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Opportunity or Exploitation: The Bracero Program
 
A Bracero worker in the field holding a short-handled hoe.
A Bracero worker in the field holding a short-handled hoe.

Opportunity or Exploitation: The Bracero Program

The Bracero program (1942 through 1964) allowed Mexican nationals to take temporary agricultural work in the United States. Over the program’s 22-year life, more than 4.5 million Mexican nationals were legally contracted for work in the United States (some individuals returned several times on different contracts). Mexican peasants, desperate for cash work, were willing to take jobs at wages scorned by most Americans. The Braceros’ presence had a significant effect on the business of farming and the culture of the United States. The Bracero program fed the circular migration patterns of Mexicans into the U.S.

Several groups concerned over the exploitation of Bracero workers tried to repeal the program. The Fund for the Republic supported Ernesto Galarza’s documentation of the social costs of the Bracero program. Unhappy with the lackluster public response to his report, Strangers in Our Fields, the fund hired magazine photographer Leonard Nadel to produce a glossy picture-story exposť. Presented here is a selection of Nadel’s photographs of Bracero workers taken in 1956.

Mexican home of a Bracero worker
Mexican home of a Bracero worker
The lure of cash work drew people to the United States, despite the discomfort of being away from family and the often horrible working conditions.
Washing clothes in Mexico
Washing clothes in Mexico
Home of a Bracero worker in Mexico
Home of a Bracero worker in Mexico
The radio in this home was probably sent home by a Bracero worker.
Prospective Braceros
Prospective Braceros
Rural peasants walked long distances to collection points to sign up for Bracero contracts.
Guard at collection point
Guard at collection point
Prospective Braceros lining up to apply for a contract
Prospective Braceros lining up to apply for a contract

Participation in the Bracero program was limited to agricultural workers, and not open to urban dwellers. Prospective Braceros often were asked to show their calloused hands to prove that they were experienced farm laborers. Workers were fingerprinted as part of the processing procedure, and were fumigated with DDT before being allowed to enter the United States.

Bracero workers stooped over in a field using short-handled hoes
Bracero workers stooped over in a field using short-handled hoes
Many growers thought short-handled hoes made workers more careful and kept crops from being damaged. Workers despised the short handled hoe because it forced them to stoop over to work. Eventually short-handled hoes were made illegal.
Many growers thought short-handled hoes made workers more careful and kept crops from being damaged. Workers despised the short handled hoe because it forced them to stoop over to work. Eventually short-handled hoes were made illegal.
The housing provided for Braceros was often substandard.
The housing provided for Braceros was often substandard.
Disputes over pay were not uncommon, as growers deducted money for food, housing, and other expenses.
Disputes over pay were not uncommon, as growers deducted money for food, housing, and other expenses.
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