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.
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Due in large part to sensationalist representations in contemporary media and politics, the U.S.-Mexico border is popularly understood as a space of illegal activity defined by threats to national security. Viewed through the late-20th and early-21st century prisms of drug wars, immigration restriction, terrorism, surveillance, and resurgent American nationalism, the border itself appears to be a definitive boundary between dichotomous societies, nations, and people. Assistant Professor of History at Northwestern University Geraldo L. Cadava challenges this view in his book Standing on Common Ground: The Making of a Sunbelt Borderland (Harvard University Press, 2013). Focusing on the Arizona-Sonora segment of the U.S.-Mexico border during the mid-to-late 20th century, Cadava narrates the interlocked histories of Mexicans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, and whites as regional boosters (i.e., politicians and businessmen on both sides of the border) envisioned the formation of a Sunbelt Borderland extending from the urbanizing centers of Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona to the industrializing locales of Nogales, Hermosillo, and Guaymas, Mexico. Engaging the findings of scholars that have focused on the hardening of the U.S.-Mexico border through restrictionist federal immigration policies and the increased policing of the boundary itself during the first half of the 20th century, Cadava argues that recent borderlands history is “defined less by the international line itself and more by the range of economic, political, social, and cultural relationships that transcended the line.” What emerges is a rich history of transnational communication and movement throughout the region by a host of complex figures including businessmen, politicians, consumers, students, artists, and undocumented laborers; resulting in the development of a “regional culture forged through the institutions and traditions of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.
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“Cesar Chavez founded a labor union. Launched a movement. And inspired a generation. Two Decades after his death, Chavez remains the most significant Latino figure in U.S. history.” So reads the inside flap of Miriam Pawel’s recent biography The Crusades of Cesar Chavez (Bloomsbury Press, 2014). However, while many are acquainted with the iconography of Chavez as the leader of the Farmworker Movement that took on California’s powerful grape industry during the mid-to-late 1960s, much less is known about Chavez himself and his personal and organizational background prior to the formation of the National Farm Workers Association (the precursor to the United Farm Workers or UFW) or the internal dynamics and struggles between Chavez and his top brass. With great detail and empathy, Pawel provides a complex portrait of Chavez as a visionary and tireless organizer whose humility, strategic brilliance, and improbable success was matched only by his own arrogance, tactical blunders, and embarrassing defeats.
Have a listen to my conversation with Miriam on New Books in Latino Studies