Gary Karnes has been a community activist, union member and writer in Salinas for 40 years. Having graduated from U.C. Santa Cruz in 1969, Gary immediately moved to the Salinas Valley where he became involved in anti-war organizing and in the 1970 UFW Lettuce Strike. He has worked on 65 election campaigns over the years.
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.”
In 1942, west coast Japanese were sent to camps in the interior of the U.S. Simultaneously, the U.S. government began negotiations with Mexico to bring north large armies of male workers — Braceros — to harvest the crops and build and repair the railroads across the country. The Bracero Program was instituted between the U.S. and Mexican governments after Mexico declared war on the Axis powers in June 1942 and entered WWII as an ally of the United States. During the war, approximately 125,000 Braceros came north to help in the fight against fascism. During the war years 16 million men and women enlisted and were inducted into the armed services, most sent overseas to fight. Tens of thousands went to work in defense plants. In California, this primarily meant shipyards where many African Americans, women (Rosie the Riveter) and former dust bowl refugees found non-agricultural employment for the war years.