Summary of Interview: Mr. Loza recalls his childhood in Manuel Doblado, Guanajuato, México; he explains that he had little formal schooling, and he began working at age eight; additionally, he states that he heard of the bracero program from his godfather, and he approached the mayor of his town to be placed on the bracero list; he recounts his experiences while waiting to be contracted in Monterrey, Nuevo León, México, and how he had to work in order to have a place to stay while waiting for his name to be called; moreover, he relates what the process was like, the rough treatment he received from doctors, the way exams were conducted, and how he was dusted during the disinfection process; he worked as a bracero from 1960 to 1964, picking beets, celery, corn, cucumbers, onions, peanuts, peppers, rice, soybeans, and tomatoes in Arkansas, California, Michigan, and Texas; he talks about what his life was like as a bracero, the living quarters he had, the food he ate, and the way he was treated; furthermore, he narrates how he was denied service at a restaurant in Texas, and he was consequently beaten by a guard; he also recalls another incident in Texas when a group of morenos he worked with attempted to break into his living quarters; in addition, he states that he was treated badly by Mexican-American foremen; in 1968, he returned to the United States as an undocumented worker due to poverty; he concludes by expressing that he is proud to have been a bracero, which ultimately helped him change his life.
Loza, Mireya, "Juan Loza," in Bracero History Archive, Item #175, http://braceroarchive.org/items/show/175 (accessed August 2, 2014).
Date of interview: August 31, 2005
Name of interviewer: Mireya Loza
Name of translator: Jaclyn Martínez
Hi, I am Mireya Loza. It is August 31st in Chicago and I am interviewing Juan Loza.
ML: Where and when were you born?
JL: October 11, 1939.
ML: Speak to me about your family and the place where you were born.
JL: Well, I was born in an hacienda called Maravillas [in] the municipality of Manuel Doblado in Guanajuato. My father is named Cayetano Loza Ornelas and my mother is named Lucina González Zamora.
ML: What were your parents’ occupations?
JL: My father cultivated the land and raised livestock—pigs, horses—of really everything that is raised on a ranch.
ML: Do you come from a large family?
JL: Yes. I come from a family of thirteen. One died and twelve were born—excuse me, [twelve currently] live.
ML: How many brothers and sisters do you have?
JL: We are six brothers and six sisters.
ML: Where do your brothers and sisters live now?
JL: I have one brother in Chicago. I have another brother in Atlanta, United States, and all of my sisters live in Maravillas—and my other three brothers [do] too.
ML: Speak to me about when you went to school. Did you go to school, and where?
JL: Well, in my infancy when I went—during the time when I was in school, my schooling was very limited. I went one year to Maravillas and another year with an ex-teacher who had been a teacher in her time, but since she was now a mother of a family, well, she did not continue to teach—but I received an additional year of school with her.
ML: Did you learn to read and write?
JL: Very little. Very little, and I began to practice more, really, when I needed to communicate with my parents—with my brothers and sisters—because I was no longer with them.
ML: Did you work while you were studying—while you were in school?
JL: Yes. There was more time working than time studying.
ML: How old were you when you began to work?
JL: Very little, very little—eight or nine years [old]. My father had a lot of livestock. My father sowed many crops of corn, wheat, and garbanzo, and laborers were very scarce at that time. So, he believed that it was more important to work than go to school.
ML: How did you find out about the Bracero Program?
JL: Well, after my father had a grand fortune—he was one of the richest [men] in El Bajío of Maravillas, municipality of Manuel Doblado—my father began to gamble [on] horse races week after week and he was [eventually] left with nothing. Economically speaking, nothing was left. Only debts were left. So by that time there were eleven of us in the family and my father had to leave the house during the day because when debtors weren’t after him in the morning, they were after him in the afternoon or midday. So then, since I was the oldest, I was faced with the necessity to work—to ask for loans, to ask people to help me so that my brothers at least had tortillas to eat during the day. So, living in deep poverty, I asked the chairman of Manuel Doblado to give me a number—in other words, a space to come as a bracero to the United States. Although I was very young, necessity motivated me to take the initiative to leave my parents, my mother, my brothers and sisters, and, well, to take my chances.
ML: And who was the first person who told you about the program?
JL: Well, my godfather who was named Camilo Loza—my father’s cousin—had been a bracero, and since I had had a very beautiful relationship with my godfather since I was a boy—[I was] a young man at that time—he told me: “Maybe one day you can go to the United States, godson. I ask God a lot [for that] because I know that you will be a help—a [source of] support for my comadre [mother of one’s godchild] and for your brothers and sisters.”
ML: How old were you?
JL: Well, it was 1957 when my godfather began to tell me that, because he saw that there was a strong need and he tried to motivate me [to become a bracero]. And by that time—well I was born in 1939, [so] I was . . . let’s say eleven . . . eighteen years old . . . seventeen [years old].
ML: And did your godfather live on the same ranch [as you]?
JL: No. My godfather lived in Manuel Doblado. We lived on the ranch.
ML: And how was his experience? Did he talk to you about his experience as a bracero?
JL: Well, it’s because the braceros . . . he told me that if one had [a good] body—they would arrange the work according to the physical fitness of your body. If you had [special] abilities, [they would arrange the work] the same way. And if you hadn’t had schooling, and you didn’t have a [good] body, it was logical that you were going to come work, well, [work] hard.
ML: Were you married at that time?
ML: Had you ever thought about the United States prior to that time?
JL: No. Prior to that time, no.
ML: What were your means? [What were] your expectations of the program?
JL: Well, my expectations were only that if I could work in México, I could work in the United States and from there I could give my brothers and my mother a better life. And why not? Well, I was young, my clothes were completely worn, and why shouldn’t I buy myself new clothes?
ML: Did your family influence your decision in any way? Your mother, brothers, sisters . . . what did they think?
JL: Well, my mother did not [influence my decision]. Well, after the chairman who was my father’s compadre [friend], I got all my advice from my grandfather. When I got the number that [the chairman] gave me to come and try my luck at the contracting center in Monterrey, I talked to my dad and he said: “Well, here are three things. I will not stop you; I will not help you; I will not give you money. If you are in a position to do it, [then] do it.” [I answered]: “That’s good. I want your blessing and I want your [good] wishes.” He says: “That, I will give you.” So, in that time five pesos were worthless, not to mention what was needed to come [to the United States] in that time. Well, 1,000 pesos were needed at minimum for passage [to the United States], and you didn’t know if luck was on your side—whether you would be able to be contracted in the United States or not. So one had to at least have 200 extra pesos in case you weren’t contracted for some reason—so that you could return again to your place of origin.
ML: Describe the contracting process. So the chairman helped you get a number, and then what happened?
JL: Well, when I no longer had any alternatives and when I no longer had anyone who would help me economically I turned to my grandfather. My grandfather said: “With happiness! 1,000 pesos for me is nothing and I am going to lend them to you without deadline, without interest, and you pay me when you can.” So I had the 1,000 pesos [and] I felt supported. I went back and told the chairman that I was ready. We came to the contracting center in Monterrey, Nuevo León. In that time 1,500 braceros from the municipality of Manuel Doblado, Guanajuato went [to the contracting center]. We left one night at 10 p.m. About twenty full busses came directly to here. They put about ninety people in them even though the capacity was about forty-five or fifty passengers. We [were so full that we] even had to ride on the bus railing, on top. I think that about twenty of us came on top and it was a long—well, a lot of time. It takes about four and a half hours to get from Manuel Doblado to Monterrey, and we arrived in Monterrey in those conditions. In Monterrey all the lists from the different states arrived, and we had to wait there for almost a month to be contracted. So, I didn’t have any experience. I didn’t know. I came [as if I was] blindfolded, blind. How could I have had a better opportunity? The idea came to me that if I got closer or if I stuck with people who had come before—one, two, three or four times—well, then I would be better oriented. In that way I stayed close to those people and I stayed close to a man who had already come seven times. They called him El Güero [The Light-skinned Man]. He was from a ranch in La Calzada. So, he told me, “Come. Come, young man. I am going to take you to a place where it will be very nice for us.” So, like I told you, we waited in Monterrey about a month.
ML: And what did you all do during that month? What was your life like during that month?
JL: Well, from the first night I arrived in Monterrey, many men left. They went to a hotel; many went to the cabarets. What do I know? . . . to drink beer, to the restaurants, to dance with waitresses or things like that. And since my thoughts and my economic opportunities were very scarce, what I did was that . . . from the second night I got there . . . the first day I slept [in a place] that had cardboard walls and a cardboard roof close to a small restaurant. They sold—there, the lady—[sold] rice with beans and tortillas only. That was all that that lady sold. So she sold me a cardboard box where they [had] packed eggs for one peso [Mexican currency] at that time, and I stayed there the first day, and the second day I asked the woman whether I could help her in some way—that I intended to work because the lists were drawn [only] until noon. The lists were drawn from nine in the morning until twelve in the afternoon. If the list in which you were listed didn’t come, you had to wait until another day to see if list came out—the next day and successively like that, day after day, day after day. So, since I didn’t want to spend the few cents I had (because I couldn’t, but I didn’t owe [anyone]) . . . so I helped the lady clean beans, wash dishes, put aside what she needed for the rice, and things like that in that style—clean a space [for her], take out the trash. And then the lady let me stay there free of charge, but I had to cover myself with cardboard and lay myself down on another piece of cardboard.
ML: And when they finally called you, what happened?
JL: Well, on the day that our list was passed, they gave us a physical examination there. And they checked our documents to make sure that they agreed with the documents that they had gotten from us the first moment we enlisted in Manuel Doblado. So, after we passed the physical examination we were subjected to a liquid and powder disinfection to disinfect our bodies so that we wouldn’t bring germs to the border of the United States and México. So we stayed another week on the border, which was Piedras Negras, because a lot of men leave from the contracting center in Piedras Negras [it was a heavily populated contracting center]. There, they examined [everything], even to the point of examining what we had eaten the month before! A lot—an exam very meticulous with a lot of mistrust and at times even with cruelty—I can tell you that!
ML: Why cruel?
JL: Well, because the doctors examined an average of three thousand people a day. Imagine! If a doctor doesn’t have the patience to examine a patient when he has already examined four, five, six, or ten during the day, [imagine] how it is when he has examined thousands! Of course this doctor is already sick of it. He’s already overloaded with the work and [so] he’s going to do it reluctantly, without paying much attention. So when you pass the physical examination—in the hands of the doctor—they do the same process to you that they did in Monterrey—they do it again. They take off all of your clothes, they bathe you with disinfectants—with powders and a series of things that make me sad to even mention. So they requested 500, 400, 200, 80 [men] . . . whatever the ranchers who were going to contract braceros in Piedras Negras requested. So since I already had that comfort, or that support, with that man who had come many times, I would tell myself: well, if it takes a day, if it takes two, or if it takes a month, I have hope that we will go to a place where we will have a good experience. Because in that time, many braceros were really failures after one month, two months, or three months . . . failures because what they paid them . . . what they paid us . . . . what they paid them was a miserable amount. It was about 25 cents an hour to come and uproot [ourselves]—to come cultivate land from the ground up. So those people never paid [the braceros] for what they had collected [during the day]. They were the unsuccessful braceros. So I didn’t want to be one of those unsuccessful braceros. That’s why I looked for support. I looked for a guiding light. So we stayed for almost a week in Piedras Negras until one day at nine at night they announced via the loudspeaker that they needed 200 irrigators. The man told me: “Come with me. Come. Let’s go.” We went at that time and the next day at six in the morning we left to come work in a little town close to Lubbock, Texas. Lubbock, Texas is next to La Mesa, Abilene, Littlefield, and in that county—of course, it was a dry county in that time in which even a drop of alcohol was illegal in public. But it was a very good place because everything that is produced in that county needs irrigation so there is work at good pay. Since I came especially for irrigation, I made 55 cents an hour, but I worked 24 hours, 7 days a week.
ML: You didn’t rest on Sunday?
JL: No. There wasn’t any rest because when the irrigation season began . . . it had to be between the first day of February and the tenth day. From the first to the tenth of February it started and the cutting [harvesting season] was from the first of August until the tenth day of August. The irrigation season ended because if it was onions, they were harvested, if it was watermelon, it was harvested, and if it was cotton, the soil had to be given time to dry so that the cotton-picking could begin.
ML: And what was the daily routine in Lubbock, Texas?
JL: Well, my routine was . . . it was that we . . . the ranch was close to the barracks. The barracks were where we slept—where we made ourselves food. It was a place sort of like this room—like thirty by forty, something like that, where we had approximately 150, 180 braceros. So we had to make our food there, wash ourselves, personal cleanliness . . . we had to do it for our check. It was very hard because in that time, well, there was no free time. We had to take our clothes—and we were over there flooded with water—we would wash our clothes ourselves there and in the same place we would hang them out to dry in a small tree or a rock or in a tube, in whatever there was. There one would have to dry [the clothes] week after week and day after day. That’s how it was. And the food that we made was to eat in the moment. We never made food to last us for two meals, no. In that time what helped us was that . . . well they paid us very little per hour . . . but they also didn’t charge us light, we didn’t pay for the gas, we didn’t pay rent and we would eat an average charge of $10 dollars, $12 dollars per week.
ML: How long were you in Lubbock?
JL: I was in Lubbock, Texas for three years. 60 . . . from 60 to 62 . . . 60, 61, and 62.
ML: Did you return to México during that time?
JL: Yes. I returned during those three years. I returned to México two times. But the boss would give me a special card which I used like a passport. I never had problems with Immigration—that they would pass me. Yes, yes they would stop me. They would search me, but with that card I was free to roam all over Texas.
ML: And why did you go the first time?
JL: Well, the first time when I went to México, my mother asked me to. My mother found herself to be a little ill and she demanded that I come. She told me: “If I gave you my consent in one day for you to come to the United States, now in the same manner I tell you that I want to see you. I want you to come whether it be one day, whether it be two days, whether it be a week or whether it be two, whatever you can do, but I want you to come.” And since I very much respect the decisions of a parent . . . well, with the same attention with which she had given me her consent and her blessing to come on one occasion, I returned. I returned for two weeks and I came to work again with the same boss doing the same work.
ML: And when you were in the United States in Lubbock, Texas, how would you communicate with your mother and your family?
JL: Only through letters because in that time there was no phone, not even in León, Guanajuato.
ML: And after those three years in Lubbock, why did you decide to leave Lubbock and look for another job?
JL: Well, when I . . . there were two very very big reasons that I felt disdainful, that I felt disappointed with that place. One: In 1961 when it began to turn cold around the beginning of December, none of us had sufficient clothing to withstand the cold. So I asked the boss to take me to buy clothes, and he told me, “I am going to take you and I am going to tell you how to return on the bus, but I cannot wait for you.” “Good, that’s fine,” I say, “after all, I’ll come back on the bus.” So I bought my clothes. I bought a radio. I was so happy because I had a radio and because I had bought new clothes [but] I was very cold and they had packed my clothes in a box in the store. When I arrived at the bus station I felt very cold and I said, “I am going to buy a ticket and then I am going to drink a coffee.” I bought the ticket for Anton, Texas, which was the little town where I lived, and I couldn’t stand the cold any longer. Well, I am not used to the cold. So I went to the restaurant and I asked the lady who worked behind the counter to sell me a coffee. She says: “Can you read that poster?” And I almost suspected [that she was joking] because I didn’t speak English. So I tell her: “Can you give me a coffee please?” Then she tells me, “I am telling you that I can’t sell you a coffee.” And I thought that she was joking. So I showed her a dollar and I told her, “Excuse me, I thought I had American money and that American money could buy whatever I wanted in the United States, but I see that my dollar is different.” At the moment that I said that, the security guard came—he was really a very big güero because I didn’t even reach his shoulder. He had . . . I remember it as if it was today. He was dressed like a cowboy and he had boots with iron spurs, and he told me: “Come with me, please” [said in English]. I still don’t forget that word. I never will forget it. So he took me out to the middle of the street and he tells me, “You want to buy coffee? You have to walk three blocks over here and two blocks over there. They will sell you coffee there, but you’ll get something other than coffee if you keep bothering us. I’ll gonna kick you again [said in English].” So he kicked me three times in the behind [so hard] that I couldn’t even sit to do my necessities six weeks later. That was one disappointment. So since all of the other braceros had gone and I was the only one who was left, the boss took me to live in a very small house. But only morenos [dark-skinned people] lived there. Then some of the morenos started to ask me to lend them a dollar . . . to lend them a dollar and I lent it to them. Then one day it happened that they asked me for three dollars and I didn’t have it because I had just bought my provisions for the week, I had just gave everything to my mom and I didn’t have money. That’s why I didn’t give it to them. It was around seven at night when they asked me [for the money]. He asked me for the money and he returned around eleven at night with other morenos and they started to bang hard on my door with some iron rails. The door was made of iron. Then I was so scared. And behind the room where I lived there was a canal. So I ran away with little clothing—nothing more than my shirt and underwear, without shoes and without anything. I ran away; I threw myself out the back window and I threw myself into the water in the canal and I crossed through about a mile of the irrigated land and I knocked on my boss’s father’s house. He understood . . . came with me to the house . . . we found the house totally—the door had fallen, the house [was] ransacked, they overturned everything. Well I didn’t have anything. I didn’t have anything. They took the radio I had bought and I said: “I’m leaving.” And the next day I grabbed my things and I left, and until later . . . I said that I would not return to Texas because if they had gotten me I wouldn’t be here today, here, in this interview. So then I was contracted again in Empalme, Sonora to go to California.
ML: Did you have brothers who were braceros also?
JL: Oh, when I went to California I took my oldest brother so that we could help our family a little bit; they needed the help. He was very small, but I said, “Well, if we both get to go, it will be easier to help my mom.”
ML: How much older than you was your oldest brother?
JL: Four years.
ML: And then, when you both came the second time, what happened?
JL: Well . . .
ML: Well, second place for you.
JL: Well, when we . . . they said that there would be braceros again—we didn’t even know where. We signed up and it was [either] luck or something from the top government officials that in that time they sent people to Monterrey or to Empalme, Sonora. Those were the two centers which were in a government camp. Both centers were inside a government military camp. So I signed up and I signed Manuel up, my brother, the oldest of the boys, but he is much smaller than me. Then we came over here to Empalme and it took almost two months for us to be contracted for California.
ML: Where did you both go in California?
JL: My brother got Stockton, California and I got Sacramento.
ML: And you couldn’t pick a place to go together?
JL: No because they gave you a number when you entered the contracting [center]. They gave you a number and the number wasn’t drawn until you got there. But when you arrived at the center in Mexicali, they would say from such number to such number . . . if mine was an even [number], I would go with the even [numbers] and if my brother’s number was an odd [number], he would go with the odd [numbers]. So any which way we couldn’t be together. For that you would need a lot of experience. If I would have been a bracero with a lot of experience I would have put another person in between my brother and me so that the numbers would have been in pairs . . . the numbers that we both got.
ML: And what did you tell your brother before coming as a bracero? What did you explain to him?
JL: Well, I didn’t talk to him about my bad experiences. I didn’t tell him that the morenos had made me run away. I didn’t tell him that the güeros had kicked me. I didn’t tell him things like that to discourage him. I talked to him about, well: “We are going so that you can have new clothes and we are going so that you can help me work,” and that’s it.
ML: And then, when you arrived in California . . . what did you do in California?
JL: Well, I thought that . . . I thought that it would go very well for us in California because they would say that many [braceros] went there . . . my grandfather never came. And they said that there were many pochos [Americanized Mexicans or Americanized Mexican Americans] . . . many Mexican Americans . . . and they said that we wouldn’t suffer because of our language over there. But the biggest disappointment of my life that I took was that . . . because in California . . . There was a lot of mistreatment over there. Why? Because those same pochos would act as if they were foremen taking care of the braceros . . . working with the braceros from sunrise to sunset. In that time the furrows in which we worked thinning beets, thinning lettuce, [working] with asparagus, [the furrows] were a mile long. Throughout the whole mile we had to be bent over with a hoe—twelve inches from start to finish—and we couldn’t get up because there were about three fieldbosses. To me, they were not fieldbosses; they were foremen behind us, and we couldn’t [get up] for any reason. They simply sent you back to México again if you didn’t obey them.
ML: What did you do there?
JL: Like I said, like I mentioned before . . .I was working with beets, thinning, with asparagus, with celery, and afterwards picking onions, picking tomatoes . . . and that’s where I felt . . . well, when I was picking onions, I didn’t have a fieldboss anymore because my hands were what followed me . . . they and the longing to earn more money were my fieldboss. Out of 2,700 braceros, I got first place in onions and they gave me $1,000 for first place. I didn’t know that. Many [braceros] that had been picking onions in those camps for years knew that. I didn’t know that. When they told me, I was surprised.
ML: And how did one win those $1,000 dollars?
JL: For example, they paid us per basket of picked onions—not the ripe ones, because the ones that were ripe had to be cut. They [the picked onions] were for the market; they were picked . . . picked [while they were] green. The top leaf and bottom root had to be cut with scissors. They were for the market. But the onions that we picked in that time were to be put in bottles, for canneries, for restaurants, and for . . . to sell in bags. They paid us thirteen cents per small basket and in that time there were some [braceros] that didn’t even make enough money to cover lunch, because they didn’t throw themselves into their work, because they were lazy in other words. But I was very motivated to make money [and] to work, and in that time I picked at least 250 small baskets, but at all hours of the day I [sweat so much that] I had to wring my clothes out. I got first place in tomatoes. I won a prize of $480-$545 every two weeks, which in that time was a lot of money. It wasn’t easy. It was a lot of work.
ML: And then during that time, did you keep communicating with your mother via letters?
JL: Yes. That yes. We communicated every eight days. Every eight days a letter would arrive because I would write to my mom every eight days and put what I could contribute. Every fifteen days I sent her money because I didn’t receive payment before, but yes, every fifteen days I sent my mom everything I could.
ML: And during that time, did you work seven days a week, or how many days a week did you work?
JL: Depended . . . depended. During onion picking time we worked seven days a week. When I worked with the tomatoes we only worked six days a week, but since I wanted to earn an extra pound, I stayed in the evening after picking time to load the buses with the boxes of tomatoes. And there were times when we couldn’t pick all of the tomatoes on Saturday and we had to return to work on Sunday.
ML: And did you always receive your wages every fifteen days from your job? Did you ever have a problem with your wages?
JL: In Texas I didn’t have a problem. In California, I did because, well, like any other job for money, if it’s by contract, well, you need to keep a log of basically what you did per day, what you did per week, what you did per two weeks. If it’s hourly, you do the same thing. So, for example, [when I worked] with the onions, I was short twenty or thirty baskets everyday. They gave us a card, and that card had numbers. So the field boss or field bosses would punch [a hole in] the card to mark the number of baskets a person had. So I was always short everyday. So they said that you couldn’t make claims to the company or to the center there. You had to do it in the contracting center. But how? How could we make claims when it took two days to get to the contracting center? Logically it was better to stay with that job and with that money because there wasn’t any other alternative. What’s more, those who clung or got on the bad side of the fieldbosses were told: “Your work—your work has finished. Your contract has finished,” and their work would end there. On the other hand, if they didn’t cut your contract [short], they left you in the field [saying], “We don’t need you today. Stay ready for tomorrow.” Tomorrow would come and the second day they wouldn’t pick him up again. When a week would pass and they hadn’t picked up that poor bracero to take him to work, he logically had to grab his few clothes and go back again to México.
ML: How long were you in California?
JL: I was in California for a year. A year. We returned to México toward the end of 63.
ML: And then what did you do when you returned to México?
JL: When I returned to México I thought that the bad spell of poverty had passed because my brother and I accumulated some few cents and began to work. I planted about forty hectares of wheat and the wheat was growing super well. And March 19th, a frost fell and it froze all the way to the bottom and I was left again with zero [money]. At least I didn’t owe anyone anything. So I said to my brother, “Well now we have more reason to go to the contracting [center]. Let’s go to the contracting [center].” He says, “And, to where?” I tell him, “I know someone that is an attorney and he is sending people for 500 pesos. You just present yourself in Monterrey. It has to be in Monterrey.” He says: “Yeah, well let’s go.” I went to the notary who had the contacts with those from the center . . . because the government and the manipulators become involved in this and there were a lot of traps. There was a lot of manipulation of . . . it’s because when you arrived at the contracting center in Monterrey, two or three people came with the same number. It would be logical that none of them went [because] they weren’t going to pass two or three people with the same number. [But] the one with the least influence went back to his house. So on that occasion I told the notary that he was going to give me a guarantee that I would enter the United States. If not, I wouldn’t give him the money. He said, “That’s fine. I will guarantee it.” “How?” [I ask]. He says, “No. Well, I will guarantee it.” I tell him, “That’s fine. I am going to give you 1,000 pesos when I am contracted on the other side in the United States.” I gave him 1,000 pesos for my part and for my brother. So we came to Monterrey and the next week we were already at the contracting center in Piedras Negras and we came to work in Arkansas. We were in Arkansas for four months and we were in Saginaw, Michigan for six months.
ML: And what did you do in Arkansas?
JL: In Arkansas I worked with the tractors, cultivating . . . cultivating soybeans, cultivating corn, and cultivating the nut garden. Since at that time my brother didn’t know how to drive tractors or machinery, well, he had to clean [it] because he didn’t have another . . . or helping me oil the tractors or helping me like my assistant because he didn’t know how yet.
ML: And why did they give you permission to drive the tractors? Did they let many braceros drive tractors?
JL: No, no. Not everyone. Rather they gave you a card and when I was contracted for the first time to go irrigate they were forced to give you permission to drive tractors—to drive pick-ups [said in English], to drive a van or to drive a bus—because when we irrigated we had to carry some plates in the van to block the ditches or the sprinklers, or the canals of water. We had to carry sandbags; we had to carry aluminum pipes to pass the canal water to the planted [area]. And then that card was valid all over the United States. With that card . . . what’s more, with that card I would get paid the cost of an operator no matter where I worked.
ML: And were there United States-born operators doing the same work?
JL: Well, yes. Yes there were. There were ranchers who worked. Sometimes the woman, sometimes the man, but they worked two or three hours. I was working for two months with two tractors. I drove one and I let go of the other one ahead of where I was fallowing land. Not during the fallowing . . . during the first crop which is done to the land to seed it. You put a brake on the steering wheel of the tractor which was working by itself so that it gave a circular turn, and that was how they worked. And I worked on top of one and always taking care that the other was ahead of me. Yes, I didn’t only earn [a wage] from the one I was driving, but also from the other one that I took care of, and sometimes I worked fourteen, sometimes fifteen, sometimes twelve hours.
ML: And why did you leave Arkansas?
JL: Well, when the crop ended in Arkansas, the only thing left to do was to distil the rice crop fields [or] wait for the nut harvest or soybean harvest. So with that, well, they didn’t offer many [work] hours anymore. There wasn’t a large expectation anymore to earn good money. Then they posted a notice downtown saying that there was a need to come work cucumber crops in Saginaw, Michigan. So my brother said, “Well I want to get to know Michigan. If you don’t want to go, I’m [still] going to go.” So then I said, “No. Well I won’t let you go alone.” He was very small. [I said], “I will go too,” because if not, my mom will die thinking that I left him alone. So for that reason we came to Saginaw, Michigan. In Saginaw we began to cultivate cucumbers, then to pick them, [then] to take them to where they prepare them to bottle them . . . and like that, until the season ended close to February or January.
ML: Did you work every day of the week in Arkansas and Michigan, or how many days did you work?
JL: In Arkansas I worked six days. Sometimes when I worked repairing tractors or leaving the machinery ready so that I could start early on Monday, I had to work on Sunday because the boss didn’t like that I would take two hours on Monday to oil the tractor or to put the equipment on the tractor or things like that. He liked for me to start working before six in the morning and he didn’t care how that happened.
ML: And in Michigan how many days a week did you work?
JL: Only six days in Michigan but there was not an eight-hour-only schedule, no. It was from light until dark.
ML: And what did you do on your day off?
JL: I spent my day off only washing my clothes, preparing food, cleaning the room in which I slept and everything . . . in writing to my mother or reading a letter.
ML: You never went out?
ML: My name is Mireya Loza. I am interviewing Juan Loza. It is August 23, 2005 in Chicago. I was asking you earlier what you did on your day off, and whether you went out. Did you ever leave your room or the area in which you worked?
JL: While I was in Texas I never went to the movies or to a dance hall or went around town. I only went to buy clothes or buy food. That’s it. But for me to say, “today I am going to this party, today I’m going to this rodeo, or to this party of such and such” . . . no. During all that time I absolutely deprived myself of fun things. I never went to the movies.
ML: And in Michigan or in Arkansas you didn’t have a chance to do anything else?
JL: I never even had the opportunity to say, “I will pass a night dancing, singing, drinking,” or things like that in anyplace at anytime that I was contracted because during that time that I was a bracero . . . I am not a liar or an exaggerator . . . I never even drank one beer.
ML: And when you lived in Michigan and Arkansas what were the places like where you lived?
JL: Well, in Arkansas I—we lived in a very rotten small house . . . very small. There were rats below because they used half the house to put seeds to sow the next year or to put fertilizers or to put tractor fuel [or] threshing machines and things like that. The boss saw it as nothing [not a big deal]. I came to see that even their dog during that time had a new house and I saw [that the dog got] about three [more] new houses during the time that I was there; and during the time it was cold, it lived in their [the boss’] own house. But on the other hand, we, well, didn’t have that opportunity. We didn’t have that ability. We had to cover ourselves. I remember it as if it was now. They gave us some blankets that the Army [said in English] uses—green ones—and when some braceros started to leave because their work had ended, some left the blankets, and I picked them up. We needed them to cover us.
ML: And what did you eat in these different places?
JL: Well, when I was in Texas . . . after a year I was already annoyed by the small cakes or the Bimbo bread or things like that because I was accustomed to the tortilla. So I went to the store and a friend told me, “this is flour dough.” I tell him, “What is it for?” He says, “to make tortillas.” “Oh,” I say, “well, I am going to take it to make tortillas.” So it occurred to me to bring two small bags of flour dough with the intention of making tortillas but when I had kneaded the dough and I wanted to make tortillas, well, I couldn’t.
ML: Why not?
JL: Because, well, I didn’t know how. My hands were rough. My fingers were stiff and I couldn’t make the tortillas. Then my friend tells me, “And now what? Are you going to eat the dough by force, or what?” I tell him, “No.” I tell him, “I have to find an idea from my repertory [experience] as to how I am going to make these tortillas.” So, we had bought a tin of coffee, and I said, “This tin will be of use to make tortillas.” I put a plastic [sheet on it] and [got] the dough ball and cut it like a glass with a wooden tool that was scattered close by. I made a big ball; I did it as if it was a rasero [utensil that smoothes flour], and the tin of coffee was my tortilla press because from there in front I could make the tortillas. (laughs)
ML: Yeah . . . and what did you eat in California?
JL: Well, in California . . .
ML: Did they give you food?
JL: They boarded us; they boarded us [they served us food]. But they would make the sandwich as early as the night before and it was really hot, so when one ate it the next day, well, the ham was tart. It was already rotten and the lettuce, well, it was as rotten as the ham in the sandwich. So that’s why I brought my lunch from the beginning. After a while I didn’t take it. I would rather come . . . until the evening came to eat at the house rather than [eat] at the ranch where they boarded us.
ML: And in Arkansas and Michigan what did you make?
JL: In Arkansas he [the boss] went to buy food, and it was a very expensive store. So, the first time I started to . . . I began to buy things that I saw the boss buying. On that occasion we spent about $50 for my brother and me. I said, “No. Well, I will not do that again.” Then I said, “Now I have to make up the money . . . the lost time,” and I began to . . . we started to eat only potatoes and beans and then later, well, since with eating potatoes and beans the $10 covered us very well, it was better to eat potatoes and beans.
ML: And in Michigan?
JL: In Michigan . . . when, when we went to Michigan a food store was very near us and my brother had a good appetite—well he was young, everything was new. He always spent his $10 a week for food; during the week he sometimes spent $12, $13, or $14 on cakes, sodas, bread, and that’s how he spent double what I spent.
ML: And what happened after Michigan? Did you return to México?
JL: Yes. I thought . . . well, our boss in Michigan helped us to get permanent residency but when we told my dad and mom that we were going to get our permanent residency—there in the same place you could apply for residency—my dad and mom didn’t want to. They said that if we got our residency they would lose us and we wouldn’t return to see them and they didn’t want us to get our residency. So we left because the Bracero Program contract between the United States government and the Mexican government ended.
ML: And I’m going to ask a series of questions about the program. Did you make longtime friends during the years you were in the United States with the other braceros?
JL: Well, very few. Very few because if you wanted to . . . you couldn’t make longtime friends because of the ranchers’ strategies. The more workers who worked together, the more they [the ranchers] felt prohibited from treating them [the braceros] badly or treating them . . . or working them at inappropriate schedules [times of day] or six days a week; because among—let’s say, among ten braceros it’s logical that all ten braceros won’t have the same intentions or the same ambitions or the same availability to dedicate themselves to work. So that’s why the smaller the number of braceros the ranchers had, the easier it was for them to direct them at their whim.
ML: At one time did Mexican authorities go to the place where you worked?
JL: No. Mexican authorities never went to workplaces.
ML: And did the bosses contract any an illegal [undocumented person] who was not formally part of the Bracero Program?
JL: Yes, there were some. There were some at that time. There were already illegals. What happened was . . . a thing in that time . . . since it was very easy to cross into the United States . . . well, those that didn’t want to come, didn’t. Because I crossed when I already had permission as a bracero. I crossed at nine at night. I came to cross the line. They didn’t ask me for anything. You only paid ten cents—afterwards it was twenty cents—and that’s all. I got the bus to where I was going and Immigration never checked me or anything like that. So in that time, those that wanted [to come], well, they came, and without any—without a lot of problems because after you paid the quota on the bridge, they didn’t say anything to you.
ML: Did you ever have a problem at work?
JL: Well, only the problem where the morenos made me run away—only from that. But when I worked in Arkansas . . . the day that I told my boss that I was going to Michigan he owed me [money for] seven workdays. So when he was going to take me to the bus stop I tell him: “I’m lacking seven workdays.” He says: “No. I’m even with you. I don’t ask you for [money] as credit, in the same way that I don’t ask you to work and then pay you afterward. I pay you beforehand.” I say: “No. Don’t start with those tricks. You pay me for my work. If you don’t pay me, the government will, but [you should] pay me.” And he said that he wouldn’t pay me. I went to Saginaw and he sent me a check for the seven day [pay] that he owed me.
ML: And what would happen in the case of an accident or illness?
JL: (laughs) Well, in the contract they gave you . . . they gave you some sheets [of paper]—which for me was nothing because in those sheets it said that they were going to give you 400 pesos for a finger; they would give you $1,000 if you lost the five; they would give you $1500 if you lost your arm. But the thing was that it wasn’t even in Spanish; it was in English. Who would defend themselves? Who would they pay or who would they charge? I saw several foot injuries, hand injuries—cut [hands]—but here . . . how did they charge [someone for the loss] if you didn’t know how to defend yourself? So you automatically played dumb . . . like, if they don’t see you, if they don’t see the signs, well then they don’t know what you want to say.
ML: Did you get sick at any point?
JL: Only from gum pain in Texas, and for that—the boss was very considerate—he didn’t let me work for three days. The same day that I told him that my gums hurt, he took me to the dentist. They took out two [teeth] and the boss’ wife came to see me that night to bring me some pills . . . because they had called the dentist to ask if he would give me something for the pain, and so . . . that boss paid a lot of attention [to us]. I don’t think I was sick anymore in the United States.
ML: And in the places where you worked, did they have radios from time to time? You had said that you all bought a radio. Did you listen to the radio a lot?
JL: No. We didn’t listen a lot because in Texas almost all the programs at that time were in English. There were times that the only thing you could hear in Spanish were [announcements for?] dances that the people most influential people were going to have. There was a commercial and they started to play, well, half of a song or about two or three phrases of the song and that’s it; but they only did it as commercials. The only station that you could hear in Texas at that time was the Harlingen station. You could hear that, but only during the day. At night you couldn’t hear it anymore. At two in the morning another program called the May Laboratories started and it was followed by a program from Villa Acuña; each program was for an hour and that was it.
ML: Did you all—the braceros—celebrate Holy Week or Christmas or 16th of September in these various locations?
JL: None of that.
ML: No. Did you return to México when your contract ended . . . the last contract in Michigan?
ML: Did your boss arrange transportation to return to México?
ML: After you finished your work contract how difficult was it to get a new contract? Well, the last one was because the program had ended, right?
JL: They didn’t have it anymore. From the moment the agreement between the United States government and the Mexican government ended, they didn’t legally have any work agreement anymore.
ML: And when did you return to the United States again? Which year?
JL: Well, we stayed in the same situation because as the family keeps growing so do their desires—the illusions of a better future. Although my mom knew we were very poor she never lost her dreams to educate someone in the family; that goal never left her mind. So when I returned, I put myself in charge of caring for my mom’s mom and one of my sisters. So I began to buy livestock—[of] cows, pigs, chickens, of everything—and it began to go very well. I accumulated a small amount of capital so I thought that I didn’t need to return to the United States anymore. But in 66, my grandmother died and I no longer had control of or motivation to keep working in México because everything turned out bad for me. I bought a few oxen—they robbed them from me. I tried to get my passport in order. On the day that I was about to receive my visa . . . an uncle helped me; he bought me my letter of support; I applied in the embassy in México and my application was accepted, but the day that I was going to get my visa . . . the law changed that day to say that if you didn’t have your income tax form you couldn’t get a visa. And since I had worked as a bracero, I did not have any forms. I didn’t even know what they were talking about—that income tax form. So for me my wings were torn off and things started to go wrong. My mom was sick; they robbed me; I made bad deals; I was left with nothing economically and from what I thought I had in capital . . . . not even a hangover was left because I didn’t even drink. So I said, “I will go to the United States. I will go illegally.” And so I told my brother but by then he was already married, he already had two children, and [so] he didn’t want to come anymore. So then I told one of my other brothers [and he] said, “I will go.” “Well, we’ll go,” [I said]. We came illegally. My uncle sent us the name of a coyote, the name of a hotel where we had to get to, and then the hardest part for me was the day in which the one who was a smuggler, or the coyote appeared. He says, “I am going to smuggle fifty [people] tonight but I only want to have an agreement with one of you.” So, I don’t know why they saw me as the leader or I don’t know—maybe it’s because I talk too much. They said that I should be the one. He said, “So [said in English], when we leave from the hotel I am going to collect a third of what you all will pay me here when we get in the car; on the other side [of the border] you all will give [me] the other third and when I take you to the destination, you all will complete the payment.” So when I gave him the money . . . before I gave him all of our money, he gave me a 38 Super [pistol] and he says, “You are responsible. You have the money, right?” I said, “yes.” [He said,] “you are going to answer to them—to all of them and to me [if anything happens] to that money. That’s why I am giving you this so that you can defend yourself. So we left at ten at night from the hotel and at two in the morning we were, well, we were crossing the river. When we got out of the river . . . he had already told me, “if we see someone and if you don’t shoot him, I will shoot you.” I tell him, “that’s fine.” So when we got out of the river there was a big slope and there were some drug smugglers there and I saw them suddenly and I shot twice and he says: “Stop your bullshit already. Don’t make noise. Don’t make noise.” I said, “well what was our deal? What is our agreement?” He said, “okay.” He says, “okay, okay, alright.” So . . . how much did we walk? It must have been about a kilometer; it was already close to four in the morning. He tells me that he wants the money. I told him: “I’m not even going to give you a penny.” He said: “you’re going to give me the money.” I said: “I told you that I am not even going to give you a penny.” He said: “Well if you don’t give me the money, give me the gun.” So then I get much closer to him and I told him: “If you want it I’ll give it to you while its shooting. Do you want it?” “No,” [he said]. I said: “Well then, we’ve reached an agreement. Go away. We’ll go ahead.” We came to Chicago. I brought my very young brother.
ML: Which brother?
JL: Pedro. So then I started to have a hard time getting him work because he was so young and . . .
ML: And why did you come to Chicago?
JL: Because one of my dad’s brother’s was here and we thought we’d find support in him, find help like we did.
ML: And why did your uncle come to Chicago?
JL: My uncle came illegally to Chicago in 56 and after he returned illegally he got married. And his wife’s brothers had immigrated [to the United States]. After two years of marriage, her brothers helped my uncle emigrate.
ML: And were her relatives in Chicago?
JL: Yes, yes. His wife’s relatives were in Chicago. They helped my uncle and my uncle helped us.
ML: And what did you come to do in Chicago? What was your first job here?
JL: When we arrived here in Chicago, the first thing we did—right away—was to request a social security [number] because without it we couldn’t work. But in that time, in 68, you only had to fill out a form containing your information—your age, your parents[’ names], and that’s it. They gave you your social security [number] right there in the office. In that way, in that time, well, that problem didn’t exist. Then, well, like everyone, you want to earn money fast—a lot [of money]. So my uncle found us a contract in construction. That’s where I started to work and I got my brother a job there and we worked in Wisconsin, Milwaukee, in Springfield, [and] Joliet (??). We were working in the government site but it wasn’t so difficult anymore for me because what I knew about driving machinery helped me earn more money and have a more secure job . . . since I also knew a little of, well, of mechanics of the machinery and I also already knew a little English.
ML: Where did you learn English?
JL: (laughs) That was hard—to learn English. When I stayed in Texas—to work in the winter in Texas—I worked with the mechanics who were morenos. They didn’t even speak a word of Spanish and there were times that they told me, “Give me the pliers,” and I would give them the screwdriver. Well with that same screwdriver they struck me the hardest they could in the back and they reminded me of my mom then.
ML: Was that when you were a bracero in Texas?
JL: Yeah, that was when I was a bracero. So then I was there for like two months, struggling a lot and one day a moreno tells me . . .
ML: The morenos were the mechanics?
JL: Yes. So the moreno—of the mechanics—tells me that he wants me to go to his house. And he was kind to me because he took me [to his house] so that his wife—she was Mexican—so that his wife could give me English classes. So she told me, “My husband says that if you want to learn English I should teach you and he’ll bring you every afternoon so that you can study English.” And then I tell her, “Yeah, well I appreciate it.” I tell her, “Yes, of course.” I tell her, “well, thank you for your kindness.” And then she tells me, “Well I am going to lend you this notebook so that this afternoon won’t go to waste.” And she started to write the alphabet—a, b, c, and all of that. And I took it with me and at night I studied. I told her, “And tomorrow, what will I get out of this? They’re going to keep throwing the hammer at me, throwing the wrenches at my back, because I don’t feel like this helps me in my job.” Well, that night I hardly slept. I got the notebook and on the other side [of the page] where the alphabet was written I made a list of all of the, of all of the tools that we used as mechanics: the hammer, I put “martillo”; then I put pliers, screwdriver, wrenches, then the size of the wrenches and the caliber, the material, and I put all of the tools on a list. I already knew what tools were needed and used as a mechanic. So the next day I go to her and I say, “hey, I’m sorry but the system you’re using to teach me English will take a lifetime [to learn so that] I can speak English. I want to speak English now because I need it.” She says, “And how do you want to learn?” I tell her, “my way.” “How?” [she asks]. “Like this. How I have this [list]. I’m going to learn it like that,” [I said]. And she starts to look [at it] and she says, “I doubt it.” I say, “Well I don’t doubt it because I am going to learn it.” Then I say, “just do me a favor. How do you say hammer in English? How do you explain it?” She says, “hammer [in English].” [I ask,] “what are the pliers called?” “Pliers [in English],” [she says]. “What is the screwdriver called?” [I ask]. “Screwdriver [in English],” [she says]. So I wrote in Spanish, but however I thought it was spelled in English and that was how I learned a bit of English.
ML: For you what does the word “bracero” mean?
JL: Well, the term “bracero” . . . well, for me it is a word of distinction. For me it is a word full of pride. It is a word that I want to live on in history.
ML: Do you feel like the Bracero Program impacted your town in México?
JL: I feel like the Bracero Program impacted all Mexicans—that in some way or another they were touched; they were favored; they were noticed; they were motivated to direct themselves to this nation, because if there would have never been braceros, there wouldn’t be the millions of Mexicans in the United States that there actually are today . . . whether we are legal or illegal. But I am sure that if it wasn’t for the Bracero Program we Mexicans wouldn’t be in the United States in the way we are today.
ML: And how did your town change because of the Program?
JL: Well because of the braceros, my town . . . I was the first one to be contracted from my town as a bracero. Afterwards there began to be more [who became braceros]. When I . . . when the Bracero Program ended there were about twelve braceros from my town. So that was a big difference between zero braceros, one bracero, and twelve braceros.
ML: And what did your sisters and your mom think about so many braceros going [to the United States]?
JL: Well, I think that what my mom and my sisters thought . . . it was very difficult for them to think or soak up [understand] the problems that we braceros had. That is hard, very hard because even as far as today I have not had the willingness to say to my mother: “This is what I suffered when I was a bracero.” And I am not going to do it. Today I am doing it because I feel a duty as a Mexican, as a bracero, that if this is a story that starts or if this is a story that goes on the road, I am part [a link] of the chain of this story.
ML: How do you feel that they call you a bracero?
JL: I feel proud. I feel proud to have been a bracero because I started at the bottom. I suffered in the beginning. Life threw me blows at the beginning. I started with humiliations. But today I also feel fortunate because I have a family; I live in the United States; God gave me children who had opportunities that I didn’t have; but the important thing is that I feel like they [the opportunities] are mine.
ML: Did having been a bracero change your life in any way?
JL: Yes, it changed my life a lot because for me life has been [like] school. Every day is different. Everyday is new. We all have economic problems, health [problems], disagreements about everything, but there is always an alternative—how to confront it, how to resolve it, and I discovered this on the path of the braceros.
ML: I have just finished the interview, but would you like to share anything more or say anything more before I turn off the tape?
JL: Well, what I want to say is to all those who are collaborating on this bracero history, that they should not feel embarrassed. They should not feel like second-class citizens among any society, among any race or nation. They should only feel like humans with their own, with their roots, with their traditions that their parents have instilled in them. Because it makes me sad to hear news of drug addiction, of hooliganism, of ruin, but it makes me proud and satisfied [to hear] of Hispanics who persevere, who better themselves, who try to be the star which many Hispanics should follow, because we are a large nation, strong, capable. And in the future the reality shines that the United States will pay attention to us—not like numbers, rather like people with rights, with respect, with dignity, so that our race and our children can feel proud to be Hispanic and to be people who have come [from], come from braceros.
ML: Thank you, uncle.
End of interview.