later, on the day after Thanksgiving, Edward R. Murrow’s Harvest of Shame aired, challenging the conscience of the nation to the plight of domestic farmworkers.

On September 17, 1963, at a railroad crossing near Chualar, California, just south of Salinas, a Southern Pacific train slammed into a farm labor bus full of farmworkers, primarily braceros. The accident made national news. Johnny Mattos, the head of the Labor Council put a telephone call into Ernesto Galarza, then living in San Jose. Galarza was a labor historian, union leader, professor and author of several books on California farmworker and bracero history. Mattos’ first words to Galarza about the tragic train bus collision were, “ there’s been a farm labor bus collision at Chualar. Better come and look, this town is full of dead Mexicans.” a town full of dead Mexicans…”4 

1.Factories in the Fields, Carey McWilliams, 1939

2. Internment for Profit, Colleen Finnegan, 1986

3.They Saved the Crops, Labor, Landscape, and the Struggle over Industrial Farming in Bracero-era California, Don Mitchell, University of Georgia Press, 2012.

4. Tragedy at Chualar, Ernesto Galarza, McNally & Loftin, 1977


On Saturday, September 14th, please join us for the Bracero Memorial Highway Project Dedication and Exhibit, sponsored by the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council. The event will run from 3:00-7:00 pm at the National Steinbeck Center (1 Main Street, Salinas), and food & beverage will be provided. Contact Juan Martinez of the Bracero Memorial Highway Project at 831-794-0006/qvolejuan@gmail.com for more information. Donations can be sent to Monterey Bay Central Labor Council, 931 E. Market St., Salinas, CA 93905