Smithsonian scholar examines legacy of the U.S.-Mexico Bracero Program

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Smithsonian historian Mireya Loza during her Nov. 10 talk, “In the Camp’s Shadow: Uncovering the Sexual, Political, and Indigenous Worlds of the Bracero.” (Photo by Erin Johnson)

Just two days after the end of an election season in which immigration was a top issue, historian Mireya Loza spoke to students and faculty about the Bracero Program, a binational agreement between the United States and Mexico that allowed Mexican male laborers to enter the United States on temporary work permits to cover a labor shortage brought on by World War II.

Over 4.5 million bracero contracts were issued between 1942 and 1964, with most participants working in the agriculture and railroad sectors. While the program was received with excitement immediately after the war, that feeling dissipated throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

Loza, a curator in the Division of Political History at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, led an effort to collect more than 800 oral histories over four years as part of the Bracero History Archive. The archive contains personal testimonies from braceros, their family members, and those who provided services to them. It is the largest Latino archive, by theme, in existence. Loza also worked on Smithsonian’s “Bittersweet Harvest” exhibition, which has been traveling the country for eight years.

In her Nov. 10 talk, “In the Camp’s Shadow: Uncovering the Sexual, Political, and Indigenous Worlds of the Bracero,” Loza explained that Mexican workers were brought to contracting centers in central and northern Mexico, where they often had to wait for several months before entering the United States. In these contracting centers, the braceros were subjected to traumatic and alienating personal inspections, during which they were stripped naked and sprayed with DDT. During the wait, some applicants decided to cross the border and became undocumented immigrants, Loza said.

Drawing on the histories she collected, Loza focused her talk on three case studies that deviated from what she called “the norm of masculine Mestizo respectability.” In the first case study, she discussed indigenous braceros for whom Spanish was a second language. The Mexican government saw the program as an opportunity for these indigenous men to become “modernized” through work abroad, and thus better Mexicans when they returned home.

In the second study, Loza spoke of a former bracero from Oaxaca who told her he was aware of same-sex sexual encounters occurring in the barracks. His story focused less on that activity and more on the fact that the lights in the barracks were being cut off many nights as a result. Loza noted that transgender women would often come to the bracero camps to dance with the workers.

Loza’s third case study related to the Bracero Justice Movement, which sought to recuperate back wages. The Mexican government kept 10% of braceros’ pay as an incentive for them to return home after their contract ended. Those funds were never paid to the returning workers, however, resulting in the largest wage theft in the Americas. Loza noted the Bracero Justice Movement emphasizes the exploitative nature of the program and has helped to reinvigorate public discussion around the program and its legacy.

This legacy resonates in both the United States and Mexico today, she said. “Public memory about the Bracero Program highlights this tension between America’s desire for cheap labor and America’s inability to provide this workforce with labor rights or citizenship,” Loza concluded. “Bracero memory reveals the contradictions around contemporary debates in immigration reform and points toward the meaning of American civil rights.”

The event was organized by the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration.

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