“We Sure Want ’em Next Year!” Braceros and Undocumented Workers in the Making of a Cheap Labor Force, 1942–46

Saturday, January 4, 2020: 2:10 PM
New York Ballroom East (Sheraton New York)
Alina Mendez, University of Washington
This paper argues that the start of the Bracero Program in 1942 expanded common perceptions about the possibilities of labor and migration across the US-Mexico border. For thousands of Mexicans, the guest worker program was irrefutable proof that the United States had a large demand for their labor. The new international cooperation suggested that both states were willing to act as labor agents, encouraging migrants and growers to imagine new labor and migration configurations. As Mexican jobseekers began migrating to Mexico City and border areas in numbers that far exceeded the parameters of the Bracero Program, growers in turn understood that this autonomous migration could be exploited to an enormous potential. For Mexican workers and their potential employers, the border was an obstacle that could be eliminated with the cooperation of the state. Border residents were quick to realize that a modified Bracero Program could be a beneficial labor arrangement for both sides of the border. Though first recruited to California’s Imperial Valley for their role as supplemental workers during a wartime emergency, braceros quickly became permanent and vital members of the larger borderland region. The arrival of braceros and undocumented workers from Mexico’s interior changed the Imperial Valley’s labor market in a few short years, as Mexican migrants replaced a diverse conformation of ethnic Mexicans, Dust Bowl migrants, and Filipinos. This process of worker displacement and replacement would not have occurred so rapidly if thousands of Mexicans had not migrated autonomously outside of the formal designs of the Bracero Program. With their binational agreement, the governments of Mexico and the United States activated an unstoppable stream of internal migrants who traveled to the US-Mexico border with the staunch determination to earn dollars.