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I’ve been waiting such a long time… Braceros

21 February 2014

About 40 former Mexican laborers, or braceros, who worked in the U.S. in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, still want to know where their money went.

The men gathered in Juarez on Wednesday to ask the United States to open the Bracero Program’s files and make public how much of the stipend held in the immigrant workers’ paychecks were returned when they went back to México.

They hope the petition forces the Mexican government to reactivate the payments from a special fund set up by the U.S. in Mexico for former braceros. The payments stopped when Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto took office in December 2012.

Loreno Figueroa, El Paso Times

Given that it became the exception, rather than the rule, to import foreign workers for U.S. agriculture, its understandable that people forget that this was only meant to be a temporary wartime measure.  As a result of the 1910-20 Revolution, Mexico had a bloated and politicized military establishment.  General  Joaquín Amaro, who served as Secretary of War from 1924 to 1931, and as a military adviser to Presidents Cardenas and  Ávila Camacho was rather unique in the annals of bureaucracy in that he spent most of his career trying to cut his budget, as he fostered a smaller, more professional military that met Mexico’s modest defense needs.

In 1942, when it became obvious that Mexico would become involved in what would be known in the histories here as the “War Against Nazis and Fascism”, Amaro’s success meant Mexico was in no real position to provide more than token military support to the war effort.  Which did not mean it could not play a vital role.  With the United States desperately short of workers, Mexico agreed to provide labor … and did, even after it entered the war itself (although it was only able to provice token air units to the Pacific Theater).  220,000 Mexicans volunteered for temporary exile, with the understanding that they would be paid the same wages as those U.S. workers who they were TEMPORARILY replacing, and that ten percent of their wages would be held in escrow for their return.

While some of the problems that developed (there were strikes as early as 1943 against employers who were paying Mexicans less than native workers, and throughout the war over unfair labor practices) were probably due to simple misunderstanding and the confusion inherent in any overnight emergency bureaucratic program (one can see how an “Anglo” farmer might mix up records for for Juan Sanchez Valdez and Juan Sanchez Suarez, for example) others were never resolved:  the escrow payments in may instances were never set aside, lost, or stolen by either the employer, or the local banks that were supposedly handling the funds.  Adding to the problem Mexican institutions that were equally unprepared to handle the accounts.  And, to top things off, the workers themselves were poorly instructed (or never instructed) on how to record their earnings, let alone told what records they needed to keep.

Braceros at Mexicali, 1954 (Wikimedia Commons)

Braceros at Mexicali, 1954 (Wikimedia Commons)

Except for those workers, the program was a “win-win”… Mexican officials (who may have also pocketed some of those escrow payments) like the “bracero” program because it created jobs for otherwise unemployable, mostly rural, workers that couldn’t otherwise be brought into the growing industrialized economy during a time of unprecedented population growth.  In the U.S., it provided a flexible rural workforce, and — unfortunately — one that employers felt less compunction about abusing than they might feel about native workers.  As a result, the “temporary” program was extended, and remained until the U.S. reformed its immigration laws in 1965.

Braceros in Juarez, 2014 (Lorena Figueroa / El Paso Times)

Braceros in Juarez, 2014 (Lorena Figueroa / El Paso Times)

The program was a mess, and what monies remained unpaid, stayed unpaid.  Various bank consolidations over the years unclosed massive frauds in the United States, while the frauds in Mexico … which might have been disclosed given a thorough examination of the records, became impossible after most of the surviving records were lost in the 1985 Mexico City earthquake.  Various lawsuits and settlements with U.S. banks created a fund, which with additional funds from the Mexican government was created to compensate the unpaid “braceros”… but, with the workers themselves no longer having the records, many will never receive their over-due payments.  That’s a tragedy.

However, simply to cut off the attempts to pay is an insult.  Neither the U.S. nor the Mexican government comes out of this one unscathed.

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