The Emergency Farm Labor Program (a.k.a. Bracero Program) was initiated in 1942 as a bilateral wartime agreement between the governments of the United States and Mexico. The program’s initial objectives were two-fold, address labor shortages in U.S. agriculture, and promote the modernization of rural Mexican peasants through a type of worker training (i.e., contract labor) that would infuse the Mexican economy with cash remittances. In the standard narrative established by scholars over the last few decades, the Bracero Program was a boon to American corporate agriculture as U.S. and Mexican government officials subsidized the profits of the industry by turning a blind eye to numerous reports of worker exploitation and employer abuses throughout the continuous twenty-two year history of the program. Additionally, scholars have highlighted the period as essential to understanding the evolution of U.S.-Mexico migratory trends, the rise of so-called illegal immigration, and the entrenchment of restrictionist-minded federal immigration policy towards Mexico.
In Abrazando el Espiritu: Bracero Families Confront the US-Mexico Border (University of California Press, 2014), Ana Elizabeth Rosas, Associate Professor of History and Chicano/Latino Studies at the University of California, Irvine, observes that the top down focus of previous scholarship has missed the Bracero Program’s impact on families (women and children in particular) left behind by the husbands, fathers, and brothers that sojourned to the U.S. as contract laborers. Providing a bottom up perspective rooted in rural Mexicans villages like San Martin de Hidalgo, Professor Rosas narrates the experiences and development of transnational Mexican immigrant families. Complimenting previous studies that have emphasized Mexican worker vulnerability and victimization, Abrazando el Espiritu (“embracing the spirit”) highlights the agency of Bracero families confronting the challenges of separation and alienation. In addition to official government archives, Professor Rosas relies on family photographs, love letters, popular songs, and oral histories to provide an intimate tale of family survival that transcended international borders. A truly landmark study, Abrazando el Espiritu deepens our understanding of the costs of transnational labor migration on families and the efforts undertaken by women, children, men, and the elderly to preserve familial bonds amidst government surveillance and abandonment.
Listen to our conversation at New Books in Latino Studies.