Labour lure

The Bracero programme in which Mexicans entered the US legally to work created a new, transnational subject


Braceros: Migrant Citizens and Transnational Subjects in the Postwar United States and Mexico
Deborah Cohen
2011, University of North Carolina Press
328 pages, hardback, plates

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

AMONG the steps towards transnationalisation that in our lifetimes has yielded the North American Free Trade Agreement and an immense, growing body of voters in absentia so large that it is of crucial importance to the political outcomes of Latin America, the Bracero programme was one of the most significant.

The unofficial name for a series of agreements between Mexico and the US that began in 1942 and endured until 1964, it brought Mexicans to the US legally to work in the fields – then sent them home again.

This book examines those who participated and their experiences, and explores the meaning of this new transnational phenomenon and its influence on subsequent cross-border labour flows.

Election debate

It is another contribution to a contemporary debate that will inform what is likely to be one of the key issues in the 2012 presidential election campaign: migration. The contribution it makes is not only to explore what the programme meant – particularly to Mexicans happy to come to the US to work and in most cases happy to return home again afterwards – but to demonstrate yet again the value to the US of economic migration from the south.

To the Mexican men who jumped hurdles to get on the programme, it offered a taste of progress and a golden opportunity to generate the small amount of capital that might make all the difference between failure and survival on a small plot back home. The programme yielded concrete economic benefits for the 2 million men who participated in it, and shaped many of the assumptions of the agricultural industry in California and other southern US states: today Mexican migrants are still courted by US growers and other businesses and remain essential to the region’s prosperity.

Yet as Deborah Cohen points out, the official narratives underlying the programme of progress and opportunity were distant from the objective experiences of many of the men who took part, and the braceros and today’s equivalent of them became and continue to be objects of derision and nationalist fears.

Cohen explains this by arguing that many of the actors and organisations involved in the cross-border labour programme were deeply entrenched in a worldview for which the transnational constituted a dire threat, and core to this was the very belief in narratives of progress and opportunity themselves. That is because the promise of progress lay at the heart of the modern, a concept that carried lingering overtones of eugenicist models in which whiteness and maleness were stereotypical attributes. Modernity was to be bestowed by a benign US on migrant peasants from a backward neighbour.

Mexico, too, believed the programme would turn the braceros into modern farmers and, armed with their new knowledge and capital, they would return to home and transform unproductive land into modern farms. As Cohen points out, the irony is that the conditions under which braceros laboured too often challenged any depiction of the US as modern or as the programme as a vehicle of modernisation.

Cohen asks candidly how a programme so anti-modern – in which braceros came to do the stoop labour considered so backward in the US – could have been expected to modernise these men. Researchers have since condemned the scheme as abusive and exploitative. Yet as she points out, there was an all-pervasive ideological desire to be modern, and it was against this that it needs to be contextualised.

The author examines braceros’ interactions with the major actors who shaped the initiative – growers, labour unions, religious and state actors – and explores their transnational connections and ideological underpinnings.

She considers narratives of modernity, manhood and how the braceros themselves understood their world, and how the workers’ demands on both governments influenced the relationship between Mexico and the US.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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