Memories of the Bracero Program
Rio Vista Farm, Socorro, Texas 2016
Years ago, I studied with Mariano Leyva, un gran maestro and co-founder of Universidad Nahuatl in Morelos. I remember one visit to Mexico City where we attended a ceremony at the Zócalo. He introduced me as his prima from the United States and concocted a story that I was the daughter of his long-lost uncle who had come to the United States as a bracero and never returned. No one questioned it. I grew to like the fictionalized details of our connection. No one questioned the story that a man could leave his village to work in the U.S. and never return. In Mexico, the people know about the migration of men from villages to U.S. fields. In Mexico, people still remember the decades that men left with hopes of earning money and returning to their families.
Last summer, while teaching my Mexican American history class, I talked about the Bracero program and asked who had relatives who had participated in the program. Surprisingly no one raised a hand. After lecturing about the program, we watched the heart-breaking documentary, Harvest of Loneliness. (Click below to see the entire documentary.) When I turned the lights on after we watched the video, the students sat there in complete silence. They looked shocked at the conditions that braceros survived. I told them to take a break.
After our class break, one student told us tearfully that she had called her mom during the break to ask if she knew anything about the Braceros and she learned that her abuelito had come here as a bracero. He never talked about it, nor did his family, because it was too traumatic and he was ashamed. She asked, "How could I not know?"
It is a question that my students have asked me for almost thirty years as they learn the history of the border, of Mexican Americans, of their community. "How could I not know?" Sometimes they ask in tears, sometimes in anger or disbelief. I never let the question go unanswered. Why are some histories told and others not? Why are some histories silenced in the classroom, in the textbooks? Why are some histories hidden within our own families? And, as importantly, how can we learn to listen and to gently prod those memories from their hiding places?
In El Paso, the memories reside in century-old buildings like Rio Vista, in the forty-year old class assignments of students, and in the rooms of a south side farm workers center.
In the summer of 2016, I walked the grounds of Rio Vista Farm, a complex of buildings that served as a Bracero processing center from 1951 to 1964. Sehila Mota Casper, field officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation had invited me. The Trust was going to name Rio Vista Farm a national treasure a couple of months later. The wooden buildings' shadows and the adobe peaking through the plastered walls told of a history that many don't know anymore, even the people who live around Rio Vista. The announcement of Rio Vista as a treasure brought together community members, former braceros, and their families. For many, it was the first time this part of their history had been acknowledged.
Rio Vista Farm, 2016.
For over forty years, the Institute of Oral History at UTEP has gathered oral histories that tell us the stories of braceros and the people associated with the program. In 1976, UTEP student Olivia Roman interviewed Dr. Jose Roman who had worked as a physician with the Trans-Pecos Cotton Association. Dr. Roman remembered that some braceros arrived to Texas speaking Indigenous languages. It was only working among other Mexicans in the cotton fields that they eventually learned some Spanish. He recalled that they were given instruction through simple signs since the work was a "mechanic sort of thing." (Interview with Jose Roman, MD, by Olivia Roman, Interview 219, Institute of Oral History, UTEP.)
Men waiting in line at Rio Vista Farm. Photo courtesy of the USCIS.
For several years, my students have worked with the Center for Border Farmworkers, helping to organize thousands of documents left with the centro by former braceros and their families. They receive as much as they give, reading letters and bracero contracts, scanning micas and looking into the faces of young men unsure of their futures. It has humanized and complicated the history of braceros in a way that far exceeds what I could ever do in the classroom. The director of the Centro de Trabajadores Agricolas Carlos Marentes says that this is a history that belongs to the community. I want my students to know what he means. History belongs to the community.
Soon, I plan to return to Rio Vista to walk among the buildings that hold this rich, transnational history. Next time, though, I'm going to take my students and ask them to tell me what they see..
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