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America on the Move
Collection Exhibition Themes
Working the fields

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Working the fields
Photograph by Leonard Nadel, NMAH, History of Technology Collections, Photo by Leonard Nadel


This object appears in the following sections:

Immigration and Migration
A Nation of Immigrants: Latino Stories — Opportunity or Exploitation: The Bracero Program

Working the fields
In collection
From the Smithsonian Collection

The photograph shows braceros working the fields, where they would stay from sunrise to sunset. Thousands of braceros were brought in to perform stoop labor, a task that causes back injuries resulting from the constant strain of bending over all day. Medical clinics reported backache as the most common ailment among the braceros. Since no machine has been able to replace stoop labor, it continues today.

Physical Description
Date Made:
Mountain, Pacific, West South Central

In 1956, Leonard Nadel was hired by the Fund for the Republic, an anti-McCarthy liberal spin off of the Ford Foundation, to document the Bracero Program. In the 1990s, the Smithsonian Institution acquired the Nadel images. The collection contains 64 captioned photographic prints and 1730 original 35mm negatives (with corresponding contact sheets). The images document life in Mexico, mens' experiences of crossing the border, and work and life in the US.

The Bracero Program came into existence in 1942. Growers argued that labor shortages in the United States resulting from World War II required the recruitment of Mexican nationals. Mexico saw the program as a contribution to the war effort. Although the program began as a temporary war measure, it became a fixture of agricultural work landscape until it was finally terminated in 1964.

Over the course of its lifetime, the Bracero Program became the largest and most significant U.S. labor guest worker program of the 20th century. In all, over 4.5 million contracts were awarded through the 22 years of the program. Despite the well-intentioned contracts, the program did not escape controversy. Some point out the widespread abuses of many of the contracts protective provisions and the violation of the legal rights and civil liberties of the braceros while others describe the program as an opportunity for Mexican nationals to make a living and improve the conditions of their families. Regardless of one's opinion of the program, it had a profound effect on Mexican American settlement patterns in the U.S. and numerous Latino families have ancestors who were involved in the Bracero Program.

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