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Braceros, Repatriation, and Seasonal Workers - THE GREAT DEPRESSION, BRAZILIAN RACIAL FORMATIONS

mexican united border mexico

Braceros (in Spanish, “laborer,” derived from brazo , “arm”), or field workers from Mexico, have long been an important feature of U.S. agriculture, especially in the southwestern United States. Since the early twentieth century, many millions of such workers have left Mexico on a seasonal or permanent basis in search of jobs on U.S. family farms and in corporate “factories in the fields.” Some workers have come legally and others illegally, sometimes under contract with employers and sometimes as undocumented “freelancers.”

Although economically beneficial to both countries, for generations this cross-border migratory flow has generated significant international conflict, as well as controversy within the United States. The positive aspects of Mexican immigration to the United States have gone largely unrecognized and unappreciated among most Americans, who have stigmatized this group of immigrants and repeatedly turned against them during hard times. Many critics have charged these newcomers with harming the country, both economically and socially. Additional reasons for rejection include racial intolerance, cultural bias, linguistic prejudice, a predominantly negative view of Mexico, and the fact that many immigrants have entered the United States illegally.


From the 1920s to the present, intense anti-Mexican sentiments have flared up repeatedly during downturns in the U.S. economy, with attendant demands by the public for wholesale deportation of Mexicans, imposition of legal restrictions on immigration, and stronger enforcement measures at the border. The prime example of this response is the decade of the Great Depression, which began in 1929. The U.S. economic collapse during that time deepened the opposition to immigration and spawned a movement to rid the nation of foreigners. Mexicans became the principal target of the attacks, leading to massive deportations and repatriations. Thus, in the 1930s, from half a million to one million Mexicans departed the United States. Reflecting the overall composition of the Mexican-origin population, most of those who exited hailed from the working classes. But many families of higher social status also left, depleting an already small Mexican/Mexican-American middle class and elite sector.

The trauma unleashed by deportations and repatriations touched Chicano communities everywhere. Sweeps and raids by immigration agents and local policemen heightened U.S. nativism and encouraged private citizens to attack Mexicans directly. Extreme hostility flared up in the workplace in states and cities that passed laws prohibiting the hiring of non-U.S. citizens in publicly financed projects. Although such statutes applied to all aliens, in the Southwest they were clearly directed against Mexican immigrants. Violations of civil and human rights became commonplace, including harassment, intimidation, illegal arrest and imprisonment, separation of families, and expulsion.

U.S. officials escorted deportees and repatriates across the border and turned them over to Mexican officials, who had the responsibility of meeting their immediate needs, arranging for transportation to their places of destination, and beginning the process of reintegration into Mexican society. The Mexican government waived customs regulations and allowed migrants to import personal belongings and occupational tools. Mexico also provided employment assistance and offered land to those who wished to go into farming. From the Mexican government’s perspective, many of the returning immigrants could be helpful to the Mexican economy because of skills and experience acquired in the United States. Despite the good intentions, however, the Mexican government could not deliver on many of its promises, and the migrants suffered many hardships in Mexico.

By the mid-1930s the harsh reality of life in an impoverished Mexico began driving desperate repatriates back to the United States. But many, even those born north of the border, encountered difficulties recrossing the border at a time when the U.S. Immigration Service exercised strict control over immigration. The U.S. Catholic Welfare Conference stepped in to help the migrants, with mixed results. Large numbers who could not reenter legally because they lacked birth certificates and other papers simply waded across the Rio Grande or walked through the desert into the United States.


physical abuse. Employers and compliance officers routinely ignored the complaints or failed to follow up with concrete solutions, prompting individuals and groups of braceros to engage in work stoppages and even to desert their contracts. In addition to mistreatment in the work-place, braceros had to contend with discrimination in the communities where they worked. Many establishments posted “No Mexicans, White Trade Only” signs in an effort to keep braceros away. Many Mexicans reported verbal abuses, false arrests, and physical attacks.

In the case of Texas, deeply rooted anti-Mexican racism and grower disdain for official wage and working guidelines prompted the Mexican government to exclude that state from participation in the Bracero Program from 1942 to 1947. The ban forced employers to find alternative sources of cheap labor, and they resorted to recruiting undocumented workers without much difficulty.

The Temporary Admissions Program of 1917 and the various Bracero Programs that functioned between 1942 and 1964 illustrate the long tradition in the United States of working with Mexico to implement guest-worker programs when the need for labor arises north of the border. Such arrangements, of course, have consequences beyond the economic benefits to both countries. Inevitably, such programs stimulate greater cross-border migration and permanent settlement of many braceros and their families in the United States. These migratory flows have played an important role in expanding the Mexican-origin population, which as of 2007 numbered about 27 million.

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