The Bracero Program was an arrangement made between the U.S. and Mexico during World War II that lasted from 1942 until its “formal” ending in 1965 to make up for the large number of men America was sending overseas. Mexican workers faced high unemployment and inadequate harvests during the 1930s, so many migrated to the United States to search for opportunities, according to the Sin Fronteras Organizing Project.
This program was a debated issue whenever it was first introduced. The Bracero Archive says that “Mexican nationals, desperate for work, were willing to take arduous jobs at wages scorned by most Americans.” This is mostly because farm workers living in the United States were worried that braceros would be their rivals for jobs and work for lower wages.
Alma Vázquez, José’s 42-year-old daughter, said her father was fortunate enough to miss the abusive parts of the Bracero Program.
“He had just come to the United States to get married, then he went back to Mexico,” Alma said. She looked at her father, who still had a little bit of dirt on his work clothes, as he leaned back in his chair. “It wasn’t until after that did he start his bracero work in Texas, so luckily he was not treated as poorly.”
Initially, the idea behind the Bracero Program was to have protections set up to guard not only the Hispanic workers but domestic workers as well. For example, they were supposed to be guaranteed at least minimum wage; sufficient, sanitary, and free housing; decent meals at sensible prices, work-related insurance at the employer's expense and free transportation back to Mexico at the end of the contract.
The Bracero archive notes that, for the most part, none of these things happened for workers in the program. Safeguards that were put up were just a way to look good on paper, but when it came to the work, the braceros were not receiving what they had been initially promised. At first these “braceros” — Spanish for “one who works using his arms” — were abused in the U.S., typically receiving low wages and undergoing physical examinations where they were made to undress and were sprayed with insecticide, according to the Bracero Archive.
Vázquez’s wife, Esther, said fieldwork was the only option for Hispanics or Latinos in the Bracero Program. Their work was supposed to be temporary, but for some, their labor eventually turned into a career.
Vázquez was part of the program from 1958 to 1959. Alma said her father stayed in Mexico for many years, working in a furniture store. He came back to the U.S. in the 1980s, and has worked in the fields ever since.
After he and his wife bought a house in the small community of Chuckey, Tennessee, Vázquez said he has not thought about leaving Tennessee, partly because his family has found people who support them in the community.
Despite his expertise in picking cotton, pears, oranges and other types of agriculture, Vázquez works on a tobacco farm. He said it is hard, wanting to produce on a field of tobacco that is not yielding much. It is difficult work that takes a toll on his body.
Vázquez said he is allergic to the bushes, and he lifted up dirty sleeves to show scars left by allergic reactions to working in the fields. Dirt from his clothes seemed to fill the room from the simple gesture. When he had walked inside the house for an interview, he declined to shake a reporter’s hand because he thought his hands were too dirty.
“Teach me your work, I can do it!” the reporter said, hoping to give him some confidence in future agriculture workers, but he laughed it off.
Even now, Vázquez said there are no “gringos” working on the farm because the work is too hard for them. It takes endurance to work long hours in the sun, and Vázquez says he feels like just another “machine.”
Vázquez has seen plenty of changes since the Bracero Program ended in 1964. Mexico is not the only source of farm workers. Today, he works with people from places like Guatemala or El Salvador.
“It is because he has done this his whole life. You ask him: ‘Would you like to own a furniture store?’ and he responds, ‘Oh yes, that would have been nice,’ but he has never thought of it unless you bring it up. He only thinks of working in the fields.”
— Alma Vázquez
Alma Vázquez said that aside from farm work, her father cannot think of anything else he would like to do with his time. “It is because he has done this his whole life. You ask him: ‘Would you like to own a furniture store?’ and he responds, ‘Oh yes, that would have been nice,’ but he has never thought of it unless you bring it up. He only thinks of working in the fields.”
Esther Vázquez’s sat slowly in her seat while her husband went outside and started picking tomatillos in his garden.
“If you have a hamburger you do not want it without the lettuce or tomato, right?” she said. “Someone has to work…. But bottom line, if you obey them [the bosses] you will be fine.”José’s garden looked old and overtaken by time, but the weathered man kept leaning over the stale branches and leaves, plucking tomatillos. His wife followed close behind picking up a bucket and moving it to sit on every few feet, and his grandchildren played football nearby.
“He will never stop working,” Alma had said, “until the day he dies.”
Above: Esther and José Vázquez at their home in Chuckey, Tennessee
En español: Bracero de por vida