Blog February 16, 2021

The Silva Family’s Bracero Legacy and Stanford University: Abuelito and Abuelita’s Journey

Isa Silva and his family
Isa Silva and his family; photo courtesy Karen Hickey/Stanford Athletics

Grandparents have an endearing position of high stature in Mexican culture. Grandchildren have countless stories about the cariño (endearment) they receive from Abuelito (Grandpa) and Abuelita (Grandma). My immigrant grandparents sacrificed a lot when they migrated to the United States. Their courageous journeys and perseverance to attain the American dream left an invaluable mark on me. My abuelito’s journey to the United States initially on the Bracero Program led me to conduct research on the program. The Bracero Program was a binational labor agreement between the United States and Mexico that was in effect from 1942 to 1964. It was established due to the labor shortage brought about by World War II. Thousands of Mexican men were recruited and joined the program to work primarily in agriculture in states like California.

It was my abuelito’s cariño, work ethic, and courage as an immigrant that I have never forgotten. My abuelito worked in the highlands of Jalisco, Mexico, where his skilled farm labor contributed to making the highlands of Jalisco productive for the cultivation of agave. Thousands of the region’s men—including my abuelito—joined the Bracero Program and left Mexico for the United States. Once in the United States, they worked in the agricultural industry and transformed it into the multibillion-dollar business that it is today.

In my research, I have had the chance to interview members of the family of Rafael Silva, who was also a bracero from Jalisco. One of his grandsons, Isa Silva, will be entering Stanford next fall as a recruit for the Stanford Men’s Basketball team. I recently had the chance to talk with Isa and reflect upon the legacy of his abuelito and mine. The work that they performed was brutal, often working with the short-handled hoe for long periods. Reflecting on his abuelito’s contribution to making the Salinas Valley into the “Salad Bowl of the World,” Isa noted, “My grandparents’ immigrant journey and hard work means everything to me. It’s one thing that motivates me and inspires me. I respect the generations before me and am forever grateful for their sacrifices. Because of my grandparents and parents, I work hard in the classroom and it has taught me to give back.”

After the Bracero Program formally ended in 1964, agricultural executives sponsored thousands of braceros like Rafael Silva to stay in California. Not only had the braceros’ lives been transformed from rural poverty in Mexico to making working-class earnings, but their hard work would also eventually transform the lives of their children and grandchildren like Isa. Considered the “Ellis Island” for many Mexican immigrants, the U.S.–Mexico border became an important migration corridor for thousands wanting to find work in the agricultural fields in places like the Salinas Valley. For many young braceros, their earnings provided them with the hope of one day marrying and starting a family. For Rafael Silva, that hope became a reality when he married Eva Silva Ruelas and they settled near the U.S.–Mexico border in San Luis, Sonora, Mexico. While Rafael worked in the agricultural fields in Arizona, Eva and her young children resided in San Luis. Eventually they were able to move together to the Salinas Valley where Rafael continued working in the agricultural fields and Eva worked at the Matsui Nursery, a company founded by Andy Matsui, an immigrant from Japan.

My research has uncovered numerous stories of braceros like Rafael Silva overcoming poverty. Among children and grandchildren of braceros are professors at U.C. Berkeley and Stanford, members of the U.S. Congress and California legislature, as well as successful entrepreneurs, attorneys, educators, physicians, and a former NASA astronaut. Despite these successes, braceros themselves have received little recognition. With this in mind, I decided to organize an event with SPICE to honor braceros, with hopes that it would also make an indelible impression on a Mexican American generation whose bracero fathers or grandfathers had made major contributions to the U.S. economy. They, too, were part of America’s “Greatest Generation.”

photo of braceros in Stanford sweatshirts

On February 26, 2014, ten former braceros and their families were invited to an event at Encina Hall at Stanford. The invitees included Rafael Silva and Eva Silva Ruelas. Former FSI Director Mariano Florentino Cuellar, who is currently a California Supreme Court Justice, spoke along with Stanford Biology Professor Rodolfo Dirzo and me. SPICE Director Gary Mukai moderated the event and spoke about his youth as a farm laborer working with braceros. The evening was historic in that it was one of only a few times that former agricultural workers were recognized at a university. In the photo, I am standing next to my abuelito, José Guadalupe Rodriguez Fonseca, top left. Isa’s abuelito, Rafael Silva, is in the front center.

extended Silva family

What else stood out that evening was the Silva grandchildren’s palpable love for their grandparents. One photo of the evening captures the Silva family legacy. Rafael (wearing a Stanford sweatshirt) and Eva Silva are in the middle with six of their children and numerous grandchildren surrounding them. Isa is standing in front of his grandfather. Three of their grandchildren are currently attending Stanford, with Isa soon to become the fourth. Reminiscing about the event, Isa noted, “I was a ten-year-old boy. It was cool to see the whole family get together and be there. We were there to support my abuelito and recognize all his hard work. It was great to see him honored for what he did so long ago. As we grow older, we appreciate him more and more.” Isa knows that his abuelito and abuelita’s journey is what transformed the Silva family and made his own American dream possible. Reflecting that pride in his family’s story, Isa closed our conversation by saying, “On and off the court, I will always represent being Mexican American.”

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On February 27, 2014, Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE) co-hosted an event, "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).