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Reflecting on a childhood shaped by immigration policy

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SPICE Director Gary Mukai, as a toddler, in front of a bracero home, 1956.

The Bracero Program was a 22-year initiative started in 1942 that allowed the United States to recruit temporary guest workers from Mexico. The laborers, called braceros, or individuals who work with their arms, were mostly concentrated in California. There were an estimated 4.5 million contracts signed by braceros before the program ended in 1964.

The Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), along with the Center for Latin American Studies at Stanford (CLAS) and FSI’s Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE), hosted “Legacies of the Bracero Program, 1942–1964, an event held on February 27, 2014 that featured lectures by Stanford scholars on the significance of the Bracero Program.

Gary Mukai, the director of SPICE, has a personal connection to the government program. Following are recollections of growing up in a community of braceros, and his thoughts on hosting an event on the program at Stanford.


 Reflecting on a childhood shaped by immigration policy

I have a personal connection to braceros. In addition to the military draft, the forced removal of people of Japanese descent from the West Coast in 1942 contributed to the labor shortage in states like California. My family was interned in Poston, Arizona, in what was called the Poston War Relocation Center from 1942 until the end of World War II in 1945. The “relocation center” was built on a Colorado River Indian Tribes reservation and was surrounded by barbed wire. My family returned to California after the end of the war. As a child of farm laborers in the 1950s and 1960s, I worked side-by-side with braceros. My neighbors in San Jose were braceros. I thought that I was a hard worker until I met them. I was compensated by the amount of crops I harvested, known as piecework. The braceros’ punch cards usually had at least double the punches that mine had.

Some years ago, I asked my mother if she had a photo of the bracero home that stood next to my home. She did have a photo, and to my surprise, I was in it. One of the fondest memories of my childhood was occasionally telling my mother that I didn’t want rice and tofu and instead going to the bracero home to enjoy homemade tortillas and beans. The tortillas were made from flour and manteca or lard. As a child, I felt more Mexican than Japanese.

In my work as a teacher (from 1977 to 1988) and at SPICE (since 1988), I have always known that there were legacies from my life growing up with braceros that have profoundly impacted me. I used to be ashamed of being the son of farm laborers, but through the years, I have come to appreciate the importance of farm labor, and I could not have had greater role models than the braceros when it came to hard work and discipline.  

Thus, it was particularly meaningful for me to facilitate an event called “Legacies of the Bracero Program, 1942–1964,” during which ten former braceros were recognized by SPICE, FSI, and the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS). 

Rodolfo Dirzo, CLAS Director, whose father was a bracero, spoke about the transmission of the richness and diversity of Mexican culture to generations of Mexican Americans. His message of “pride in one’s identity” prompted multiple generations of Mexican Americans in the audience to consider the pioneers of their community. Francis Dominguez, the granddaughter of former bracero José Guadalupe Rodriguez Fonseca, reflected, “I felt that the speeches were educational for those not familiar with the history, but also connected with the families of braceros on an emotional level.” 

“Three things are interesting to me about what happened during the bracero years that have made what the country is today,” noted Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, FSI Director. “Number one, the United States realized that it could not function without immigration…; number two, immigration was considered vital to our national security…; number three, we came to realize that sometimes what looks temporary is actually permanent.”

These three points resonated with Ignacio Ornelas Rodriguez, whose grandfather is Fonseca. Rodriguez, a former high school teacher in Salinas and now with the Special Collections and University Archives Department of Stanford University Libraries, noted that, “Tino’s historical analysis and considerations about immigration and the Bracero Program have implications that polarizing opposite left/right political views have failed to consider. Tino’s perspective was quite fascinating.” 

Several high school teachers were in the audience, and Rodriguez spoke about ways that teachers can interactively engage students in the study of the Bracero Program. “This event is a great example of how SPICE reaches out to the larger community and bridges the gap between academia and communities,” said Rodriguez. Rodriguez and the other teachers in the audience have used SPICE curricular materials to underscore the importance of understanding and appreciating diverse perspectives on U.S. history. SPICE curricular materials on topics like the history of U.S.–Mexico relations serve as a bridge between FSI/Stanford University and schools nationally.

Each former bracero was presented with three certificates from Stanford University, the California State Assembly (signed by Luis A. Alejo, 30th Assembly District), and Monterey County (signed by Supervisor Simón Salinas). The former braceros proudly posed in Stanford sweatshirts, and tears could be seen among their families’ photographers, making even clear photographs seem blurry.  
Reunion of Braceors
Former Braceros with Rodriguez (back row, far left); and Dirzo, Cuéllar, and Mukai (back row, right side), courtesy of Rod Searcey.

Reflecting upon the event, Fonseca humbly stated, “I felt very honored to be recognized for my work and proud to be reunited with fellow braceros.” He was particularly touched that the honorable Carlos Ponce Martinez, Consul General of Mexico in San Jose, and Simón Salinas, Monterey County Supervisor, were in attendance. “I would like to thank the organizers of the event and Stanford University.”

Toward the end of the evening, Supervisor Salinas, whose father was a bracero, approached me and asked if I was related to the Mukai family that once farmed in Salinas before and after World War II. I was, I told him. To my astonishment, he informed me that his family used to sharecrop with my family and that he was particularly close to one of my uncles and two of my cousins who once worked for Driscoll’s, growers of berries. Though the Bracero Program ended 50 years ago, I continue to discover new connections and ways in which it has affected my life and my family. 

As sons and grandsons of former braceros, Dirzo, Rodriguez, and Salinas are prime examples of proud legacies of the Bracero Program. As the former braceros were departing the Bechtel Conference Center at Encina Hall, I had a flashback to 1964 at the Bracero Program’s end, when I said “adios” to my bracero co-workers from childhood. A faded memory of my childhood suddenly became clear and poignant once again, as I wondered if I would ever see them again.