Visualizing the Essential: Mexicans in the U.S. Agricultural Workforce

During multiple periods of economic crisis, the U.S. economy has depended on Mexican labor.
visualizing the essential image José Guadalupe Rodriguez Fonseca with grandson, Dr. Ignacio Ornelas Rodriguez, at a ceremony for braceros, Stanford University, February 27, 2014; photo courtesy, Rod Searcey

During multiple periods of economic crisis, the U.S. economy has depended on Mexican labor. The Bracero Program began during World War II during a massive labor shortage largely due to the military draft and the internment of Japanese Americans, a high percentage of whom worked in agriculture. Over 4.5 million contracts were awarded to over 2 million young male Mexican immigrants from 1942 to 1964 to work primarily in agriculture. The work of braceros, or “individuals who work with their arms,” to harvest fruits and vegetables across the United States was deemed essential. It was the largest guest worker program agreement in U.S. history. President Franklin Roosevelt noted, “Mexican farmworkers, brought to the United States in accordance with an agreement between our two governments,… are contributing their skill and their toil to production of vitally needed food.” Moreover, during the current COVID-19 pandemic, agricultural workers have been categorized as “essential workers” by the federal government. Yet, many of these workers lack legal status to work in the United States.

On June 2, 2020, Dr. Ignacio Ornelas Rodriguez, Archivist, Stanford University Special Collections and University Archives, spoke about the history of the Bracero Program and shared reflections on the current status of agricultural workers in a webinar to over 40 people, including many educators. He began by noting that because of writers like John Steinbeck, Americans have come to learn about the agricultural regions of the larger Monterey Bay Area, where Ornelas has focused his research. “Yet,” he stated, “little is known about the majority of the laborers who worked in these regions.”

Ornelas set the historical context for his talk by providing a broad sweep of the history of farm workers in California. He touched upon the work of indigenous people in the 18th century to grow the vast agricultural economy that surrounded the missions; Chinese immigrants who had previously worked on the Transcontinental Railroad from 1863; Mexican, Japanese, and Filipino agricultural workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; African Americans who were initially recruited to develop cotton growing techniques in the Central Valley during the late 19th century; and White migrants arriving from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and other states during the Great Depression.

Following this overview of California’s agricultural landscape, which Ornelas described as an “ethnic mosaic of the world,” he began his comments on the Bracero Program. He noted, “My interest… was ignited by my grandfather’s personal bracero journey. Who were these men? What were their contributions and why is so little known about how they view their work?" During his extensive research and conducting of oral histories with former braceros, he noted that he began to uncover previously underdiscussed perspectives that were often at odds with the most popular narratives regarding braceros. Ornelas noted that most of the braceros remembered their work “with dignity as opposed to viewing themselves as victims… Their stories were about hope and the opportunity to improve their lives and to make a lasting contribution to their family through difficult working conditions.” Ornelas’s grandfather, José Guadalupe Rodriguez Fonseca, for example, shared stories of betterment and progress and spoke about working with honor in the fields of Salinas Valley. Ornelas continued, “Yes, the work was very difficult but my family members learned to navigate the arduous labor and took great pride in their skill, work, and production of vegetables.” Some former braceros shared stories of using the experience in the program as a “launching pad” to greater opportunities in the agricultural industry.

The Bracero Program ended in 1964 but today the H-2A program is recruiting thousands of Mexican farmworkers. Section 218 of the Immigration and Nationality Act authorizes the lawful admission into the United States of temporary, nonimmigrant workers (H-2A workers) to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature. Ornelas posed the question, “So how far have we ultimately come since the labor crisis in 1942?” During the current pandemic, farm workers are deemed essential while many don’t have permanent legal status.

“We eat fruits and vegetables… but don’t ever ask who harvests our food and what types of protections they have. Times have certainly changed and regulations are much stricter. However, employers continue to recruit H-2A guest workers, which is pretty much a new Bracero Program.”
Dr. Ignacio Ornelas Rodriguez
Archivist, Stanford University Special Collections and University Archives

Ornelas, who concurrently teaches history at Willow Glen High School while working at Stanford, has the objective of helping young students critically consider issues surrounding H-2A guest worker status in the context of lessons learned from the Bracero Program. Ultimately, he has the goal of providing instruction that is more culturally inclusive. To help realize this goal, he recommends the following resources for use in schools: the 12-minute film Searching for the Bracero’s Legacy: A New American Encounter for a Place in History, the Bracero Legacy Project on Facebook, and the primary sources of the Ernesto Galarza Papers, 1973–1988 at Stanford.

During the Q&A, a teacher in Colorado mentioned that she is teaching about agricultural workers through a virtual agricultural field and interviews. Ornelas reacted with enthusiasm, saying “I am fascinated by your work.” In a post-webinar conversation, Ornelas stated that it was immensely gratifying for him to hear about the work already being done by teachers to heighten students’ awareness of the contribution of agricultural workers past and present. I also learned that Ornelas’s grandfather José Guadalupe Rodriguez Fonseca had died unexpectedly just a few days prior to the webinar. My hope is that the recording of this webinar will help to keep his memory alive and to help preserve the legacy of braceros.

SPICE is grateful to the Center for Latin American Studies at Stanford University for co-sponsoring this webinar. Special appreciation is extended to Sabrina Ishimatsu, Event Coordinator, SPICE, for planning this webinar, and to Jonas Edman, Instructional Designer, SPICE, for moderating.

Related articles:

To Be a Bracero: Seeing Beyond Abuses

Reflecting on a Childhood Shaped by Immigration Policy