The Bracero Program: Prelude to Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement

Today’s post, from Alyssa Moore in the National Archives History Office, is in honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month and looks at the legacy of the Bracero Program.

From 1942 to 1964, millions of migrant workers crossed the border from Mexico into the United States as braceros, a Spanish word for a “laborer who works with his arms.” As contract workers, they faced harsh conditions and had to pay for food and lodging while only receiving meager wages. Despite low pay, these migratory laborers continued to work through the Bracero Program, sending remittances back home to their families in Mexico.

The Bracero Program was a federally sponsored labor program that was initiated following negotiations with the U.S. and Mexican governments. Officially called the Mexican Farm Labor Program, it was created to address the U.S. labor shortage caused by World War II and lasted from 1942 to 1964. It brought migrants, mainly men, to the Unieted States from Mexico to work seasonally on short-term contracts.

This was in stark contrast to the 1930s Depression-era programs, which unjustly targeted and deported Mexican Americans who were U.S. citizens. Part of the agreement was that participants would not suffer discriminatory acts in accordance with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order No. 8802, which prohibited discrimination in the defense program.

When World War II ended in 1945, the Bracero Program was renewed, but Mexican laborers were restricted to agricultural work. Most migrants traveled to the Southwest and the West Coast of the United States, working primarily on farms in California.

While the United States and Mexico agreed on a set of protocols to protect migratory workers, discrimination was rampant. Many White residents resented the presence of Mexican migratory workers in farming communities, and migrants often experienced racism when they socialized in places outside of work.

Mexican migrants also endured low wages, exposure to deadly chemicals, surcharges for room and board, and harsh labor conditions at the hands of growers. They worked long hours doing physically demanding work in the fields while spending long periods of time separated from their families, who remained in Mexico. Despite employing exploitative labor practices, grower companies relied heavily on the agricultural labor of migrant workers.

Meanwhile, the absence of fathers and brothers impacted families back home in Mexico. During the part of the year that their male relatives worked in the United States, women in Mexico were responsible for all of the household labor, raising their children, and managing the family’s finances. As a result, women in Mexico formed community ties to support and watch over each other during the migratory season.

Congress ended the Bracero Program on December 31, 1964, and in its 22 years, more than four million migrants came to work in U.S. agricultural fields, harvesting the nation’s asparagus, lemons, lettuce, and tomatoes. Though the program ended, it did not end the migratory flow between the United States and Mexico. U.S. growers continued to rely on the labor of Mexican migrant workers well past the 1960s. 

As the 1970s approached, however, more migrants from Mexico started heading to cities, especially Los Angeles, rather than rural communities. The Bracero Program recruited workers in agriculture, but when the program ended, urban jobs provided service-sector work that was more stable, though still exploitative on its own terms.

In the long-term, the program allowed Mexican migrant workers to establish social communities and familial roots in the United States. They developed networks north of the border that eventually enabled them to transition into urban, service-industry jobs. They also became familiar with U.S. labor practices, fueling Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement. This led to the successful unionization of farm workers into a cohesive and powerful collective bargaining unit for the first time in U.S. history.

To learn more about Hispanic identity, and Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement, read Thomas Richardson’s El Movimiento blog post.

One thought on “The Bracero Program: Prelude to Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement

  1. Hi I was 6 years old in 64 and remember my Parents mentioning the braceros. We had some building where they stayed at while working the farm I grew up on. The Jack Harris Farms, 45 miles SW of Fresno Ca.

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