March 1, 2018

Documenting the Complex History of America’s Braceros

In 2017, agricultural workers who entered the United States through the 1942 Bracero Program returned to El Paso, Texas, to commemorate the program’s 75th anniversary. The two-day Bracero History Summit took place on campus at UTEP College of Liberal Arts and at Rio Vista Farm, a National Treasure of the National Trust. UTEP’s Institute of Oral History created a short film documenting stories from the braceros for the event.

Voices from the Border features in-person interviews with the braceros, as well as audio documentation from the Institute of Oral History archives. The Institute has documented over 20,000 pages of transcript from over 1,500 oral interviews that “preserve the history of the region adjacent to the Rio Grande, both in the United States and in Mexico.”

Their work demonstrates the necessity of documenting the often unnoticed and underappreciated contributions of the people who have helped lift America up throughout its history. Carlos Marentes, director of the Center for Agricultural Border Workers (Centro de Trabajadores Agricoles Fronterizos), says “we recognize the soldiers, the officials, and all those who participated in World War II. But we do not recognize that it was the braceros who were in charge of the agricultural production, who made it possible to win the war and stabilize the economy after.”

Braceros at 2017's oral history summit.

photo by: Zeke Pena

Attendees enjoy themselves at Bracero History Summit in 2017.

The documentary also deals with the complexities of being a bracero—the opportunities it gave hundreds of thousands of immigrants to start new lives and bring their families to the United States, contrasted with the inhumane treatment they faced at processing centers like Rio Vista and on the field. During their work, braceros were met with nearly inedible food, humiliating medical and psychological examinations, and even fumigation.

One bracero describes standing in line for days and sleeping on a cardboard mat while he waited to be processed. Leopoldo Avila, another bracero, says the experience was far from easy. “It was being out there in the sun, in a long line, and not being well fed because we barely had any food,” he explains. “No person with wealth would choose to suffer like that.”

But, at the same time, the program “brought a sense of community among the braceros,” according to Yolanda Chavez Levya, oral historian and director of UTEP’s Institute of Oral History. “It allowed them to show their humanity; it allowed them to show their creativity. How did the men survive in a country they didn’t know—often in a language they didn’t know?”

Bracero Juan Loza says that, despite the hardships of his work, “I am very proud to be a bracero. I started at the very bottom. I started with suffering, with life’s hard knocks, with humiliation, and now I feel fortunate, given that I have a family, that I live in the United States. God gave me children who have had opportunities I didn’t have.”

View the full documentary below.

Carson Bear is an Editorial Assistant at the National Trust. She’s passionate about combining popular culture with historic places, and loves her 200-year-old childhood farmhouse in Pennsylvania.

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