It is easy for many to forget, or in some cases, not realize, that African Americans were not the only US subculture to experience hardship and discrimination. Asian Americans had laws enacted against them to keep them apart and separate from American society and to prevent them from fully participating in it. Many died, while building the transportation systems that allowed this nation to develop, flourish and grow. Others could not live where they wanted to, were murdered and beaten, and denied employment that they were more than qualified for. Still others, despite being American citizens, were forcibly removed and detained on the basis of not looking Caucasian. Apparently the ‘cau’ was the coupon code that permitted the Bill of Rights.
Latinos also have their history in these United States of America. LaRaza featured an article about Mr. Salvador Torres, who worked as a bracero. The bracero program was prompted by a demand for manual labor during World War II, and begun with the U.S. government bringing in a few hundred experienced Mexican agricultural laborers to harvest sugar beets in the Stockton, California area. The Braceros have been challenging the US government and Mexican government to identify and return deductions taken from their pay. There were savings accounts that they were legally guaranteed to receive upon their return to Mexico at the conclusion of their contracts. Many were cheated out of the money that they earned. Because the Mexican banks in question did not operate in the United States, lawsuits that began in the late 1990s in the federal courts in California were thrown out.
Forty-four years ago, Salvador Torres, who owns a hardware store in Pilsen, was one of the Braceros. He left his village Villa Morales in the state of Michoacan, Mexico to go to Empalme, Sonora. At this location there was a special camp where a contractor would charge them $100 to enroll them in the Bracero Program. The treatment of braceros is now known to be poor. Torres said, “They made us feel like garbage… If the contacts of our coyotes were good, they called our list. If not, they disappeared with all our money and we had to return to our homeland dirty, and hungry; sometimes covered in lice, in debt, and defeated.”
According to Torres, when they were called, they were made to answer questions relating to whether they could see, and they were also forced to strip naked. Torres said that their parts were also pulled on and jerked, as if they were animals, and that they were also forced to position themselves to be examined as if they had hemorrhoids. He said, “We are treated as if we were criminals. ” In the article, Torres recounts that the first time Torres was a hired laborer in Santa Paula, California, he picked lemons and oranges, and was paid 35 cents on the dollar box. The lodging was included but they were charged for food. Braceros had no rights, and many were left humiliated by the treatment they received. This abuse occurred not only in the United States, but in Mexico, by Mexicans, as well.
One point Salvador Torres wanted to make is that the bracero was never illegal: “The Bracero was the one who came to do the work of those who went to war. Do not confuse the us, the Braceros with wet, for I was bracero first, and then wet. “
So when we see the weathered faces of those who speak with accents, and listen to their stories, we honor our history as Americans. We also honor the struggle of all immigrants who came here to make their life and despite despicable treatment, they have chosen to make this, these United States of America, their home, their life, and their future.
The original article was entitled, “Yo fui bracero” and was published in Spanish in LaRaza:
For more information on the Bracero Program, I recommend the Smithsonian Institute’s pages of America on The Move. The photos of men being sprayed with DDT remind me of how Americans of Japanese descent were also sprayed with pesticides while in captivity. It is shocking to realize how non Whites were treated and how acceptable this all was during the middle of the 1900′s.