From Bracero to Mojado to Chicano: Farm Labor, Immigration, and Mexican Identity in California Agriculture, 1942-1980



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The development of California’s large-scale farm industry occurred in the aftermath of World War I. When the United States joined World War II, the domestic labor force ran scarce and the Department of Agriculture brought in armies of foreign labor from Mexico to meet wartime food needs. Long before their arrival, a different ethnic group tended to the soils of California: they were the Mexican- Americans. This project examines the development of social, citizenship, and labor tensions that developed over time within California’s Spanish- Speaking Community. My study traces the roots of these citizenship conflicts and the tumultuous 30- year path to Chicano (i.e. Mexican-American) solidarity and ethnic consciousness under “Una Raza Unida.” In August of 1942, the United States and Mexican government began the Bracero (Spanish for “arm man”) Work Program and sanctioned the incorporation of some 1.5 million Bracero workers in the continental United States. To exploit tensions between Mexican nationals and domestic workers, growers and ranchers relegated Braceros to separate camps. Ernesto Galarza, the labor activist and founder of the National Agricultural Workers Union, believed that Mexican- Americans could best combat grower use of Mexicans during strikes by incorporating Braceros into their ranks. I use interviews and memoirs from Braceros and Mexican- Americans to offer insight into the limited, but peaceful interactions that still thrived in California’s agricultural community. With the end of the Korean War in 1953, “wartime necessity” for Mexican labor dissipated and the Bracero Program continued as a pure system of exploitation. This was the breaking point of the already fragile relationship between Mexican- Americans and Braceros. The Department of Labor placed stringent limitations on Bracero quotas and upheld the right of domestic workers to strike. As growers turned to illegal “wetback” labor, the “wetback” deportation campaigns of the 1950s affected Mexican- Americans and immigrants alike. Most Mexican- American organizations and unions came to perceive the Bracero Program and “wetback” labor as a potential detriment to the citizenship and labor rights of the Mexican-American middle class. In the mid- 1960s, the UFW of César Chavez brought the labor struggles of Mexican- American farmworkers into living rooms throughout the nation. In 1965, the Hart- Celler Act indefinitely sealed the border to Mexican workers. Chavez merged with the anti- immigrant AFL-CIO in 1966 and sacrificed the possibility of immigrant solidarity for political benefit. The new 1970s generation of Mexican- American students felt the limits of the UFW approach and joined the Chicano movement, which worked in harmony to render an erasure of deeply entrenched racial and citizenship barriers. This 1970s brand of Chicanismo surpassed all divisions and envisaged a unified labor community composed of Chicanos, Tejanos, immigrants, blacks, and whites.



Bracero, Mojado, Chicano, Mexican-American, Chavez, Ernesto Galarza, Wetback, California, Mexico