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U.S. once welcomed Mexican laborers

Farm owners faced a potential catastrophe during World War II as their rural workers became soldiers or flocked to the cities to get factory jobs making airplanes, munitions and other weapons for the war effort.

"The farmers were in crisis," said Rogue Valley resident and historian Madelina Cordia. "Who was going to harvest their crops?"

The American and Mexican governments responded to the dilemma by signing the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement in 1942, creating what was known as the Bracero Program — named after the Spanish word "bracero," or one who works using his arms.

From 1942 until its controversial end in 1964, the program brought Mexican immigrants to work legally in the fields and orchards of America, setting the stage for the agricultural sector's continuing reliance on immigrant labor.

"Today, we talk about walls and Mexican people working in agriculture and low-wage jobs. This was a government-sanctioned program," Cordia said. "People were told, 'Please come work here.' They helped support us on the home front."

Cordia will give a free presentation on the troubled history of the Bracero Program from noon to 1 p.m. Wednesday, May 31, in the Large Meeting Room of the Medford Library, 205 S. Central Ave.

She recently earned a master's degree in history from the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Her thesis focused on the Bracero Program in the Rogue Valley, an aspect of local history that remains largely unknown to many residents.

"America didn't have enough labor, and Mexico had a surplus of labor. They said, 'We can scratch each other's back,' " Cordia said. "Standards were set for wages, food, housing and health care. Under the guidelines, it should have functioned well."

The demand for Mexican laborers didn't end with the conclusion of WWII. Instead, Americans who had gone to work in factories became used to higher wages.

"You would think the labor crisis would end. But people in cities didn't want to do farm work anymore. It was back-breaking labor," Cordia said.

She said Mexican immigrants who worked on "stoop labor" field crops like lettuce and strawberries experienced back problems.

"Men were hunched over for hours at a time. Some men's backs curved over time and they couldn't stand straight," she said.

Congress continued to renew the Bracero Program. Meanwhile, growers began to prefer the Mexican laborers over impoverished American transient families who migrated from crop to crop.

"In the Pacific Northwest, the migrant families were white parents with children who were living out of vehicles and tents or in grower-provided housing. In the South, there were a lot of black families," Cordia said. "They earned rock-bottom wages. They were like a roving transient population in the United States."

In the Rogue Valley, the Fruit Growers League said it didn't want to employ the transient white families, calling orchard work too dangerous for women and children. Because not enough local men were available to work during harvest time in the orchards, local growers leaned on the Bracero Program.

The Mexican immigrants often didn't fare much better than transient white families and suffered significant abuses under the Bracero Program. Growers withheld wages, provided substandard housing and ignored safety issues. Farm laborers faced everything from food poisoning to farm and vehicle accidents.

Cordia said in one Southern Oregon incident, hundreds of Mexican workers suffered severe food poisoning after being fed egg salad that had been left out in the sun.

While those participating in the Bracero Program were in the country legally, the reliance on Mexican laborers also drew illegal immigrants. Fearing deportation, undocumented workers didn't report abuses. Growers faced few consequences if they were caught using illegal workers. Both the legal and illegal workers were exploited, Cordia said.

By the 1950s, a U.S. Department of Labor official was calling the Bracero Program "legalized slavery."

In the 1960s, labor unions, church groups and others were advocating for an end to the program.

Tensions came to a head following a horrendous crash Sept. 17, 1963.

Dozens of farm workers, most from the Bracero Program, were returning to a California labor camp after a 10-hour shift. They were sitting on board benches and the flooring of a flatbed truck with long harvest knives. As the driver was crossing railroad tracks, a fast-moving train carrying sugar beets collided with the truck.

The collision killed 32 people and injured two dozen more, with some people killed or injured by the impact itself, and others by splintered planks, harvest knives and jagged metal.

"People said it was like a bomb went off or something you would see in combat," Cordia said.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation was called in to identify the deceased — a gruesome task made even more difficult by the fact that the farm workers were called by their assigned numbers, not by their names.

Under pressure in 1963, Congress agreed to allow the Bracero Program to expire in 1964.

In 1963, the Mail Tribune fretted in a headline, "Market Prices, Field Wages May Rise After End of Braceros."

The article reported, "Labor leaders and many growers expect that the law of supply and demand will send field wages skyrocketing. Depending on the point of view, big wage boosts will depress the produce industry, causing unemployment — or they would be a big step toward eliminating disgraceful rural poverty. ... In the short run, at least, all of this could drastically boost prices to the housewife. Without braceros, many growers are afraid there will be nobody around to harvest their crops. If that happened they can lose as much as $2,000 an acre, usually borrowed, spent on rent, fertilizer, preparatory labor and irrigation."

The end of the Bracero Program didn't end America's need for farm workers — or erase incentives for people from Mexico to travel to the United States for work.

"After the program expired, there was the largest sustained influx of undocumented immigrants in U.S. history," Cordia said.

These days, illegal immigrants make up an estimated 5 percent of the American workforce — but represent 26 percent of farm workers, according to the Pew Research Center.

Cordia said she hopes her presentation will prompt people to ponder the connections between past and current events, as well as today's immigrant farm workers and consumers.

"More people need to know about what happened in the past," she said. "We all go to the grocery store to buy food and we don't think about who picked it. We need more awareness of where our food comes from and what we're accepting in return for cheap food."

Cordia will discuss the Bracero Program again late this year, at noon Nov. 1 at the Medford library and at noon Nov. 8 at the Ashland library, 410 Siskiyou Blvd., as part of the "Windows in Time" history lecture series.

— Reach staff reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

Farm workers from Mexico work on 'stoop labor' crops as part of the Bracero Program that brought immigrants to the United States from the 1940s to the 1960s. [Photo from the Bracero History Archive]