The Press Enterprise (Riverside, CA.), May 26, 2006


By David Olson, The Press-Enterprise

As politicians in Washington continue to wrangle over whether to institute an immigrant guest-worker program, they could learn a lot by talking with 89-year-old Mateo Murillo Lamas.

The Coachella man was part of the bracero program, a guest-worker operation in the United States. Between 1942 and 1964, about 4.6 million Mexican men held permits to work temporarily in the United States, the vast majority as farmworkers.

With the contentious nationwide debate over immigrant labor as a backdrop, researchers from the Smithsonian Institution, Brown University and the University of Texas at El Paso traveled to Coachella this week to interview Lamas and about 100 other former braceros to gather their stories and insights. The researchers will talk with more ex-braceros today in San Bernardino and Perris. Previous stops have included Blythe, Los Angeles, Salinas, Chicago and El Paso, Texas.

The interviews one day will be part of an Internet archive and a traveling Smithsonian Institution exhibition on braceros.

The project was planned long before the current guest-worker proposal was introduced in the U.S. Senate, said Matthew Garcia, an associate professor of history at Brown who is helping oversee the interviews. But he hopes the workers' recollections will help lead to a more informed discussion of the issue.


The federal government instituted the bracero program in 1942 to fill the vacancies created when agricultural and railroad workers went off to fight in World War II. After the war, growers persuaded Congress to renew the program repeatedly to ensure a reliable, cheap source of farm labor, Garcia said.

Farm owners later withdrew support for the program because they were able to pay even lower wages to a growing number of undocumented immigrants, Garcia said. Labor unions helped kill the program because it depressed wages for legal permanent residents, he said.

As the bracero program recedes further into the past, Lamas said in Spanish that he wants to ensure that the contributions of braceros are not forgotten. He said he told his story to researchers Tuesday because "I want people to know how we helped this country when there weren't enough people here to work."

Lamas and fellow ex-bracero Esteban Gutierrez, 70, came to the United States for the same reasons that most Mexican immigrants today flow across the border: to escape severe poverty in Mexico.

Gutierrez, who lives in Oasis, near the Salton Sea, is an embodiment of the current immigration debate. He crossed the border illegally in 1952 and worked on farms in Oasis for four years. Realizing that guest workers earned higher wages than undocumented immigrants, Gutierrez briefly returned to Mexico in 1956 before crossing into the United States again, this time as a guest worker.

A letter of recommendation from his employer helped him gain permanent legal residency in 1960, Gutierrez said in Spanish as he sat at a long fold-up table after being interviewed for the Smithsonian project in the offices of the nonprofit Desert Alliance for Community Empowerment.

A bill that is expected to pass the U.S. Senate would allow some undocumented immigrants to become guest workers, and it would make some participants in the proposed guest-worker program eligible for permanent residency.

Gutierrez said picking dates, oranges, grapefruit and cabbage was tough. He still remembers standing in line "like an animal" as U.S. immigration authorities pumped talc onto him and other workers entering the country, apparently to disinfect them. Other braceros suffered the indignity of being deloused with DDT, Garcia said.

Like Gutierrez, Higinio Munoz, 87, said his employers treated him well. At the time, he said, he did not mind sleeping in rooms crammed with as many as six beds pushed side by side. Other workers slept in militarylike barracks or in windowless rooms on wooden boards without mattresses, Garcia said.


Garcia said the bracero program illustrates the problems that a modern guest-worker plan could have unless safeguards are built in. In addition to cramped housing, many workers endured low pay, long family separations, low-quality food and dishonest employers, he said. Employees typically did not complain, he said.

"Any time a bracero resisted these conditions, the employer shipped them out" to Mexico, Garcia said. Others either returned to Mexico voluntarily or broke their contracts and slipped into the shadows as undocumented workers, he said.

Joe Mota, the Coachella-based Southern California regional director of the United Farm Workers of America, said the current Senate immigration bill does not contain enough provisions that ensure that the types of abuses that occurred under the bracero program are not repeated in a new guest-worker program.

Rodolfo Pinon, community coordinator for the Desert Alliance for Community Empowerment, said, "If there is no oversight of workers, it would turn into a worker nightmare."

The bracero experience, he said, points to the need for strong protections for guest workers, including a guarantee of safe, decent housing and the right to contest firings.

For Armando Navarro, coordinator of the National Alliance for Human Rights and a UC Riverside professor, the lesson of the bracero program is that guest-worker programs are inherently abusive to workers, no matter how they're structured.

"It's an economic strategy to satisfy the interests of agribusiness and corporate interests and whoever depends on a source of cheap, exploitable labor," he said.

Navarro instead supports a major expansion in legal permanent immigration, so workers are free to choose the jobs they want and can speak out against poor working conditions without fear of deportation.

San Bernardino anti-illegal-immigrant activist Joseph Turner said guest-worker programs lead to another kind of abuse: laborers who break the law by staying in the United States after their work visas expire. He predicted that even more guest workers today would later become illegal residents because they can more easily settle undetected in large ethnic enclaves.

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Staff writer Sharon McNary contributed to this report.

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THOUSANDS OF BRACEROS worked in the Inland area, from the citrus groves of Riverside to the date groves of the Coachella Valley, said Matthew Garcia, an associate professor of history at Brown University.

THEIR PRESENCE at times led to conflicts with U.S.-born residents of Mexican ancestry, said Garcia, author of "A World of Its Own: Race, Labor and Citrus in the Making of Greater Los Angeles, 1900-1970." Local Mexican-Americans saw them as competition for jobs and accused the braceros of depressing wages and hurting unionization efforts, he said. By doubling the male population in some Inland neighborhoods while the female population remained the same, they also created competition for women, he said.

THE RESENTMENT among some Mexican-Americans boiled over into violence, including several murders in the San Bernardino and Rancho Cucamonga areas, Garcia said. The attacks on the braceros led the Mexican government to withdraw braceros from the area for six months, he said.