INSIDE Chico State
0 December 12, 2002
Volume 33 Number 8
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THE BRACEROS: An untold story

Arturo Lopez (on right with foot on fender), uncle of Paul Lopez, drove this truck to pick up braceros from Santa Barbara in the 1950s.

Arturo Lopez (on right with foot on fender), uncle of Paul Lopez, drove this truck to pick up braceros from Santa Barbara in the 1950s. His father, Benny Lopez, translated for the workers and helped direct them in their jobs, as well as worked beside them.

A very young Lopez (Paul Lopez's brother) sits on the fender of a company truck, era early 1950s.

A very young Lopez (Paul Lopez's brother) sits on the fender of a company truck, era early 1950s.


Sometimes they were met with parades honoring their contribution to the U.S. war effort. Too often they were met with signs at restaurants, shops, and movies saying, "No Mexicans Allowed." -- Paul Lopez

They were the braceros, agricultural workers brought to the United States under a legalized guest worker program initiated by the United States in 1942 to alleviate the labor shortage caused by American men going off to war. The labor force left behind was insufficient to staff the factories producing the armaments of war and to sustain food production and maintain the railways.

By the time the program ended in 1964, close to 5 million braceros had come to work in American fields and railroads in 26 states. Yet few people today know of them or their stories, said Professor Paul Lopez, Department of Sociology and Center for Multicultural and Gender Studies, who is telling those stories with the first extensive oral history of the braceros. The term comes from the Spanish word brazos, meaning "arms."

So far, Lopez has interviewed 25 former braceros, mainly in the Santa Barbara area, where he was born and grew up.

"This project began as a conversation with my father," he said. His father, Benny Lopez, worked 10 years (1951-61) with the braceros on Dos Pueblos Ranch in Goleta, north of Santa Barbara. As a U.S. citizen born in Colorado, he was not officially a bracero himself, but he worked alongside them in the lemon groves and helped to translate between workers and growers.

Through his research, Lopez learned how the program worked and of the many abuses it generated.

With the promise of higher wages than they could earn at home, the braceros were recruited in the major agricultural regions of Mexico, where employment had become scarce and families impoverished. "Entire communities used the bracero program as a means for survival," Lopez said.

Braceros received an Alien Laborer's Permit and signed a contract, usually for 9-12 months, at the end of which they had to turn in their permits and return to Mexico, even if they planned to sign on again.

The abuses began before they even left Mexico. At recruitment centers in major central and northern Mexican cities, they could wait for days or months for a contract, paying bribes, running out of money, and sleeping in parks with no facilities.

Those selected were sent by train to the border, where they were herded naked into a room, examined ignominiously, then sprayed without explanation or permission with a white powder for lice.

Ranchers would pick up the braceros at the borders and transport them to the camps. Many workers didn't know where they were going or what to expect. Although the bracero treaty called for contracts to be written in Spanish, often they were in English, and the braceros did not understand what they were agreeing to.

Contracts specified a five-day work week, but many growers forced braceros to work seven days, doing extra jobs like washing cars, cleaning, and gardening for no extra pay. Braceros were dismayed to discover a major flaw in their contracts: When the weather was bad, there was no pay at all, and some braceros were out of work for months, struggling to eat. Access to water was difficult, and some died of dehydration.

Under the agreement, 10 percent of braceros' pay was withheld, to be transferred to individual savings funds in Mexico. However, most workers never received the money, and now braceros' groups are organizing to get back an estimated $150 million in lost funds. Lopez informed his interviewees about a class action lawsuit and gave them an application to join. Most, he stated, were not even aware of the loss.

When their contracts expired, many braceros signed another, often going back to the same ranch. Some stayed behind illegally and found other jobs. "Most illegal immigration from Mexico was spawned by the bracero program," Lopez declared. "Once you begin the process of recruiting immigrants," he said, "they are going to find ways to settle here."

Most of his interviewees have legalized their residency. Some still migrate back and forth to Mexico.

Lopez urged future guest worker program planners to learn from the bracero history, researching settlement issues and building in amnesty provisions for those who participate in future programs.

Lopez's research was sponsored by a $4,000 grant from the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, which enabled him to do archival research at University of California, Los Angeles, and by a postdoctoral fellowship from the Center for Chicano Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara, which allowed him to work full time on the oral history from Sept. 2001 to June 2002. Currently, he is an assistant professor in Chicano studies and sociology and co-coordinates the Chicano Studies program. He completed a B.A. in Chicano studies at California State University, Northridge; an M.A. in sociology at the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana; and a Ph.D. in sociology at Northeastern University in Boston.

Having finished transcribing the tapes of his first phase of interviews, Lopez is working on the first chapter of a book, which he targets for classes in Chicano studies, ethnic studies, sociology, and public policy.

For the second phase, he plans to interview braceros who returned to Mexico, as well as growers, recruiters, children born in the United States, wives left in Mexico and those who married braceros in the United States.

Lopez has rarely been turned away by prospective interviewees, he said, "once they learned how important their stories are."

Francine Gair


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