David Bacon Stories & Photographs
The Story of a Bracero
by Rigoberto Garcia Perez
interviewed by David Bacon

BLYTHE, CA (4/18/01) -- Are braceros going to make a reappearance in California fields? The old program for bringing contract workers from Mexico, which started during World War Two, was finally ended as a result of a massive outcry in 1964. One of the main organizers against it was the young Cesar Chavez, who brought unemployed farmworkers in Oxnard, displaced by contract workers brought from Mexico by growers, into the streets to demand jobs. Chavez said that it would have never been possible to go on to organize the United Farm Workers if the bracero program had not been cancelled.

Yet in the discussions back and forth between President George Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox, it's becoming clear that a contract labor program may be all they can agree on. Before his last trip to Monterrey, Bush told reporters that he opposed any kind of amnesty for the eight million undocumented workers in the US, but favored programs "to link willing employers with willing employees." That language is administration shorthand for advocating a program in which employers might once again bring contract laborers from Mexico on a large scale.

The US already has smaller-scale guestworker programs, but growers generally don't use them because they require pay scales higher than they presently pay to their mostly-undocumented workforce. New grower proposals would abolish those restrictions.

So what was it like to be a bracero in the old days? Rigoberto Garcia was one of many thousands who came every year, and remembers the experience with a mixture of anger and resignation. Some of his memories document the brutal exploitation and callous treatment suffered by the contract laborers themselves. But other memories puncture some of the stereotypes about the program. Braceros not only went on strike (and suffered deportation as a result), but their experiences laid the groundwork for later strikes by the UFW, when those same workers came back after the program was abolished. And Garcia remembers the solidarity of a Japanese grower, interned during World War Two, who finally helped him win his legal status.

As the country begins to debate whether or not to move towards a new bracero program, it's important to look at what happened in the old one. And who better to tell that story than a bracero himself?

On a recent night in the desert of the Palo Verde Valley, as the scent of the surrounding citrus groves made its way into the old trailer where he now lives with his wife, Rigoberto Garcia Perez told his story to David Bacon. In the accompanying photo, he sits with her at the table in their tiny kitchen, with his old bracero work contracts spread out before them.

I was born in Lalgodona, Michoacan, January 26, 1934. My father owned some land, but he had to keep selling it off, and in the end, he lost all of it. He became a bracero when the war started with Germany.

They always made good money, the braceros. He rebuilt his house and tried to recover his land, but he couldn't. But he was a fighter, so he started a small store and went into business. And he never went to the US again.

When I began to think about crossing the wire, my father was against it. It was as if I had told my parents I was going to work down in the mine. His idea was that when you work for someone else, you never get free of it. For him, working on the land we were working for ourselves, not someone else. When you work for someone else, the profit from your work stays with them. That was his advice, and it was true. Because here you work just to survive, and you don't own anything. You just survive and survive, but someone else owns your labor.

I was an alambrista the first time I went to the US. We got to Mexicali, and got on a train. There were two trains that went from San Diego to Phoenix, and traveled a ways on the Mexican side. At the border you'd have to get off, because the immigration was there. So you'd get off outside town, and cross the border on foot. It wasn't a big problem, like it is today, where they're keeping such a watch. The border was almost free then.

I worked in Stockton, in the cherries, where the migra caught me twice. After that, I didn't want to go back. I decided to work in Calipatria, where if they caught me, I was closer to the border, and it wasn't as hard to get back. Because we were so near Mexicali, when we'd hear on the radio that some famous artist would perform there, we'd all go. We didn't need papers. We'd go to Mexicali and have a good time. And that night, we'd cross back over. It was easy. Now it costs a lot of money for everyone to cross. Poor people suffer a lot.

I went back home and got married, and I stayed home a year. Then I decided to cross again, but as a bracero. Instead of hopping freights and all that, we could go a different way. I went to the contracting station in Sonora, in Empalme. It was very easy to get work. There were people there who would sign you up, for $300 a month at that time. They'd get a thousand or two thousand people a day.

I went as a bracero four times, but I didn't like it. We got on the train in Empalme, and went all the way to Mexicali, where we got on busses to the border. From there, they took us to El Centro. Thousands of men came every day. Once we got there, they'd send us in groups of two hundred, as naked as we came into the world, into a big room, about sixty feet square. Then men would come in in masks, with tanks on their backs, and they'd fumigate us from top to bottom. Supposedly we were flea-ridden, germ-ridden. No matter, they just did it.

Then quickly, they took a pint of blood from every man. Anyone who was sick wouldn't pass. Then they'd send us into a huge bunk house, where the contractors would come from the growers associations in counties like San Joaquin County, Yolo , Sacramento, Fresno and so on. The heads of the associations would line us up. When they saw someone they didn't like, they'd say, "You, no." Others, they'd say, "You, stay." Usually, they didn't want people who were old -- just young people. Strong ones, right? And I was young, so I never had problems getting chosen. We were hired in El Centro and given our contracts, usually for 45 days.

It was an agreement from one government to the other. The contract had to have the signature of the mayor of your town, guaranteeing your reputation. You also had to have experience picking in Mexico. It was a kind of blackmail. My wife's father had to work in the Yaqui River Valley to complete his period of time before he could go to Empalme and sign up. When your contract was over, they'd put you on a bus back to El Centro. And there they'd give you the passage back to Empalme.

I went to Santa Maria, where we picked strawberries. From there they renewed our contracts and sent us to Suisun, and we picked pears there. When we were through, the rancher said, "now we're going to Davis." And from there they sent us back to Mexico.

I think at that time our wage was 80 an hour. In the tomatoes it was piece work - 20 a box. That was pretty good if you could pick a hundred boxes. But the work was a killer, really hard. They'd give you two rows, which could give you 50 boxes, and you could do that in half a day.

In Tracy I was with a crew from Juajuapa de Leon, in Oaxaca, and one of those boys died. Something he ate at dinner in the camp wasn't any good. The kid got food poisoning, but what could we do? We were all worried because he'd died, and what happened to him could happen to any of us. They said they'd left soap on the plates, or something had happened with the dinner, because lots of others got diarrhea. I got diarrhea too. But this boy died.

We slept in big bunkhouses. It was like being in the army. Each person had their own bed, one on top of the other, with a mattress, blanket and so on. They'd tell us to keep the place clean, to make our beds when we got up. We woke up when they sounded a horn or turned on the lights. We'd make our beds and go to the bathroom, eat breakfast, and they'd give us our lunch -- some tacos or a couple of sandwiches, an apple and a soda.

When we got back to camp, we'd wash up before we went to eat.. In the tomatoes, you really get dirty, like a dog, so you'd want to go in there clean, with your clothes changed.

We could leave the camp if we wanted to go into town. In Stockton there was a Spaniard who had a drugstore and a radio station. He would send busses out to the camps to give people a ride. He was making a business out of selling us shirts, clothes, and medicine.

The foremen really abused people. A lot was always expected of you, and they always demanded even more. We were obligated to really move it. There were places where braceros went out on strike, or stopped work. One of my brothers went on strike in Phoenix because they were picking cotton and the crop was bad. They always said you could never make money doing it. A lot of work for nothing. They threatened to send them back to Mexico. They put them on a bus to El Centro, and from there they sent them to Fullerton, to work in the oranges.

My brother was one of the leaders. He got it into his blood, and later worked with Cesar Chavez for many years. I was too. There was always exploitation then. They would say that a bucket would by paid at such and such a price, and you'd fill it up, and then they'd pay less. When the farm workers' movement came along, we already knew about organizing and strikes from people who'd participated in those movements. My father had been on strike in Mexico too. He'd tell me that when the boss doesn't understand you have to hit him where it hurt, in his pocketbook. If you don't, he won't see you. I think it's that way everywhere in the world.

Those who can exploit, do it. That's what Cesar said when he died in San Luis, "Hay que educar a que pisa, y hay que educar a les deje pisar. Hay que educar a los dos." You have to educate both -- the exploiter and the exploited. If you don't educate both sides, you can't have a future.

I was a bracero from 56 to 59. I was in Watsonville six months before I got married. That was when my wife and I were just lovers. We'd write each other, and I'd ask her to wait for me, until I returned. So we got married. She didn't like my leaving, but she stuck with me. I told her, "I'll just go this once, and I'll be back in time to do the planting.' I went off to work, but always with the idea I'd come back and we'd use the money to do more our farm. We had four hectares of onions, but the price fell, and the crop just stayed in the ground. So I said, "Well, I better go to the United States."

The next year, when I came back, we had a good crop of camote. We put our backs into it, and irrigated, and we had no competition. We were the lords of the market. But afterwards, I thought again, "Well, I better go to the United States." A human being is never satisfied. We all have one thing, and want another.

The last time I came as a bracero, I was in San Diego. There I worked for a Japanese grower named Suzuki, a good man. During the war they had put him into one of the camps. He talked a lot about it. He told us, "I know what your life is like, because we lived that way too, in concentration camps. They watched over us with rifles." So he got papers for all of us. He fixed us up, and told us to come work with him. That was the last contract I worked.

When I fixed my immigration status. I decided I wouldn't go back, because my father had died, and I decided to bring my wife here instead. I was tired of being alone. That was the hardest thing -- the lonliness. You have the security of three meals, a place to stay, your job. But you get depressed anyway. I missed my land and my wife. And since I met her, I can't go with another woman. My parents and grandparents gave me that tradition. One wife for one strong family.

But it was important to send my kids to school. That's what I was trying to do as a bracero. I wanted a real future, and we knew that we were just casual workers - I would never be able to stay. I had to look for another future.

It was the beginning of the life I'm leading now. Thanks to those experiences, we survived, and here I am. I have two countries, just me, one person. I can cross the border, and live in my own land, and I can live happily in this country too. I came as an alambrista, and then back came as a bracero. Eventually I got my papers and lived like any other person. But I always remembered how I got here. Illegal, a bracero.

I still have a house on the land my father gave me. And I haven't let it go, because that's where all my children were born. Anytime we want to go to Mexico, we have a place there. I tell my son, your grandfather was a visionary. Don't sell it, he said, because we don't know what will happen. Maybe one day we'll go back.

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