This year was my first time attending the Canadian Association of Latin American and Caribbean Studies conference, which was held at the University of Guelph in early June. The theme was “Walls, Barriers, and Mobility” fitting for the global political realities facing all of us.
The panel I was on included Catherine Vézina, my colleague at CIDE, Irina Córdoba Ramírez, from the Colegio de México, and Mateo J. Carrillo of Stanford. Our topic was “Migración y movilidad transfronterizas: logística y política, 1940s-1960s,” with the goal of integrating a discussion of policy around the Bracero program with discussion of infrastructure development in northern Mexico. We were scheduled to give the session at 8:30am, Sunday morning, the last day of the conference. It’s not the ideal time to discuss economic and labor policy along the US-Mexico border, but I was excited to see that we had a small audience who had some great questions for us after we delivered the papers.
The session began with my work, titled, “Trade and Travel across the Border: Examining the Social, Commercial, and Labor Ties between Nuevo León and Texas, 1940s-1960s.” I gave a general overview of economic development and social ties in northeastern Mexico, focused on the relationships between business people in Monterrey, Nuevo León, and their Texan counter parts in the Rio Grande Valley. In the late 19th-century and early-to-mid 20th century, public and private cooperation facilitated growth; by the end of World War II, presidents Manuel Ávila Camacho and Franklin Delano Roosevelt met in Monterrey, calling the US-Mexico borderlands a “natural bridge” between the “Anglo-saxon and Latin cultures.”
During the 1950s and early 1960s, the business elites in the region continued to forge closer ties. At the same time as national policy and public opinion, in both countries, drifted away from bilateral agreements like the Bracero program. US and Mexican political leaders increasingly backed moves for greater restrictions on immigration and trade, respectively.
Following me, Catherine gave a detailed history of the diplomatic relationship between Mexico and the United States around the Bracero program, titled, “Destino: incierto. Malos tratos e intervención gubernamental en la reglamentación el transporte de los braceros.” She showed that shortly after the Second World War, politicians and publics in both countries, had begun to turn on the Mexican temporary workers who came to the United States under the Farm Labor Agreement of 1942.
During the war, they had been hailed as heroes who contributed to the Allied effort against fascism. But, as Catherine explained, priorities changed after the war; the Mexican government increasingly viewed the Braceros as a political problem, while in the Mexican press, these workers were often depicted as traitors and vendepatrias for having left. Likewise, in the United States, a combination of factors, including criticism of workers’ treatment by contractors, union skepticism, and racist views of Mexicans, condemned the Braceros in US public opinion.
Irina continued the discussion of the Bracero program and its participants. Hers was a cultural and oral history, titled, “Dinámicas locales en la contratación de trabajadores agrícolas dentro del Programa Bracero: los casos de las estaciones migratorias de Chihuahua y Mexicali.” It focused on the everyday impact of the Bracero program on the lives of the men who became a part of it. Irina described the recruitment centers in Mexico that processed applicants, evaluating their ability to work as farmhands and conducting medical tests to assure health.
Even as the project came under growing criticism, men continued to arrive at recruitment centers to escape unemployment or more difficult conditions in other parts of Mexico. The process was deeply politicized; state leaders demanded that in return for hosting a recruitment center, their workers should be given priority in the application process. The centers became a kind of release valve for the pressure of economic conditions in northern Mexico, allowing local men to be funneled more easily through the process of applying and going to work in the United States. When the men returned, however, they faced public scorn by some for having participated.
Lastly, Mateo (who also won the award for Best Graduate Essay at the conference, this year) presented his work, “Migrant Flows: Irrigation and Transformation in Western Mexico, 1946-1964.” He described economic conditions in western Mexico, starting with President Miguel Alemán’s support for local agriculture. Mateo notes that where roads were built, so too were irrigation networks. This relationship was crucial to improving regional mobility, and connecting rural communities to access with credit to grow their farms and ranches.
The idea of this policy was to expand work opportunities in Mexico, but other results materialized. The small loans that campesinos received for installation of irrigation could be difficult to repay. When they fell in arrears, the government had the power to cut off the waters worsening the situation, and forcing people to sell and give up their lands. As land was consolidated by business and political cronies, local people were forced to go elsewhere in search of work, including crossing the border with the United States.
As a whole, the papers captured a wide swath of geographical, political, and class factors in Mexico during the mid-to-late 20th century. Northern elites benefitted well from ties with Americans, while poor and working-class people faced loss of land or public scorn if they went to work in the United States. Although the border had long been a zone of fluid trade and mobility with heavy investment in industry and infrastructure, government policies and public opinion gradually shifted to efforts that restricted border spaces. The decline of the Bracero program underscored these factors, where public anger, worker mistreatment, and suspicion of “the other” made its existence increasingly untenable.
At the same time, the benefits of infrastructure development could oftentimes be limited, and even possibly detrimental for the communities they were intended to serve. Bad loan terms and aggressive payment enforcement transformed people’s lives for the worse, not better. As today’s political leaders, particularly in the United States, stoke old fears and resentments, our panel at CALACS highlighted the long legacy of tension on the border around trade, labor, and mobility, and the outsized impact national and bilateral policies can have on everyday life in the US-Mexico borderlands.