Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library

Braceros: Migrant Citizens and Transnational Subjects in the Postwar United States and Mexico

  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    At the beginning of World War II, the United States and Mexico launched the bracero program, a series of labor agreements that brought Mexican men to work temporarily in U.S. agricultural fields. InBraceros, historian Deborah Cohen asks why these temporary migrants provoked so much concern and anxiety in the United States and what the Mexican government expected to gain in participating in the program. Cohen reveals the fashioning of a U.S.-Mexican transnational world, a world created through the interactions, negotiations, and struggles of the program's principal protagonists including Mexican and U.S. state actors, labor activists, growers, and bracero migrants. Cohen argues that braceros became racialized foreigners, Mexican citizens, workers, and transnational subjects as they moved between U.S. and Mexican national spaces.Drawing on oral histories, ethnographic fieldwork, and documentary evidence, Cohen creatively links the often unconnected themes of exploitation, development, the rise of consumer cultures, and gendered class and race formation to show why those with connections beyond the nation have historically provoked suspicion, anxiety, and retaliatory political policies.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0339-1
    Subjects: Political Science, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[ix])
  3. [Map]
    (pp. [x]-[x])
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    “I lived with many other men, in a barracks,” Álvaro García told me as he snipped a customer’s hair. He was, as always, holding court in the local barbershop he owned in a small village in the central part of the Mexican state of Durango. “I had never done that—lived with other men before—only with my family.” The barbershop served as a central meeting place for the pueblo elders and thus was where I spent most afternoons during my fieldwork. It was the summer of 1995. Don Álvaro, then in his late sixties, recounted his tale to the...

  5. Part I Producing Transnational Subjects

    • 1 Agriculture, State Expectations, and the Configuration of Citizenships
      (pp. 21-46)

      At four o’clock one morning in August 1942, a mere eight days after the Mexican government announced its intent to support the world war against fascism by sending men to work in the United States, hopeful migrants congregated in lines that wound around the Ministry of Labor building. Only six thousand spots were available for the entire country, yet more than ten thousand men converged on the capital.¹ Over the next twenty-two years, more than 4.5 million work contracts were awarded in what one newspaper called an “important experiment in planned migration.”² Why would so many men wait hours, days...

    • 2 Narrating Class and Nation: Agribusiness and the Construction of Grower Narratives
      (pp. 47-66)

      In testimony before a House of Representatives subcommittee on the bracero program in 1955, William H. Tolbert, a representative of two California growers associations, described the hopes of the American farmer, who never wanted his son to “get up and milk cows at four o’clock in the morning and work until dark and after [that] take care of the chores.” Instead, the son should “go to town and become a doctor or business executive or lawyer.” For him, announced Tolbert, “we paved the road from the farm to town.”¹

      Few, if any, of the farmers in whose name Tolbert spoke...

    • 3 Manhood, the Lure of Migration, and Contestations of the Modern
      (pp. 67-86)

      “The euphoria about the bracero program was incredible,” a former bracero told his questioner. “Everyone wanted to go. . . . I realized that it was very good opportunity to avail myself of resources.”¹

      In Santa Angélica, a similar collective sentiment was repeated by the men of the barbershop. Ramón Avitia, one of the town elders, said, “We all thought we were going to get rich.”

      “Yes, that’s what we thought,” agreed Álvaro García, the barbershop’s owner.

      “If we worked hard, did what our bosses wanted, we’d make a lot of money.” “I thought that things were fair in the...

  6. Part II Bracero Agency and Emergent Subjectivities

    • 4 Rites of Movement, Technologies of Power: Making Migrants Modern from Home to the Border
      (pp. 89-112)

      One warm afternoon, Álvaro García told the crew in the barbershop how proud he was to have been selected. “I was proud, too,” said Ramón Avitia. State offcials “told us we would teach the Americans about Mexico,” that “we’d bring progress to Mexico, to Durango.”¹ Erasmo Bolívar echoed this sentiment in a 1950 letter to President Miguel Alemán Valdés (1946–52). When he headed north, he wrote, he wanted to take along his “undying pride” in Mexico, “along with [his] sombrero.”² “What I wanted was an adventure,” explained Mariano Chores Alarcón, “[but] we were soldiers of agriculture.” If not for...

    • 5 With Hunched Back and on Bended Knee: Race, Work, and the Modern North of the Border
      (pp. 113-144)

      “It’s a picture of San Andrés before the revolution,” replied Mauricio Herrera to my question about the black-and-white photograph hanging next to one of Pancho Villa, revolutionary hero and Durango’s legendary son. “We didn’t own any land; we worked the landowner’s.” While reform policies subsequently apportioned land to many Durango residents, that land still did not yield enough to support don Mauricio’s growing family. “[There was] not enough rain, no credit, no government support—so I had to go to north.” As Guillermo, my escort and assistant in this community, and I sat in the main room of don Mauricio’s...

    • 6 Strikes against Solidarity: Containing Domestic Farmworkers’ Agency
      (pp. 145-172)

      “Sure, the work was hard . . . and the food, sometimes it was hard, too,” said Ramón Avitia, in a moment of levity. He glanced around the barbershop at me and the four men on the bench, who nodded in agreement. “Growers,” he continued in a somber tone, “didn’t always respect the contract or pay us what it said. But it was hard to advocate for ourselves and our rights. We were far from home, didn’t speak the language, and often had no one to go to for help. Mostly we braceros struggled alone.”¹ Don Ramón’s recollections coincided with...

    • 7 Border of Belonging, Border of Foreignness: Patriarchy, the Modern, and Making Transnational Mexicanness
      (pp. 173-198)

      One afternoon in the barbershop, Raúl Molina mentioned crossing the border back to Mexico. “I was coming back,” he told the assemblage of men in their sixties and seventies. “I got off the bus and walked up to the border guard. . . . The soldier was young, although I wasn’t that old then either, and he wanted some money from me. When I wouldn’t give him any, he tried to distract me and take some. I said to him, ‘We’re compatriotas [countrymen]. Why do you want to steal from me?’ I couldn’t understand.”¹ Other men have described similar border...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
  7. Part III The Convergence of Elite Alliances

    • 8 Tipping the Negotiating Hand: State-to-State Struggle and the Impact of Migrant Agency
      (pp. 201-222)

      “I went only once,” Ramón Avitia told me, referring to his bracero journey. “I didn’t earn much money and it was hard work, but with what I made I built my house and bought a few cows.”

      “I went several times,” don Álvaro said. “When I came home the last time, I opened this barbershop.”

      During one of our barbershop conversations, many men spoke of coming and going between Durango and California. Whether they went once or several times, most men I spoke with were drawn by the promise the program held out.

      “They said it was an opportunity,” Felipe...

  8. Epilogue
    (pp. 223-230)

    One morning in 2005, as I stared at the blinking cursor, I was distracted by the radio in the background. National Public Radio was running a story on a debate in a Washington, D.C., suburb over whether the municipality should invest in a day laborers’ center to shelter immigrant men who waited outside for possible work. I was struck by the voice of Mary Barder, a white southern woman, who at a local hearing declared that “these men will never use the new facility.” They “just want to gather to hang out,” she claimed, instead of learning to “live like...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 231-278)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 279-304)
  11. Acknowledgments/Agradecimientos
    (pp. 305-314)
  12. Index
    (pp. 315-328)