The Bracero Program, which brought millions of Mexican guest workers to the United States, ended more than four decades ago. Current debates about immigration policy-including discussions about a new guest worker program-have put the program back in the news and made it all the more important to understand this chapter of American history. Yet while top U.S. and Mexican officials re- examine the Bracero Program as a possible model, most Americans know very little about the program, the nation's largest experiment with guest workers. Indeed, until very recently, this important story has been inadequately documented and studied, even by scholars.
The Bracero Program grew out of a series of bi-lateral agreements between Mexico and the United States that allowed millions of Mexican men to come to the United States to work on, short-term, primarily agricultural labor contracts. From 1942 to 1964, 4.6 million contracts were signed, with many individuals returning several times on different contracts, making it the largest U.S. contract labor program. An examination of the images, stories, documents and artifacts of the Bracero Program contributes to our understanding of the lives of migrant workers in Mexico and the United States, as well as our knowledge of, immigration, citizenship, nationalism, agriculture, labor practices, race relations, gender, sexuality, the family, visual culture, and the Cold War era.
The Bracero Program was created by executive order in 1942 because many growers argued that World War II would bring labor shortages to low-paying agricultural jobs. On August 4, 1942 the United States concluded a temporary intergovernmental agreement for the use of Mexican agricultural labor on United States farms (officially referred to as the Mexican Farm Labor Program), and the influx of legal temporary Mexican workers began. But the program lasted much longer than anticipated. In 1951, after nearly a decade in existence, concerns about production and the U.S. entry into the Korean conflict led Congress to formalize the Bracero Program with Public Law 78.
The Bracero Program was controversial in its time. Mexican nationals, desperate for work, were willing to take arduous jobs at wages scorned by most Americans. Farm workers already living in the United States worried that braceros would compete for jobs and lower wages. In theory, the Bracero Program had safeguards to protect both Mexican and domestic workers for example, guaranteed payment of at least the prevailing area wage received by native workers; employment for three-fourths of the contract period; adequate, sanitary, and free housing; decent meals at reasonable prices; occupational insurance at employer's expense; and free transportation back to Mexico at the end of the contract. Employers were supposed to hire braceros only in areas of certified domestic labor shortage, and were not to use them as strikebreakers. In practice, they ignored many of these rules and Mexican and native workers suffered while growers benefited from plentiful, cheap, labor. Between the 1940s and mid 1950s, farm wages dropped sharply as a percentage of manufacturing wages, a result in part of the use of braceros and undocumented laborers who lacked full rights in American society.
Sharon Leon (Co-Principle Investigator) is Director of Public Projects at the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) and Research Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Art History. She received her bachelor's degree from Georgetown University and her doctorate in American Studies at the University of Minnesota. Her dissertation examined the responses of U.S. Catholics to the eugenics movement in the first half of the twentieth century. Her research interests include the study of race and gender in the history of religion and the history of science. Her work has appeared in Church History and the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences. Leon currently manages several online history projects at CHNM, including The Object of History, Historical Thinking Matters, and she co-directs the National History Education Clearinghouse and the Omeka web publishing software project.
Tom Scheinfeldt (Co-Principal Investigator) is Managing Director of CHNM. He received his bachelor's degree from Harvard and his master's and doctoral degrees from Oxford, where his doctoral thesis examined the public role of science history and science museums in the inter-war period. Scheinfeldt has lectured and written extensively on the history of popular science, the history of museums, history and new media, and the changing role of history in society, and has worked on traditional exhibitions and digital projects at the Colorado Historical Society, the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, the National Museum of American History, and the Library of Congress. Scheinfeldt currently manages several online history archives at CHNM, including the September 11 Digital Archive, the Mozilla Digital Memory Bank, and the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank.
James Halabuk (Project Manager) is is a PhD candidate in the Department of History and Art History at GMU. He completed a teaching field in Latin American and Chicano History, and thus has interests both in digital humanities and in preserving the bracero experience. He teaches classes in American history and Latin American history, as well as seminars in imperialism and revolutionary movements. James has received a number of research grants, including a Gilder Lehrman Fellowship in American History.
Kristine Navarro (Collections Director) is the Director of the Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). She directs and conducts the oral history collection, field interview strategies, post-interview processing methods and preservation techniques consistent with the professional principles, standards, and guidelines of the field. Her research interest include Latino history, Immigration, African American women in the southwest and braceros. Recent works include Wheresoever My People Chance to Dwell: Oral interviews with African American women in El Paso. In conjunction with its partners, the Institute of Oral History launched the Bracero Oral History Project, to conduct oral history interviews with individuals that participated in the Bracero Program. Navarro has overseen the development of the single largest bracero related archive in the country. To date they have collected more than 600 interviews as well as photographs and historical material documenting the history of the Bracero Program.
Matt Garcia (Outreach Director and Content Lead) is Associate Professor in the Department of American Civilization, Ethnic Studies and History and Interim Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown University. Garcia is the author of A World of Its Own: Race, Labor, and Citrus in the Making of Greater Los Angeles, 1900-1970 (University of North Carolina Press, 2001), which was co-winner of the biannual best book award from the Oral History Association in 2003, and received Honorable Mention for the American Studies Association's John Hope Franklin Prize for best book, also in 2003. His research interests include Chicano/Latino identity and community formation, race and ethnicity in the U.S, labor history, Latina/o education, American popular culture, and urban/suburbanization. His current project entitled The California South: Race, Labor and Justice on the California Border, 1900-1980 explores the formation of agricultural empires in the California desert and the exploitation of natural resources and Mexican labor that made it possible.
Peter Liebhold (Collections, Outreach, and Dissemination Coordinator) is the Chair of the Division of Work and Industry at the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History. His areas of research and interest include the culture of work, immigration, industrial history, and work imagery. Exhibitions include America on the Move (a 22,000 square foot transportation exhibition which includes a section on immigration and migration); Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A History of American Sweatshops, 1820 - Present; Images of Steel, 1860 - 1994; Who's In Charge: Workers and Managers in the United States; and Treasures of American History. Work in development includes a 12,000 square foot permanent exhibition American Dreams: An Introduction to American History; a traveling exhibition, Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program 1942-1964; and the Preview Center for the National Museum of Industrial History (a Smithsonian Affiliate in Bethlehem, Pa). He has published in Technology and Culture, Invention and Technology, and The Public Historian (where his article "Experiences from the Front Line" won the G. Wesley Johnson Prize).
Steve Velasquez (Collections, Outreach, and Dissemination Coordinator) is Associate Curator for the Division of Home and Community Life at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. Velasquez started as an intern in the National Museum of Natural History in 1995. His background is Latin American Archaeology, collections management and material culture studies. His research interest include Latino identity and Latino/Hispanic material culture, Latin American material culture; Latin American archaeology, Spanish America Colonial History, and immigration/migration. Recent exhibits and project experience include, AZUCAR! The Life and Music of Celia Cruz Past projects include A Collector's Vision of Puerto Rico, Julia Child's Kitchen at the Smithsonian, and the Toluca Valley Archaeology Research Project.
Bonnie Lilienfeld (Collections, Outreach, and Dissemination Coordinator) has been on the staff at NMAH since 1987, and is currently Deputy Chair of the Division of Home and Community Life. She has conducted research, written, lectured, and curated exhibitions on slave life and work, everyday material culture of the home, consumerism, the American ceramics industry, and the history of collecting at the Smithsonian. As co-curator of NMAH's recent America on the Move exhibition, Lilienfeld extensively researched the relationships between politics, communities, and transportation choices in Chicago.
Magdalena Mieri (Latino Programming Coordinator) is currently the Director of the Program in Latino History and Culture at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Her role is to organize and implement a variety of programs and to develop collaborations across the museum, and at the local and national levels, to tell the rich stories of Latinos. Before her position at the Museum she was the Museum Program Specialist and Director of the Latino Virtual Gallery at the Smithsonian Center for Latino Initiatives. She has been with the Smithsonian Institution since 1992. Ms. Mieri has consulted with museums in Argentina, Peru, Mexico, Uruguay and Bolivia. Before joining the Smithsonian she was Assistant Curator at the Museo de Arte Hispanoamericano in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She also holds a Senior Fellow position in the Department of Anthropology, at University of Maryland, College Park and has taught graduate level courses in the Masters of Museum Education at George Washington University. Ms. Mieri received her B.A. in Museum Studies from the Argentine Institute of Museology and her M.A. in Anthropological Sciences from the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina.