Every Sunday morning the survivors of a profound history that forever shaped the demographics, destinies and dreams of Mexico and the United States gather at the Benito Juarez Monument on the edge of downtown Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Now in their 70s and 80s, dozens of men assemble to remember their lives as contract guest workers in the United States and discuss the latest news or lack thereof in their decades-old movement to recover the 10 percent that was deducted from their paychecks and supposedly deposited in a savings account created for the return to Mexico under the old Bracero Program.
“We are still in the struggle. I think it’s going well. Some people have been paid, but not everybody. We want more,” Professor Manuel Robles, coordinator of the local bracero association, told Frontera NorteSur.
The longtime border justice and environmental activist recalled the beginning of the Bracero Program during World War Two when Mexican workers were welcomed in the U.S. as working-class heroes sent to resolve the labor shortages that overtook farms, ranches and railroads when millions of citizen workers went off to fight fascism.
“When they arrived in Stockton (California) there were mariachi bands and the people greeted them. From then on, it was to the contrary,” Robles said.
On a beautiful May Sunday, Frontera NorteSur spoke with several former braceros and family members during a special celebration held by the group to commemorate both Mother’s Day and Teacher’s Day. In between the talk about the bracero years and now, men and women ate carne asada bathed in red chile, rice, spaghetti and cake.
Wearing caps and sombreros, the men were attired in casual clothes. Wrinkles, callouses and sun-weathered faces attested to lifetimes of work on the land. Taking time to share their lives were Modesto Zurita,79; Abdol Villanueva, 86; Concepcion Portillo ,79; Carlos Yanez, 81; and Manuel Lopez, 80.
Reaching back into memory lane, the men spoke about their hometowns; the Rio Vista recruitment center in the Lower Valley of El Paso, Texas, where men were dispatched to far-flung places to work; the chemical delousing to which they were subjected; the “troqueros” who transported workers; the varied living conditions they encountered; and the back-and-forth shuttle of temporary work contracts between Mexico and the U.S.
Pecos, Texas, had such a bad reputation among the farmworkers that many tried to avoid working there, according to Zurita. From 1942 to 1964, and for very low pay, millions of braceros entered the United States and assured that U.S. agriculture prospered long after World War Two. The veterans of field and furrow remembered picking the prize cotton of Texas and New Mexico, working sugar beets in Montana and Michigan, and embarking on forays to other states. The work destinations were sometimes surprising both for their small town flavor as well as their bigger if generally unknown place in the U.S. economic machine of the times-Tucumcari, New Mexico, Dell City, Texas…
Zurita and Villanueva summed up the experience as very “hard work.” Among the more active former guest workers, Zurita has traveled to places like North Carolina telling the stories of the braceros to students.
But the ex-braceros still have a big beef. For years, they have demanded the 10 percent of their pay that was withheld, which was first administered by Wells Fargo and United Trust Company in the U.S. and then funneled to a series of government banks in Mexico including Banrural. Along the way the money somehow slipped past the braceros’ pockets as was intended.
Memories of the saving fund are sketchy among Juarez’s ex-braceros. Zurita, for instance, stressed that the work contracts shown to the young guest workers were in English. Lopez remembered being told the 10 percent was for a payment from the U.S. government to the Mexican government “like we were being rented out.”
By the 1990s, organized movements of ex-braceros demanding the return of the 10 percent plus interest emerged in different parts of Mexico and the United States, including El Paso and Juarez. Other grievances, such as getting some ex-braceros Social Security in this country, were raised.
The ex-braceros scored a partial victory in 2005 when the Mexican Congress approved a special fund of approximately $30 million to compensate program participants for the 10 percent deductions in the form of “social support” payments amounting to 38,000 pesos per payee, a sum many criticized as grossly inadequate.
Initiated during the Fox administration, the compensation continued under the Calderon administration but by 2010 the payment program was widely criticized even by Mexican lawmakers for excessive red-tape, missed payments, insufficient funding and limited outreach. Mexican legislator Diva Hadamira Gastelum termed the outstanding bracero debt the most enduring human rights violation in the nation. After the Pena Nieto administration took office in late 2012, the program ground to a standstill.
The group interviewed at the Benito Juarez Monument in 2016 insisted that only a minority of ex-braceros have received the 38,000 peso payment, and was aware of only six members of their organization who had received the 38,000 peso payment.
In a 2015 letter to Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, the Juarez ex-braceros implored the government to view the issue in a different light. “Until now, the Mexican State has treated the ex-bracero workers as beggars,” the letter stated. “If (the savings fund) is a State debt, as it effectively is, it should be recognized as part of the public debt.”
Increasingly, as the braceros die off, their eligible survivors, especially the sons and daughters, are carrying the torch. And like their fathers and other male relatives before them, the children of the braceros, many of whom are also getting along in age, have been pillars of the U.S. economy, working agriculture, roofing, construction and other hard jobs.
With multiple generations now descended from the braceros, millions of people in Mexico and the United States can trace family roots back to a participant of the Bracero Program. In comments to Frontera NorteSur, Ruben Mena Tello, Manuel Carpio and Erlindo Raul Hernandez traced their fathers’ journeys across the farms and railroads of the United States.
Antonia Salcedo said her late father, Higino Salcedo, left the family home in the state of Durango to work as a bracero in the U.S. during the early 1960s. In 1969 Salcedo’s family moved to Juarez after the father became ill, the daughter said. Salcedo’s memories are fading too, but she recalled her father saying he traveled to Michigan and the workers slept on “bad mattresses.”
Salcedo has grandchildren in El Paso who are conscious of their great-grandfather’s history. A granddaughter who attends college in the Sun City remarked that what the braceros experienced is “’very unjust since it is because of them that we continue eating,’” she added.
In tandem with the weathered veteranos who fight on, the sons and daughters of the braceros have recently lobbied the Mexican Congress, written to Pope Francisco, and appealed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights-often with no response, as in the case of the Pope who still hasn’t responded to a letter, according to the Juarez group. Although Juarez and the state of Chihuahua are currently the scene of state and local election campaigns, the bracero-plus group said their struggle has been ignored.
“No gubernatorial, mayoral or other candidate has stopped by to see about the braceros, to find out about their necessities,” said Irene Alvarez, daughter of the late bracero Benjamin Alvarez. The issue of the U.S. presidential election, and specifically Donald Trump, also came up during the conversation at the Benito Juarez Monument, as it is apt to do when a gringo reporter pops up in Mexico these days.
“I don’t agree with him because of how his campaign began,” opined Carlos Yanez. “It’s an offense to us. We are two countries but one in the economy…” Not all, however, is bad news for the ex-braceros and their descendants. In an important victory on the legal front, Mexican Judge Paula Maria Garcia Villegas issued a February ruling that ordered the federal government to pay the braceros the 10 percent deduction taken from their pay. Judge Garcia noted that the 38,000 peso “social support” payment could not be substituted for the paycheck deductions.
Pending a government appeal, the decision is expected to stick. If the Pena Nieto administration abides by the legal ruling, a nagging question reappears: how many more old braceros will die off before the wheels of bureaucracy start turning?
Irene Alvarez urged the government to begin documenting and signing up the eligible beneficiaries. “As long as they don’t set up registration centers there is no process,” she said. They need to set up registration centers for the people to register who aren’t.”
More than half a century after the Bracero Program ended Abdol Villanueva went straight to the point, and one echoed by many. “I want them to pay me,” he said.