Feb 9, 2011 by


The picker shouted out to his companion…

“Hey Chico, vigilascia fuero para los espinas en estos de la arboles de limon. Hombre, podra paralizar de le vida si no ves. Damn, son realemente greusas en mi arbole. Como es tuyo?”

Loosely translated he yelled, “Hey Chico, Watch out for the thorns in these lemon trees. Man they’ll cripple you for life if you don’t watch out. Damn, they are really thick on my tree. How’s yours?”

Chico answered, “Muy malo tambien…”

“Very bad too…”

That was a typical worry of young “Braceros”, Mexican men, brought to the United States during World War II as “cheap” (slave?) labor for the growing agricultural industry. It was especially true in California in the years during and after World War II. If they injured their hands on the thorns of the lemon trees, there was no medical help available to them. Infection could set in and if they could not work they would not be paid. Under the agreement between the U. S. and Mexico, the workers were housed (mostly in little more than shacks) fed very basic food, and paid extremely low wages compared to an American laborer but still much more than they could make back home in Mexico where there was little, if any, work at all.

U.S. MEXICAN LABORERThere are some differences between the brown “Bracero” and the black slaves of early America. The black slave was seldom paid anything and was owned by a white man while the brown “Bracero” was paid very little for his labor and was figuratively owned by the farmers and labor contractors who could have them deported if they didn’t co-operate. The black slave picked cotton and cut sugar cane. The brown Bracero picked lemons and cut celery and other row crops. Their social standing in the communities in which they lived was not that much different. The major difference was black slaves were allowed to have wives and families with them (some of the time) while the “Bracero” labored through long hot days and slept alone in his labor camp hut.

The idea of using Mexican workers was first discussed in congress in 1942. Nothing came of it until President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mexican President Manuel Avila Camacho met in Monterey, Mexico in 1943. FDR went to Mexico to discuss that country’s participation in the war as a member of the “Allies”. The two Presidents also discussed importing workers into the U. S. to pick agricultural crops. An agreement to import (men) became a reality in 1943.Braceros leaving Mexico for the US

That original agreement lasted until 1947 but the practice continued until it formally ended in 1964. All of the “Braceros” were shipped home, leaving their camps abandoned and their “Labor contractors” with no one to manage. It is no wonder then that those same contractors welcomed, with open arms, the rush of illegal immigrants that came to fill the void left by their predecessors. The agricultural industry had crops to harvest and no one to do it so they did what they had to do. They began to hire illegal immigrants to pick their crops.

This “Catch 22” was not new to the industry. Prior to World War II, the “Okies and Arkies” picked citrus and other fruits in California for substandard wages and they were mostly treated as slaves. Housing was in “Picker’s Camps”, tents and temporary shelter thrown up to give the workers and their families basic protection from the elements. They too were immigrants to California who fled the huge “dust bowl” of the mid-west of the 1930’s. They came in droves seeking employment in a state that was hard hit by the depression and they were welcomed by farmers who were constantly looking for ways to increase their profits in a fledgling industry.

Agri-business was in its infancy and most farms were still family owned, so those seeking employment dealt on an individual basis with each farmer. This selection process by the farmer excluded anyone of color as the “Okies and Arkies” would not live with or near people of color in their camps. So, from a stream of largely illiterate Caucasian immigrants, farmers were able to carefully choose who they hired to pick their crops, excluding anyone as “Communists” who might even mention unionizing or forming co-ops that would force them to pay higher wages.
December 7th, 1941 changed things for the “Okie and Arkie” pickers in a hurry as better paying factory jobs, building ships, tanks, airplanes and munitions, became available. The army of Caucasian field workers quickly disappeared leaving farmers in a quandary. That was solved, however, when federal law was changed following the meeting of Roosevelt and Comacho allowing Braceros to be used as laborers in the orchards and fields of the quickly expanding and very necessary war time agri-business.

In the agricultural areas where they worked and lived, the Braceros were considered outsiders by the residents who lived around them. About the only contact between the two ethnic groups would be when the “Pickers” walked into town on a Saturday to buy their immediate needs. Braceros at lunch breakThey hiked from the camps in their huraches (Wah-rah-chees), woven leather sandal like shoes, buying necessities at local stores that catered to them. Other than toiletries, most of their needs, food, housing etc., were supplied by the growers with the cost deducted from their pay at highly inflated prices. The men kept little for themselves, sending most of their earnings home to Mexico to help their families there.
Toward the end of the war, there was another source of labor the agricultural industry was allowed to use, prisoners of war guarded by armed MP’s and wearing blue denim jump suits with huge “POW” signs on the front and back. Farmers during the war used German, Italian, and to a smaller extent, Japanese POW’s to bring in the crops. Congress, realizing that the POW’s would not be a labor source after the war, continued to pass “Bracero” program legislation to use Mexican nationals in concert with the POW’s to fill the picking jobs. It was unusual foresight by Congress to plan for the needs of farmers in the post war period but they did it with gusto.

As the cost of living rose after the war so did wages. The now flourishing agri-business still needed a reliable source of cheap labor to bring in their crops. They depended on the Bracero program for help, increasing the number of immigrant field workers to meet their needs.
In the late fifties one of the leading congressional members who took up their fight was Congressman Charles Teague of California. Teague and his brother Milton owned the hugely successful “Limonera Corporation”, a four thousand four hundred acre citrus and row crop ranch in Santa Paula, California that eventually became the largest producer of lemons and avocados in the world. Santa Paula is located in Ventura County in the agriculturally productive Santa Clara Valley.

With Teague leading the way, congress passed legislation that would allow an increased number of Mexican laborers to enter the United States to pick fruit and harvest crops for a low fixed rate of pay. They were required to return to Mexico after the picking season but while they were in the U. S. they were housed in “Laborer’s Camps” and transported back and forth from the fields in old military buses. Their lifestyle was so different that very few were able to integrate into nearby communities. They were looked upon as interlopers, even by the native Latino population.

The Bracero program lasted for 22 years until union organizers began to expose the practices of agri-business and their treatment of the Braceros. The program was allowed to expire in 1964 leaving the growers without a source of cheap labor to pick their crops.
What had been an occasional illegal entry across the Mexican, U. S. Border swelled into a wave of illegal immigrants who were hired illicitly by the growers. “Mexican Wetbacks” were so called because the image of an illegal entrant was of one swimming the Rio Grande River in Texas or the All American Canal in the Imperial Valley of California to find work. The fields of America became a breeding ground for unrest as growers increased the prices of their produce but refused to pay the “Pickers” a living wage.

In the 1960’s a new leader in the quest for justice for farm workers marched onto the national scene. Cesar Estrada Chavez, along with his constant companion and fellow activist Delores Huerta, founded the National Farm Workers Association that later became the UFW, the United Farm Workers. With long lines of marchers shouting their slogan “Huelga” in Spanish, Chavez and his followers began to change the attitudes of “white America” by staging marches, boycotts and sit-ins at farms up and down California. From his headquarters at La Paz, Chavez evoked a loyalty among his followers that was likened to Dr. Martin Luther King, and with largely the same results.

Strike after Strike, sit in after sit in, boycott after boycott finally began to show results. The United Farm Worker’s became a legitimate arm of the AFL-CIO and a voice for immigrant workers and the full force of unionized America came to bear on the agri-business holdouts, mostly grape growers in the San Joaquin Valley. The union shop organizing method was challenged time and time again only to be upheld in court. In 1966 after a particularly contentious showdown on a grape farm near Delano, California, and in a show of support for Chavez and the UFW, the U. S. Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare held hearings in the high school gymnasium at Delano, California near La Paz. In attendance were members of the Senate Committee, Robert F. Kennedy of New York, Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, and Senator George Murphy of California. During the hearings the Sheriff of Kern County, LeRoy Gallion, was called to the stand to testify as to why his men had arrested a large number of strikers on a ranch a few weeks before. Gallion was asked by Senator Robert Kennedy, “Why did your officers arrest those men Sheriff?”

Gallion, a grizzled old west style sheriff said, “We wuz called out by the farmer ‘cause he was afraid things wuz gonna git outta hand. My men drew a line across the road between them and the strikers and when them “mesicans” stepped over that line we arrested ‘em.”

“On what grounds did you arrest them sheriff?” Kennedy asked.

“Well we knew they wuz about ta riot so we took ‘em into custody.”

Kennedy turned a deep shade of red as he said, “This is the most interesting concept. How can you go arrest somebody if they haven’t violated the law? … I suggest that during the luncheon period that the sheriff and the district attorney read the Constitution of the United States!”

Gallion left the auditorium with a buzz in the room. He was not available for further interviews for weeks after that. When he finally did speak out again he avoided all mention of the hearings. He was also defeated in the next election.

The border between the United States and Mexico was like a huge piece of Swiss cheese with holes so big “Coyotes” (Criminals that charged immigrants thousands of dollars for a “free” ride into the U. S.) were able to actually drive trucks and bus loads of illegal workers into the country. Once across the border they scattered to the winds most going to places where jobs awaited them. Some had been deported as many as five times but continually came back for the work that was available here.

What’s the point of my reporting all of this you ask? Well if the old adage is true that “History repeats itself,” we have seen black immigrants sold and made total slaves by American enterprise. We have seen brown Braceros, and more recently illegal immigrants, used as slave labor.

So what comes next? What obnoxious fact of life will become so dominant in our lives that we will enslave another group of human beings to “save” ourselves? Will we be faced with another disaster that can be used as a pretense, an excuse to import aborigines from Australia or Nepalese or South American Indian, Maylasians or Fillipinos, or any other group that does not fit our standards of society?

Or will we finally have the intestinal fortitude, as a nation and a people, to say no to all forms of slavery? From the “Athletic Shoe” factories of south Asia, to the chocolate fields of Africa to the Banana Plantations of Central America or anywhere else child labor is used and exploited, have we had enough of the money-hungry industrialists who use children, the future of our world, as their own personal piggy bank work force?

I know I have.

How about you???

Photo Credits:

Bracero ID card courtesy of The Farmworker’s Website

Next four Bracero photos: Latin American Studies

Child picking cotton in Uzbekistan: Institute for Human Rights and Business

Children harvesting cocoa pods: Labor Awareness

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  1. And we thought the “Pickers” were exploited…Wow Caroll that is chilling information…I knew they made license plates and gunny sacks but I had no idea they were manufacturing equipment for the armed forces…

  2. Great!!! Thank you, very much!!! I always appreciate stuff like this!! oxo!!!

  3. Great input, Caroll, thank you! I would love it if you could give me a link or two, that’s the kind of thing I would really like to sink my teeth into on for some blog research!! : )

  4. ???? Would you expand on your comment, for favor?