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free , the land of opportunity . Many had grown up in extreme poverty and desired a better life for their families . My father left Jalisco , Mexico , at age 18 to work in the Central Valley . Rather than going through the Bracero Program he looked for work on his own because he believed it was the best way to be justly rewarded for his hard work .”
With so many Mexicans seeking employment , jobs were highly competitive . Farm bosses prioritized young workers , the ones with calluses on their hands . There were long waits at the border before men were admitted to processing centers , where they were fingerprinted , and their belongings searched for weapons and marijuana . They had to remove their clothes and were subjected to humiliating physical exams after which they were sprayed with DDT . If selected , they were bused to various locations , primarily to harvest crops , with no choice as to where they were sent or who they worked for .
The Bracero Program was beset by violations of the agreedupon terms . Worker protections were often ignored . Laborers regularly worked unpaid overtime . “ Stoop labor ” was a common practice whereby workers were supplied with hoes with very short handles . These hoes made it easier for them to work in tight crop rows and were cheaper to supply , but they forced workers to stoop low and resulted in chronic back injuries .
Many workers were illiterate and unaware of their contractual rights . Farm owners sometimes added unreasonable surcharges to workers ’ room and board bills . Few ever complained , for fear of retaliation or deportation .
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electricity . In other cases , they had to pay for drinking water and a piece of cardboard to sleep on . But they continued to come to America .
“ The borders were fluid in those days ,” Banuelos said . “ Border patrols handled things differently than they do today . Everyone knew labor was needed . Farm owners who did get caught just shrugged it off and paid the fines . They chalked it up to the cost of doing business .”
More than four million natives of Mexico migrated to America during the Bracero Program to work on farms and railroads , some legally , others illegally .
Banuelos explained , “ Some farm owners treated their workers well and supported them in getting green cards so they could extend their stay , advance their skills and earn higher wages . But at times , farm owners and U . S . authorities turned a blind eye to discrimination , unsafe working conditions and withholding of wages . When confronted with the injustices , their common refrain was , ‘ What ’ s the big deal ? They ’ re used to living like this .’"
Workers sometimes had to forage in garbage heaps to find food scraps , watermelon rinds and banana peels . Many were housed in overcrowded and unsanitary quarters with no plumbing or
The rise of the United Farm Workers , led most famously by Cesar Chavez , Dolores Huerta , as well as others , organized farm labor workers and pressured U . S . government agencies for labor and civil rights reforms . This and other factors , such as mechanization , led to the Bracero Program ’ s termination in 1964 .
Lee G . Williams , a U . S . Labor Department executive , ran the Bracero Program from 1959 until 1964 . Years later , he reflected on the program in an interview with the Dallas Morning News , calling it “ legalized slavery ” and adding , “ I pray they don ’ t reinstate this type of program … nothing but a way for big corporate farms to get a cheap labor supply from Mexico under government sponsorship . The whole thing was supposed to be humanistic , but it was far short of what it should have been .”
Continued ...
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