This essay is adapted from a presentation given at the Sweet n’ Sour: Braceros in Citrus event at California Citrus State Historic Park on March 18, 2017.
The Bracero Program was a series of bilateral guest worker agreements between the U.S. and Mexico. Officially known as the Emergency Farm Labor Program in 1942, it authorized a systematic contracting of Mexican laborers known as “braceros” by farmers to address the labor shortages in agriculture that resulted from WWII enlistment, increased war industry jobs, and Japanese internment. Administered federally, Mexican men would go under contract to work for a specified period of time in the U.S. and then either renew their contracts or return to Mexico once they expired. The contracts specified certain conditions and protections for the Mexican nationals such as a guaranteed minimum wage as well as health and housing provisions. During its 22 year span from 1942-1964, the Bracero Program enlisted 4.5 million indigenous and mestizo men mostly from rural regions in Mexico.
In order to officially participate in the labor program, braceros often made long, arduous journeys to processing centers in Mexico and the U.S. where they were subject to long and crowded waiting periods, invasive medical exams, and exposure to toxic chemicals through fumigation. After enduring the recruitment process, braceros would be transported by train and/or bus to various agricultural sites in 24 states. California and Texas received the bulk of braceros. In California, many braceros ended up working in the citrus industry.
When new braceros would arrive to their first camp in the U.S., like Riverside’s Camp Rubidoux pictured below, the toll of the trip would be visible on their bodies. A local citrus camp operator of the Inland Valley region in 1957 observed the traces of the difficult migration that braceros endured in order to work in the groves:
Federal oversight required the camps to provide meals and facilities for the workers. Once settled, the braceros would be again be nourished by familiar food prepared by citrus camp cooks, often local Mexican Americans.
Though the conditions could vary from camp to camp, braceros would quickly make the most of their temporary homes, building community inside and outside of the camps. Through recreation, leisure time, and community the braceros of the citrus industry would also find nourishment for what they left behind in Mexico: a sense of family connection and belonging. That sense of belonging, however, would be difficult to achieve in an environment filled with conflict and contradictions.
Braceros were welcomed by the citrus community, mostly those who had vested interests in the industry. Public campaigns were deployed through the papers crediting the Mexican nationals with “saving the crops” as well as contributing to the war effort. There would also be stories positively describing the camp facilities and how the braceros appreciated the opportunity. This also went hand in hand with constant cries of labor shortages in order to justify the program.
Former bracero, Miguel Ceja in an interview by historian, Mireya Loza, noted the welcoming atmosphere he encountered as he arrived in Corona for citrus work during WWII. Ceja described being greeted by a welcoming party and how local Mexican Americans invited them to their homes and dances. He also notes how the camp operators tried to make them comfortable. His postwar account of the program shows a shift as he shares about the racism he experienced later on. “They want us when we can serve them, when we can work hard.”11 Loza, Mireya. Defiant Braceros: How Migrant Workers Fought for Racial, Sexual, and Political Freedom. UNC Press Books, 2016.
As Ceja’s account indicates, bracero relations with local communities were complex. As the primary workforce in citrus throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Mexican Americans in Riverside expressed their concerns to local growers about losing their jobs in the industry to braceros. Growers assured them that they were a vital part of the industry. Their assurances proved to be tenuous at best as braceros would eventually comprise over 80% of the picking force throughout the programs existence.
Concern would also be expressed in the region’s leading Spanish-language newspaper, El Espectador del Valle, where editor, Ignacio Lopez, critiqued both the exploitation of Mexicanos in the program and the way the program marginalized local Chicanos by undercutting their labor. However, he also referred to braceros as “Ambassadors in Overalls” and made it a point to recognize their humanity. He lamented instances of abuse that would occur to braceros, both at the hands of growers and by local Chicanos. Historian Matt Garcia indicates that between 8 and 10 braceros were treated weekly from scuffles with locals, as reported by Dr. Walter W. Wood who cared for the workers of the Cucamonga and San Antonio Camps as well as Judge William B. Hutton who often presided over such conflicts.22 Garcia, Matt. A World of Its Own: Race, Labor, and Citrus in the Making of Greater Los Angeles, 1900-1970. UNC Press Books, 2010.
Amidst these tensions and contradictions, braceros were able to forge a sense community and belonging among themselves and outside of the camps with the local Mexican American community. They would do so primarily through recreation, leisure, and community.
When braceros had time for themselves beyond getting much needed rest from the hard repetitive, and at times dangerous, work they performed, braceros would engage in a range of off-hours activities. They would use their time to go to town for supplies and business, attend mass, play sports, learn English, and attend various community events and establishments for entertainment, as well as host holiday events.
Though historian Jose Alamillo’s assertion was true that recreation was utilized by growers as a strategy of containing braceros in order to minimize contact with resident Mexican Americans and white, European Americans and to keep them compliant, it is also important to note that braceros utilized leisure to claim their humanity.
Through the various facilities provided by citrus growers, they would play baseball, basketball, soccer, and at the Camp Rubidoux recreation hall, they could shoot pool for a quarter a game. For the 300 braceros contracted in 1944 by the Corona Growers Inc. and housed at Camp Temescal, a recreation center was built along with baseball equipment and Spanish-language reading materials provided. Some camps had teams that played in local leagues. In 1947, the Valley Baseball League in San Bernardino County included the “Cone Camp Nationals” who ended their season early with an 0-6 record in the month of May. The image above shows an unnamed bracero player wearing a catcher’s mask amidst local Mexican American players in the East San Bernardino Valley. The importance of these activities to these men also showed when after a freak tornado tore through the Redlands-Highlands Labor Association’s Cone Camp in 1952, the braceros were upset to discover that their recently installed basketball backboard had been destroyed.
In addition to playing sports, the Mexicanos of the citrus camps would also practice their spiritual beliefs in camp chapels like the one in Camp Rubidoux which burned down from unattended altar candles in 1951, or in local churches, mostly Catholic. Here, a bracero at a citrus camp in Fullerton can be seen deep in prayer. Though not welcome in all camps, local pastors like Tullio Andreatta of the St. John Bosco Catholic Church would hold a special Spanish-language mass at the Cone Camp every Sunday at 10:30.
While sports activities bolstered their comradery and chapel services nourished their spiritual needs, the braceros of the citrus camps did not fail to assert their cultural identity as Mexicanos. In the camps, they held large celebrations for holidays such as el diez y seis de septiembre (Mexican Independence Day) as well as cinco de mayo. With the assistance of locals and camp recreation personnel, the men would gather together to fund and organize these events which imbued the camp with the spirit of Mexicanidad.
Despite the struggles they faced as foreign agricultural laborers, these examples show how citrus workers claimed the camp space as their own in order to assert their humanity through leisure and recreation. However, they would also make efforts to build community outside the camps as they sought belonging among local Chicanos. Braceros would make friends with locals such as Rafael Gonzalez who worked as a picker at the Cone Camp in East Highland. He and camp cook, Andres Garcia became close friends. Rafael ended up meeting his wife, Eunice Romero, through his work as a bracero and stayed in Redlands for the remainder of his life. Eunice provides this account of their meeting in an oral history:
There are other instances of braceros connecting with local Chicanos. Some had happy results, others not so much. For women like Simona Castillo of East San Bernardino Valley the results were less than favorable. Here, she elaborates in her oral history:
Some jealous local men wouldn’t have it either as many braceros were subjected to violent attacks and harassment when seen with Chicanas in the community. One newspaper article describes how Cone Camp bracero, Eurique Morales was stabbed by an unknown assailant as he was leaving Second Street Café with a female companion. However, not all conflicts ended this way. When the Braceros in the Corona area who frequented Dona Maria Ortiz’s Chapala Café faced the ire of locals, Ortiz would serve as mediator.55 Alamillo, J. M. (2006), Making lemonade out of lemons: Mexican American labor and leisure in a California town, 1880-1960. University of Illinois Press
For another Simona in the region, relations with a bracero proved to be more fortuitous. 96 year old Simona Valero, a lifelong Casa Blanca resident in Riverside, tells a story of the love that flourished between her husband John Valero. She met him when he was a bracero working with her brothers and father in the citrus groves of Riverside. They built a life together in Casa Blanca and engaged in community service throughout in organizations such as the Sociedad Progresista Mexicana (Mexican Progressive Society) until his death in 2006.
These stories and others like them reflect the complex legacy of the Bracero Program in our regional landscape where labor, leisure, and love enabled these Mexicano citrus workers to build community and belonging and claim their humanity amidst the various tensions, conflicts, and injustices that the program brought. These accounts also help us understand the contemporary landscape of migration and immigration struggles by highlighting a crucial period in the history of agricultural labor and Latino immigration. Today, through the Bracero Justice Movement, former braceros are organizing to share their stories and reclaim the back pay that is owed to them, which was withheld through the program. Amidst periodic renewed calls for guest worker programs and anti-immigrant policies, the history of the Bracero Program in the citrus industry is a necessary chapter in the Inland Valley region’s story where generations of Latinos have cultivated families and community.