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Can you tell us about the Bracero Program?

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The bracero workers are an interesting group of people. The bracero program was a short period of American history from 1942 to 1964 under which Mexican nationals, Mexican citizens could come to work in the United States on short-term labor contracts. It was a guest worker program and it was initiated during World War II as--There was a tremendous lack of workers and looking for people to help out while soldiers were fighting in Europe and in Asia and the program continued on. It became very attractive to growers. It was very attractive to people in Mexico. It was a bilateral agreement. It was actually a series of different agreements and over the lifetime of the bracero program, the 22 years it was in operation, it's estimated 4.5 million contracts were let and while some people came on numerous contracts, it's in excess of two million different people came to work in the U.S. as guest workers. Now, many of these workers eventually stayed. They learned--had connections, learned the land, and decided to stay. Others went back, but it represents a very important chapter in American history. The bracero program is one of those stories that's bittersweet, that it created opportunity for impoverished people, that many Mexicans had no opportunity for cash work and by coming "el norte," coming north to work in the U.S., they could make what was for them huge money and they could build houses, they could feed their family, they could buy agricultural equipment, they could buy things like radios and things that we think of as everyday necessities, clothing, but they were also exploited, that they were paid lousy wages by our standards. They were put up in substandard housing. They were given poor food. They were segregated as separate people and treated unfairly. It is very difficult to understand. One has to look at the bracero program and see it as important but you can't say that it was all bad nor was it all good. It was a complicated story and like all history, the more you look it, the more you unpack it, the more troubling and confusing it becomes.


Interview with Peter Liebhold, National Museum of American History, May 31, 2006.