Historical Context

Historical Context

The Bracero Program

Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino farmworkers had been integral to western US agriculture since the 1800s. By the mid-twentieth century, California agribusiness had transformed US farmlands into some of the most productive in the world, due in large part to the exploitative Bracero Program that began in 1942 to fill labor shortages during World War II with Mexican migrant workers.

Mexican agricultural laborers arriving to help harvest beets. (Marjory Collins, 1943)

Mexican migrant workers on train to LA. (UCLA Library Special Collections, 1942)

Conditions in the Fields

Life for many migrant workers was harsh and difficult with overt racism and discrimination, lack of adequate sanitation at work, substandard housing conditions, and poor wages. 

“Today in the Imperial Valley, braceros are working for 75¢ an hour doing work [in lettuce] that the domestic crews did and earned $2.50 an hour for doing.”

- Clive Knowles, Representative of the United Packinghouse Workers of America (1960)

Farm laborers have been robbed of dignity and respect, not because of anything they have or have not done, but because of their employment in an occupation which society at large has exempted from the standards which confer dignity and respect.” 

 - Norman Smith, California Director of the Agricultural Workers’ Organizing Committee (1960)

While Public Law 78 formally codified farmworker protections for wages and housing, it was rarely enforced. And while other American workers had union rights protected under the National Labor Relations Act, farmworkers were explicitly excluded from those protections. 

Public Law 78. (US Government Publishing Office, 1951)

Bracero picking peppers.
(Leonard Nadel, 1956)

Cramped bracero living quarters.
(Leonard Nadel, 1956)

End of The Bracero Program

By 1964, 4 million braceros had immigrated to the US and the Bracero Program officially ended, but the labor abuses continued. Combined with an increasingly socially conscious American public with the rise of feminist, environmental, and civil rights movements at the same time, the stage for a revolution in the fields had been set. 

Statement made during the Senate Committee on Labor and Welfare. 
(California State Senate, 1960)